Nutrition: Fueling For Fitness
How nutrition habits affect exercise performance and research based dietary strategies to help maximize muscle growth, efficiently lose fat, and get the most out of your workouts.
Updated July 2019
A really effective dietary strategy is one that’s personalized and periodized to target certain goals, incorporates all three macronutrients at different intake quantities and timings, and built around the needs of the individual who’s following it. Like exercise, dialing in the details of a diet takes experimentation – play with different variables to find what works best for you.
While more complicated factors are in play, weight loss and weight gain rely on a simple balance between energy intake (EI) and total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) – calories in vs calories out. If intake exceeds expenditure we gain weight, if expenditure exceeds intake we lose weight, and weight is maintained if these two are balanced. This guide focuses primarily on the EI side of the equation and how all three macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fats) affect exercise performance and weight gain/loss goals.
Carbohydrates (4 kcal/g) are the body’s main source of fuel, provide energy for brain function, allow us to perform our best during high intensity exercise, help regulate hormone levels, are essential for optimum recovery, and are critical for many other bodily functions. To get the most out of our resistance training and anaerobic conditioning, we need to be utilizing dietary carbohydrates as a primary fuel source. I recommend that 20-45% of your total daily energy intake comes from carbohydrates.
Protein (4 kcal/g) is the key ingredient in muscle growth (muscle protein synthesis) and aids in neurotransmitter production, DNA replication, blood cell formation, tissue repair/maintenance, and many other bodily processes. To build muscle, recover from demanding workouts, and sustain a multitude of essential bodily functions, we need this nitrogen rich macronutrient. I recommend that 25-40% of your total daily energy intake comes from protein.
Fat is the most energy dense macronutrient at 9 calories per gram and is the body’s primary fuel source for low to moderate intensity activities. Fats can help with cognitive function/development/plasticity, hormone production, lipid soluble nutrient transport, energy availability, and many other vital bodily functions – fats are important for overall health and when manipulated correctly, they can be an incredibly helpful fuel source for general fitness success. Fats can be an excellent fuel for endurance based activities. Regardless of your fitness goals, you need fats in your diet. I recommend that 20-50% of your total daily energy intake comes from fat.
Regarding basic eating habits, I recommend that most people aim for 4 meals per day, each separated by 4 hours, resulting in 12 hours of feeding and 12 hours of fasting daily. But before restructuring your diet, it’s important that you first discover your intake requirements for energy balance – this is critical. Start by tracking your normal eating habits with an app like MyFitnessPal for at least one week. Take note of your daily caloric total as well as fat, protein, and carbohydrate intake quantities. Over the next week or two, work to shift your macronutrient splits to fit within my suggested intake ranges for each. If you have no idea what to aim for, start with roughly a 30% protein, 35% fat, and 35% carbohydrate distribution, both daily and for each meal.
My fat loss and muscle building diets are built upon the 4×4 feeding frequency above, but with a few modifications. Fat loss relies heavily on a strategic pattern of caloric restriction, carbohydrate refeed days, and brief ketogenic periods combined with resistance training and cardiovascular exercise, not diet alone. Fat loss diets should be high in protein to combat muscle breakdown and help manage appetite. Muscle growth focuses primarily on an increase in intake (a 10-20% caloric surplus of mainly protein and carbohydrates) and frequency of meals (5-6 high protein meals per day every 3-3.5 hours). The sections below contain all of the helpful details for each goal.
Alcohol can severely impact exercise performance if consumed excessively, however, moderate/responsible drinking habits can coexist peacefully with fitness. To completely avoid all of the negative side effects associated with alcohol and maximize exercise performance, don’t drink. But if abstaining from alcohol is not an option, be a responsible adult, drink in moderation, stay hydrated, and avoid getting drunk.
If you have the opportunity, work with a great registered dietitian. I’d love to help you dial in your diet, but to get the absolute best nutrition advice, you need an RD.
There’s so much more info in this guide than what’s contained in this summary. It would be most helpful if you read it all.
Table of Contents
- Hunger Gains – Intro
- My Educational Limitations & RDs
- Energy Intake, Expenditure, & Balance
- Carbohydrates – Overview
- Protein – Overview
- Fats – Overview
- Meal Timing, Macronutrient Intake Quantities, & Food Sources
- Maximizing Muscle Growth
- Periodized Nutrition for Fat Loss
- Alcohol & Exercise
- Registered Dietitians & Fitness
- Wrapping It Up
If you were to pick up a skill based hobby at the age of 5 and practice it multiple times a day, every single day for the rest of your life, you’d get pretty good at it. You’d eventually learn all of the little tricks and secrets that take years to discover and even longer to master. Practice makes perfect, and you’d have no shortage of that. Decades of experience and diligence would grant you expert level knowledge and the ability to easily nerd out for hours discussing every small detail of your craft and why you love it so much.
Skill based hobbies have very evident barriers to entry that require some level of learning to enter, but once you understand the basics, your competency and skill progression are largely dependent on how much success matters to you. To be ‘good’ at anything, you have to be hungry to learn and improve.
Our dietary habits are quite a bit different. We eat every day, yet most of us have very little to no understanding of our nutritional needs. So many metabolic processes occur as background/autonomic bodily functions that we tend to rely primarily on taste and satiation instead of nutrient value for food choice. Fitness performance and recovery require more than just flavor, and to be our best, we need to learn how to eat well. Luckily, the ‘skill’ of eating is one that we can practice every day and all excel at.
Without a solid grasp on the very basics of nutrition, meal composition, and intake timing, every aspect of our exercise progress can be negatively impacted.
This guide covers some very basic macronutrient information, includes a simple dietary strategy for general exercise success, discusses how to maximize muscle growth through diet, provides a detailed and sustainable fat loss diet, and is written to help anyone gain a better understanding of the relationship between food and fitness.
There’s a lot to cover. Let’s dig in.
My Educational Limitations & RDs
As a personal trainer, I believe that my primary educational/instructional focus should be placed on program development and the mechanics of exercise – general fitness stuff. Because I prioritize exercise over nutrition, my personal dietary knowledge base is limited compared to more qualified nutrition professionals. I know more about a performance based diet than some, but much less than others. The sciences of exercise and nutrition are both so fascinating, complex, and ever evolving that any attempt to master both would be a bit ridiculous.
All of this is to say that while I believe the content of this guide will be informative and I can be a helpful resource for many, I’m far from a nutrition expert.
To get the most out of your diet and reach your performance potential, I highly recommend that you work with a registered dietitian (RD). Great registered dietitians focus their services on the interaction between food and health and will help you build a rock solid nutrition plan that’s custom built for your individual goals, genetics, and lifestyle. A great RD is an invaluable addition to your fitness education.
We’ll dive a little deeper into some of the really neat services RDs offer and how they can drastically impact your training performance later in this guide.
Alright. Let’s get the food discussion started by talking about the very basics of fuel utilization – energy balance, expenditure, and intake.
Energy Intake, Expenditure, & Balance
Changes in body composition and improvements to exercise performance rely on a much more complex system of metabolism and energy usage than the overly simplistic ‘calories in vs calories out’ phrase often heard during weight loss conversations. The foods we eat and their macronutrient (carbohydrates, fats, & proteins) contents shape our bodies in specific ways, directly contribute to our fitness capabilities, and can have very noticeable effects on our overall health/wellness. To achieve our fitness/aesthetic goals, we need to eat the right foods in the correct quantities at the best times. But before we explore all of the fun details of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, it’s important that we take a step back from food and talk about the very, very basics of weight loss, gain, and maintenance… calories in vs calories out.
The graphic below illustrates energy balance (EB). EB occurs when our caloric intake is equal to our daily energy expenditure – EB results in weight maintenance. This symmetrical energy distribution is our reference point for all changes in body weight and, as expected, modifications to this equilibrium produce corresponding changes in body mass. For example, if our daily energy expenditure exceeds intake (burn more than we eat), weight loss occurs. On the other side of the scale, if you eat more than you burn, you’ll gain weight.
On the surface, the concept of energy balance is pretty straightforward and one that most people are probably quite familiar with. However, if you’re interested in gaining muscle mass and/or losing body fat, it’s important to have a deeper understanding of the underlying factors that contribute to alterations in body composition. To have a more detailed conversation about weight loss and gain in later sections of this guide, we need to look a little closer at energy expenditure.
Our bodies are sophisticated, energy hungry, high performance, organic machines that require a constant supply of fuel to stay operational all day, every day. Regardless of the fuel source (food vs stored body mass) used, the total amount of energy burned per day is our total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) and is measured in calories. A calorie (Calorie or kcal) is a unit of energy used to measure the thermogenic potential of food – how much energy food provides per gram. There’s not a special ‘calorie’ molecule in our foods, it’s just a metric we use to measure energy density and energy expenditure.
Metabolic testing is the only way to accurately determine your TDEE, but it can be estimated with some simple metrics. Here’s an easy to use TDEE calculator.
Differences in height, weight, eating habits, exercise routines, and other individual metabolic factors result in a wide range of TDEEs from person to person – an elite cyclist will have a much higher TDEE than someone who is sedentary all day. Despite these differences in expenditure, we generally all burn calories due to the same basic reasons. There are quite a few complex metabolic processes that eat up energy depending on the physical demands/intensity of any given situation, but our total daily fuel consumption can be broken down into three basic categories of expenditure – basal metabolic rate, thermic effect of activity, and the thermic effect of feeding.
The first component of TDEE is our basal metabolic rate (BMR). BMR is a measurement of the minimum amount of energy used to ‘power’ essential bodily functions when we’re at rest. Basal metabolic rates vary from person to person due to physiological differences, but this baseline idle fuel consumption accounts for the majority (60-80%) of daily energy burned by most people. Brain activity, food digestion/metabolism, body heat homeostasis, respiration, blood circulation, and many other internal autonomic processes all require fuel to operate. BMR is a major factor to consider when focused on weight loss or gain and can be manipulated to our advantage – we’ll talk more about this later.
The second contributing leg of TDEE is the thermic effect of activity (TEA). As the name implies, TEA is a measurement of all energy expended during movement. Walking the dog, chopping up vegetables for dinner, running, lifting weights, fidgeting your leg while sitting at work, etc – if you’re moving in some way, you’re using energy to fuel activity. For most fitness enthusiasts, the bulk of TEA will be from exercise.
BMR and TEA are largely dependent on body size, weight, and composition. A 6’5” 275lb guy will have a higher BMR than a 5’2” 120lb girl – common sense, right? Taller/heavier people burn more calories per minute than their smaller/lighter peers, but neither BMR or TEA are permanent. This means that as we gain or lose weight, our BMR and TEA will change and our intake will need to be modified accordingly.
Finally, the last part of TDEE is the thermic effect of feeding (TEF). The thermic effect of feeding is a measurement of the energy ‘cost’ needed to digest different macronutrients. For most people, TEF is roughly equal to 10% of their total daily energy expenditure. As discussed earlier with BMR, baseline metabolic processes all require some energy to operate. When we consume foods, they need to be broken down into their smaller subcomponents (fats into free fatty acids, carbohydrates into glucose, and proteins into amino acids) that can then be used by the body. These catabolic (break down of a substance) reactions require different amounts of energy depending on the macronutrient substance that’s being metabolized.
