Nutrition is a minefield and we as an industry have made it complicated beyond belief. Science wise we know more than ever yet the world is getting fatter and fatter. So many solutions, so many problems. I know you are confused because the storm of facts, opinions, diets, do’s and do not’s is forever raining down you and it bewilders us all. Below are some thoughts and concepts that may help.
I believe it is important, both in terms of training and nutrition to be flexible. Life cannot be lived in a completely restricted regime. You cannot possible expect to be successful long term if you do not allow yourself to be somewhat flexible. A lot of this flexibility must come from knowledge, experience and understanding your body. Once you have this as your base it is then down to your own personal integrity to eat and train according to the information you have learned.
Precise menu’s and recipe ideas are of course useful, but in the busy world we live in you can’t rely completely on these. Many people consider themselves a failure if they can’t precisely maintain their prescribed menu…which isn’t healthy. Also spending hours doing food prep will not always be possible. If you are not going to be able to do something long term, do not get obsessed with it and dependent on it short term. Remember this is lifestyle, this is not temporary. There are special situations of course when we need to have greater focus and control, but for the most part quick, extreme solutions lead to a troublesome cycle of guilt and compensation. Reason and management are key to the better choice and choice is the greatest influencer on success.
Let me simplify things:
1: Know how many calories you should be having. At the end of the day no matter what you eat you will not lose fat if you are eating too many calories. Beyond the complications of macronutrients, toxicity and “clean foods”, calories are by far the biggest determinant of your body composition. Use the Harris-Benedict equation here (insert link) to calculate your daily caloric allowance. Use a calories tracker like MyFitnessPal to track your calories and go from there.
The Harris–Benedict equations revised by Mifflin and St Jeor in 1990:
Men BMR = (10 x weight in kg) + (6,25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) + 5
Women BMR = (10 x weight in kg) + (6,25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) – 161
STEP 2 – Determine Recommended Intake
The following table enables calculation of an individual’s recommended daily kilocalorie intake to maintain current weight.
Little to no exercise Daily kilocalories needed = BMR x 1.2
Light exercise (1–3 days per week) Daily kilocalories needed = BMR x 1.375
Moderate exercise (3–5 days per week) Daily kilocalories needed = BMR x 1.55
Heavy exercise (6–7 days per week) Daily kilocalories needed = BMR x 1.725
Very heavy exercise (twice per day, extra heavy workouts) Daily kilocalories needed = BMR x 1.9
2: Be accountable. Its an old saying but its true; “you are 100 per cent responsible for everything that goes in to your mouth”. Nutrition, like exercise, is all about accountability and integrity. Nobody made you eat it or drink it. You made that choice so stop pretending. Don’t lie to yourself, pretending doesn’t help anyone. At the same time don’t let guilt destroy everything. One bad meal doesn’t end your world, it just needs to be acknowledged and accounted for. If you over eat one day, take those calories off the next day and be smart. You can’t expect to live a perfect life and never make mistakes…. you just have to balance them out.
3: Just eat real food. It sounds obvious doesn’t it. If it wasn’t food one hundred years ago then it isn’t food today. Stay away from chemically created foods and junk. Eat lean meats, fish, vegetables, nuts, seeds, some fruit. Don’t waste calories on drink, especially sugar loaded sweet drinks. Drink water, tea and coffee. If you just do this you will make improvements before stepping foot in the gym.
4. Understand Macronutrients. Beyond calories this is your next steps to improving body composition, energy levels and wellness. There are 3 macronutrient groups that you need to concern yourself with: Protein, Carbohydrates and Fats. All 3 are necessary to live a healthy, balanced life but too much of any of them can be problematic.
The most important of a the macronutrients and the one we always look at first is protein. Think of protein as the building blocks of your body. It is essential for growth and maintenance and can be found in all cells in the human body.. In fact, next to water, protein dominates the molecules of your body. Protein is also an energy source and contains 4 cals per gram. Good sources of protein are fish, eggs, lean meats, some dairy, nuts and legumes.
Next we have carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are sugars. They are the preferred fuel source for high intensity activity and essential for proper brain function. It is important to note that all carbohydrates sugar in the blood stream. They are probably the most abused and most demonised of all the macronutrients, particularly in recent years, as the obesity crisis has been linked to the massive over consumption of carbohydrate. Sugar is a drug and it is addictive. Food companies have abused this knowledge by lacing both food and drink with hidden sugars to get you addicted to the product. Thus overconsumption ensues. This has led to certain factions avoiding carbs altogether and casting them out as the ugly duckling. The answer is not in total abandonment but in management. You simply need to regulate your intake and be mindful of the kinds of sugars you consume. Be smart and be mature. Make green vegetables, oats, rice, sweet potato and quinoa the predominant sources of your carbohydrate. Avoid sugary drinks, cakes, biscuits, sweets, crisps, chocolate bars for the most part. It is quite simply the ability to exercise self control and the intelligence to make good choices that will dictate your success. Know what you are eating. Know when to stop. Be honest. Carbohydrate is 4 cals per gram. Good sources are listed above.
