In part 2 of this series, I covered the fundamentals of training and physique transformation to help get you focused on the things that matter most. In this post, we explore nutrition and eating to support your training goals.
Eating is an emotive subject, much abused in the industry with terms like “clean eating” and “eating healthily”. They make sense as abstract statements, but they do little to help you translate that into practical advice.
How has something so simple as eating to meet your needs become a veritable minefield and major cause of confusion for so many people?
Bombarded with vague, misleading and sometimes purposefully incorrect information, more and more people are struggling with diet and nutrition.
There always seems to be some new diet or eating protocol to follow, and even the common sense approaches have now been sufficiently debased so as to leave the most pragmatic among us confused.
Well I’m here to help, and with this post I plan to cover:
- Energy balance
- Understanding your maintenance calories
- Food quality
- The importance of consistency
Eating to meet your needs
“Energy balance” is the relationship between “energy in” (food calories taken into the body through food and drink) and “energy out” (calories being used in the body for our daily energy requirements).
At some level, everyone understands this basic equation. The principle that our food contains energy, and that our bodies expend energy.
People also intuitively understand that consistently eating an excess of food leads to weight gain, and that eating too little means weight loss.
So where does it all go wrong? Why does eating to meet our needs seem so hard?
Well first and foremost, there’s a LOT more to energy balance than simply changes in body weight.
Energy balance also has a lot to do with what’s going on inside our bodies at the cellular level and everything from our metabolism, to our hormonal balance and our mood is impacted. As a result, our energy needs are constantly changing.
Factor in life, added stress, long hours of work, poor sleep, missed workouts, nights out… you can quickly see how knowledge of this simple equation comes-up short for practical application.
Another important point to make in the context of physique transformation is that we are not just chasing weight change. When dieting, we are looking to maximize fat loss and minimize any loss of any muscle. Likewise, when we are looking to gain lean muscle, we want to minimize any increases in body fat.
Now that we’ve set the stage, let’s dig into some of the fundamentals.
Understand your maintenance calories
Maintenance calories represents the amount of energy you need to maintain your current body-weight, taking into consideration your lifestyle and current level of physical activity. And the first step in managing your energy balance is understanding your current energy needs.
To establish your current energy needs, you’ll first need to calculate your Resting or Basal Metabolic Rate.
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) and Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) are rates used to estimate the amount of calories a person will burn at rest for 24 hours. It is used to determine the minimum amount of energy a person requires to keep the body functioning, heart beating, lungs breathing and maintain a normal body temperature.
There are formalized tests that you can take to calculate your body’s BMR and RMR, where oxygen consumption and CO2 levels are measured to compute your resting calorie burn. But availability and cost take these out of reach for many people.
Luckily, there are some well established formulas we can use to approximate your BMR or RMR, requiring nothing more than your current age, height and weight … and probably a calculator.
Here’s one of the more common calculations for BMR using my own numbers to compute calorie requirements:
BMR Calculation for Men:
66 + (6.23 × weight in pounds) + (12.7 × height in inches) – (6.76 × age in years)
BMR Calculation for Women:
655 + (4.35 × weight in pounds) + (4.7 × height in inches) – (4.7 × age in years)
Me, age 46, 192lbs, 69”
66 + (6.23 × 192) + (12.7 × 69) – (6.76 × 46) = 1828 kcal
This represents the minimum number of calories I need for daily function, but does not take account of exercise and activity levels.
To account for that, we need a modifier.
Here’s one way to factor exercise into the BMR Equation:
- Little to no exercise: BMR x 1.2
- Light exercise (1 to 3 days per week): BMR x 1.375
- Moderate exercise (3 to 5 days per week): BMR x 1.55
- Heavy exercise (6 to 7 days per week): BMR x 1.725
- Very heavy exercise (intense workouts twice per day): BMR x 1.9
I train five days a week right now with moderate intensity, so that’s 1828 x 1.55 = 2833 kcal.
This number represents my approximate energy needs to live and train at the indicated level, but still doesn’t take into account any adjustments toward meeting a goal of fat loss or muscle gain.
But before we go on, a word of caution regarding BMR calculations. There are MANY calculations for BMR, ranging from simple bodyweight multipliers to complex formulas as used in this article, and all are approximate. They do not take account of individual body types, nor the rich diversity of our lifestyles (think desk jockey vs laborer). They also don’t take into account your existing body fat levels, which have a bearing on your metabolism and energy needs (muscle is an active tissue).
So the reality is that you must pick one, try it, and continually adjust your numbers to meet your needs over time.
Eating to create an energy deficit
To create an energy deficit, you must consume fewer calories than your body needs to support current activity levels.
You achieve this in two ways:
- Eat less food, reducing energy in
- Perform more exercise, increasing energy out
Remember earlier when we talked about losing fat and retaining muscle? This is where BOTH of the above are important to successfully dropping body fat.
If you were to simply reduce your calorie intake and not perform resistance training, you would lose both body fat and a decent amount of lean tissue. In addition, muscle quality and condition would also drop.
