Many clients are curious to know more about nutrition, especially when a new, trendy diet craze hits the industry. While most people are well-intentioned in their pursuit of nutritional knowledge, the vast majority of online resources in the fitness industry are marketing materials selling a product.
Even this article is meant to showcase my depth of knowledge in addressing wellness holistically, not just prescribing you a fitness program or pushing you through hours of cardio for the sake of the aesthetic. That being said, I also want to help empower you with the tools you need to make changes for better health on your own.
All of the data you need is located on the nutrition information panel of the foods you're buying. Takeout can be problematic for this reason, because we don't really know what the chef is using to create the dishes we eat. Sneaky ingredients like cooking oils and animal products can be nutrient dense and therefore, calorie dense.
As a trainer, most people come to me for help reaching goals related to their "weight." We're told weight and BMI matter for long-term health. But the number on your scale is just one data point of many that determine your overall health. More importantly, each of these data sets must be considered as part of a greater behavioral pattern.
What does that mean?
It means if you're not fact-checking your online resources, you're probably approaching nutrition in a way that is incomplete, too restrictive, or unsustainable.
The good news is that there's always time to change the road you're on. Continuous learning and small, sustainable changes are the keys to improving your health continuously for the rest of your life.
Let's start with the basics.
The Role of Nutrition In Losing And Gaining “Weight”
Let's start by addressing that language.
"Weight" represents the amount of force you exert onto the Earth's surface as a result of gravity. It can be measured in pounds, kilograms, stone, and other units of measure. Your weight is different on every planet, according to that planet's gravitational force.
We often use this term incorrectly or incompletely. Clients that say "I want to lose weight" often mean they want to lose body fat. While losing "weight" is a more general and appropriate approach for those who are very overweight or obese, it should be with the intent of reducing body fat.
Your body fat percentage is primarily affected by patterns in your diet.
Read that again.
It is secondarily affected by the number of calories your body burns through exercise and normal metabolic processes. These include fueling non-exercise activity, pumping blood throughout your body, processing glucose for brain function, and metabolizing food, as examples.
To decrease your body fat percentage and/or to lower your weight while retaining as much lean muscle as possible, you need to eat in a calorie deficit while meeting your macronutrient needs—more on that in the next section.
If your goal is to "gain weight," it is implied that you hope to gain lean muscle mass, not put on a lot of fat. This requires that you eat in a calorie surplus, meet your macronutrient needs, and cause microscopic damage to your muscle tissue to encourage repair and growth (hypertrophy).
Suppose you're severely underweight, and the immediate need is to add weight to preserve your health, not for strength or aesthetic gains. In that case, exercise is not necessarily required, and macronutrients are a secondary consideration to caloric intake. This would apply in the circumstances involving patterned malnourishment only.
To summarize again, nutrition is the number one factor in determining whether you gain or lose weight. Exercise is secondary to caloric and macronutrient balances.
You cannot out-exercise a bad diet!
Caloric Intake: Where Should I Be?
You might be thinking this is an easy answer. 2,000 calories per day, right?
The 2,000 calorie baseline that you learned about in grade school is, in fact, just that: a baseline. If you're a 5' 1" adult female, like me, your calorie needs are likely lower than this for maintaining a healthy body weight range. If you're a 6'4" young adult male, your calorie needs are likely higher.
Your Basal Metabolic Rate contributes to 60-70 percent of your daily calorie expenditure.
This is the amount of energy your body needs while resting.
To calculate your typical caloric needs, you can apply the following formulas:
Multiply your BMR by the appropriate activity factor, as follows:
If you are sedentary (little or no exercise) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.2
If you are lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.375
If you are moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.55
If you are very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.725
If you are extra active (very hard exercise/sports & physical job or 2x training) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.9
To Calculate your BMR:
66 + (6.3 x body weight in lbs.) + (12.9 x height in inches) - (6.8 x age in years) = BMR
655 + (4.3 x weight in lbs.) + (4.7 x height in inches) - (4.7 x age in years) = BMR
If you hate math, there are caloric need calculators online, for example, here, here, and here. You might notice, however, variations in results you get from each. These calculators can be imprecise because people measure the intensity of their usual exercise differently or don't consider recent changes in their behavioral/exercise patterns.
Either way, each of these tools can help you establish a baseline for your own caloric needs instead of using a one-size-fits-all FDA established average and wondering why you’re not meeting your goals.
