By Tia Norris, March 2020 Issue.
I’m going to cut right to the chase: the world of diet is downright confusing AF. It’s a labyrinth, with mountains of misinformation, contradictory advice, and an overwhelming array of options … how is the average person supposed to know which way is up? The truth is, each person’s ideal diet is a unique puzzle that evolves over time, other health conditions, and goals. Your best bet to understanding how to use food to your advantage is to understand the pieces that are involved, and then how they can work together to solve your own unique puzzle in any given program. Let’s explore briefly what each of the main players are:
Calories are the general “how much” of the diet equation. A calorie is a unit of energy, so, food is energy. There are several processes that combine to determine how many calories your body burns per day, including: exercise, your basal metabolic rate (a product of age, height, weight, and sex), the thermic effect of food (the calories burned to digest and process food), and non-exercise activity (like standing, walking, fidgeting, etc.). The total estimate of your calories burned each day is called your “total daily estimated expenditure” or “TDEE”. To simplify things, you could Google a TDEE calculator to find this number for yourself.
Energy balance is critical to achieving fitness goals. Someone that wants to lose weight must consume less calories than their TDEE. Someone that wants to gain weight most consume a surplus. Someone who wants to excel in performance needs to break even or consume a slight surplus. Calories are relatively straightforward, and I mention them first in this article because they hold arguably the greatest transformative power in changing physique or fueling performance. Calories matter, and I encourage the vast majority of my clients to at least ballpark their caloric intake to understand their fitness goals better.
There are three main macronutrients (“macros” for short): carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Technically, alcohol is a fourth macronutrient but let’s skip over that for now. Each macro has a conversion rate from grams to calories; the total calories of the three macro’s combined, equate to one’s total caloric intake. Carbohydrates and protein account for four calories per gram; fat accounts for nine calories per gram. So, 100g of both protein and carbs equate to 400cal each; 100g of fat equates to 900cal.
If you’ve already calculated your TDEE, and committed to either a deficit or a surplus, your next step is to work backwards from that calorie goal to complete your caloric puzzle with macronutrient ratios. So, what is the golden ratio of carbs, to protein, to fat? Unfortunately, there simply isn’t enough space in this article to delve into that – know this, though: most diets out there have a time and place and ideal person they’ll work best for. If you don’t know what you’re doing, I highly recommend a more balanced macro split — beware of the extreme diets that highly restrict one macro or more.
Generally speaking, here are some extremely broad guidelines: weightlifters need more protein; endurance athletes need more carbs and fats; reduce carbs to lose weight; increase carbs to gain weight; dietary fat doesn’t make you fat; more sedentary individuals should reduce carbs and fats. Please seek a nutrition professional to help define your ideal ratio.
There are a myriad of micronutrients in the ballgame, but let’s make this quick by focusing on fiber, sodium, and water.
Outside of a GI issue, most females should aim for 25g fiber per day and males for 30g of fiber per day. Fiber is essential for digestive health, and is found in fruits, vegetables, some supplements, and higher nutrition grains. Usually, once people commit to higher quality foods, they find the fiber goals easier to hit.
Sodium, in a sentence, is much more important to athletes who sweat more. Sweat rates are highly variable, depending on each person, the climate, and the activity. Essentially, the more you sweat, the more sodium you’ll need to replace. Sedentary individuals should monitor excess sodium intake due to lack of sweat.
Water. Do we even need to discuss this one? Your body is 70% water, and most people simply don’t get enough to replace what is used each day. Depending on a person’s sex, size, climate, and activity, aim for 60-70 ounces per day at a minimum and 100 or more ounces in hot climates or with increased activity.
Quality matters! Most of the considerations above would fall under the “quantity” umbrella, but don’t neglect the power of “quality”. Let’s keep this common sense … of course, chicken breasts and spinach are better for you than pizza and beers. You don’t need a doctorate in nutrition to know what’s generally best. Don’t overthink this — shoot for about 80% higher quality choices, with 20% indulgence, and you’re doing better than most. Remember, your body is only going to last as long, and go as far as, the quality of fuel that you’re putting into it. Respect your body now, or you’ll be forced to do so later, when it starts to break down.
Other considerations for the advanced class
My advice to any newbie who wants to tackle the diet: start with calories, macro’s, micro’s, and quality first. Truly, you could fill years of experimentation and results with just those considerations alone. Down the road, of course, there are other things to consider: meal timings and feeding windows, supplements, cheat meals, re-feeding schedules, pre/post/during workout fuel and timings, and so much more. But, my advice would be to start with the bigger beasts first, before diving into these details later.
The way to cut through the complexity of diet is to start with the big considerations, and to start at square one with a simple plan. Start with meticulous calorie tracking, with a balanced macronutrient split, with good quality, and you’re seriously ahead of 95% of people out there. Make it as simple as you can and handle the task one bite at a time.