By reducing calories and completing resistance training, you reduce the loss of muscle mass and help to create the required energy deficit needed for fat loss.
Coming back to our maintenance calories, we need to adjust that number to establish a deficit. The typical starting point for fat loss is ~500 kcal per day or ~3,500 kcal per week.
In my case, that would be 2833 – 500 = 2333 kcal.
From personal experience, I know this number to be in the right ball-park. I have reduced body fat slowly at around 2750 kcal daily, and significantly increased that rate of loss by dropping to 2250 kcal.
Starting with a modest daily deficit in the region of 500 kcal leaves you room to increase that deficit over time as your changing needs dictates. With fat loss, the goal is to eat as much as you can while still maintaining progress.
Eating to to create an energy surplus
To create an energy surplus, you must consume more calories than your body needs to support current activity levels.
As with creating a deficit, the starting point for a caloric surplus is adding 500 kcal to your maintenance calories.
For me, that would be 2833 + 500 = 3333 kcal.
Again, from experience, I can definitely add body weight with calorie intake in this range. And for me, if I keep my macros in check, more than half the weight gained at this calorie level is muscle.
Remember, once your body has used any additional energy for restoring glycogen levels and fueling hypertrophy, the excess is stored as fat. So just as we do with dieting, we want to achieve a modest caloric surplus. Just enough to keep moving forward and minimize fat gain.
A truly deep-dive on food quality would take another entire post, maybe more… and we are already running long. So I’ll try to keep this short.
Bottom line: Food quality matters.
You instinctively know this already. I’m certainly confident that you could look at a food and make an immediate judgement call on whether it represents a quality source of fuel and nutrition to put in your body.
Broccoli? That’s right, a quality food.
Skittles? Again, correct. A low quality food.
Wanna go for three?
Bread? Hmm… that’s tougher, huh? A bit of a head-scratcher?
Go back 20 years and no one would have batted an eyelid telling you bread was a quality food. But today, between concerns over gluten, preservatives, stabilizers, white flour vs brown, we’ve lost our way a little… or a lot.
The trouble is, all three of these foods need some context.
- If you are eating five bags of Skittles a day, that’s a problem.
- If bread is your primary source of carbohydrates and you’re getting through half a loaf a day, that’s a problem.
- If you only eat broccoli and avoid other vegetables, that’s a problem. Ok, it’s likely not. But you get my point!
Look. There’s a reason none of the diets out there recommend you eat more processed, chemical-laden, “junk” food. Instead, whether it’s paleo, vegan or something else, they generally recommend eating whole, minimally processed, nutrient-rich foods.
Why? Because it makes sense!
So here’s my advice if you find yourself struggling with the notion of food quality:
- Try to get as much of your food from unprocessed sources. That means less food from packets, and any packaged foods you do eat will generally have a short ingredient list.
- Unless you have genuine allergies or intolerances, eat widely from a range of whole foods.
- If you are in a deficit, look to prioritize nutrient dense foods that pack a nutritional punch yet have very few calories. E.g. most fruits and vegetables, lean protein sources, whole grains.
- If you are trying to gain weight, don’t overlook healthy, calorie dense foods like avocado, salmon and nuts.
Remember, whole foods…
- Help regulate your appetite and reduce overeating
- Help to control blood sugar/insulin
- Provide the best nutrition
- Naturally balance energy
At the end of the day, most of us can largely just trust our instincts.
However, just remember that if it feels too good to be true, it probably is. If you are eating Twinkies all day and thinking ‘Wow, I can eat shit all day and be healthy’, it’s probably not so. Agreed?
Adherence and consistency dominate the landscape
I should have stopped writing more than five-hundred words ago, so if you are still with me, I truly appreciate your stamina!
None the less, I can’t close out a discussion on eating to support your goals without covering perhaps the most fundamental point of all.
Whether you are trying to lose weight or gain weight, adherence and consistency dominate the landscape.
Just as with our training, a casual relationship with food and nutrition will almost certainly leave progress on the table. And again, I think we all instinctively know this.
Without doubt, eating should be enjoyable and we all need to live a little. And in fact, an excessively restrictive diet is the fastest way to run off the rails… usually straight into a huge bowl of pasta chased with cookies, ice cream and every other food you’d been steadfastly avoiding.
Why? Because it’s not sustainable and therefore not congruent with our goals of consistency and adherence. Hence, you need to find balance in your approach to food, eating with intention most of the time, but leaving room to enjoy food and maintain progress for the long haul.
But the same is true with over-indulgence. You invariably can’t have three beers every night after work, snack constantly and still expect to make consistent progress.
Let’s close this out (I know, right?) with a favorite quote of mine to reinforce this final point and leave you thinking.
“It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently.”
― Anthony Robbins
We really did cover a lot here — way more than I had originally intended — and yet so many topics were left uncovered (macros, food timing, meal planning, etc.) Still, energy balance, food quality and consistency are the pillars of eating to meet your goals, and I hope you were able to take something useful from this piece.
In upcoming posts, I’ll cover many of these topics in greater detail. So be sure to start a discussion below and let me know where you’d like me to start.