The world of nutrition is, on the face of it, an absolute minefield. There’s a million and one approaches to diets, and a lot of the confusion comes from the wealth of (often contradictory) information that’s available to us.
I’m a strong advocate of the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle, particularly when it comes to nutrition and training, and with some minor prep work it’s surprisingly easy to figure out and stick to a nutrition plan.
For people training regularly to build/retain muscle mass it’s hugely important to pay close attention to calories and macronutrient intake, as these will form the basis of any meal plan you create.
The first place to start is to figure out your goal for the coming weeks and months. Are you looking to lose fat, gain muscle, recomp? Picking a target and sticking to the plan is essential if you’re looking for any meaningful progress, so have your goal in mind ahead of time.
Next, you’ll need to figure out your TDEE and work out how many calories you’ll need each day. Your TDEE is your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, and is the total number of calories you burn in a 24 hour period. Eating your TDEE will help you maintain your current weight, while eating less will cause you to lose weight and eating over it will cause weight gain.
Everyone’s TDEE will be different based on factors such as gender, weight, activity levels and lean muscle mass so it’s hard to get an accurate figure, but there are a few good calculators which will give a reasonable estimate. It’s best to track all your food intake and weigh yourself regularly to get a more accurate picture of your daily calorie target.
Once you have your TDEE, estimate your required daily caloric intake based on your goals. A good rough guide is to eat 500 calories below your TDEE to lose weight at a rate which will preserve lean muscle mass, and 500 calories over your TDEE if you’re looking to gain muscle.
The next step is to work out what macronutrient ratios will be required.
First, we’ll look at protein intake. Many bodybuilders swear by the rule of 1g of protein per lb of lean bodyweight, and a general rule of thumb this will work fairly well. Menno Henselmans covers this approach here, suggesting that this may be overdoing the protein intake and that similar results can be seen from 0.82g of protein per lb of bodyweight and he has several studies to back up these claims.
So, to calculate your protein intake:
Bodyweight in lbs x 0.82 = Daily protein target in grams
To work out what this is in calories, just multiply this figure by 4 (source).
Managing fat intake is important for a number of reasons, most notably because of it’s impact on testosterone. Sadly it’s also easily stored as adipose tissue (body fat), so it’s important to find the right balance between getting enough fat to maintain hormone levels and avoiding eating too much.
In Layne Norton’s cutting diet he outlines the benefits of keeping fat intake between 17%-28% of your daily caloric intake. This appears to be the ideal range to get the right hormonal reaction required to build and retain muscle without running the risk of adding unnecessary body fat.
It should be fairly easy to hit this range by eating decent cuts of meat, eggs and suchlike, but if you’re struggling then keeping some healthy fats on hand is always a good idea (think organic butter, peanut butter etc).
Once you’ve figured out your protein and your fat intake, the rest of your intake should be focused on quality carbohydrates. While carbs have had a pretty tough time of it in recent years as ketogenic diets become more common, including carbs in your diet is important if you’re training regularly and are looking to add or retain lean muscle mass.
There are all sorts of biological reasons for keeping some carbs in your diet which Layne’s post explains far better than I ever could, but to keep it simple they’ll help with muscle sparing, recovery, growth and various other important aspects of fitness.
To work out the level of cars required, simply divide your remaining calories by 4 to get your daily target in grams).
Planning Your Meals
Once you’ve worked out your macro targets, it’s time to start planning your meals. This is where the simplicity of the approach kicks in after all those initial calculations!
Time after time, diets fall apart because people fail to plan ahead, get overly hungry and end up binging on junk food or whatever will give them the quick hit. Proper, simple meal planning can remove this common point of failure.
The basic premise of this approach to nutrition is:
- Pick 2-5 simple meals you enjoy for breakfast, lunch and dinner and which fit your macro targets
- Cook them in advance
It’s hardly rocket science, but this approach is extremely effective for a number of reasons. Firstly, you’re eating meals you enjoy all the time. Sure a chicken salad is healthy and is fine once in a while, but would you be happy eating it for lunch 5 days a week? By choosing a select few meals you know you like it means you’re always enjoying your food, which makes sticking to your diet that much easier.
The initial reaction people have to this method is to assume that this is an unreasonably restrictive approach. But think about it – in a normal week/month, how many different dishes do you make for each meal?
Breakfast is the classic example. Bacon and eggs, oatmeal, cereal… Most people eat pretty much the same thing every morning. The same goes for lunch, you’ll probably find you have slight changes of the same couple of meals most days.
Knowing what meals you’re going to be eating in advance makes grocery shopping and food planning so much easier.
Ideally, you’re looking to choose meals that you can prepare in advance and that will keep in the refrigerator for a few days. That way you can spend an hour or two every few days prepping your food for the coming days, and you’ll never find yourself heading for food as you’ll have quick, easy access to a healthy meal.
Hitting Your Macros – Bridging the Gaps
Even with careful food planning there may be some days where you’re a little short of your targets for the day. This is where you can turn to supplements, or have some easy-access snacks in the cupboard ready to go.
A quick protein shake is an easy way of bulking up your daily protein intake, while a spoonful of natural peanut butter is a quick and easy way of topping up your fat intake. As with your regular meals, find a few simple things that you enjoy and stock up. It’ll make your life much easier in the long run.
Keeping track of your macros can initially seem pretty daunting, but fortunately the smartphone has made things infinitely easier.
Getting a nutritional tracking app on your phone is a massive help, and personally I’m a sucker for My Fitness Pal. It has a huge database of food, an easy to use interface, a ton of cool features and there’s even a social element to help keep you focused (unless you’re as antisocial as I am…).
Log absolutely everything you eat and drink, and if you’re not used to doing it you might be surprised how many extra calories can sneak into your day without you realising!
As well as logging everything, weight and measure everything for at least the first couple of months. Eyeballing portion sizes is tricky even for the most experienced people, so don’t rush into making guesses when a decent set of kitchen scales are pretty inexpensive.
While this is pretty far from comprehensive, hopefully it’ll serve as a decent introduction to the world of tracking your macros and keeping your diet simple. The importance of setting goals and making a plan cannot be overstated, and neither can making the plan as easy to follow as possible!
The overall process is simple:
- Find out what your nutritional targets are
- Find meals you enjoy which fit those targets
- Eat the same small group of meals regularly
With a little initial ground work, sticking with your diet is far easier than you thought.