[Beau Hains, MS is the Director of Team Training at Athletic Lab]

When it comes to nutrition, there is certainly no “one size fits all” model. However, that does not necessarily mean that it needs to be an overly complex process either. With this article, it is my goal to simplify nutritional guidelines, with an easy to understand model to help you enhance your performance (in whatever way that applies to you and your personal goals).

I like to break down nutrition into 5 major factors, which consist of the following in order of importance:

  1. Calorie Balance
  2. Macronutrient Amounts
  3. Nutrient Timing
  4. Food Composition
  5. Supplements

In this article, we are going to dive into the first 2 factors, which I believe should be the primary focus in the beginning stages of establishing a good nutritional foundation.

Calorie Balance

Calorie balance is the ratio of calories burned vs consumed in food, or to put it more simply, how much you eat versus how much you train or exercise. Of the above factors, I firmly believe that calorie balance has the potential to be the most impactful regarding most people’s diet. That being said, it is worth stating that this may not be the case for EVERYONE, but for most, this is a very good place to start.

To give you a better understanding of calorie balance, it can be found in 3 states:

  1. Negative Calorie Balance (Hypocaloric) – Consuming less calories than you are burning
  2. Neutral Calorie Balance (Eucaloric) – Consuming the same amount of calories that you are burning
  3. Positive Calorie Balance (Hypercaloric) – Consuming more calories than you are burning

Calorie balance is very important, mainly because of its role in affecting body composition (the proportion of fat and non-fat mass in your body). Why is it so important in diet success regarding body composition? Simple…it has the potential to have the greatest impact on how much muscle you can gain and how much fat you can lose over any period of time!

In order to change body composition, you need to figure out which caloric state best fits your needs. While I am typically not an advocate of “counting calories,” I do think it is very important to understand roughly how many calories you need to consume to best meet your goals. Precision Nutrition offers a great resource that breaks down understanding portion sizes, which you can check out here.

Once you have a better understanding of calories, changing body composition is fairly simple. You must first start with the fact that it takes around 3500 calories to gain/lose 1lb of tissue. If you take this into consideration, a good rule of thumb when trying to gain or lose weight is to alter caloric intake by between 500 and 1000 calories per day. This would translate to 3500 to 7000 calories, or 1-2lbs of tissue per week.

If you are not quite sure what your daily caloric goal should be, you can apply this easy model below. All you need to do is align your activity level and weight goal, then multiply one of the numbers in that range by your bodyweight in pounds to determine what your estimated daily calorie target should be. The formula would be: Weight (lbs) x Activity Level = Estimated Daily Calorie Intake

For example, a moderately active individual who weighs 185lbs who is looking to gain weight would be 185 x 20 = 3700 calories. Notice that a range is used for each activity level. This allows for an individual to be more/less aggressive when pursuing that calorie goal.

Macronutrients

Macronutrients are the next important factor that should be taken into consideration. Without getting overly scientific, I want to briefly introduce the 3 macronutrients and identify their primary uses in the body.

The 3 Macronutrients are:

  1. Proteins – Essential for the repair, growth, and maintenance of muscle mass
  2. Carbohydrates – The body’s preferred source of energy
  3. Fats – Essential for maintaining hormone levels and intracellular chemical messages

Protein

Protein supports muscle repair and growth by literally providing the building blocks out of which muscle structure is made. This makes dietary protein intake a critical factor in terms of its impact on body composition.

If your goal is to improve body composition (by either gaining or losing weight), then having adequate protein intake is a must! If your goal is to gain weight, this will help to predominantly gain muscle. If your goal is to lose weight, this will help to minimize muscle loss.

Macronutrient ratios may differ depending on your specific performance goals or activity levels. However, due to the nature of how protein is utilized by the body, I find it is best to establish your ideal protein intake and then alter your carbohydrate and fat intake around that. This allows for an easier to follow diet and leaves room for including a variety of options for carbs and fats depending on your individual preferences.

The research suggests that an ideal amount of protein intake can be anywhere between .67 and .83 grams per pound of bodyweight. The body is only able to effectively utilize a certain amount of protein for muscle maintenance and development, so anything over .83 grams per pound of bodyweight is unnecessary (although not inherently bad, as there are no real negative side effects). I personally prefer to be on the higher side of the protein intake range, so I consider my optimal intake to be anywhere from .8 and 1 grams per pound of bodyweight. By consuming around 1g per pound of bodyweight, it makes calculating daily protein needs very simple. This also ensures that I get enough protein to support pretty much all muscle repair, and then it allows me to simply fill in the gaps with the other foods that meet my carbohydrate and fat needs for the day.

Carbohydrates

This brings us to the next macronutrient, carbohydrates. As I previously mentioned, carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy. This makes them a little bit trickier to determine, as the daily requirements will vary depending on your activity levels for that day.

Consuming too many carbohydrates can lead to a hypercaloric state, which can lead to unwanted weight gain. However, consuming inadequate levels of carbohydrates can also have detrimental effects with training. The negative effects include things such as:

  • A decrease in single-session motivation and effort due to inadequate blood glucose levels holding back the nervous and muscular system
  • A decrease in single and multi-session performance due to chronically low muscle glycogen levels
  • A direct decrease in muscle growth due to decreased hypertrophic signaling from lack of insulin secretion and chronically low muscle glycogen levels

By following these guidelines, this should support optimal recovery. However, this does not take into consideration weight gain or weight loss goals, so you might want to alter these amounts based on your individual goals.

Fats

This brings us to the final macronutrient, fats. Fat is an essential nutrient that must be consumed in at least the minimal quantities for health and body composition. However, once those minimal amounts have been met, fat becomes the least important nutrient of the 3 macronutrients. This is not to say that fats do not have their benefits. Dietary fats are essential to give your body energy, support cell growth, and balance hormones.

Of the 3 macronutrients, fats are the densest in terms of calories. This explains why it can be beneficial to consume them in minimal quantities, because it is typically easy to overdo it with fatty foods if you are not careful. Consuming .1g per pound of body weight per day is generally enough to satisfy your essential needs.

Summary

To tie things together, I wanted to give you an example of what someone’s daily calorie intake and macronutrient ratios could potentially look like if they weigh 180lbs. I also want to point out that protein stays somewhat constant, while the carbohydrates and fats shift depending on your activity levels on any given day. Overall calories could also be slightly higher or lower if that individual is looking to gain or lose weight.

Although, I believe calorie balance and macronutrient intake have the potential to impact your diet and training on a higher level, this does not mean that the other 3 factors (Nutrient Timing, Food Composition, and Supplements) cannot be of great benefit. I am simply stating that you should focus on the former and once you have a good foundation, you can look to add more of the latter to bring you to the next level. In part 2 of this blog, I will cover these factors and how to best utilize them to help you reach your goals.