First off, know that I am no nutritionist or dietician. I am simply an experienced coach providing knowledge from textbooks, journal articles, experts, and suggest guidelines around the nutritional intake.
There are so many diets and gurus out there as well as misinforming information on the internet that it is clearly the reason why so many people give up or hire a professional. This article will cover the basics and explain the importance of energy balance, macronutrients and micronutrients, and my recommended supplements that have actual research behind it. Nutrient timing is very specific to the athlete and therefore not a priority during this article. However, it will need an article of its own as it provides dense material. So, read, take notes, and feel free to ask questions.
Nutrition: The process by which a living organism assimilates food and uses it for growth and repair of tissues.
This means that nutrition is there for living organisms (i.e., you) in order to survive, perform, recover, reproduce and more. I personally think that having a clear understanding of what nutrition is can help those seeking weight loss achieve their goals. The whole point of eating is nourish the body with fuel. Sure, we could eat anything and be fine but the issue here is that the quality of food may improve or decrease the quality of life. Don’t eat to just eat. Food is a drug.
When we consume food or liquids, it is converted into energy (calories). Our bodies tend to have a set amount of energy expenditure known as resting metabolic rate (RMR) which is the amount of energy we expend at rest. It’s the bare minimum of energy the body needs to sustain vital bodily functions such as blood circulation, respiration, and temperature regulation. Everyone’s RMR is different and can be affected by a variety of factors such as age, sex, genetics, body size, medication, caffeine intake, stress, and cigarette smoking.
The following category of energy balance is the thermic effect of food (TEF). TEF is what’s expended through the process of digestion, absorption, and the storage of foods. It result up to 6-10% burn off your total caloric intake. Protein, a macronutrient we will go over soon, has the highest thermic effect of food and takes more energy to break down than any other macronutrient (Hint: eat more protein).
The final category of the energy balance is the thermic cost of exercise (TEE). It the amount of energy expended above RMR and TEF together with physical activity. The amount typically accounted for physical activity is approximately 20% (not including exercise). Since RMR is the set point at rest, any additional energy requirements are based on one’s daily demands. For example, a sedentary person who works in an office and does no exercise would naturally require fewer calories than an athlete/weightlifter. It is due to the demands of muscle tissue development (growth and repair) and actual physical activity (e.g., household chores).
As Lyle McDonald (an awesome researcher in nutrition) simply puts it:
“Energy in = Energy out + Change in Body Stores”
To achieve an energy (caloric) balance of energy in and energy out we would first need to determine the expected amount of energy out to get the amount of energy in. This will lead you to what is known as “maintenance calories.”
1) Current Body weight (lbs) x 10= RMR
2) RMR x (Activity factor: See descriptions below) = TEE
[Physical activity factors]:
Very Light: Seated and standing activities, office work, driving, cooking; no vigorous activity/ Sedentary plus 3-6 days of weight training. = 1.2-1.3
Low Activity: In addition to the activities of a sedentary lifestyle, 30 minutes of moderate activity equivalent of walking 2 miles in 30 minutes; most office workers with additional planned exercise routines/ Light active plus 3-6 days of weight training. = 1.5-1.6
*Most of my readers (or I’d at least would like to get you there)
*Active: In addition to the activities of a low active lifestyle, an additional 3 hours of activity such as bicycle 10-12 miles an hour, walk 4.5 miles an hour/ Active plus 3-6 days of weight training. = 1.6-1.7
Heavy: Planned vigorous activities, physical labor, full-time athletes, hard-labor professions such as steel or road workers/ Very active plus 3-6 days of weight training. = 1.9-2.1
Adapted from the Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrates, Fiber, Fat, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences; 2002.
Although this is not exact for everyone, these are generally solid guidelines to follow. Nothing is set in stone. The key here is to monitor, record, and track what you do and consume as frequent as possible. People change mood just as their physiology changes with exercise, therefore, food requirements changes as well. In sum, your body undergoes changes but not to the end either (e.g., burning 1000 calories from doing cardio).
