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Improving Body Composition: The Complete Dieting Guide

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The most extensive and comprehensive diet guide for improving body composition that you’ll find anywhere.

Why I Wrote This Guide

Improving body composition is at the forefront of most fitness interested people’s minds.

Heck, it goes even further than so, everyone wants to look and feel great, it’s a basic human need.

And that’s why I wrote this guide – to empower you with the knowledge to achieve the body that you’ve always wanted, whether it’s for competing or looking better in general.

There are plenty of diet guides on how to improve body composition, from textbooks to online video tutorials, you can really choose whichever you like.

But, I’ve felt that something was missing – a free guide that really goes in-depth and breaks the information down into actionable pieces and in the correct order of importance.

The Complete Dieting Guide for Improving Body Composition closes that gap.

Who This Guide Is For

I wrote this dieting guide for physique/bodybuilding competitors, fitness enthusiasts and every day gym goers looking to step up their game and achieve a better body composition – meaning more muscle and less fat.

In this guide, you’ll learn everything from measuring your body composition, counting calories and macros, to nutrient timing and which supplements can be useful, whether your goal is cutting, bulking or maintaining weight.

You’ll also learn how to stay as healthy as possible while working towards your ultimate physique goals.

The guide will be set up in the order of most important to least important when it comes to improving body composition.

Why the Pyramid?

Through the guide, I’ll use the famous nutrition pyramid created by Eric Helms to demonstrate how to set up your diet.

The pyramid is almost exclusively based on science and is, therefore, a highly reliable source.

The pyramid displays through hierarchy what’s most important when it comes to improving body composition.

Where calories at the bottom are the most important factor and supplements at the top are the least important.

The pyramid looks like this:

Diet and body composition Nutrition pyramid

Pyramid created by Eric Helms, author of the amazing muscle and strength pyramids books. Books which I can’t recommend enough!

As you can see, the order of importance to successfully lose fat, build muscle or maintain a certain body composition is as the pyramid shows.

Here’s a quick example:

Let’s say your goal is to lose fat.

If the first thing you do is look at meal frequency or supplements (at the top of the pyramid) to help you achieve the goal of fat loss, chances are high that you won’t be successful.

Why?

Because you miss out on the larger, more important factors for fat loss.

On the other hand, if you were to focus on calories and macronutrients first, you would successfully account for 80 % of the factors resulting in fat loss.

So, are the upper factors important at all?

Yes, but only if the foundation is in place.

Now that you understand how the pyramid is built up, here are all the parts of the guide:

Part 1: Tracking and Measuring Body Composition

Tracking and measuring body compostition is important if you’re looking to improve it. If you don’t measure and track your body, you won’t know if you’re making progress towards your goal.

That’s why in the first part you’ll learn how to track and measure your body composition effectively.

This part will cover:

  • How to measure body fat percentage.
  • How to track changes in body compostition.

Part 2: How to Set Up Your Calorie Intake

To successfully change anything when it comes to your body weight, whether that’s gaining or losing weight, calorie intake is the most important part to set up correctly when it comes to your diet.

Calorie intake and it’s effect in the body falls under the law of thermodynamics making it number 1 in the hierarchy.

This guide will cover:

  • How to calculate calorie intake to lose or gain weight.
  • How to adjust the calorie intake after activity.
  • How to make changes with the calorie intake in case things doesn’t go as planned.

Part 3: How to Set Up Your Macronutrients

Calorie intake is what decides weight loss or weight gain. Macronutrients (carbs, fats and proteins) on the other hand, partly decides whether it’s fat or muscle you’ll lose or gain.

In other words, macronutrients plays a huge role in deciding your body composition. That’s why they’re number two in the hierarchy and just as calories important to set up correctly!

This part will cover:

  • Why each of the macronutrients are important.
  • How to set up your macros depending on your goal.

Part 4: Micronutrients and Fiber Intake

The subject of micronutrients and fiber can sound a bit boring, but it’s very important that you don’t ignore it. Long-term deficiencies in either one will affect your health and training performance negatively.

Luckily, it’s easy to take control over these nutrients.

By following a few simple rules regarding daily fruit and vegetable intake, you can make sure you’re not creating deficiencies.

This part also includes water intake guidelines.

Part 5: Meal Frequency & Nutrient Timing

These two phenomena have been tossed around crazily in the fitness industry during the last decade.

Earlier, a food intake every three hours was standard, it was even a must to avoid a “crashed metabolism.” You also had to eat the perfect amount of protein and carbs after your workouts to make sure you retained all your muscles…

Two notions that have little to no truth about them.

Today, some people take it to extremes in the other direction, especially with intermittent fasting that has taken a strong grip on the fitness industry.

So, at place four in the hierarchy:

How important are frequency and timing really for improving body composition?

Part 6: Supplements Worth Taking

Supplements are the smallest piece of the puzzle, as they seem to provide less than 5 % of the total results when it comes to improving body composition.

With that said though, some of them can still be useful in certain cases. So, we’ll take a closer look at them as well.

Part 1:
Tracking and Measuring Body Composition

Improving body composition is the main goal of the majority of people interested in fitness.

Constantly trying to be leaner and more muscular is the name of the game.

But how can we be sure that we’re making progress as quickly as possible?

That we’re not just spinning our wheels in the gym and kitchen?

That’s what you’ll learn throughout this guide. You’ll be a master of creating and maintaining an incredible body composition.

But, before we look at how to improve body composition through the diet. Let’s make it crystal clear what body composition is and how to track and measure it.

What is Body Composition?

Body composition is often mistaken for Body Mass Index (BMI) or fat percentage, but they’re completely different.

BMI is showing total weight relative to height, which means it doesn’t take what someone’s total weight is made up of into consideration.

And fat percentage only shows the amount of fat you have on your body, not what you’re actual body composition are.

Top-level physique athletes that are incredibly lean with low body fat, while being muscular usually have very high BMI’s and are considered overweight by the BMI standard.

Take Jeff Nippard for example, who’s an incredibly talented and gifted natural bodybuilder. He’s 5’5″ (165 cm) tall and weighs 160 lbs. (72 kg) in this picture.

jeff nippard

This is he’s BMI calculation:

  1. 160 (pounds) x 0.45 = 72 (kilograms)
  2. 5’5 (inches) x 0.025 = 1.65 (meters)
  3. 65 x 1.65 = 2.7225
  4. 72 / 2.7225= 26.44 (BMI)

His BMI is 26.44 which puts him at overweight status according to BMI standard.

BMI Standard

Underweight = <18.5

Normal weight = 18.5–24.9

Overweight = 25–29.9

Obesity = BMI of 30 or greater

As you can see, body mass index (BMI) is useful for analyzing population but not so useful when it comes to analyzing individuals. Especially not individuals who are more muscular than normal.

You Should Look For Body Composition Changes

If you’re looking to get fitter, you shouldn’t pay attention to BMI, you should look at body composition instead. By doing so, you’ll see what your body is actually made of.

When you just step on the scale, your weight will reflect the amount of skeletal muscle, fat, bones, blood, water, organs and other minor components in your body.

As individuals, we all have different amounts of these things.

Now, there are different models of determining body composition, but for us interested in fitness, we should narrow it down to these two:

  • Fat mass: This is all the fat in your body.
  • Fat-free mass: This is everything that isn’t fat: muscle, bone, blood, organs, water, glycogen, and so on. Often shortened FFM.

These two components allow you to better analyze what happens to your body when you diet or exercise. The obvious and ultimate goal is to have high fat-free mass and low fat mass.

For example:

  • If you gain weight but your fat mass remains the same, you’ve gained muscle but not fat.
  • And contrarily, if you lose weight but your fat free mass stays the same, then you’ve lost fat but maintained muscle mass.

These two scenarios are ideal, but often not possible in the real world.

However, people commonly make the mistake of stuffing their face when bulking to gain muscle, just to end up getting fat in the process.

Or they restrict calories too heavily, do too much cardio, and/or eat too little protein when cutting, losing a lot of muscle mass and sabotaging their fat free mass to fat mass ratio.

And this is what you’ll learn how to set up correctly in the coming parts.

But first, let’s look at how to measure body composition, so you can keep track of your diet and training, making sure you progress towards the results that you want!

Measuring Body Composition

measure body composition

The easiest way to measure body composition is to first measure body fat percentage.

Sounds easy enough, but can be tricky because there is so much inaccuracy with the methods used to measure body fat.

For that reason, body fat percentage measurements are estimations at best, this is true for even the most advanced methods.

