Depending on who you ask, every trainer is going to give you a different answer when it comes to nutrition.
Do you need carbs or do you avoid them altogether?
You can’t eat bread, ice cream and pizza, but you can and should eat celery, chicken and spinach, right?
What’s the deal with sugar?
Are 8 meals per day better than 6?
Depending on what you read and whom you listen to, getting your eating right for fat loss can become a real pain as you struggle and stress over what to eat, when to eat it, and how much you need. To answer all of the above and more, we need to look at the underlying principle of nutrition.
Calories are King
A calorie is a unit of energy and your body needs them to survive. They are ultimately what determine whether you lose, maintain or gain weight. Weight management, in reality, is a very simple equation.
- Eat fewer calories than you burn and you lose weight.
- Eat more calories than you burn and you gain weight.
- Eat as many calories as you burn and your weight will remain stable.
That’s it. The very crux of weight loss and weight gain comes down to the amount of energy you’re putting in versus the amount of energy you’re putting out. Ultimately, the rest of your diet doesn’t really matter until your caloric intake has been addressed.
A General Guide
As a very (very) general guide, the more calories you eat, the faster you’ll gain weight and build muscle provided you’re training accordingly, however the faster you’ll likely also gain excess body fat too. The fewer calories you eat, the faster you’ll lose weight but the greater chance you have of burning through muscle too.
As you can see, it’s something of a numbers game and a bit of a balancing act, in ensuring you’re gaining or losing slowly to reap the rewards without necessarily experiencing the potential consequences in excess.
Optimizing your approach with Flexible Dieting
If you really want to split hairs and optimize your approach, you’re going to need to consider calculating your daily macronutrient requirements. The three macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates and fats. This is going to help you build and maintain muscle mass when bulking or cutting in the best way possible, whilst allowing freedom within your calorie intake – known as flexible dieting or ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ (IIFYM). Flexible dieting involves restriction free eating and focuses on the nutritional content of food, rather than specific foods being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. You monitor your intake by tracking calories and/or macronutrients and place a focus on nutrient-dense, healthy foods.
However, if you fancy a little “junk food” you can have it, provided it’s in moderation, and still fits the parameters of your daily calorie/macronutrient requirements.
The power of IIFYM
Flexible dieting is so successful, because it completely eradicates the need for cheat meals, greatly reduces your risk of binge eating and ensures you’re far more likely to stick to your diet and, ultimately, get results. It’s all about forging a healthy relationship with food and promotes consistency and sustainability in your approach to eating and gym progress.
You could consider it the scientific approach to eating – a way of tracking and quantifying what you’re eating in a bid to control and manipulate your body composition.
As mentioned, it’s also arguably the most sustainable way to diet, as it’s easy to stick to for a long period of time.
Now, despite the fact that we have more scientific knowledge and more access to research and literature than ever before regarding the importance of calories, the energy balance and how to structure our diets for optimal muscle building and fat loss through the use of flexible dieting, much of the training and dieting community is still stuck in the dark ages. There are so many myths and misconceptions floating around out there it’s scary. Guys and girls and self-acclaimed fitness models alike are still promoting outdated practices that just don’t make sense and aren’t even close to necessary.
Let’s take a look at some of the more common myths that the big jacked dude at your gym is likely going to share with you, despite the fact you’re now clued in to the science behind why/how you gain/lose weight:
Eat Small, Frequent Meals to Speed Up Your Metabolism
The theory that your body would find it easier to handle and digest multiple smaller meals per day in comparison to larger, more infrequent feedings makes sense to a certain degree, right? It’s reasonably similar to the notion that dumping an enormous pile of wood onto a fire might not be as advantageous as gradually adding in one log at a time – but your metabolism isn’t a fire.
Every time you eat, you burn calories digesting the meal you’ve just consumed. This is referred to as the thermic effect of food (TEF). Whilst different macronutrients contain a different increase in TEF, whether you look at the percentage increase from a meal perspective or a day’s worth of eating, that percentage is going to remain the same.
