When it comes to setting up a successful diet, one that will truly help you drastically change your body composition, improve your performance, and help optimize your health, there is a hierarchy of importance. There are levels and concepts we must grasp, think order of operations, prior to worrying about any nutritional complexities. Why is this important? I’m sure you’ve heard of the saying, “You have to be able to walk, before you can run.” Well, it’s the same concept when it comes to your nutrition. You have to have a grasp on the basics (the lower levels), before you can climb the ladder and start worrying about the ‘sexy’ stuff. For example, meal timing doesn’t matter much if you can’t even routinely consume adequate calories. Just like building a house, we have to start with a strong and reliable foundation or the house (body) we build on top of it will never last. Yet, this is exactly what 75% of people DON’T do. They attempt to jump right into things, skipping the foundational principles and going straight for the advanced concepts and protocols, which ultimately are irrelevant to where they currently stand. With this being said, let’s start from the ground, up!
Whether you’re building a house or trying to make a change to your body composition, it is paramount to establish a strong foundation. The foundation of any nutritional protocol has to be QUANTITY (A.K.A. Calories). Before we get into why that is, I want to first make sure we are on the same page with regards to what a calorie is.
Calorie – “The energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water through 1°C, equal to one thousand small calories and often used to measure the energy value of foods.”
You may be thinking to yourself, “Okay, Kevin…now how bout in English?” While that’s the definition you probably got way back in high school science, it isn’t a great working definition.
A calorie is a way to measure your food and total, daily intake – we’ll call this your caloric input. It is also a way to measure how many calories you are expending through your day, both from working out and normal daily activities – we’ll call this your caloric output.
But again, what does this really mean for YOU? Gone are the days that you will say, “I want to lose weight,” and simply eat less with no plan or idea of how much less is appropriate. You now have a way of tracking, determining, and controlling the outcomes you see with your body composition, whether your goal be losing body fat or building muscle mass – no more leaving it up to chance. At the end of the day, years of scientific research has proven that, the #1 factor that determines our weight and body composition is Energy Balance – calories in vs. calories out. Once we determine your maintenance calories (TDEE: Total Daily Energy Expenditure), it’s all in the numbers:
Want to lose weight? Eat fewer calories than maintenance
Want to gain weight? Eat more calories than maintenance
Want to maintain weight? Eat right at maintenance
This is why energy balance is the foundation of the pyramid. Without constraints put around the calories you are taking in and the calories you are putting out, it will be very difficult to achieve the results you are after. Sure, quality matters as well (we’ll cover this later), but it accounts for a much smaller percentage of the physical results you’ll see.
Now that we established our foundation and the most influential thing we need to focus on to achieve the results we are after (Energy Balance – Calories In vs. Calories Out), the next step up the pyramid is Macronutrients (A.K.A. Macros). No, I’m not talking economics – although, that’s a great analogy I’ll cover later – I’m talking nutrition.
Macronutrient – “A substance required in relatively large amounts by living organisms, in particular.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I get it – you want the laymen’s definition.
A type of food (protein, fat, carbohydrate) required in large amounts in the human diet, that are the nutrients that make up our caloric intake.
As I just made reference to, each macronutrient has a caloric value associated with it, which his ultimately how we end up at our total, daily caloric input.
Protein: 4 calories per gram
Carbohydrate: 4 calories per gram
Fat: 9 calories per gram
Let me try to read your mind, again: “But, Kevin, you just got done explaining how all I have to focus on in order to reach my physical goals are my caloric intake and energy balance. Why are macronutrients important? Do I HAVE to track macronutrients?” Technically, no – you don’t have to. Like I mentioned, before, as long as you are in a caloric deficit, you’ll lose weight, just like as long as you are eating in a caloric surplus, you’ll gain weight. However, I’m guessing you care about:
- Training performance (whether that’s CrossFit, Orange Theory, or sport)
- Optimizing recovery
- Creating hormonal balance
- Building muscle
- Losing body fat (NOT losing muscle mass)
While a caloric deficit means weight loss, most people want FAT LOSS, not just weight loss in general. And, while a caloric surplus means weight gain, most people want to GAIN MUSCLE, not additional body fat. If this is you, then my answer is now, yes – tracking your macronutrient intake is going to be very important. When we dial in the ratio of proteins, fats and carbohydrates that we are consuming on a daily basis, we have more control over how much muscle we build over time, which will allow us to not only burn more body fat and increase our metabolism, but it will also increase longevity and improve hormonal balance. Because I am now telling you how important it is to track your macronutrients and not just calories, it’s best that you have a basic understanding of each macronutrient, so you get a full understanding of why we set things the way we do.
