This is the most complete, epic guide to diet on the web. Especially if you want to lose fat, or build muscle. Based on all the latest science.
Reviewed by: Antonis Damianou (myoleanfitness.com), Brandon Roberts (thestrengthguys.com, fitnessandphysiology.com), Adam Tzur (sci-fit.net), Greg Nuckols (StrongerByScience.com, MASS Research Review), Steve Hall (ReviveStronger.com), Jacob Schepis (JPS), Brad Dieter (sciencedrivennutrition.com), Jason Cholewa (Jasoncholewa.com), David Nolan (HPA Podcast), Thomas Campidell (campidellcoaching.com), Nelly Sta. Maria Ph.D, and Abel Csabai (Sustainable Self-Development Podcast)
- 1 Key Points:
- 2 What is macro tracking?
- 3 Step 1: Establish your baseline food intake
- 4 Step 2: Establish your baseline body weight
- 5 Step 3: Learn the basic nutritional values of foods
- 6 Step 4: Set a goal weight/body composition
- 7 Step 5: Determine your ideal calorie and macronutrient intakes (with calculator)
- 8 Secondary Considerations (these are less important, but these still matter):
- 9 FAQ and Further Reading:
- 9.1 Aren’t carbohydrates/sugars/insulin spikes responsible for fat storage?
- 9.2 Does protein quality matter?
- 9.3 Why do you give strict macronutrient ranges for fat and carbohydrate intake?
- 9.4 What about the ketogenic diet?
- 9.5 What if I am on a vegan/vegetarian diet?
- 9.6 What about artificial sweeteners?
- 9.7 Don’t the calorie contents of most foods often differ from the values on the nutritional label? Does this render macro tracking useless?
- 10 Bonus Consideration: Seek progress, not perfection
- Why tracking macros works:
- The 3 macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fat) each have calories (4, 4, and 9 calories per gram). Plus, alcohol has 7 calories per gram.
- You lose or gain weight based on changes in energy balance. When you take in more energy than you burn, you gain weight. And vice versa.
- Macro tracking can help change your weight over time. Mostly because it forces you to track calories (i.e. energy).
- Step 1: Find out how much you eat:
- Writing down what you eat is the crucial first step to tracking macros.
- You can’t manage what you don’t measure. So, if you plan to change your food intake, then you should track it first. At least for a while.
- Tips to help track your macros:
- Using a food scale can help you check how much you’re eating.
- To be more accurate, it helps to track everything you eat. As soon as you eat it. If not before you eat it.
- If you have to eat out, that’s no big deal. Since taking pictures of the food can help you guess how many calories you eat. And many restaurants list out the macros, on their websites.
- Step 2: Find out how much you weigh:
- It may help to weigh in daily. Then write down your average body weight, for each week.
- No single weigh-in means all that much. Since, today’s weigh-in can’t show you the trend in your weight over time.
- Weigh-in at least 3x per week (see “weigh-in guidelines” infographic).
- If your average weight is stable for a while (e.g. ≥4 weeks), then you are roughly at “maintenance” calorie intake. At least, on average. Unless you’re gaining muscle and losing fat at about the same rate.
- Step 3: Learn the basic nutrient values for each food:
- You should eat every macronutrient, in some quantity. That is, make sure you get at least some fats, carbs, and proteins in your diet.
- To build muscle, you need to get in enough calories and protein. And, you need to lift weights. With a progressive workout program.
- Fats are very high in calories. So, it may be easy to overeat on fats.
- Odds are you should eat some fatty fish on a regular basis. Or at least take fish oil.
- Don’t eat trans fat. (Modern food regulations mostly take care of this for you).
- In general, avoid eating too many processed foods. Since these may promote fat gain/obesity.
- Meat and dairy products are some of the best protein sources.
- Eating more protein can blunt hunger. And help you lose weight too.
- In general, protein helps you build muscle. If not lose more fat as well.
- There are many good protein sources to choose from (see table).
- Fruits and veggies tend to be good sources of carbohydrate.
- Many carb sources give you beneficial compounds. Such as vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Which can help you avoid nutrient deficiencies.
- You don’t want to drink too much alcohol. At least, not regularly. And especially not when you’re dieting.
- But, if you must drink, read more on how to do so here.
- Step 4: Set a goal weight/look:
- Once you know your average body weight. And once you’ve got your calorie needs down, then you can start making changes. That is, you can now tweak your calorie intake, as to lose or gain weight.
- Sadly, it can be hard to find your calorie needs based on changes in your weight alone. As the “3,500 calorie per pound” idea is shaky. Hence, it’s a pain to guess how many calories you burn in a day. Especially based on body weight alone.
- In the short-term, your diet may not change your weight by a ton. Since there is some random variation in your weight anyway.
- The number of calories you burn each day will change over time. And in many cases, it shifts with your diet. But good for us, Kevin Hall and others made a model that can help predict how your body weight will change over time.
- Weight loss (“cutting/dieting”) notes:
- Aim to lose between 0.5% and 1% of your body weight per week.
- You may see a big drop in weight early on. And, that’s very normal. It’s just due to glycogen and water loss. Your weight should stabilize after ~2 weeks. At which point more weight loss is probably “real.”
- You can split your calories up as you like across the week. It won’t make a ton of difference, for the most part.
- Taking a week at maintenance calorie intake (“a diet break”) can help. Since this has been shown to help you keep more weight off.
- Look to eat ~1.8-3.4 grams of protein per kg body weight (.8-1.54 g/lb). Since that should be enough to max out muscle growth. And blunt hunger as well.
- Weight gain (“bulking”) notes:
- Aim to gain ~0.5%-2% of your body weight per month (~1-3 lbs/.45-1.36 kg). This should be enough to gain solid muscle.
- Muscle growth (drug-free) is a very slow process. Especially past the newbie phase.
