It’s the question I get asked most often and it’s the hardest one to answer – What should I eat and how much should I eat of it? In 95% of these scenarios, the said person is concerned most with body composition – looking to lose excess fat and put on lean muscle mass.
The reality is, everyone is different and what works for one person, won’t necessarily work for the next. There are many factors that influence metabolism including genetics, hormones, sleep, stress, recovery, body composition, exercise and diet.
Body Composition Myths –
- Meal timing is imperative
- Meal frequency matters
- Calories don’t matter
- Meal composition
- Fasted cardio will help you shed lbs
- Eating carbs at night is bad
- Having more muscle will burn more calories
I am not saying that these factors don’t play a role, and meal timing and composition may very well affect your mental state and performance. However, when looking at composition, the role is much more minimal than we are made to believe. Some people will find techniques such as intermittent fasting, or eating 6 small meals a day to be effective – but at the end of the day, calorie and macronutrient balance, stable hormones, stress, sleep and a solid training program will be the key to success or failure. The avenue one chooses to reach their goals is simply that of preference.
That Calorie Deficit
People often try to combine excessive caloric deficits with massive amounts of activity to lose excess body fat with great frustration. (Hmmm…this sounds a little bit familiar). Like when women arbitrarily decide to eat 1200-1400 calories a day as a baseline without considering activity levels or lean body mass.
In any case, dieting in general is a stressor, and of course training is a stressor. The more extreme you do of each, the more stress that occurs. When you combine excessive caloric deficits with massive amounts of activity, cortisol goes through the roof and you end up with these massive chronic elevations in cortisol levels. Cortisol = fat
It is also well established that “prolonged dieting – taking in fewer calories than your body expends – will eventually lead to a downregulation in the basal metabolic rate. The body is an adapting entity that responds to the lowered caloric input by lowering its energy expenditure. Since you can’t lose weight forever (you’re not just going to waste away into nothingness), perpetually lowering your caloric intake will eventually work against your desire to lose weight.”¹
Furthermore, individuals with a lower body fat % will lose more muscle and retain more fat while facing a caloric deficit. The metabolizable energy in fat is different than the metabolizable energy in muscle tissue. A pound of muscle is not 3500 calories, a pound of muscle yields about 600 calories. An aggressive low calorie diet will erode lean body mass to a greater degree than more conservative diets. This is why it is much more difficult for lean people to lose those ‘last five lbs’ or get that ab definition they are in search of.
The Magic Number
So, what is that magic number? Is it possible to gain muscle mass while simultaneously losing fat?
The answer is yes, but patience and persistence is key. Do you think Rich Froning just woke up looking like he was chiseled from stone? OK…poor example, he is a man of god, he was probably born like that. But Stacie Tovar didn’t always have that shredded physique (although, she looked pretty god damn good) – these things take time.
Make changes without being a diet Nazi (is that politically incorrect?)
1. EAT. A calorie deficit is still necessary for losing fat, 15-20% below maintenance calories = a conservative deficit ideal for slow and steady changes. If you are exercising frequently and not over eating, this shouldn’t be difficult and it doesn’t have to mean counting calories! When you add in resistance training, cardio training and an active lifestyle, your calorie expenditure (metabolism) goes way up, and that’s how you can legitimately eat more and keep getting leaner.
2. Progressive resistance training and or high protein diets can modify the proportion of weight lost from body fat vs lean tissue. A good starting point is 1g of protein per lb.
3. Remember that body fat and body weight are NOT the same thing. Judge your progress by body composition – how you look, feel, preform and how your clothes fit.
4. Carb Cycle. Carbs are not the enemy. And despite what the Paleo diet tells you….athletes need fucking carbs. Not only for energy (cause we all know that ketogenic diets work as well) but for hormonal balance. (Low carb diets can actually suppress hormones like thyroid and leptin). Carb cycling with a high carb refeed every 4th day or so, allows you to eat more carbs and still keep losing fat.
5. Don’t stress. We well know that stress is bad, but I mean, don’t stress about your diet too much. What I am trying to say is, if you do Crossfit, or exercise frequently, you don’t have to starve yourself. HOWEVER, exercise is not a free pass to eat whatever the fuck you want.
6. Keep it Natural. I am not a proponent of diets where you can eat anything that fits your Macros. “The long term daily consumption of refined, artificial foods will eventually take its toll on your health. When hormonal health declines, body composition outcomes are worse during weight loss and risk of metabolic damage may increase. Furthermore, most natural, unprocessed foods, especially vegetables and lean proteins, are lower in caloric density and can lead to spontaneous decreases in caloric intake compared to the standard diet. For optimal body composition results and metabolic and hormonal health, it’s not just about calorie quantity, but also calorie quality. Don’t focus on one to the neglect of the other.”²