Macronutrients (aka macros) come in the form of protein, fats, and carbs. Energy balance is the most important consideration to nutrient intake and macros, which are still calories (energy), are next in line. Remember, total energy (calories), in and out, determine changes in overall body weight. Body composition (e.g., aesthetics), however, is determined by proper and balanced amounts of macronutrients.
The first macro to discuss here is protein. Protein (1g equals 4 calories)- 20 Amino acids linked by peptide bonds and are in two general classes: essential (cannot be manufactured in the body- found in dairy and meats for instance) and nonessential (produced in trace amounts found in carbs and fats). After determining your daily caloric needs, protein should be the first macronutrient to consider. Protein’s main purpose is to build and repair body tissues and structures. Examples of high quality proteins are chicken breast and thighs, eggs and egg whites, salmon, tuna, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, low-fat cheese, whey, pork, and beef. The leaner the source, the better. There’s nothing wrong with fatty meats; it’s just that they can add up in calories quickly and also lack the quality of amino acids (bioavailability).
There is a ton of confusion or talk about how much protein to consume per day. The research shows that the average person who is not physically active should consume approximately .4g of protein per pound of body weight. But I don’t think any of my readers are simply average or couch potatoes. For athletes in endurance the recommended amount is .5-.6g per pound of bodyweight, and for strength and muscle building athletes the recommendations are between .5-.8g per pound of body weight.
For my readers, assuming you are in the strength/conditioning/muscle building arena, I would suggest you aim slightly higher; 1g per pound of body weight. I say one gram because other factors factor in your life that may break down muscle tissue outside of your weight training, cardio, or concurrent training program (e.g. stress and anxiety, trigger fight or flight response and release a catabolic hormone known as cortisol). I also like higher protein diets (sometimes 1.15g x bw; either in maintenance or bulking) to satisfy hunger and suppress appetite. Besides, steak always sounds good to me.
Going back to what I said earlier, protein is very costly to break down, so it burns calories along the way making your metabolism run faster, so that’s another plus. Finally, the requirements for protein intake during a fat loss phase will need to increase to at most 1.25g x bw as carbs and fats will already be low (this is still because of less energy balance). According to the literature, protein beyond these recommendations does not result in greater strength or muscle size.
Back to energy balance, if you consume an excess of any nutrient it will be converted into energy or stored as glycogen (protein or carbs), or body fat (protein, carbs, and fats). Sometimes, protein may be used for energy (i.e. cutting phase) but in general should not be your primary energy source, that’s where carbs come in.
Carbohydrates (1g equals 4 calories)- are compounds containing carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen and are classified as sugars (simple), starches (complex), and fiber (plant based).
This macronutrient also helps regulate the digestion and utilization of protein and fat. Fiber, a form of carbohydrates, is found in grains and plant foods. It helps with food absorption and provides regular colon health as well as prevent potential diseases.
If you lift heavy (65% or more of your 1rm) you are greatly recommended to consume a higher amount of carbs. If you do high-intensity cardio or play vigorous sports, it is also highly recommended to favor even more carbs due to the amount of glucose used. Carbs will help you with reaching your greatest performance levels, extra protein for muscle building, provide fuel for the brain, and shuttle nutrients to muscles for recovery.
“Aren’t carbs bad? Won’t I get fat?…” No, not exactly. Carbs are not bad, but some sources may not be the best either if you are seeking to improve performance. For instances, would you eat a candy bar or apple? Let’s say both have the same amount of calories. The candy is based on simple sugars and processed ingredients whereas the apple is naturally dense with healthy nutrients… In short, opt for the apple! It provides you with multiple nutrients and is a slower digesting carb than a candy bar. As for the second question, you won’t get fat but maybe, depending on how much you consume, may gain water weight as carbs tend to pull in water. You will gain weight only if you are outside of your energy balance!
The recommended amount of carbs for those who are active and exercise (resistance training; high intensity; high volume work) range from 40-60% of their total daily caloric intake. For my readers or clients, this would often fluctuate as it depends on personal goals (i.e., fat loss, strength and muscle building).
Fats (1g equals 9 calories)- a group of compounds that include triglycerides (fats and oils), phospholipids, and sterols.