- While you should aim to gain weight, you don’t want to gain too fast. Since most of that extra weight will be body fat.
- Split your calories up any way you want to. It’s also fine to eat a bit more on days that you train (e.g. +200 calories).
- You may want to eat lots of protein during your bulk. That is, up to over ~3 g/kg (1.36 g/lb) protein per day. Since some studies show this can help limit fat gain. If you can’t manage that, then just eat more like 1.76 g/kg (0.80 g/lb) of protein per day. And maybe fewer calories too.
- Avoid eating too much saturated fat or fructose. As eating too much of these can lead to more fat gain.
- Step 5: Find your ideal calorie and macro targets (w/ calculator)
- See section.
- Putting it all together (practical examples):
- See section
What is macro tracking?
“Macro tracking, in essence is just tracking calories. But, with the specific goal of hitting different macronutrient targets. In short, Macronutrients are the main nutrients from your diet: protein, carbohydrate, and fat. And these macros (+ alcohol) each have calories.
What are calories?
Macros are the main nutrients from your diet. And they contain calories. So macro tracking, is a more-specific form of calorie tracking.
Why macro tracking works:
Put simply, if you eat more calories than you burn, you increase the body’s energy stores. And vice versa. Which, eventually, leads to changes in body weight/mass.
So, if you eat more calories than you burn, your body’s energy stores go up. And that leads to weight gain over time. Or weight loss, if your body’s energy stores go down.
Which means, macro tracking gives us an easy way to change our body weight and composition. Since it forces us to track our calories (energy).
But, with that said, macro tracking is hard. And it takes some time to get the hang of. So odds are you’ll struggle with it early on.
Luckily though, this guide should help you get around all the problems with macro tracking. And with that, let’s dive in:
Changes in bodily energy stores depend on changes in energy balance. To gain/lose energy (and thus, body mass), your energy intake needs to change. And macro tracking helps you change it.
Step 1: Establish your baseline food intake
Writing down what you eat is the key first step to tracking macros. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. So, if you plan to change up your diet, you should have a good idea about how much you’re eating. So, before you start making changes, I’d say just track your diet. At least, early on; for the first few weeks. And then you can start making changes.
Now, I recommend using the FitGenie app to start tracking your macros. You can learn how to here. (Note: track macros on these apps, not calories. Since they tend to underestimate your food intake. For any given macro targets (see here).)
It takes time to build up a good habit. But, tracking your calories for a while gets you familiar with the calories in each food. And that info is the key to staying fit long-term.
So, be sure to really track your food intake for a while. At least for a few weeks. And, track everything you eat – even the “little stuff”. Since it can be easy to miss calories from drinks, oils, snacks, etc.
Be sure to log your food intake for at least a few weeks. And then you can start making changes to your diet.
Take care to track everything accurately. Since we tend to under-report how many calories we eat.
Practical tips to track your macros:
1. Track it as soon as you eat it
It’s best to log your food as soon as you eat it. And, if the food has to be cooked, then log it raw. Don’t just wait until the end of the day to track your calories. Because your memory may fail you, and tracking right away leads to more weight loss.
2. Plan your meals early
Second, some find planning meals ahead of time avoids the stress of making food selections ad libitum, but ad libitum dieting can be very effective (for example, subjects who switch to the ketogenic diet often reduce food intake unconsciously). Anecdotally, some seem to thrive on meal plans, but they aren’t needed to improve body composition (see some potential benefits to a meal plan here). Tracking intake works better with a food scale (see here or here), especially for beginners. You need not use a food scale when eating out, but to properly assess your caloric intake, you need to know what you ate (food type) and how much (food weight). It is helpful to weigh your food before you cook/eat it (when possible) in order to learn what various quantities of any given food look like (see here). This allows you to estimate your food intake more accurately both now and in the future (without deliberately tracking intake). When eating out (see here for tips), taking pictures of your food to track later can help you better estimate its caloric content. Tracking macros can increase food cravings in some individuals, which may be problematic, but I think the benefits of tracking macros (for at least some time) outweigh any drawbacks.
Log your food immediately after (if not prior to) eating it, using a food scale when possible. Plan meals ahead of time to simplify this process. Taking pictures of your food may help you better track intake when eating out.
Step 2: Establish your baseline body weight
I also recommend establishing the habit of weighing in daily. Again, you can’t manage what you can’t measure, and weight is the primary (surrogate) measure for tracking changes in body composition. Self-monitoring weight is also associated with better weight management. However, note that weight fluctuates considerably on a daily basis, so do not overreact to an unexpectedly high/low weigh in. Weight can fluctuate due to differences in stress levels, hydration status, menstrual cycle phase, bloating, carbohydrate/fiber/ sodium/mineral intake, food weight, and creatine levels. You should therefore establish a weekly or bi-weekly (baseline) average weight. Compare weekly averages, rather than daily weigh-ins, to ensure that you notice meaningful weight changes when you alter energy intake. If daily weigh-ins are impractical, then you should weigh in at least 3 times per week. Though useful, the scale is not the end-all be-all. I suggest you supplement weigh-ins with progress pictures (see how-to), because you might look better (if you’ve gained muscle) despite weighing the same/more.
How to Weigh-in Properly:
To properly weigh-in (tutorial here), use the same scale, wear minimal (or no) clothing, and weigh in under similar conditions each day (after using the bathroom, before eating/drinking anything, at roughly the same time). Do not weigh in after eating/drinking, at random times, or with different scales. True changes in bodily energy stores (usually) take closer to 1 week to reflect in the scale, so note the trends in your weekly average weigh-ins and make dietary adjustments accordingly. Once you have 4 weeks of food intake and weigh-ins recorded, then you can better estimate your maintenance calorie intake (based on average changes in weight over time).
