Building muscle, losing weight, improving performance – these goals may not all sound the same, but the path to each of them follows the same elementary structure, built on a fundamental understanding of the way nutrition affects the body.
Grasping the basic principles of good nutrition is one of the most self-sufficient and sustainable ways to start reaching any health goal. After that, all that’s left for anyone is to adapt or tailor their approach, to suit their specific targets, preferences and available options. And, although it’s a fascinating science in itself, with studies discovering the increasingly remarkable effects of nutrients every day, understanding the rudiments of nutrition is actually much easier than one would think.
To break it down, we’ve created a 7 step blueprint to help you reach your health goals, whatever they may be. Think of it as a formula that allows you to take your own data into account, leading you towards the result you choose.
#1: Define Your Goal
Measurable goals are achievable goals. Getting ‘fit’, ‘stronger’ or ‘healthy’ are not measurable end points, and make it difficult to track progress or even change course, in the event that things aren’t going according to plan.
Also important is choosing the right metrics to measure progress. Body weight is probably the most common measurement used, but it’s flawed. An overweight person who has just started exercising may gain muscle and lose fat, and show an increase in bodyweight. Similarly, someone trying to put on muscle may be increasing their weight, but this could easily be due to an increase in body fat rather than muscle.
(a) Define a realistic goal, over a realistic time period.
Any extreme change to your diet/ lifestyle will be resisted by your body. For example, extreme weight loss causes your body to slow down your metabolism, which is why crash diets tend to cause weight gain once they’re stopped. This is counterproductive.
This could vary from person to person, but losing 2-3 kg per month is a good rate to target. Initially, the rate may be higher due to a loss in water weight, but 2-3 kg a month has been shown to be sustainable, with a lower risk of putting the weight back on.
As hard as it may be to hear, putting on more than 5-7 kg of lean muscle mass in a year (naturally) is difficult, unless someone is exercising for the first time.
(b) Use the right metrics
Body fat percentage is a very useful metric to track and use to set goals. You can decrease body fat percentage by losing fat and/or increasing muscle mass – both of which are great outcomes. Tracking lean muscle mass along with body fat percentage will give you a good picture of your progress.
Most gyms have a device that estimates body fat percentage and lean muscle mass. While these aren’t always the most accurate devices, using the same device over time will still provide measureable numbers.
A simple way to measure body fat is with a measuring tape. Most of us tend to accumulate fat around the waist and hips. Measuring the circumference around our belly button and our hips is an easy way to keep track of progress at home.
#2: Understand Your Nutritional Requirements
The amount of nutrients a person needs varies dramatically with height, weight, health goals, activity levels and lifestyle. Understanding exactly what your specific needs are can go a long way in helping you achieve your health goals.
The starting point, while building a nutrition plan, is to understand how many calories you need to consume daily.
The first step is calculating your TEE (Total energy expenditure) or your BMR (Basal metabolic rate). This is the amount of energy (kCal, commonly referred to as calories) you need to be consuming in order to remain as you are. Machines that measure body fat will give you an indicative BMR value as well (here’s a good resource to calculate your TEE).
Once you understand your TEE, you can calculate your daily requirements:
(a) Calories: If your goal is to lose weight, eat 15-20% lower calories than your TEE. For muscle gain, try and eat 20% higher. After a few weeks, if you’re happy with the results, continue at this level. If not, look to increase/decrease the calories by another 5%.
(b) Protein: Aim to get 1 gram of protein per kg bodyweight for fat loss, and 1.4-1.8 g per kg bodyweight to build muscle. Each gram of protein gives you 4 calories.
(c) Fat: Look to get 20-25% of your daily calorie target from fat. 1 gram of fat has 9 calories.
(d) Carbohydrates: For the remaining calories, look to fibre-rich carbohydrates.
#3: Plan Your Meals
Contrary to what we hear and read, there is no single best way to eat. A big breakfast and light dinner may be conventional wisdom, but if you exercise at night, this could be counterproductive.
(a) Spread your daily nutrient requirement across 3 meals and 1-2 snacks. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, with a mid-day and tea-time snack tends to be the easiest split to follow.
(b) Plan one of your major meals after exercise, preferably with a good amount of high quality protein.