Different macronutrients have a slightly different thermic effect, but at the end of the day, 10 x 250 calorie meals is ultimately going to burn the same amount of calories through digestion as 1 x 2500 calorie meal, provided the macronutrient breakdown is the same of course. So quit with the stop-watch – there’s no need to time your meals to the minute just to lose fat, so long as you aren’t consuming too many total calories.
Your diet should work for you and so long as you’re meeting daily requirements from a calorie/macronutrient perspective, the amount of meals you eat is largely irrelevant to body composition outside of affecting things such as mood, energy levels, training intensity etc.
Low Carb Diets are the Only Way to Lose Fat
For a long time now, carbs have been made out to be the enemy – they’re evil, dirty, body fat increasing monsters. One of the main reasons behind this belief is due to the apparent success of eating approaches such as the Atkins and South Beach diets that focus on severely restricting carbohydrate intake in favor of proteins and fats.
People tend to get pretty excited during the initial stages of a low-carb diet as you tend to lose a lot of weight almost immediately. Trouble is, this is mostly water and glycogen – not necessarily body fat.
Over the long term, any differences between low carb diets and other diets balance out and show that it isn’t beneficial to opt for one over another. Plus, when people tend to opt for a low-carb diet, they consume an increased amount of protein that tends to have a higher thermic effect and provides more satiety, further contributing to the illusion of lower-carb diets being more effective. Outside of personal preference, certain medical conditions and very few other scenarios, there’s just no need to remove the most readily available source of energy from your diet.
So long as you’re burning more calories than you’re consuming, you’re going to be losing weight, whether you’re consuming no carbs or a diet that is filled with calories from Twinkies.
Eating Carbs at Night Makes You Fat
You aren’t planning on training after a certain hour in the day, so you won’t likely require any more carbs right? They are the number one fuel source for the body, so it seems like it might have some truth to it yes? No.
Just no. Burning fat requires eating fewer calories than what you’re burning. It really doesn’t matter whether you choose to eat the calories before you burn them, so long as the net result at the end of the day is the same.
It is best to implement periodic cheat days after you stick rigidly to your “clean” diet
The ironic thing about people who criticize “flexible dieting/IIFYM” followers” is that they rigidly cling to their “clean” eating regimen only to give in after a short period of time and go on absolute binge-a-thons (colloquially called “cheat” days). Don’t be fooled; those intermittent binge episodes will wreak havoc on your body composition quickly.
Many gym-goers assert that “clean eating” is the key to success when trying to build muscle and burn fat. In their mind, “clean eating” entails a day full of nothing but tuna, broccoli, and brown rice. Reality check…eating plain, bland, fresh-from-the-can tuna chunks all day won’t make you healthier, or better looking than the next guy. What it will make you is someone who dreads their diet and can’t wait for the next cheat day to roll around.
The solution is quite simple—be creative in the kitchen! Have some variety in your diet, and quit looking at certain foods as being either “good” or “bad.” There is little reason to believe that a little “junk” food here and there will make or break your health and physique as long as you’re hitting your nutrient goals. There are millions of ways to eat a healthful diet rife with nutrient-dense foods and make it taste good. Get over the idea that dieting to have a lean body has to be some sort of sacrifice or process of suffering.
There is no reason you can’t achieve your physique and performance goals while also enjoying the foods you like, just exercise moderation; a sliver of cake won’t break you, but a whole cake probably will.
The human body can only absorb 30g of protein in one sitting
For some odd reason, people seem to believe the body is only capable of absorbing this rather random (and small) amount of protein at a time. If that supposition isn’t already ludicrous enough to know it’s bogus, then read on and we’ll take a scientific/methodical approach to this. Essentially, the idea that your body can’t absorb/digest more than 30g of protein at a given feeding is inherently suggesting that you will be excreting any amount of protein over that mark in your feces. Basically, instead of your body digesting the “excess” protein, it magically bypasses the highly conserved/intricate digestive process and is sent directly to the colon.