See (below) how any given weigh-in can be misleading. The following image is my daily weigh-in history. This image shows why any one weigh-in says little about the general trend in weight.
As you can see, looking at 1 week of data (top left) makes it seem as though no meaningful changes are taking place. As we zoom out to 1 month (top right) of weigh-ins, we begin to see a trend, but there is still tremendous fluctuation between individual weigh-ins. As we zoom out to 3/6 months (bottom), we see a clear, downward trend in body weight, but we still see clear peaks and valleys over the weeks. This is why it is crucial to log weigh-ins daily and over the long-term. With only 2 weigh-ins per week, you might be severely mislead about the general direction of weight change. Similarly, if you zoom in on any single high weigh-in, you’d neglect the general trend over time. Meaningful changes in body weight/composition take time to manifest.
Daily weigh-ins are extremely useful over time (after learning how to weigh-in properly). Do not put too much stock into any single weigh-in; mind the trends in weight over time and supplement with pictures to appropriately gauge progress. If your weekly average weight is stable over an extended time period (i.e. ≥4 weeks), then you are roughly at “maintenance” calorie intake on average (unless you’re gaining muscle and losing fat at roughly the same rate).
Step 3: Learn the basic nutritional values of foods
While establishing your average daily food intake and daily body weight over the weeks, it is important to learn how to read food labels. To track your macros, you need to know the calorie and macronutrient contents of various foods, especially if you eat them frequently. The 3 macronutrients are fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Fat contains ~9 calories per gram, while carbohydrate and protein contain ~4 calories per gram. Fat intake is necessary to ensure sufficient essential fatty acid intake, absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, slower gastric emptying (which promotes satiety), and proper endocrine function over time. Protein consumption is necessary to some extent and beneficial in higher amounts. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is .8 grams per kilogram (.36 grams per pound) of body weight, however I recommend consuming more because protein plays a vital role in muscle mass maintenance when dieting. Muscle gain is optimized by consuming between 1.6-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram (~.73-1 gram protein per pound) of body weight (determine your optimal protein intake here). Assume you weigh 150 pounds and want to maintain/gain muscle mass (with progressive strength training), then you should consume between 109 and 150 grams of protein per day. Carbohydrates are also needed (in very small amounts, albeit) for bodily function. Further, carbohydrates help maintain muscle glycogen levels, which aids athletic performance and muscular endurance. Additionally, vegetables/fruits are carbohydrate sources which provide numerous health benefits (perhaps due to their (often) high antioxidant, vitamin, mineral, phytochemical, and polyphenol contents).
Fat, carbohydrate, and protein (9, 4, and 4 kcals/gram, respectively) are all beneficial to consume in some quantity. Eating sufficient protein and calories, while progressively strength training, promotes muscle growth over time.
Some Examples of Healthy Fat Sources
|➤Almonds||➤Chia Seeds||➤Avocados||➤(I.e. Salmon,|
|➤Peanuts||➤Hemp seeds||➤Olive oil||➤Mackerel,|
|➤Sardines||➤Baking Chocolate||➤Dairy Products||➤Or Herring)|
Fats are easy to over-consume given their caloric density, thus you should track intake when consuming fatty foods (such as oils) to ensure that you do not eat more calories than intended. You may want to consume less than 30% of calories from fat due to its effects on (post-meal) blood glucose and insulin responses when consumed with carbohydrates. Additionally, you may want to limit saturated fat intake given its greater potential for (liver/visceral) fat storage (during overfeeding), compared to monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, or medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). It is likely healthy to supplement fish oil or consume fatty fish (at least 2x per week) to reap the benefits of omega 3 (EPA/DHA) consumption (especially considering its reduced potential for fat storage and potential to enhance muscle growth). Lastly, minimize trans fat consumption. Research suggests that eating more trans fats is associated with higher risk of heart disease, infertility, and diabetes (among other health detriments), while trans fat consumption is not necessary for bodily function. As such, you should mostly avoid eating (highly) processed foods, because processed foods often contain trans fats. Processed foods also have greater energy availability per calorie (given a lower thermic effect), thus increased potential to create an energy surplus, thereby resulting in fat storage. Limiting processed food consumption can also help improve your diet. All considered, it is likely wise to limit processed food intake.
Fats may be easy to over-consume given their caloric density. Saturated fat is stored as body fat more so than other fats. It is likely beneficial to consume fatty fish/fish oil regularly. Minimize trans fat and processed food consumption.
Some Examples of Good Protein Sources
|➤Lean Meats||➤Fish*||➤Egg Whites||➤Protein Powders|
|➤(I.e. Chicken,||➤(I.e. Flounder,||➤Peanut Flour/ Powder||➤Other protein- enriched products|
|➤Turkey,||➤Tuna,||➤Protein Ice Creams||➤(I.e. Protein Bars,|
|➤Tilapia,||➤Certain Fatty Fish||➤Greek Yogurt||➤Protein Cookies,|
|➤Or Shrimp)||➤(I.e. Salmon)||➤Low Fat Dairy Products||➤Or Protein Pastas)|
Protein sources are highly satiating, thus adding protein to your diet is likely beneficial for weight loss via hunger reduction, increased thermogenic effect, and decreased energy efficiency. Additionally, protein helps ensure greater muscle retention (for equivalent caloric intake) as compared to carbohydrate or fat during weight loss. Further, eating more protein when “bulking” produces less fat gain despite similar muscle growth. However, while protein intake permits muscle growth, resistance training stimulates muscle growth. You won’t grow much muscle by just eating protein without resistance training.
Meat and dairy products are often good protein sources. Protein can suppress hunger and help you lose weight. Eating more protein can help mitigate fat gain/improve muscle mass gain/retention.
