I became interested in exercise and fitness as a young teen. While I had been involved in sports up to that point, particularly baseball, football, and golf, my first real exposure to the weight room was at 14 years old. As a member of the eighth-grade football team, I regularly interacted with high school coaches and players who encouraged us young guys to get bigger and stronger prior to entering the high school gridiron ranks. As an impressionable teen, I obliged and frequented the high school weight room to participate in the same strength training program as the older guys.
From day one, I fell in love with the grind and made it a priority almost every day. Soon thereafter, I began consuming as much literature as possible to learn how I could optimize my workouts to become as big and strong as possible. At 14, my primary concern was learning how to properly move as much weight as possible and what dietary supplements I could get my hands on to give me an edge. The last thing I thought about was nutrition and how food intake impacts performance. It sounds silly, right? Well, I can tell you that this 14-year-old mindset is a reality that many regular gym goers have and is a big reason why so many spend countless hours in the gym and do not achieve any notable progress. The fact is 80-90 percent of your performance and physique is direct result of diet and appropriate rest/recovery. The adage “you are what you eat” is certainly closer to the truth than you may realize. It wasn’t really until I was in my early to mid-20s that I realized the importance of understanding performance dieting and how to appropriately apply nutrition principles to optimize my performance and physique goals. I am certainly not implying that I was not educated in this area. What I am saying is that I was not applying my knowledge in a manner that supported my goals appropriately. More simply, there is a big difference between eating healthy and eating for performance.
Healthy Eating vs. Performance Dieting
To a certain extent, “healthy eating” is common knowledge. I think nine out of ten people could generally distinguish between healthy food choices and unhealthy food choices. The major difference between eating healthy and a performance diet is the goal one has established for his or herself. In the broadest sense, healthy eating centers on the concept of a balanced diet intended to maintain or improve overall health. The major focus of healthy eating is managing a healthy weight. A healthy eating plan:
- Emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products
- Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts
- Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars
- Stays within your daily calorie needs
A healthy eating plan as described above typically includes three major meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and limited, but healthy, snacks in between meals if needed. Again, the major emphasis here is overall health and managing weight. While eating this way can certainly help performance and physique to a certain extent, you are less likely the achieve aspirational goals that would get your body on the cover of a magazine. Obviously, that is an extreme example of a goal, however, I am hoping you understand where I am going with this.
Like healthy eating, performance dieting is also designed to be healthy and friendly to the body. The basics concepts of a healthy eating plan are still part of performance eating. The biggest difference of the performance approach to diet is in the name – performance.
In lieu of simply focusing on overall health, performance dieting focuses on overall health and some aspect of performance improvement like functional strength, speed, agility, cardiovascular health, and body composition.
Major components of performance dieting include:
- Total caloric intake
- Macronutrient needs and partitioning
- Meal timing
- Fluid intake
All the above considerations will vary from person to person, however, I will provide some basics in the follow paragraphs about how you can optimize each of these focus areas to improve your physique and overall performance.
Total Caloric Intake
A calorie is simply a unit and measure of energy. I am not going to get into the mathematical equation associated with the measure…just remember calories equal energy. As it pertains to an individual’s caloric intake and what level may be appropriate is totally dependent on the goal the individual has set for his or herself. In the broadest sense, if you want to lose weight you need to burn more calories than you consume. This is called caloric deficit. If you want to gain weight, you need to eat more calories than you burn. This is called caloric surplus. Lastly, if you want to maintain a given weight, you need to burn the same number of calories you consume. Makes sense, right? Most people have no idea how many calories they consume in a day, and some really don’t need to know or care because they are content with where they are in terms of performance, physique, weight, etc. For someone looking to achieve advanced or superior levels of performance and overall body composition, knowing how much energy you put into your body is critical.
A good starting point to determine how many calories you need for a certain goal is calculating your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR).