Protein is arguably the most important macronutrient, and not just for those who actively participate in resistance training exercise. Why? Well, first, it’s an essential macronutrient – we CANNOT live without it. That reason not good enough for you?
- Helps rebuild tissues (muscle) and keeps systems (muscular, skeletal, nervous, immune) running
- Necessary for enzymes, skin and hair growth, and hormones (metabolism, adrenaline, testosterone, growth hormone)
- Has a very high TEF (Thermic Effect of Food) – it takes the most calories to digest it, as compared to the other macronutrients. Eat more protein -> burn more calories
- It is very hard to store as body fat, as compared to the other macronutrients
- Most satiating macronutrient – you stay fuller, for longer, when you consume protein
- Stimulates the release of glucagon – glucagon is the “release” hormone and I don’t think I need to explain why releasing energy (calories) vs storing it is favorable for body composition
Whether your goals are to burn body fat, put on muscle, or improve performance, protein is going to be king when it comes to the macronutrients.
Like protein, fat is the other essential macronutrient – can’t live without it – and also has a long, and varied, list of benefits:
- Crucial for hormone health – this is the overarching reason to consume an adequate amount of fat, each day
- It is a primer for the nervous system and the process responsible for sending electrical signals from the brain throughout the body. Not enough fat in your diet -> less than full neurological capabilities and functioning
- For my meatheads who may care about muscles (protein) over neurological capacity (fats) – those precious muscles of yours have to contract to perform & grow. They contract due to the axon (nerve) sending an electrical signal from the brain to the muscle. The axon is made up of 80% fat. Subpar axon function -> subpar muscle contraction. EAT YOUR FAT!
- Secondary energy source – main source of fuel for low-intensity activities (walking, daily activities, desk work)
So far, I hope you are starting to get behind the reason why tracking macros > tracking calories. You could be consuming an adequate amount of calories for your goal, but if protein and/or fat intake is not where it needs to be, you can see the problems that could arise.
This one may be hard to accept and I hate to be the barer of bad news, but…carbohydrates are NOT an essential macronutrient. You can sustain life without them – hence the Ketogenic Diet. However, I don’t know about you, but I’m not after just sustaining life. I want to enjoy the hell out of life and thrive, and because of this, carbohydrates ARE essential (can you imagine a life without carbs?!). Outside of them being delicious and part of every social gathering, here are some of the benefits of carbohydrates:
- Performance – as far as the macronutrients go, carbohydrates are your body’s most rapidly available fuel source. If you do things that are more intense than a light jog or simple, daily activities, you NEED carbohydrates
- Recovery – while protein is responsible for muscle building and repair, carbohydrates are responsible for replenishing your muscles’ glycogen (energy storage) for future performance
- Hormonal health – inadequate carbohydrate intake can negatively impact leptin (satiety hormone), ghrelin (hunger hormone), the thyroid (body’s master regulator), and the adrenals (produce sex hormones and cortisol)
- Fiber is a type of carbohydrate and is crucial for gut health and overall satiety
- Responsible for secreting insulin, a hormone that prompts muscle cells to absorb blood sugar for energy or storage (prevents them being stored as fat)
- Consuming too few carbohydrates causes two problems: 1. Your workouts will suck, frankly. 2. Your body will be forced to find another way to create glucose for fuel à gluconeogenesis = making glucose from protein à protein should be used for muscle building, NOT energy
So, now do you understand why the extra effort it takes to track your macronutrients, rather than just calories, is well worth it? At this point you know everything you really need to know as it pertains to what macros are and why they’re important – together and individually. So what’s next?
And, we keep climbing! The next step up in the pyramid brings us to micronutrients. While smaller in terms of weight and amounts, this does not mean they are smaller in terms of importance.
Micronutrient – “A chemical element or substance in trace amounts for the normal growth and development of living organisms.”
And, for those of you whose eyes just glassed over:
The small formed nutrients that living things actually need in order to survive, grow, and develop from day 1.
Let’s cut right to the chase – you can’t survive without them. If you want to be healthy, feel good, live longer, and ultimately maintain that body composition you achieved through tracking your macronutrients and training, you better focus on these little guys! There are two types of micronutrients:
If I were to provide information on every single vitamin and mineral, this would become a dissertation rather than a helpful handbook, and I’d likely lose you. However, I do want to give you some basic information on the key micronutrients I recommend you focus on.
