Nutrition Basics: Cut Through The Noise And Get Your Dream Body (Part 1)
Do you find nutrition overwhelming? With the massive amount of information and misinformation we are bombarded with every day, I certainly don’t blame you.
I came across a TikTok yesterday that I believe perfectly sums up what’s going through anyone’s mind as they’re trying to figure out how to eat healthier:
"Eat 5 smalls a day and run
But also, eat 3 big meals a day and walk
Cardio burns fat
But cardio also burns muscle and is bad for your joints
Protein is the most important nutrient
But just eat vegetables
Get lots of sleep
But don’t be sedentary
Also, don’t overtrain
Fruit is good for you
It’s also full of sugar and bad for you
Quick burning carbohydrates are vital to fuel your brain
But carbs are the devil that you should avoid at all costs
Never starve yourself, unless you call it intermittent fasting
Don’t forget to get some sun for vitamin D.... and skin cancer."
Does that sound familiar? While it may seem like a joke, these are actual thoughts that used to go through my mind as I consumed article after article, video after video, each one contradicting the last.
I'm fed up with companies that take advantage of this confusion and exploit healthy-sounding buzzwords in their marketing, when in reality, they're full of artificial ingredients and sugar, or are far too caloric.
When I started PROTEINA, my goal was to provide products that offer truly impressive nutrition value, without compromising on taste.
As a result I've found that our products resonate most with people that already have a strong grasp of key nutritional concepts.
As the saying goes "those that know, know".
But understanding proper nutrition shouldn't be such a challenge. In fact, the basics are quite simple!
So how do we filter through all this noise and nuance and find out what information is real, and what information is most important?
To have a bulletproof bullshit-detector, you need a simple framework or lens that you can use to navigate the barrage of daily nutrition "tips" and "facts" thrown our way each day.
And over this new nutrition basics blog series, I plan to give you that framework.
What Makes A Good Framework?
All the information shared here will follow these basic principles:
- Adherence over perfection. I’m sure a perfect diet exists, but even if we knew what it was, no one would follow it. Being too strict is stressful, and too much complexity is exhausting to manage. The best plan is the one you can stick to. I'll focus on simple advice that you can follow most of the time with little effort - not strict rules that can never be broken.
- 80/20 (the Pareto Principle): The majority of the results come from a small amount of instructions. I'll only share the top 20% of information that will give you the best and fastest results, so you don’t need to worry about anything else.
- Proven Methods: Advice must be built on the back of science - proven repeatably by other people. This info is safe and effective, and we won’t waste time on trendy advice that might be proven useless in a couple years.
- Sustainable Results: Some diets will get you to lose weight quickly, only for the weight to return just as fast when you're done. I plan to share guidance that will help you meet your goals, and keep it that way... even if you waiver occasionally.
With this in mind, let's start with the bird's-eye view.
The Pyramid of Nutrition
This diagram has been the most helpful way I've found to organize and understand priority as it relates to nutrition:
Pyramid Of Nutirition (Credit: Eric Helms)
Handling the subjects at the bottom of the pyramid will have the greatest impact, AND will act as the foundation so the strategies higher up are more effective.
Unfortunately, most beginners start their fitness journey in reverse - spending a lot of money buying a bunch of supplements, only to figure out that the pills and powders they’re taking are not yielding their advertised results.
Of course, there are some beneficial supplements out there (and we will go over them), but they might offer an extra 10% of benefits. Supplements should be used exactly as they are named - supplements to an otherwise sound nutrition plan.
You also probably know a friend who obsesses over when they eat their meals - every 2-3 hours, only within an 8 hour window, etc.
These can be good tools to push you that extra mile, but they won’t be effective if you don’t first address the fundamentals.
With this in mind, let’s start at the bottom of the pyramid. The Foundation. Calories.
Calories In vs Calories Out
You cannot overcome the laws of thermodynamics:
If you want to gain weight, you must consume more calories than you expend
If you want to lose weight, you must expend more calories than you consume
Ok, sounds simple. How do you figure out how many calories to eat?
To understand that, we must first calculate our Target Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).
TDEE is made up of 3 parts:
- Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) - this is the amount of calories you would burn even if you did absolutely nothing. The calories your body uses to simply maintain at rest.
- The Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
- Your activity level - the amount of extra calories you burn from movement throughout the day
There are a lot of tools on the internet to help you figure this out. I like this free calculator.
Your TDEE gives you a good idea of how many calories you need to consume to maintain your current weight.
From here, we need to understand what your goals are.