Lastly we have fats. Before the “carbohydrate crisis” fat was the enemy. “Experts” in the 70’s and 80’s decided that fat was the enemy and the main reason people weren’t thin enough. And so the “low fat” revolution was born where fat was extracted from products and replaced with sugar, the then darling of the time. Of course we now know that since this happened the world is fatter than ever and this was possible the biggest bad decision in health since we marketed smoking as “good for you” in the 1950’s. Fats are a fuel source, they are also essential for hormonal health, can reduce inflammation, improve metabolism, improve insulin sensitivity and actually help the body burn excess fat. So you need to include them in your diet. Look to good sources of fat from avocado’s, nuts, coconut oil, fish, real butter, olive oil. Be mindful as fat is 9 cals per gram and that needs to be accounted for. It is necessary but it is not free reign.
5. Get a starting point. Once you know your caloric allowance you have a base number. You know not to exceed this number and if you want to lose body fat you can subtract 500 cals from this total (any more than 500 then you risk slowing down your metabolism which will lead to long term problems). Next work out your protein requirement. In general we recommend 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. So if you are 160 pounds you need 160g of protein, protein is 4 cals per gram so you caloric requirement for protein is 640 cals. The rest of your caloric allowance needs to come from carbohydrates and fats. You will need , depending on your activity levels and nature of exercise anywhere between 1.2 an 2 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight. In this case lets take this middle ground of 1.6 grams per pound of bodyweight. Carbohydrate is also 4 cals per gram so that equals 1024 cals. So combined we have a total of 1628cals from protein and carbohydrates. We know have to fit in fats. So lets say our daily caloric allowance came out at 2300 Cals per day. if we subtract 1628 from 2300 we get 672. Fat is 9 cals per gram, so we divide 672 by 9 and get 75. So 75g is our daily fat allowance. So we now have:
Daily Allowance: 2300
Protein: 640 cals
Carbs: 1024 cals
Fats: 672 cals
We have a starting point. If we focus on good food sources and hit these numbers on a daily basis then we are sure to be in good shape. From here we can modify as we move forward. Get a body composition test done (DEXA) at the start of your journey and check in every 6 weeks. This will allow you to see accurate body fat percentage and lean mass totals which is more important than just weight. However, I would also recommend weighing yourself regularly (every morning) so that you are aware. Also take profile shots of yourself so you can see visible changes in shape. Yes it can be uncomfortable and embarrassing but visually it is valuable and trackable feedback. The more information you have, the more knowledgable about your body you are, the more likely you are to achieve long term success.
Recommended Shopping Basket
Pure Organic Rolled Oats (nothing added)
Total Greek Yoghurt
German Rye Bread
Fish (not breaded or battered)
Lean meats (Lean steak, lean beef mince, turkey, chicken, venison, game)
Broccoli and all green leafy veg
Pink Himalayan Salt
If you only had these foods in the house and didn’t eat “outside the basket”, chances are you would loose fat and feel better. Its actually hard (but not impossible) to consume a massive amount of calories from real food. Also in the absence of addictive foods (high sugar treats, sodium loaded snacks) you are far less likely to constantly pick and indulge. Calories creep up quickly when addiction takes hold so cut it odd at the source. If it isn’t available, it isn’t consumable.
Its About You
Remember your journey is your journey. You can’t necessarily eat the way your friend eats. You shouldn’t necessarily train the way your neighbour trains. One thing I have learned from training so many people is that we are all individuals and every body will react differently to food and exercise. Too many people copy and follow without really evaluating whether this is the right choice for them. Genetics and gene expression will have a big effect on your development so pay attention to your unique reaction and growth.
At a certain point you may want to look at your nutrient timing. Only get to this once you have grasped the concepts above. Think about food as fuel. “How much fuel do I need to consume to flourish today?” Days of high physical activity will take a little more caloric input. Days of low physical activity require less. Think about Nutrient timing as your gears; “what gear do I need to be in to make this drive”. Hi intensity work (HIIT, Sprints, Crossfit, Interval Training, Circuits etc) favour glycogen as a fuel source. Carbohydrate consumption will therefore help with both performance and recovery (recovering glycogen stores). It is therefore better to consume the majority of your daily glycogen allowance in the meal before and meal after training. Both of theses meals should also contain protein. Protein is a relatively poor energy source but is required for the maintenance and recovery of muscles. Muscle are constantly being broken down so we want to make sure that protein is ready to be metabolised when needed. Ultimately we want to increase “Lean Mass” and reduce “Fat Mass” and the consumption of protein is essential for this. The maintenance of muscle as we age is one of they key indicators of health and longevity, so keep it in check! .
So we have consumed glycogen for our high gear work in our “pre and post workout” meals. We don’t consume much fat in these meals as fat slows down the rate at which protein metabolises and protein synthesises. But we still need to consume our good fats so these need to come in our other meals. This may be late evening, morning or lunch depending on when your training window is. Here the need for glycogen is less so we can get more calories from fat. We adjust our ratios relative to the work that we do and when that work happens.
Low intensity work requires less glycogen and fat is a great fuel source for this kind of work. You do not need to “carb load” for a 30 minute run at low intensity. Consuming fat, especially MCT’s (Medium-chain triglycerides) from sources such as coconut oil actually help stimulated fat metabolism. If we can become efficient at burning fat for fuel and combine that with being able to tolerate high intensity work regularly and at a good level, then we are on a good path to becoming lean machines. Your body is smart, it’s a hybrid, it can use multiple fuel sources depending on what’s needed at that time. Give it what it needs to run and let it burn.