The following percentages represent the estimated digestive energy requirements of each macronutrient relative to its inherent caloric density: 0-3% for fats, 5-10% for carbohydrates, and 20-30% for proteins. Meaning, if you ate a 500 calorie meal that consisted of pure protein, 20-30% (100-150 calories) of the caloric total contained in that meal would be burned just to metabolize the food you ate. This high energy cost of protein metabolism makes it a very useful tool in weight loss applications and an important factor to consider when trying to gain weight.
Because our TDEEs are so calorically expensive and daily energy demands can vary drastically from person to person, it’s critical that our energy intake (EI) continuously reflects our goals and fuel requirements. Meaning, we need to ensure our diets consist of the right foods and that these foods are consumed in ideal quantities. If we understand the roles that carbohydrates, fats, and proteins play in our fitness progress, we’ll easily be able to manipulate the energy balance scale, allowing us to build the muscle we want and drop the pounds we don’t.
It’s finally time to get into what this whole guide is about – energy intake and the relationship between nutrition and fitness.
Let’s start the discussion with some very basic overviews of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
Carbohydrates - Overview
Despite the recently popular trend of carbohydrate slandering in the media and in many fitness based social circles, this incredibly useful macronutrient is an essential component to our diet. The terms ‘starch,’ ‘carb,’ and ‘sugar’ are often villainized as weight gaining, health destroying substances, but our bodies and brains can’t reach peak performance without them. If you’re serious about your fitness goals, your body needs to be fueled properly to perform its best. Carbs aren’t evil, we just need to know how to use them the right way.
In this section, we’ll briefly cover the very basics of carbohydrate structure, digestion, storage, and some of the major roles this macronutrient plays in the body relative to exercise.
As one of the body’s primary sources of fuel, dietary carbohydrates are abundantly available in most diets and provide roughly 4 calories of energy per gram. Carbohydrates consist of varying numbers of individually linked sugar molecules, or saccharides, made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms – carbohydrate essentially means hydrated carbon. Depending on the number of sugars linked together, a carbohydrate source will range in saccharide complexity/size from simple to complex.
Shown above, the number of joined sugar molecules determines a carbohydrate’s size/complexity classification. Monosaccharides consist of single sugar molecules, disaccharides contain two, oligosaccharides range from 3-10, and polysaccharides can be formed by hundreds or thousands. While some carbohydrate sources should probably be limited (heavily refined carbohydrates & foods with high-fructose corn syrup), others are necessary. For example, cellulose/fiber is a non-digestible polysaccharide found in plants that can improve gut microbiome health, digestive regularity, and is an important component to any diet. Eat your vegetables.
Despite wide ranges in sugar structure complexity, our digestive system eventually breaks down all carbohydrates into the same simple monosaccharides through a variety of enzymatic and chemical reactions. These catabolic processes allow glucose to diffuse through intestinal cell walls and enter our bloodstream. However, some carbohydrate sources are digested and disassembled into glucose more rapidly than others, resulting in significantly different elevation rates of blood sugar and energy availability. Although ‘complex carbs’ are typically thought to be better than their mono/disaccharide counterparts due to superior blood sugar regulation, blood glucose levels don’t always scale proportionately with saccharide complexity. Meaning, both simple and complex carbs can cause rapid spikes in blood sugar.
When attempting to maximize exercise performance and/or changes in body composition, it’s important that our carbohydrate selection process factors in the digestion speed of different saccharides and their impact on blood sugar levels. And because we can’t rely on mono/di/polysaccharide labels alone to predict carbohydrate digestion speeds, we need to incorporate another classification system for this macronutrient – the glycemic index.
The glycemic index (GI) is a measurement of how quickly and to what degree specific foods raise blood sugar levels relative to a pure glucose control test. Using a 100 point scale, high GI foods are scored at or above 70, the moderate range is 56-69, and the low end is less than or equal to 55 – pure glucose tops the scale at 100. As shown in the graph above, high GI foods quickly spike blood sugar levels to a great degree before rapidly declining, while low GI foods slowly ramp up blood sugar levels to a moderate concentration and sustain them for a much longer duration.
Some popular carbohydrate examples and their GI scores are listed in the table above. Notice that glycemic index values vary across all saccharide complexities and food types. For example, watermelon (76) and apple (36) are both fruits on the simple side of the carbohydrate spectrum, yet their GI scores are very different. The same variation is also seen in complex carbs like boiled potatoes (78) and whole wheat spaghetti (48). These wide disparities between glycemic responses can definitely make the process of carbohydrate selection feel a little overwhelming, but this enormous amount of nutrient variety is actually incredibly useful to our fitness progress. A high number of saccharide options, each with their own slightly unique digestive properties, gives us more control over our blood sugar levels and all corresponding physiological responses.
By consuming the right quantity and quality of carbs at certain times/intervals, we can significantly increase muscle growth, improve fat loss efficiency, and maximize energy storage to help fuel future workouts. Strategic carbohydrate ingestion allows us to manipulate one of our most potent anabolic hormones – insulin. In response to elevated blood glucose levels, beta cells in our pancreas secrete this peptide hormone and it basically instructs our muscles and fat cells to absorb nutrients. Insulin is responsible for a wide range of really neat growth responses and changes to body composition that we’ll cover in more detail later. For now, let’s keep things simple and focus on the role insulin plays in the storage of carbohydrates as a fuel source for exercise.
Once dietary carbohydrates are disassembled into their monosaccharide components through digestion, glucose enters our bloodstream and stimulates the biphasic secretion and production of insulin. Glucose that’s not immediately consumed as energy is absorbed by the body and transported into short term storage locations for future use. Unlike free fatty acids or amino acids, our bodies don’t have a way to store large amounts of carbohydrates for extended periods of time. However, we can store smaller amounts (1-2 lbs) in the form of a very special carbohydrate – glycogen.
Through a process called glycogenesis that occurs in our muscles and liver, our bodies have the ability to synthesize their own polysaccharides. This homegrown complex carbohydrate that’s unique to animals and humans and is called glycogen. Once formed, glycogen is stored in our liver and muscles to be used as an immediately available, local fuel source for moderate to high intensity exercise. With carbohydrate deposits spread all throughout our bodies, ready to assist in strenuous muscular contractions and high levels of force development, the metabolic pathway of anaerobic glycolysis quickly turns this stored fuel into spent fuel.
As discussed in the Strength & Hypertrophy guide, progressive increases in exercise intensity and duration cumulatively recruit more motor units in an ascending order of size until all the fibers in a single muscle are active. Under the most demanding conditions, type 2 fibers that rely primarily on anaerobic glycolysis (carbohydrate metabolism without oxygen) must achieve their maximum output potential for us to reach peak physical performance. With adequate glycogen stores, we’re able to lift more weight, move faster, improve our power output, and generally perform better in most fitness environments. But without a sufficient carbohydrate intake to saturate glycogen stores and fuel these fast twitch, hypertrophy prone fibers, we’ll most likely fall short. Studies show that high intensity performance can drop off significantly when dietary carbohydrates are restricted. Meaning, a low carbohydrate diet can drastically impact muscle growth and cardiovascular power – neither are ideal.
If we want to maximize our training results in high intensity exercise settings, we need carbohydrates.
Outside of exercise environments, glycogen stores can also regulate resting blood sugar levels. These stores help to provide a steady supply of carbohydrates to fuel glucose dependent brain/CNS activity, reduce fluctuations in testosterone production, assist in hydration (2-3 grams of water are stored per gram of glycogen), and help prevent hypoglycemia. Pretty sweet.
While the presence of carbohydrates in our diet helps us perform at high levels and reach our anabolic potential, its absence can be equally beneficial in certain situations. By systematically restricting carbohydrate intake and pairing that macronutrient deficit with carefully programmed cardiovascular exercise designed to target certain metabolic pathways, we can speed up weight loss progress and improve endurance exercise performance. We’ll dive into that soon – we’re far from finished with the carbohydrate discussion.
To get the most out of our resistance training and anaerobic conditioning, we need to be utilizing dietary carbohydrates as a primary fuel source. Because carbs allow us to consistently work hard and push our bodies to the edge of their limits, the physical stress from our workouts can take a very real toll on us if we aren’t recovering properly between sessions. To address this, let’s shift gears and talk about a different macronutrient that plays a vital role in post-workout recovery and muscle growth – protein.
Protein - Overview
Unlike carbohydrates, there’s almost no controversy regarding the necessity of protein – we just can’t be healthy without it. Neurotransmitter production, DNA replication, blood cell formation, tissue repair/maintenance, and so many other processes rely on protein. Dietary protein is also the key ingredient in muscle growth and strength development, which are important qualities to develop regardless of fitness goals. To build muscle, recover from demanding workouts, and sustain a multitude of essential bodily functions, we need this nitrogen rich macronutrient.
In this section, we’ll briefly cover the very basics of protein structure, quality, and the relationship between protein intake and muscle growth.
Similar to carbohydrates, proteins provide about 4 calories of energy per gram. However, unlike carbs, proteins are not typically used as a fuel source. Instead, this incredibly valuable macronutrient, mainly comprised of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, functions as a multi-purpose building material required for the construction of enzymes and hormones, bones and muscle, and just about everything in between. Proteins contribute to the formation of so many different compounds and tissues due to the versatility of their structural components. The super adaptable building blocks that link together and form whole proteins are called amino acids (AA).
Although there are hundreds of different amino acids found all throughout nature, only about 20 are used in the human body and consumed in our diet. These 20 standard AAs are categorized as either essential amino acids (EAA) or non-essential amino acids (NEAA) – 9 are essential and 11 are non-essential. Essential amino acids cannot be synthesized by the body (without sacrificing existing muscle tissue) and must be acquired from the foods we eat. In contrast, non-essential AAs can be synthesized under normal conditions and are not required to be present in our diet.
Out of the 9 EAAs, 3 of them possess slightly unique structures and play a more critical role in the development of muscle tissue. These 3 EAAs are leucine, isoleucine, and valine – commonly called branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). While all 3 BCAAs are required for tissue growth, leucine is the most valuable precursor to muscle protein synthesis (MPS). MPS is an anabolic process that creates new protein structures in our muscles, leading to increases in lean mass – MPS means muscle growth.
While many different amino acids are used to form new proteins, leucine is the most important for muscle growth due to its stimulating effect on muscle protein synthesis – leucine is the primary catalyst for MPS. Basically, the presence of leucine is what signals our muscles to initiate the process of MPS. Some studies have shown that 10 grams of BCAAs (with high leucine content) alone can activate MPS to the same degree as whole protein meals. Because muscle growth is so dependent on leucine, a chronic deficiency of this EAA can lead to decreased muscle mass, minimal strength development, reduced recovery, and generally poor performance across a wide range of physical activities – not great. But luckily, these undesirable side effects can easily be prevented by consuming a diet rich in high quality proteins.
All dietary proteins contain some mixture of the amino acids listed in the table above. However, specific AA compositions vary widely from food to food, making some protein sources much better than others. With so many different protein options to choose from, it’s important for us to know how the quality of this macronutrient is measured. A very basic understanding of protein rankings/preferences can help us make more informed dietary decisions, leading to better overall fitness progress and improved general health.