How to Estimate Body Fat Percentage

Here’s a list of the most accurate to least accurate methods you can use to estimate body fat percentage. I’ve based the list on each one’s standard error deviations:

  1. DEXA scan: ~1-2%
  2. US Navy’s mathematical equation: ~3%
  3. BodPod/Undervattensvägning: ~3%
  4. Calipers and skinfold tools: experienced user ~3%, inexperienced user ~5%
  5. Visual appearance combined with waist measurement: experienced user ~3%, inexperienced user ~5%
  6. BIA (electrical scales): 5-8% (best avoided)

Let’s look at these one by one:

DEXA Scan

DEXA scan

DEXA is the most accurate method that exists when it comes to estimating body fat percentage.

DEXA stands for Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry and it’s an x-ray machine that scans the whole body. Through a computer, the machine receives the amount of bones, muscle mass and fat mass you carry.

With a standard deviation of ~1-2%, DEXA is the preferred method to use if available.

DEXA used to be a bit expensive and rather difficult to get an appointment for. But luckily a company called DexaFit has made the whole process of getting a DEXA scan easier than ever before.

US Navy’s Mathematical Equation

US navy mathematical equation

This is a neat equation that gives an astoundingly accurate measurement, it has a standard error deviation of only ~3% which is amazing for an equation based method.

To use the equation, you must know your: height, weight, waist circumference (at naval) and neck circumference (at narrowest). Females need hip circumference as well (at widest.)

I’ll have this calculator ready for you at the end of this section.

Averagely, the US Navy’s Mathematical Equation is a great tool to use, but it comes with one big drawback:

Thatit doesn’t work well for all people.

The equation doesn’t take into consideration where on the body you distribute your fat.

Some people distribute most of their fat on their legs and arms, other do so on their back, and most commonly, on the stomach, hips and butt.

The fact that most people place their fat on the stomach, hips and butt is why this method works so well on average. Because it’s the standard the equation is created after.

But, if you store your fat in other places, you will get a reading that’s completely off.

fat distribution body composition

BodPod/Underwater Weighing

The BodPod is an egg formed air compressed chamber that measures your bodyweight using a very precise scale, while simultaneously measuring your body volume via pressure and vacuum.

When the whole-body density has been measured, the relative proportion of fat mass and fat-free mass can be calculated with the help of weight, height, density, age and sex.

bod pod body composition

The BodPod works extremely well to measure the average on a group of people (why it generates such exact results in studies) but not as well for individuals.

Lean and muscular people tend to get a number that is 3-5% higher or lower than what their body fat percentage really is.

Here’s a perfect example of Greg O’Gallagher’s experiment with the BodPod. He got a result of only 4.8 % body fat (pretty much stage ready,) when in reality he’s more like ~8 %

kinobody bodpod experiment

Underwater weighing works basically the same way, just with water instead of air compression.

And just as with the DEXA, both BodPod and Water weighing is somewhat expensive and difficult to get an appointment for.

Calipers and Skinfold Tools

skinfold body composition

Skinfold testing using calipers to measure the thickness of your skin can yield rather exact measurements of body fat percentage.

The biggest problem with skinfold measurement is that most people don’t know how to use the tools.

You must get the exact correct amount of skin in between the tool each time you measure – not too much, not too little and always measure at the same spot.

This can be learned of course and with practice, you can get measures that are just 2-3% off the correct fat percentage.

Visual Appearance

Believe it or not, how you look in the mirror can be a great method for estimating body fat percentage.

Each body fat percentage has a certain look which can give you a good indicator of how much body fat you carry just by looking in the mirror.

But there’s one thing to take into consideration.

The look of different body fat percentages varies widely depending on how much muscle mass someone has.

For instance, a 150-pound guy at 10% body fat has 15 pounds of fat, and a 180-pound guy at 10% has only 3 pounds more fat but 27 pounds more fat-free mass.

These are two dramatically different looks. And here’s a perfect visualization of this:

10 % body fat

Both are around 10% body fat but the guy on the right has far less muscle mass, giving him a completely different look.

With that said though, you can still guesstimate your body fat percentage pretty accurately by just comparing your body to the following images made by Marc Perry, founder and CEO of BUILTLEAN.

body fat percentage men

body fat percentage women

Waist circumference

What’s interesting about waist circumference is that it goes up or down with body fat percentage.

For most people (not everyone), each body fat percentage has a corresponding waist circumference.

I’ve discovered that you can predict somewhat precisely the amount of fat you carry by checking your waist circumference.

However, as I discussed earlier, waist circumference doesn’t take into consideration if you store your fat on your arms, legs, chest or upper back.

But on average, waist circumference works well, that’s why it’s also used in the US Navy formula mentioned above.

Here’s a chart showing you the corresponding waist measurement to body fat percentage (sorry ladies, I only found numbers for males):

 waist to height ratio body fat

Visual Appearance Combined with Waist Measurement

By combining the two methods of visual appearance and waist circumference, you get an amazing combination that’s usually very accurate.

With some experience, you should be able to estimate your body fat percentage with error margins of only a couple of percentages.

And here’s what’s cool about this:

Once you get to your desired level of leanness, you’ll know what your own numbers should be to have a specific look.

So, for future cutting phases, you’ll know the exact number that you must get your waist back to, to achieve the same level of leanness, or even better because of muscular gains in the core section.

BIA (electrical scales)

BIA body composition

These scales are the most commonly used method to measure body fat percentage with these days.

It’s one of those scales with metal surfaces that you place your feet on, or in some cases hold in your hands.

While you’re doing this an electrical current flow through your body and gives you a measurement.

The problem with these scales is that they don’t scan your whole body.

As you know, electricity always takes the path of least resistance. So, if you’re standing on a scale with two metal plates, the current will go into one of your legs, then to your hips, and back down through your other leg.

The current won’t go through your upper body at all:

bia foot scale

And since we all store fat in various places, the BIA scales will come up with very inaccurate measurements on a whole-body level.

Furthermore, because electrical current always chooses the path of least resistance, it tends to skip fat tissue anyways.

Water is the most effective conductor of electricity, and guess which bodily tissue includes most water?

Yes, that’s correct, muscle does. Muscle contains around 70 % water to be precise, while fat contains nearly no water at all.

So, it’s rather obvious that the current will go through muscles and not fat.

So, with a standard error deviation of 5-8%, I wouldn’t recommend the use of BIA scales, the estimated number is just too far off.

Optimal way of Measuring Body Fat Percentage and Total Body Composition

The most optimal way of measuring body composition would be by dying and going through a full body autopsy…

Where you would have your tissues, bones and organs etc. all separated from each other and measured one by one.

Now, it’s good to be resourceful, but that’s a bit extreme, right?

The next best method would be with the 4-compartment body-composition model that involves using several different techniques to separate the body into four “buckets”:

  • Muscle Tissue
  • Fat Mass
  • Water
  • Bone Mass

BodPod/Underwater weighing is used to measure body density, total body water is measured through deuterium delusion, and total bone mass is determined by DEXA scan. All this data is equated which gives a consistent accurate measurement of body composition.

The problem with this method is that you need access to a team of scientists.

Luckily, you don’t have to be 100 % accurate with your measurments, because it’s not possible.

So, do we have a method that’s accurate enough and easy to use?

For sure!

THE WINNER

winner body fat percentage

The winner for measuring body fat percentage with a standard error deviation of only ~3% while also being very user-friendly is,

Drumroll…

The US Navy’s Mathematical Equation!

And here’s the promised calculator:

The US Navy Body Fat Formula

Just take the measurements displayed in the calculator, and insert them to calculate your body fat percentage.


Body fat Percentage

Just multiply your bodyweight with your fat percentage to get your Fat Free Mass (FFM.)

Here’s an example:

A person that weighs 160 lbs (72 kg) at 10 % body fat have a FFM of: 160 (bw) x 0.9 (bf%) = 144 lbs (65 kg).

Using this calculator gives you decently accurate numbers of fat free mass and fat mass. Numbers you will use to:

  • Keep track on to make sure you’re making progress towards your goals.
  • Base your calorie and macronutrient intake after in the upcoming parts.

Tracking Changes in Body Composition

Use the following tools to track changes in body composition:

  • A scale
  • A measuring tape
  • A mirror
  • The US Navy calculator

Weigh and Take Measurements of Yourself Daily and Calculate an Average Every Week

Your weight and measurements can fluctuate a lot from day to day duo to things like water and glycogen storage, what you’re eating, and bowel movement etc.

So watching and getting upset over daily weigh ins can quickly become a neurosis.

Dick Talens did a great post explaining the scale, why you bloat, and how to adjust weight loss.

To avoid this problem, some people weigh themselves only once every 2 to 4 weeks, which is perfectly fine.

But if you want to be more in control, I definitively recommend weekly averages.

