What if I told you that almost everything you were taught about nutrition was insignificant?
What if I told you that only a few things actually mattered, and that practically everything else yields very little results?
You see, we live in a world where almost everything is worthless; only a small number of things are exceptionally valuable. This principle applies to fitness, too. Much of the training and nutrition information that exists out there isn’t necessarily worthless or wrong — they’re simply unimportant.
Here are some examples of the not-so-effective-fat-loss-advice I’m talking about:
- “Avoid sugar at all cost.”
- “Avoid carbs because they make you fat.”
- “Eat more frequently to speed up your metabolism.”
- “Eat only gluten-free foods.”
- “Go Paleo. Because, you know, that’s how cavemen ate.”
- “Drink only water and avoid other types of drinks.”
- “Don’t skip breakfast.”
- “Eat smaller portions.”
What’s the problem with the pieces of “advice” above that everyone seems to regurgitate over and over again? They’re either big myths that aren’t true (as debunked by studies such as this one about sugar; this one about carbs; and this one about increased meal frequency), or have very minuscule effects on your results.
To put things into perspective, think of the 80:20 Rule (Pareto’s Principle) that states 80% of results come from 20% of the effort. It’s a powerful fundamental principle of life that just so happens to also apply in fitness. Unfortunately, the common approach a lot of people have about fitness is to do everything all at once to get the best results — to go “all-out” — without consideration of the impact on time, willpower, and efficiency.
Everyone seems to overlook the fundamentals: the things that actually matter. And when it comes to body composition (whether you’re trying to lose fat or pack on some muscle), there’s only a few essential things to remember that will get you the bulk of your results.
Let me introduce to you…
The Pyramid of Nutritional Importance
Credit goes out to Eric Helms for the original idea of the nutritional pyramid of importance.
To put it simply, the most important things when it comes to nutrition for both fat loss and muscle gain are (and yes, this is in order of importance):
- Your calorie intake.
- The MACROnutrient composition of your diet: protein, fats, and carbs.
- Your MICROnutrient intake: vitamins, minerals, etc.
- The timing and frequency of your meals — what time and how often you eat
- Supplements that help cover your deficiencies.
These are the biggies. The essentials. These are what will yield you the results you’ve been striving for.
Looking at this list, it comes to no surprise that a lot of people aren’t getting the results they want. Everyone has the misconception that fat loss is all about eating more fruits and veggies (#3 on the list), or about eating every 2-3 hours to “stoke your body’s metabolism”, or eating certain “fat loss foods”.
And let’s not forget about fat-burning supplements (#5). That’s part of the fat loss formula too, right?
The truth of the matter is that the things that should be prioritized most are usually what people tend to overlook.
Priority #1: Calories
This is the most important variable when it comes to nutrition.
Whatever your goal is, whether you’re trying to shed some fat or pack on some muscle, your energy balance is the main determining factor of body composition. It’s the First Law of Thermodynamics.
Energy Consumed – Energy Expended = Change In Fat Mass
Basically, calories matter.
For the past few years, many “gurus” and “experts” have tried to tell us that calories don’t matter, that it’s all about food quality and eating more vegetables and blah blah blah blah. Yes, food quality sure does matter, but how many calories you’re consuming of that quality food matters just as much. This is why “clean eating” isn’t the solution to fat loss. At the end of the day, you’ll either gain, lose, or maintain your weight depending on the amount of calories you consume each day.
The first step you need to take when trying to shed fat or put on muscle mass is to figure our your body’s caloric maintenance. This is the amount of calories you need to eat in order to maintain your current weight.
After figuring out your maintenance calories, you’ll then either:
- Eat less if you’re trying to shed fat (caloric deficit)
- Eat more if you’re trying to pack on muscle (caloric surplus)
It’s that simple, really. There’s definitely more to it than just eating less (or more), but the main gist of it is this: the change in your body composition is largely dependent on the amount of calories you consume. If someone ever tells you that calories don’t matter and that your results will come from eating “clean”, run away from them.
[Sidenote: Want to get into the specifics of how to figure out your calorie deficit or surplus? Click here to read my quick guide.]
Priority #2: Macronutrients
In simplest terms, macronutrients — or macros — make up the calories in the foods you consume. These three things play an important role when it comes to the fat loss/muscle gain formula.
The amount that you consume for each macro is based on numerous factors such as physiological need, activity level, personal preference, etc. Essentially, you’ll want to aim for a certain amount of protein and fat per day, while carbs can vary depending on your activity level.
Just like calories, you want to make sure that there’s some sort of balance when it comes to their consumption. Out of the three, protein is the most important macronutrient requiring the most of your attention. If there’s one thing mainstream media has gotten right about nutrition, it’s that you want to make sure you’re consuming enough protein because of its numerous benefits such as:
- Reduction of appetite and hunger
- Can boost metabolism and increase fat burning
- Helps with increase of muscle mass and strength
- Improve bone density
- Can reduce late-night cravings
Fats, meanwhile, is something that gets both love and hate. The truth is that fats are actually a key component of your diet, and not just for body composition, but for overall health. You want to ensure that you’re eating enough healthy fats to maintain optimal body function and performance.