There are two types of vitamins and it relates to how they are absorbed by the body:
- Absorbed and utilized with the assistance of fats
- Tend to stay in the body for much longer (there is an upper limit or toxicity to them)
- Absorbed and utilized with the assistance of water
- Get excreted from the body quite regularly, through urine and sweat (no upper limit to intake or toxicity to them)
I get it – it already can be hard enough to track your macros on a daily basis and now I’m telling you to pay attention to your micronutrients, too?! You don’t have to track them, but you definitely should not neglect them. Fortunately for you, as long as you are making sure to get 80-90% of your calories from whole foods and regularly including veggies (and some fruit), you will inherently get the micronutrients you need.
Like vitamins, there are two types of minerals:
- Body needs these in larger doses
- Potassium, calcium, phosphorus, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, magnesium (mostly electrolytes)
- Trace Minerals
- Body needs these in smaller doses
- Iron, copper, iodine, selenium, zinc, molybdenum, cobalt
“Meal timing”. “Nutrient timing.” Those are some sexy phrases in the nutrition space and get people excited! However, I want to remind you – this is the 4th step up the ladder, which means it is also the second smallest level. And, for good reason! This topic pales in comparison to the importance and impact on reaching your goals that making sure you are consistently getting in appropriate calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients will have. With that being the case, we have to make sure you have levels 1-3 nailed down before we even think about worrying about this topic. But, in any case, let’s dive into it! First, a definition:
Meal Timing & Frequency – A specific strategy or plan around when you’ll be eating each specific meal and how many meals you’ll be consuming on a given day.
I don’t think this one requires more elaboration, unlike the definitions in the previous sections – at its simplest level, it’s your meal prep strategy. It can be made very complex and even dialed-down to the specific hours of the day you eat, but you’ll have the most success when you KISS (Keep It Stupid Simple) and organically create it based on what fits your lifestyle best.
MEALS PER DAY
Most people believe that the amount of meals you eat per day somehow determines your metabolic rate – the rate at which your body burns calories and thus, the ease or difficulty they have with losing weight. Many people believe that by eating more frequent, smaller meals, they are forcing their metabolism to be active more regularly, and thus, burn more calories. This myth has been debunked time and time again, and science has proven that your metabolic rate has more to do with:
- Total caloric intake
- Activity level & type of activity (cardio, resistance training, etc.)
- Amount of lean tissue/muscle mass
- Hormonal profile (the thyroid is the metabolism’s master regulator)
Everyone has their TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure). You can use a variety of formulas to come to this number, but ultimately, it is a representation of the amount of calories you burn on a daily basis. One component of TDEE is TEF (Thermic Effect of Food), or how many calories you burn from eating (consuming, digesting, absorbing). Each macronutrient has its own TEF, with protein having the highest, but studies show that you will burn 10% of the calories you consume. Meaning, if you are eating 2,500 calories per day, you will burn 250 calories through TEF. Visual learner? Let’s take a look at two different people, the amount of meals they have per day, and how it ultimately effects (or doesn’t) their calories burned:
1,800 Calories Per Day
|Person B 1,800 Calories Per Day|
|Meal 1||600||60||Meal 1||300||30|
|Meal 2||600||60||Meal 2||300||30|
|Meal 3||600||60||Meal 3||300||30|
So, you may be wondering, “How many meals is the right amount for ME?” It’s a great question and one I am going to recommend you experiment with to find out, yourself. Why you may want 5-6 smaller meals per day:
- You get hungry often and tend to be a ‘snack-eater’
- You have trouble digesting large meals
- You simply enjoy eating more often
- You FEEL BEST structuring your eating this way
Why you may want 3-4 larger meals per day:
- You don’t like to stop and eat frequently
- Your schedule doesn’t allow for many meals
- You don’t find yourself satisfied when you eat smaller meals
- You FEEL BEST structuring your eating this way
Come up with a plan! When you have a specific strategy and plan on when, and even what, you’ll be eating, you are much more likely to increase your consistency and adherence to it.
Now that I just got done explain why meal timing does NOT matter, I’m going to spend some time telling you when it DOES…Is that a bit confusing? Yes, but, nutrition does not have a one-size-fits-all approach and what doesn’t need to matter to you, may be very beneficial to someone else.
What you eat pre-workout is less about providing readily available fuel for that training session, and more about blood sugar control and nervous system function. Consume your pre-workout meal too long before training? Blood sugar will be on the decline when you walk in the gym and you can expect dizziness, light-headedness, and of course, a subpar workout. Pre-workout recommendations will vary depending on if you train first thing in the morning or at any other point.