Some Examples of Nutritious Carbohydrate Sources
|➤Bananas||➤Berries||➤Green Leafy Vegetables||➤Brown/White Rice|
|➤Pears||➤Mangoes||➤Green (String) Beans||➤Black Eyed Peas|
|➤Most Vegetables||➤Fruits (Except Avocados)||➤Legumes (Except Peanuts)||➤Blueberries|
It may be important to consume a wide variety of carbohydrate sources to ensure that you meet your micronutrient needs. Micronutrients include calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, sodium, zinc, vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K, as well as biotin, folic acid, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin and thiamin. Eating a widely varied diet with many of the mentioned foods should help ensure that you consume sufficient micronutrients. The primary downside to carbohydrate consumption is increased potential for visceral fat storage if you overfeed (by~ 8% of energy intake) and consume many (25% of energy intake) calories from fructose (rather than glucose). As a general guideline, aim to consume less than 50 grams of fructose per day. See high-fructose foods here.
Fruits/vegetables are often good sources of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates often contain many beneficial vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. This can help prevent nutrient deficiencies. Avoid over-consuming fructose to prevent visceral fat storage when “bulking”.
I do not recommend consuming alcohol (7 kcals/gram) regularly (especially not when dieting), but you can read more on how to do so here.
Step 4: Set a goal weight/body composition
Setting a goal weight and reaching it is associated with successful weight loss maintenance. Once you’ve established your average body weight and successfully tracked your macros for multiple weeks, you can adjust your calorie intake to induce any desired weight loss/gain. However, it may be difficult to assess your energy needs based on changes in body weight.
Estimating Energy Balance Based on Changes in Weight:
Researchers once determined that the energy density of adipose tissue is 3,500 kcals/pound, thus many have concluded that a 3,500 calorie reduction should lead to 1 pound of weight loss. The rationale suggests: 1 pound of adipose tissue contains ~3,500 calories, so if you gained a pound of adipose tissue (on average), then you ate roughly 3,500 calories over maintenance for that time period. If you lost a pound of weight from exclusively adipose tissue (on average), then you ate ~3,500 calories less than your maintenance intake.
Unfortunately, this rationale is flawed. Though the scale is useful, changes in energy balance are difficult to predict based on weight changes alone. This is because fat free mass (water + protein + glycogen + mineral)/lean body mass (body weight-body fat) or muscle mass (protein; ~2,135 kcals/pound) is (often, though not necessarily) lost in concert with fat mass (~4,280 kcals/pound). People can lose bodily organ mass, bone mass (rarely), connective tissue, body water, and/or glycogen stores (~1,907 kcals/pound) during weight loss. Adipose tissue is ~87% triglyceride, so it actually contains ~3,725 kcals/pound (rather than 3,500). The rest of adipose tissue is mostly water. Water (0 calories) can account for ~35–84% of your initial weight loss. Further, fat free mass can account for ~1/3 of weight loss after 7 months (in the highly active obese). It is difficult to predict how much lean mass you’ll lose (or gain) when dieting. Changes in lean mass depend on your diet, physical activity level, body fat level, sex, and even metabolic health. For example, resistance trainees in this study gained 4.1 kgs (9.04 lbs) of muscle mass in 12 weeks, despite losing 2.8 kgs (6.17 lbs) of body weight.
Taken together, this means that if you lose ~1.5 pounds (~.68 kgs) of body weight this week, the composition of this weight loss could be ~35–84% water, 16–73% fat mass, 0-6.7% muscle mass, and 0-33% glycogen. However, longer term (3-7 months) weight loss can consist of up to 80–100+% fat mass (with resistance training), or conversely up to 12.2+% lean mass (with bed rest). Since all bodily tissues (of varying energy densities) are being gained/lost with changes in body weight, it is difficult to quantify changes in energy balance based on weight.
Further, metabolic adaptations to dieting involving (perhaps persistent) adaptive thermogenesis, changes in spontaneous physical activity, altered mitochondrial efficiency, and hormonal shifts present another dilemma for determining energy balance. As you lose/gain fat, your body responds by changing hunger levels, food cravings, movement efficiency, satiety, the thermic effect of feeding, and energy expenditure. Additionally, weight loss/gain inherently changes your metabolic rate because a bigger body burns more calories than a smaller one. Many of these changes promote weight (primarily fat) regain/loss by reducing/increasing energy expenditure, thus need be accounted for when setting fitness goals (Note, these changes are not strong enough to halt weight change; read more here). Fortunately, Hall and others created a mathematical model to better predict body weight changes over time. I will refer to this model throughout the article.
Once you’ve established your average body weight and calorie needs, you can adjust your energy intake to induce any desired weight loss/gain. However, it may be difficult to assess your energy needs based on changes in body weight. The “3,500 calorie per pound” guideline is flawed. It is very difficult to quantify changes in energy balance based on changes weight. Changes in energy balance do not seem to contribute much to short-term weight fluctuations. This is because other bodily tissues are lost/gained with fat mass. Further, energy expenditure changes with diet over time. Luckily, Hall and others created a mathematical model to better predict body weight changes over time. I will refer to this model again.