And setting it up is easy, here’s what to do:

  1. First thing in the morning, after the bathroom and before eating or drinking, weigh yourself naked and take your measurements, not down your numbers.
  2. Once every week add the numbers up and divide by the numbers of measurements you took and you’ll have your weekly average.
  3. I recommend that you take these numbers daily, so that you get 7 numbers per week. This would be the most accurate, however 3-4 times per week is enough.

weight fluctuations body composition

As you can see, I had days during these two weeks when I was 0.5 kg (1 lbs) heavier than my average weight. These fluctuations is usually larger when cutting as well.

The average changes over time will tell you what’s really happening with your weight outside the temporary daily fluctuations that have nothing to do with gaining or losing fat or muscle.

Track Your Strength In The Gym

Measuring your weight and body fat percentage is a great start.

But, to be certain your body composition actually improves overtime:

By losing fat and not muscle when cutting.

And by gaining muscle without gaining fat when bulking

You should also track your strength in the gym:

  • If your strength stays the same or improves while your body fat percentage goes down when cutting, you’re body composition is improving.
  • If your strength improves faster than what your body fat perecntage inreases when bulking, you’re body composition is improving.

Look in the Mirror or Take Pictures

What you look like in the mirror is a reliable indicator that your body composition is improving.

Take pictures of your front, back and side in good lighting a few times per month, and over time you’ll see what’s changing (and what’s not).

And remember, if you’re getting leaner and more muscluar in the mirror you’re body composition is improving no matter what the scale or measurements tell you.

The ultimate way of tracking improvements in body composition is by using the US Navy Formula in combination with weekly weight/measurement averages, how you look and your strength in the gym.

Once you’ve gained some experience using these four, I’ve found that combined them outperforms any of the other methods, such as BodPod and skinfold measuring, even DEXA!

Conclusion –  Measuring & Tracking Body Composition

As you’ve noticed, measuring your exact body fat percentage and composition can be very tricky, if not impossible. You’ll have to settle for a guesstimated range.

With that said though, tracking the changes in your body composition can be done very accurately, which is what matters most.

Okay great, you’ve just finished part 1 of this guide. You should now be well equipped with various tools to accurately track how your body composition changes overtime.

So, without further ado, let’s get started with the most important factor when it comes to improving body composition, which is:

Part 2:
How to Set Up Your Calorie Intake

Kilocalories (kcals) are units of energy defined as the approximate amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water.

Calorie intake is a measure of energy which means it applies to the law of thermodynamics which is what makes it number one in the hierarchy of importance.

This essentially means that:

Whether your goal is weight loss, weight gain, enhancing performance or maintaining weight for a sport, manipulating calories are the number one factor for any of these goals.

And how you can do that most safely and effectively is what we’re going to look at it this part.

Let’s go!

Nutrition pyramid calories

Pyramid inspired by Eric Helms, author of the muscle and strength pyramids books.

In this part we’ll cover the following:

How to Set Up Your Caloric Intake for Cutting or Bulking

counting calories

Counting calories is done for one of these goals:

  1. Lose weight, preferably in the form of fat.
  2. Gain weight, preferably in the form of muscle.

Doing both simultaneously is possible, but it’s highly related to body fat percentage and training experience.

An overweight beginner can burn fat and build muscle at the same time.

But as soon as the body fat percentage gets lower and the first few months of new training stimulus have passed, it gets successively harder to achieve both goals simultaneously.

If you’ve passed the first few months of training and lie within a reasonable range of body fat percentage (8-18 % for men and 15-30 % for women).

Then you should focus on either cutting to lose fat or bulking to gain muscle, depending on your goal.

This will be the quickest way to improve body composition.

Important to know when it comes to setting up caloric intake.

  • You can lose fat faster than you can build muscle. Packing on muscle requires construction of new muscle tissue, tendons and ligaments etc. Fat loss, on the other hand, is just stored energy that the body can easily take from.
  • Excessive consumption of food during a bulk will lead to muscle growth, but also a lot of unnecessary fat storage. Bulking should be controlled, and for that reason, I’ll call it lean-bulk instead of bulk from now on.
  • Phases of caloric deficits can and shall be larger than phases of surpluses.
  • The diet should determine the deficit or surplus, not the training. Firstly, it’s easier to control the energy balance through diet than through training. Secondly, training should be used to reach a certain goal, not to manipulate energy balance. Thirdly, extra training can mess with recovery for the primary training. With that said though, cardio can help with energy expenditure, but it should never be the primary method for it.

Calculate Your Caloric Need

1. Calculate BMR

BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) is how much energy you need to maintain your body weight during a day of complete rest, the energy you would need if you were in a coma.

BMR is the first thing you must calculate to figure out your caloric expenditure.

The easiest way to count your BMR is with an easy mathematic formula that gets very close to more advanced formulas, and it’s this one:

Bodyweight (in lbs.) x 12 kcal = Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)

Bodyweight (in kg) x 26 kcal = Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)

2. Calculate Daily Activity

Hopefully, you’re not in a coma and are reading this, that would be scary!

You’re probably not lying still all day either, right?

For that reason, you must multiply your BMR with your daily activity. Here’s how:

Slim to no daily activity: x1.2

Low daily activity (training 1-3 days per week): x1.375

Medium daily activity (training 3-5 days per week): x1.55

High daily activity ((training 6-7 days per week)): x1.725

Very high daily activity (2 daily training sessions): x1.9

The final numbers you get from multiplying your BMR with your daily activity are called:

TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) and are an estimation at best, and will need to be adjusted overtime.

The biggest reason TDEE are only an estimation is because of NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis).

Some people move and burn more calories than others do throughout a day subconsciously.

Studies show that NEAT can result in one individual burning up to 1000 calories more than another individual throughout a day.

TDEE Examples:

TDEE calories bulking

TDEE calories cutting

3. Set up a Theoretical Calorie Deficit or Surplus, Depending on Your Goal

If your goal is to cut and lose fat, set your caloric deficit after current body fat percentage.

If your goal is too build muscle, set your caloric surplus after training experience (beginner, intermediate or experienced).

4. Adjust the Caloric Intake Up or Down

Adjust your caloric intake depending on the trend of your scale weight and measurements (covered in part 1) on a weekly basis.

Cutting: How to Set Up Your Caloric Deficit

cutting calorie deficit

Size of the Caloric Deficit

How large of a caloric deficit you choose, obviously affects how quickly you’ll lose weight, but only up to a certain point before muscle loss and unpleasantries will arise.

This point is largely associated with your current body fat percentage.

The more fat you carry, the larger the deficit can be, without risk of muscle loss, extreme hunger, low energy and other unpleasantries following a “crash diet.”

To avoid these unpleasantries, I recommend using the following numbers when deciding your caloric deficit, which are based on body fat percentage instead of bodyweight:

calorie deficit body fat percentage

How to Setup the Caloric Deficit Using Your Previous Calculations

Watch this video, which walks you through how to set up an optimal caloric deficit for fat loss:

To lose 2 lbs. (1 kg) of body fat, a caloric deficit of 7000 calories is required.

As you can see in the table above, a caloric deficit of 7000 per week would have been good for a person with 20-30 %+ body fat.

For leaner individuals between 10-25 %, I don’t recommend a quicker weight loss than 1-1.5 lbs. (0.5-0.7 kgs) per week.

Even if the caloric deficit can be larger without risking muscle loss, it’s a lot easier mentally sticking to a fat loss diet long-term with a moderate deficit.

To lose 1-1.7 lbs (0.5-0.7 kgs) a week, a deficit of 3500-4900 calories per week or 500-700 calories per day is required.

And this is how Julie who has the goal of cutting would set up her caloric deficit:

calorie deficit example

As you can see, Julie’s daily caloric intake will be 1645 calories to lose 1 lbs a week.

Even though Julie has a body fat percentage of ~25 % and could use a larger deficit it’s still better for her long-term adherence to the diet if she sticks to a deficit of “just” 500 calories per day.

Another reason I don’t recommend a bigger caloric deficit than 500 per day in Julie’s case, is because 1645 kcals equals a very low amount of food, so low that if she’s going even lower, extreme hunger can quickly become an issue.

*This is where a moderate amount of cardio can be a good tool to increase the energy intake a bit if hunger is a problem. Just remember not to do too much cardio and surpass 1 lbs (0.5 kg) of weight loss per week.

Note

The fact that 3500 calories are required to lose 1 lbs (0.5 kg) per week is just what will happen theoretically.

Factors such as NEAT (the subconscious movement which I mentioned earlier) will affect these numbers.

