To gain an overview and grasp the essential principles to a diet that will let you achieve your desired body composition goal, the basic fundamentals of nutrition will be laid out in this nutrition overview.
As a diet can be set up in a variety of ways to achieve different outcomes, the first thing you need to be clear on when planning and setting up a diet, is what your current desire of body composition is. Once you’ve gotten a grasp of the fundamentals, you’ll know how to set up a diet for fat loss whilst keeping muscle, gaining weight and building muscle, or maintaining your current weight and re-compositioning.
To achieve any of the above in an effective and efficient manner, we need to consider the following principles, organised in order of importance:
- Caloric Intake
- Macronutrient Breakdown
- Nutrient Timing and Meal Distribution
- Food Sources
It is important to note that this hierarchy has been arranged with the goal of optimizing body composition rather than eating for health. While the 2 should be in perfect sync with one another and aren’t mutually exclusive, there is still a slight difference in their primary area of focus.
Our goal here isn’t to provide you with cookie cutter answers, it is to set you up with a thorough understanding of the basic principles to allow you to calculate the correct amount based on your body and body composition goal. So even though it would be much easier for us to provide a magical black and white answer, which people are often after, we will be explaining the variety of factors which play into setting up the right diet for you.
Your primary goal, your current body composition and your level of training experience will all need to be factored in when determining what your total caloric intake should be. While not as important, you should also consider your body’s biofeedback.
Moving on, we will be going through the fundamentals and key concepts of each of these factors:
1. YOUR PRIMARY GOAL
Ultimately, determining where you want to head with your body composition in the near future is going to be the key factor in setting up your total calorie intake. Of course everyone wants to be lean and muscular right away, but it is important to consider the long run here.
You should never go to either end of the extremes of too lean or too overweight as this can result in health ramifications and will inevitably impact the efficiency at which you’re going to reach your goal by. Hence current body composition will also need to be taken into account before moving forward.
Say for instance you are currently overweight, even though you want to be more muscular as well, it might be more important that you get leaner.
Conversely, if you are already relatively lean, but feel lacking in muscularity you may decide that building muscle is more important to you right now even though you may also want to remain lean. You will need to prioritize which goal is more important to you at the point of setting up your diet.
Perhaps one of the most common questions we get is what to do when you’re in the scenario of being “skinny fat”. This refers to having a very low level of muscularity but also having a relatively high body fat percentage. In this situation, your primary goal will be the determining factor. Is it more important to you to be to look leaner with very limited muscle mass, or to look bigger overall with additional muscle mass but also fat.
Generally speaking, your diet should be set up with a moderate caloric surplus if your primary goal is to build muscle. On the other hand, if you mostly want to lose fat, then a moderate caloric deficit is best suited for your goal. You may also decide that both of these objectives are equally important to you. In this case, eating at caloric maintenance will be your best option as, depending on your level of training experience, it will allow for both fat loss and muscle gain to occur at the same.
So you see that choosing your primary goal will be the cornerstone of any goal oriented diet set up. Without it, you will be left aimless. Likewise, your current body composition plays a role almost as important as your current goal.
2. CURRENT BODY COMPOSITION
This factor starts with objectively analysing your current body composition and levels of body fat. Again, it is important not to stray too far to either end of being overweight or overly lean unless your immediate goal is to compete in a bodybuilding competition or a photoshoot.
Individuals with a higher starting body fat percentage should always set the primary goal of losing fat. People with a currently low body fat percentage should opt for gaining muscle.
As simple as this may sound, your primary goal may not always be obvious to you. Hence we have separated these factors into separate categories. This will make the determination of your primary goal much easier.
Individuals at neither extreme of the body fat range may still have differing goals. Take Jim, an individual at a current body fat level of 12 percent. He may be satisfied with his level of leanness and decide that building muscle is more important to him. However another individual Jason at the same level of body fat, may decide that he’d still rather lean down a bit.
In this situation, Jim would want to set up a slight caloric surplus, while Jason would want to set up a slight caloric deficit, despite being at the same body fat percentage.
Usually an individual with a current high percentage of body fat entering a caloric surplus would be detrimental to the goal of losing fat and even building muscle. In this case the ever increasing level of body fat can cause adverse health effects and throw other health markers important to the body’s ability to recover out of whack. This will stunt the rate at which muscle can be gained.
Contrastingly, individuals who possess an already lean physique, should opt for a caloric surplus, as this will lead to the most apparent progress. If they were to enter a caloric deficit or even stay at maintenance, they would drastically slow the ability to build muscle at an appropriate rate. This could in turn result in frustration in the individual due to the lack of apparent progress.
3. TRAINING EXPERIENCE
The longer you train in a progressive manner, the closer you will be to reaching your genetic limit in your ability to accrue overall muscle mass.
On the other hand, there are the fabled ‘newbie gains’ – referring to individuals who are still at the beginning stages of weight training. They will be able to gain lean muscle mass at a much faster and easier rate. This means that they can also effectively make use of slightly larger caloric surpluses than intermediate or advanced lifters.
So in summary, you are more likely to accrue fat rather than lean mass gain if you opt for a large caloric surplus as an advanced individual, due to the increased resistance to muscle gain. The less advanced you are, the more likely you are to effectively make use of a larger caloric surplus.