Protein digestibility is a major factor to consider when discussing overall protein quality and is something we’ll touch on later, but for now, our primary point of emphasis is going to focus on essential amino acid availability. Specifically, we need to know the difference between complete and incomplete proteins.
Proteins are classified as complete or incomplete depending on their EAA profiles. Incomplete proteins do not contain all 9 essential amino acids. Most plant based proteins are incomplete – soy and hemp are some exceptions. In contrast, complete proteins do provide all 9 EAAs, usually in high quantities. All animal proteins (beef/dairy, poultry/eggs, pork, seafood, etc) are complete proteins. Because of this pretty consistent quality difference between plant and animal sources, the easiest way to consume adequate amounts of EAAs is to simply include animal products in our diets. When paired with plant based fats and carbohydrates, animal proteins eliminate amino acid availability concerns and allow us to focus on flavor, meal variety, and many of the other more enjoyable aspects of eating.
Plant proteins are incomplete on their own, but combining multiple incomplete plant sources can create a ‘complete’ plant based meal. The pairing of rice and beans is a popular example of this concept. As standalone plant protein sources, neither rice nor beans contain all 9 essential amino acids, but where one is lacking, the other is sufficient. These complementary amino acid profiles fill in the nutrient gaps that would normally be present if each food were consumed alone. This mix-and-match tactic means that plant based proteins can be fantastic alternatives to traditional animal sources if your nutrition goals are primarily focused on general health/quality of life. But if you’re trying to maximize muscle growth and exercise performance, excluding all animal products from your diet and relying completely on whole food sources to meet your protein needs can put you at a significant disadvantage compared to your meat eating peers.
In addition to being complete proteins, animal products also contain higher EAA and BCAA concentrations than their complete plant based counterparts. Meaning, even complete plant protein sources like soy and hemp don’t have the same EAA/leucine content of whey when measured gram-for-gram – plant proteins just can’t compete with animal sources when consumed in equal quantities. However, these issues inherent to plant proteins can be easily resolved by eating slightly more plant protein per meal to make up for lower EAA content or by adding protein shakes/BCAA supplements to meals. Animal sources have the initial advantage but the playing field can be leveled if we know how to address it properly.
So, what’s better – animal or plant proteins?
Animal proteins allow us to be more efficient with meal prep and are more nutritionally dense, but both options can work. If you’re cool with consuming animals and animal based supplements, eat them. They’re delicious, nutritious, and contain the EAA content needed for muscle growth – animal products make meeting amino acid requirements easy because they’re so rich in BCAAs/leucine. However, if you’re vegetarian or vegan and meat isn’t on the menu, no problem – just make sure you’re addressing the potential deficiencies associated with plant sources.
Regardless of where you fall on the flora vs fauna protein intake debate, adequate amounts of all 9 essential amino acids are necessary to maximize muscle protein synthesis potential. I personally believe that a performance based diet should include a variety of both sources, but you should ultimately do what’s best for you.
Because MPS is so important to fitness progress and general health, let’s dive a little deeper into the process of muscle hypertrophy and how exercise selection effects growth.
After eating a nutrient rich meal full of essential amino acids, various digestive enzymes and chemical reactions work together to break down whole proteins into smaller polypeptide chains. These di and tripeptides are then separated into individual amino acids as they diffuse through intestinal walls and enter the bloodstream – the same basic process described earlier for carbohydrate digestion. Similar to the intake response of carbohydrates, circulating levels of amino acids also stimulate the release of insulin, assisting with nutrient absorption. And just like glucose, amino acids are sent to the liver and taken up by our muscles.
Once AAs enter our muscles, high leucine concentrations are detected and the MPS alarm is sounded. Under non-exercising conditions, muscle protein synthesis rates peak at levels that primarily aim to combat the normal breakdown of muscle tissue, called muscle protein breakdown (MPB). MPB is the deconstruction of existing muscle tissue into amino acids for use in various metabolic process throughout the body. Depending on our diet and activity levels, synthesis and breakdown could be in equilibrium, but it’s much more likely that breakdown will just barely exceed MPS and cause a slow loss of muscle tissue. If you’ve ever taken extended time off from lifting, you’ve probably experienced the vanishing of gains firsthand.
A gradual decline in lean body mass resulting from a more sedentary lifestyle is a major issue that impacts quality of life, functional mobility, and is evident to an unfortunately high degree in elderly populations – without resistance training or adequate protein intake, muscle mass will inevitably disappear. Fortunately, this depressing side effect is resolved relatively easily with the application of exercise and a protein rich diet.
As discussed in the Strength & Hypertrophy and Fat Loss Programming guides, both resistance exercise and cardiovascular conditioning drastically increase protein synthesis rates, leading to significant muscle growth. When we introduce intense physical activity to our routines, protein synthesis rates can jump up about 200% above their ‘normal’ levels. If our workouts are more focused on lifting weights, the subsequent boost to MPS will prioritize muscle growth (myofibrillar protein synthesis), while a cardio emphasis tends to increase our aerobic efficiency and fat burning capabilities (mitochondrial protein synthesis). And if our programming includes both resistance training and cardiovascular conditioning, we get to enjoy the best of both worlds – increased muscle mass, better strength output, improved cardiovascular endurance, and a leaner physique.
Like the carbohydrate overview section, there are so many more neat things related to MPS to discuss. We’ll dive into maximizing muscle growth and fat loss through protein intake soon.
Whatever our fitness goals are, we need strong and well developed muscles to be our best. Although this was just a surface level overview of protein, hopefully your appreciation of the macronutrient has increased.
Now that some of the very basics of carbohydrates and proteins have been covered, let’s move on to the last macronutrient, fat.
Fats - Overview
From a dietary standpoint, the word ‘fat’ used to have overwhelmingly negative associations with images of clogged arteries and obesity. Fortunately, newer research has lubricated our once immovable mindsets regarding this essential macronutrient. Advancements in nutritional sciences have helped us further understand the role dietary fats play in cognitive function/development/plasticity, hormone production, lipid soluble nutrient transport, energy availability, and many other vital bodily functions. Needless to say, fats are important for overall health and when manipulated correctly, they can be an incredibly helpful fuel source for general fitness success.
In this section, we’ll cover the basics of dietary fat structure/types, metabolism, storage, and how lipids can improve our exercise performance.
Primarily consisting of carbon and hydrogen, fats are the most energy dense macronutrient at 9 calories per gram and are our primary fuel source for low to moderate intensity activities. If you’re reading this while seated at your desk or out walking the dog on a leisurely stroll, you’re probably using fat for the majority of your energy expenditure. Like carbohydrates and proteins, dietary fats exist in a few different forms that vary in structure and function depending on molecular composition. The three primary types of lipids we consume in our diet are cholesterol, phospholipids, and triglycerides.
Triglycerides are going to be our main fat focus in this section, but it’s important to briefly cover cholesterol and phospholipids before moving on to the star of the show.
Cholesterol is a type of steroid that’s produced by all animal cells. Cholesterol is found in animal products (in relatively small amounts) and synthesized in our liver in response to varying dietary intake quantities – blood cholesterol levels are mainly regulated internally, not directly through diet. This lipid is used for many different purposes in the body but its primary exercise performance contribution relates to hormone production and digestion. Because cholesterol is a precursor to so many hormones (testosterone, estrogen, DHEA, etc), our anabolic potential is largely dependent on cholesterol availability. Cholesterol is also used to synthesize bile acid/salts that help with the digestion/emulsification of fats, allowing us to absorb this energy rich macronutrient more efficiently.
Recent studies have shifted long held nutritional perspectives of cholesterol and given us a better understanding of this sterol’s role in the body – dietary cholesterol is no longer a primary suspect in the development of cardiovascular disease. Too much of anything can be harmful, but when our fat intake composition follows certain healthy guidelines (reduced saturated fat intake and no trans fat), dietary cholesterol isn’t something to stress out about too much. A diet rich in ‘good’ fats can help us keep our blood cholesterol levels in check and provide us with the fatty acids needed to maintain a healthy hormone balance.
Phospholipids represent the next class of lipids in our supporting cast of dietary fats. Phospholipids are the main component of all cell membranes in our bodies and contribute to cell structure, function, and nutrient/signal transport. Because every single one of us is ultimately just a conscious collection of cells, general cell health is a pretty important aspect of life. Our bodies synthesize the majority of all phospholipids needed for cellular function, but some studies suggest that phospholipid ingestion/supplementation can have beneficial effects on tissue inflammation, cancer, cardiovascular disease, cognitive ability, and immune function. By consuming phospholipids and certain helpful fatty acids, cell membrane compositions can be remodeled, leading to greater levels of membrane plasticity and better overall performance on a cellular level.
While cholesterol and phospholipids are present in the foods we eat and essential for certain bodily functions like hormone production and cell membrane integrity, our diets contain relatively small amounts of these two lipid forms compared to triglycerides. When we talk about ‘fats’ in the foods we consume, we’re talking about triglycerides. So… let’s talk about triglycerides.
Triglycerides (TG) are fat compounds made of glycerol bound to three fatty acids (FA) – nearly all of the fats in the foods we eat and those that are stored in our bodies are triglycerides. Depending on the structure of the fatty acid chains, triglycerides are categorized as either saturated or unsaturated. As seen in the image above, saturated fats have neatly aligned FA chains while unsaturated FA chains look a bit messy and chaotic in comparison. The bends in the fatty acid chains of unsaturated fats are caused by double carbon bonds within the lipid structure. Unsaturated fats that contain one double bond are called monounsaturated fats and those with more than one double carbon bond are polyunsaturated. For every double carbon bond, one molecule of hydrogen is removed from the FA chain, making unsaturated fats less full of hydrogen than they potentially could be. Saturated fats, in comparison, don’t contain any double bonds in their fatty acid structure and have carbon-hydrogen bonds at every molecular junction along the chain, resulting in a 100% hydrogen ‘saturation’ of the fatty acid chain.
Because saturated fats lack double bounds and are uniform in shape, the triglycerides in them can pack together tightly and form solid fat substances like butter. In contrast, the bent tails of unsaturated fatty acids prevent these TGs from neatly aligning with one another and usually result in fats that are liquid at room temperature, like olive oil. This difference in triglyceride structure is one of the factors that makes certain fats healthier than others.
Some newer studies have challenged the link between saturated fats and heart disease, but the majority of current research still strongly supports the idea that saturated fat consumption should be limited. The generally accepted position held by many different health organizations and professionals places saturated fat intake at 10% or less of total daily dietary fat volume. Due to these upper limit recommendations, our fat intake should consist primarily of poly and monounsaturated fats – the ‘good’ fats.
Monounsaturated fats are associated with a wide range of health benefits and they should absolutely be included in our diets, but we can synthesize all of the monounsaturated fatty acids needed for normal, healthy bodily function. Because of this internal regulation capability, there’s not an intake requirement for any specific monounsaturated FA – flavor and basic caloric needs can drive consumption. Polyunsaturated FAs are a little different. Our bodies are unable to synthesize two important fatty acids – linoleic acid (an omega-6 FA) and alpha-linoleic acid (an omega-3 FA). These two FAs are called essential fatty acids and must come from our diet.
