by Nate Miyak T-Nation
Spring is a time of dietary dilemma.
Defrosting from winter's hibernation, the groundhog steps out to see if he can see his shadow.
What's the physique equivalent? Can you look down and see your wiener beneath your bulk belly?
Should you continue with the winter's "mass" plan – pack in the calories, pack on the mass, scare women and children, go for new PR's, and get your rocks off from locker room high-fives?
Or should you hit a deficit, slash some flab, get skinny (I mean shredded), maybe improve your health profile, join a boy band, rock a Borat-like dong thong, and try to get laid?
There's no right answer. You can borrow Harvey Two Face's coin, flick that SOB into the air, and let chance be your guide for all I care.
To that end, here are 7 simple tools you can use to seamlessly take your plan in whatever direction your fickle heart desires, but first, a few words from our sponsor (okay, not really from our sponsor, but nevertheless a few important points before I get into the 7 steps).
Extreme Shifts Versus Subtle Manipulations
Many go through extreme shifts between diet phases, which I don't believe is necessary, nor efficient. You know what I'm talking about – massive calorie surpluses to starvation-like deficits; ADA-like carb recommendations to kicking it with the Atkins crew; and major overhauls to meal frequency and food distribution patterns.
I prefer more subtle approaches, probably because I've always looked at diet within the confines of a lifestyle approach, rather than an unending series of unsustainable quick fixes and subsequent yo-yo's.
Yes, you'll go through different phases with different physique goals, which will require some modifications, but you should have a sustainable base structure you can ride year-round.
The foundation and frame stays the same, but the decorations can change.
Diet Numbers Are #1 for Physique Goals
We can argue over optimum dietary approaches into eternity, but consistently hitting your target calorie and macronutrient numbers is by far the most important step to achieving any body composition goal, be it slashing fat or building muscle.
Some proclaim that as long as you eat the right foods, or cut a certain macronutrient to zero, you don't need to track anything else. That may be fine to go from out of shape to decent shape, or for the genetically elite or drug enhanced to look awesome.
But the average, natural dude will not get ripped to shreds with such a free-spirited, instinctual approach.
Good food choices optimize the health aspects of a diet and can do things like improve satiety, which makes staying within those numbers a lot easier.
Diet structure can improve the practicality and sustainability of a plan. I promote the two meal-a-day hunt and Intermittent Feast structure a la Serge Nubret simply because I think it's an effective, practical plan to follow. If you like the 18-meal a day Jay Cutler structure, have at it.
Anecdotal evidence proves either can work.
That's because the numbers will always have the biggest affect on the physiological processes behind physique transformation, regardless of how you break it up.
It's the best lesson I learned from bodybuilding nutrition. You can set, adjust, manipulate, and refine the numbers to achieve virtually any physique goal you desire.
So there's some truth to the IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) approach, although if you care about the long-term metabolic, hormonal, digestive, and overall health aspects of a diet, good food choices leapfrog to #1 in the hierarchy.
Beyond theory, marketing material, and "study wars," you can't tell me that when you step back from it all and just use pure common sense that you think craploading every day can be good for your long-term health?
But I digress, and there's no getting around the fact that numbers are the most important for physique goals. So let's bust out our Texas Instruments and get this party started.
The 7 Steps
1. Set calories first.
Calories are the most important number – not the only number as Jenny Craig believes – but the most important number to get right.
Regardless of macronutrient debates (high protein, low carb, low fat, low common sense), determining total calories is still the most important physique enhancement step.
Take fat loss for example.
The only way to force your body to burn off stored fat is to take in fewer calories than you expend, on average, over some time frame. You can cut carbs to zero, but if you end up in a calorie surplus by ingesting an unlimited amount of dietary fats, you won't lose body fat. You'll gain it.
Once you're in a calorie deficit, however, a variety of macronutrient percentages and distribution of carbs and dietary fats can be used to get the job done.
And gaining muscle?
You have to maintain a slight calorie surplus over some kind of averaged time frame. You can eat massive amounts of protein, but if you're in a calorie deficit and not eating enough of the protein-sparing energy nutrients, that protein will simply be burned as an alternative fuel source instead of being used for tissue construction.
Calorie Requirements for Fat Loss: 10-12 x bodyweight. If you're significantly overweight, use your lean body mass instead of total bodyweight.
Calorie Requirements for Maintenance/Recomposition: 13-15 x bodyweight.
Calorie Requirements for Muscle Gain: 16+ x bodyweight.
2. Set protein intake.
So calories count, but other variables do, too. Both sides of that endless argument are right.
Amino acids are the building blocks of enzymes, hormones, skin, hair, and most importantly for us, lean muscle mass. They're an essential nutrient that we must account for, and should never be cut in a diet.
1.5-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or roughly 1 grams per pound. If you're significantly overweight, use your lean body mass instead of total body weight.
3. Set baseline fats.
Essential fats and good fats are important for all kinds of cellular functions, and of course, for supporting natural hormone production.
If you're emphasizing a mix of high quality animal foods to satisfy your protein requirements, you can get all the essential fatty acids and "good fats" you need from these foods.
Fifty percent of the fat in beef is monounsaturated fat. Saturated fat is important for a variety of functions including supporting natural Testosterone levels, and is not "The Devil."
A bonus is that in the natural animal foods we evolved on, these fats come in the right amounts and ratios that Mother Nature intended. The same can't be said for refined vegetable oils.
Baseline dietary fat as a byproduct of a mix of lean and not-so-lean animal protein sources will automatically account for roughly 15-25% of your total calories.