Whether you believe it or not fats have an important role in your body. The main functions of fats include cellular membrane structure and function, cellular signals, precursors to hormones, sex drive, prolonging the digestion of food which allows you to stay full longer after a meal, while also regulating blood sugar levels, protects and surrounds organs, and insulation for the body from environmental temperature changes and preserving body heat.
The recommendations for fat intake is in the ranges of 20-35% of your daily caloric intake. The bare minimum, but not necessarily recommended either, is 15%. This will depend on your lifestyle or if you are an endurance athlete. An optimal intake for athletes is 20-25%. Remember, the best sources of fats are found in natural foods and select meats.
Micronutrients and Water
This is one area I don’t want to dwell too much on nor get too scientific. I do, however, would like to emphasize the importance of micronutrients and physiological functions. These nutrients are in the forms of vitamins and minerals. Micronutrients are mostly found in dense foods. If you eat the bulk amount of your daily caloric intake of healthy food choices, then you are in the clear especially if you are in a caloric surplus (or “bulking”). If you are on a caloric deficit (cutting phase), then the demands are higher and therefore highly recommended to consume supplementation (within reason).
From experience with myself and clients, it seems the most common deficient or lacking vitamins are Vitamins A, D, E, K (fat soluble), and B, and C (water soluble). It all depends on the individual also concerning genetics, metabolism, and lifestyle. In terms of minerals, it appears the common deficient or lacking minerals are Calcium, Potassium, Zinc, Iron, and Magnesium. An example as to why is this, many of us sit or work indoors and rarely have time for quality sunlight, therefore, we lack Vitamin D. Another example to the deficiency of micronutrients is the lack of the control over or awareness of the quality of food intake. Back to the example earlier of the candy bar and apple, the apple will provide much more nutrients than a candy bar would which in long term would provide better health and quality of life. Sure, have candy and an apple. The main takeaway here is to select mostly natural foods that are densely packed with nutrients your body needs and if there is room for candy, fit it in your macros.
Why does this matter if your energy balance is the top priority? Well, the benefits and functions for micronutrients include enhanced energy under low-calorie diets, increased energy levels in the elderly, chronic disease prevention, provides energy for those in high activity demands and provides an optimal functioning metabolism. Your hard work will pay off, and things will run smoothly consistently.
Ok, so the supplement industry has flat out made us lifters and fitness enthusiasts better and/or worse. They have done research to help sell their products and also create new and innovative ways to market as well as enhance human performance. There is a lot of competition out there too so it makes total sense to why most of us are so confused about our body image. There is just so many different brands that promise so much and offer so little. Look, in all honesty, take it from me supplements are just supplements. They are there to bridge the nutritional gaps as well as allowing you achieve your peak performances. Here’s all that I would recommend:
Multivitamins: most people may benefit from the use of a multivitamin and mineral formula to complement their best efforts to consume a proper diet. Remember, this supplement plus a balanced diet should cover your missing gaps of nutrients and enhance bodily functions. Supplementing with calcium and magnesium can improve fat loss, bone protection, and tends to be hard to consume with other food or mineral sources such as Zinc (i.e. it competes for absorption).
Whey Protein: Although it is not a requirement, they do offer some perks. Depending on the brand, some whey protein powders are low in carbs and fats while others have a higher carb and fat intake for the sake of taste and at times absorption. I recommend this supplement because of its high-quality bio-availability of amino content, convenience, taste, and absorption rate. There is research suggesting that whey protein absorbs rapidly and enhancing the speed of recovery from weight training, especially around your exercise/training window.
There are also those who would argue that hydro-isolates, plant protein, or isolated protein is better but, again, that’s getting too technical, and it will not make much difference to your strength or muscle size as it is a 24-hour window of total nutrient and adequate protein intake that matters.
Glutamine and BCCA’s: this is probably where I will stay old school and say they are legit and works! Science is great but man, sometimes, the hell with it. Glutamine has helped me deal with stress and immune function as I lift frequently and heavy. Research says it’s not necessary to consume extra, but everyone’s different. If you are on a diet, I’d say take it and only if you can afford it. Believe it or not, some whey protein companies actually add extra glutamine for you because they know it helps. BCAA’s are another type of supplement that I enjoy taking throughout the day and is not much of a requirement, as your diet covers its bases with adequate protein intake, but as another way to enhance recovery and add in electrolytes (e.g., “Scivation Extend”, is a great example). A couple of studies I have stumbled upon have shown that BCCA’s, specifically Leucine, enhances anabolic responses in the body and aids recovery. To be honest, I give thanks to Dr. Layne Norton (Pro Natural Bodybuilder and Powerlifter) for introducing this to me.