Similar to how important the amino acid leucine is for protein synthesis, omega-3 fatty acids like alpha-linoleic acid have the ability to drastically improve our health when they’re included as regular components of our diet. There are three omega-3 fatty acids used in the body – alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Our bodies can synthesize DHA and EPA from ALA, but the conversion rates are so low that additional supplementation is usually recommended – fish oil with high DHA:EPA ratios (2:1) is a great example. When these polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids are plentiful in our diets, they can result in:
- Increased cognitive function
- Decreased depression
- Increased synaptic plasticity
- Increased neuroendocrine function
- Improved mood/behavior
- Increased memory in aging adults
- Increased brain development in children
- Improved vision/retinal development
- Increased nutrient absorption
- Decreased cellular inflammation
- Increased bone health
- Increased muscular recovery
- Increased immune function
This impressive list contains a wide range of great health benefits that can indirectly affect our exercise performance, but most of them can be contributed to a reduction in cellular inflammation.
Inflammation is the agitation and swelling of tissues/cells and is our body’s immune system response to damage, stress, and/or disease. If you’ve ever sprained an ankle or suffered any type of injury that results in swelling, you’ve experienced inflammation. It’s pretty easy to understand how inflammation resulting from a sprained ankle limits our mobility – we can see and feel that we’re impaired to some degree. However, many other forms of inflammation are much more subtle and can become chronic issues that significantly decrease our exercise performance and general health over time if ignored. Nearly all of our cells are susceptible to the side effects of inflammation, but those that regulate digestion and cognition are arguably some of the most important in any fitness setting.
Whether external stressors from work, a suboptimal diet (food sensitivities, allergens, etc), or other environmental factors are to blame, central nervous system and digestive tract inflammation can negatively affect just about every aspect of our lives. As a linked system, the gut-brain axis is collectively responsible for the synthesis of many different essential compounds (neurotransmitters, hormones, enzymes, and proteins), the absorption of food needed for energy and muscle growth/repair, the strength of our immune system, our mood/outlook on life, and all baseline cognitive abilities. While only two organ systems, the gut-brain axis controls our quality of life. If these two systems are impaired, so are we.
Luckily, an adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids (specifically DHA) can help reduce whole body inflammation. Like ice on a swollen joint, the anti-inflammatory properties of this super useful little fatty acid can help eliminate cellular swelling and return organs/systems back to peak productivity. A diet that’s higher in omega-3 fatty acids (less than 4:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3) can help us to think more clearly, fully utilize the foods we eat, recover from intense workouts, and be our best in and out of the gym.
From hormone production to brain function, cardiovascular disease prevention to inflammation reduction, dietary fats are absolutely essential for optimal health. By consuming the right fats in the correct quantities, we’ll think better, feel better, and be better at all of our day to day activities. The general health benefits of this macronutrient indirectly affect our exercise performance in a variety of ways, but fats also contribute to fitness progress directly by serving as a fantastic fuel source for certain intensities.
After being ingested, dietary fats work their way through a lengthy and complicated digestion process that involves many more steps and reactions than we’re going to cover here. Through different forms of triglyceride breakdown, free fatty acid transport, lipoprotein and cholesterol synthesis, and triglyceride reconstitution, most of the fats we consume eventually work their way into our fat cells as triglycerides for long term energy storage.
As discussed in the Fat Loss Programming guide, exercise intensity largely determines the type of fuel we use. Low to moderate intensity exercise primarily oxidizes fats through aerobic energy pathways, but as we slowly increase both our work output and corresponding energy requirements, we shift from fat oxidation to anaerobic glycolysis and start metabolizing glycogen/glucose – we burn more sugar and less fat the harder we work. This means that fat utilization and intake levels can significantly impact our performance in endurance based activities that operate below lactate thresholds. For many distance competitors, increased dietary fat consumption can result in more sustained energy at certain steady heart rate ranges, decreased lactate production, and an overall improvement in pace time.
We’ll talk more about fats and endurance performance later. Like the sections on carbohydrates and protein, this is just an introduction.
With some of the very basics of carbohydrates, protein, and fats covered, it’s time to shift the discussion from education to application. Let’s talk about building muscle, losing fat, and fueling peak exercise performance through our diet.
Meal Timing, Macronutrient Intake Quantities, & Food Sources
We can’t all follow the same diet and expect identical results. Our daily total caloric intakes and meal compositions need to our reflect individual goals, lifestyles, and genetic limitations – effective nutrition plans must be tailored to the specific needs of the user. This ultimately results in a wide range of dietary variation from person to person, but luckily, they can all share a common outline. To start the process of developing a custom nutrition plan, we first need to calculate our caloric intake for energy balance and then form healthy, sustainable eating habits built upon a simple dietary structure – we need to build a solid starting foundation before we make more advanced changes.
In this section, we’ll cover some simple strategies for structuring eating frequency throughout the day, how to estimate total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), my recommended ranges of macronutrient intake quantities, and a few great whole food sources of carbohydrates, protein, and fats.
To start things off, let’s talk about meal timing.
While it might not seem like the most important factor to fitness success, eating frequency matters. The timing of carbohydrate and protein rich meals can affect energy availability, muscle growth and recovery, weight loss progress, and the regulation of many vital internal function. An easy to follow eating schedule also gives our diet consistency and predictability, providing new healthy routines the opportunities they need to become habits. By eating at predetermined times rather than impulsively and in response to hunger, long term diet adherence is made easier and general program satisfaction is higher.
I recommend most people consume 4 meals a day that are each separated by 4 hours, resulting in 12 hours of feeding and 12 hours of fasting daily. This suggested routine can fit into nearly any work/exercise schedule as it essentially breaks down into a breakfast/lunch/snack/dinner split. At least 3 of your meals should come from whole food sources – try to limit your intake of supplement powders and shakes to once a day.
A 4×4 feeding frequency – not too difficult, right? We’ll dive into the benefits and potential modifications of this routine later in the Maximizing Muscle Growth and Fat Loss Periodization sections. We’ve now got 4 empty plates – let’s talk about what to put on them.
As covered earlier, our total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) represents all of the calories we burn per day, while energy intake (EI) is the total number of calories we consume. Because the relationship between calories in vs calories out is ultimately what determines changes in weight, our total intake is dependent on baseline daily expenditure. This means that before we can start developing a diet that helps us gain muscle (caloric surplus) or lose fat (caloric deficit), we first have to calculate our average TDEE. We need to know how to achieve energy balance.
Estimating your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) can be accomplished in two easy steps.
- Keep a detailed record of your normal diet for at least one week using a free calorie/macronutrient tracking app like MyFitnessPal. During this seven day period, refrain from making major changes to your diet. Record absolutely everything you put in your body. At the end of each day, look back over your eating habits and take note of the caloric totals along with the macronutrient contents of each meal. Are you eating more or less than you thought? Are certain macronutrients dominating your diet while others are almost absent? This number can help explain any recent changes in body composition and/or energy levels.
- Estimate your total daily expenditure by using a simple online TDEE calculator. For the most accurate number, have your body fat percentage measured at a local gym or university. How does this number compare to your seven day tracking average? If this calculated TDEE is lower than your tracked intake average and weight gain has been a recurring issue for you, this difference could help explain the problem. If you have a pedometer, use it! Keep track of your step count throughout the day and use the data to help shape your TDEE estimation.
By combining these two data points with what you intuitively know about your dietary needs and the way your body responds to certain meal sizes, you should be able to narrow down your TDEE to a reasonably narrow intake window that can then be further refined over time. It will probably require a little experimentation to dial in your energy balance intake levels correctly, but this discovery process shouldn’t take too long if you’re paying attention to what you eat and how you look/feel. It’s important to note that neither one of these two TDEE calculation methods are perfectly accurate on their own – they are only estimations. So, if your gym offers metabolic testing and can provide you with an accurate assessment of your BMR, take advantage of it! The more information you can get about your body, the better.
Now that we know how to calculate our intake requirements for energy balance, let’s discuss the composition of those calories.
The table below contains my recommended intake ranges for each macronutrient. 2000 and 2500 total daily calorie versions are listed as examples to illustrate how caloric totals affect macronutrient quantities, both on a per day and per meal basis.
To make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s dive into the details of the 2000 calorie version to make all of this data easier to digest.
As seen above, each macronutrient is associated with a unique intake range. 25-40% of the 2000 calorie daily total should come from protein, 20-45% from carbohydrates, and 20-50% from fats. Notice that none of these ranges include a 0% intake option – all three macros should be present in our diet at a minimum level. I personally prefer a 30% protein, 35% carbohydrate, and 35% fat split to fuel my lifting, running, and daily activities – this is my recommended starting point if you have no idea where to begin or what percentages to aim for. However, because there are so many different macronutrient intake quantity combinations based on the ranges listed above, feel free to manipulate different variables and experiment with your meal compositions to find out what works best for you.
These caloric percentages are then converted into grams by dividing calories by the energy density of each macronutrient. The gram (g) is our unit of measurement for macronutrient intake quantities.
Let’s use the low end of protein intake (25%) as an example of this conversion process.
25% of 2000 calories is 500 calories (2000 x 0.25 = 500) of protein. Because protein contains 4 calories per gram, those 500 total daily protein calories are then divided by 4 kcal/g (energy density of protein) to determine their weight in grams. 500 calories divided by 4 kcal/g equals 125g of protein per day. With our daily total for protein calculated, we then divide 125g of protein by 4 to evenly distribute protein content across each of our 4 daily meals. 125g of total daily protein divided by 4 meals equals roughly 30g of protein per meal. This conversion process can be used to calculate the intake quantities of all three macronutrients anywhere within their recommended ranges. Just keep in mind the differences in energy density for protein (4 kcal/g), carbohydrates (4 kcal/g), and fat (9 kcal/g) when converting from calories to grams, or from grams to calories.
If you’re primarily interested in maximizing exercise performance and fitness progress, you’ll most likely find the process of macronutrient intake experimentation really enjoyable – discovering that meal composition sweet spot is a really satisfying feeling. However, if a majority of the content in this guide is new to you and the subject of nutrition is a relatively foreign topic, it’s not necessary for you to obsess over the intake information listed above.
Food should be fun and provide a source of joy during both preparation and consumption. If we freak out about the macronutrient composition of every little thing we eat, we’ll inevitably develop a pretty unhealthy relationship with food. Use my intake ranges and your newly acquired calories-to-grams conversion skills to help shape your diet, but don’t let either of these things control you. Try to be aware of what you eat, do your best to make smart choices, and keep aiming for your goals – you don’t have to be perfect.
To help make your smart choices a bit easier, here are some examples of foods that fall into each macronutrient category – this is not a comprehensive list. Fat, carbohydrate, and protein contents of each food per 100g/3.5 oz are included (fat grams/carbohydrate grams/protein grams).