Note that we would be screwed physiologically if this is what actually happened; we would be bound to the toilet all day.
Furthermore, there is next to no literature that confirms the body can’t absorb more than 30 of protein at a given feeding. In fact, the literature supports that the body can digest quite a large amount, it just takes longer to digest and absorb than a smaller dose. Rather than just redirecting excessive protein to your colon, the rate of digestion compensates to reduce the supply of nutrients being sent to the anterior small intestine (i.e. the stomach delays gastric processes).
For the absolute extremists who want to know if their body can absorb 200g of protein at once? The short answer is “yes,” but not all of that will be put to “good use” so to speak.
Protein, like carbohydrates, can be converted to fat, but the pathways to do so are inefficient biochemically so it happens to a lesser degree. The majority of amino acids that aren’t used for muscle protein synthesis are likely subject to oxidation and/or hepatic gluconeogenesis, therefore being subsequently stored or used for energy.
Don’t worry too much about eating a lot of protein at once, the body can handle pretty much whatever amount you give it. However, it is still best to space out your protein intake over the course of 3-5 meals rather than eating it all at once.
Training Myths Busted!
When it comes to training, it seems like broscience just won’t go away. No matter how much nonsense is behind certain lifting ideologies, there’s always a generous amount of gym-goers who remain caught up in their unfounded habits.
Hopefully you’ll approach these myths with more of an open mind and see that there really is a light at the end of the tunnel. Read on as we uncover some of the biggest training misconceptions that pervade the fitness industry.
Cardio is Essential for Fat Loss
Lifting weights is great for building and maintaining muscle mass, so in order to burn body fat we’re going to need to elevate our heart rate for extended periods of time and ‘sweat’ that fat off, right? Wrong!
Cardio isn’t essential for fat loss, but it may help. Science tells us that we lose weight when we burn more calories than we consume, so if performing cardio helps with that equation, then sure, it’s advisable. But consider this – lifting weights also elevates the heart rate and burns calories. In fact, the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn. So there could be an argument for the fact that burning calories through lifting weights is arguably more beneficial in the long term, but we won’t get into that here.
Adding cardio into your routine may very well help swing that energy balance (calories in versus calories out) in your favor, but no more effectively than eating fewer calories. Again, it’s all about that calorie equation – are you burning more calories than you’re consuming?
Fasted Cardio Is Best for Fat Loss
If you haven’t eaten in around 8 hours because you’ve been sleeping, surely it’s easier to tap into those unwanted fat stores, right?
Well, not really. In fact, research shows that so long as the energy balance of your diet is on par with your goals (i.e. you’re burning more calories than you’re consuming as mentioned above), fat loss is similar whether or not you choose to eat before performing cardio.
Findings indicate that body composition changes associated with aerobic exercise in conjunction with a calorie deficit are similar regardless of whether or not an individual is fasted prior to training. Hence, those seeking to lose body fat conceivably can choose to train either before or after eating based on preference.
Take home point? When it comes to cardio, stick to what you prefer.
Light Weights and High Reps Helps You ‘Tone’
The media is obsessed with this one but the reality is that when people consider the term ‘toned’ or ‘toning’, they’re really just referring to muscular definition and shape, resulting in a firmer, more widely attractive body. Here’s the thing, looking ‘toned’ is possible, but it requires muscular development and lowering your body fat percentage in order to show off said development. Typically speaking, the best way to go about this is to engage in regular hypertrophy (lean muscle building) training with an emphasis on progressively overloading your muscles, or challenging them more and more over time, while eating at a surplus to support said growth. From there, it’s simply a matter of sending yourself into a calorie deficit by consuming fewer calories than you’re burning in order to shed enough fat to get lean enough to show off those hard earned muscles once you’ve achieved the size you’re after.
There are obviously a few more intricate details worth paying attention to such as protein intake, optimal training methods for muscle retention etc., but that’s the core of it. You can look ‘toned’ but there’s really no way to actively ‘tone’.