(c) Eat carbohydrates around your workout. If you’re exercising in the mornings, eat more carbohydrates at breakfast and lunch, and a limited quantity for dinner.
(d) Keep at least 2 hours between your last meal for the day and bedtime.
#4: Choose the Right Foods
All foods are not created equal. Along with the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat), whole foods also have a range of micronutrients, which include vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and essential fats. These micronutrients have a wide range of health benefits which can go a long way in improving our health.
Making the right food choices is an easy way to maximise the benefits of what we eat. For example, choosing whole grains such as whole wheat, millet or brown rice gives us a boost of dietary fibre and minerals such as calcium, which would be absent in refined flour or white rice. Similarly, choosing fish as a protein source gives us a boost of heart-healthy omega-3 fats, which aren’t present in red meats. In fact, in addition to the absence of micronutrients, refined flour can also wreak havoc on our blood sugar, leading to a host of health issues, while red meat contains saturated fat, which should be consumed in limited quantities.
(a) Choose lean sources of protein. Vegetarians can obtain quality, lean protein from lentils (daals) and tofu. Fish, eggs and chicken make for excellent lean protein sources for non-vegetarians. Dairy and red meat can also provide quality protein, but contain higher amounts of saturated fat, which could potentially add unwanted calories, and could do more harm than good in the long term.
(b) Choose whole grains, vegetables and fruits as carbohydrate sources. These contain dietary fibre, essential for good cardiovascular and digestive health. They’re also rich in micronutrients, namely vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
(c) Choose healthy fats like omega 3 and omega 6 fats. Almonds, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds and sun flower seeds are great sources of these essential fats. Another simple way to improve the quality of fats we consume is by using olive oil or unprocessed, traditional seed oils (mustard, groundnut, etc.) instead of processed oils.
#5: Set Your Serving Sizes
This is where most well intentioned nutrition plans fall apart. Without a clear understanding of serving sizes, we could potentially eat too much or too little of a particular nutrient, which can hamper our progress.
Here is a list of common foods and the associated serving sizes, which you can use as a reference.
(a) Contrary to what you may see in a lot of fitness media, you’re better off eating a combination of foods rather than a select few ‘clean’ foods. While you want to stay within your calorie and nutrient targets, eating a variety of foods to reach them makes meals interesting, as well as full of a wide range of nutrients.
(b) Spread your daily requirement of protein, carbohydrates and fats through the day by selecting foods that help you meet your totals.
#6: Keep a Log
Keeping track of your programme, measurements and diet is an easy way to make sure you stick to the plan. There are a wide range of apps available to help you keep track of what you eat. Measuring progress on a weekly or fortnightly basis will help you identify deviations from the plan that are helping or slowing down your progress.
(a) Weigh yourself once a week, on the same scale, wearing the same clothes (daily weighing doesn’t add much value and can even be de-motivating, while doing this less frequently than once a week may make it difficult to identify issues with the plan and course correct in time).
(b) Be honest while taking measurements. There are going to be ups and downs with any health plan, and the best way to stay on track is to take honest measurements. This will enable you to make changes as and when required, to ensure that in the long run, you achieve all your health goals with ease.
A healthy diet is one that is sustainable and satisfying. Demonising a particular food or food group isn’t a sustainable approach to nutrition, and can, over time, lead to eating disorders such as orthorexia.
Being healthy isn’t just about your body fat percentage or how much you lift – it’s also about how you feel. Giving in to temptation, like eating a slice of birthday cake or having a few drinks with friends, may cause a temporary deviation from your diet, but, in moderation, does more good than harm.
(a) You can make healthy choices while indulging, too! Think of the components of the foods you are craving and look at ways to add a nutrient boost. For example, choosing a tomato sauce for a pasta instead of a white sauce, or whole grain buns for your burger are a great way to make your indulgences healthier.
(b) Although alcohol is ideally best avoided, if you plan to drink, drink in moderation. Also, choosing the right alcohol can help include micronutrients in your diet even while you indulge. Red wine is loaded antioxidants and beer contains chromium and B vitamins. If you choose to drink spirits, use water or club soda as a mixer instead of other sugar rich mixers.