Notice that most of the foods listed contain a mixed macronutrient profile – only a handful of items consist solely of protein, carbohydrates, or fat. It’s important to be mindful of these differences in nutrient compositions as you plan out your meals. For example, 100g of chickpeas contains 6g of fat, 61g of carbohydrates, and 19g of protein – they’re a great source of protein, but can easily take you over your carbohydrate intake goal if that particular macronutrient is not accounted for. Most foods also vary widely in the composition of their macronutrient subcomponents – almonds and walnuts both are great sources of fat, but they contain very different levels of mono and polyunsaturated fat. Use your tracking app and read food labels to always be aware of what you’re eating.
Along with protein, carbohydrates, and fats, I’ve also included a list of non-starchy and leafy green vegetables. I recommend that 1-2 of your daily meals include healthy portion sizes of items from that list. A vegetable source at lunch and at dinner easily addresses this suggestion and provides a great source of fiber and other great nutrients. Be sure to track these foods and account for their macronutrient content.
With so many different foods to choose from and macronutrient intake ranges to work with, there are endless combination possibilities for your diet. Limitless variety is great for some, but I know it can be mentally paralyzing for others.
If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by the thought of using all of the information in this section to completely restructure your diet, don’t stress it – it’s a lot to take in. Most lifestyle changes need to be simple and easy to implement or they’ll never last long enough to become long term habits. So, let’s take the key points covered here and condense them down into a realistic and manageable plan that will hopefully alleviate any lingering anxiety and doubt that might be creeping in.
- Start tracking your current diet with MyFitnessPal. If you put it in your body, it needs to be accounted for.
- After a week, compare your normal eating habits to my recommendations. Identify the differences between the two. Assess which factors will be easy to fix and those that will take more time/discipline. If you don’t know what intake ranges to aim for, start with a 30% protein, 35% carbohydrate, and 35% fat composition for your daily total and each of your 4 meals. Macronutrient quantities will vary, but try to consume at least 30g of protein per meal.
- Over the course of a few days or weeks, gradually work to restructure your meals until their contents and timing fall in line with my suggestions. For example – is your protein intake a little low? If so, slightly increase your portion size per meal. Are you eating too many carbs each day? Work on slowly cutting them back. These changes don’t have to happen immediately – focus on a transition process that occurs on a realistic timeline and promotes long term program adherence.
- Keep tracking your food. Use this documentation process to truly learn the macronutrient contents of your favorite foods.
- When you finally hit your intake goals and are able to meet them consistently, assess your energy levels and exercise performance. Do you feel awake, mentally sharp, and energetic or have these recent changes resulted in fatigue, mental fog, and/or undesirable changes in body composition? If you don’t feel amazing, play with your food options and intake percentages.
- Keep tracking your food and trying new things.
- When you feel confident that everything’s dialed in for energy balance, you’ll be ready to start playing with a slight deficit for weight loss or a surplus for weight gain, if those happen to be your goals. You should now have a solid understanding of your dietary needs and what fuels you the best, making muscle building/fat loss dietary experimentation much easier.
Some of you will find the process of TDEE calculation and meal remodeling to be an easy and pretty straightforward task. If you’re currently mindful of your intake and normally attempt to track what you eat, the transition to something slightly more structured shouldn’t be too difficult. However, this won’t be the case for everyone. Nutrition can be a difficult subject to understand and attempting to break bad dietary habits is even harder. If your relationship with food has historically been more problematic than beneficial and has ever left you feeling defeated/discouraged in the past, focus on all the little victories moving forward. Take your time as you form these new habits, it’s not a race.
If you need help putting all of this together, please let me know. I’d love to work with you.
With energy balance requirements calculated and new healthy eating habits formed, our baseline dietary foundation is laid. We now know what, when, and how much to eat because we’ve spent the time and put in the effort necessary to discover what our body needs. This equilibrium between intake and expenditure is a great place to start any fitness journey, but it can also be a totally acceptable endpoint destination for many different training goals. A diet that focuses on energy balance can be a fantastic nutritional strategy to gradually promote changes in body composition – EB can help us slowly lose fat and build lean tissue at the same time. However, more rapid fat loss and/or muscle growth goals require us to deviate from this newly formed baseline and venture into a caloric surplus or deficit.
This is where it gets fun.
In the next two sections, we’ll dive into some of the most important aspects of maximizing muscle growth and fat loss through the manipulation of different nutrition variables.
Maximizing Muscle Growth
Maximizing muscle growth through diet requires a bit of work and planning, but the overall strategy is super simple – eat more food and eat more often. Because that general bit of advice isn’t very helpful, we need to cover why eating frequency is a critical variable for hypertrophy and how different macronutrient quantities affect our growth potential – specifically, why protein timing matters and carbohydrate intake is essential for hypertrophy. This section is written to help you understand a few of the major concepts behind growth and nutrition so that you can implement a realistic and sustainable version for yourself – don’t get hung up on following everything perfectly.
To get started, let’s talk about the relationship between meal timing and muscle growth.
As discussed earlier in the protein section and in the Strength & Hypertrophy guide, muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is how our bodies create new muscle tissue. By combining regular resistance training with protein rich meals, we stimulate MPS to a significantly greater degree than that of muscle protein breakdown (MPB), leading to overall muscle growth. This means that to maximize our muscle building potential, we need to be following a great exercise program and eating as frequently as possible to activate MPS all day. However, we can only take advantage of this anabolic response to feeding so often.
After being stimulated to peak levels by a protein rich meal of 20-40g (studies show minimal MPS increases beyond this quantity), MPS rates drop back down to baseline after about 90 minutes and the process enters a refractory period lasting roughly 3-5 hours. During this ‘recovery’ time, the pathways responsible for growth cannot be re-stimulated and any protein or BCAAs consumed between meals will not used for tissue synthesis. This brief dormancy of MPS activity following stimulation is known as the muscle full effect, and it’s the main factor that limits our eating frequency. Because dietary protein is unable to activate MPS for a short amount of time after a meal, it’s important that we strategize our eating schedule to take full advantage of every usable feeding opportunity we have – we want to eat as soon as we can fully utilize a meal, but not before.
The basic 4×4 frequency I suggest for energy balance does a great job of stimulating muscle protein synthesis throughout the day and can be a fantastic plan to follow for most people (including me). But if our goals are to maximize lean tissue development and get the absolute most out of our diet, we can do better. By dropping the gaps between meals down to 3.5 or 3 hours, we can theoretically achieve 5 or 6 MPS stimulating meals per day, resulting in a 25-50% increase in growth potential over the standard EB baseline.
As shown in the examples above, both the 5X and 6X versions are pretty ambitious eating endeavours and demand a serious level of dietary dedication – you’re not going to be able to improvise an eating schedule and hit either of those frequencies successfully. Eating every 3 hours to reach 6 meals a day requires consistent meal preparation, an obsessive level of schedule planning, regular feeding timers, and the elimination of most spontaneous daily activities. This eating routine will rule your life and isn’t realistic or mentally healthy for anyone who isn’t a competitive bodybuilder. However, 5 meals a day is much more manageable and can be accomplished relatively easily by introducing just one super useful supplement – casein.
There are two proteins in dairy (milk) – whey and casein. Whey is the more common ingredient of the two used in most protein supplements due to its high BCAA/EAA content, quick digestion rate, solubility in water, low cost, and general availability – whey can be a great protein supplement to add into your diet. Casein is also a complete protein but has slightly lower concentrations of branched-chain and essential amino acids and a significantly slower digestion rate, making it less desirable for most recovery and/or meal replacement applications. However, when used correctly, casein can be incredibly beneficial.
Unlike the rapid digestion process of whey, casein coagulates in our digestive tract and drastically slows down nutrient metabolism and transport. When taken right before bed as a 5th meal, a casein protein shake (mixed with water) allows us to stimulate MPS while we sleep WITHOUT hindering the normal nighttime metabolism of fat. Other protein sources like whey/solid food seem to cause too drastic of an insulin response and end up interfering with lipolysis – they will stimulate MPS but can potentially result in gradual fat gain. If you don’t have a dairy allergy and are looking for a simple 5th meal solution to maximize lean gains without putting on extra fat, the slower digestion speed and sustained MPS activity from casein can make it a great evening supplement to support gains.
Regardless of your meal frequency goals or the strategies you use to accomplish them, the more often you stimulate MPS with protein rich meals, the faster you’ll grow. For most people looking to maximize hypertrophy, I recommend that you aim for 5 meals, each separated by roughly 3.5 hours with a casein shake (5th meal) before bed – nothing too complicated.
With our modified meal timing schedule covered, let’s shift gears and look at changes to macronutrient quantities and caloric distributions necessary to maximize growth.
To build muscle, we need to be operating at a daily caloric surplus (90% of the time) primarily due to an increased intake of protein and carbohydrates. This surplus should elevate our caloric total anywhere between 10-20% above baseline energy balance. If you’re using my recommended starting macronutrient split (30% protein/35% carbohydrate/35% fat), these extra calories may restructure your daily intake percentages to something closer to 35-40% protein, 40-45% carbohydrates, and 20-25% fat. These new intake distributions are good targets to aim for, but they’re only suggestions – find out what works best for you.
One extra meal per day, a little more protein, and a slightly larger serving of carbs per meal, all resulting in a 10-20% daily caloric surplus. The overall concept is pretty easy, but like everything else in fitness, to get the most out of this strategy and find long term success, we need to explore the details to understand why these two macronutrients are so important to lean mass gains.
Let’s start with protein – how much is enough?
A 20-40g serving of high quality, complete protein can maximally stimulate MPS after a meal. This means that larger doses don’t directly result in higher rates of MPS. Some studies show that there’s only a ~10% difference in MPS activity between 20g and 40g intakes, regardless of body size, with no significant increases seen after 40g. However, ‘excess’ protein consumed above this 20-40g mark is not wasted. High intake quantities don’t stimulate MPS much more than normal (20-40g) doses, but the additional protein in larger meals assists in tissue development by suppressing the breakdown (muscle protein breakdown or MPB) of existing muscle mass. Because net muscle growth is essentially the difference between protein synthesis and breakdown, if our protein intake can maximally stimulate MPS and simultaneously help to suppress breakdown, we can keep more of what we have while building new tissue – revenue is fixed but expenses are decreased, leading to more profit.
However, attempting to completely suppress breakdown with a super high protein diet might not be the best idea for long term implementation. The normal catabolic process of tissue breakdown likely serves an important role in the continued maintenance of muscle quality. The MPS+MPB cycle of breaking down damaged/structurally compromised muscle mass and replacing it with newly synthesized tissue might be a critical component of overall muscle health and the preservation of peak performance. So, it’s probably not the smartest plan to completely disrupt this internal system of regulation. Therefore, our intake focus should be placed on quantities that help us get the absolute most out of MPS while also providing a little extra to slightly suppress MPB.
I recommend that most people looking to maximize muscle gains aim for roughly 30-60g of protein per meal. This range falls in line with the macronutrient intake percentages listed earlier in this section, keeping everything consistent and as simple as possible. Studies show that higher protein intakes can be a safe dietary choice as long as you don’t have any renal/kidney health concerns. As always, use this information as a guide to help find what’s best for you.
With protein covered, let’s now talk about carbohydrates – why do we need them for maximum muscle growth?