As explained above, you should be eating a balanced diet with a calorie surplus if your goal is to gain lean muscle mass, and if your goal is to lose body fat or weight, you should be eating in a calorie deficit.
What does this mean?
It means if you want to rebuild and repair damage due to exercise and gain muscle, you need to be consuming more than you burn. If your baseline need is 2,000 calories, you should eat 2,500 calories per day to expect a (theoretical, mathematical) gain of about 1 pound per week.
Suppose your baseline caloric need is 2,000 calories, and you want to lose body fat and/or weight. In that case, you should eat between 1500-1800 calories, assuming everything else about your overall health is unremarkable. Always check with your doctor or a registered dietician before beginning a diet overall. Small, sustainable changes are always more manageable and approachable than huge lifestyle changes.
So why are these numbers theoretical?
There's one factor that you should always consider throughout your wellness journey, and that is that your body is one of a kind. Every body is slightly different from every other body, and many other factors can determine how your body reacts to changes in your calorie ranges. These include underlying conditions, genetics, age, hormonal balances, stress levels, and environmental factors.
In theory, to gain 1 pound, you would need to consume an excess of 3500 calories per period. To lose 1 pound, you would need to eat 3500 fewer calories for that period. Most experts agree that gaining or losing more than 2 pounds per week can cause undue stress on the organs and metabolic processes, so be patient! It took your body time to become what it is and it requires time to change.
Remember, your body is a complex system of systems and changes in your health and appearance are related more to patterns in your behavior than individual actions.
Macronutrients: What Are They And What Do I Need?
You might have heard terms like "macro needs" and "macro counting" before, but maybe you weren't sure what they meant. So what are the macronutrients, and how can I calculate what I need?
The macronutrients are the nutrients that provide your body's energy. They are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. These nutrients are critical for proper brain health, immune function, and metabolic processes. Never trust a diet plan that asks you to eliminate or reduce anyone macronutrient to an extreme. Each has different and overlapping functions in the body.
Have you ever tried a low-carb diet and felt sluggish, foggy, tired, or even mentally unwell? That's because carbohydrates are your body's main source of energy in the form of glucose. Your body metabolizes carbohydrates and pulls glucose and other naturally occurring sugars for immediate and delayed metabolic fuel. Simple carbohydrates are sugars (fructose, glucose, galactose), the most basic, rapidly metabolized energy source. The brain is a huge consumer of energy from carbohydrates, so depriving your body of carbs at unhealthy levels can be dangerous and not sustainable.
Carbohydrates should make up about 45-65 percent of your average caloric intake each day. Remember patterns over time are more important than individual days.
Proteins seem to get all of the attention in nutrition discussions these days, but that might be for good reason. Proteins are the building blocks for the body and contribute to hypertrophy (muscle growth in humans) by using amino acids (their basic components) to repair lean tissue. They have many other functions, including maintaining fluid balance and producing certain hormones. There are 20 different amino acids that the body uses to build proteins, some of which are synthesized by the body (inessential) and some of which cannot be made by the body (essential amino acids).
It is recommended that you consume .8 grams of protein per kilogram of healthy body weight. Some athletes consume an excess of that, up to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight. Experts disagree on the exact amount of protein required for different sports and different athletes, but approximately 10-35 percent of your caloric intake should be from proteins. Here is the US Department of Agriculture's Protein requirement calculator.
Fats once had a horrible reputation in the health industry but are another necessary component of a balanced diet. Fats provide more energy per gram (9 kCal/gram) than carbohydrates or proteins, which is why they're more calorie-dense. However, fats play a huge role in neurological health and central nervous system function. They also help regulate body temp, blood pressure, and inflammation.
Fats should make up about 20-35 percent of your average caloric intake for the day while consuming as few saturated fats as possible. Trans Fat, the human-modified, shelf-stable saturated fat, should be avoided altogether.
Micronutrients: What Are They?
Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals that support the body's functions. Though they do not provide energy, some help metabolize energy from the foods you eat.
There are both fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins. Fat-soluble vitamins can be stored in body fat, while water-soluble vitamins cannot. For this reason, if you are deficient in a specific water-soluble vitamin, you might supplement that daily, while a fat-soluble vitamin should not be taken daily. Supplements are not recommended for everyone, and you should ask your doctor before you start taking one—more on the science behind supplements below.