Some individuals simply experience bigger swings in their NEAT when the caloric intake changes up or down. This can partly explain why some people get lazy on a caloric deficit while others don’t.

Or why some people seem to be able to eat how much they want without gaining weight, the typical “hard gainer.”

In addition to that, you’ll also experience metabolic adaptations.

This means that your caloric requirements will sink as you lose weight, causing your mathematical calculations to become inaccurate.

That’s why it’s important to keep track of your progress, that way you can adjust your caloric intake up or down, depending on the scale and measurements, to get you on track again.

Finally, it’s not uncommon that your scale weight and measurements stalls for up to a couple of weeks.

This happens because of water retention. Fat loss does still take place, but as fat cells shrink they get filled with water.

This happens because of increased cortisol levels in the body, followed by stress. A caloric deficit is a stress factor and so is training.

To avoid this, sleep well and work on bringing down other stress factors in your daily life.

If you encounter water retention anyways, all you can do is just wait it out.

One morning you can wake up and experience the famous “Whoosh effect.” This is when the body suddenly loses all the retained water at once, and you end up surprised, a few pounds lighter than the day before.

Water retention is a natural thing that happens for both sexes but is more common amongst women.

Bulking: How to Set Up Your Calorie Surplus

How Fast Can You Build Muscle?

How you set up your calories to gain muscle is highly associated with training experience.

Compare that to fat loss, which is based on body fat percentage to decide how fast you can lose it, thus, have nothing with experience to do.

By categorizing training age, you can get a pretty accurate estimate of how much muscle you can build in a month.

This is extremely useful when it comes to deciding your calorie intake and how much you can allow your body weight to increase.

Below is a rough estimate of how much muscle you can build per month if you do everything correctly with your training:

alan aragon maximal muscle building potential

Alan Aragon’s model of average maximal rate of muscle gain.

  • Taller people will use the higher number.
  • Beginners that already are fairly muscular (maybe from a lifetime of sports or heavy manual labor) can probably expect the same muscle growth as an intermediate.

How Much Energy is Required to Build Muscle?

People that are a lot smarter than I have figured out that it theoretically requires around 2500 calories to build 1 lbs (0.5 kg) of muscle.

This means that the ideal calorie surplus for a beginner should be 5000 calories per month since they can build around 2 pounds of muscle per month.

However, in most cases, it requires more calories than this to successfully maximize muscle growth.

This is believed to be because the hormonal environment in the body favors muscle growth more when the calorie intake is even higher.

The Three Ways to Bulk

The next obvious question is:

How should I set up my bulk?

I would say that there are three different ways to set up a bulk, and these are:

1. Dirty Bulk/Uncontrolled Bulk – This is a bulking method where you eat as much food as you can possibly handle, with the goal of adding muscle as quickly as possible.

2. Lean-Gains – With this bulking method, the goal is to slowly add muscle with slim to no fat storage at all.

3. Lean-Bulk/Controlled Bulk – With this bulking method you’ll maximize muscle growth while allowing for only moderate amounts of fat to be stored.

Which method you chose is totaly up to you. If you’re chosing any of the bulking methods where you’ll gain fat, you’ll build muscle at the fastest rate possible, but you’ll have to cut body fat in between. Also, you should be fairly lean before you jump on a bulk, both for health and quicker muscle gain.

1. Dirty Bulk/Uncontrolled Bulk

dirty bulking
It’s not uncommon that some people successfully eat 1000-2000+ calories more per day than what’s needed to maintain their weight.

This amount of energy is a lot larger than what’s needed to maximize muscle growth, so parts of the remaining calories will be burned off through NEAT, or what’s more likely be stored as fat.

DIRTY-BULKING-graph

As you can see in the graph, you’re gaining fat a lot faster than muscle mass.

Very rarely do I recommend this bulking method for reasons that’s rather obvious.

Adding a lot of body fat is unattractive, unhealthy and can make it harder to build muscle and lastly, it’ll take a long time cutting back to a more reasonable fat percentage again.

dirty bulk

The only ones I would ever recommend this method for are people that are extremely skinny, who for a longer period have had problems gaining weight. Individuals with low appetite and high NEAT, or a combination of both.

How to implement a dirty bulk:

Eat, just eat!

Actually, there’s not much else you have to do. There’s no reason to count calories if you’re eating until you’re full and beyond.

What I would recommend though is that you train as hard, smart and proper as you possibly can in the gym. While also implementing daily walks, light cardio and remaining active during the days.

This way you can achieve a tiny bit better nutrient partitioning from the food. Meaning, more of the energy goes towards building muscle and storing glycogen in the muscles instead of going directly to fat cells.

2. Lean-Gains

lean gains

With this bulking method, the goal is to slowly add muscle with slim to no fat storage at all.

Sounds good, right?

However, there are two big drawbacks with this method, which are:

  • It’s extremely hard to notice progress and changes because building new muscle tissue takes a long time. Looking for gains in muscle mass is like watching paint dry. With the lean-gains method, the only guidelines you have is to depend on your progress in the gym, meaning that the volume and weights you’re training with increases over time.
  • You can’t maximize your muscle building potential. This is because the hormonal environment I wrote about earlier, which is true only for beginners and intermediates.

LEAN-GAINS-METHOD

As you can see, you’re gaining very little to no fat, but your muscle building potential is highly reduced.

The ones I recommend this method for are individuals with a lot of training experience, who have multiple years of training under their belt. Like WNBF Pro Natural Bodybuilder Jeff Nippard:

Jeff Nippard lean-gaining

These individuals are close to their genetic potential when it comes to building muscle. So, they need very few calories of surplus seen over multiple months, even years to build any new muscle tissue.

I would also recommend this method for individuals that really don’t want to add any fat to their frame, such as actors or professional models that must be in shape year-round for movie roles or photo shoots, etc.

How to implement lean-gains:

Either eat at calorie balance or just above on training days, depending on starting point and experience.

If you only have a couple years of training experience and want or need to lean-gain for professional reasons, then you still have the potential to add an okay amount of muscle mass every month.

Then I’d do the following:

  • Eat at energy balance (TDEE) the days you’re not training.
  • Eat ~200 calories above TDEE the days you’re training.

If you follow this setup you’ll likely put on muscle with minimal fat storage.

If you, on the other hand, are experienced to training and closer to your genetic potential, then there’s no reason to eat with the same constant calorie surplus to build muscle.

Can you, according to the table above, only build 0.5 lbs (0.22 kg) of muscle per month or ~5 lbs (2.5 kg) per year, you only need a surplus of measly 34 calories per day. That’s equal to half an apple above maintenance per day!

Eating at energy balance daily and perhaps indulging in something extra every now and then seems a lot more reasonable for an experienced individual.

3. Lean-Bulk/Controlled Bulk

lean bulking

This is the method that I recommend for 80 % of the population.

By using a controlled bulk, you’ll maximize muscle growth while allowing for only a moderate amount of fat to be stored.

If you really want to build muscle as a beginner to intermediate, don’t be afraid of gaining some fat. It’s really not that bad in the grand scheme, JC Dean wrote a great article called the perfect caloric surplus, explaining why.

When you allow for some fat storage, you’ll have a high enough calorie surplus for the hormonal environment in your body to be in favor of muscle growth.

The caloric surplus I recommend is one that allow you to gain at a 1-1 ratio, or slightly below, of muscle and fat.

LEAN-BULKING-graph

As you can see, when you’re gaining fat and muscle in a 1 to 1 ratio you’re maximizing your muscle building potential while only putting on a moderate amount of body fat in the process.

So, if you’re a beginner and can gain 2 lbs (1 kg) of muscle per month, your total bodyweight should go up 4 lbs (2 kg) per month.

To save you the math, that would mean a caloric surplus of 440 calories per day. Just to make it more applicable, a surplus of 500 calories per day is a good place to start if you’re a complete beginner who can gain ~2 lbs of muscle per month.

How to implement a lean-bulk:

Remember Jake?

His goal is to build muscle.

His height is average, he’s an intermediate when it comes to training and can build around 1.5 lbs (0.7 kg) of muscle per month. This means he will focus on gaining 3 lbs (1.4 kg) of total body weight per month to maximize his muscle building potential.

To calculate how many calories Jake must eat per day to achieve this goal, he’ll use the following equation:

  • Daily calorie intake = TDEE + (muscle growth per month in kg’s x 125 calories). (125 calories is what Jake needs per day to gain 1.5 pound of muscle per month, based on the ~2500 calories rule to build 1 lbs of muscle) = 3157 calories per day
  • To maximize his muscle building potential he should allow for 1.5 lbs (0.7 kg) of fat gain per month as well. Which is 163 calories extra per day. 3157 + 163 = 3320 calories per day.

