Nutrition Basics: Cut Through The Noise And Get Your Dream Body (Part 2)
(In case you missed it, you can find part 1 here)
Losing weight is, by far, the most popular fitness-related goal in the world. We live in a world where most people carry more body fat than they want or need. This comes down to fundamental issues with how our biology is interacting with the modern-day world, and further confused by the overwhelming amount of conflicting advice we’re fed every day.
In our last article, we covered the importance of calculating calories and energy balance. Simply put: the energy balance equation states that Calories In - Calories Out = Net Calories. If your Net Calories are Positive (+) then you will gain weight over time. If your Net Calories are Negative (-) you will lose weight over time.
But as simple as it the equation sounds, the reality is that we are not simple beings. We are complex animals with highly evolved brains with emotions that interact with our stress and environment.
There are many factors that impact your weight and energy balance. So before you start beating yourself up about not being able to move the scale, know that you are fighting a battle that has the odds stacked against you.
The best way to level these odds is to eat real food with the right macronutrient balance. While counting calories is the most important rule to gain or lose weight, the quality of calories we eat impacts the amount of effort we need to exert to achieve this balance.
The best foods are lower calorie, nutrient dense, filling, AND make you feel great.
But what exactly are “real” foods, and how much do we need? To begin, we must understand macronutrients.
All foods are composed of 3 major macronutrients: Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fat
All macronutrients are necessary for survival, and play separate vital roles in our bodies.
Benefit for Weight-Loss
Calories per gram
Meat, poultry, dairy, fish
Starchy vegetables, grains, wheat
Oils, nuts, seeds, avocados,
Let’s cover what you need to know about each one.
For the purposes of looking great, protein is your best friend.
If you’re trying to build muscle, protein will help you gain it. If you’re trying to cut fat, eating adequate protein will maintain your muscle as you burn it. Heck, you can even build muscle as you lose fat with sufficient protein.
And protein has other important qualities, too!
First and foremost, its effect on satiety is far superior to both carbs and fat. In other words, eating foods high in protein will make you feel the most full, the fastest.
Think about it - how many steaks or protein shakes could you consume before you’re full? Compare that to a bag of potato chips or a can of soda. You could probably eat a full family size bag, chug a 2L bottle, and still easily keep going.
Protein ensures good caloric compliance, since you won’t be as hungry and risk overeating.
Secondly, the TEF (Thermic Effect of Food) is much higher with protein compared to carbs or fat. Have you felt your body temperature sky-rocket after a large holiday meal? This is TEF in action. TEF simply refers to the energy burned in the digestion of food. So, a higher TEF means fewer calories end up absorbed by your body.
For every calorie of protein you consume, 20-35% of it will be burned due to TEF. Compare that to 5-10% for carbs, and 0-5% for fats.
The TEF of protein is so significant that a researcher named Livesey proposed that a gram of protein should actually be counted as 3.2 kcal and not 4 kcal as the current guidelines state.
Importantly to you, the more protein you eat as a % of your total diet, the less net calories you’ll actually consume.
What a miracle.
What Are The Best Sources Of Protein?
Proteins are made of up of smaller molecules called amino acids. There are a lot of them (20 to be exact), and they all play important roles in our body. However, only 9 of these amino acids are categorized as essential.
An essential amino acid is one that the body cannot create on its own, so it’s necessary to provide them through the food we eat.
To maximize your health and well-being, you want to choose proteins that have the most complete profile of essential amino acids.
Further, if you’re looking to lose weight, you should prefer foods that give you the most protein per calorie, so you don’t need to eat a large amount in order to hit your daily requirements. For example, a small 30g slice of PROTEINA Cheese has 10g of protein at 60 calories. To get the same amount of protein from white bread, you’d need to eat 4 slices, or 300 calories worth.
Foods that are both complete AND have a high-protein to calorie ratio are almost exclusively animal-based products.
If you’re on a plant-based diet, it’s possible to hit these requirements, however significantly harder. This is for a couple reasons:
- There are only a few plant-based sources of protein that have all essential amino acids, and they’re not very popular (e.g. Quinoa, buckwheat, spirulina, hemp). In most cases, you’ll need to mix various plant-based sources to hit all essential amino acids.
- Most plant-based sources of proteins also tend to be high in calories, making it challenging to hit your protein requirements while also eating at a caloric deficit.