Nutritional choices shape our physiques in drastic ways, but we can’t build bigger and/or stronger muscles without a great resistance training program. Because lean tissue development is largely dependent on the quality of our exercise sessions, it’s incredibly important that each workout is as productive as possible. Carbohydrates assist with hypertrophy in many different ways, but they contribute to muscle growth most directly by serving as an unrivaled fuel source for high intensity and high volume, muscle building workouts.
As discussed earlier, a significant portion of the carbohydrates we consume are converted into glycogen and stored in our muscles and liver. When our diets are rich in carbohydrates and glycogen stores can be fully saturated, their availability allows us to work harder. These starchy energy reserves provide an immediate source of fuel for all high intensity fitness activities that rely on anaerobic glycolysis (a rapid energy delivery system that quickly metabolizes carbohydrates without oxygen). A properly fueled glycolytic energy system helps us lift heavier weight for more reps, stimulate type 2 muscle fibers and MPS to a greater degree, run farther and faster, and generally improve our performance of all high intensity/max effort exercise endeavors. Carbs give us the energy to get the most out of every rep during our muscle building workouts, and we lose top end performance capabilities when they’re restricted. So, if hypertrophy is the goal, fueling for peak performance by consuming an adequate intake of carbohydrates should be a top dietary priority.
Carbohydrates are also essential for post workout recovery and a sustained anabolic state outside of the gym.
Despite the popularity of the idea, there is no ‘anabolic window’ for gains regarding protein consumption immediately following a workout. Studies show that total daily protein intake and overall feeding frequency (MPS stimulation) contribute significantly more to long term muscle growth than the proximity of a single meal to a workout session. This means that if we simply stick to a solid eating schedule and exercise between meals, protein timing will be taken care of and no gains will be lost. However, post workout carbohydrate intake is a little different.
As we increase muscle mass and our bodies become more familiar with carbohydrate fueled lifting, our storage capacity and metabolic efficiency of glycogen will increase. A larger fuel tank and a more rapid energy delivery system combine to result in higher quality resistance training sessions and faster gains. But this improvement also means we’ve conditioned ourselves to be somewhat dependent on carbohydrate availability. We get the most out of our muscle building workouts by relying on anaerobic glycolysis, but our energy reserves can only store so much, and when glycogen stores are low, our bodies will prioritize their replenishment over other anabolic processes.
Gluconeogenesis is the synthesis of glycogen from non-carbohydrate substances and commonly involves the conversion of amino acids into glucose. Gluconeogenesis can occur any time we consume a protein rich meal, but is more frequent following exercise. This means that if we don’t place an emphasis on restoring depleted glycogen stores after a tough workout, our bodies will take post workout protein and turn it into glycogen, reducing MPS activity and increasing muscle protein breakdown. Luckily, this potential problem is easily avoided by consuming carbohydrates and protein together in our post workout meal.
I recommend that roughly 35-40% of your total daily carbohydrates are consumed in your post workout meal. The examples listed below focus on a 5x feeding frequency, but the same general concept of glycogen replenishment applies to the 4×4 approach too.
As seen in the graphic above, carbohydrate intake percentages are distributed across each of the 5 daily meals. In both examples, post workout meals contain 40% of all daily carbohydrates while the other meals fall in at 20% – the last ‘meal’ of the day is the casein shake mentioned earlier and would be mixed with water, containing no carbohydrates (0% of our total daily intake). Don’t get too hung up on the exact percentages here, just focus on the overall strategy of slightly more carbs after a workout than in the other meals.
Carbohydrate sources with higher glycemic index values might be better options for post workout recovery, but some studies indicate that the most important factor in glycogen restoration is total quantity, not quality. In contrast, the opposite could apply to your other meals throughout the day that don’t immediately follow a workout – lower glycemic index carbohydrates that digest a bit slower could help provide more blood sugar control and hormone (primarily insulin and testosterone) level regulation, leading to a more anabolic environment for muscle growth.
There are so many other hypertrophy related nutritional factors that we didn’t cover here, but the few points on protein and carbohydrate intake mentioned above should give you a great place to start. When combined with an effective weight training program, proper hydration, and a smart sleep schedule, the suggestions listed in this section can help you build the muscle you want.
Track what you eat, pay attention to how your body adapts, get in a little more protein, increase your carbohydrate intake, and eat more often. As mentioned before, bigger people have higher TDEEs than smaller people – increase your intake to account for growth and changes to BMR.
However, if none of this seems easy to you, shoot me an email and let’s work together. I’d love to help out in any way that I can. Sometimes all we need is a little guidance.
Now that we’ve covered some of the major dietary factors for growth, let’s flip our target goal upside down and discuss diet and exercise strategies for efficient and sustainable fat loss.
Periodized Nutrition for Fat Loss
Weight loss is really simple – eat less, burn more, and maintain a daily caloric deficit. If you only care about seeing the number on the scale go down, this end result can be accomplished in a number of different ways that all have the ability to be super effective. However, if you want to selectively target fat, keep the muscle you’ve worked so hard to build, and actually feel good during the entire process, your fat loss strategy requires a more personalized and periodized approach that promotes healthy and sustainable dietary habits.
In this section, we’ll cover some of the most important components of a fat loss diet. With a little self-control, intake consistency, and nutritional knowledge, you can drop those unwanted pounds and keep them off with less effort than you may think.
To begin, let’s address the section title – periodized nutrition.
If you’ve read the Strength and Hypertrophy guide, you know that periodization is basically just a method of organizing and planning out workouts. A periodized exercise program is one that implements change by manipulating different variables at predetermined times, creating a cyclic pattern when it’s repeated. In contrast, a non-periodized program is the same workout performed forever with no changes in weight, reps, or duration. While periodization is most commonly associated with exercise, it’s also the foundation for many different dietary strategies.
The eating schedules, post-workout glycogen replenishment emphasis, and general macronutrient intake quantities listed throughout this guide are all components of a structured plan designed to be followed for a set amount of time to achieve a specific goal, or very simple periodization. Other areas of fitness, like competitive sports, also employ periodized nutritional tactics by changing up an athlete’s diet to target their in season vs offseason performance goals.
So, what is periodized nutrition? It’s a dietary plan that changes over time at predetermined intervals to help us accomplish specific goals. Periodized nutrition is the opposite of improvised, hunger driven eating.
Most nutrition strategies contain some elements of periodization, but many of them are simple and relatively static in design – fat loss is very different. If not approached correctly, certain dietary habits can wreck our metabolism, make us more likely to gain back additional weight in the future, drastically slow down fitness progress, and decrease our quality of life. To keep these unpleasant side effects from occurring, we need to follow an eating strategy that allows us to perform our best, stay healthy, and drop those unwanted pounds without slowing us down.
The very basics of my Fitstra fat loss program aren’t too complicated – combine a slight intake deficit with a little more fat loss cardio, sprinkle in some carbohydrate refeed days during the week, and incorporate ketogenic focused eating styles at regular intervals to improve the utilization of fats. Let’s outline the major points of this strategy first, then dive into the specifics of each component. This plan is meant to work with an eating frequency of 4-5 meals per day.
Regarding changes in intake quantities, I recommend that you slightly reduce carbohydrate and fat intake by 10-20% below your normal energy balance and pair this minor caloric reduction with 10-30 minutes of additional fat loss cardio to create a daily energy deficit of somewhere around 350-700 calories. These deficit days are separated by carbohydrate ‘refeed’ days that bring us back to energy balance or push us into a very slight (5% or less) surplus and occur every 4-6 days, resulting in an energy restricted state ~80% of the time. Refeeding allows us to reset the catabolic environment that a deficit creates and helps to restore normal hormonal balance/sensitivity. This deficit/refeed pattern combined with a smart cardiovascular exercise program should help us drop close to 0.5-1% of our body weight per week. Within this range, aim for larger losses at the beginning and smaller, yet consistent progress as you close in on your goal.
The macronutrient split of this fat loss diet falls within my recommended percentages listed earlier and is quite consistent throughout the plan, but there are some changes that need to occur at certain frequencies. Most of the time, your diet should be high in protein at ~40% of total daily caloric intake (40-60g per meal) and contain a significant amount of carbohydrates (~30%) and fats (~30%). Because we know all three macronutrients are so important to exercise performance, we don’t want to eliminate any of them. If you’re lifting weights, eat carbs to fuel and recover from your workouts with the 40% post-workout intake volume discussed in the Maximizing Muscle Growth section. Experiment with different glycemic index value carbohydrates to find what makes you feel the best, perform well, and maintain a consistent rate of fat loss.
The plan outlined so far is obviously not a low carb or ketogenic diet, but occasionally going ‘keto’ gives us an opportunity to take advantage of some really neat metabolic adaptations. Every ~5th week, I suggest that you drop your carbohydrate intake to ~5% (keep fiber rich vegetable intake high) and bump up your fats to result in roughly a 40-45% protein, 50-55% fat, and 5% carbohydrate split. This single ‘keto’ week operates at energy balance (no deficit/refeed cycle) and should contain your regular fat loss cardiovascular exercise and no resistance work. If you follow my weight lifting programs, this ketogenic period occurs during the off weeks. The last day of this keto week (24 hours before your next resistance training session) should be a carbohydrate refeed day to fuel up for the upcoming resistance workout. As we’ll discuss later, a high fat/low carbohydrate diet implemented correctly can successfully increase our metabolic efficiency of fats and make subsequent fat loss exercise more effective.
That’s pretty much it – eat a little less, exercise a little more, and dabble in keto. Continue this cycle until you reach your fat loss goal. This plan is focused around the idea that because both carbohydrates and fats are important fuel sources, we want to train our bodies to know when to use each substrate and how to use them well.
To make all of this a little easier to comprehend, an example calendar of the whole routine is listed below. Take note of the differences from day to day. For example, some days have lifting and cardio, some only cardio, while the weekends are meant for rest and recovery. This specific example calendar follows a Mon/Tues/Thurs/Fri lifting schedule like in my Upper/Lower programs and refeed days occur every 5th day, but the general concept can be modified and adapted to fit any routine.
With the broad strokes covered, let’s explore the details and the ‘why’ behind some of these components, beginning with energy deficit and balance. But before diving in, it’s important for me to stress that this approach relies heavily on knowing your energy balance requirements. Please take the time to track your total caloric intake and eating habits so that you can accurately calculate your individual needs.
As established in the initial overview, my fat loss strategy relies on the combination of a slight intake restriction AND a little extra cardiovascular exercise to create our total daily energy deficit. Fat loss without exercise is totally possible, but that’s not what we’re doing here. By utilizing these two methods instead of just relying on one, the intensity/demand of each component can be reduced. If our diet is less restrictive and our exercise program is more reasonable, the program will be easier to adhere to and more effective long term. You don’t have to starve yourself to lose weight if exercise is included in your weight loss strategy.
For example, a 10% reduction from a 2000 calorie EB baseline is just 200 calories. We can hit this target by simply removing 9g (9 calories/g) of fat and 30g (4 calories/g) of carbohydrates a day, or with a variety of other carbohydrate/fat combinations. When this minor intake reduction is paired with just a little more fat loss cardiovascular exercise, the total daily energy deficit can easily double. As little as 10 extra minutes a day on top of your current resistance training and cardio routine could be enough to move the scale. I’ve plugged it a few times already, but if you’re not following a detailed fat loss cardio plan, please go check out the Fat Loss Programming guide and the Supplemental Fat Loss sections featured in all of my programs – they’ve got everything you need to complete the exercise half of this formula.