Training first thing in the morning:
- When to Consume:
- Dinner the night before is your pre-workout meal
- Don’t eat anything before your morning training session (if performance athlete = shake of BCAA’s + HBCD Carb Powder)
- What to Consume:
- Well-balanced, nutritious meal of protein, carbs, and fats
- How Much to Consume:
- 35-40% of daily carbs
- Whatever amount of fat and carbs fits your daily allotment
Training at any other point in the day:
- When to Consume:
- 90-120 minutes prior to workout
- What to Consume:
- Protein + Carbohydrates (protein shake + oatmeal; lean meat + white rice; chicken + sweet potato)
- Low/No Fat (fat slows down the absorption of the meal & nutrients)
- How Much to Consume:
- 20-45g protein; 10-20% of daily carbs
At the end of the day, best case scenario is you are able to get a meal of protein and carbohydrates in about 90-120min before your training session. However, you end up handling your pre-workout nutrition, the goal should always be to start your training session in a nearly fasted state, slightly hungry even, with consistent blood sugar levels. And, remember, calories consumed too close to training will leave food in your gut and the potential for hindered breathing and vomiting.
When it comes to post-workout nutrition, there are THREE main reasons to care about it.
- Glycogen Replenishment
- Insulin Sensitivity
- Hormonal & Nervous System Response
Glycogen replenishment, or restoring the energy stores in the body that you partially depleted during training, occurs within a 24-hour period AFTER training. So, the carbs you take in post-workout will not be as important for helping here as the carbs you take in over the course of the next 24-hours will be.
In laymen’s terms, this is our body’s ability to take in calories and carbohydrates. Being insulin sensitive is a very good thing, as it means our body is very efficient at up-taking nutrients into the muscle and preventing them from being stored as body fat. Research shows that our insulin sensitivity is highest around training and our body is best equipped to utilize carbohydrates (not store them as body fat).
Hormonal & Nervous System Response
When we train, especially lifting weights, there is a hormonal cascade that is executed. Testosterone, growth hormone, insulin, metabolism, and other hormones are all positively affected. To take advantage of these things being up-regulated, we are going to want to take in a protein-based meal immediately after training.
In addition to the hormonal response, there is a corresponding nervous system response.
Without getting too nerdy, the body’s autonomic nervous system has two main divisions that can’t run at the same time: Sympathetic (‘fight or flight’) and Parasympathetic (‘rest and digest’). When you are working out, you are living in your sympathetic nervous, which causes a huge cortisol (stress hormone) and adrenal response. We know that muscles are not built and adaptations within the body don’t take place during the workout itself, but instead, during recovery.
Because of this, our goal is to shut off our sympathetic nervous system and activate our parasympathetic nervous system, to begin the recovery process, ASAP. How do we do this? Create an insulin spike within the body. How do we create an insulin spike? Consume quick digesting carbohydrates.
Post-workout nutrition is the most misunderstood application in both sport and body composition settings. You often hear that a protein shake immediately after a training session will ‘rebuild muscle, stop the catabolic processes, and replenish glycogen stores in the body.’ Frankly, this isn’t true at all and not the reason why a shake immediately following a training session should be consumed. Here are my recommendations based on the type of training you do:
- When to Consume:
- Within 60-min post-workout
- What & How Much to Consume:
- Protein shake (25-45g protein) + 10-30% daily carbs (food or carb powder)
- Whole food meal (25-45g protein + 10-30% daily carbs)
- When to Consume:
- CrossFit/Orange Theory/HIIT
- When to Consume:
- Immediately after your workout
- What & How Much to Consume:
- Protein shake (25-45g protein + 1-2x HBCD carb powder)
- When to Consume:
This is the post-workout meal that is most important, as it is the first meal after your CNS has calmed down and you are in a parasympathetic state (‘rest and digest’), so we ought to take advantage of it! With this in mind, we want this meal to be as micronutrient-dense and healthy as possible. I would not recommend consuming the perfect post-workout shake/meal and then consuming pizza & beer for your next meal. Recovery is not just essential for performance, but also for fat loss, so take this meal as seriously as you take your post-workout shake.
- When to Consume:
- 60-90 minutes after consuming post-workout shake
- What & How Much to Consume:
- A complete, high quality, micronutrient rich meal of protein, fats, and carbs
- Whatever amount of each macronutrient you prefer and fits best within your total allotment
When we train, we are damaging our muscles and it’s not until we are resting that the rebuilding and ‘gains’ begin. Our body doesn’t know our workout has ended when we leave the gym and we’ll continue living in a stressed state long after if we don’t do something about it. Our goal should be to use a post-workout meal to get us into ‘rest and digest’ mode, and then a post-post-workout meal to provide the proper nutrients to rebuild.