Animal-based foods offer a higher selection of lean and complete proteins
Carbs have gotten a bad rap lately, but don’t be mistaken - they are still absolutely essential. Carbs are the most readily available source of energy to go about your day, especially thinking and exercising.
I think a lot of the paranoia around carbs is driven by a few factors:
- Most of the bad foods we eat are carb-heavy
- Sugar, a substance more addictive than cocaine, is the simplest and most ubiquitous form of carbohydrates
- Carbs low in fibre are easy to overdo
- Excessive calories in the form of carbs are easily stored into fat
However if you know what to eat (and what to avoid), carbs are your friend.
When looking for what carbs to eat, it’s important to focus on those that are
- High in fibre and
- Low in the glycemic index
Fibre is important for several reasons:
- Helps your digestive system
- Feeds your healthy gut bacteria
- Lowers bad cholesterol
- Reduces risk of heart disease
And, key for our purposes:
- Makes you feel more full
- Gives you sustained energy for a longer period of time
- Will prevent your body from using muscle as fuel during long or intense workouts
The Glycemic Index (GI)
As proteins are composed of amino acids, carbohydrates are composed of simple sugar molecules. When we consume carbohydrates, our bodies break them down into the simplest sugar, glucose, which enters our bloodstream, giving us energy.
When excess sugar enters our bloodstream, our bodies react by releasing insulin, which tells our cells to pull it from the blood by absorbing more sugar. This is the process that gives the sensation of “crashing” and makes us crave more sugar to bring our energy back up. This cycle causes us to overeat, and generally feel terrible.
The glycemic index (GI) rates a food's impact on your blood sugar levels. When a carb is low on the GI, it means it will keep your blood sugar more balanced, and give you sustained energy for a longer period of time. Conversely, foods high on the GI will spike blood sugar levels quickly.
Choosing carbs lower on the glycemic index makes us feel more full and energized longer, and dramatically lowers the risk of overeating. Luckily, carbs higher in fibre are lower on the GI index, so they tend to go hand-in-hand.
Below are some example foods and their respective GI rating.
To look up other foods, visit https://www.glycemicindex.com/
Let’s get this out of the way first. Dietary fats are NOT the same thing as body fat. Your body will turn any excess calories - be they protein, carbs or fat - into body fat if eaten in excess (above what’s needed to sustain your TDEE).
Fats are, again, essential for life. Some benefits include:
- Support the protective layer for every cell in our body
- Moves vitamins (A, D, E, and K) throughout the body
- Reduce risk of diabetes
- Body temperature regulation
And, importantly for our purposes:
- Helps release hormones that give you a “full” feeling
- When consumed with carbs, it slows digestion so your blood sugar doesn’t spike as fast (reduces GI)
- Necessary for development of important muscle-supporting hormones, like testosterone
So what are the best sources of dietary fat?
There are 3 common types of fats:
- Trans-fats (Avoid Altogether)
- Manufactured to increase shelf life of a food product, which is why many packaged foods can be high in trans fats. However, because it changes the chemical structure of fat, trans fats have been linked to heart disease and elevated levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. They also support belly fat more than other fats.
- Saturated fats (Eat In Moderation)
- Primarily come from dairy and meat. These have been vilified for a long time for links with cholesterol, however the jury is still out on this.
- Preferable sources: Coconut oil, grass-fed meat, cheese and butter.
- Avoid: Avoid processed meats like Bacon, hot dogs, lunch meats
- Unsaturated fats (Prefered Source)
- The best kind of fats. Protect the heart, support weight loss, among other benefits
- Preferable sources: Fish oil (Omega 3 pills), avocados, nuts & seeds, olive oil
A word of caution: Where carbs and protein are only 4 calories per gram, fats are 9. This makes fatty foods very calorie dense, and easy to overdo. Take special care in noticing the amount of high-fat foods you are eating - your calorie count can easily be thrown off.
How Much of Each Macronutrients Should I Eat?
Since we established protein is the most important for us, let’s start with that.
Studies show no additional benefit in going higher than 1g protein/lb of body weight for muscle gain. And, given the additional benefits we discussed, this is a good number to start with - no matter your goals.
So what about carbohydrates and fats?
In truth, there are benefits to both of these, and choosing the right balance is different based on your current situation and goals.