Weight Loss (“Cutting/Dieting”) Considerations:
You can use Hall’s model to roughly predict your expected rate of weight loss based on energy intake, but note that results will vary and dietary adjustments are needed over time. To lose body fat at the approximate maximal rate (without losing muscle mass), aim to lose between ~1 and .5 percent of your body weight per week. For somebody who weighs 150 pounds, this means losing between 1.5 (1%) and .75 (.5%) pounds of body weight per week. A leaner individual should lose closer to .5 percent of their body weight per week because the leaner you are, the more likely you are to lose muscle mass when dieting. An overweight individual should lose closer to 1 percent (if strength training; slower weight loss might be better if not) of their body weight per week because they are less likely to lose muscle mass given a higher body fat level. The first week or two (~10 days) of dieting will entail more weight loss than predicted because you also lose water weight (especially if you cut carbohydrates). Water may account for ~30–60% of the initial weight loss. This water loss will eventually stabilize if you stick to the diet, then weight loss should proceed roughly as planned. Again, it is important to track average daily weigh-ins and make adjustments accordingly over time, as energy expenditure will likely decrease when dieting. I think it is prudent to wait at least 14 days before making nutritional adjustments. Your planned weekly calorie deficit can be achieved with any distribution of calories throughout the week so long as the average calorie target is reached. You can distribute calories however you want to fit your preferences and promote compliance. This may entail 5 low calorie days and 2 higher calories days, the inverse, fasting (for >1 year), 7 days at equal calorie intake, or any other combination of daily intakes so long as the weekly calorie goal is met (though, fasting for 20+ hours can decrease anabolic signaling, plus a skewed protein intake results in less muscle protein synthesis than an even protein distribution; more on this under “secondary considerations”). It is also fine to take breaks in between periods of dieting as diet breaks/slower weight loss can lead to better outcomes. You need not lose all your undesired weight in one continuous diet. Research actually suggests that planned deviations from your diet can enhance progress, motivation, and adherence (see more about diet-breaks here or here). Additionally, protein needs are higher when dieting than maintaining. In lean resistance trained athletes, a protein intake of 2.3-3.1 g/kg of lean body mass is most protective against lean mass losses, but it is difficult to determine your lean body mass. I think a protein intake of 2.2–3.4 g/kg (1–1.54 g/lb) of body weight should maximize muscle growth and help reduce hunger.
You can roughly predict energy needs with Hall’s model. Aim to lose between .5 and 1% of your body weight per week. You may see a large initial decrease in weight due to glycogen/water loss (in ~2 weeks of dieting). Weight loss should better reflect energy balance once weight stabilizes. Any weekly distribution of energy intake is viable. Maintenance weeks (“diet breaks”) in between diet periods can improve long-term progress and adherence. A protein intake of 2.2-3.4 g/kg (1-1.54 g/lb) of body weight should maximize muscle growth and help reduce hunger.
Weight Gain (“Bulking”) Considerations:
If you want to gain weight and put on muscle mass, then it makes sense to gain roughly 1-3 pounds (.45-1.36 kg) of body weight per month while progressively strength training. You can gain closer to 3 pounds per month as a novice (given greater potential to gain muscle, even with just “endurance” training), though gain closer to 1 pound per month as you accrue years of weight lifting experience. If you want to gain muscle and lose fat, then you should eat in a calorie deficit (or maintenance/slight surplus for a lean novice) while lifting weights. It is very possible to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously (even at a low body fat percentage or in the elderly), especially as a novice weightlifter. Muscle gain is likely optimized in a caloric surplus because a higher calorie intake is associated with greater lean body mass gains (and rapid weight loss impairs protein synthesis (in lean men), as do 10 days of ~20% energy deficit). I don’t recommend aggressive weight gain unless you are comfortable gaining body fat because a faster rate of weight gain doesn’t induce much faster muscle gain despite much greater fat gains (in athletes). I recommend consuming roughly the same amount of calories each day (±200 calories) when gaining weight, but feel free to eat more calories on training days and less calories on rest days if you prefer, so long as your total calorie intake goals are met. Just as your metabolic rate can decrease with weight loss, it can increase with weight gain, so you may need a higher calorie intake than anticipated to gain weight as planned. Overfeeding on ≥3 g/kg (1.36 g/lb) protein per day produces less fat gain than an intake of ≤2.6 g/kg (1.18 g/lb), despite similar muscle growth. This suggests that it is prudent to consume ≥3 g/kg (1.36 g/lb) protein per day when bulking. If this protein intake is not feasible, then consume closer to 1.76 g/kg (0.80 g/lb) and fewer total calories for similar results. Lastly, avoid over-consuming saturated fat or fructose given their greater potential for visceral fat storage.
You can roughly predict energy needs with Hall’s model. Aim to gain between 1-3 pounds (.45-1.36 kg) of body weight per month. Muscle growth (drug-free) is a very slow process. Muscle gain is likely optimized in a caloric surplus, though an aggressive surplus may lead to excess fat gain. Any weekly distribution of energy intake is viable. It is prudent to consume ≥3 g/kg (1.36 g/lb) protein per day when bulking to minimize fat gain. If this is not possible, then consume closer to 1.76 g/kg (0.80 g/lb) and fewer total calories. Avoid over-consuming saturated fat or fructose to prevent visceral fat storage when bulking.
Step 5: Determine your ideal calorie and macronutrient intakes (with calculator)
Your maintenance intake is determined after averaging your daily calorie intakes and weights over time. If you have maintained weight, then the average calorie intake over that period is approximately your maintenance intake. Keep in mind that your maintenance calorie intake changes over time with changes in food intake and body weight. Your maintenance intake will decrease with weight loss and increase slightly with weight gain. Closely tracking your food intake and weight allows you to notice these changes and adjust accordingly. You can roughly approximate your energy needs by entering the relevant information here (note this is an estimate at best).
Multiply your bodyweight (in pounds) by .73–1.5 (intakes as high as 2 grams per pound/4.4 grams per kilogram seem safe). This is your ideal range for protein intake if you exercise. As low as .55 grams per pound may be acceptable if you do not exercise (and aren’t elderly), but this will not optimize body composition. If you have a low maintenance calorie intake, then eating closer to .73 grams/lb may promote better adherence, and vice-versa if you have a higher maintenance (though much less than this may compromise muscle growth). It is prudent to avoid increasing protein intake by too much too quickly given some potential for altered kidney function. Protein consumption is otherwise unlikely to harm you if you have healthy kidneys. I think it is prudent to consume as high as 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight, because 1.5 grams per pound (3.3 g/kg) seems to inhibit fat storage when overfeeding (as compared to an intake of 1.2 grams/lb (2.6 g/kg)), without compromising muscle growth (though only .73-1 gram/lb (1.6-2.2g/kg) (is needed to maximize muscle growth when maintaining weight/overfeeding). Further, when dieting, it is beneficial to consume between 1 and 1.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight (2.3-3.1 g/kg) to maximize muscle mass retention.
