Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist. I do, however, read up as much as I can on subjects that interest me, and getting the right nutrition really, really interests me.
Have you ever seen those quotes that say how important the right diet is for getting the body you want? Ones that keep popping up are ‘70% diet, 30% workout’ and ‘abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym’. But where is this mysterious kitchen that abs are supposedly made in? The point is that without getting your diet and nutrition right, you can workout all you like and for all the effort you’re putting in, whatever goal you’re aiming for will remain elusive until you get the food you need. Unfortunately, the internet is filled with diet advice, from quick weight loss methods to how to bulk up fast. Nutrition isn’t overly complicated though – once you have your sights set on a particular goal and taught yourself the right foods to eat, you’re 90% of the way there. The rest is dedication and consistency.
So what is the ‘right diet’? This totally depends on your goal. In this article I’m going to outline the basic components of the diet you need for your fitness goal, whether that’s aesthetics, long distance running or bulking up.
In terms of physics, losing or gaining weight is as simple as calories in vs calories out. However, when it comes down to the biology, your body processes different foods very differently. Sugars, for example (especially glucose, but also fructose in fruits) are digested very easily, so you will get basically 100% of the calories from a sugary treat. Vegetables and other foods must be further broken down and processed by the body, meaning that fewer calories are absorbed and turned straight into fats. Without going into depth on the biology this basically means that everyone should be eating fewer sugary foods and more vegetables and proteins. But we all already knew that didn’t we.
My Fitness Pal – the king of all calorie/macro counting apps.
To lose fat: Your goal should be to create a calorie deficit of up to 20%. This means that if your intake is 2500 calories a day, you should cut it by up to 500 calories a day to lose fat. Cutting more than this means you’re likely to get hungry and end up breaking the diet and gaining back any weight you’ve lost. Don’t do it! In simple numbers, 3500 calories is equivalent to 1lb of fat. Therefore cutting 500 calories per day means you should lose 1lb a week (the science is more complicated because when you lose weight, your metabolism tends to slow, making it harder to lose fat, but this is a good starting point).
To gain muscle: You need to have a calorie surplus. Keeping your calories slightly above your maintenance level (which can be calculated online) will allow your body to turn the calories to muscle when you gym. Particularly important is eating the right type of calories – sugar is likely to turn straight to fat, so what you really want to be eating is protein and slow-release carbs. More on this later.
I understand that very few people have the time, energy or willpower to count calories, so trying to get a calorie surplus or deficit is difficult when you have no idea how many calories you eat. From this point you have two options:
- Start calorie counting (the My Fitness Pal app is the easiest way to do this). Keep it up for about 2 weeks to 1 month so you have an idea of how many calories you eat on a daily basis. You can then estimate quite well how many calories you eat when you’re not counting. Use this to change your calorie intake according to your goals.
- If you want to lose weight but can’t fathom having to log every item of food you eat, cut out certain foods that you KNOW have high amounts of calories and sugar. An example could be a chocolate bar, biscuits or a starbucks Frappuccino. Cutting out 2 big unhealthy things from your diet a day will set you up to lose weight, and you’ll be a lot healthier for it! To gain muscle, I would recommend taking 1-2 protein shakes a day after the gym. These have varying amounts of calories but allow you to up your calorie intake with the right macronutrient – protein!
nb. Meal prepping is a great way to do both of these things – make your lunches at the beginning of the week so you’re not tempted by unhealthy deals at the local supermarket
Meal prepping is no longer something for elite bodybuilders and bikini competitors – anyone who wants to make eating healthier at work SHOULD meal prep.
For simple goals such as losing or gaining weight, you need to track progress to know you’re doing everything right. Weigh yourself at least once a week and at most every other day to make sure you’re keeping on track. But don’t obsess – no one likes a person who can’t think of anything but how he or she looks or weighs. Instead focus on how you feel and your health – both are more important than your physique!
The term ‘macros’ refers to the three macronutrients your body needs to run effectively. Most of us have heard of low-carb diets such as the dukan or atkins diets, but for the majority of us, we just want to eat normally like normal people and be healthy, and this involves carbohydrates, protein and fats. Getting your macros right is a sure-fire way to getting the right diet to reach your goals, but again, it involves counting on apps such as my fitness pal and requires time and effort (however it does mean you can eat whatever you like, as long as it fits into your calculates macro goals!). If you check out the #IIFYM (if it fits your macros) hash-tag on instagram , you’ll see what I mean!
