by Justin Morgan
Dieting can be stressful, confusing, and a general pain. Especially if you are an athlete that also needs to preserve as much muscle, strength, and overall performance as possible while dieting to lose weight. This article will hopefully help to give you some guidelines that will make dieting easier and less confusing. Primarily I will discuss dieting for weight loss, but these principles also apply for gaining muscle as well. If you have no competitive requirements other than looking good at the beach, or your neighborhood pool, then only the first principal I cover will apply to you. If you are a competitive strength athlete competing against the top 1% of competitors, then even the smallest fraction of a % can mean the difference between 1st and 5th place and all the principals will likely apply to you.
Before I get knee high in the principles of dieting you may be asking if I’m someone who’s even worth listening to, at least that’s what I ask myself when I read these articles. Aside from being an athlete, I’m finishing an associate’s degree in dietetics where I have made the dean’s list, and hold a 3.6 GPA. I also hold a college certificate in exercise science, and an athletic certification from the American College of Sports Medicine. I have also have competed as a strength athlete in multiple weight classes in both powerlifting and strongman. Most importantly, I’m 200 lbs of twisted steel and sex appeal, no other qualifier is necessary.
The principals that I will cover below apply to those looking to lose fat. There are ways to manipulate water and glycogen to drop weight, but that is not covered. The principals here, from most significant to least, are calorie balance, macronutrients, nutrient timing, food composition, and supplements. The chart below is used courtesy of the good people at Renaissance Periodization (Nick Shaw, and Dr. Mike Israetel). The recommendations for the most part, however, come from The World Health Organization, scientific literature, and where noted, my own personal opinions based on training clients.
Principle 1: Calorie Balance
As you can see from the chart, Calorie balance constitutes the very largest part of all dieting principles. Unless you are competing at some level, this is likely the only principle that you will legitimately need to worry about. There are some formulas used on patients/residents in the clinical setting, but a better method for the average person would simply be to track the food you eat and drink (don’t forget liquid calories) for 3 normal days, or even better a whole week, and log your daily intake into something like Myfitnesspal, or Cronometer. Both are free and relatively user friendly. After that, take the calories that you ate throughout those days and average them together. (Add all 7 days, and divide by 7, or however many day’s you tracked). At this point you have a baseline of the number of calories that you are generally consuming each week. As an active person, or an athlete that number will hopefully be 2500+ for women, and 3000+ for men. If so then you have plenty of wiggle room. If your normal caloric intake is ½ those numbers and you aren’t already losing weight, then you should not be dieting; you should, instead, be working on incrementally increasing your metabolism by increasing your caloric intake by 50-100 kcals/week.
For everyone else you would start by reducing your caloric intake by 10%. For example, someone that finds they eat about 3000 kcal/day will multiply 3000 by 10% ( 3000 x 0.10) and get 300 kcal, thus reducing their daily intake to 2700kcal/day. Ideally, this will result in weight loss of about 1 pound every two weeks. A 10% reduction in calories will barely be noticeable, so you won’t feel hungry all the time and you won’t see a great deal of performance or muscle losses, instead you may find that you continue to make increases. Additionally adding in some type of extra activity (cardio) will help to create a calorie deficit as well, beyond just reducing calories in the diet. For most people low impact activity such as biking, or swimming, in my opinion, helps facilitate recovery and impede performance less than higher impact activities like running or sprinting. I personally try to keep my training as sport specific as is beneficial, and attempt to limit anything that would prevent it’s prioritization in my training. That is a broad topic itself for another article, but suffice to say that cardio activity can also help to increase your caloric expenditure.
In addition to calorie balance, it’s worth noting that weight/fat loss is not linear; if you look at most people’s weight loss on a chart you will see a line that goes up and down from day to day, but ideally the line trends down over time. Most of us would like to see a nice linear chart that goes in a straight downward line, but sadly it just doesn’t work that way. It is also worth noting that most people’s weight loss will stall before they reach their goal, and an additional caloric reduction will be needed. I would not advise someone to make these additional reductions too quickly because you may find that you run out of calories to take away before you reach your goal. The longer you take to lose weight, the better your performance and muscle preservation will be.
Principal 2: Macronutrients
This is a minor principal compared to calorie balance, but it does have some importance. Many people over emphasize this principle and over emphasize specific macronutrients (Carbohydrate, fat, and protein). I am of the opinion that you can follow whatever diet you want and still get results, but every macronutrient has its function and can be of benefit to a certain degree. I’ve seen people follow 80/10/10 and build impressive bodies and strength levels. I’ve seen people follow ketogenic low carb diets and reach their goals. I’ve also seen people follow extremely high protein diets and reach their ends with that. I do not personally recommend any specific diet, and although it’s possible to reach a goal on any type of diet, that doesn’t mean it’s the most advantageous route to take.
