Nutrition - A Simple Approach to Your Diet

Aug 15, 2019

There are three main concepts we’re looking at in regards to nutrition:

 

  1. Weight gain/weight loss
  2. Body composition
  3. Overall health/vitamins/minerals

 

Weight gain and weight loss are 100% determined by the amount of calories you take in versus the amount of calories you expend. 2000 calories of table sugar will cause the same change in weight as 2000 calories of broccoli or beef. This is basic physics, and is indisputable. However, calories out is not a set amount - multiple factors including exercise, daily activity, hormonal changes, and even the actual food you eat influences the amount of calories you burn every day. 

 

The calories in versus calories out concept makes weight changes simple, but not necessarily easy. The first step is determining the average amount of calories you burn in a day. There are online calculators that will estimate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or TDEE based on body weight and activity level. These are estimates only and will not be 100% accurate, so they should be used as a starting baseline and then calories can be slowly adjusted over a period of weeks if you aren’t changing weight in the direction you want. The next step is applying a deficit or a surplus - around 500 calories is a pretty typical starting deficit or surplus and should result in approximately a pound of weight change per week (a pound of fat is 3500 calories, and a pound of muscle is 2500 calories). 

 

Body weight is important, but it’s not the only factor. Body composition is probably more important to wellbeing and quality of life than actual body weight for most people. A 200 pound person at 10% body fat is much healthier and more capable than a 200 pound person at 40% body fat, even though the actual caloric needs may not be that different if we discount calories burned during exercise. This is body composition: the tissues that your body is made of. Very generally speaking, improving body composition means decreasing body fat and increasing muscle mass. Unlike weight gain and weight loss, body composition is very dependent on what kind of food you eat and on the amount and type of exercise you do.

 

If you go on a diet with a 500 calorie a day caloric deficit but don’t exercise at all and all your calories are in the form of twinkies and table sugar, you’ll lose a pound every week. However, that pound you lose will likely be a disproportionate amount of muscle and not very much fat. When you get to your goal weight, you may have actually made your body composition worse, which will not improve your health even though your weight is lower. If you go on a diet with a 500 calorie deficit while you consistently weight train and perform some cardio and the calories you eat consist of high protein and plenty of vegetables, you will lose a higher amount of body fat while maintaining or even increasing muscle mass. When you reach your goal weight, you will look and feel much better than if you ate poorly and didn’t exercise  to get there. 

 

Finally, the third concept we want to look at is supporting healthy hormones and normal processes in the body. Weight can be changed and body composition can be significantly improved eating highly processed foods. Technically you can eat high protein and non-sugary carbs eating very processed foods. However, many whole, unprocessed foods contain important vitamins and minerals our bodies need to function well. Whey protein powder is fine as a supplement, but it doesn’t have the same micronutrient profile as a piece of steak or fish. These micronutrients are important for long term health. 

 

It can take some effort to put this all together. First, you find your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure). Next,you have to find your macronutrient amounts - the amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrates you’re going to eat.  It’s usually easiest to determine optimal protein intake first. For increasing or maintaining muscle mass, the best current consensus in the research is to shoot for 1.8 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Next, you should determine carbohydrate and fat amounts - if you tend to engage in higher intensity activity, 40-50% of your total remaining calories might come from carbohydrates. If you engage in more aerobic activity, you can have a higher percentage of fat and it shouldn’t have a negative impact. This is not an absolute, as there are athletes that eat a ketogenic diet (no carbohydrates) that perform well in high intensity activities, but it’s a good starting baseline. 

 

Each gram of protein and carbohydrate has 4 calories, and each gram of fat has 9 calories. If a 200 pound man has looked up his TDEE with an online calculator and is trying to eat a 2300 calorie diet, it might look something like this: 

 

180 grams of protein = 720 calories

200 grams of carbohydrates = 800 calories 

88 grams of fat = 792 calories 

Total = 2312 calories

 

Our 200 pound man could divide these calorie and macronutrient requirements into as many or as few meals as he wants. There is some evidence that eating a large protein meal every 4 hours supports muscle gain (although the effect of meal timing like this is likely very small), so he could have one meal every 4 hours while awake for a total of four meals, each one consisting of 45 grams of protein, 50 grams of carbohydrates, and about 22 grams of fat. In terms of actual food, a single example meal might consist of 8 ounces of salmon (45 grams of protein and 22 grams of fat), 23 spears of asparagus (14 grams of carbohydrates), and 1 cup of strawberries (36 grams of carbohydrates).

 

In table form, the single meal looks like this: 

Macronutrient:

45 grams of protein

50 grams of carbs

22 grams of fat

Calories:

180

200

198

Food Choice: 

8oz salmon

23 spears asparagus

1 cup strawberries

Fat from 8oz salmon

 

Obviously to be very exact, this becomes an intensive process. Weighing and measuring food with a food scale becomes necessary, and it can be a very helpful tool for those new to taking control of their nutrition and learning about good portion sizes. However, for those to whom weighing food sounds intimidating, Crossfit founder Greg Glassman offers a good guideline: 

“Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar.”

 

To reiterate the process one more time: 

  1. Start with finding your estimated Total Daily Energy Expenditure with an online calculator. Decide if you want to lose weight or gain weight. Apply either a small surplus or deficit to the TDEE number (500 calories is a good start). 
  2. Fill in the calories with specific macronutrients starting with protein requirements, then fat and carbs depending on the type of activity you engage in. Plan out specific foods and amounts of those foods to fit into your macronutrient requirements. 
  3. To make the weight loss or gain result in improved body composition, eat healthy foods and exercise hard with a combination of weight training and aerobic activity of your choice. 
  4. After 2 weeks if your weight isn’t moving in the direction you want, increase the surplus or deficit. Wait another two weeks and repeat, or stay at the same number of calories if your weight is changing how you want it to. As you gain or lose weight, your TDEE will change, and you will need to adjust over time. 

 

Remember, it is always a good idea to talk to a dietitian to get a more specific meal plan tailored to your individual needs!

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