The Role of Water
Water is your body's life source! Although it doesn't provide energy like a macronutrient, it's safe to say that water plays a role in nearly every process that occurs in the body. Water imbalances can contribute to difficulties getting the energy and other benefits your body needs from food.
Most Americans do not drink enough water. There is no recommended daily intake of water in cups, despite that data being presented and changed many times throughout my course of study. It is recommended that adequate intake (AI) for young women is around 11 cups, and for young men, around 15-16 cups. “Adequate intake” refers to an experimentally determined approximation or estimate of average requirements (i.e.: a big estimation)
Your AI for water includes water from foods and other liquids. However, this does not mean you can maintain health without consuming plain water regularly. Many people consume a huge percentage of their calories from the beverages they consume that are not water. Often, the brain interprets this dehydration as hunger and prompts you to act accordingly by consuming calories that your body doesn't need.
What is intermittent fasting? Should I be doing it?
Intermittent fasting describes the dietary trend of avoiding consuming food or calories for a certain period of time in each 24 hour period. While some experts explore this as a way to "reset" the body's metabolic processes, most research correlates the effectiveness of intermittent fasting with the reduced period of the day within which you are consuming calories. A shorter window of consumption = reduced likelihood to overconsume.
Having said that, I believe there is a huge psychological component to establishing a healthy relationship with food. If intermittent fasting needs to be part of your journey toward more sustainable dietary choices over time, I encourage you to explore that after discussing it with your doctor.
What's The Science Behind Supplements?
Protein supplements and micronutrient supplements claim to deliver a surplus of your desired nutrients in pill, powder or processed food form. While the science behind supplements is new and incomplete, research suggests that you should always consume your micro and macronutrients from whole food sources whenever possible. This is because the more natural, whole-food form contains a more complete array of chemical compounds needed to metabolize the nutrients therein. While supplements may deliver a large dose of what you need, we do not know how much of that nutrient will be absorbed and used by the body (bioavailability).
I'm eating a balanced diet and meeting my macronutrient needs, but I haven't seen my weight change. Why?
There could be a lot of different explanations for this, so consult with your trainer to help root out the cause. One potential explanation is that you haven't given your body enough time to adapt. I usually tell clients not to expect visible changes in their appearance until after about 6-8 weeks. Other people are not likely to notice changes in your body composition for several months or more.
Other explanations might include irregular sleep patterns, unmanaged stress from work, finances, relationships, etc., illness or a compromised immune system, or unaccounted calories somewhere in your diet. I highly recommend using a nutrition tracking app like My Fitness Pal by Underarmour, or a similar app. You might be surprised at what you're consuming versus what you thought you were consuming.
Finally, it is possible to lose body fat while gaining lean mass, but this happens slowly, and changes in the body, including weight, might reflect very little change. This process is called "recomposition" or "recomp". Use other indicators to measure your success, including strength gains, body circumference measurements, or the way your clothes fit as compared to before. While it's great to feel great after beginning an exercise program, it is not recommended to track your success with only this metric, in the same way, you wouldn't use only the number on your scale.
What's the best way to lose belly fat?
Folks often want to "spot correct" parts of their bodies to conform to an ideal or a desired image. The truth is, you can't spot-correct fat. Reduction in overall body fat is the only way to reduce body fat in any specific area of the body. As you now know, this happens by eating in a calorie deficit continuously over time while using exercise to maintain or build strength and muscle mass.
Your recipes are broken down with macronutrient totals. How do I use that information?
Firstly, track your macronutrient intake throughout the day. Then, determine what percentage of your diet came from protein, what percentage came from fat, and what percentage came from carbohydrates. Adjust intake according to the guidelines for macro ranges above.
This formula helps you determine how many calories you're consuming per gram of protein or carbohydrate:
(grams of nutrient) x (4 kCal/gram) = kCal from that nutrient
This formula helps you determine how many calories you're consuming per gram of fat:
(grams of nutrient) x (9 kCal/gram) = kCal from fat
When you have your number of calories, divide it by the total number of calories for that day or that meal. Then, move the decimal point two places to the right. That is the percentage of calories that came from that nutrient for that meal or day.
Seems like a hassle, right? That's why I recommend using a nutrient tracking app, which will do that work for you. Shoot for the appropriate macro percentage ranges within the appropriate caloric intake, and you're on your way to success. Don't forget; it's about patterns over time, so don't let one "bad" day derail you!