When an athlete reaches the very highest level of competition, being too dogmatic about a macronutrient ratio (% of carb/fat/pro) might become a limiting factor for them just because it can limit the range of foods available to them. I’ll begin with everyone’s favorite macronutrient: protein. Protein plays a very key role in metabolism, and DNA synthesis, but for our purposes namely tissue repair. Bodybuilder, strength and conditioning coach, and diet researcher, Eric Helms conducted a study (1) on drug free athletes who were at fairly low levels of body fat, and high levels of athletic performance. In the study they put the athletes on a weight loss program and attempted to see what the most ideal intake of protein would be for preserving muscle mass. The conclusion seemed to indicate that the higher the protein intake, the less muscle was lost by the athletes over the course of the study. Protein intakes were 2-3 g/kg, or essentially 1-1.5g/pound and more at times. That’s a lot of protein! Before you all run out and purchase the entire inventory of veganproteins.com, there are several reasons that the findings of this study do not apply to you. Namely, if you are not in the single digit bodyfat range; meaning that you don’t just have a six pack but, 18th century handmaidens seek you out at laundry time to use as a washboard, then those protein intakes probably don’t apply to you. Those protein intakes are also not necessary if you are in a calorie surplus, or not attempting to lose weight. If you are attempting to build muscle then you should be in a calorie surplus, in which case those intakes especially do not apply to you. To put this into perspective, when we see cancer patients in the hospital that are experiencing muscle wasting we only put them on 1-1.5 g/kg, or about 0.45 – 0.7g/lb. So chances are that eating more than 1 gram per pound of lean body mass (more than the cancer patients we see) for 99% of the people reading this article is going to be far more protein than is necessary for you to experience any benefit. If you are in a calorie surplus, or at least at maintenance to build muscle, then the amount of protein that you will benefit from is likely much lower. By “lean body mass” I mean muscle, organ, and bone tissue, not fat. So if you are 200 lbs and 20% bodyfat, then you can subtract the 40 lbs of body fat and 160 grams is probably more protein than you would be able to measure a noticeable difference from consuming. If you do not follow those protein intakes, it’s not the end of the world, but your muscle losses while dieting to lose weight might be slightly more than they could have been otherwise.
Carbohydrate – Carbs are our body’s primary fuel source. Our brain runs exclusively on carbohydrate. When our bodies lack sufficient carbohydrate our bodies deaminate, or in other words, our bodies remove the amino group so that it can use the protein as an energy source, rather than as protein. This is not a desirable scenario. We want the proteins we consume to be used for tissue repair and our overall metabolic needs, not to run our brain. Generally when we lack sufficient carbohydrate our performance will suffer, so we won’t be able to maintain the same training volumes that we were previously, and our overall mood will usually be effected. There are minimum amounts of carbohydrate that would be ideal to consume depending on your sport of choice. My personal minimum carbohydrate recommendations are as follows. “Assuming you are relatively lean” (like protein you don’t need to eat carbs or fats to support your fat), if you are a cross-fit athlete, endurance athlete, strongman competitor training moving events multiple times per week, an Olympic weight lifter training multiple times per day, or any sport that requires continuous bouts of energy (especially high intensity) lasting more than a minute then you will likely require the highest amounts of carbohydrate. You can consume more than this if it fits into your caloric limits/requirements, but the minimum that I would recommend is 3g/pound of body weight, or 6-7g/kg. Most people’s minimum carb intake would fall into the 2g/lb, or around 4.5g/kg range. This would apply to most bodybuilders, powerlifters that are training in normal rep ranges (ie not peaking for a meet), especially powerlifters that practice higher frequency lifting like training the squat 3 or more times per week, most field athletes like American football players, football (soccer), baseball players and any other sport that requires short bursts of energy for limited periods of time. Lastly, if you are a powerlifter preparing for a meet and the most your training consists of is doing singles, doubles, and triples, and you follow some of the older methods of only training the squat, bench and deadlift once a week then 1g/pound or 2-2.5g/kg will probably be sufficient. As I mentioned before though, you may choose to eat more than the minimums. Some people find that carbs, especially whole food carbs such as fruit, rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, bread etc. are very satiating and therefore make it easier for them to maintain diet adherence rather than falling off the bandwagon and just giving up.