In a nutshell, BMR is the minimum number of calories your organs need to function correctly while you perform no activity whatsoever. More simply, this is the amount of energy you need to lay in bed all day. There are several ways to calculate your BMR. You could go out and buy a fancy multi-function scale, or simply find a BMR calculator online. There are many online sources, however, I prefer the various nutrition and body calculators offered for free at www.bodybuilding.com. They have a simple BMR calculator here: https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/bmr_calculator.htm.
Once you determine your BMR, you can more easily determine calorie levels appropriate for deficit, surplus and maintenance. While I cannot accurately tell you where your specific levels sit because everyone is different, just know that deficit is slightly above BMR, maintenance levels are higher than deficit, and surplus is higher than maintenance. To put this into perspective, my current BMR is 2011 calories. My deficit range based on my current activity is 2112-2500 calories; maintenance 2501-2700; and surplus 2,701 plus. As a reminder, these numbers are different for everyone. My activity level is low during the day as I spend a lot of time in an office setting. Most of my physical activity occurs in the gym. As such, my caloric intake must be adjusted to compensate my lack of activity during day based on whatever goal I’ve set for myself. For example, I may need to either drop my calories to the lower end of caloric deficit, add some extra cardio first thing in the morning, or both to lose weight. In contrast, to gain weight, I may only need to bump my calories slightly over my established maintenance level to slowly gain weight while maintaining my current level of activity. These strategies are different for everyone. The constant factor in all of this is determining appropriate energy consumption levels, and then monitoring those levels to accomplish a goal.
Macronutrient Needs and Partitioning
The three basic macronutrients are Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fat. All three play important rules in nutrition and performance.
Of all the macronutrients, protein is the most beneficial for the building and maintenance of lean muscle mass and fat loss. Yes, fat loss.
The reason protein is effective for weight loss is because of its thermic effect during digestion. This is known as the Thermic Effect of Feeding, or TEF. Protein is also the most satiating of the macronutrients. More simply, you feel fuller after eating protein rich foods. Put all these benefits together and protein is perfect for a diet, right? Bingo. As such, protein should form the foundation of your diet. At any given time, my protein intake accounts for 40-50 percent of my daily caloric intake.
Carbs are the devil, right? Wrong! Time after time studies have shown that low carbohydrate diets have no metabolic advantage over higher carb diets when protein intake is matched. In other words, eliminating carbs out of your diet and compensating with higher protein and fat intake will not help you melt off the fat. In fact, some studies show that you can lose weight faster by consuming a healthy amount of carbohydrates daily. Additionally, carbs have a higher TEF than fat and are the primary energy source your body uses when weight training. If you have low glycogen stores (stored carbohydrates), your training and recovery will be impaired.
Lastly, fats are important and should never be eliminated from your diet. Fats are important for regular hormonal function, especially testosterone. A good rule of thumb is that fats should never go below 20-30 percent of your daily caloric intake.
Considering what I’ve discussed about macronutrients, what should you do? After you’ve determined your level of protein intake, which should make up most of your daily calories, your carbohydrate and fat intake is not extremely significant in the grand scheme of things. For example, I am currently consuming 40 percent of my calories from protein, 30 percent carbs, and 30 percent fat. As I progress into my competitive season, I will likely move my protein in take to 50 percent, carbs 30 percent, and fats 20 percent. Get the gist? Adjust your macronutrients appropriately using protein as the foundation.
How important is meal timing? It is damn important.
Spreading calorie intake over multiple meals can help spike protein synthesis repeatedly throughout the day and keep your metabolism at an optimal level.
As it relates to protein, studies show that there is a maximum threshold your body can utilize and absorb to stimulate an anabolic response. These levels range from about 20g to 40g in one sitting. I recommend 4-6 meals per day based on schedule and overall preference. Ideally, eating every 2-3 hours is optimal with each meal containing between 20-40g of protein.
Of all the components of diet and nutrition, water intake is one that is not discussed enough.
Look folks…water is essential for survival. It helps your organs function normally, aids in digestion, and can also help increase metabolism and energy expenditure (calorie burn).
