By Gabrielle Hoffman of Gabby’s Gluten Free
*Disclaimer: I am NOT a nutritionist, dietician, etc. I’m just sharing my knowledge and experience. P.S. I’m not citing sources in this article because they have either already been cited in the previous article or citation isn’t need (my own thoughts, experiences, etc.)*
We left off talking about the basics of nutrition (read Part 1 here), the science behind them, and how to make all that science work in real life. As promised, it’s time to get down and nerdy with more nutrition info. This time, we’re talking about how much to eat.
First things first, calories matter. Period. I’m sorry to burst anyone’s bubble that believes that calories fundamentally do not matter but alas, they do. Now, I’m not saying that someone absolutely must track and quantify every single item they eat – that’s not realistic or advisable for some individuals. There are always stories about someone eliminating x, y, and z from their diet and not counting calories and magically achieving their physique goals but what’s missing from the story is the fact that said individual also changed their calorie intake. For example, let’s examine a strict Paleo protocol. Many people lose weight on a strict Paleo challenge – they eliminate dairy, legumes, soy, sugar, and all grains and the pounds seemingly fly off. If someone goes from eating the standard American diet (grain and processed food heavy) to a strict paleo diet – they’re going to lose weight because they have drastically altered their caloric intake. Swapping brussel sprouts for bread doesn’t only change the macro and micronutrient profile of their meal, it alters the caloric load. Like I said, calories are not the be all end all of nutrition but they’re a pretty damn important factor. (For a great review about the complexity of calories check out this article by Dr. Jade Teta).
So how many calories do you need to eat?
Determining how many calories you need a day is dependent on several factors. The first is your basal metabolic rate (BMR) – this is the amount of calories you need to keep your body running if you were to do absolutely nothing. The second factor is your activity level – how active is your job? how many times a week do you work out? how active are you outside of the gym? The third factor is your body composition, or more specifically, the amount of lean mass you have. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat so someone who has a higher amount of lean mass requires more calories than someone of a similar weight who has a lower amount of lean mass. There are several formulas and calculations that exist to calculate this and I’ll leave you in the capable hands of Google (or better yet, a qualified professional) to discover those.
Once you have an idea of how many calories you need, you can make alterations based on your goals. For fat loss – you’re going to need to be in a caloric deficit. For mass gain – you’re need to be in a caloric surplus. To maintain, you’re going to have to just be in the middle. I’m not here to talk about how to calculate an appropriate caloric deficit or surplus and how to fit subsequent macronutrients into said caloric load. Again, I’ll leave you to Google or others who are waaaay smarter than I am about all of that stuff (I recommend the “Renaissance Diet” ebook by Dr. Israetel & Nick Shaw). If you’re able to count calories, track macros, and weigh yourself without much incident, that’s great. I’m personally a huge data nerd so the more numbers I have, the better. But I wasn’t always that way. There was certainly a time when just the mere mention of a scale or tracking calories would turn me into a mental headcase. I’m not here to address how to get over that either, because again, I’m not a qualified professional. So WHAT am I here to talk about?
I’m here to talk about what to do if you don’t want to have a “number” or be focused on tracking and hitting a certain calorie intake each day. Are you just doomed to never know how to either lose fat, gain muscle, or maintain? Nope, you just need to be savvy. I will say, at some point, if you have a serious body composition goal, compete in a sport with weight classes, or are looking to make very specific body composition changes, counting calories may be a little unavoidable. If you’re just looking to get healthy, feel and look better, and make some progress in the gym, it may not be 100% necessary, especially if you have a history of disordered eating.
Practical Strategies for Tracking Progress
There are several strategies you can utilize to assess if you’re meeting your body’s metabolic needs and if you’re on the way to meeting your goals, whatever they may be. If you’re into tracking calories and macros, that’s cool. Do that. It works. If you’re NOT into that, that’s okay too, and I’ve got some ideas on what you can do instead.
Strategy #1: Use some numbers
You may not need to track every calorie that crosses your lips but perhaps you’re interested in tracking a particular macronutrient to see if you’re meeting a goal. I’ll use protein as an example because that’s a common macronutrient that most women struggle to eat enough of. Instead of tracking every calorie, you can just write your protein sources. You can even just track some common protein sources in your diet for one week and get a good idea of approximately how much protein you’re taking in and then quit tracking. Maybe track one week out of every month just to make sure you’re on the right track. This is a bit more simple than full on calorie and macro tracking but still allows you to have some quantifiable data.
Strategy #2: Forget macros and calories, step on a scale
I know, I KNOW. “The scale” is a dirty, dirty word in the world of female strength sports and most of us spend a significant amount of time trying to shun it. BUT, if you’re not into tracking but are okay with weighing yourself, simply weigh yourself 3x a week. If you notice your weight trending upwards (you can even plot this in Excel if you’re a mega dork like me!), maybe cut back if your goal is fat loss. If you see your weight trending downwards and you’re looking to maintain, add in a little more food. If you need to gain weight, you should be reading this with a burger in your hand.
