How to Become Fit and Lean When You Eat Right
These days, what’s trickier than getting the perfect clean and jerk is figuring out the proper nutrition to fuel our workouts, increase muscle gain or fire up fat loss. In the raging sea of social media, we’re constantly being bombarded with the latest diet fad or the next quick trick to getting that Instagram model booty. Well, the joke is on them because the answer to nutrition is pretty simple and doesn’t need to be complicated. There is a method to the madness and we’re going to walk you through it.
The Egyptians didn't build this pyramid.
Let’s start with a quick visualization. Close those beautiful eyes of yours and let’s imagine the house of your dreams. Think about the tall, inviting entrance, the strong walls, solid roof, your master bedroom and garden tub in the bathroom. Now, if that house was built on top of a marsh with a foundation made of sand, it won’t remain standing for very long. The same is true for your nutrition. If you're eating a bunch of junk and then piling in supplements and exogenous ketones, you aren't going to see the progress that you're hoping for.
- You can eat “clean” and not worry about calories.
- If you take enough supplements, it’ll make up for your bad diet.
- Focusing on meal timing when the content of the food is all willy nilly resulting in a 400 lb squat and winning the Crossfit Games.
So what does this mean for you? Mostly, that’s it’s easier than the interwebs want you to know… but it still takes discipline and planning.
Foundational Level: Sustainability
Every year a New Year rolls around, we get super hyped up about our grand plans to finally make a million dollars, lose those 20 lbs, win an Olympic medal and win over the supermodel. Inevitably, all that enthusiasm starts to peter out sometime around January 27th, we shrug our shoulders and accept that it won’t happen this year, but maybe next year.
Why does this happen?
Because that’s not sustainable! Flipping your entire life upside down on a moment’s notice and expecting it to last isn’t reasonable.
When it comes to nutrition, most experts would agree, we don’t really care which “diet” you choose, it just has to meet some minimal guidelines and be sustainable for your lifestyle, budget, family, and mindset. It’s easy to make justifications and big commitments when we’re in a cloud of excitement. When the dust settles though, it’ll be much harder to adhere to big life changes. When choosing your approach, take into consideration the amount of free time you have around your life obligations (job, family, friends) to shop and prepare food, take a hard look at your budget, and the most important - your current mindset. Are you going through an emotionally tough time? Did you just take on more responsibilities at work? Are you planning a big trip around the world? Questions like these should be accounted for when figuring out how much mental bandwidth you’ll have to put towards the approach you decide on. We’ve all heard the saying - “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”. This is absolutely applicable to your approach to nutrition and most importantly, to the successful outcome of your journey.
Just as a house’s foundation needs to be strong, reliable and hold up for the long haul, so does your approach to nutrition.
Level 1: Calories
Do calories really matter? yes. Yes. YES! Let me repeat for those in the back - Yes, calories matter.
Once we’ve set a solid foundation of sustainability, we move to our first level of building the house. Calories are the framework to our powerhouse. Calories determine our energy balance, which ultimately leads to gaining, losing or sustaining our weight. Understanding and tracking calories for your goals can quickly turn a lot of frustration into a happy and successful journey.
Here are some simple and effective tips around calorie balance:
- If you have trouble putting on weight or gaining muscle mass, you need to eat more.
- If you are training hard, eating the “right” foods and drinking all the water but still not seeing the fat loss you’d like, you need to eat less calories.
- As a general rule for the average active person working out 3-5 times per week with a sedentary job, read: desk + computer, and not in the obese range - you can multiply your body weight in pounds by 15 to find your daily caloric intake.
Now, if fat loss is your goal, we can just subtract 500 calories from your daily intake for a fat loss goal of 1 lb per week.
Of course, these are generic guidelines and we could dig into some nitty-gritty details but we’re going for simple here. All energy calculations are estimations and food volume in the package varies so we’ll never be dealing with perfect numbers. No need to fret over the little things.
Level 2: Macronutrients
Oi. Ok, here’s where we can start breaking things apart a little. If you need to hang out in the calorie tracking zone for a while first to get used to it, do that! Then you can come back and start learning more about tracking your macronutrients.
What the heck are macronutrients? “Macros” are the building blocks of calories. The three macronutrients that we track are:
Where calories determine our overall weight loss or gain, macronutrients determine whether that loss or gain comes from muscle or fat. Thus, developing our body composition - the ratio of muscle: fat.
For those with an active lifestyle, weightlifting or trying to lose weight but maintain muscle mass, protein intake is crucial. Proteins offer the amino acid building blocks to build and repair muscle, as well as, prevent muscle breakdown. When dieting down, protein can help curb hunger due to its highly satiating tendencies.
To find your protein intake, multiply 1 gram of protein x your bodyweight in pounds.
If your weight swings pretty far to either end of the spectrum (under or overweight), this formula might give you too few or too high of an intake. Instead, you can set your intake at 1 gram per centimeter of height.