Counting macros: The average person should be eating 35-40% protein, 35-40% carbohydrates and 20% fats. However, exact percentages really depend on your goals and what sports you do.
- Running and other aerobic exercise (eg. rowing, tennis, squash etc.) – carbohydrates are important as a fuel source when you’re doing aerobic exercise for a long time. For long distance runners, on training days your macros should be around C: 60%, P: 20%, F: 20%. On rest days you can eat fewer carbs and more protein and fats for repair of muscle. Short and middle distance runners/exercisers need more protein as muscle is broken down faster in sprinting and needs to be built back up; C: 45-50%, P: 30-35%, F: 20%
- Weight lifting and other anaerobic exercises (eg. jumping, sprints, HIIT): The amount of protein consumed here should always be high, but percentages depend on whether you’re cutting, maintaining or bulking. For bodybuilding, high carbs allow for rapid weight gain (C: 40-60%, P: 25% – 35%, F: 15-25%) for cutting, low carb diets shed fat like nothing else (C: 10-30%, P: 40-50%, F: 30-40%). 10% carbs is crazily low, and only those looking to compete in aesthetics competitions should even attempt this, and always with supervision.
In general, carbohydrates provide energy and should be increased as exercise intensity and duration increases. It should be limited if you want to lose fat and increased if you want to gain weight. Women also need slightly fewer carbohydrates than men, as they are better at metabolising it. Rule of thumb: if you feel weak or overly-fatigued, especially after workouts, you may need to increase your carbs. The type of carbohydrate is important too – longer chain (low GI) carbs are better for sustained release energy. Some examples are listed below.
Protein is used to repair muscles that undergo micro-tears during training. Those who exercise more generally need more protein than a sedentary person, especially if they are looking to gain muscle. Good protein sources for all types of diet are outlined below.
Fats should never go under 15% of the total daily calorie intake. This is because many hormones are made using fatty acids and other fat molecules, so not getting enough fat can really mess up your body. In addition, many vitamins are fat-soluble. If you don’t eat enough fat you might not absorb enough vitamins and minerals. This can result in long-term problems in the future (and this is why looking really lean might not be that good for your health!).
Below I have listed some really healthy sources of the three macronutrients. Most foods have a mix of the three macros, and it’s important to get a mix of foods so you also get your required vitamins in everyday too. In addition, it’s easy to live healthily being vegetarian or vegan, gluten free etc etc. It’s just a matter of knowing what you can eat and what you should eat for your goals.
||Wholemeal bread, sweet potato, chickpeas, brown rice, oats, bananas, beans, wholemeal pasta, couscous, potatoes
||Chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, plain yogurt, tofu, milk, cottage cheese, whey protein powder, pea/hemp protein powder, beans and legumes
||Nuts, nut butters, avocados, olive oil, dark chocolate, cheese, egg yolk, fatty fish (salmon, trout, mackerel etc), coconut oil
OK, so now you’ve read this you’re probably super confused and asking why abs have to be made in the kitchen. Don’t worry – you’re not alone! Luckily, it’s actually quite easy to take steps towards improving your diet and working towards your goals without counting calories or macros. Once you know what’s good for you and what foods you need for what goal, all you have to do is increase those foods and decrease the others. Although progress may be slower than if you were counting macros, slow progress throughout your life is better than quick progress for one month before you give up because you’re going to die if you eat one more Tupperware of boiled chicken and broccoli. Not to mention more fun.
You can count macros, run to keep fit, lift weights, workout everyday or just three times a week, count macros, count calories, not count anything at all except the hours to your next meal – my point is that any steps that you take to improve your health are right. There is no ‘wrong’ way to be fit and something that works for one person may not work for another and vice versa. Figure out what works for you, learn as much as you can about your body and remember: everything in moderation.
I really hope this helps you as you start to take steps towards your goals. The only person you can compare yourself to is the person you were yesterday. Go and smash it!