How much should you eat? – The Diet Set up Part 2
If you have 30 seconds, read the summary
If you have 10 minutes, read the entire post.
- The make up of your caloric intake should be made up of:
-Protein based on your body weight and depending on your goal
-Fat percentage of your caloric intake depending on your goal
-Carbohydrates to fill the remainder of caloric intake
- Eat a minium of 20-25g of fibre but no more than 20% of your carbohydrate intake
- If your goal is to lose weight, consider including a “refeed” day on which you eat your maintenance calories for sanity purposes. Your daily caloric intake will have to be adjusted downwards
- Don’t obsess over the details too much and enjoy the diet!
In the previous posts we discussed energy balance and how to calculate the appropriate starting point for the number of calories we should be eating. I now want to have a look at what those calories should be made up of in terms of macronutrients (macros) and then we will wrap up and tie all of this together and hopefully give you enough information to be able set up your own diet.
Note that this will be a NOT a detailed discussion about nutrients and their 9999 effects on the human body. I going to go over them very briefly so that we can get the numbers right. I will write about these in more detail in the future.
There are a few different ways to breakdown the macronutrient recommendations. The most common one we tend to see is using percentages. For example, you might see people recommending that the diet should be made up of 40/40/20 for Protein/Carbohydrates/Fats. This is essentially recommending that 40% of your diet or your caloric intake should come from protein, 40% should come from carbohydrates (carbs) and 20% should come from fat. This means that as your caloric intake increases, so do your macronutrients in the ratio prescribed. Although this might seem like a convenient way to look at it, I personally think that it lacks the awareness that your body requires nutrients that are sufficient for your bodyweight rather than ratios.
This is especially true for protein requirements. If for example, given your current bodyweight, you require 100 grams of protein for health purposes. Then you need 100 grams of protein. Not 40% of your diet which might translate to 60 grams of protein if you are eating very little or 200 grams if you have a fast metabolism and are eating much more calories. You need to ensure that you are ingesting sufficient protein for your given body mass and ratios tend to miss this point. Having said that, it is more important for protein to be based on bodyweight (as you’ll see below), carbs and fat could be based on ratios once you have your minimum protein requirements set (and as long as you are hitting the minimum fat/carb recommendations).
I would also like to point out that macronutrient recommendations can be found all over the web in all forms and sizes. You will probably find another source which might recommend more or less protein than I am prescribing here, at the end of the day it is about finding the right balance that works for you and your individual goals.
Note: The numbers I am prescribing are NOT my own. I have used The Muscle and Strength Nutrition Pyramid by Eric Helms, Andrew Valdez & Andy Morgan as a reference for the Protein, Fats, Carbohydrates and Fibre recommendations. It is an invaluable book which I encourage you to check out in your own time. You can find more about it here.
Protein is one of the essential nutrients to human health. It is responsible for body tissue and function. Most people will know that our muscles are made up of protein, more importantly though our organs, skin, hair and nails are also made up of protein! Note that protein has an inverse relationship to caloric intake. What that means is that (up to a certain point) if you DECREASE your caloric intake, your protein requirements will INCREASE. This means that the protein recommendation will be different depending on whether your goal is to lose weight or gain muscle. When losing weight, protein requirements are higher due to their muscle sparing effect, whereas when gaining muscle, the benefits of protein tend to cap off much earlier as can be seen below:
This is the main reason why I don’t like to use ratios for protein. If we were to prescribe protein based on ratios, then they would move in line with caloric intake as pictured above. However, actual protein requirements move in the opposite direction of caloric intake! It is therefore often advised to use recommendation based on bodyweight rather than ratios for protein.
Dietary fats are commonly classified as saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. These will be discussed in more details in a future post, for the moment, be aware that your body NEEDS fat to maintain health, satiety and sanity. Fats are responsible for hormone regulation and building/producing new cells. Unlike protein, fats can be aligned with caloric intake so it would be OK to use ratios in this case, especially because fats are also an energy source and as such, being a ratio of your total caloric intake kind of makes sense (as long as you don’t eat below the minimum recommendation below).
Carbohydrates (Carbs) are the primary source of energy but also provide some of the structural components necessary for growth and repair of tissues. There are no specific requirements for carbs (except for minimum requirements below) so this will generally be filled up with whatever you have remaining after subtracting protein and fats from your total caloric intake.
Fibre is technically a carbohydrate and should be included in the diet for gut health, nutrient absorption and a bunch of other benefits including helping you poo. Recommendations for fibre are:
Minimum – 20g for females and 25g for males
Maximum – 20% of carbohydrate intake
Other Considerations when setting up your diet
Prioritisation/Focus when starting out
When first starting out on a diet people tend to get overwhelmed by the amount of information and hence fall off the bandwagon once they miss one minor detail or forget to follow one of the recommendations. My advice is to look at dieting in a tiered structure and seeing what contributes most to the success of your diet. Macronutrients definitely do play a role in dieting but should not be the sole focus of it.
