The following was written to address the most common questions I receive from readers and personal training and phone clients.
Calories versus Macronutrients
Whether you’re trying to lose fat, gain muscle, or maintain your current weight and body composition both are important.
Calorie intake is important for a change in fat or lean mass, if you don’t have a deficit you’re not going to lose much fat, if you don’t have a surplus you’re not likely to gain much muscle. Macronutrient ratios are important because they influence what you lose or gain.
Keep in mind, the goal isn’t indiscriminate weight loss or gain, but improved body composition. You want less fat, more muscle, or both, not just a change in weight.
Also, overall health should be a high priority and both the amount and what you eat influence this. If you eat the appropriate amount of calories but most of it is polluted, nutrient-deficient crap you’re going to look and feel bad. If you eat nothing but healthy, whole foods, but you regularly eat too much or too little, you will be healthier but you will still be underweight or overweight.
Eat the appropriate amount of the appropriate types of foods for your body and your goals.
For most people who have a healthy body composition or are within a few pounds of it, just eating the appropriate types of foods will result in your appetite being a reliable indicator of need. As long as you eat until you’re not hungry, rather than until you’re full, you don’t need to worry too much about tracking calorie intake.
For those trying to achieve very low levels of bodyfat without sacrificing muscle, or trying to build as much muscle as possible with minimal fat gain, keeping track of everything becomes more important. If you fall in this category, as a rough starting point I recommend using the Katch-McArdle formula and activity multipliers below to estimate daily calorie expenditure.
- For men and women (metric): 370 + (21.6 x lean mass in kg)
- For men and women (standard): 370 + (9.82 x lean mass in lbs)
- 1.2 – Sedentary: Little or no physical activity.
- 1.375 – Lightly Active: Light physical activity 1-3 days per week.
- 1.55 – Moderately Active: Moderate physical activity 3-5 days per week.
- 1.725 – Very Active: Hard physical activity 6-7 days per week.
- 1.9 – Extremely Active: Hard daily physical activity and hard physical work
Keep in mind this just gives you an estimated starting point. No formula will give you accurate measurement and even indirect calorimetry is only an estimate at best. Ultimately, whether you’re eating to lose fat or gain muscle, you will have to adjust your intake of everything based on how your body responds.
There is no best macronutrient ratio. What proportion of macronutrients is optimum depends on the individual, their goal, and other factors. When eating to lose fat you may reduce calories while maintaining the same or higher protein and fat intake, resulting in a very different macronutrient ratio than when you eat primarily to gain muscle mass. The amount of carbohydrate an individual will perform or look best on can vary significantly due to genetics and activity levels.
Like most things, what is optimal varies between individuals and requires some experimentation to fine tune.
If you’re consistently doing the kind of heavy, high intensity training recommended on this web site I recommend consuming between 1 and 1.5 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass per day, or at least around a gram of protein per pound of body weight assuming you are moderately lean.
This is particularly important when dieting. If you cut calories, don’t cut everything proportionally. If anything, aim a little higher with protein when trying to lose fat. It provides greater satiety than fat or carbohydrate and although the effect is very slight, results in a little greater thermic response.
There is no need to go nuts with it either. More probably won’t hurt, but eating more than 1.5 grams per pound of lean body mass probably daily won’t improve your gains either.
Get plenty of saturated fat, preferably animal fat and coconut oil. Contrary to misinformed mainstream opinion it is not going to cause you to die of a heart attack and is actually beneficial to the cardiovascular system, bones, liver and other organs as well as immune system function and is important for maintaining healthy levels of various hormones including testosterone.
Strictly limit or eliminate intake of trans, partially hydrogenated and high polyunsaturated fats, things like canola, corn and soybean oils and margarine and vegetable shortening.
Carbohydrates in general are not going to make you fat or kill you if you’re not overeating and if you’re getting adequate amounts of protein and healthy fats. The appropriate amount depends on your goals and your individual response. Some people seem to have a difficult time losing fat if they don’t reduce carbs significantly while others can lose fat with even higher carb intakes as long as their overall calorie intake is restricted.
Keep track of what you’re eating and how your body responds and and adjust accordingly.
Although it is possible to gain muscle mass on a zero carb diet, at least moderate carbohydrate intakes seem to help and testosterone levels may also be reduced if carbohydrate intake is too low, along with cortisol levels increasing. Additionally, muscle glycogen levels appear to be maintained better on at least moderate carb intakes and post workout carbohydrate intake helps with recovery.