I should clarify what I mean when I say that someone is “okay with weighing themselves”. By “okay”, I mean that you are able to see your weight as a data point and not a reflection of your self-worth, accomplishment, discipline, or anything else. Again, I’m not going to write about how to get there because it’s not my place to share anything outside of my own personal experience, but I will say, that is this seems to be a more significant issue for women than it is for men (and I’m not saying that men don’t experience body issues). Women are inundated with a lot of bullshit about our bodies, food, weight, etc. and that stuff runs deep. I think that it’s important to acknowledge those feelings and respect them – do what you need to do to get to a good place and if that includes never stepping on a scale, that’s cool by me.
Strategy #3: Visualize
If you DON’T want to weigh yourself (and you don’t need to make weight for a particular sport), you can use progress pictures. Pick a day and time to take a photo of yourself in the same outfit each week (you could do this 2-3x per week as well) and assess. It’s can also be helpful to have someone else also look at your progress pictures because often times we don’t see the small changes in ourselves.
Strategies for Sticking with It
Now that we’ve discussed some strategies about how to track progress, let’s talk about how to stick with whatever you’re doing. Last time, I mentioned how important I think consistency is to any nutrition protocol. I’ll say it again – consistency matters. There are few instances where perfect adherence to a particular plan is necessary or advisable (and we will talk about that in a second). Bottom line: don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.
White knuckling your way through a nutritional protocol isn’t typically very effective. Either the extreme restriction causes a big binge response or you’re just straight up miserable. Striking a balance and finding that is sustainable is hugely important, in my opinion. If you compete in a sport with weight classes and need to make weight, then yes, you’re probably going to run into a situation where you really do need to be pretty compliant to your diet plan. BUT, this is made substantially easier by building that a solid nutritional base. If you normally can navigate food choices, how much you need to eat, and everything associated with that fairly easily and without a ton of mental stress, it’s going to be easier to stick to something specific in a short term capacity.
There are several ways to make your life easier when it comes to sticking with a nutrition plan. Ultimately, what is going to work best is whatever works for you. If pre-planning all of your meals doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. You don’t have to live out of tupperware containers in order to be successful.
Strategy #1: Plan and Prepare
Take some time to plan out meals, make different foods, and portion them out a few times a week (Sunday and Wednesday seem to be popular days). You can pre-plan every single meal or you can make a variety of items and put them together on the fly, again, whatever works for you. The advantage of this is that it requires little mental effort during the week – you can just grab and go. If you track calories or macros, you can also take 10-15 minutes to plan out and enter in what you’re going to eat the night before and voila, you’re done for the next day. I personally like this strategy because it allows me to almost “autopilot” my food for the week and it’s especially helpful when I’m super busy/never really at home (which is, um, pretty much always).
Strategy #2: Use Convenience Foods
If you’re not into pre-planning or preparing your meals but are short on time, use “convenience foods” to fill in when needed. These can be things like picking up a rotisserie chicken from the store or some hard boiled eggs from a gas station, etc. Again, don’t let perfection be the enemy of good here – if you’re on the go and need some food, you can be strategic. This is also a great strategy when you want to eat out. Use the knowledge you have to make a choice in line with your goals, enjoy it, and move on.
Strategy #3: Wing it, kind of
You can also just eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. And yes, that is easier said than done for some people, but it’s possible. You can also incorporate non numbers related goals and guidelines to help you navigate your day such as “eat veggies with every meal” or “eat a palm size serving of protein at every meal”, etc. This strategy can work very well for individuals who do not want to count or track calories/macros and who are seeking to maintain their current weight and body composition. It also works well for individuals who have a decent nutritional base – meaning, they feel comfortable navigating food choices for themselves.
But What About “Cheats”?
Having “cheat” meals, in my opinion, is a matter of preference. I personally prefer a strategy where I eat what I want, when I want, and don’t have a set “meal” that I indulge at. If I want some chocolate, I eat some chocolate and adjust accordingly. While the jury is out on how effective cheat meals (meaning meals of caloric excess) are in helping to reduce or maintain fat, they can serve an important psychological purpose. Sometimes, it’s just nice to not worry about food and just eat. HOWEVER, and that’s a big however, often times we get so wrapped up in “cheat meals” that we make ourselves miserable until we binge our faces off on our cheat day. That isn’t sustainable and it probably doesn’t feel very great either. Again, I think this is a symptom of diet perfectionism.
Every.single.time you eat something you have a chance to change the direction for your day – there is no “oh, I ate a piece of candy (I’m looking at you mini reese’s!) so now my entire day is ruined so I might as well just fall face first into that cake over there.” Instead, you eat the candy, and get back on track (whatever that means to you) at your next meal. There is no need to feel guilty, bad, or like a failure. It’s food. It’s a combination of chemicals (yes, ALL FOOD is chemicals) shaped into something that you ingest so your body can keep humming along. Food cannot be “guilt free” or “sinless”. Those labels come from your mentality about food and that mentality becomes a critical component of success when we are talking about how much you really need to eat to meet your goals.
As usual, the answer is always “it depends”.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
GABRIELLE HOFFMAN is a strength athlete, teacher, writer, blogger, science nerd, and lover of all things strength related in Richmond, VA. When she’s not in the gym, you can find her reading, studying for her CSCS, teaching, or cooking with her chef husband. You can check out her blog Gabby’s Gluten-Free and find her on social media (@gabbysgfree).