The 4 most common goals people have for their body are:
- "I have excess fat that i’d like to get rid of"
- "I’m 'skinny fat' and would like to transform my weight into muscle"
- "I’m skinny and want to bulk up"
- I want to perform my best (e.g. running, weightlifting)
The good news is, these are all accomplished in very similar ways, just by tweaking a few things.
Losing Weight vs Losing Fat
Many diets will measure their success by how much weight you’ve lost on a scale. In reality, this is a terrible way to measure progress.
Your body weight is composed of much more than fat, including: bones, muscle, water, and organs.
Obviously bones and organs are vital - let's hope those don't change weight! However water, muscle and fat can change quite a bit.
Water can be the most deceiving in terms of its impact on your weight. In a day, you can easily fluctuate 5 pounds based just on how hydrated you are. Professional fighters can lose 20 pounds in a week in water weight leading up to weigh-in.
Carbohydrates also retain 3x more water than protein or fat. It’s quite common for someone to try a low-carb diet for a few weeks, lose a bunch of water weight, only to have it frustratingly return after only a couple days of eating carbs again.
When you try to just lose weight without regard to how, it’s painful and unhealthy.
This is why I recommend ditching the scale in favour of a much more effective measurement that focuses on what matters - body fat percentage.
What is Body Fat Percentage?
Body fat percent is a measurement of body composition - how much of your total body weight is made up of fat.
When most people say they want to lose weight, what they actually want is to lose fat, while maintaining or increasing lean muscle mass.
Let’s take a look at a couple examples:
This woman is 130lbs in both pictures
This man only gained 6lbs on the scale
Judging these people’s progress solely by their scale weight, it looks like they’ve failed miserably. Using a simple eye test, you can see that is obviously a lie. The reason is they’ve dramatically lowered their body fat percentage.
There are commonly accepted ranges for body fat, for men and women:
To get an idea of what range you're in, there are many methods available to measure body fat percentage. But, most of the affordable options (electric scale, calipers, etc) can be quite unreliable.
The easiest test is just looking at yourself in the mirror.
This article does a comprehensive job of showing what a wide range of body fat percentages look like on men and women. Use this to compare where you currently sit, and determine where you’d like to be.
Getting To Your Ideal Body Fat Percentage
There are two ways to decrease your body fat percentage:
- Decrease body fat while maintaining muscle mass (i.e. cut)
- Increase muscle mass while maintaining or decreasing fat (i.e. bulk)
As you can see, achieving your ideal body is more than just cutting weight. Muscle plays a very large part. In fact, pound for pound, muscle weights 25% more than fat!
I hear a lot of complaints from women who are afraid of looking “bulky” by gaining muscle, but that’s simply not the case. Due to lower testosterone levels it takes women a LOT longer to build mass over boys. Women will never accidentally become very muscular without a ton of effort, and likely some steroids.
Another common expression I hear from both genders is “I just want to look toned”. News flash - toned is just a word used to describe some muscle revealed at a low body fat percentage.
Muscle is vital to looking and performing well, and you should try to have as much of as you reasonably can.
Further, muscle offers more benefit than just looking great. The more muscle you have, the higher your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Remember BMR? Is the rate your body naturally burns calories by doing nothing. Every pound of muscle you have burns approximately 20-30 calories per day just by simply existing.
Muscle tissue also regulates your insulin sensitivity—the biological process that determines how well your body absorbs nutrients. If you lose muscle tissue by dieting improperly, the nutrients you eat are less likely to be partitioned to your muscle cells and more likely to be turned into fat cells
Maintaining a healthy amount of muscle will also increase your overall health, and has even been shown to delay ageing.
So, let’s review: muscle is important for everyone, and if you want to look better quickly, you should focus on reducing body fat percentage - not weight.
So just how quickly can we reduce our body fat percentage?
Let’s look at the numbers.
The Calorie Surplus & Deficit Calculation
3500 calories = 1 pound of body weight.
This means eating 500 calories a day above your TDEE will result in gaining a pound of body weight after a week. (500 calories x 7 days a week = 3500).
Similarly, eating 500 calories a day under your maintenance level means losing a pound of weight after a week.
What this pound is composed of depends on what you eat, and your activity
- Following a proper weightlifting program, a man can expect to gain 0.25 - 0.5 pounds of muscle per week (about 1-2lbs per month).
- A woman can expect 0.12 – 0.25 pounds of muscle per week (0.5 - 1 per month)
- Regardless of gender, you can expect to safely lose 1-2 pounds of fat per week (4-8 pounds per month).
To maximize muscle gain and minimize fat gain, you should eat at most 500 more calories than your TDEE per day.