The most important factor will be the calorie targets. If you eat the right calories each day, you are already 70% there. If you also hit your protein targets each day that brings you to 85% and if you also aim for the correct carbohydrate and fat distribution, you’ll be close to 95% (These percentages are for illustrative purposes only, please do NOT get hung up on the numbers, rather focus on the message I’m trying to convey). As you can see, aiming to get the calories right will give you the biggest bang for your buck, with the option of going one step further on days where you wish to. In that sense, each day’s effort should be approached in the following levels of priority:
- Calorie target for the day
- Protein targets for the day
- Carbohydrates/Fat targets for the day
On some days you might be able to hit all 3 which is great! Some days you might only hit level 1, which is also fine. Not hitting the first tier would also not be that big of a deal as long as you are aware that one slips up in the grand scheme of things will not ruin your diet, but going on a binge because you already “screwed it up anyway” definitely will. Remember in the first part of our article that 1 pound of fat (~0.5kg) is approximately equal to 3500 calories. So you are definitely NOT going to gain 3kg overnight and ruin your whole diet just by eating that extra chocolate and overshooting your targets by 250 calories. In this context, eating that extra chocolate bar is not a big deal, you might be over your calorie target for the day but you can compensate for this by eating a little less the next day. This brings me to my next point:
“Budgeting” calories and introducing refeeds
When calculating caloric targets, we often consider the targets on a daily basis. This is a common way of breaking down large problems – to tackle a large project, you break it down into small manageable tasks and then you complete the tasks one by one. When we are talking about 3-month diet, we are actually aiming for a 3-month caloric target which we are aiming for in order to reach our goal. However, if we had a certain number that we know we have to hit over 3 months, it’s a little harder to see whether you are on track unless you constantly calculating your intake so far with the goal intake. This is even harder to manage once you make adjustments to your caloric targets based on your current progress etc.
So to make this more manageable, we break up the 3-month calorie target into monthly calorie targets, then break it up again into weekly calorie targets, and then we break it up further into daily calorie targets. Splitting this big projects into ‘bite sizes’ makes it much easier to manage – now we know each day whether we are on track and we can make adjustments to our daily intake based on the results that we are getting.
Why am I walking you around in circles and telling you all of this? It’s because I want you to look at the bigger picture. For example, if your daily calorie target is 2000 calories, this is actually a broken down version of a weekly calorie target of 14,000 (2000 x 7). If your weekly calorie target is 14,000 there are more than one way to achieve this intake, see the 3 examples below:
Let’s review the distributions:
- This person is basically eating the same amount every single day
- This person is alternating high and low calorie days, this might coincide with training as some people might prefer to eat more on training days and then scale it back down on non-training days. In this example the person is training Monday, Wednesday and Friday with Sunday being an extra day of slightly higher calories just to meet the weekly target
- This person is eating slightly lower than 2000 calories each day which allows him/her one day in the week where they get to eat slightly more. This is what’s called a refeed day and is actually quite common when dieting for weight loss for sanity/social reasons. If you wanted to have two refeeds, you would have to eat slightly less on all other days but it’s definitely an option. I would always recommend at least 1 refeed when trying to lose weight, the refeed calorie target should be roughly equal to your maintenance calories and the additional calories should be made up of carbohydrates.
When dieting, think of your calories like your financial budget for spending. So once you know how much you are supposed to spend (or eat) on a weekly basis, you can save money on some days, which will allow you to spend a bit more money on the weekend. This is also true if you accidentally spend too much money on one day because you gave in to temptations, all you need to do is reduce your spending the following day and you are on target again. Remember to look at the big picture, so even if you mess up your weekly budget by spending too much, you COULD spend a little less in your next week. Same goes for the monthly goals etc.
I have to note that although this budget is flexible to some extent there are limits! It’s not recommended to go 5 days without any food just so that you can binge on the weekends. It’s generally not recommended to have too big of a swing between calories from day to day. There is of course a certain level of common sense that is required here.
Putting it all together
You should now have enough information to set up your own diet! We spoke about energy balance and calculated how much we were required to eat depending on our goals. We then recommended what macronutrients these calories should consist of and then finally we mentioned a few considerations when setting up our diet such as the tiered structure and a refeed for those that are looking to lose weight. For most beginners this might seem like a lot of information to process. For those interested, I have uploaded my own personal diet set up spreadsheet to help walk you through the process here. All the best with your dieting goals!