- Fats and Carbohydrates
Thankfully, America got over the low fat craze and is back on track to loving fats. Fats are vital to hormone regulation and the brain loves them, too.
Admit it. Everyone loves some carbs. (Birthday cake anyone?) Which is great because carbs fuel our bodies through training, recovery and help with muscle growth if you’re gaining.
Most active folks do well with fat set at 20-30% of calories and filling in the rest of your caloric intake with carbohydrates.
Quick note: Ketogenic diets are all the rage right now. This may be right for you or it may not be. It all goes back to which approach is going to lead to diet adherence. Recent studies have shown the same weight loss in individuals that followed ketogenic or mixed diets that both had a caloric deficit. If you’re reading this, you’re probably an athlete. Get the carbs in and eat like one. Joe Rogan did a great podcast recently with Layne Norton (macro king) and Dom D’Augostino (keto leader).
Level 3: Micronutrients & Water
As we climb up the nutrition pyramid, we get to micronutrients and daily water consumption. Micronutrients can usually be fulfilled by your food intake but deficiencies can develop over time and lead to hindered training and recovery. If you’re experiencing issues with energy, funky sleep patterns, hair loss or skin discoloration, it could be time to get some blood work done and see if you’re short on any vitamins or minerals.
We can knock out most of our micronutrients by following a few simple guidelines for daily fruit and vegetable consumption:
- Eat a fist full of vegetables with each meal - the more colorful and dark, the more nutrient dense!
- Eat 2-3 fists of fruits per day.
- Multivitamin: A good multivitamin can help fill in cracks when food balances are off. We love Thorne for research-backed, high-quality supplements and vitamins.
- Water consumption: A good rule of thumb for water consumption per day is: ½ bodyweight in ounces plus 20 oz per hour of training
- If you’re in endurance sports, eating a low carb diet or train in hot climates, it would be worth trying out electrolytes. We like Endure by Trace Minerals.
Level 4: Nutrient Timing & Meal Frequency
On one hand we have Arny (Arnold Schwarzenegger) eating 7 meals per day and then we have that dude on YouTube eating 4,000 calories at 8pm every night. The typical bodybuilder diet and the most recent IF, intermittent fasting, diets can leave one pretty lost on when we’re supposed to be eating. Not to be the nag, but … again, it all comes down to what is going to work for you and your lifestyle.
Here are some guidelines:
- If you’re in a fat loss phase, eat 2-3 meals per day.
- 3-4 meals if you’re in muscle or weight gain
- 2-4 meals if you’re looking to maintain your current weight.
- Eat within 1-2 hours after training.
- If you need to train early or haven’t had a chance to eat yet, get in a whey protein shake (20 - 30g protein) or BCAA’s beforehand, at minimum. (Doesn’t count as a meal).
Level 5: Supplements
Aw, we have reached the final touches to our beautiful house. You could call supplements the paint and knick-knacks of the house. Not necessary but can definitely complete the whole look and feel of the house. We’ve divided these up into health and performance supplements and these are applicable to most everyone.
- Health Supplements:
- Multivitamin - Multis are a great firehose to fill in the cracks of anything that might have been missed in your diet. Thorne Basic Nutrients is our suggestion.
- Essential Fatty Acids - EFA’s or commonly referred to as omega-3’s. They help maintain the body’s normal inflammatory response in muscles and joints. They also support healthy brain function, cognition and enhance mood. 1-3g/day of an EPA/DHA blend is recommended.
- Vitamin D3 - This is usually an overlooked vitamin but one that most people are deficient. Vitamin D supports bone health by helping calcium absorption. Enjoying at least 15-30 minutes of sunshine per day plus 2,000-3,000 IU/day is a safe bet.
- Performance Supplements:
- Note: I’m not including protein powders here because I consider them more of a powdered food than a supplement.
- Creatine monohydrate - Our old school friend creatine is one of the most effective and affordable performance supplements. It benefits strength gain and power production. 5g/day is the general recommended amount. It can be taken anytime during the day.
- Caffeine - This is one of the easiest pre-workout supplements that you can take to enhance sports performance. Knock back a cold brew or a cup of black coffee and you’ll be ready to go. This is highly variable depending on your tolerance. 1-2 mg/lb would be my personal recommendation to start and then evaluate tolerance from there.
- Beta-alanine - Beta-alanine helps with longer anaerobic performance in the same way that creatine boosts power. If doing continuous high intensity exercise for 60+ sec, 3-4g/day will do.
Your local GNC guy will probably try to talk you into a host of other products but really they aren’t necessary. Give these a shot first for a few months then re-evaluate.
Well, there you have it! Our house is built and it ain’t coming down! Nutrition stripped down is really pretty simple and practical. We like to believe we can purchase a $59 program off Instagram and our whole world will change. But guess what, you can do it for free and create a balanced, sustainable lifestyle that creates a lean, mean power machine if you’re willing to put in a little time, patience and thought.