As always, I’m going to keep this basic. If you disagree with anything in this article, please leave it in the comments. This won’t be a diet plan for one specific individual, instead it will be a rough guideline to get you started and headed in the right direction from a nutritional standpoint. I invite everyone to read the sticky threads in the nutrition forum over at bodybuilding.com (particularly this one). You’ll notice all of the information I’m providing here in an as-brief-as-humanly-possible format is covered in more detail there.
This is basically your fuel. If you want to grow, you need to eat more. If you want to lose weight, you need to eat less. That being said, calorie requirements will differ from person to person based on their natural metabolism, age, gender, body weight (total mass and lean mass), hormones, daily activity. etc. You’ll notice it’s fairly difficult to make a blanket statement for everyone. Whenever I help someone put together a diet plan (including myself), I simply start with 15 calories per lbs of body weight per day.
For example, if you miraculously weigh 100lbs, I would start you at 1500 calories per day. 100 x 15 = 1500. That makes it really simple to find a starting calorie count for just about anyone. Considering that your nutrition should be part of your lifestyle (thus making it a long term thing), it’s not going to make a big difference… because the number will be tweaked.
To tweak caloric intake, I like to keep things basic again. Record your weight, take tape measurements and snap progress pictures (same lighting, same pose, same place) weekly to accurately track progress. If you’re heading in the direction you want to go (whatever that may be), continue to eat like you have been until progress stalls. If you aren’t making progress, you need to tweak daily calories. I.e. if your goal is fat loss and you’re gaining weight, measurements are increasing in areas they shouldn’t and you’re looking fatter in progress pictures, you need to adjust your calories down a bit (roughly 100-200 calories/day should do the trick for this scenario).
Counting calories is the easiest thing to do in order to make sure you have continuous progress. It gives you a good number to work with and also gives you an idea of how much you’re eating overall.
The main things you’ll want to track from a weight loss/gain perspective will be macronutrients. The macros are protein, fat and carbohydrates. While some people swear by low carb (and high fat) diets and others swear by high carb (and low fat) diets, I’m just going to cover very basic requirements here that leave you with an option to head in either direction. Or you can be like me and simply eat a moderate diet. Maybe test a few different ways of eating to see which you like best. In the next couple of paragraphs, I’ll outline some basic requirements for macros.
Protein: 0.82g of protein per lbs of body weight. You’ll hear a lot of people stating that you need to hit 1g per lbs of body weight, but there is no science behind that it seems. Going back to our utopian example of a 100lbs person, they should eat 82g of protein each day. Can you go over that? Yes, but it likely won’t make a difference in your muscular growth (or maintenance), unless you’re using anabolic steroids or have abnormal amounts of specific hormones present in your body that allow you to assimilate muscle tissue faster than normal human beings. Good protein sources are meat, fish, seafood, eggs, dairy and beans.
Fat: Moving on to fat. 0.5g per lbs of body weight is the minimum requirement for most people to maintain good health. So 50g per day for a 100lbs person. Healthy fat sources would include fatty meat, fatty fish, eggs, coconut oil, olive oil, fish oil, avocados (mmm guacamole) and nuts. You’ll want to avoid hydrogenated vegetable oils (found in way too many processed foods).
Carbohydrates: The rest of your calories can come from carbohydrates, protein or fat. This will depend on your preferences or possibly a specific type of diet you’re following. Most of your carbs should come from rice, potatoes and fruits. Possibly things like oats and milk. Bread, pizza and other baked goods in moderation (if at all). Try to avoid candy, processed snack cakes, chocolate and things of that nature as much as possible.
Putting it together: Personally, I weigh around 187lbs most of the time and would like to maintain that weight, so I tend to hit about 150g of protein, around 100g of fat and the rest carbs within the context of a daily intake of 2800 calories. I like to eat more calories and more carbs on days I lift, so my calorie intake isn’t always the same, but it averages out to around 2800 calories or so (which is the important thing to maintain my weight).
Other nutrients: There are certainly other nutrients you could track aside from protein, fat and carbohydrates that may be important to you. Some examples would be vitamins, minerals and fiber. And everyone should drink plenty of water (I drink more than mentioned in the article and most people who exercise should as well in my opinion). Here is a good thread to read about nutrients.
Tracking Calories and Macronutrients Online
This is where it gets tricky for some people. You mainly want to stick to whole foods. And by that I mean things that aren’t processed. I’m not saying you can never eat processed foods again, but you should certainly limit them in your diet. The 80/20 guideline is what I try to stick to. I’ll eat 80% whole foods and then I’ll have 20% to eat things like ice cream, chocolate or cake. If you have certain food intolerances (i.e. gluten is fairly common), it limits your food choices further (i.e. nothing that contains flour, if you have a gluten intolerance).
I could go into great detail about various intolerances, but this is supposed to be quick. General rule of thumb: If you want to figure out if you have a gluten intolerance for example, eliminate it from your diet for a month. See how you feel. If you feel better than before, there is a decent chance you’re intolerant. To test that theory, add gluten back into your diet and see how you feel then. If you notice a negative difference, it might be a good idea to stop eating gluten. Otherwise the occasional piece of bread probably won’t kill you.
Some whole foods most people can eat: Fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, fish (including fatty fish like salmon), seafood, meat (including organs and fattier cuts), potatoes, rice, nuts and beans. Variety is usually good to mix things up and to make sure you’re getting all the important nutrients you need to be healthy and strong. Frozen foods are usually better than canned or boxed, if you can’t get something fresh.
And that about sums it up. As always, it’s just my opinion on the matter. I’m not a nutritionist or doctor. I will cover supplements in another article, but I will say that I don’t think you need them to be strong and healthy. Some may provide benefits however. Most are crap.