Lastly, carbs provide energy for your body. The amount of carbs your body needs depends mainly on your goals, training volume, and tolerance. On more “active days”, for example, you can consume more carbs.
Priority #3: Micronutrients
What most people think is the most important factor of fat loss actually falls into 3rd place of the nutritional hierarchy. This is where your fruits and veggies come in.
For obvious reasons, I won’t get into too much detail about micronutrients. Let’s just say that your parents were right when they drilled it into your heads that fruits and veggies are important. They help to cover your body’s nutritional bases for general health that keep our immune system healthy. Just like fats, fruits and veggies are necessary for optimal functioning.
Think about this — what’s the point of having six-pack abs if you’re always sick, tired, and feeling sluggish? Eating enough nutrient-dense foods ensures that your body is healthy as a whole.
Priority #4: Meal Frequency & Nutrient Timing
At the fourth level of the pyramid, meal timing and frequency make up only a small fraction of the pyramid.
Here’s what you need to know….
- There’s no need to eat every 2-3 hours for a total of 6, 7, or even 8 meals to “speed up the metabolism”. Meal frequency isn’t as important as we thought it was (for either fat loss or muscle gain). With that said, though, it’s still a good idea to make sure that you’re eating eating enough meals throughout the day. Although you can get away with 1 or 2 giant meals that make up your total calorie requirement, it’s not recommended that you eat too infrequently for obvious reasons such as hunger. Going too long without food can affect your hunger negatively. Meanwhile, eating too frequently can also have a negative impact, as you’re constantly “consumed by” the thought of food. Instead, aim for 3-5 meals a day which will be mainly dependent on 1) your meal frequency preference and 2) your lifestyle.
- Speaking of meals, you want to take into account your calorie and macronutrient goals when trying to figure out the best meal frequency that works for you. So let’s say you have a calorie requirement of 2,000 calories and have a protein target of 150g per day. If you’re eating 3 meals a day, you’ll be looking at roughly 660 calories and 50g of protein with each meal.
- On post-workout meals/shakes: you don’t need to have your post-workout recovery shake within 10 seconds of finishing your last set. BUT to stay on the safe side, it would still be a good idea to have it within 1-2 hours your workout. Aim for a P+C combo (protein and carbs) for your this meal. As for your PRE-workout meal, you also want to aim for a P+C combo about 1-3 hours prior to your workout.
Priority #5: Supplements
They’re useful, but they aren’t the answer to everything. This is why they’re the last part of the pyramid, and why they should be the last thing you should worry about.
A good starting supplement stack that I recommend would include the following:
- Whey protein powder
- Multivitamin/greens supplement
- EPA/DHA (fish oil)
- Vitamin D
Of course your need for supplements will vary on your body and any possible deficiencies or limitations in your diet. Don’t eat enough fish? Invest in a decent brand of fish oil. Not catching enough rays of the sun? Grab some Vitamin D.
Other supplements I would recommend fall in the performance category: caffeine, creatine, beta-alanine, etc. These things will help you lift more weight in the gym.
Not sure which supplements to take? Check out Examine.com, an independent and unbiased online encyclopedia on supplementation and nutrition. If you’re ever unsure about a certain ingredient or supplement and want to learn more about it, Examine’s user-friendly database is a great resource worth checking out.
For specific product recommendations, take a look at my Resources page.
Everything Else Is Secondary
All other things you’ve ever heard about nutrition is secondary.
If you’re trying to lose fat or put on muscle and nothing is working, the problem might not be because you’re not eating the right “fat loss foods” or because you don’t follow Paleo, but because you’re eating too many calories or not eating enough nutrient-dense foods.
All of the fluff you’re hearing out there are the extra things that make up only a small portion of your results. Do not worry about anything else until you’ve covered the essentials in the pyramid. Keep it simple. Give priority to what’s at the bottom of the pyramid, and then work your way up.
Here’s what to do next:
- Start practicing by staying within your calorie limit. Build the habit of tracking your foods for a few weeks so you can get an idea of how many calories you are currently eating. If you’ve never tracked your foods before using an app like MyFitnessPal, you’d be surprised to see just how much you actually eat — whether it’s more or less than you thought.
- After you’ve got that down, practice hitting your protein and fat targets. For a lot of people, this is the toughest part. It’s not exactly easy hitting your protein target if you’re not used to eating a lot of lean protein. If you fall in that category, it might take some time getting used to eating enough protein on a daily basis.
A manual that shows you step-by-step how to design a sustainable fitness lifestyle based around the foods you want to eat and the workouts you want to do, so you can finally lose fat and keep it off forever.
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