The other day I had a client come in for a consultation with me, and she started by saying “Well, my diet is pretty good, so that’s fine” so I asked her what she eats and drinks in a normal day. “Coffee first thing… and actually, I only eat breakfast if I have time, which is about twice a week or so… then I have something like a sandwich for lunch… crisps… a chocolate bar… hang on, maybe my diet isn’t great” came the response. This is a conversation I have every single day, there’s so much misinformation about nutrition, but we’re also pretty unaware of the reality of how we eat too. This article is going to give you all the information you need to know about how to fuel your body right for exercise when you start a new program.
First up, food is essential, any ideas you have about starving yourself or surviving off lettuce alone can go out the window right now. There is one rule to weight loss and one rule alone. Burn more calories than you consume. “Calories in/calories out” will always be the most important rule to follow for weight loss. Does this mean you can live off pizza and beer? Technically yes, as long as you’re burning more calories than you’re consuming, but you’ll feel like crap. Here’s what to do instead so that you feel great, look great, and can make the most of your training programme:
- How much food should you be eating? There are two ways to look at this, the scientific way, and the… less scientific way. Either method will set you off on a good start to healthy nutrition and weight loss. The scientific way involves working out how many calories you burn, and tracking everything you eat, drink and supplement (yes, those omega 3 tablets and vitamin D tablets do contain a small number of calories!), and the less-scientific way involves using your hand as a portion guide. Full info on both of these is at the end of this article!
- What kind of food should you be eating? I get plenty of people asking me “what should I eat before I go to the gym?” and my answer is always “it doesn’t really matter…” but what I explain is it doesn’t matter (within reason) what you eat directly before or after training, but rather what you eat over the space of a week. If you’re bringing a banana and a protein shake to each training session, but you’re living off McDonald’s every evening, you need to reassess your lifestyle choices. You’re fooling nobody but yourself.
- OK then, what should I be eating over the course of a week? As we now know, the most important thing here is how many calories you eat/drink per day, BUT regardless of how many calories you’re eating, there are a few things to work on too. Base your diet around real food, you know, food that has actually grown in the ground, or run around a field (sorry, vegetarians), never buy anything that says it’s “low-fat,” “reduced fat,” or “fat free” (because the fat is usually processed out and replaced with sugar which is a BAD idea), and make sure most of what you eat is wholegrain, a lean protein (meat, chicken, etc), a vegetable, or just a real, unprocessed food. Don’t even think about going near juices-instead-of-food or any kind of “meal-replacement” fad. Fads are bad. Fact.
- What about falling off the wagon? OK, how about this, there is no wagon. It’s highly unlikely that any of us will stick to a 100% nutritionally-balanced, healthy diet all of the time. Yes, the old “it’s a lifestyle, not a quick fix” line is true, but you have to make your lifestyle enjoyable. The way to do this is to plan. If you’re planning to eat out, planning a “cheat meal” or planning a night out on the booze, just make sure you’ve cut down a little bit throughout the week and then go enjoy your evening! If you cut down by an extra 100 calories per day, you’re allowing an extra 700 calories to play with at some point in the week. Just be sensible about it and play the long game over the course of your week. It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to spend the next 3 months living off chicken, broccoli and wholegrain rice for every meal, so make sure you’ve planned to have a life too…
Ok, so those are the basics, and you really have everything you need to know about the basics of nutrition. Let’s take a look at those methods of figuring out how much to eat.
The Scientific Method – Counting Calories
If you’re more logically-minded than creative, this method is probably for you. Counting macros (referring to macro-nutrients – which are carbohydrates, protein, and fat – and technically alcohol is the fourth macro-nutrient) is a scientifically accurate way of working out exactly how much of each macronutrient your body needs, weighing everything you eat, and tracking those numbers over time to create a calorie deficit (for fat loss; you’ll want to be in a calorie surplus for muscle growth).
- I have used IIFYM.com’s macro calculator to figure out what my macros are, but just in case you’re interested, here’s the long way to find out what your macros are and how to track them:
- Work out your BMR (basal metabolic rate = how many calories you burn in a day at rest). This figure will be different for everybody and you’ll need to know your height and weight.
- Work out your daily calorie needs using your BMR and information on your activity levels. The Harris Benedict Equation will tell you how to do this.
- Given that 1 gram of protein = 4 calories, 1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 calories and 1 gram of fat = 9 calories, you need to work out how many grams of each you should be eating per day. Start with protein, as you should be eating 1-2 grams of protein per pound that you weigh per day to maintain your muscle mass.
- Use trial and error to figure out your carbohydrate and fat requirements. Most experts will recommend beginning with a 40/40/20 split, which means 40% of your calories should come from protein, 40% from carbohydrates, and 20% from fat.
- Once you have figures on how many grams of each macro-nutrient you need per day, you can either use a plain old pen and paper, or a free app like myfitnesspal to track everything you eat or drink. Everything. Even if you have black coffee with 5ml of milk, track it.
- It takes a calorie deficit of approximately 3,500 to lose one pound of fat, and technically if you follow this plan to the letter, you should have full control over your weight loss.
The Less Scientific Method – The Hand Portion Guide
How can you measure food without carrying a set of scales everywhere? Easy, use something you do carry everywhere – your hand! This WORKS, but you have, to be honest with yourself. If you’re going to try this method of portion control, I recommend eating 4 meals per day. Add an extra meal between lunch and dinner, particularly if you usually eat dinner late in the evening.
Each of your four meals should follow the same guidelines for protein, carbohydrates, fats and veg, so you’ll quickly be able to learn how to judge your portion sizes. This guide is suitable for women aiming for fat loss if you’re a man aiming for fat loss, double the portions.
- Protein – use a palm-sized portion of chicken, turkey, steak, pork, tofu, or whatever your protein of choice is.
- Carbohydrates – use a cupped handful of rice, pasta, potatoes, butternut squash, quinoa etc.
- Fats – use a thumb-sized portion of (real) butter, lard, oil, nuts, seeds, avocado, nut butter, etc.
- Vegetables – use a fist-sized portion of fruit or veg, use two fists if it’s a leafy green veg like spinach or kale.
And that’s it? Yep. Eat whatever you like, as long as it’s a real food (not processed/junk food), and you’ve used the guidelines above.
Hopefully, this has been useful to you, if you have any questions feel free to get in touch on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/AMGFitnessDublin or Instagram https://www.instagram.com/amg_fitnessdublin