the nutritional pyramid of importance for fat loss & muscle growth
Unfortunately, there is a whole lot of confusion and misconceptions over what actually matters when it comes to nutrition - specifically when talking about fat loss, muscle growth and overall physique goals. For a lot of people, lack of results (or ideal results) is nothing to do with a lack of effort, but instead comes down to prioritizing the wrong things and/or completely missing aspects that are absolutely critical towards success.
I get a ton of questions from clients and followers who ask me what supplements they should take or how many meals they should eat in a day. My first question is always "What are your goals and how many calories are you consuming daily/weekly?". In most cases, they'll have no answer to the second part of the question. I'll then tell them not to worry about anything else until they've determined their energy requirements and have been consistent with them for at least a month.
It's not the sexy answer but it's the no BS answer. Without taking care of the things that matter most first, everything else is completely irrelevant. So, lets get into the Pyramid of Importance, starting from the most important (bottom) and moving up to the less important (but still influential).
#1 - calories & energy balance
This is the most important aspect when it comes to any body composition goal and the base of the pyramid. Calories trump everything else.
If you want to lose weight, get lean and lose the belly, you must be in a calorie deficit (burning more calories than you’re consuming or consuming less calories than your body requires to maintain its weight).
If you want to gain weight, add more muscle and get stronger, then you must be in a calorie surplus (consuming more calories than you’re burning or consuming more calories than your body requires to maintain its weight).
No matter which path you decide to go down, ensure you’re progressing slow. If you’re losing or gaining lots of weight fairly rapidly, it’s probably a good idea to slow things down a bit. Generally, I recommend aiming between 0.5-2.0lbs when in a fat loss phase (the leaner you are the lower you should be on that spectrum & vice versa), and between 0.3-1.0lbs gain when in a growth phase (aiming for the lower end if you're not in a rush and/or want to keep fat gain to a minimum).
#2 - macronutrients
- Protein - builds/retains muscle. 0.8-1.2g of protein per pound of bodyweight is generally where you'd want to be per day, with 1g per pound being the sweet spot. Anything less and you'll be at a higher risk of muscle loss when in a deficit and anything more and you'll surpass a point of diminishing returns and be at a higher risk of being broke (haha but seriously, protein is the most expensive macronutrient and exceeding that will not have any more benefit when it comes to muscle growth - so save yourself some dough). Going higher than 1.2g/lb of bodyweight will also mean you'll have less calories leftover for carbs and fats, meaning less pizza...
- Fats - Fats are essential for survival. They're responsible for ensuring your hormones are functioning properly and efficiently, including testosterone production (too little and you'll very likely see your sex drive plummet and/or put forth sub-par performances in the sack...). Because of that, you MUST get a minimum per day. Aim for a minimum of 0.4g per pound of bodyweight. Generally, I recommend anywhere between 0.4-0.6g/lb of bodyweight. If you prefer a higher fat diet then go with the high-end. Having said this, those with lots of bodyfat typically do better on the mid-high side of that spectrum than those who are leaner..
- Carbohydrates - Carbs are the only macronutrient that we could live without. However, we're here to make gains and therefore they need to be included. They have positive impacts on hormones, are your main energy source (think gym performance), replace muscle glycogen (primary and preferred fuel source for our muscles, and allow protein to do what we want it to do - more muscle baby! The remaining calories leftover after you've set your protein and fat intake go to carbs. I will mention that carbs become more important when 'bulking' & wanting to add more muscle mass - so setting your fat intake more towards the lower end of the above spectrum is a smart play.
For example, lets say you've determined your fat loss calories to be 2200 with 180g of protein and 60g of fat you'd have accounted for 1260 calories (refer to the table below if you're confused). That means you'd have 940 calories leftover. Therefore, your carb intake would be 235g.
- Alcohol - WTF man you didn't say alcohol was a macronutrient?! Well, no I didn't but not because it isn't a macronutrient (because it techincally is), but because it has no positive benefit (besides turning 5's into generous 8's...wait, is that even a positive?). But seriously, alcohol is considered a macronutrient and it's calories need to be accounted for. I am not advocating for you to go on frequent benders or drink unnecessarily, however it is unrealistic to expect you to never indulge in a couple cheeky pints on a Saturday (after all, saturday's are for the boys) or better yet a couple neat bourbons. Being able to properly track these is a game changer and something most people do not do. Although alcohol has 7 calories per gram, you'll notice when tracking that the macros don't add up to the calorie amount. That is because, carbs are accounted for but alcohol is not. The remaining calories must be put towards carbs and/or fats. If you want further instruction on this, shoot me an email or message on social media.
- Fibre - Fibre is not a macronutrient in itself and is therefore not part of the big 3. However, it is a classification of carbohydrate. We cover this here because fiber keeps us feeling fuller without adding significantly to the calorie content of food. Why? Because it delays digestion of food. Additionally, fibre lowers blood sugar levels, lowers cholesterol, and helps us stay regular.
However, it’s also possible to have too much, with undesirable side effects being gas, diarrhea, constipation and bloating. Keeping your fibre intake fairly consistent from day to day will keep these at bay while maintaining a leaner/harder & more consistent looking physique.
How much you ask? 10-15g per 1000 calories is generally a good rule of thumb. For example, if your daily calorie intake is set at 2500 then your daily fibre range would be 25-38g per day. Of course, if you're someone who enjoys a higher fat diet and is thus on lower carbs, getting enough fibre could prove to be a battle. If you can't seem to get a 10g minimum per 1000 calories, adding a fibre supplement is a good idea.
