Eating well can be challenging because it requires discipline and access to the right information. Most people can dedicate themselves to a healthy eating plan but often struggle to stay consistent because they lack a sound long-term approach.
To that end, we have put together this resource for you. In it, we will thoroughly examine what makes a nutritional plan good, how you can build one for yourself, and what tools you can use in the process. So, read on if you want to learn about calories, macronutrients, and how they impact your fitness results.
The Problem with "Clean Eating"
Prevailing wisdom suggests that if we cannot eat perfectly healthy foods all the time, we should not even bother. The idea of clean eating suggests that all our daily calories should come from whole, nutritious, and nature-based sources. But unfortunately, even the smallest dietary indiscretions can lead to a downward spiral of problems. So, how true is that?
Clean eating is among the most popular approaches to eating better, improving health, and losing weight. Gurus and "experts" suggest that we need to eat only clean foods if we want to build muscle, lose fat, feel good, and remain healthy. The idea makes perfect sense at first but fails to account for one thing: we are humans, not robots. Moreover, having such a black-and-white approach to nutrition does more harm than good in the long run. Foods like pizza and cookies become terrible, and alternatives such as salads and lean meats become good.
Basing your nutrition around whole foods is beneficial, but clean eating takes things to the extreme, leading people to a state of deprivation and lack of dietary flexibility. A good way to gauge the effectiveness of clean eating is to ask yourself:
If you cannot stick with a specific eating approach in the long run, can you reasonably expect to achieve long-term results?
Why most Diets fail
Dieting is the less appealing cousin of clean eating. Instead of restricting your food selection to "clean" choices, most diets restrict your options to an even smaller group of foods within that category. For example, the popular ketogenic diet has you eat only clean foods, but it further restricts anything with carbs.
The reason why diets fail is similar to why clean eating does not work in the long run: both approaches are unsustainable. Sure, you can motivate yourself for a while, and seeing results (such as fat loss) can spike your motivation even more. But, at some point, you will start feeling deprived. After all, we are human and want to enjoy the occasional treat. Plus, life happens, and we cannot always adhere to a perfect nutritional plan.
For example, what if you had to attend a social event? Or what if your child has a birthday over the weekend? Are you supposed to avoid food and run home for a "clean" meal every time you get hungry?
Why you must strive for Dietary Flexibility
Flexibility is a naughty word in the dieting sphere because it cuts through the established rules of healthy eating, weight loss, and muscle gain. And yet, flexibility allows us to stick with a nutrition plan and achieve great results in the long run. But why is that? Because we are human, we need to have a sense of control if we want to be content with our choices. You will eventually give up if your nutrition offers no flexibility and restricts all of your favorite foods.
The good news is that you do not have to be incredibly rigid to be successful. Contrary to what you may believe, the body cannot differentiate between a cookie and a bowl of green veggies. It can only distinguish between the energy and nutrients both foods provide. Therefore, a cookie is not automatically stored as fat, and having a salad does not ensure fat loss. Each of us burns energy daily to stay alive and function (more on that below). So long as we do not consume more energy than we burn, we remain the same weight. However, if we consume less energy than we burn, we lose weight, no matter our food choices. This is how professor Mark Haub shed 27 pounds in two months by mainly eating twinkies – he created a calorie deficit.
So, instead of having a black-and-white mentality toward food, we should see our food choices as more and less nutritious.
What does Flexibility mean for you?
Flexible dieting became incredibly popular in the last couple of decades because it allowed us to enjoy some of our favorite foods, maintain healthy nutrition, and achieve our fitness and health objectives. However, while diets appear more alluring initially, they rarely work in the long run. On the other hand, flexible dieting works because it is not a diet but a lifestyle. It involves a mindset shift and urges us to see food as fuel for the body. But, as with all types of fuels, food can also vary in quality and usefulness.
According to the general guidelines of flexible dieting, we should get around 80 to 90 percent of our calories from whole and nutritious foods and leave the remaining 10 to 20 percent for treats. That way, we can make good progress and be fit while also enjoying the little pleasures, going out for meals with friends, and not freaking out when a social event forces us to eat something that is not necessarily "clean" or "healthy." In all honestly, how can something delicious like pizza be wrong...?