Consume 50-160 grams of fat per day on average. Those with lower energy expenditures can consume closer to 50 grams, while others can consume closer to 160 grams. A fat intake of 15–30% of calories intake should promote proper hormonal function and dietary adherence if this fat intake also falls between 50 and 160 grams. Feel free to eat more/less fat or carbohydrate in accordance with your preferences and/or goals (s0 long as intake of any individual macronutrient remains above the recommended minimum).
Allow the rest of your calories to come from carbohydrate. Any carbohydrate intake from 40-350 grams is probably fine for most. Athletes may want to consume between 4–7 grams per kilogram (1.8-3.18 grams per pound) of bodyweight in carbohydrates. Consume at least 14 grams of fiber per every 1,000 calories, given fiber’s health benefits, its association with greater weight losses/appetite reduction, and its potential to decrease energy intake. Focus on eating more fibrous foods to hit this fiber goal and reap other associated health benefits. Feel free to eat more/less fat or carbohydrate in accordance with your preferences and/or goals (so long as intake of any individual macronutrient remains above the recommended minimum).
Putting it all Together (Practical Examples):
Making Adjustments When Needed:
Secondary Considerations (these are less important, but these still matter):
Carbohydrate vs. Fat:
Macronutrient ratios do not seem to make much difference for body composition. Carbohydrate and fat are the body’s primary fuel sources and they can (mostly) be utilized interchangeably. This means that consuming more carbohydrate or fat will not majorly affect body composition/weight loss if protein and calorie intakes are matched. The only difference between the diets would be bodily water and glycogen levels (as lower carbohydrate diets will induce water and glycogen losses.
Supplements are not necessary, though they may be helpful depending on your goals. Supplements are best viewed as a “cherry on top” of your diet and lifestyle; an afterthought. Not even the best muscle building supplements will improve your appearance unless paired with proper nutrition and strength training. A protein supplement can help if you exercise regularly and otherwise struggle to consume enough protein. Specifically, whey protein supplementation can help improve recovery from resistance training, as well as body composition, but any other protein supplement can be effective. Additionally, I recommend supplementing 5 grams of creatine monohydrate per day, as this might help reduce depression, enhance brain energetics, increase muscle growth, and improve certain types of athletic performance. As mentioned, fish oil may be worth supplementing if you do not consume enough fatty fish (see why under “fat”). It is advisable to supplement 5-15 grams of collagen/gelatin pre-workout to promote tissue repair and joint health. Further, consuming ~30 milliliters of vinegar before meals can improve the post-meal blood glucose response, thus perhaps improving health. Lastly, I recommend chewing sugar-free gum given its beneficial effects on appetite, anxiety, concentration, attention, and dental health. Any other supplement considerations depend on your specific goals. I recommend using Examine.com to research supplements and their potential uses. I suggest researching the quality of specific brands/products on Labdoor.com.
Potentially Useful Supplements (See Examine.com):
Organic vs. Conventional:
Meal (Protein) Timing/Frequency:
Eating 3-6 protein feedings per day works well for most people. Eat fewer meals if you enjoy eating larger meals. Aim for at least 20-40 grams of protein per meal (.4-.6 grams/kg; .18-.27 grams/lb); spread throughout the day (every 3-4 hours and pre-bed over 4+ meals) to maximize muscle protein synthesis (if desired). If exercising, try to consume pre and post-workout meals within 4 to 6 hours of each other. Time restricted feeding (intermittent fasting) is also a viable eating pattern for muscle mass maintenance, though this may not be optimal as it is not perfectly in line with the above recommendations. Hitting your total average daily protein and calorie intake is of utmost importance, regardless of meal timing/frequency.
Try to maintain roughly consistent meal timing and frequency (±1.5 hours). This promotes improvements in circadian rhythm, better metabolic responses to feeding, a higher thermic effect of feeding (more calories burned), and more consistent weigh-ins. Consistent meal timing is also associated with successful weight loss maintenance.
That said, even alternate day fasting (ADF) seems safe and similarly effective for changing body composition/health (at least in the short term), thus meal timing is of less importance. A good compromise between ADF and consistent meal times is alternate day caloric restriction or protein sparing modified fasting (PSMF). This entails eating very few calories for a few days weekly, though allows you to maintain consistent meal timing and frequency. Alternate-day “fasting” (75% energy restriction) promotes more protein consumption compared to chronic 25% energy restriction, thus it seems better for lean mass retention. An alternate day PSMF is theoretically best for body composition, because it enables greater protein consumption than traditional ADF. However, potential drawbacks to the PSMF are risk of micronutrient deficiency, cold intolerance, dizziness, fatigue, dry skin, and constipation during the diet.
- Don’t feel guilty about eating “junk food” occasionally. The majority of your diet should consist of healthier food sources outlined above, but incorporating your favorite foods is fine if you aren’t doing so to your health’s detriment. The diet should be set up to promote long-term adherence. Adopting a flexible mindset is key to maintaining long-term dietary success. The flexible mindset is a “gradual approach to eating, dieting, and weight in which, for example, ‘fattening’ foods are eaten in limited quantities without feelings of guilt.” Flexible restraint is associated with lower disinhibition, lower BMI, less frequent/severe binge eating episodes, lower self-reported energy intake, and a higher probability of successful weight reduction after 1-year. For example, one study found that specifically restricting bread in 1 of 2 otherwise identical diet groups decreased adherence and increased attrition. Therefore, for best results, drop the rigid perspective of being “on or off” the diet and deeming foods “good or bad”. You must realize that dietary changes are lifestyle changes and one especially good/bad day should not alter your long-term eating behavior drastically. It is also fine to take breaks in between periods of dieting as slower weight loss can lead to better outcomes. Research actually suggests that planned deviations from your diet can enhance progress, motivation, and adherence, rather than interfere.