Jake calorie surplus

How to Adjust Your Calorie Intake in case Your Weight Doesn’t Change as Planned

When Cutting

  • If you lose weight too fast you risk losing muscle mass.
  • If your weight doesn’t go down fast enough, cut down on the calorie intake.
  • Adjust with 200-300 calories per day.

When Lean-Bulking

  • If your weight doesn’t go up fast enough, increase the calorie intake.
  • If you gain weight too fast, then you’ve put on too much fat and should lower the calorie intake.
  • Adjust with 100-200 calories per day.

Remember to take water weight into consideration. You do this by taking daily measurements over 3-4 weeks before you adjust the calorie intake.

That’s it regarding calories. The most important factor for changing your body composition as well as laying the foundation for everything we’ll cover next.

Next up is macronutrients which largely impact whether it’s fat or muscle you’ll lose during a cut, or if its muscle or fat you’ll gain during a bulk.

Part 3:
How to Set Up Your Macronutrients

At second place in the pyramid you find your macronutrients, or macros as they’re typically spoken as.

I’m sure you’ve heard about these nutrient before, and they are:

  • Protein
  • Fat
  • Carbs

Even alcohol counts as a macronutrient, but hopefully it isn’t a nutrient you must depend on to survive.

In this part you’ll learn how to set up your macros to most effectively improve your body composition. Whether your goal is cutting, bulking or maintaining.

What are Macronutrients?

Nutrition pyramid macros

Macronutrients have the task to provide us with energy as well as building blocks to recover and repair all the body’s cells.

What you’re probably the most interested in is how these nutrients can be set up, for you to achieve the body composition you want, i.e. more muscle and less fat.

A good distinction between calories and macros is that calories decide if you’ll gain or lose weight while macros play an important role in deciding what the weight loss or gain will be composed of.

Let’s discover what each of the macronutrients does and how you can set them up to improve body composition.

Protein

macronutrients proteins

Protein contains 4 calories per gram.

Why Is Protein Important?

Protein is the building blocks for all the cells in the body, so for improving body composition it makes a lot of sense to have a high intake of protein in order to repair and make your muscles grow.

In fact, overall when it comes to body composition, protein is the number one, most important macronutrient to set up correctly.

Why?

Because, muscle is essentially proteins that your body has stored in a response to earth’s gravity and your movements against that force.

In other words, muscles are built out of protein as a defense mechanism against the movements you make, to ensure that you can handle them better in the future.

So, every time you train hard, you exert a lot of force against the earth’s gravity, and by doing so, your muscles work hard.

When your muscles work hard, they literally break down. For the body to be able to repair this breakdown, it needs something to build with, and this is where your protein intake comes into the picture.

Just imagine if your protein intake are very low, then perhaps you’re not providing enough building blocks for your body to build with, what could happen is that you either end up spinning your wheels when it comes to training, or worse you end up losing muscle mass.

Protein is also the nutrient that has the biggest effect on satiety compared to carbs and fats, which can help when cutting.

How Much Protein Should I eat?

recommended protein intake

Why Is There a Difference Between Cutting and Bulking?

  • Protein helps with preserving muscle mass during a calorie deficit, so the requirement is higher during a cut.
  • A higher protein intake than 2.2 g/kg of fat free mass during a bulk won’t give you any additional benefits, your muscle protein synthesis will already be maxed out.

Why Is it a Range in Recommended Intake?

The optimal intake of protein is decided depending on three factors:

  • Fat free mass (FFM)
  • Body fat percentage
  • If you’re cutting, size of the calorie deficit.

Note: Most people should just make sure to end up somewhere in the ranges above, which is enough to see great results, however if you’re getting fairly advanced or looking to compete in physique/bodybuilding then being more accurate with your protein intake gets a lot more important, especially when cutting and as you’re getting leaner.

Fat Free Mass (FFM)

The higher your FFM is the more protein you’ll need to eat. This makes a lot of sense, the higher FFM you have, the more muscle mass you must support, hence more protein required. That’s why I recommend proteins to be counted as grams per kilograms of FFM and not total bodyweight.

To find out your FFM, use this calculator to first figure out your body fat percentage


Body fat Percentage

Then multiply your bodyweight with your bodyfat percentage to get your FFM.

Like this: 70 kg (bw) x 0.9 (10 % bf) = 63 kg FFM

Body Fat Percentage

The lower body fat percentage you have, the more your body “senses” starvation. And carrying muscle mass is something the body necessarily don’t want to do. Because it’s very energy demanding.

So, if you have a low body fat percentage, or it’s getting lower during a cut, you’ll need more dietary protein, in combination with smart training, to retain as much muscle as possible.

Size of The Calorie Deficit

Same as with body fat percentage, if you have a large calorie deficit, your body “senses” starvation and want to get rid of (what the body thinks is) unnecessary muscle mass.

As covered in the previous part, setting up a moderate calorie deficit is the way to go, mostly.

However, there are sometimes when a larger calorie deficit can be useful, like for a strategic mini cut for example.

It’s clear that a higher intake of protein is in general great for body composition, but only up to a degree. There comes a point where protein starts to “steal” to much calories from other sources, mainly carbs, so that your training performance goes down. And training performance is the number one key for retaining muscle mass on a diet, even more so than protein. (More on that later)

Let’s set up our new friends Jake and Julie’s initial protein intakes.

Jakes protein intake

Julies protein intake

Final notes for setting up protein:

  • Overweight individuals can use a larger calorie deficit. However, a larger deficit means more hunger, and because protein is the most satiating macronutrient of them all, it’s wise to keep the intake higher in this case as well.
  • The reason beginners seem to require less protein is because their nutrient partitioning is better, following a new stimulus to training.

Protein Powder or Real Food?

Protein powder is a useable tool that can make it easier, and above all cheaper, to reach your daily protein intake.

However, it will always be more satiating to get your protein from “real food.” Meaning through meat, fish, egg and dairy products, especially during a cut when hunger is the enemy.

On the other hand, during a bulk, some people find it tough to eat enough calories, where they feel uncomfortably full and puffed. If that’s the case, drinking some of your calories can be smart.

Fat

macronutrients fat

Fat contains 9 calories per gram.

Why Fat is Important

Fat is essential to maintain good hormonal balance in the body (testosterone production included). Moreover, many of your life dependent vitamins are fat soluble, which means they need fat to be taken up by the body.

How Much Fat Should I eat?

recommended fat intake

Fat Intake While Cutting

During a cut, you need to take in fewer calories. Because fat is the most energy dense of the macros, you can easily adjust your calorie intake by adjusting your fat intake.

But, same as with protein, there’s a limit that you don’t want to go below, and it’s because of the hormonal reasons mentioned above. I don’t recommend you going under 0.3g/lbs (0.8 g/kg) of bodyweight.

Why is it a recommended range?

People that carry more body fat will do better on a higher fat and lower carb intake (I’ll cover carbs soon).

This has to do with insulin sensitivity (how well you handle carbs), which increases as you get leaner. So, if you have a high body fat percentage, use the higher number in the range and contrarily if you’re leaner.

Fat Intake While Bulking

During a bulk, you need to take in more calories. And because fat is the most energy dense nutrient, not only will a higher fat intake be a smoother way to increase your calorie intake, it also gives you the opportunity to eat a wider and more varied diet.

Why is it a recommended range?

  • To give room for personal preferences.
  • People aren’t the same, some do better on low-fat high carb, while others work better on the opposite. (This probably has to do with insulin sensitivity as well.)

Personally, I’m not much for high fat, low carb diets, because I think they’re too restrictive (I have a harder time adhering to such a diet).

I also experience that my training performance goes down a bit if I turn down carbs too much.

But on the other hand, I’m not much for extremely low fat diets either. If I’m eating low fat I’m not going to feel satisfied after my meals.

So, my initial recommendation is to not go above a maximum of 30 % of calories from fat when bulking, even though there are some individuals that might benefit from higher.

Carbohydrates

macronutrients carbs

Carbs contains 4 calories per gram.

Why are Carbohydrates Important?

Carbs, compared to the other two nutrients, is not a macro you need to eat to survive. However, carbs have a positive impact on a lot of things when it comes to better body composition, such as:

  • Better hormonal balance in the body.
  • Better at fueling anaerobic workouts.
  • Refill muscle glycogen (the primarily source of energy used by the muscle.)
  • Tastier foods.

I recommend that you only adjust your daily intake between cutting and bulking and not removing carbs completely.

Here’s why:

Strength training is as important, if not more important than a high enough protein intake to preserve muscle during a cut. For that reason, you need to eat enough carbs to have the energy required to perform high intensity workouts to successfully spare your hard-earned muscle mass.

