Note to the reader: I am not a registered dietitian or a nutrition professional. Any meal planning or food prescription should always be directed to people with expertise in the area. What follows is simply my own knowledge based on my reading of the literature and consumption of knowledge from experts in the area.
! WARNING ! : for your feeble Instagram / instant gratification- addicted mind! This article requires an attention span of more than 10 seconds. Sorry about that. I'm just trying to learn you some stuff real good.
Estimate reading time: About 8 minutes
Estimated value gained: You'll probably be like, "actually pretty glad I read that".
In the last article of this series, I revealed to you the unfortunate reality of the fitness industry. Maybe I pissed you off, or maybe I confirmed some previous suspicions of yours. To be perfectly honest, I don't care as long as I believe the message I'm sending reflects the reality of 1) science and 2) what will actually help you. That should be the duty of every professional with their clients best interests at heart.
In this second part of the series, my aim is to give you the basics of what aspects of nutrition you need to focus on for health and performance. There is much more detail that I could go into here, but then this wouldn't be a suitable article for those new to this area. If you nail everything that I outline in this article, you should be 80-90% of the way towards where your goals.
Calories | Energy Balance
Calories are the unit of energy our bodies use, and they are supplied to us by food.
So why are they important?
The energy from calories is used for everything, including movement, as well as passive processes like digestion and breathing. The energy balance of calories in and calories out is also what dictates changes in our body mass. When there is a surplus of calories (more than we need to maintain our current weight), then we gain weight. Conversely, when we burn more calories than we need to maintain our weight, we lose weight. This energy balance is governed by things as fundamental as Newton's Laws of Thermodynamics.
It's for this reason that when creating any nutrition plan, calories should be the first thing to calculate, as they will dictate whether you lose, maintain, or gain weight.
It's not always so easy to guess which meal will have higher calories
Everyone's caloric needs are different, and it will take some experimentation and tracking on your part to figure out how many you need to be eating for your goal. However, we can use calorie calculators to give us a rough estimate to start with. It's important to remember that this really is just an estimate. Here is a calorie calculator you can use.
In my experience, most people who are trying to lose weight underestimate how many calories they are eating, and those trying to gain weight will overestimate. Why? Because both require you to push yourself outside your comfort zone. Your body's propensity toward maintaining homeostasis means it doesn't want to have to make new muscle tissue or drop body fat, as that all requires energy effort from your body. If you keep eating the same amount of food that 'feels right', you are just being tricked by your brain, and your body composition will never change.
There are lots of way to track calories. I personally think the MyFitness Pal app is the easiest, but there are plenty of other good apps out there. I guess you could also just keep a pen and paper food diary like a person from the 90s or something.
Pro tip: the main way people mess up their calorie estimate from the calculator is by being dishonest with themselves about their activity level. Most people are more sedentary than they think.
Let me make it clear that you do NOT have to track calories forever. In the beginning, I recommend just trying to improve the quality of food you are eating. However you will eventually plateau with this approach. To lose large amounts of body fat or gain large amounts of muscle tissue, you will have to track at least until you have a basic understanding of the calorie and macronutrient contents of common foods.
The amount of calories in food are dictated by their macronutrient content. There are 4 macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate, fat, and alcohol (yes, you read that right). Interestingly, these 4 macro types have different caloric values:
1g Protein = 4 cals
1g Carbohydrate = 4 cals
1g Fat = 9 cals
1g Alcohol = 7 cals
Now, if I were to ask you what you thought were the most fattening foods you could eat, what are some examples you would think of? Maybe foods like pizza, doughnuts, ice cream, and chocolate? Interestingly, these foods all have two things in common: carbohydrate and fat, and in large quantities. Combining these two macronutrients in a single food makes food highly palatable, and very high in calories.
Protein is the building block of our muscles, which makes it critical for recovering from workouts and gaining benefit from them. Once you have been training for a while, you will cease to make progress in training if you don't eat enough protein. I cannot stress that enough. Attempting to do progressive resistance training on a low protein diet is a complete waste of time.
