The Hierarchy of Importance if you want to Lose Fat and/or Gain Muscle
The nutrition world can be an absolute minefield.
What to believe?
Whom to believe?
Choose your sources of information wisely. If some unscrupulous individual is trying to sell you the promise of a supplement that sounds to good to be true…it probably is.
Today I’m going to pitch you an idea. This idea is certainly no magic pill.
However, it could just be the foundation to dietary success.
Namely the:“Muscle and Strength Nutritional Pyramid”
But hold on a minute, why should you believe me?
A guy named Eric Helms presented me this idea. You probably haven’t heard of him, but in the nutrition and training world (much like Ron Burgundy is to the news room) he’s kind of a big deal!
Anyone wanting a deeper understanding of the concepts I’m going to outline in this relatively short blog post I encourage to check out Eric’s 6-Part YouTube series.
You’ll find part 1 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAvW6xBZjSk
Ok so lets make like an Egyptian and get back to the pyramid!
The foundation level is caloric intake and for good reason. If you only ensure one piece of the diet puzzle is in place make sure it’s calories.
Check out these two common questions below:
Client A – “I’m eating healthy food but I’m not losing weight, what’s going on?”
Client B –“I’m lifting weights but not putting on muscle no matter how hard I train, what’s going on?”
As a nutritionist it can be tempting to overcomplicate the process and talk about super-foods, nutrient timing, macronutrient ratios, hormones and a whole host of other factors that affect fat loss and muscle gain.
But does this actually help?
The reality is client A is probably over consuming calories if their goal is fat loss. Similarly client B is probably under consuming calories if their goal is muscle gain.
I’m not saying calories are the only thing that matters.
I’m saying they are the most important dietary tool you can manipulate to achieve your goals. They should be the first step in the dieting process.
Calories are made up of the three ‘macros’ – protein, carbohydrates and fat.
Each of the macros has numerous roles within the body.
In the spirit of keeping things simple:
|Growth and repair||Energy (glucose) – brain, nervous system, kidneys and muscles
|Energy (fatty acids)|
|Preserve muscle mass
|Fibre – promotes bowel health||Forming cell membranes
|Hormone and enzyme production||Absorb fat soluble vitamins
A quick glance at the table above should demonstrate why I’m not a fan of going super low on any of the macros; they all have an important role to play.
The quantity of each macro will depend on a few factors:
- Your individual total calorie intake
- Your goal (fat loss or muscle gain)
- Training (weights, circuits, powerlifting, HIIT, LISS etc)
- Personal dietary preference
I can’t give out a blanket recommendation that will satisfy everyone’s needs but a few things to consider:
- If you’re training with high intensity, doing repeated bouts (think Crossfit-esque) carbohydrate will be your friend.
- If you’re dieting, hunger and potential muscle loss can be an issue. Increase your protein intake to minimise the risk.
- If you work a desk-based job and it’s not a training day consider reducing the carbohydrates and increasing fat content.
Now we’ve got calories and macros covered its time to ensure we’re consuming enough vitamins and minerals.
Vitamins and minerals are essential and have literally thousands of roles within the body including:
- Bone health
- Repairing cells
- Conversion of nutrients to energy
- Enhance immune system
I did consider writing about the differences between fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins, major minerals compared to trace minerals, the role of antioxidants, free radicals etc but I’ll be honest….
…It’s not very exciting.
Instead I’m going to give you some practical advice courtesy of Dr Graeme Close.
“Try to eat a rainbow everyday”
You read that correctly.
Before you ask: No; I’m not misquoting and no; Graeme hasn’t lost his mind.
Eating a ‘rainbow a day’ basically means trying to include as many different colours in the diet as possible. Think big colourful salads, a variety of vegetables and a mixture of fruits with different skin pigmentations.
A greater variety equates to a broader the spectrum of nutrients. If you’re diet is diverse you’re more likely to consume, absorb and utilize these nutrients within the body.
Not exactly a groundbreaking recommendation from the current ‘Expert Nutrition Consultant’ for England Rugby. But this is the point; it doesn’t need to be.
Attempting to track micronutrients in a similar fashion to macronutrients is almost impossible. Good luck measuring every trace mineral entering your body; the amounts are simply too minute.
Eat your 5-a-day and strive for more over time. If you are deficient in a particular vitamin or mineral and struggle to consume through the diet there could be a case for supplementation.
There is no doubt that meal timing can have an impact within the diet but its importance tends to be somewhat overstated.
Let’s say you’re consuming 2000kcal a day. Whether you decide to split those calories across:
2 x 1000kcal meals
4 x 500kcal meals
6 x 400kcal meals
In terms of fat loss or muscle gain it’s going to have minimal impact.
However if we throw training into the mix there’s decent rationale for consuming protein and carbohydrate before a workout and protein post workout (maybe carbohydrate as well).
As shown earlier, protein stimulates muscle repair and carbohydrate provides the glucose to fuel your intense gym session.
You don’t need to be necking cans of energy drink 5mins before you step on the treadmill just like you don’t need to be slamming down a protein shake the moment the barbell hits the floor. A good rule of thumb is to think of the workout sandwiched by a 4hour window.
A couple of examples below:
6am – Banana and scoop of whey
7am – Gym session
10am – Scrambled egg on toast
5pm – Tuna and jacket potato
7pm – Gym session
9pm – Greek yoghurt with blueberries
Minimal fuss. Bases covered. Simple.
I give some more thoughts on meal timing here:
I’ll be up front from the outset. I don’t dislike supplements BUT I think their importance tends to be massively overstated. Especially by the supplement industry; funny that!
If you haven’t got your calories and macros in order don’t even think about supplementation.
When you’ve established your calorie and macronutrient requirements supplements can definitely help
- Bolstering any micronutrition deficiencies (e.g. Vitamin D3, fish oil).
- Provide convenience around meal timing (Whey powder post workout)
- Performance benefits (Creatine monohydrate, beta-alanine)
With the notable exception of caffeine I think I’ve literally mentioned all the supplements I recommend to the vast majority of clients (note: there will always be exceptions).
There is nothing inherently wrong with supplements but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least look at your diet first.
What to do now?
Why not have a crack at using the pyramid to construct your own 5-step diet plan.
- First up you need to decide whether you’re losing fat or gaining muscle and set calories accordingly.
- Once calories are in place you can look at the grams of protein carbs and fat that make up that number.
- Set yourself a manageable fruit and vegetable target (eat your 5-a-day is a good place to start).
- Plan meals to suit personal preference while maximising training performance and recovery.
- Only when points 1-4 are covered do you need to think about supplementation.
I’ll finish with an analogy.
Putting together a successful nutrition intervention is like building a house. You need to get your plans in place first. Focusing attention on your supplement regimen when you haven’t got a clue about your caloric intake is akin to stressing about the curtain fabric when you haven’t dug the trenches.
There’s nothing wrong with having a nice set of curtains…
…But I’d argue the foundations of your house are more important.