Around 80 % of high intense exercise uses glycogen as fuel, so having low glycogen stores would affect the workout negatively.

Furthermore, allowing for carbs makes food a lot more tasty, which contrarily to popular belief makes dieting more sustainable long-term. (More on flexible dieting in the next part)

How Much Carbs Should I eat?

recommended carb intake

Alcohol

macronutrients alcohol

Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram.

Why is Alcohol Important?

For many of us, alcohol consumption is a part of life. Avoiding it completely would be the best thing to do calorie wise. However, that’ll probably not be sustainable long-term for most people.

As with carbs, I believe strongly in not removing something completely that you like to have on occasion in your life, doing so might lead to problems later instead.

How Much Alcohol Should I Drink?

If you’re anything like me, here’s what usually happens.

Before I head out I say to myself: Okay 5 units will be enough!

Later when I’m back home: Okay, I had 10, I think.

Sounds familiar?

This is bad for body composition, and here’s why.

Alcohol includes 7 calories per gram and is often combined with carbs (either from wine, barley/corn/hop in bear or sugar in cider drinks for example).

When alcohol is consumed in moderate amounts, which would be a few units, it’s possible to adjust your calorie intake rather easily. But when the intake exceeds moderate you’ll have to cut down on the other nutrients more, which usually isn’t sustainable.

The nutrient I would recommend adjusting when drinking would be your carbs.

Just look up the calorie content that you’re going to drink and count these into your daily calorie budget. By doing this, you’ll make sure the most important part in the nutritional pyramid is covered, which is energy balance.

Quick Summary of Alcohol

  • Alcohol gives you energy but without any of the benefits associated with the other nutrients, and for that reason, too much or to frequent drinking won’t be sustainable.
  • Adjust your carbs to make room for alcohol.
  • You shouldn’t adjust your protein intake, because it’s what spares your muscle mass.

Conclusion Macronutrients

  1. Use your daily calorie goal for cutting or bulking.
  2. Find out your fat free mass (FFM).
  3. Calculate your daily protein intake in grams/kilogram of fat free mass (1.6-2.2 g/kg for bulking) (2-3 g/kg for cutting).
  4. Calculate your daily fat intake in grams/kilogram of fat free mass (25-30 % calories for bulking) (0.9-1.3 g/kg for cutting).
  5. Let carbs fill out the remaining calories.
  6. If you’ll be drinking alcohol on occasion, exchange carbs for alcohol.

Lastly, let’s look at Jakes and Julies final macronutrients calculations:

Jake total macros example

Julies total macros example

Part 4:
Micronutrients and Fiber Intake

In level three of the pyramid you have micronutrients and fiber.

What can be mentioned is that purely for appearances, the two earliest levels, being calories and macros, stand for ~80 % of the results (for reasons already mentioned in respective parts).

nutrition importance

However, if you decide to care only for calories and macros, totally neglecting micronutrients and fiber, chances are big that you would cause long-term problems, not only with adhering to your diet, but more so with your health as well.

For that reason, I’ll show you a few simple guidelines that you can follow to successfully maintain a good intake of vitamins, minerals and fiber.

I’ll also cover shortly what a good water intake looks like.

What are Micronutrients?

Nutrition pyramid micronutrients

Micronutrients are our vitamins and minerals.

Why they’re named macronutrients, respective micronutrients, is because macros (proteins, fats and carbs) you require in large quantities, micros on the other hand you only require in small quantities to orchestrate a range of physiological functions.

Below you can see the most important vitamins and minerals you need in different amounts to support optimal body function and health.

micronutrients minerals and vitamins

I won’t bore you by going through the functions of every substance, if you are interested in that, just do a simple search on the internet and you’ll have all the information you want to know about that single substance there.

Matt Daley over at Brawn for Brains created an awesome essential guide to vitamins and minerals that you can check out if you want to learn more as well.

What I’ll go through is what the differences between the groups are.

  • Macro minerals: These are the minerals that help regulate the water balance in your body. They also have the task of making sure that the body’s nervous system works optimally and in balance.
  • Trace minerals: There are more of these minerals than what I’ve listed above, but I chose to include the most important ones. These minerals have the task to take care of the transport of different vitamins in the body and many of these minerals are needed to support a good hormonal function in the body as well.
  • Water soluble vitamins: These are your 8 vitamin B’s and vitamin C. These vitamins require water to be absorbed by the body. For that reason, it’s difficult to overdose these vitamins because any excess will go out with urine. However, it’s also easier to develop a deficiency for the same reason.
  • Fat soluble vitamins: Vitamins A, D, E and K. These vitamins all have different functions in the body, but the most important thing to know is that they require fat instead of water for the body to be able to make use of them. For that reason, it’s easier to overdose these vitamins, because it takes a longer time for the body to get rid of fat than what it does water, which is also why it’s very uncommon to have any deficiencies with these.

What are Fiber?

fiber

Fiber helps you feel fuller without increasing calorie intake, it lowers blood sugar levels, delays food digestion, lowers cholesterol, helps you avoid constipation and lowers the risk for colon cancer.

All good reason to include a reasonable amount of fiber in your diet, don’t you agree?

However, it’s possible to eat too much fiber with side effects like gassy stomach, diarrhea, constipation and feelings of puffiness. So, stay within a balanced range and you’ll reap all the benefits of fiber.

Recommended fiber intake:

  • Minimum of 20 g/day for women and 25 g/day for men.
  • Maximum 20% of your carbohydrate intake.

Mind-set: IIFYM & Flexible Dieting

flexible dieting IIFYM

Now you’ve come to what, at least I think is the more interesting part when it comes to diet. Namely, how much of the tasty stuff that you really can indulge in, and also what the potential benefits and drawbacks are of actually allowing yourself some high rewarding stuff sometimes.

But first, let me go through what flexible dieting really is.

Flexible dieting is as it sounds; being flexible with your diet, allowing yourself to eat all the foods out there and not limiting yourself to only certain types of food, which is a very common thing in health and fitness circles.

What it basically comes down to is whether you want to have an inclusive or an exclusive mindset to food.

Personally, I love to have an inclusive mindset when it comes to diet. What this means is that, when, and everyone will, I feel that I want a treat I make sure that I give room for it.

I like to think of my diet like a budget. Where firstly, I must stick within my allowed calories for the day. Secondly, I must have enough calories for protein. Thirdly, I need to eat around 20-30 % fat and the rest of it carbs. Lastly, I must make sure that I get veggies and fruits with every meal of the day.

After all these criteria have been met and I got calories left, I can include the things I like as well, such as chocolate, chips, ice cream or some candy, without any anxious or stressful feeling at all.

Contrarily, I actually feel happy and satisfied, especially during fat loss periods when the typical feeling is one of exclusiveness.

Is it Harmful with Too Much of the Good Stuff?

junk food

Yes, of course. Too much “unhealthy foods” can be harmful to the health long-term. Even, too much of the “healthy foods” can be harmful.

I’m sure you must be wondering why I quoted unhealthy and healthy foods?

Here’s why.

There’s no type of food that’s directly harmful to the body. If you, for example, would eat an ice cream or a Snickers bar, neither one of those foods are directly harmful for you, or to put it in another way, they wouldn’t “destroy” anything in your body.

What’s important to understand is that it’s not the food itself that’s dangerous, it’s the food habits that you got. If you would create a habit of eating only ice cream and Snickers bars all the time, what do you think would happen?

Well, you most certainly would be missing out on a lot of important nutrients required, not only to build or preserve muscle and a good body composition, but also for all the vital processes and functions in your body to work optimally.

So, it’s critical that you set up your diet correctly to not cause any deficiencies, especially if you’re in a calorie deficit, which seems to be a time when the risk of micronutrient deficiency is very large.

The 80/20 Rule

A very good rule to follow is the 80/20 rule. In the case of dieting, this means that 80% of the calories you eat should be from wholesome healthy sources, with good amounts of protein, healthy carbs and fats, topped off with fruits and vegetables to maintain optimal health. The remaining 20% of the calories can be something that you like.

Carter Good posted a great yet simple infographic on Instagram displaying exactly what flexible dieting really is:

flexible dieting

As you can see, flexible dieting or IIFYM (if it fit your macros), as it’s often called, has been misinterpreted by people as a method of including as much junk as possible. When in fact flexible dieting was meant to remove the rigidness of meal plans and super strict dieting, by allowing for a more varied diet, that includes tasty things in moderation.

Now coming back to myself, I could get by without having to indulge in something that I like, but why wouldn’t I eat things that I enjoy? If I can make anything more easy and sustainable for me, especially when it causes no harm, then why fight to avoid it?