4. Account for micronutrients.
You've started to do that already with your animal protein foods, which are full of B-vitamins, zinc, selenium, iron, and other minerals, but you want the full spectrum.
Include an unlimited amount of non-starchy vegetables and 1-3 pieces of whole fruit for a variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients.
I prefer juicy melons and trim seaweed. You may prefer long bananas and large grapefruits. Whatever flips your skirt.
5. Distinguish between essential nutrients and energy nutrients.
Regardless of our goals, we always want to provide our body with the essential nutrients and micronutrients necessary for optimum health and normal functioning.
Beyond that, all other food intake is just a source of energy.
"Added fats" are an energy source, not an essential nutrient. This can be good or bad depending on your total calorie requirements and goals, and the composition of the rest of your diet.
Starchy carbohydrates are an energy source, not an essential nutrient. This can be good or bad depending on the type and amount of training you do.
There's no mystery to fat loss. We need to reduce our energy intake enough to create a deficit and force our bodies to tap into an internal reserve fuel source – body fat. We can do that by reducing starchy carbohydrate intake, reducing added fat intake, or both.
Activity levels and the type of training you do should be a major consideration in determining which fuel source you prioritize and which fuel source you reduce.
And in terms of diet design, here's one of my core philosophies – set the energy nutrient you're going to de-emphasize first.
That way, you can adjust the energy nutrient you're going to emphasize up or down based on feedback, progress, and goals.
6. Energy nutrients for fat bastards (>20% body fat).
Lower carb Paleo/caveman-style diets may be the best approach for improving body composition and biomarkers of health for obese, insulin resistant, and sedentary populations – low carb, but non-ketogenic.
Long-term ketogenic diets have many drawbacks. Although ketosis may be beneficial for certain disease states, it's not necessary for targeted fat loss for healthy individuals. Research shows that ketogenic diets are no more effective than non-ketogenic, low carbohydrate diets for fat loss.
What's the answer? Limit carbs to roughly 100 grams a day, primarily from micronutrient dense foods, an unlimited amount of non-starchy vegetables, and 1-2 pieces of whole fruit a day.
You may even get Vegas-like crazy and have a sweet potato with dinner. Whoa buddy, now you're living dangerously.
This will give you just enough carbs to support liver glycogen stores and normal cognitive and CNS functioning. You certainly can cut them lower and be a dick to everyone around you if you want.
Fill in the rest of your calories with healthy fats – whole food fats like nuts, avocado, and coconut.
You obviously shouldn't be trying to gain weight, so the dietary flexibility is simple here. If you're not losing fat, you're probably overshooting your calorie levels with added fats, so you need to start cutting down on them.
Remember – protein and baseline fats from that protein stays constant, and carbs are already at minimal levels, so the only place left to cut is the added fats.
For all the low-carbers who drink cream by the gallon, cook everything in butter, and pour oil on everything, and are still fat, now you have your answer.
Limit carbs to roughly 100 grams a day, primarily from micronutrient dense foods – an unlimited amount of non-starchy vegetables and 1-2 pieces of whole fruit a day.
On a side note, I emphasize mostly low-intensity activity (daily walking) with a few strength training sessions a week simply to improve muscle cell insulin sensitivity (not totally deplete the body and maintain a trainer's "ass kicker" reputation).
Why? I don't think low carb diets combined with consistent, frequent, high-intensity anaerobic training are a great match.
First lose some weight and get healthier, then increase high intensity training for higher level physique goals, and add back in some frickin' carbs to support that anaerobic training.
7. Energy nutrients for skinny bitches.
I tend to lean more towards carbs than fats as the primary energy nutrient for those who perform high intensity activity three or more days a week – strength training, interval training, cross-training, intermittent sprint sports, tantric sex.
Anaerobic metabolism runs on glucose (it can't use fatty acids or ketones); amino acids will be used as a reserve fuel in a glycogen depleted state combined with high intensity training (muscle loss); carbs support natural Testosterone levels specifically in response to high intensity activity (non-functioning wiener); prolonged low carb diets and overtraining can sabotage normal metabolic rate and thyroid levels (competitors who jack themselves up, yo-yo, and get fat on normal food and reasonable training levels); and carbs support the immune system in response to training (low immunity/getting sick all of the time).
For those who fear the carb during cutting phases, what's lost in this whole damn low-carb era is total calories (see step #1).
If you strength train and maintain a relative calorie deficit, you can still include some starchy carbs in the diet while losing significant amounts of body fat.
Stick with the baseline fat intake of 15-25% of calories predominantly as a byproduct of a mix of lean and not-so-lean animal protein sources. Fill in the rest of your calories with carbs from good food choices – yams, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, white rice.
What's the Dietary Flexibility?
We already have an optimum level of protein intake to support the growth or maintenance of lean muscle mass. We have a baseline level of essential fats and good fats to support normal functioning and natural hormone production that we don't want to go below.
So we simply manipulate carbs up or down based on the physique goals.
Want to gain mass? You need to increase carbs to get into that calorie surplus.
Want to go back to cutting fat? You need to decrease carbs to get into that calorie deficit.
Need a cyclical plan for recompositioning? I believe in calorie cycling. You can eat more calories by increasing carbs on training days, fewer calories by reducing carbs on off days.
But that doesn't necessarily mean you have to eat no carbs on off days, as some more extreme carb cycling plans deem is absolutely necessary. It can work, but it's not necessary.
But, that's a whole other conversation for the next time we chat!