- Regulate your food environment to promote healthy habits. Only purchase foods you truly intend to consume. Having lower calorie/no foods on your kitchen counter is associated with lower weight and BMI, perhaps because having less food around disincentivizes overconsumption. If the food isn’t around, then you can’t eat it. I think this speech highlights the power of a great food environment.
- Don’t eat if you aren’t hungry. Eating in hunger’s absence may lead to increased drive to overeat and loss of control over eating. Eating when not hungry seems to promote weight gain in young girls. Further, eating without hunger is associated with excess adiposity (to an even greater degree) in boys.
- Liquid calories are less satiating than those from whole foods, so try not to drink calories if you want to lose weight and vice versa. Further, adding calories (carbohydrate from dextrose/fat from olive oil) to a whey protein beverage does not seem to increase satiety compared to drinking protein alone. To learn more about which foods are likely to suppress hunger, see the satiety index or search for a specific food here.
- Practice mindfulness when eating to reduce energy intake. Eating when rushed or distracted by other events can lead to overconsumption. Additionally, eating from a larger bowl or taking larger portions often increases energy intake. Therefore, consciously taking smaller portions and regulating the environment in which you eat can help you decrease energy intake, promoting weight loss (or vice versa if bulking).
It is crucial to ensure sufficient sleep. Sleep deprivation is consistently associated with obesity and evidence suggests a partly causal link. Studies often report increased energy intake and weight gain after acute sleep deprivation. Additionally, a crossover trial found higher energy intakes and increased abdominal adiposity in children who slept less. This is plausible since sleep deprivation seems to increase hunger/appetite, decrease satiety, reduce spontaneous physical activity levels, increase cravings (for carbohydrate-rich foods), and increase energy dense food consumption. Further, sleep deprivation can worsen nutrient partitioning, increasing lean mass loss when dieting. Ensuring sufficient sleep is thus needed to optimize body composition and likely health. Read more on sleep here, here, and here.
As mentioned above, resistance training is the primary stimulus for muscle hypertrophy and exercise helps maintain fat-free mass. Staying physically active is generally conducive to general health. Walking more often and scheduling exercise can help you move more. There are also many health benefits to strength training (perhaps even without performance improvements). Physical activity might help mitigate stress too. Exercise can also help with weight loss/weight loss maintenance.
There are many associations between mental stress/depression/ anxiety and weight gain/obesity. Chronic stress increases your risk for weight (specifically visceral fat) gain due to brain interactions, increased preference for palatable foods, and mood-induced emotional eating. More than 80% of Americans (as of 2013) report being stressed at work, so this consideration is potentially valid, as the prevalence of abdominal obesity is increasing every generation. Therefore, those with body composition goals should manage stress to facilitate weight loss.
FAQ and Further Reading:
- This article may answer any other potential concerns about nutrition/weight loss.
Aren’t carbohydrates/sugars/insulin spikes responsible for fat storage?
Does protein quality matter?
Why do you give strict macronutrient ranges for fat and carbohydrate intake?
These ranges are based on what I think works well for the vast majority of people. The ranges are very wide for this reason. If your carbohydrate or fat needs fall outside of my recommended range, this is okay. My recommended range should work for the majority of people in most cases, but if it doesn’t work for you then don’t follow my guidelines. The recommendations are “safe bets”.
What about the ketogenic diet?
A ketogenic diet restricts carbohydrate intake to under 50 grams per day. The ketogenic diet is viable, though it likely isn’t superior to any other dietary approach. If you want to learn more about keto, I refer you to Adam Tzur’s literature review series on the ketogenic diet. In part 1, his team addresses the pros and cons of the ketogenic diet for fat loss, muscle gain, and exercise performance. In part 2, they investigate the risk of bias in ketogenic diet research and conflicts of interest among various researchers. In part 3, they look into the ketogenic diet’s effects on appetite and hunger. Overall, it seems that the ketogenic diet results in similar fat loss, greater lean mass loss, similar or slightly inferior athletic performance, and reduced hunger when compared to higher carbohydrate diets.
What if I am on a vegan/vegetarian diet?
What about artificial sweeteners?
Don’t the calorie contents of most foods often differ from the values on the nutritional label? Does this render macro tracking useless?
The calorie contents of most foods typically differ from the nutritional information on the label. As Precision Nutrition points out in this article, any food’s nutritional value can differ from the label’s value by up to 50%. Such a large margin of error is worrying. This means that a food labelled at 150 calories really has between 130-180 calories and you never know the exact calorie amount. Further, we don’t absorb all of the calories that we eat from food, because we use calories to digest our food (this energy expenditure is known as the thermic effect of feeding). Worse, this difference in thermic effect varies from food to food. This adds a ~10% error to a food’s calorie count. Additionally, the cooking method distorts the calorie content of a given food, increasing the calorie discrepancy by up to 90%. Even worse, there is interindividual variability in calorie absorption from foods. Thus, depending on your gut bacteria, you can absorb more or less calories than another person from the same exact food. Finally, people are often horrible at estimating portion sizes. You may easily mistake two tablespoons of peanut butter for one tablespoon.