What this does for me is making me adhere better to my diet, which enables me to succeed long-term.

As long as you don’t have huge problems with things like binge eating or other eating disorders, by having an inclusive mindset when it comes to your diet, you can do yourself a huge favor and remove a lot of stress and anxiety by not having to constantly resist the urge to eat the foods you really like.

It’s safe to say that stress and anxiety is a lot more harmful to your health and body composition long-term than a few pieces of chocolate. Wouldn’t you agree?

choklad iifym

The Psychological Benefit of Flexible Dieting

If you’re not currently having an inclusive and flexible mindset when it comes to food, what certainly will happen if you choose to start implementing one is that your whole view of food will start to shift into a healthier one.

It’s been shown that human beings often want what they can’t have. So, by telling yourself that you actually can and are allowed to eat the things you want, but instead you chose to postpone them for later or just allow yourself to eat in moderation, is typically much more effective long-term than being completely restrictive.

Fruit and Vegetables Intake Guidelines

Fruit and Vegetables

Make the following list into a habit and you won’t have to worry about losing out on important micronutrients or fiber.

  • Eat one or two fruits every day.
  • Eat vegetables rich in fiber with every meal.
  • Try to eat a varied diet of different fruits and vegetables.
  • If you’re cutting, consider getting a high quality multivitamin supplement.

Other Important Notes Regarding Micronutrients and Fiber

Multivitamin isn’t a substitute for fruit and vegetable intake

Unfortunately, supplementing with multivitamins will make you miss out on different biologically active and beneficial compounds that can be obtained through a proper and varied diet.

It’s important to not only think of micronutrients as essential vitamins and minerals, but to also think of them as containing important phytonutrients and antioxidants. These are compounds that doesn’t classify as neither vitamins or minerals but have the power to optimize health and counteract different diseases.

People that are cutting are at a higher risk of micronutrient deficiency

A meta-analysis made on this subject by Jayson B Calton shows that people that are cutting (being in a calorie deficit) risk having deficiencies in different micronutrients, even though they take care of their diet rather well. So, making sure the fruit and vegetable intake is on point is very important when cutting. This is also when a multivitamin can be beneficial to supplement the diet appropriately.

There seems to be performance benefits of eating vegetables

Vegetables that are green and red in color, such as spinach, arugula, and especially red beets contain a lot of nitrate. A higher intake of nitrate can make your training easier by increasing your tolerance to training. Meaning you can do more volume which equals more muscle in the long run.

Water Intake Guidelines

water intake

Staying hydrated is very important for fat loss and performance. To make sure you’re hydrated, follow this list:

  • Aim for 5 clear urinations per day.
  • Aim to urinate clearly at night.
  • Make sure that you’re not dehydrated during your workouts, it will affect your training negatively.

I don’t like to put a recommended water intake for people based on body weight. Some people simply sweat more than others and not to mention how different climates and activity levels can drastically change how much water you require.

Part 5:
Meal Frequency and Nutrient Timing

In this part, you’ll learn how much of a role meal frequency and nutrient timing really plays when it comes to changing body composition.

As you’ve seen in the pyramid, timing and frequency is placed fourth in the hierarchy of importance.

Now, does this mean that timing and frequency of food isn’t important and can be skipped completely?

Of course not!

But, focusing solely on timing and frequency, like making sure you get protein directly post workout, or worrying yourself over if you’re intermittent fasting for long enough, instead of caring about the more important parts like calories, macros and micros, then you’re way out of the scope of what’s important and will probably not see much sustainable results.

Now, nutrient timing and meal frequency can still be very valuable, if they are used during the right circumstances. They can also make the earlier parts in the pyramid a lot easier to adhere to.

Nutrition pyramid distinctions

What is Meal Frequency and Nutrient Timing?

Meal frequency is basically how frequently you chose to eat during the day. Do you eat 3 meals per day or 6 meals per day?

Nutrient timing refers to the timing of nutrients, specifically protein and carbs around training. You might have heard of the controversial anabolic window?

Here’s the thing, humans have, for as long as known, tried to find shortcuts instead of straining ourselves a bit extra to reach a desired goal.

This is something that salespeople and marketers know and take advantage of, usually by praising nutrient timing and/or meal frequency to the skies.

A tip I can give you is to think a bit extra when someone turns the pyramid around trying to make supplements, nutrient timing or meal frequency seem like the most important parts in the puzzle. They’re probably on a mission to try and earn a dollar or two on your insecurities and uncertainty.

upside down nutrient pyramid

Look out for and think critically if someone tries to do this with the pyramid! 

Is there an Optimal Nutrient Timing or Meal Frequency?

Let’s start by looking if there are any science supporting whether nutrient timing and meal frequency have any potential physiological benefit.

Nutrient timing

A meta-analysis done by Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld looked if there is a post-exercise anabolic window.

Note: A meta-analysis is a gathering of all or many available studies and data on a specific topic, that’s reviewed and assembled into a final conclusion, meaning it’s a highly reliable source of information.

They found that having high quality protein available (20-40 g depending on body size) within two hours post-workout will maximize the anabolic response. Now, how much difference it will make on overall muscular growth is very slim, because the findings didn’t quite reach statistical significance.

Further, they found that you don’t necessarily have to drink that protein shake directly post-workout (as often advertised). If you ate a large meal including a lot of protein 2-3 hours pre-workout, you already have protein in these amounts available to maximize muscle protein synthesis post-workout.

They also go on to say that:

“Pre-and post-exercise meals shouldn’t be separated by more than approximately 3-4 hours, if however, protein is delivered within particularly large mixed-meals (which are inherently more anticatabolic), a case can be made for lengthening the interval to 5–6 hours.”

Eric Helms said the following in this great interview with Radu Antoniou:

The current research suggests that to maximize protein synthesis it’s best to have three or more protein feedings spread out throughout the day. Just one or two feedings should be inferior although we don’t know by how much. Probably very little.”

They also looked at the timing of carbs, and even though they lack data to form any concrete recommendations, the assumption can be made that carbohydrate availability before, during and after exercise is of greater importance for endurance as opposed to strength or hypertrophy goals.

Furthermore, the widely claimed notion that you should combine protein and carbs post-workout for optimal gains have been challenged by recent studies.

A study by Koopman et al found that adding carbohydrates in quantities of (0.15, or 0.6 g/kg/hr.) post full body resistance training to amplify the protein intake didn’t increase whole body protein balance during a 6-hour post-exercise recovery period, compared to the protein-only treatment.

Meal frequency

meal frequency nutrient timing

Recently there was another meta-analysis done by Alan Aragon, Brad Schoenfeld and James Krieger that looked at the effect of meal frequency on body composition.

The results:

meal frequency

They found no significant difference in body composition changes from eating 1-2 times a day to 5+ times a day. Their conclusion was:

Given that adherence is of primary concern concerning nutritional prescription, the number of daily meals consumed should come down to personal choice if one’s goal is to improve body composition.”

There’s a Difference for High Level Athletes

Now, the studies that were reviewed in both meta-analyses above was like usually mostly done on obese, non-training individuals. In the meal frequency one, of the 15 studies that was pooled only 3 was on lean populations, and 2 on exercising individuals.

For well trained and lean individuals on the other hand, like dieters preparing for a bodybuilding or physique contest, or highly advanced sports athletes, nutrient timing and meal frequency gets increasingly more important. This is true because the constant signaling of “lose muscle” caused by the body when the fat percentage gets unnaturally low, or when an athlete is at peak performance for a specific sport.

This infographic from an amazing article about nutrient timing over at Precision Nutrition explains perfectly how important nutrient timing (and frequency) really is depending on circumstance:

nutrient timing importance

So, except for the very leanest, muscular, and peaked athletes, the benefits of nutrient timing and meal frequency is more for long-term psychological adherence to the diet, with only small actual physiological benefits.

Follow a Nutrient timing and Meal Frequency that you Enjoy and Can Stick to

This is important.

Since there doesn’t seem to be a lot of physiological benefits or drawbacks of nutrient timing and meal frequency, you might as well use it to your psychological advantage.

I do it all the time.

When it comes to meal frequency I believe a lot in intermittent fasting. For me, that’s a diet structure that keeps me full, satisfied and happy, even while cutting.

If you’re interested in reading more about intermittent fasting, check out this article series:

Summery Nutrient Timing/Meal Frequency

When it comes to setting up your diet for changing body composition, this is basically what you need to know about nutrient timing and meal frequency:

  • Nutrient timing and meal frequency is much less important than the previous steps of calories, macros and micros.
  • Timing of nutrients (protein) around training maximizes anabolic response. However, the benefits are small and if food is ingested in medium to large quantities anywhere within 3-5 hours around the workout, muscle protein synthesis will be maximized.
  • For the average person, there seems to be no significant difference on body composition between different meal frequencies. It might be for more lean and muscular individuals.
  • Follow a nutrient timing and meal frequency that you enjoy and can stick to.