*ahem* Moving on....
Protein is also one of the major factors that will affect the QUALITY of weight gain or weight loss.
What does this mean? It means that people who consume enough protein will 1) lose mostly fat when they are in a calorie deficit and 2) gain mostly muscle when in a calorie surplus. This is assuming that you are losing/gaining slowly and performing resistance training by the way!
Protein can be found from many sources but the best quality protein generally comes from animal products, which are 'high biological value' (HBV) proteins. These proteins contain amino acids that our bodies cannot create themselves. Sources of HBV proteins include animal products such as eggs, dairy, beef, fish, and chicken. For vegetarians/vegans, it is still possible to create a full amino acid profile by combining different plant proteins, although it requires a bit more diligence in meal planning.
Going briefly back to my rant, it is essential to consume enough protein to maximise results. See the image below from Alan Aragon on how many grams you should be aiming for.
Are composed of sugars and are the preferred fuel source of our bodies because of how quickly and efficiently they can be burned. Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing inherently unhealthy about carbohydrates, as they can be found in many highly nutritious foods such as whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. The confusion surrounding carbohydrates' effect on health likely stems from the overconsumption of calories from carbohydrate rich junk foods like chocolate, fast food, baked goods etc. However as mentioned previously, these foods are not only rich in carbs, but also fats, making them calorie dense and very tasty. Brown rice and doughnuts are both carbohydrate rich foods, but it's pretty obvious they're not going to have the same effect on your health.
Examples of nutritious sources of carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, and grains. Specific foods include things like bananas, potatoes, pasta, bread, rice, pineapples, etc.
The amount of carbs you need are dependant on your activity levels. Endurance athletes need lots, whereas people working desk jobs and training once or twice a week definitely do not. If you really struggle to moderate your intake of carb rich foods, then you may need to consider restricting them. Otherwise just focus on eating good sources of them for now.
Long ago, before the war on carbs began, dietary fat was the favourite villain of the mainstream media. Much like the modern day fascination of being anti- carbs, this had little to do with fats themselves, and more to do with junk food that contained it.
Now many people will worry about the supposed effect of saturated fat on heart health. This is a tricky topic. Eating large amounts of saturated fat is not a great idea for heart health. However this is still dependant on your current cholesterol levels and other health markers. So long as you're not on the carnivore diet, I wouldn't worry about it too much in the grand scheme of things as body fat and fitness levels are MUCH larger risk factors for heart disease. For more on the nuance of this topic, try reading this.
Now for the good: fats serve essential functions in our bodies. Our nervous system is highly dependant on fat for healthy brain and nerve function. They are also important for a healthy immune system.
Fats can be found in a wide variety of foods including meat, dairy, nuts, and fish. Fish in particular contains fatty acids that may be uniquely beneficial for heart, brain, and joint health. How much to eat? If you're at the stage of tracking, it's generally a good idea to focus on hitting your calorie and protein goals for the day first, and then feel free to fill in the remaining calories with carbs and fats as you please.
Micronutrients | Vitamins & Minerals
Micronutrients are composed of vitamins and minerals. The many different vitamins and minerals have a wide variety of functions to keep our bodies in good health. For example: Vitamin C is important for our skin, and Iron is used to assist with carrying oxygen in the blood.
Generally if you ensure that you eat a wide variety of foods from each food group (particularly fruit and veg) then you should be okay. Although there is no harm in taking a multivitamin supplement if needs be, and if you find yourself feeling low on energy you may need to see a doctor to be tested for micronutrient deficiencies like anemia.
Energy balance dictates whether you lose or gain weight
Calories in food is determined by its macronutrient content
Protein is critical for recovering from training and achieving your body comp goals
Carbs are not evil. They will give you more energy for training and are found in plenty of nutritious foods.
Fats are not evil. They are important for full health and are found in plenty of nutritious foods.
Micronutrients will be generally taken care of if eating a varied diet full of fruit and veg, but you may need to take a vitamin supplement if you are deficient.