Doesn’t this render macro tracking futile? Fortunately, Greg Nuckols addresses these concerns in this article, and determines that the above is practically irrelevant. In reality, calorie content variations in various foods often balance out, resulting in a lot of noise, but an accurate average calorie estimation. Luckily, the differences in thermic effects of various foods do not contribute enough error to make meaningful differences, and the average thermic effects of food eventually balance out too. Further, your calorie absorption efficiency remains similar based on your gut bacteria (assuming you eat the same foods). Additionally, if you use a food scale (see here or here), human estimation error is mostly avoided. Macro tracking works over time because even if the last food you ate had 50 calories more than anticipated, the next 5 foods you eat might have 10 calories less than expected. If not today, then eventually, your calorie intake tends to reflect your estimates, because food label errors don’t all skew in the same direction, thus they usually average out. Even if everything you ate (for 1 month) had more/less calories than you guessed, with daily weigh-ins, you could notice any changes in average weight and adjust calorie intake accordingly thereafter.
Bonus Consideration: Seek progress, not perfection
In order to sustain fitness success, you’ll need to successfully integrate this nutritional knowledge into practice. It is easy to be overwhelmed when first learning about nutrition. Do not take an “all or nothing” approach to macro tracking. It takes time to master the basics of tracking food intake, but the skill proves highly useful for long-term maintenance of a healthy body composition. Again, you cannot manage what you cannot measure. If you don’t know what your intake is, then you can’t make reasonable changes to produce reliable results. That’s why macro tracking is a great first step to reaching your health/fitness goals. Not every week will be successful, and not every weigh-in will be a new low, but persistence and consistency over time pays off (by improving quality of life and psychological health). Establishing proper eating habits and a healthy body weight often means overhauling your lifestyle. This is certainly a difficult task as only ~20% of the overweight maintain long-term weight loss. Though weight loss/gain is challenging, it can be sustained with persistent effort. Habit change doesn’t happen overnight, nor should you expect it to. Failures will bother you, but never let your failures convince you to quit. Even if you fail every week for the first year of attempted weight loss, if you keep trying to improve, then you will eventually succeed. Your body weight and dietary habits need to be sustainable for the rest of your life, because if they are not, any lost weight will be gained back and any health improvements will regress over time. This means that even if it takes you 5 years to establish proper nutrition and lifestyle habits, then you will have another ~30-60 years to benefit from your efforts. You will never be perfect, nor will anybody else, but luckily you’ll never need to be. Overeating occasionally is expected, but your reaction to overeating reflects your long-term results. If you think “I’m a failure, I quit,” when this happens, then you’re bound to fail. It is likely better to think: “I messed up, but if x, y, or z had been different, then maybe I wouldn’t have. I can correct this error in the future and make adjustments to ensure that this won’t happen again.” The latter approach ensures success because you consistently seek improvement. The former approach ensures failure because it accepts helplessness and weakness. You may be weak, but you can always be better, and you are never helpless. Think about your weight loss goals with the long-term in mind and establish a healthy lifestyle for sustained fitness success. The fitness lifestyle is a marathon; not a sprint.
Estimating Energy Balance Based on Changes in Weight:
Researchers once determined that the energy density of adipose tissue is 3,500 kcals/pound, thus many have concluded that a 3,500 calorie reduction should lead to 1 pound of weight loss. The rationale suggests: 1 pound of adipose tissue contains ~3,500 calories, so if you gained a pound of adipose tissue (on average) over 4 weeks, then you ate roughly 3,500 calories over maintenance for that time period. If you lost a pound of weight from exclusively adipose tissue (on average), then you ate ~3,500 calories less than your maintenance intake. Assume that your maintenance intake is 2,300 calories per day and you lost 1 pound this month, then you likely consumed an average of 2,183 calories per day (calculation: 2,300 calories x 30 days in month=69,000 calories burned; 69,000 calories burned – 3,500 calories in the pound lost=65,500 calories consumed; 65,000 calories consumed/ 30 days in month=2,183 calories per day on average).
Why The Above is Wrong:
The above rationale is flawed because it assumes the exclusive loss of adipose tissue. Weight loss/gain does not pan out like that in reality. Fat free mass/lean body mass is lost in concert with fat mass. People can lose organ mass, bone mass, connective tissue, fat mass, water weight, and/or glycogen stores during weight loss. Adipose tissue is ~87% triglyceride, so it only contains ~3,725 kcals/pound, while fat mass contains ~4,280 calories per pound. The rest of adipose tissue is mostly water. Water (0 calories) can account for ~30–60% of your initial weight loss. To further complicate things, you also lose glycogen (~1,907 kcals/pound) and muscle mass (protein; ~2,135 kcals/pound). Fat free mass (water + protein + glycogen + mineral) can account for ~1/3 of weight loss after 7 months. The above makes it very difficult to determine energy balance based on changes in weight, because you cannot be certain how much of which tissues are being lost/gained.
Further, metabolic adaptations to dieting involving (perhaps persistent) adaptive thermogenesis, changes in spontaneous physical activity, altered mitochondrial efficiency, and hormonal shifts present another dilemma for the 3,500 calorie guideline. As you lose/gain fat, your body responds by changing hunger levels, food cravings, movement efficiency, satiety, the thermic effect of feeding, and energy expenditure. Many of these changes promote weight (primarily fat) regain/loss by reducing/increasing energy expenditure, thus need be accounted for when setting fitness goals. Additionally, weight loss/gain inherently changes your metabolic rate because a bigger body burns more calories than a smaller one. Each of these metabolic adaptations make it difficult to sustain weight loss/gain by creating an “energy gap”, and this partially explains why only ~20% of the overweight maintain weight loss. Though weight loss/gain is challenging, it can be sustained with persistent effort. All told, the energy balance equation is theoretically simple, but remains ever-dynamic and not reliably predictable. Fortunately, Hall and others created a mathematical model to better predict body weight changes over time. I will refer to this model again later in the article.