Nutrition is the most important component of fitness. If someone has the best workout, does super intense cardio and stretches properly but eats like crap, they will probably be very disappointed with their results. On the other hand, if they were to eat perfectly, but their workouts were only so-so, while their results may not be ideal, they will still be moving in the right direction. I see this happen so often, where someone works out like a beast then sabotages their results with poor nutrition.
In this 2 part series I will be discussing some of the most crucial things about your nutrition. I often get asked by my client what I eat, so I will also go over the exact foods that I ate when I was cutting and when I was bulking up.
I have always stressed the importance of proper nutrition with my clients and the ones that see the best results are the ones that follow their nutrition plan the most accurately. Having a good nutrition plan comes down to three main factors. They are total calories, macronutrient (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) levels and ratios and the amount/ timing of your meals.
Get the Right Amount of Calories.
One of the most important things in determining whether you will gain or lose weight is the amount of total calories that you consume. Throughout the day your body will burn a certain amount of calories. If you eat the exact amount of calories that you burn there will be no change in your weight. If you eat more than you burn you will gain weight and if you eat less than you burn you will lose weight. It’s really that simple.
Most weight gain and weight loss programs are based on this. There is no secret diet plan. So if you want to gain weight… eat more. If you want to lose weight… eat less. The exception to this is you do not want to eat too little. I’ve seen many people actually gain weight when their calories drop too far.
There are many calculators that can give you an estimate of the calories you need. They all involve your BRM or Basal Metabolic Rate. This is the amount of calories you need at rest. So basically if you lied around doing nothing all day that is how many calories you would burn. An easy BMR calculator is found here. Once you know your BMR you need to add in your activity. A common formula that is used is the Harris Benedict Equation. With this formula you multiply your BMR by your activity level number. Most people will fall in the sedentary or light activity category.
Sedentary (little or no exercise) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.2
Lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.375
Moderately active (moderate exercise 3-5 days/week) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.55
Very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.725
Extra active (very hard exercise/sports & physical job or 2x training) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.9
Once you know you daily caloric needs then you can add or subtract calories based on your goal. Usually a difference of 500 calories a day will give you about a pound of change per week and 1000 calorie difference will give you about 2 pounds of change per week.
Exception to the Rule
When my clients are trying to lose weight there are 2 basic ways to do this. The first is with a balanced diet that is restricted in calories and the other is with a low-carb diet.
I have seen a balanced calorie-restricted diet work very well for some people and not as well for others.
The other major way to lose weight is with a ketogenic diet that limits the carbohydrates (especially the sugars) so that the body will use up it’s glycogen stores of energy. If done correctly, this will cause the body to produce ketone bodies for energy from fat since it doesn’t have any more glycogen from carbohydrates.
When I have my clients follow a ketogenic diet plan the amount of calories they take in each day are less important and their macro breakdown becomes their main focus. I’ll cover the macro breakdown in the next section.
Break down your foods correctly.
While the term macronutrient ratio may sound fancy it’s just percentages of your calories that come from proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Depending on the nutrition program you are using this can actually be more important than the calories themselves. This is especially true with a ketogenic diet.
The amounts of each that you need per day can really vary per person. I’ve seen people get good results from all kinds of breakdowns but one major thing I see a lot of is either too little protein or way too many carbs. This is especially true for my new clients who are unfamiliar with a lot of the details about nutrition.
Each gram of protein has 4 calories, each gram of carbohydrates also has 4 calories and each gram of fat has 9 calories. This makes it easy to get a lot of calories from fat. This can be a good or bad thing depending on what you are trying to do. Alcohol has 7 calories per gram, but it makes it harder to reach any fitness goal so hopefully it is used very sparingly if at all.
Get Enough Protein
The most important macronutrient for building muscle is protein. As you probably already know (because I say it so often), protein builds muscle. A lot of people who I see think eating healthy means eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, but they are neglecting the protein. The recommended protein intake ranges between .8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight for sedentary individuals through 1.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight for strength athletes. A lot of bodybuilders round these numbers up and get about 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. Whether your are on the high end or low end of this range make sure you get enough. Too little and it will hinder your muscle growth and overall results and too much and you can damage your kidneys.
Chose the Right Macros
When I first started working as a trainer the gym I was working at had a computer based meal plan that I would give to my clients after entering their information. The baseline recommendation from this program was 60% carbs, 20% protein and 20% fat. There were adjustments that could be made to change this, but most of my clients used that ratio.
It worked for some of my clients but there were others that followed that macro breakdown pretty well and saw less dramatic results. I would not recommend that breakdown for anyone trying to gain or lose weight even if the calories were perfectly calculated. Personally, I think that a 60/20/20 ratio has too many carbs and not enough protein.
A lot of carbs are not a bad thing for gaining weight, but high-glycemic carbs will cause your body to produce more insulin. Insulin does a very good job of allowing the dietary fat to be absorbed into the muscles which means more stored fat. I suspect a lot of the results that my clients were seeing were coming from the reduced calories and the increase in their workouts.
A popular macronutrient breakdown is from the Zone diet. Dr. Barry Sears came up with this plan that uses a 40% carb, 30% protein and 30% fat ratio. According to Dr. Sears maintaining the 40, 30, 30 ratio puts you in the “zone” and give you a proper hormonal balance. Even though the Zone was designed for weight loss, this is a common macro ratio that many bodybuilders use to put on lean muscle. This is what I currently start my clients at that are looking to put on size.
Since most of my clients nowadays want to burn fat, the most common recommendation I give to clients currently is even lower than the Zone with the carbs. A breakdown of 20% carbs, 30% protein and 50% fat seems to be a good starting point for most of my new clients. I think keeping the proteins at about 30% of your calories tends to yield the best results for building muscle while still not overloading the kidneys and liver with too much protein.
Be Careful with the Carbs
Like I said carbs are not necessarily a bad thing but he simple carbs like sugar are a definite no-no though. Simple sugars and grains should be avoided if you want to lean up. The body will deplete its stores of glycogen and start to burn fat as energy. This is similar to the Atkins or Paleo plan where the goal is to get close to the state of ketosis. The carbs in their diet plans mainly come from vegetables and certain fruits. Unlike the paleo diet, I think legumes are ok in moderation. Some people are able to eat dairy and be ok but some people will have a hard time losing with dairy products in their diet so that can be included on a case by case basis.
Since the carbs and protein are lower than the Zone, the fats ratio needs to be increased to balance out the calories.The fat is what I want the body to start to use for energy. Getting good quality fats is key though. Fats like avocados, almonds, and olive oil would be my top 3 recommendations. If the sugars are low, saturated fats are OK though. Even though the popular belief is that saturated fats raise cholesterol and increase your risk for heart disease, there have been hundreds of millions of dollars spent on research and there has been no definitive study that can prove causation.
So what is the best macronutrient breakdown for your body and your goals? Personally I think the best answer is whatever plan you can stick to. As long as you are getting enough protein and you are being consistent with your foods and don’t stray off your plan, you should be moving in a positive direction. Avoiding sugars is also important for both gaining muscle and burning fat. Again, consistency is huge though. If you are not consistent though it is hard to figure out what works and what does not work for your body. Then if your results are not moving quickly enough, then you can re-evaluate and make some tweaks.
That is it for part one. In part two I will cover amount and timing of your meals and I will also go over what I did that got me results in both cutting and building. Of course, if you liked this article you can leave a comment below or share it on facebook.