Where to Start with Flexible Dieting
As mentioned above, a big part of flexible dieting is tracking your calorie intake. Doing so ensures nutritional accuracy, allowing you to work toward specific goals confidently.
Tracking calories is not nearly as daunting as some people think, but there is some groundwork you must do first. So let us go over the first steps to get prepared.
Step 1: Determine your Calorie Needs
A calorie is a measuring unit for energy. It refers to the energy provided by foods and the energy your body expends every day. Understanding your calorie needs and eating accordingly saves time and allows you to reach goals (muscle gain, fat loss, etc.) more efficiently.
To determine your calories, you must figure out your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) - the number of calories your body burns each day. A simple online calculator can help you do that.
Your TDEE encompasses:
- Basal metabolic rate (BMR) - the number of calories your body burns at rest each day
- Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) - the energy you expend daily to perform everything outside dedicated exercise (brushing your teeth, playing with your kids, cleaning at home, etc.)
- Exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT) - the calories you expend through exercise (cardio, weight training, etc.)
- Thermic effect of food (TEF) - how many calories your body burns to break down the foods you eat and absorb the nutrients
Once you have your unique TDEE value:
- Remove 300 to 500 calories to create a deficit for fat loss.
- Add 150 to 300 calories to create a surplus for muscle growth
For instance, if your TDEE is 3,000 calories, you would need reduce your calories to 2,500-2,700 for fat loss. Or increase to 3,150-3,300 calories for muscle gain.
Step 2: Come up with Macronutrient Goals
Once you calculate your calories, it is time to figure out your macronutrients – how many grams of carbs, fats, and protein you should eat. Each of the macronutrients plays a crucial role in your body, and the average healthy person should eat enough of all three. For example, protein is necessary for growth, development, and recovery; carbs provide the fuel your body needs to function and move; fats are crucial for your hormones, brain, nutrient absorption, etc.
A simple way to determine your macronutrients is by following these rules:
- Get 0.7 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight
- Eat 0.35 to 0.45 grams of fat per pound of body weight
- Get your remaining calories from carbohydrates
For instance, a 160-pound (72 kg) person would need 112 to 160 grams of protein, and 56 to 72 grams of fats.
So long as you stay within your calorie goals and get enough protein and fats, your carbohydrates will naturally sort themselves out. Alternatively, you can use a nutrition app like MyFitnessPal, Lifesum, or MacroFactor. These well established phone applications make it easy to understand your nutritional needs and easily track your intake. Some apps also provide dietary tips and meal plans based on calories and macronutrients.
Step 3: Get Started
The next step is simply to get started. Tracking your nutrition does not have to be rocket science. It all comes down to making better eating choices that align with your goals. Let's discuss what that means in a practical sense.
How to track your Nutrition in a flexible Dieting Way
1. Use a Phone App
Using an app to track nutrition is the most practical way to track your food, calories, and macronutrients. All you have to do is download the app, create a profile in a couple of minutes, and you are free to start adding foods.
The great thing about using a fitness app is that it does all the calculations, and all you have to do is log the foods and their respective quantities. So, for example, if you eat a steak with baked potatoes, you write the foods down, and the app calculates the calories and macronutrients of the meal.
2. Keep a Food Journal
An alternative to using a nutrition app is keeping a food journal. The tactic works well for old-school people who prefer the feeling of having a physical object (log) where they record their diet. One drawback here is that you must calculate your calories and macronutrients if you want to track them. In contrast, apps like MyFitnessPal do most of the work for you.
Still, a journal can be beneficial for recording what you eat and becoming more mindful of your eating choices. For instance, many people believe they eat a lot of food but still struggle to gain muscle. In most cases, they do not eat as much as they think they do, or the quality of their food choices is not good enough. Writing down your food can give you essential data on why you are not making the progress you want. You can then start eating more calories or pick better foods (more on that below).
3. Weigh your Food on a Scale
A simple kitchen scale is helpful for ensuring nutritional accuracy and effectively tracking your calories. Most people believe they can eyeball meals accurately, but research disagrees. According to one study, people can underestimate the calories they consume by as much as 260 calories for a single meal.
Taking the time to weigh your food, at least for a while, can make you better able to eyeball how much food is on your plate and how many calories you are consuming.