Part 6:
Supplements Worth Taking

Supplements are a very interesting subject.

It’s fascinating that something with such low overall importance when it comes to improving body composition is so highly glorified…

In fact, one of the first and most common questions I get by beginners is:

What supplement should I take?

This shows just how easy we fall for different types of marketing and advertising.

In this part I’ll cover when and which supplements might be worth considering during the right circumstances.

Just remember though, supplements mean very little in the grand scheme of things, and that’s why it’s placed at the top of the pyramid when it comes to improving body composition.

The Truth About Supplements

Nutrition pyramid supplements

I think that most supplements are unnecessary. Because, well, they don’t do that much to be honest. Some of them interfere with calories, such as gainers and carb/glucose supplements; others just cost a lot of money without providing any value at all, such as pre-workouts and BCAAs.

Maybe supplements of different kinds can make a tiny 3-5 % difference at most. But then everything else that’s been covered in this guide has to be optimized before you start to question which supplements to use.

Supplement is just as the name states, a supplement to the diet, and if you’re sure that you get everything from your diet, a supplement is just a waste of your time and money.

However, with that said, there are some supplements that I think can be valuable in some cases.

And I’ve decided to shine some light on these:

Supplements Worth Taking

supplements

Before you go and buy the stack in this image, it’s important that the supplements are of high quality to be worth your time and money.

Unfortunately, the supplement industry is very hard to navigate, because where there’s money there’s also manipulation. For that reason, you need a tried and trusted supplement company that focuses on quality before anything else. And my recommendation is definitively:

Legion Athletics

Legion Athletics is a company founded by fitness coach, blogger and author Mike Mathews who also runs the famous site and blog Muscle for Life.

This is not an affiliate and I don’t make any money recommending Legion Athletics, I just trust the quality of the company’s products so much that I gladly help them out.

Okay, let’s look at the supplements that can be useful in the right circumstance.

Protein Powder

whey protein

Using a protein powder, like whey or casein is a cheap and effortless way of increasing your daily protein intake. However, I only recommend you take a protein supplement if you can’t reach your daily protein intake through your diet. It’s much tastier and satiating to eat real food.

A good example of when it can be beneficial to hammer down a protein shake is when you’re going to eat out and the food won’t include enough protein. Then it’s worth having a shake to reach your protein goal for the day. Just make sure that you don’t ingest too much calories by having protein shakes to allow for more junk food.

Another great example is during a bulk. Some people have a hard time eating enough to maintain a calorie surplus, that’s a perfect time to have a few shakes during the day to add some liquid calories that are easier to digest.

Multi Vitamin

multivitamin supplements

You should try to eat as much of a varied diet as you can, that includes a lot of fruit and vegetables. If you do, the risk of losing out on important micronutrients is slim.

However, when you’re cutting and are in a calorie deficit, you might not get all micronutrients just from food itself because you’re eating very little. Then it can be worth it to invest in some multivitamins to be safe from any deficiencies.

Caffeine

caffeine

Caffeine is an awesome stimulant which is shown to increase athletic performance in everything from endurance to anaerobic endeavors and heavy lifting.

However, the body builds up a tolerance for caffeine rather easily, and to maintain the positive benefits of caffeine on athletic performance, do one or more of the following:

  • Don’t ingest more than 100 grams of caffeine daily (maximum 2 cups of coffee.)
  • Cycle your use of caffeine by taking 3-7 days off caffeine every 1-2 months if taken daily. Amount of days off depends on the amount of caffeine you drink.
  • Some people experience withdrawal headaches, if you’re one of them, use caffeine only for workouts that you feel you really need it for. Like when sleep deprived or for a heavy leg training session, etc. This way you’ll never build up a tolerance and won’t need to cycle caffeine.

Creatine

creatine supplements

Creatine is a molecule produced naturally in the body, it’s also found in some foods like meats and fish. A typical omnivorous diet provides around 1 gram of creatine per day which isn’t quite enough to see the benefits that you’ll see from supplementation.

Creatine has hundreds of studies showing its efficacy and safety as it’s been shown to improve strength and power in athletes again and again.

Examin.com has a complete guide on creatine which digs deeply in on all the science backing up the production of more ATP when energy demands are high, such as during high intensity lifting.

And while creatine does drive water into the muscle through osmosis, it doesn’t cause water retention anywhere else. As such it gives muscles a fuller, tighter appearance and not a bloated watery one.

While it will not increase muscle size on its own, it will increase performance in the gym, resulting in more weight being lifted which results in a larger stimulus for growth. That’s why long-term supplementation of creatine tends to be associated with more muscle growth.

There’s also no need to load creatine or to cycle off it. As unlike caffeine, the body doesn’t develop a tolerance to its effects, and a 2003 study showed that 21 consecutive months of supplementation lead to no ill health effects.

It’s been hypothesized in the literature that so call creatine non-responders exist, with one paper estimating that as much as 30 % of people fall into this category. These people supposedly don’t get any benefits of creatine at all.

But, since creatine is so easily available and very cheap, I think it’s worth to do some self-experimentation to see if it works for you. A good way to see if it works is if you’ve gained weight while starting to use creatine for a couple of weeks, giving of course that your diet and training variables are being controlled.

Supplement to Take for Fun!

fun supplements

The coming supplement is one that’s typically found inside different PWO’s often in combination with caffeine. The reason I’ve decided to put it in the category of “supplement to take for fun” is that it only has some scientific support for benefitting gains in muscle and strength. However, the supplement can be fun which might lead to positive results by using it.

Citrulline Malate

This is an amino acid that increases nitric oxide concentration in the blood by converting to arginine in the kidneys. Arginine then tells the smooth muscle in arteries and veins to relax, causing pump and vascularity.

Because Citrulline Malate is better absorbed in the gut than what arginine is directly, it’s a safer way to get these benefits without also getting diarrhea. And on a further note, counterintuitively supplementing with Citrulline Malate leads to higher arginine levels than taking pure arginine.

Now, Citrulline Malate isn’t just merely a pump product, it has some science showing that it can increase athletic performance and relive muscle soreness.

In the study, subjects where instructed to perform as many reps as possible on the bench press for 8 sets. What was found is that Citrulline Malate was found to yield more reps per set for all sets after set 2.

Also, the impact of supplementation seems to increase the more sets that was performed. This means that for higher volume training sessions with more sets, according to this paper, there’s a high chance that L-citrulline can help you crank out a few extra reps. As a matter of fact, 100% of 41 subjects in the study responded positively on set 8.

The same study also showed a significant decrease of 40% in muscle soreness at 24 hours, and 48 hours after the training session was completed. The authors attributed this effect to be Citrulline Malate’s ability to buffer acids in metabolites like lactate and ammonia.

Now, this is obviously just one study and more data should be provided before knowing for sure if it’s worth it to supplement with Citrulline Malate. But even without these added benefits, the pump alone can make training more enjoyable by making you look bigger in the gym.

So, I usually recommend taking 4-10 grams of Citrulline Malate, about 1 hour before training.

Note: There are speculations that when it comes to bodybuilding or strength training the effects of buffering acids in metabolites to increase anaerobic endurance might actually be negative. This is because when increasing the anaerobic endurance while simultaneously having the goal of building muscle, you must do more total volume to achieve the same benefits.

Now, don’t get me wrong, more training volume over time is known to be the major signaling for hypertrophy, and “metabolite high rep training” is a very effective method of increasing volume. So, wouldn’t it make sense to supplement with Citrulline Malate?

Well the thing is, when it comes to using metabolite training, the signaling for muscle growth is in fact that the accumulation of metabolites such as lactate and ammonia is getting too high.

In other words, the earlier you can accumulate high levels of metabolites (i.e. without Citrulline Malate) the less total pump training you have to do for the same amount of muscle growth.

Now, the benefits of having a pump with increased arousal and motivation when training, might provide a better stimulus for growth than this potential drawback, that’s not certain yet. So, if you’re looking to spend money on something, Citrulline Malate might be, or might not be, worth it, but it’s certainly a fun supplement, so it’s totally up to you!

Congratulations! You’ve finished the complete guide to setting up your diet for improving body composition. Now there’s only one thing left. Get out there and create the body composition you’ve always dreamt of!

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By |2018-08-15T12:03:35+00:00July 26th, 2018|Guides|0 Comments

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