Caffeine: Well, where do I begin?! This is an old, very old, supplement form to enhance energy. It can be found in pill form, tea, or coffee. Caffeine mostly affects all organ systems but the most commonly known one is the nervous system. This stimulant increases alertness, reduces perceived effort during exercise, decreases reaction time, increases cognitive functions, and increases fatty acid oxidation. All in all, making workouts explosive, fun, motivating, and utilize more fats as energy. Notice I said caffeine, not “pre-workout”. Personally, I love pre-workouts and coffee on my rest days. I have so much to do and lift that I just need to be on my best performance. But! Be careful with which brand you select as some offer a little more than caffeine and it’s not always a good thing.
Creatine Monohydrate: This supplement is by far the staple to many lifters. It is affordable and efficient in increasing physical performances. Many feel that they will gain fat or acne, but this is not the case. You will gain water weight but in the muscle cells. Many studies are showing that creatine works and enhances muscle repair, function, and growth. That simple. Some supplement brands offer a different form of creatine but personally I have found monohydrate to be the best form of creatine.
Essential Fatty Acids: ok, how often do you eat fish? Yea, not that often and I suppose it makes sense as to why (i.e. price, taste, location, and smell). EFA’s are beneficial and help with inflammation, enhancing mood, hormonal productivity, reduce disease risk factors, and improve brain function. Up there on the list of supplements. Fish oils can be found just about anywhere but I wouldn’t recommend just any brand either. To start, I would just go to the GNC or Costco. Both offer affordable and high-quality products.
Anything else in my opinion is just hype or on the fancy end like cable kickbacks (I just don’t understand how that exercise will ever make someone’s glutes look like Beyonce). I believe there are other supplements out there that can help with your fitness goals (e.g., beta-alinine, citrulline, carnitine, etc.) but to me, these are the main ones and most consistent with research to work as well as positive experiences.
Wheeeew!! Finally, right? I know this was a lot to take in and for some of us out there, including myself I just want facts or a straight to the point answer but unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way with our bodies. Finding out what works for you and doesn’t is a journey and a process of change in lifestyle. As I said earlier, food is a drug and it can do wonders if used correctly but can do damage if abused. It makes sense why people give up or feel lost with all the misleading information out there. I just hope this article was helpful with providing to you the basics and some guidelines into getting started. I know I’m a coach but seriously, if you have questions feel free to comment on here.
The recommendations provided below are just recommendations and will be a great place to start off your journey to a “new and better you”:
10 x BW= Answer (RMR)
Answer (RMR) x Activity Multiplier (Low end 1.2-to-High end 2.1) = Daily caloric needs
*Track and record your weight to see if this caloric intake is for you. If you’re are gaining over 1-2 lbs. Consistently per week, then you are in a surplus. If you are losing weight steadily, then increase calories some. Keep in mind that weight will fluctuate daily due to bowel movement, water retention, sodium intake, and stress levels so get an average of your weight for the week. Your objective here is to find a consistency of body weight.
1g x BW for protein, then multiply by 4 to get the total calories of protein.
20-35% of daily caloric intake for fats.
Remaining calories come from Carbs (of those carbs; 28g Fiber for women, 38g fiber for Men)
Follow the supplement bottles recommendations. Careful with caffeine as it is a stimulant.
Willey, W. (2007). Better than Steroids. Pocatello, ID : Fitness Medicine Clinic
Helms, E., Valdez, A., Morgan, A., (2016). The Muscle and Strength Pyramid: Nutrition.
NASM essentials of personal fitness training, 4th ed (2011). Portland: Ringgold Inc.
Norton, L. E., & Layman, D. K. (2006). Leucine regulates translation initiation of protein synthesis in skeletal muscle after exercise. The Journal of Nutrition, 136(2), 533S.