To maximize fat loss, you can safely run a 500-1000 caloric deficit per day, depending on your current daily expenditure (e.g. cutting 1000 calories a day when you already burn 3000 cals/day is much easier than if you only burn 1500 cals/day)
Anything more tends to be quite painful, and will increase your risk of losing muscle as well.
When you lose a lot of weight too quickly, your body starts trying to conserve energy by reducing the number of calories it burns. It also makes you feel hungrier, lazier, and increases your food cravings.
These effects can cause you to stop losing weight and may make you feel so miserable that you abandon your weight loss efforts altogether.
Following the directions above however, you can expect to lose 1-3% body fat in a month.
You Can't Outrun A Bad Diet
“Ok, so if I want to lose fat, i’ll just exercise more and continue eating as normal!”
Not quite. It’s common for most people overestimate the number of calories they burn through exercise and underestimate the number of calories they eat.
In fact, compared to exercise, the vast majority of calories are burnt through every day metabolism (Basal Metabolic Rate), fidgeting (NEAT), and digestion (Thermic Effect of Food), with only a small amount (>10%) being burned through exercise.
Let’s use an example to drive the point home.
A person of average weight will burn roughly 65 cals/km when running (100 calories per mile).
And here is the calorie count on some common foods:
- Apple, medium: 72
- Bagel: 289
- Banana, medium: 105
- Beer (regular, 12 ounces): 153
- Chicken breast (boneless, skinless, roasted, 3 ounces): 142
- Cola (12 ounces): 136
- Ice cream (vanilla, 4 ounces): 145
- Mixed nuts (dry roasted, with peanuts, salted, 1 ounce): 168
- Orange juice (frozen concentrate, made with water, 8 ounces): 112
- Peanut butter (creamy, 2 tablespoons): 180
- Pizza (pepperoni, regular crust, one slice): 298
- Red wine (cabernet sauvignon, 5 ounces): 123
That’s right. To burn off ONE SLICE of pizza, you’d need to run almost 5km.
Have you ever heard the saying “abs are made in the kitchen”? This is exactly why. You can work yourself to the bone, and your results will never show if you’re eating lots of calorie-dense foods every day.
There are of course plenty of other physical benefits to exercise for fat loss, however, the majority of the changes to your appearance will come from watching what you eat.
“Does this mean I need to suffer in starvation for months?”
No! In fact when you eat mostly the right foods in a reasonable caloric deficit can get their body fat to an envy-inducing level with very little discomfort.
The point is, you will need to be conscious about limiting the number of bad foods you’re eating, since they come at a huge, outsized cost.
Consider this also a strong recommendation to become aware of the amount of calories that are in the food you commonly eat.
“But I HATE Counting Calories”
If you’re in the “overweight” section of body fat percentage, you can make significant progress by making a few simple changes, without needing to log calories:
- Don’t drink your calories. Only water, coffee, tea and sparkling waters. Diet sodas are okay once in a while if your cravings are overwhelming
- Avoid white, starchy carbs. Don’t eat bread, pasta, cereal, rice, potatoes, and fried foods with batter
- Eat a minimum 150g of protein per day
However, if you’re looking to get visible abs, measuring and counting your calories is a necessary evil - at least for a few days until you get a grasp of the calories in the foods you commonly eat.
Luckily, technology has made this extremely easy to do. I strongly recommend downloading the free MyFitnessPal app. Most foods are already pre-loaded in the app at various portions so really you only need to spend a minute at each meal logging your food.
It's encouraged you have a cheat day once a week to eat whatever you want. Paradoxically, dramatically spiking caloric intake in this way once per week increases fat loss by ensuring that your metabolic rate (thyroid function, etc.) doesn’t down-regulate from extended caloric restriction.
SUMMARY: Calories In Vs. Calories Out
- If you want to gain weight, eat more calories than you use. If you want to lose weight, you use more calories than you eat
- However, for a great looking, healthy body, your goal should be to decrease body fat percentage, not simply body weight
- You can decrease your body fat percentage by increasing your muscle and minimizing fat gain, or maintaining muscle and decreasing fat
- To do this, calculate how many calories you currently expend daily (TDEE)
- If you’re trying to build muscle - eat 500 more calories per day. If you’re trying to lose body fat - eat 500-1000 calories less per day
- You can’t out-exercise a bad diet. Pay attention to how many calories you’re eating
- Save all your cravings for a cheat day (or a few cheat meals) once a week - go crazy
By this point, you should understand the number of calories you need to consume each day.
Unfortunately, simply eating “X” amount of calories a day will not automatically get you your dream body. Also, simply eating less calories of the wrong types of food will make this journey MUCH harder.
You see, all calories are not created equal.
We will get into this in part 2 of our nutrition basics series!