Achieving a minor daily deficit is not incredibly difficult if you approach it the right way – use diet AND exercise together to make it easy.
With the deficit component addressed, let’s discuss refeed days. Why do we need them and why can’t we just maintain a deficit all the time for faster fat loss?
Losing weight is stressful, both emotionally and physiologically. Eating less and exercising more essentially puts our bodies into a starvation mode where they consume themselves for energy… brutal. This catabolic environment caused by caloric restriction and longer duration cardio sessions is essential for efficient fat loss, but unlike the anabolic conditions produced by an energy balance or surplus, we can’t stay in the red indefinitely. When we operate at a long term deficit or attempt to crash diet our way to a leaner physique, we encounter some pretty unfavorable changes to our sex hormones, thyroid function, and cortisol levels. While side effects like decreased testosterone, male hypogonadism, female athlete triad, increased muscle/protein breakdown, decreased MPS, decreased glycogen synthesis/storage, and lower insulin concentrations caused by an impaired endocrine system and dramatically elevated cortisol levels are all far from insignificant issues, the main concern I want to highlight relates to thyroid function and energy expenditure.
If sustained for too long, a constant caloric deficit can significantly slow down our metabolism, resulting in a noticeable drop in total daily energy expenditure. This ‘metabolic downshift’ is called adaptive thermogenesis and it’s a calorie sparing response that our bodies initiate in times of starvation. To keep losing weight in a state of adaptive thermogenesis, we’re forced to gradually eat less and exercise more, which can cause us to develop quite a few unhealthy and unsustainable habits. If this wasn’t already bad enough, our general exercise performance can also be negatively affected due to the limited availability of energy (glycogen delivery and synthesis), possibly leading to emotional distress and a loss in muscle mass due to a steady decline in workout quality.
But wait, there’s more! Things can actually get quite a bit worse when we finally reach our target weight/body composition and go back to ‘normal’ eating habits.
When we lose fat, our fat cells (adipocytes) shrink. In contrast, when we eat too much and gain weight, these same cells expand to hold more stored triglycerides. Our bodies contain roughly the same number of adipocytes during ‘normal’ fluctuations in weight, but these cells change in size in response to varying diet and exercise habits – less fat means smaller fat cells, but we keep the same number. However, this quantity can change.
Adipocytes can become more sensitive to glucose after periods of rapid weight loss. In this hyper-sensitive state, small fat cells (recently shrunk by crash dieting) absorb glucose faster than what can be stored. Instead of expanding in size to hold the newly synthesized triglyceride content, some adipocytes may split to form entirely new cells in a process called hyperplasia – a greater number of fat cells means more total fat storage. When this increased capacity is combined with a drastically slowed metabolism due to adaptive thermogenesis and all of the other unfavorable hormonal changes listed earlier, rapid weight gain that exceeds our initial starting point is entirely possible. Even if we were to eat at our previously established energy balance intake, we could end up way heavier than where we started.
To state the obvious, bad weight loss diets are bad.
While it’s important to understand what CAN go wrong if we don’t approach fat loss in a sensible and safe manner, there’s no need to stress out about anything that’s been mentioned here so far. We can successfully avoid these deficit related issues simply by implementing carbohydrate refeed days. Systematically adding in energy balance and/or minor surplus days through an increased carbohydrate intake allows us to replenish glycogen stores, acutely spike insulin levels, and reset many of the hormonal imbalances that begin to occur after longer deficit periods. If possible, try to pair refeeds with days that don’t contain any cardiovascular exercise.
Regarding carbohydrate food sources, you may find that higher glycemic index complex carbs that spike insulin and blood sugar acutely to be more effective for fat loss than lower GI options that stimulate insulin production for much longer after ingestion. Insulin suppresses fat oxidation and it’s possible that lower GI foods might slow down your progress. However, you might also find the opposite to be true. It’s important that you experiment with different foods to find what makes you feel and perform the best.
Because 1-2 carbohydrate refeed days a week slow down overall fat loss progress, our ability to crash diet down to a smaller size is nearly eliminated. Refeed days force us to embrace sustainable lifestyle changes and develop healthy fat loss habits instead of relying on quick, dirty, and unsafe alternatives.
A 0.5-1% loss in body weight per week is our ‘sustainable lifestyle change’ target range, but you’ll probably find yourself outside of these values at different points throughout your fat loss journey. For most people, losses will be greater at the beginning and will slowly decrease over time due to a mixture of physiological, behavioral, and emotional factors, and that’s totally fine. I recommend that you embrace this common progress decline, set your expectations accordingly, and intentionally taper your losses as the last few pounds drop and you close in on your goal. Slowly phasing out of a fat loss mindset and into a more normal routine can help solidify any recently formed healthy habits and it allows us to work with, not against, a natural change in energy expenditure.
Whether or not you’re OK with this idea of an extended and tapered timeline, it’s important to understand why a natural slowdown occurs at all. Why isn’t weight loss progress linear?
Fading program enthusiasm can partially be to blame for diminished fat loss returns, but the main culprit is a normal and totally expected drop in TDEE due to changes in body mass. Whether you successfully lose 5 or 50 pounds, a leaner version of you will expend fewer calories per day than heavier you once did. Weighing less means you won’t require as much energy to move around, sustain basic bodily functions, or fuel exercise. This drop in TDEE also means that our intake for energy balance will decrease. Many weight loss diets stall here because changes in EB are not considered – intake stays the same despite lower EB requirements. But if we’re consistently tracking our intake, monitoring changes in weight, and regularly assessing energy levels/mood, we should be able to modify daily macronutrient/caloric totals to accommodate for any reductions in TDEE.
Fat and carbohydrate intake quantities can fluctuate within the ranges listed earlier in this guide to help you achieve your desired deficit, but protein needs to stay high due to its effect on muscle retention and appetite control. Protein is arguably the most important macronutrient for fat loss.
Both muscle protein synthesis and lean tissue breakdown can be negatively affected by even the best fat loss diets. The catabolic environment induced by energy restriction has been shown to decrease peak MPS rates by over 25% and significantly increase MPB – a lot less muscle growth and way more loss. These issues are minimized with carbohydrate refeed days, but they’re not completely eliminated. A drop in lean tissue affects our aesthetics but it also hurts performance, as less metabolically active tissue slows fat loss progress, hinders exercise performance, and can lead to injury if MPB is severe enough. We probably won’t experience much muscle growth during extended periods of fat loss, but we can work to maintain everything we’ve built by eating more protein. The per meal intake quantities I suggested in the Maximizing Muscle Mass section are just about what I would aim for here – roughly 40-60g of protein – enough to maximally stimulate MPS and help suppress breakdown.
It’s incredibly important for us to maintain muscle mass by eating more protein while in a caloric deficit, but this macronutrient contributes much more to fat loss success than just tissue preservation. Protein can help us defeat the hunger beast.
Because losing weight ultimately depends on a high level of dietary discipline and intake control, healthy appetite suppressing strategies that combat resistance exercise induced hunger can be key components to long term fat loss success. When listed in order from most to least satiating, protein is first, carbohydrates are second, and fats are third as the least satiating macronutrient – fats can slow down gastric emptying, delaying hunger, but they do not produce the same satiety hormone response as protein or carbohydrates. This means that high protein meals, especially at breakfast and lunch, can help us feel more satisfied and stay more full throughout the day. Some studies have shown that slightly shifting calories towards the front half of the day may reduce evening cravings and give us more self-control during those nighttime hours before bed. We shouldn’t have to suffer through ravenous hunger to see progress in our weight loss journey, and a high protein can keep that from happening.
Feeling more satisfied and full helps us adhere to new diets and maintain deficits with less effort, but the emotional response to dietary fulfillment is just as important, especially for those that struggle with mild to severe eating disorders. The satiating effect of high protein meals can decrease reward style eating habits, produce fewer incidents of mindless snacking, decrease emotion fueled binging, give us more control over symptoms of eating addiction, and help us establish a healthier relationship with food.
Protein won’t solve all of our problems, but it can help us make smarter decisions and say ‘no’ to many tempting alternatives.
With all the other components of this fat loss diet addressed, we have one last topic to discuss – nutritional ketosis.
When fasting, exercising, or in a carbohydrate restricted state, our livers produce water soluble molecules called ketones through ketogenesis. Ketones are synthesized from both free fatty acids and glycogen, and can be used by our muscles, heart, and brain/CNS for energy, making them a viable fuel alternative to glucose for many different biological functions. However, when carbohydrates are consistently present in our diet at moderate to high intake quantities, ketone production will be low because our bodies won’t have a reason to abandon glycolysis. As long as carbs are present, insulin will suppress ketone production and glucose will be the preferred macronutrient used to fuel brain function and many physical activities. To enter a ketogenic state, we essentially need to starve the body of carbohydrates long enough to force a metabolic switch away from glycogen/glucose to ketone bodies and fats. This is typically accomplished by following a diet that’s high in fat and protein but very low in carbs.
After multiple weeks (4+) of strict adherence to a very low carbohydrate diet (less than 25-50g/day or 5-10% of daily calories), our metabolism can shift into a state of nutritional ketosis. When in nutritional ketosis, fats and ketone bodies are used as primary fuel sources while carbohydrate reliance is minimized. With fats being burned for the majority of our mental and physical energy, blood levels of ketones rise, insulin levels drop, fat oxidation enzyme (lipase) production and mitochondrial activity is increased, and rates of gluconeogenesis/glycogen utilization decline – basically, we become supercharged, fat burning machines. And because most of us carry around at least a few pounds of stored body fat, we have a nearly unlimited supply of energy to fuel our daily activities.
A successful ketogenic diet combined with a slight caloric deficit or certain fasting techniques (I don’t recommend regularly occurring, extended periods of fasting for most people but it can be an incredibly effective weight loss strategy for more obese individuals.) can help us rapidly drop weight, but the health benefits of ketosis are not limited to fat loss. Improved blood lipid profiles, cancer growth suppression, fewer epileptic symptoms, better blood sugar control, increased endurance exercise performance, and a decreased risk for cardiovascular disease can all result from this dietary change. When incorporated correctly and in the right situations, a ketogenic diet can be an excellent intake alternative to a more traditional macronutrient split for some people.
If nutritional ketosis has the potential to be a superior fat loss strategy and is associated with an impressive list of health benefits, why are we implementing it so infrequently?
Unfortunately, true nutritional ketosis can be very difficult to achieve and even harder to maintain. As mentioned earlier, it can take a minimum of one month for our bodies to successfully switch from carbohydrates to fats and ketones. This means that our diet has to be nearly perfect for at least 4 weeks before we even reach a state of ketosis and that same level of intake precision must be sustained after for the adaptation to be maintained. If we don’t successfully force a fuel switch during that time, our ‘keto’ diet can turn into a very unpleasant low carb diet, possibly leaving us fatigued and unmotivated to exercise. Due to these demanding requirements, I don’t believe that nutritional ketosis is a realistic goal for most people. A ketogenic state is absolutely achievable and far from impossible, but there are too many obstacles that can get in the way of this metabolic adaptation for me to recommend it as a long term dietary strategy for the average person. Instead of trying to implement difficult, high maintenance diets, I’d rather you focus on more sustainable and realistic fat loss practices that give you much more intake flexibility.