You may have heard that you should drink at least eight 8oz glasses of water per day, however, this is quite low if you are active and subscribe to a fit lifestyle. While water requirements differ based on sex, body size, age, lifestyle and other factors it is recommended that men drink about a gallon of water per day, and women drink about 3/4 gallon of water per day. If you are not drinking this much water, don’t fret! Protein shakes and other forms of fluid count, too (alcohol and other drinks that force fluid out don’t count. Sorry). The bottom line here is that you need to prioritize hydration just as much as you prioritize food.
Tools Available to Help
There are thousands upon thousands of tools commercially available to help you accomplish your fitness goals. There are so many, it is overwhelming. Below, I’ve provided the three that I have found to be most important for me, and a fourth and fifth you may consider if you want to save time and need additional help. Know that I do not officially endorse any of these products, aside from Reignite Fitness Coaching, nor do I receive any compensation from the companies the produce of supply these products. I use them because they work for me. It is that simple.
- Calorie Logging/Tracking App – A reliable way to log and track food (energy/calories) is critical for achieving your fitness goals. There are many available for both IOS and Android users. I personally use MyFitnessPal. The app is extremely easy to use and contains at searchable database of more than 300,000,000 food items. In addition to general tracking of calories, the app tracks macronutrients and nutritional information for everything you log. You can also set bodyweight goals, macronutrient goals, and more. I use this app daily, especially when I am preparing for a competition.
- Digital Food Scale – I do not advocate for one digital food scale over another, however, they are extremely important. As mentioned above, it is critical that you know what you are putting into your body and how much. When prepping meals, a food scale is handy, so you know exactly how much food you are eating and can appropriately log calories.
- Digital Body Composition Scale with App – A digital body composition scale is extremely helpful to help you track and trend progress over the course of time. Achieving an exceptional physique does not come overnight. It can take many weeks, months, and even years (in some extreme cases) to accomplish a fitness goal. I personally use a scale by Renpho, albeit there are hundreds of other scales that do the same thing. In addition to body weight and body fat analysis, the scale analyzes muscle mass, bone mass, basal metabolism, protein, water, BMI and more. The scale comes with a handy mobile app that displays data and tracks the data over time.
- Meal Prep Service – Paying for a meal prep service is an extra expense, however, it can save a tremendous amount of time in the kitchen preparing meals. On average, those who take fitness seriously spend about 10 hours a month in the kitchen preparing food. A meal prep service can almost eliminate the time you spend cooking and preparing food. I personally use Nutrition Solutions. The company is Veteran-owned and based out of Tampa, Florida. They ship across the U.S. The food is excellent and prepared for fitness-minded individuals and fitness competitors. Meals range from about $8.00 – $9.00 per meal and can be customized for your specific nutrition goals. I have tried other meal prep services, but Nutrition Solutions is the best around.
- Online Coaching – Online fitness coaching has exploded over the last few years and has produced some amazing transformations. However, please know that there are many self-proclaimed “coaches” that have no experience or knowledge and simply want to turn a quick profit on a vulnerable client. There are many very good coaches out there, but many more who are not. Coaching can help you reach your goals if you find the right person. At Reignite Fitness, we offer limited spots for coaching. Unlike other online coaching services available, we do not believe in offering cooking cutter fitness and nutrition coaching plans. We tailor plans for clients individually based on body type, age, and overall goals. We also consider personal and professional environments of each client, resources readily available to them in or near their homes, and the type of programming they may already enjoy. The bottom line is that we do not offer some type of magical prescription. Our goal is to work with you as a member of your team to help you realize your nutrition and fitness goals while ultimately improving your overall health. If coaching is something that interests you, please visit https://reignite.fitness/coaching.
I hope you found this post to be educational, insightful, and value-added. My hope is that you learned something from reading this article and can apply it to your arsenal of knowledge as you continue to pursue your fitness goals. I look forward to hearing your comments, questions, and general feedback. If at any time you need to get in contact with us, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, get after it!