To avoid any guessing or confusion moving forward, it’s important we define beginner, intermediate and advanced trainee stages as follows:
- Generally 0-1 year of lifting (provided they’ve trained with decent knowledge in training and nutrition planning from the start)
- Visual changes on a monthly basis
- Can progressively overload by adding weight or reps or both to their lifts on a session by session or weekly basis
- Generally 1-5 years of listing
- Can see visual changes bi-monthly
- Progressive overload occurs on a monthly basis
- 5+ Years of Lifting
- Visual changes on a half yearly or yearly basis
- Ability to progress lifts is much more difficult and requires intricate planning
Letting your appetite dictate your total calorie intake is not always a great idea. Sure, you should listen to your body and avoid extremes as we’ve talked about previously, but frankly, your appetite doesn’t care about your goals. Monitoring your biofeedback can be a useful tool when it comes to adjusting your total calorie intake.
When implementing changes to your diet and figuring out the correct surplus, maintenance or deficit calories for you, it is important to pay close attention to your body’s biofeedback – its recovery and hunger signalling. If you increase your training demands through increased volume or intensity during this period, you may also require an increased amount of total calories to fuel performance and proper recovery.
Calculating your total daily caloric intake
Alright with all these baseline principles understood, we can now move on to what most people will really be after. The magical black and white answer of a daily caloric intake number.
All joking aside, there is no way for us to give a definite answer on the exact amount of calories YOU should be eating. Your body, your level of activity, your daily habits and metabolism are yours alone – so no calorie calculator will be able to give you an exact answer as there is a lot of inter individuality to consider here.
Any calculation, no matter how scientifically backed will still be off the mark. A good calculation will fall near your actual maintenance intake, but due to the multitude of influencing factors outlined above, they will likely still be off by anywhere from 200-500 calories. This might not seem like much, but it can make the difference between your intake seeing you at a caloric maintenance, surplus or deficit and not achieve your desired body composition goal.
We can however use a daily caloric intake calculating formula to establish a well estimated baseline and find the right caloric intake for your through a short period of trial and error.
As a general rule of thumb start with taking your bodyweight in kg, multiplying it by 22 and your level of daily activity. If your job or day has you being more sedentary use the lower end of the activity factor in the formula (more towards 1.2) and if you tend to be very active and on your feet all day, steer towards the higher end (1.9). A moderately active individual would be wise to aim for the middle ground here, at around 1.5.
The formula will look as follows:
Bodyweight(kg) x 22 x (1.2 – 1.9)
Let’s use Jim as an example here again. Jim currently weighs 75 kg and works a desk job. His cardio is minimal and he tends to be sedentary even at home. Hence he would use the lower end of the activity factor in the formula (1.2). Jim’s daily caloric intake calculation would looks as follows:
75kg x 22 x 1.2 = 1980 calories.
So Jim’s maintenance calories would roughly hover around 1980calories. If Jim is a relatively lean, untrained individual with the goal with the goal of gaining muscle mass, he would be wise to enter a caloric surplus. As discussed earlier, untrained individuals can make efficient use of higher caloric surpluses. Let’s use a relatively large surplus of 25% here again:
1980 x 1.25 = 2475 calories.
So Jim’s goal oriented daily caloric intake would roughly be 2475 calories. It is important to keep in mind that this is only an estimate and not the ideal intake. Jim would be wise to spend about 2-4 weeks at this calorie mark, track his macronutrients and bodyweight each day, to get a weekly weight average. If the body weight average sees Jim slowly increasing, training performance and recovery seems on point, then Jim has probably found his ideal daily caloric intake.
If however, Jim is gaining weight far too quickly, feeling sluggish and full all the time with appetite plummeting, then he has probably overshot the mark and would be wise to reel back 200-300 calories and re-evaluate after another 2-4 weeks.
Conversely, If Jim’s body weight hasn’t increased or he has even lost some weight after the 2-4 week mark is up, his training performance and recovery seem impaired, then he has probably undershot and is currently sitting at maintenance or even at a deficit. As such, he’d be wise to increase his total daily caloric intake by 200-300 calories and re-evaluate after another trial period.
Let’s use another example of a more trained individual with a higher daily activity level, Joe. Joe is currently sitting at 80kg, has been training hard and seriously for a few years and wants to shed a bit of body fat to look good for the upcoming summer. He’s a tradesman and on his feet all day at work. He does daily cardio and lives an overall busy and active lifestyle outside of the gym. Hence he would use the high activity factor of 1.9 in the formula.
Joe’s daily maintenance caloric intake calculation estimate would look as follows:
90kg x 22 x 1.9 = 3344 calories
So Joe’s maintenance calories would be 3344 calories.
As Joe wants to shed a bid of body fat, he’d be wise to enter a small and adherable caloric deficit of 300-500 calories.
You’ll see a discrepancy of 200 calories here. The magnitude of the deficit will also depend on Joe’s recovery ability as well as his dieting experience. If this were Joe’s first time dieting, he would be wise to enter a rather small and well maintainable deficit of 300 calories.
Again, by tracking his macros and body weight each day and getting a weekly average after a 2-4 week period, Joe would check to see whether body weight is dropping at the desired rate. If it isn’t he feels like he’s recovering well and overall energy levels are good, he would decrease the calories by a further 200 and re-evaluate after a further 2-4 week period.