The majority of your carbohydrate should come from leafy and cruciferous vegetables, berries, and lower-fructose fruits (cantaloupe, oranges, kiwi, etc.). Starch and other fruit intake would depend on total energy requirements and how your body responds to the additional carbohydrate intake. Strictly limit or eliminate foods with a lot of added sugar (sucrose) or high fructose corn syrup and…
Grains and Legumes
Unless you have celiac disease eating small to moderate amounts of grains and legumes is not going to kill you or make you fat, assuming total calorie intake is appropriate. That being said, they do have negative effects on leptin sensitivity, mineral absorption, intestinal health and immune system function and are considerably more calorie dense and less nutritious than most vegetables and fruit.
I recommend getting most of your carbohydrate intake from vegetables, and smaller amounts from fruits. What types of vegetables and the proportion of starchy to non-starchy depends on your overall calorie intake and goals. If you’re eating to lose fat I recommend going nuts on leafy or non-starchy vegetables as you can consume a massive quantity while still consuming very few calories, unlike grains and pastas which are very easy to load up on.
Unless you have lactose or casein intolerance dairy products aren’t going to make you fat or kill you either. If you’re eating to lose fat I don’t recommend drinking your calories, although a little milk or heavy cream in coffee isn’t going to kill you. If you’re eating to gain muscle whole milk and heavy cream are a good way to get plenty of calories.
Like I mentioned with regards to carbs, keep track of what you’re eating and how your body responds and and adjust accordingly.
While light, occasional social drinking isn’t going to kill you or make you fat I don’t recommend regular, heavy drinking. If you must drink, stick to spirits and dry wine with diet soda. If you’re eating to lose fat minimize your alcohol intake.
In the amounts typically used artificial sweeteners are safe. Despite some research suggesting non-caloric sweeteners stimulate insulin secretion I haven’t noticed any significant effect on body fat levels or any difference between periods of time when I drink only water or when I drink a lot of Diet Mt. Dew
Most fat loss and bodybuilding supplements are a complete waste of money, although some people may benefit from supplementing with certain vitamins and minerals. I will address individual supplements separately in future posts.
Meal Timing and Frequency
It is not necessary to eat every 2 to 3 hours to maintain an elevated metabolic rate (thermic effect of food), control appetite or keep blood sugar levels even. It is also not necessary to limit yourself to eating only once or twice per day.
When and how often you eat depends on how much you’re eating and what is practical for you. Someone eating to lose fat might find it more satiating and more convenient to eat 2 or 3 moderate sized meals than to eat 6 to 8 tiny snacks throughout the day, while someone eating to gain muscle might find it easier to eat a higher number of moderate sized meals than to force down a few huge meals per day.
Break your total food intake into comfortable sized meals and snacks that fit into your schedule.
Weighing, measuring and counting calories is a huge pain in the ass. If you are overweight and trying to lose fat or underweight and trying to put on muscle it isn’t necessary to be super strict as long as you are at least somewhat conscious of portion sizes and eating in a manner appropriate to your goals. Clients following the guidelines below have had good results with fat loss and muscle gain without having to track calorie intake:
Minimize or Eliminate:
- Sugary foods and beverages like fruit juices, sodas and sports drinks.
- Anything made with flour (bread, pasta, pastries, etc.).
- Gluten grains (wheat, oats, barley, rye, etc.) and corn.
- Cooking oils made from grain and seeds. Cook with butter, animal fat, coconut oil or ghee instead.
- Legumes (soy and other beans) and products made from them.
- Trans and partially hydrogenated fats.
- Meat, fish, fowl and eggs, preferably grass-fed or wild-caught and favoring ruminants like beef, lamb, venison, goat, etc.
- Leafy, cruciferous and “colorful” vegetables, like spinach, kale, broccoli and peppers.
- Water or other non-caloric beverages (coffee, tea).
Moderate Amounts of:
- Healthy animal fats and/or coconut fat.
- Berries like blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and lower-fructose fruits like cantaloupe, oranges, apricots and kiwi.
- Nuts (except peanuts, which are technically legumes), seeds and nut butters (except peanut butter).*
- Starchy tuber vegetables like yams.*
- Wild rice.*
*Minimize or eliminate these if you are trying to lose fat.
If, however, you already have a very low body fat and are trying to get down to a mid to low single digit bodyfat percent while maintaining lean body mass or you’re trying to maximize lean body mass while minimizing fat gain you’ll need to be a bit more precise, which requires weighing or measuring and recording food intake as well as keeping track of changes in weight, body composition and measurements.