When cutting, it’s best to lift lighter weights for higher reps
There seems to be a variety of misconceptions attached to weight training; a popular one in particular is the idea that lifting lighter loads for more reps (say 15+) will “tone” muscles better than using heavy loads for fewer reps (6 or less). Aside from the fact that “toning” is a nonsensical term when it comes to muscle morphology, there is little basis to the presumption that using light weights and doing many repetitions is superior for muscle hypertrophy over using a weight that you may only be able to complete 5 reps with per set.
At the end of the day muscle hypertrophy is muscle hypertrophy; muscles grow or atrophy, which is what changes their shape. Using a mix of several rep ranges with both higher and lower loads will ultimately be best for building and maintaining muscle.
Let your diet do its thing for fat loss and keep training much like you would when trying to gain muscle—what builds muscle best retains it best. Moreover, you cannot “spot-reduce” certain body areas no matter how much you target/stimulate them. If you want an etched six-pack of abdominals, skip the marathon sets of sit-ups; work instead on providing progressive overload to the abdominals and losing sufficient body-fat. The best way to ensure you’re building or maintaining muscle is having a progression scheme in place. When you go into the gym one of your main priorities should be trying to progress from your previous workout.
Keep in mind that progression doesn’t always have to mean adding weight to the bar, but can come in the form of adding more volume, increasing frequency, adding various intensity techniques, etc. Just focus on progressing/improving in some capacity each week.
You can “etch details” into your muscles depending on what exercises you perform
This sort of plays off the above myth, but there is simply little basis to the idea that a muscle will appear more etched/detailed if you train it from 1,000 different angles. What will make it appear more vividly is simply making it grow and losing sufficient body-fat. Apparently many bodybuilders have taken the idea of “sculpting their physiques” far too literally. You can sufficiently stimulate just about all of your chest muscles using a press exercise and a flye exercise. You don’t need to do 6-7 different chest exercises in hopes that you will suddenly carve in striations that would otherwise be absent.
Assuming an equal amount of training volume is being performed, you won’t see much difference in your bicep growth whether you choose to perform just barbell curls and hammer curls or 9 different bicep exercises. We could go on and on with examples, but hopefully this will suffice.
It is best to only train each muscle group once a week
Many bodybuilders follow training routines that have them exhaustively train each muscle group only one time per week. While this may provide decent results over time, it is actually a rather inefficient way to train.
A study in the “Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology” found that muscle protein synthesis dramatically increases 65% above baseline 24 hours after a heavy bout of resistance training, and then drastically declines back to baseline at about the 48-hour mark post-workout.
Therefore, a much more prudent way to train would be to hit each muscle group 2-3 times per week and split the volume across each session. Think of each training session as an opportunity to induce growth; would you only want to grow your chest 52 times per year or, say, 104-156 times per year? Still not sure how to answer this? Well a second study in the “Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research” found that subjects who trained only one day per week had only 62% of the strength gains compared to subjects who split their training over 3 days per week (volume was matched between the two groups).
Here’s an example of what an efficient training split may look like:
- Monday: Chest/Back/Shoulders/Arms
- Tuesday: Rest Day or Cardio
- Wednesday: Quads/Hamstrings/Calves
- Thursday: Chest/Shoulders/Triceps
- Friday: Back/Biceps/Abs
- Saturday: Rest Day or Cardio
- Sunday: Quads/Hamstrings/Calves
In an industry saturated with under-qualified coaches, trainers and professional competitors who all preach about the methods and practices that have ‘worked for them’, it’s important to understand and consider the underlying reason certain approaches work.
Don’t confuse correlation with causation. Common sense is best applied liberally and if in doubt, do your research. The whole dieting and physique progress thing shouldn’t be as complex as some make it out to be.
The reality of fat loss
Fat loss is a simple mathematical equation that becomes a touch more complex in reality – there’s no need to further complicate the situation by self-imposing ridiculous old-school beliefs and mantras. Having the drive and determination to put the seemingly perfect plan in place is one thing, but to ensure that plan is as perfect as can be is another.