The tip of the pyramid is supplements. They work, yes, but really only account for 5% of progress on any nutritional plan, whereas the rest of the pyramid we’ve already covered makes up the other 95%. As always, if you don’t have rungs 1-4 nailed down, don’t bother with supplements – don’t major in the micros!
Supplement – “Something that completes or enhances something else, when added to it.”
Two things to emphasize here:
- They are called ‘supplements’, NOT ‘replacements’. They aren’t meant to replace your normal eating.
- They ‘enhance something else’ – that ‘something else’ being steps 1-4 of the pyramid we’ve already covered.
There are millions of supplements in existence and they all tout incredible results if you take them. The fact of the matter is, most of them are a waste of your money. However, there are some tried and true supplements that I take, that I wanted to share with you.
Think of this as your insurance policy. If you are eating a well-balanced diet of mostly whole, minimally processed foods, you likely don’t need to take a multivitamin. However, it certainly can’t hurt to cover your bases.
- Greens Powder
Similar to a multivitamin, these are a nice to have, rather than a need to have. If you are someone who struggles to eat enough vegetables throughout your day, this would be a great supplement to add to your day. They are extremely low in calories, but have a ton of nutrients.
- Fish Oil – EPA & DHA
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) can be found in fatty fish or a fish oil supplement, and have been shown to help with reducing inflammation, enhancing mood, improving insulin sensitivity, reducing risk of disease, and improving MPS response. You should be aiming for 1.5-3g of combined EPA/DHA per day.
- Vitamin D3
Spend 10-15 minutes in direct sunlight per day and you’ll be getting more than enough of this, naturally. However, most people don’t do this and deficiency can negatively impact hormonal levels, muscular performance, immune function, and more. You should be aiming for 3,000-6,000 IU’s per day.
Caffeine is a Central Nervous System (CNS) Supplement. It helps to activate your CNS and ignite your body’s fight or flight response, providing you with a flood of energy and increased muscle activation. Test the waters to see what amount is appropriate for you, but somewhere between 200-500mg pre-training should be ample.
- Protein Powder
Certainly not needed, but if you have a problem reaching your protein goal each day, this is something you should absolutely be utilizing. It’s quickly absorbable, convenient, and pure protein in most cases. Whey Protein is your best bet, but if you’re someone that struggles with digesting dairy, you may want to opt for a Whey Protein Isolate, or even turn to an egg, plant or plant-based protein powder.
Possibly the most studied and proven supplement out there, creatine is something our bodies naturally produce and is completely healthy. It will NOT make you ‘bulky. It is NOT a steroid. It is NOT a magic pill/powder. However, it will help rehydrate & replenish your muscles, improve strength & power production, muscle fullness, and give you the fuel/energy to squeak out one more rep on a given exercise. You should be aiming for 5g per day and be taking it EVERY SINGLE DAY (yes, even on off days). It doesn’t matter when you take it, as it works on saturation – as long as you get 5g per day, you’ll be covered.
- Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin
HBCD has a high molecular wait and ultra-low osmolality, which is a fancy way of saying that it passes through the stomach and is absorbed by the body incredibly fast. It is also low glycemic, which means it is slow releasing and provides a smooth, constant flow of energy. You should really only be taking this post-workout (especially if you do CrossFit, Orange Theory, or HIIT style training) and in a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio of carbs:protein.
- Collagen & Bone Broth
Although they’ve been around forever, they are rather new to the mainstream supplement scene. They have been shown to help with gut health, digestion, muscle tissue repair, skin, hair, nails, and a multitude of cellular functions in the body.
Just because these are supplements that have been tested and proven to show benefit, that does not mean I believe they are necessary. I truly feel you can get results without taking any supplements, as long as you have properly dialed-in your sleep, nutrition, stress-management, and training program.
If you remember nothing, remember this – don’t major in the micros. The sexy, top of the pyramid stuff, won’t move the needle like doing the boring stuff (hitting your macros) day in and day out, will. Fat loss is simple and so is getting results in 60-90 days. However, keeping that goal and maintaining those results are a whole other story and exactly where hundreds of thousands of people, including yourself, have failed over and over, again. Not this time, though! I’ve put together this document as a resource for you to get started on your own, but should you be interested in coaching, go ahead and fill out the contact form and let’s chat!