The last macronutrient is fat – Fat can also be used as an energy source, but one if its main functions is that it plays a large role in hormone production. The recommendation by The World Health Organization is that between 20 and 35% of your total calories come from fat. Another way to get somewhere in the middle of that recommendation is to take your lean body mass in pounds and divide it in half, or use 1g/kg of lean body mass. You can go lower than that amount assuming that you take care to make sure you meet your essential fatty acid needs, Omega-6, and Omega – 3 (aka linoleic and linolenic acid). The amount of fat that you can eat will depend partially on your caloric amounts, and your personal preference. Some people actually just prefer fattier foods. If you have met your carbohydrate and protein amounts, and would like to eat more fat, assuming you have enough calories to do so, then eating more fat will still allow you to meet your weight loss goals. One note about eating more fat though, is that fat contains 9 calories/gram, where carbs and protein only contain 4 calories/gram, so the amount of fat that you can eat is ½ the volume of carbs or protein for the same amount of calories. If you have a large appetite then eating a higher fat diet may not be preferable for you.
The guidelines I’ve made above are only a starting point for you and you can manipulate them based on your own preferences and how they affect your performance.
Principal 3: Nutrient Timing
Back some years ago every time you opened a bodybuilding forum on the interwebz, or picked up a muscle magazine you heard that you HAD to eat at least 6 meals a day, or more. It didn’t matter what your goal was, it was necessary to eat more frequently. Weight loss, muscle growth, grow a new arm, perform better in the bedroom; eating 6 meals a day did it all! Well, a little more research was done and we found out that it wasn’t quite that magical. Yes, keeping food in the GI tract is beneficial, and eating more than once per day is probably better, but if you are eating 3-5 times per day, you probably aren’t going to get better results than if you eat 6-9.
Principal 4: Food Composition
There are a plethora of reasons that eating whole foods is vastly better than eating processed refined foods. What that means is that eating coconuts, olives, nuts and seeds is better than eating coconut oil, olive oil, peanut oil, or flax seed oil. It means that eating fruit is better than eating sugar, and yes, even eating beans and rice is better than consuming rice and/or pea protein. In the grand scheme of a diet for fat loss purposes, all of the above when total calories are accounted for, doesn’t really seem to make a huge difference. It does make a difference, but not really as large of a difference as most of us would like or are lead to believe. On the other hand, whole foods might make a huge difference in terms of diet adherence because they will leave you feeling fuller than their processed refined counterparts. They have fiber which plays a great role in digestion and making you feel fuller longer, and they have vitamins and minerals that their refined counterpart’s lack, which make you feel more energetic. Those components can account for a lot of difference, but the reason “food composition” doesn’t have a higher priority here is because when we are looking specifically at fat loss, or even muscle growth for that matter, they don’t make a “direct” impact as much as the other components mentioned.
Principle 5: Supplements
This is likely the least significant of all the components mentioned above, but like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, if you are an athlete competing in the top 1-5% of your sport and the difference between 1st and 5th place is minute, then even the smallest of differences can make a difference. Much of this article is influenced by Dr. Mike Israetel from Renaissance periodization, but the recommendations I’ve provided above were either my own, or based on standards of practice in dietetics. The area of supplements though, I am going to base more so off of Dr. Israetel’s recommendation since I don’t personally have a great deal of experience with supplements myself. Supplements that Dr. Mike, based on the scientific literature, has found to demonstrate some benefit include protein powder, carbohydrate drinks such as Gatorade intra/post workout for faster recovery when training sessions are frequent, creatine monohydrate – 5-10g/day, stimulants such as caffeine in moderate amounts pre workout, and the one that I will add myself is the use of a multivitamin, or at least a vitamin D tablet if you don’t get much sunlight, and B12 vitamin taken preferably daily. Protein powder is used for the purpose of filling in the gaps that food don’t fill, so you should only be supplementing to reach the targets described in the ‘Protein’ section, and not for the purpose of going beyond those.
The principals that I have outlined above are only a tool, and only cover dietary factors. Muscle growth and athletic performance are affected by diet, but training specificity and general physical preparedness are obviously huge components that diet can only influence in a positive way. Hopefully the information outlined above can help you to do just that. For additional information you can find me on Facebook under “Justin Morgan”, on YouYube as CarbedUpVeganMuscle, and at Instagram as Carbed_up_vegan_muscle.
- 1. Helms ER, Zinn C, Rowlands DS, Naidoo R, Cronin J: High-Protein Low-Fat Short-Term Diet Results in Less Stress and Fatigue Than Moderate-Protein Moderate-Fat Diet During Weight Loss in Male Weightlifters, A Pilot Study. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 2014, [Epub ahead of print].