During intense workouts for example, more carbohydrates will give you the energy you need to perform.
On the other hand, if you’re starting from a position of high body fat, reducing carbs will be the fastest way to drop that fat.
I would recommend starting with an even split, and tweaking it to find what works best for you.
As an example, let’s say I’m 200lbs, and my TDEE is 2,500.
I should aim for:
- 200g of protein x 4 calories per gram = 800 calories protein
- 1,700 calories remaining (2,500 calories - 800 calories from protein)
- 850 calories carbohydrates ÷ 4 calories per gram = 213 grams
- 850 calories fat ÷ 9 calories per gram = 95 grams fat
So, my total daily macronutrient split is 200g protein, 213g carbohydrates, 95g of fat.
Or 32% protein / 34% carbohydrates / 34% fat
From here, I can tweak to 30/50/20, or 30/20/50, if that makes me happiest.
People are different - different lifestyles, food preferences, and genetics. Test out what works for you and stick to it!
The most important thing is that you’re hitting your protein and calorie targets.
I’m Overwhelmed... How Do I Start? Try 5 Ingredient Meals
This is a way to ensure you are limiting your processed foods. Every meal you eat can have no more than 5 ingredients. This removes about every single processed and packaged food off your list. The ingredient list on a bag of chips is often 8 ingredients long. Instead build your meals as follows.
Ingredient 1 - Protein (ex. tofu, chicken, steak, eggs)
Ingredient 2 - Vegetable (ex. broccoli, asparagus, bell peppers)
Ingredient 3 - Fruit (ex. blueberries, strawberries, apple)
Ingredient 4 - Starch (ex. quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes, oatmeal)
Ingredient 5 - Fat (ex. olive oil, avocado, grass fed butter)
It can be hard to visualize what the serving sizes of these macronutrients might look like on a plate. Here’s an outline of what a typical plate would look like using these guidelines:
Source: Precision Nutrition
“What about Keto? My friend did that and lost 30lbs in a month!”
For those who don’t know - the ketogenic diet is a diet that changes the main energy source your body relies on from glucose (carbohydrates) to ketones (fat).
To do this, one must dramatically reduce their carbohydrate intake to 20-50g per day (note: a banana has 27g), and replace it with fats.
There are a lot of promising aspects to ketogenic diet, especially for those who are pre-diabetic, morbidly obese, or epileptic.
There are also plenty of success stories of people on the ketogenic who rapidly lost weight on the ketogenic and boast better mental clarity, higher energy, and low hunger.
But when stacking the keto diet up against the original principles from part 1, there’s some reasons to be cautious:
- Elimination of foods - this is an extreme diet that requires you to virtually remove carbohydrates from your life. Eating over a small threshold of carbs will take you out of ketosis. Are you willing to say goodbye to some of your favourite foods for the rest of your life?
- Keto flu - to initially get yourself into ketosis, you have to train your body to begin using fats as energy, instead of carbs. This is a notably painful process people have labelled the “keto flu”, where you can feel miserable for weeks as your body adjusts. Are you willing to sacrifice weeks feeling off, and re-doing the process each time you eat too many carbs?
- Water loss - remember earlier when we discussed that carbohydrates hold 3x as much water as protein or fat? Many people when they start the keto diet (or any low-carb diet) will see extreme results very quickly (e.g. 10lbs in a week). After this initial episode of dehydration however, many participants will see progress slow dramatically and become discouraged
- Complexity - to do keto correctly, you need to be meticulous in all your macronutrient ratios. Are you willing to put in the time and effort?
- Fact is, despite some exciting initial research, we simply don’t know the long-term effects of being in ketosis. And with effective methods existing that don’t require such dramatic physiological changes, do you want to risk it?
- Protein is the most important macronutrient for getting the body you want. Hit 1g per pound of bodyweight a day
- Choose the most complete proteins with the lowest total calories, like: meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and dairy. If you’re on a plant-based, try a mix of: beans, lentils, tofu, oatmeal, and quinoa
- Eat carbs that are high in fibre and low on the glycemic index
- Aim to get most of your fat from unsaturated sources like: olive oil, avocados, and nuts. Avoid trans-fats
- Balance your plate each meal with a mix of protein, starchy carbs, vegetables, and fats.
That’s it For Part 2!
Stay tuned for part 3 where we dig into macronutrients.