The importance of Food Selection and Mindfulness
Tracking calories offers some benefits, but you should also focus on your diet composition and food selection. Eating a balanced diet and getting enough protein are crucial for achieving outstanding results in the gym and maintaining good health. The nutrient supports muscle growth, overall health, and post-workout recovery.
Good protein sources include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, nuts, and seeds. Protein powder supplements can also be an excellent way to get a concentrated dose of the nutrient and reach your daily goal more efficiently.
Another great benefit of using a nutrition app is that it gets easier to understand your food choices. For instance, many people consider peanut butter "bad," but the food is nutritious and offers a good amount of protein per serving. Having some will not wreck your diet or lead to weight gain. Similarly, eggs are an excellent source of protein but be careful what foods you pair them with. Maybe have eggs with some veggies instead of bacon.
What does "Calories Burned" mean?
If you have ever used a cardio machine or smartwatch with a fitness app, you probably noticed one interesting metric: calories burned. The more work you did, the more this number grew, and with it, your sense of fulfillment. But how accurate is this value? More importantly, can we use it when tracking our fitness progress?
Calories burned is precisely what it sounds like: an estimate of how many calories you have burned with a particular activity. A machine or smart device is the best estimation for the number of calories you have burned. Most devices and cardio machines have specific formulas for calculating the number of calories a person burns.
For instance, if you hop on a treadmill, it will show the calories you are burning. Good treadmills also have you input your weight, which helps make this calculation more accurate. For example, a 55 kg (120 pounds) woman would burn far fewer calories than an 80 kg (176 pounds) man, even if both do the same thing.
Similarly, watches like the FitBit Flex and heart rate monitors like the Polar H10 will also track your caloric expenditure based on your activity level, gender, and weight. If you want to know how a smartwatch can help you stay fit, read our previous blog post here.
Is Calories Burned a good Indicator?
The next logical question you probably have is, "Well, how accurate is this calorie reading?" The truth is, it depends. According to research from the past few years, most trackers out there do a good job tracking heart rate but are inaccurate for calories burned. The reason is that caloric burn is a complex process that depends on various factors. Gender and weight are two of the most significant aspects, but other factors play a role.
For instance, how efficiently you move will also impact your caloric expenditure. According to research, elite endurance athletes burn fewer calories than average people doing the same workout because of technical proficiency. In other words, they become so good at a given activity that inefficiency is removed from the equation, and they can do the same amount of work with less energy.
Aerobic capacity and level of muscular development are two other significant factors. But, as you can imagine, commercially-available calorie trackers are not sophisticated enough to account for these vastly complicated factors.
On average, men will burn more calories precisely because they tend to weigh more and have more muscle mass on their frames. A woman who weighs 55 kg (120 pounds) will burn some calories from an activity. But a man weighing 100 kg (220 pounds) will burn many more calories. So, does this mean the calories burned metric is useless? Well, no. Let us explore why.
The good and bad of Calorie Trackers
Calorie trackers are good because they offer a consistent reading, albeit not the most accurate one (for now). Still, you can measure the calories you burn over time and compare these values.
For instance, if you use the same device (say, an Apple Watch) or the same machine (say, a treadmill), you can focus on burning more calories in the same amount of time. If you achieve that, it means that you are doing more work. Alternatively, you can aim to burn the same number of calories in less time.
If you are just getting started, pick a conservative goal and aim to achieve it every time - for example, 300 calories per workout. So if you train five times per week, that is an extra 1.500 calories per week. Over time, you can try to increase it to 350, 400, and beyond.
Understanding your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) and how the calories you burn fit the picture is essential. For instance, if you want to keep eating the same amount of food but lose some weight, you can aim to burn an extra 400 to 500 calories daily. Refer to earlier points in the guide on calculating your calories and macronutrients.
Now, if you enjoy some friendly competition with friends or your significant other, we recommend choosing other metrics to compare.
Some final Words on the Topic
Though most people see nutrition tracking as a tedious and unnecessary endeavor, doing so offers numerous benefits. Most notably, it provides accuracy and forces you to improve your nutritional choices.
For instance, someone interested in building muscle should not only focus on hitting some arbitrary protein goal. Getting enough calories and picking healthier foods rich in complete proteins is also important. A simple app like MyFitnessPal or MacroFactor can help you get started today.