Along with being difficult to adhere to, a high fat diet could lead to weight gain in certain situations. As discussed earlier, fat is the most calorically dense, yet the least satiating macronutrient. Some studies show that long term high fat diets can decrease the satiety hormone response to fats even further by lowering the sensitivity of lipid receptors in our gut. This means that if we have a tendency to eat until we’re full and consume large quantities of fats, we could easily exceed energy balance. Research shows that high fat diets do not result in more fat loss if our eating habits put us at a caloric surplus. Because weight loss ultimately depends on an energy deficit, if you struggle with intake control, a high fat diet might not be the best plan for long term fat loss success.
Eliminating carbohydrates and going keto can also drastically limit our high intensity exercise performance. Because resistance training is a key component to any good fat loss program, it’s important that we have the energy to lift weights well. Fats and ketones are an incredible fuel source for endurance exercise and low intensity activities, but they can’t compete with carbohydrates for strength/hypertrophy training or HIIT style workouts. A long term ketogenic diet that hinders the anaerobic glycolytic energy system could cause us to chronically underperform in many fitness settings, build less muscle (decreased MPS + increased MPB due to gluconeogenesis), lose strength, and see fewer improvements to our lactate thresholds.
We need carbohydrates to fuel high intensity resistance workouts, but we don’t need to lift weights or do anaerobic work all the time.
A long term ketogenic diet might not be the best nutritional strategy due to its strict intake requirements, weight gain potential, and possible negative effects on exercise performance, but short term applications are very different. Some studies show that lipid oxidation activity can be increased in as little as ~5 days when a ketogenic diet is paired with endurance based cardiovascular exercise. This research suggests that it’s not necessary for us to actually achieve nutritional ketosis to benefit from a very low carb intake strategy and improve fat utilization. We most likely won’t reach ketogenic levels of fat oxidation in a week, but 5-10 days can be long enough to cause a slight metabolic adaptation and train our bodies to rely just a little bit more on fat and a little less on carbs for energy, both at rest and when we exercise.
By implementing a ketogenic diet during our weight lifting recovery/off weeks (as used in all of my Fitstra programs), we can drop carbohydrate intake without interfering with resistance training performance and improve fat utilization through a combination of cardio and macronutrient manipulation. Note – improved fat utilization means more reliance on fats than on carbs, not a higher TDEE caused by some out of control fat loss fire.
In theory, we can get better and better at using fats for fuel the more this pattern is repeated, making our normal fat loss cardio that accompanies carbohydrate fueled resistance training even more effective. While an entire month of keto might be tough to complete successfully, most of us can handle a week of limited carbs. Plus, we’re not actually trying to achieve nutritional ketosis with this approach, so minor setbacks or accidental high carb days won’t completely derail progress. Overall, I think this a much more realistic and sustainable implementation of the ketogenic diet that also allows us to pursue resistance training at a high level.
Be sure to end this ketogenic week with a carbohydrate refeed day 24 hours before the first lifting session of the new cycle.
Well… that’s it – lots of fun information regarding metabolism, but it’s not the most complicated fat loss plan ever built. Focus on a daily deficit, incorporate refeed days, and play with keto all while lifting weights and following a smart fat loss cardiovascular exercise program. Be smart about your intake and fuel yourself to perform well in the gym and in life. Food is not your enemy, exercise is not a punishment, and this fat loss strategy should be temporary – reach your goal and work to maintain it. Take the time to learn what your body needs and form healthy dietary/fitness habits that will last a lifetime. Change takes time and a considerable amount of effort, so be sure to celebrate every minor victory along the way.
I believe the plan outlined above is a really effective fat loss strategy, but at the end of the day, you should do what works best for you. Follow this plan perfectly, modify it slightly to fit your needs, or take a few ideas and add them to your already existing routine. But whatever you do, you don’t have to do it alone.
If you need help any help with your fat loss progress, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email. Let’s work together to knock off those unwanted pounds.
Seriously, I’d love to help.
Alcohol & Exercise
Whether you prefer beer, wine, whiskey, or something in between, alcohol can be a ton of fun. An occasional drink or two is a great way to unwind after a long day, celebrate a special occasion, or just be more social in a group setting. And when consumed in moderation, alcohol and fitness can coexist peacefully. However, excessive intake is a different story.
Alcohol might not be part of the food pyramid, but it’s common enough in most of our diets that it deserves some brief attention. In this section, we’ll very quickly cover some of the major side effects associated with excessive alcohol consumption.
At about 7 calories per gram, alcohol is a pretty energy dense substance. And because we typically don’t chug pure ethanol, the extra calories in our drinks can add up fast. Gaining a little extra weight might be your only drinking concern, but like it or not, ethanol is a powerful drug that can completely wreck our fitness progress if intake is too high.
I want to keep this ‘no one’s allowed to have any fun’ party as short as possible. So, the main points are summarized below.
- Decreased lipid oxidation can slow down fat loss progress and hinder endurance exercise performance.
- Decreased glycogen storage/synthesis can negatively impact resistance training intensity and recovery/muscle growth.
- Decreased baseline hydration and rate of rehydration can impact exercise performance, cognitive ability, recovery, and life in general.
- Decreased blood flow (peripheral vasoconstriction) to muscles can hurt exercise performance and recovery.
- Decreased MPS can result in slower muscle growth/recovery and possibly muscle loss.
- Decreased CNS excitability can negatively affect motor unit recruitment and fiber activation, resulting in strength and size losses.
- Decreased brain phospholipid levels can negatively affect cognitive ability and mood.
- Decreased immune function can keep us away from training more during the year due to frequent illness.
- Increased inflammation can slow down recovery, hinder exercise performance, impact digestion, and hurt cognitive ability.
- Increased weight gain can… make us fat.
- Decreased sleep quality can alter hormone levels, mood, energy, and recovery.
- Decreased testosterone can limit growth and general exercise performance.
It’s important to note that nearly all of these issues are caused by frequent/high volume consumption and aren’t common with a moderate/occasional intake. While that’s probably comforting for many of you, there’s not exactly a clear defining line between low and high quantities of alcohol. Differences in body size, fat/muscle composition, hydration levels, and stomach food content mean that the same drink can affect us all differently – low for you might wreck your friend.
So, how much can you drink and still see progress? That’s for you to figure out.
If fitness really matters to you and you’re determined to completely eliminate all of the problems listed above from occurring, don’t drink – alcohol can’t slow us down if we don’t consume it. To avoid hangovers and every little speed bump that might be caused by drinking, abstinence is by far the most effective strategy and is my official recommendation for consumption, but for many people it’s unrealistic.
Life is all about priorities and choices. Reaching your peak performance potential requires a certain level of self-control and restriction. To be the best, you can’t afford any missteps. In contrast, exercise goals that are centered on simply being healthy, generally fit, and looking good provide much more wiggle room for fun. You don’t have to avoid alcohol to get the most out of your workouts, but you can’t drink excessively and expect to see consistent progress either. So, if you aren’t willing to give up those few beers on the weekend or glasses of wine during the week, just be a responsible adult, drink in moderation, stay hydrated, and avoid getting drunk.
If you’re consistent in the gym and in the kitchen but aren’t seeing the results you expect, reevaluate your drinking habits – track alcohol intake just like carbs, fats, and protein.
Make smart choices.
This section is intentionally short and quite a few interesting details were omitted. If you’d like to chat more about the relationship between alcohol and exercise, shoot me an email. I’d love to help you find the right balance between fun and fitness.
Registered Dietitians & Fitness
As I mentioned earlier, I am not a nutrition expert. My degree/education is exercise based, not dietetic. I have multiple personal training certifications but none of them focus on nutrition. And I’ve never shadowed or interned with any nutrition professionals. Yet, a can legally call myself a nutritionist in the US because this general service label is not legally protected. This low barrier to entry means that your ‘nutrition coach’ many be vastly under-qualified to be giving you detailed health advice and may not actually understand many of the topics they’re so opinionated about.
Job opportunities for beginners are really great, but so are minimum qualifications. To get the best nutrition advice, you need to work with a registered dietitian (RD).
In the United States, registered dietitians must have at least a bachelor’s degree, are required to complete a dietetic internship program, and must pass a state regulated exam to obtain their license. Like all other services, quality and knowledge will vary between RDs and it’s up to you as the consumer to research the best reviewed options. But the years of work that are required to obtain those two little letters make most RDs knowledgeable and trustworthy sources of information.
Registered dietitians also offer specific services (oftentimes covered by insurance) that just aren’t available to trainers or general nutritionists. By working with local labs, RDs can order specific blood tests that check for food sensitivities/allergies, micronutrient deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, blood lipid profiles, causes inflammation, and many other food related issues. After testing, a great RD will then work with you to diagnose and successfully treat any problems that were detected by altering your current eating habits or prescribing certain supplements.
This guide has focused primarily on macronutrients because I personally believe that the overwhelming majority of our diet should come from whole foods and not shakes, bars, pills, or powders. However, there are quite a few dietary supplements that can be really beneficial to our general health and exercise performance. Some examples of helpful supplements include, but are not limited to:
- Fish Oil/Omega-3
- Protein Powder (Animal or Plant Protein)
- Vitamin D
- General Multivitamin
- Calcium & Magnesium (Women)
The supplements listed above can probably help most people, but results vary – we’re all unique and require different things. To really know what’s best for your body, where you may be deficient, and how to optimally strategize for nutritional success, work with an RD. I’d love to help in any way that I can, but I can only do so much as a personal trainer and I feel that it’s important to be open about those limitations – sheltering clients from potentially superior competing services doesn’t help anyone long term.
If you’re serious about feeling great and getting your nutritional habits together, let’s work together to pair you up with a great registered dietitian that will complement your exercise goals lifestyle.
Wrapping It Up
If you’ve made this far and are feeling a little overwhelmed by all of the information covered here, that makes two of us – nutrition can be a complicated topic, even at a surface level.
While this guide contains quite a few nutritional suggestions, many variables were intentionally left open to experimentation. What works best for you will most likely be different than what proves to be most successful for your neighbor – there’s no one size fits all for food choices, portion sizes, or meal compositions. A really effective dietary strategy is one that’s personalized and periodized to target certain goals, incorporates all three macronutrients at different intake quantities and timings, and built around the needs of the individual who’s following it.
If most of the information in this guide has been new to you, just focus on the basics – be a little better each day, try to stay consistent with your intake targets, track what you eat, focus on your goals, and don’t beat yourself up if you get a little sidetracked.
If you have any questions about what was covered here, would like some help dialing in specific variables like food choices, or just want to chat about general diet and exercise stuff, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email. I’d love to work with you and help you build a rock solid nutrition plan or point you in the direction of a great registered dietitian.
Nutrition can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s work together to make it easy.
Experiment by manipulating different variables. Find out what works best for you. Share what you discover. Have fun.
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