Confused about what to eat to lose fat, gain muscle, and get shredded?
There is so much conflicting information about nutrition out there, it’s hard to sort out the fact from the fiction. Allow me to simplify things for you so you can stop wasting time thinking about food, and start eating right for you goals. We’ll cover the basics from calories to macro’s and even get into advanced strategies like nutrient timing and pre- and post-workout nutrition.
The single most important factor in body composition (how you look) is energy balance.
Food energy is measured in calories. In order to lose weight, you must be in a caloric deficit; in order to gain muscle, you must be in a caloric surplus. I don’t care what anyone tells you about butter in your coffee (which is delicious)… it’s a calorie bomb and won’t help you lose weight, no matter how pseudo-science-y an explanation they give you.
How many calories you need to eat each day depends on a number of factors, including: your gender, age, height and weight, and your activity level. For simplicity, you can use the calorie range recommendations below, based upon your goals.
- Weight (muscle) gain: bodyweight x16-18 = calories per day
- Weight maintenance: bodyweight x14-15 = calories per day
- Weight loss: bodyweight x10-12 = calories per day
For example, if you are a 150-pound person looking to lose weight while working out three times each week, you would select the “weight loss” goal under moderately active and multiply:
150# x12 = 1800 calories and 150# x14 = 2100 calories
Eating between 1800-2100 cal/day, you should expect sustainable weight loss.
The second most important factor in body composition is what you are eating. This is where macronutrients come into play. If you aren’t familiar with that term, there are three major macros: carbohydrates, protein, and fat (alcohol is technically the fourth kind). There are also micronutrients, which are vitamins and minerals. Those matter, too, but we’re going to focus on the big (macro) picture.
When it comes to macros, you need all three for different reasons.
Carbohydrates help fuel your body. They are the quickest energy source of the three and are essential to athletic performance. Protein contains amino acids, which are the building blocks of your cells, and are necessary for muscle recovery and growth. Both carbohydrates and protein contain four calories per gram (4 cal/g).
Fat, on the other hand, is often demonized by dieters because it contains 9 cal/g and is therefore more energy dense. This doesn’t mean you should avoid fat. It just means that you should probably eat a little less of it than protein and carbs because it is very energy dense. Fat is essential for vitamin absorption, hormone production, healthy cellular function, and making food taste awesome.
So with all of that background info out of the way…
How Can You Eat The Foods You Love And Get The Body You Deserve?
First, figure out how many calories you should be eating each day, using the table above. Our 150# example person looking to lose weight needs to eat 1800-2100 calories each day.
Then, determine how many macros you need to fill your calorie goal.
General macronutrient recommendations:
Aim for 1g of protein per pound of your current bodyweight, an equal amount of carbs, and the remainder from fat. This moderate approach usually comes out to 40% protein, 40% carbs, and 20% fat (sometimes written as 40/40/20).
I recommend tracking what you eat with an app like “Lose It!” or “My Fitness Pal” until you get an idea for how much food you’re eating. Both are user friendly and have a good database so it’s not hard to find foods, even if you’re dining out. If that’s too much of a hassle, at the very least write down what you eat on paper or on your phone notes so that you can keep track. This won’t calculate calories for you, but it’s a good exercise to make you aware of your daily food intake.
Try those macros for two weeks and check the scale. If you’re losing weight, it’s working. Keep those numbers until your next weigh in (every other week is best). When the scale stops moving, you may need to subtract 100-200 cal/day until you get to the bottom of your calorie range. It’s normal to see progress when you first start counting your calories/macros, and then you’ll hit a plateau as your body adjusts. Since you should now weigh less, your calorie range for weight loss will also be lower. Just adjust accordingly. As long as you see progress, stay within that range. When progress stalls, gradually lower your calorie intake.
The other side of the energy balance equation is “calories out,” or exercise. You can increase your daily calorie deficit by exercising more frequently or more intensely. I recommend starting out with three to five 30-minute sessions each week if you’re new to exercising. If you’ve already established a training routine, shoot for five hours each week (however you break that up). When you’re at five hours and still not losing weight, increase your workouts to 5-7 hours each week. That should break the plateau.
Don’t try to both lower your calories and increase your training volume at the same time, though. Choose one method at a time and re-evaluate after two weeks. If you’re still in a plateau, try the other strategy for the next two weeks. Alternate back and forth between calorie reduction and increasing exercise until you break the plateau.
The Answers To Your Biggest Nutrition Questions
People often wonder, what’s best to eat before and after workouts? I’m going to share that information with you…. Just keep in mind that the most important factor in weight loss/gain is still calorie balance. What you eat and when you eat it doesn’t matter if you’re consuming too many/few calories for your goals.
Pre- and post-workout eating is an individual thing. Some people can’t eat then workout because they’ll feel nauseous. Others feel light-headed without something in their system. After a workout, you may feel like you could eat all the food in your fridge, or maybe the thought of eating at that point doesn’t sit well with you.