#3 - micronutrients & Water
- Consume between 2-3 servings of fruit per day (1 Serving = ~50-80g)
- Consume between 3-4 servings of vegetables per day (1 Serving = ~80-110g/day)
- Consider supplementing with a multivitamin to cover your bases. This is certainly not mandatory but is never a bad idea especially if your fruit & veggie intake is on the lower end.
When it comes to water, there is no universal amount that one should consume on a daily basis. Factors like gender, weight, training frequency/intensity, calorie intake, climate, etc all effect how much should be consumed. Nonetheless, water plays a big role in fat loss/leanness and performance.
Water is a transporter, meaning it helps shuttle important nutrients through our bodies. Inadequate amounts will make it hard for these nutrients to reach our desired destinations. Think about muscle growth - even with adequate protein intake, there's a strong likelihood that protein won't reach our muscles if water intake is insufficient.
In addition, if water intake is too low, there's a good chance you'll actually retain more water, leading to excess bloating and inflammation. Not a good look if you're wanting to impress with your tarp off.
I generally recommend males aiming between 4-6 litres per day and females between 3-5 litres (higher end if you're bigger and/or sweat a lot from training output or climate).
Check the color of your pee. If its clear, you're good. If it's yellow drink more. If its anything else, a doctor visit is in order..
#4 - meal Timing/Frequency
People lose their minds for any shortcut to losing weight, building muscle or getting shredded; and marketers take advantage of this to sell us on something new. Meal timing and frequency is no different.
The truth: Getting the timing of things right has favorable effects on body composition, however, if you skip over the most impactful, foundation levels of your nutrition plan (calorie intake, the macro composition, and micronutrition) you are wasting your time, money and effort.
Any time someone presents you the nutritional importance pyramid upside-down, run for the hills.
Your goals, calorie intake, lifestyle and personal preference should all play a big role on the amount of meals you should consume on a daily basis. Generally, I suggest consuming no less than 3 protein based meals per day. Here are some points to consider:
- Those in a calorie surplus with the primary intention of muscle growth should eat more frequently (4-6 times per day).
- Those in a calorie deficit with the primary intention of fat loss may eat less frequently (although not mandatory). The bigger the meals the more satiated you'll be. Eating frequently means you're likely eating small meals which may not satisfy hunger levels enough; putting you at higher risk of overeating as a result. 3-5 meals per day is a good shout.
- If you opt for less meals per day and are going more than 4 hours without a meal, I'd strongly consider supplementing with BCAA's (more on this upcoming), or protein powder to ensure you're not at higher risk of muscle loss (or sub-optimal muscle growth if in a growth phase).
Nutrient timing and macronutrient partitioning can also play a big role on body composition and performance (if the previous 3 points have been nailed down), especially when used around your training sessions.
As covered in Point #2, carbohydrates play important roles in energy and protein synthesis, while protein encourages muscle growth. Therefore, consuming a minimum amount of carbs and protein before/after our workouts will benefit both of those. Of course the amount will vary depending on the amount you have to work with on a daily basis. Here are some key points to consider:
- Consume approximately 25% of your daily carbs 60-90 minutes prior to your training session
- Consume approximately 20-25% of your daily carbs within 60 minutes of your training session (lower end if your carb intake is really low)
- Lower fat in both of these meals as it'll slow the digestion of protein and carbs (less than 10g)
- Consume at least 25g of protein in both of these meals
#5 - Supplements
Ahh good old supplements. As you can see from the pyramid diagram at the top, the supplement level takes up the very small point at the top. That's not a mistake. Contrary to popular belief from the general public or casual gym-goer, supplements are not required and do not make or break progress or performance. Here's the real, short & sweet low-down on suppies:
- Supplements can benefit a good nutrition plan, but they cannot make up for a poor one.
- Supplements are not needed to transform your physique and in many cases constitute an unnecessary expense.
Unfortunately, supplement companies have done an incredible job in leading you to believe the only way you can get ripped and shredded is by taking their supplements. "Take this fat-burner and you'll shed 5lbs in the first week!".... Don't fall for this garbage. Do your research and decide whether or not you actually NEED it. Most times, the answer will be no.
However, there are a few supplements that are beneficial for those who have certain medical restraints and thus are unable to get enough of a specific nutrient, or advanced trainees looking for another inch.
- Protein Powder: as a means to hit your daily protein requirements without using it as a substitute for real food. The higher your protein requirements are, the harder it may be to hit those targets with food alone. In these cases, supplementing with protein powder is a quick & easy way to get that done.
- BCAA's: as a means to cover your bases on occasions where you're going long periods of time without a protein based meal (over 4 hours). Don't get fooled into thinking they're something more than this. If you're someone who fasts in the morning, BCAA's are a great way to narrow the gap and reduce the potential of muscle losses.
- Creatine Monohydrate: creatine is one of the most studied & proven supplements. It's proven to increase strength, power and recovery, while increasing muscle fullness. Although not required, it can prove beneficial by frequent gym-goers and more advanced trainees. 5g per day is fine, and up to 10g before your training sessions is a good shout.
- Fish Oil: can reduce inflammation and improve joint health.
- Citrulline Malate: probably the least important on the list but my personal favourite. It helps counter muscle fatigue & increases nitric oxide production - meaning insane pumps and vascularity in the gym. I take this with creatine right before/during my workouts. Again, not required by any means and really only advantageous for those who are already lean with visible abs.
Don't get fooled into buying unnecessary supplements thinking they're the one thing keeping you from your desired physique, especially if you haven't taken care of the previous 4 points in the pyramid. If you're just starting out, start from the very bottom and stay consistent with it. Only then should you move up into the next tier. Keep the focus as narrow as possible. This will increase adherence in the short and long term, while allowing you to get to where you want to be faster and much more efficiently.
If you have any questions or comments, pop them below.