Generally speaking, eating a small snack an hour or two before your workout, and then a reasonable meal an hour or two afterward, works great for most people. Focus on getting lean protein at each of these meals, and also starchy carbs (like fruit, potatoes, oats, or rice). Round out the meal with all the colorful veggies you can eat to make sure you’re getting a ton of vitamins and minerals for recovery.
If you’re in a hurry before your workout, there are plenty of on-the-go options. You could mix up a protein shake in a shaker cup as either a pre- or post-workout. I prefer whey since it’s the best absorbed, but if you are lactose-intolerant or vegan, there are some good vegetable-based proteins. In that case, favor hemp, rice, or pea protein over soy, which isn’t absorbed well by your body). You don’t need a protein supplement if you’re working out, but they are helpful if you’re too bust to eat before or after you workout.
Other great pre-workout snacks include: apples or bananas, plain yogurt with berries, granola bars and protein bars (just look for bars with as few ingredients as possible, like Larabar, GoMacro, Exo, or RxBar).
Post-workout you can have the same kinds of shakes and bars in a pinch. Preferably, you’re able to eat a meal containing protein, starch, and vegetables. Some meal ideas include:
- chicken, rice and stir fry veggies
- lean steak, potato, and broccoli
- chili with lean beef, black beans, onions and peppers
- eggs scrambled with veggies and a piece of toast
- oatmeal with a dollop of plain yogurt and blueberries
Just mix and match your favorite protein source with rice, beans, potatoes, oats, fruits and vegetables.
Another important nutrition consideration around exercise is hydration. Nine times out of ten, it’s best to drink plain water while exercising. If, however, your training session is particularly long, or you’re exercising outdoors in the heat, it will be important to consume a beverage containing electrolytes. Powerade and Gatorade are two of the most popular choices, but they have a high sugar content along with their electrolytes. I usually recommend coconut water or the dissolvable electrolyte tabs you drop into a water bottle (like Nu’un tablets).
If you’re wondering what to drink when you’re not exercising, then the answer ten times out of ten is: plain water or sparkling water! It stands to reason that when you’re limiting your calorie intake, you shouldn’t waste your daily calories on beverages. Black coffee and plain hot or iced tea are great options for you caffeine addicts out there. If you can’t stand black coffee, go with a splash of creamer and try to pass on the sugar as much as you can. If you’re used to drinking mostly cream and sugar in your coffee, slowly cut back each day until you find a balance you can still tolerate drinking, but at a lower calorie level.
That said, you should try to avoid calorie-containing beverages, even if they’re marketed as “healthy” for you. A big example is fruit juice. Is it healthy or not? While it comes from fruit, which is perfectly healthy, fruit juice isn’t the best choice. A piece of fruit comes packaged with fiber and must be chewed when you eat it, thus slowing down your consumption and digestion of the piece of fruit. No such luck with fruit juice, which is basically straight sugar water. Again, if it has calories, best to not drink it.
This leads to perhaps the biggest beverage-related question I get asked on a daily basis…
Can You Drink Alcohol And Still Get Lean?
(What would an article about nutrition and fat loss be without a frank discussion of alcohol.)
The answer is yes! But there are some important things to consider.
First, alcohol is basically a fourth macronutrient. Alcohol is like fat in that it is calorically dense, containing 7 cal/g of alcohol. And unfortunately, it doesn’t contain much nutritional value, so you won’t feel “full” from drinking it. That can lead to overconsumption (we’ve all been there, and it’s a recipe for a hangover).
I’m not here to judge your alcoholic beverage of choice, but some alcohol is better than others when you’re trying to lose body fat and/or build muscle. Clear spirits like vodka and gin take the top of the list, followed by other “pure” alcohol like whiskey and tequila. Further down the list comes wine, preferably dry wines, which are less sugary. And finally, beer usually falls towards the bottom of the list of diet-friendly alcohol because of its relatively low alcohol content paired with high calories.
That said, if you account for your alcohol consumption in your daily calorie/macro intake, a couple of drinks won’t hurt your physique. The trick is to be prepared. Eat a healthy meal before going out so you’re not tempted to order wings, keep protein and veggie intake high, stay hydrated, avoid fried food, and don’t give in to the munchies when you get home. No matter where your calories come from (fat, carbs, protein, or alcohol) you WILL gain weight if you go over your daily calorie allotment.
For more info on drinking and dieting, check out The Weekend Survival Guide.
There are all kinds of advanced nutrition strategies that can help weight loss, muscle gain, and athletic performance. But if you stick to the basics and keep it simple, you’ll get 99% of the way to your goals. The honest answer to most nutrition questions is, “it depends.” Try it, and see if it works for you.
Just remember, the most important aspect of body composition is eating the right amount of calories. After that, the types of foods you eat start to matter. And then comes meal timing and other variables. Don’t overcomplicate your nutrition. Figure out how much you need to eat for your body, and hit those targets before you worry about making other changes.