People usually get rather disciplined when it comes to the gym. Sometime in January, we decide that it’s time to stop living like an over-fed slug and get some exercise. This then results in a new gym membership, a bunch of new clothes and equipment, and an impending sense of failure. For those that keep their new year’s resolution going past February, you’ve passed the worst bit. The first 30 days of any new habit are the most difficult to become accustomed to. After that, your body will actually become addicted to exercise, and will begin to demand a workout at regular intervals. It is at this stage that the gym stops being a chore and starts becoming something you look forward to.
The part that people usually underestimate – and consequently fail at – is their diet. This is not entirely surprising, as most of us turn to unreliable resources for information about nutrition. There are a lot of rumours, urban legends, and downright false information floating around about food – and it’s up to you to do proper research and separate the truth from the hype.
One thing you can do for your meal plan straight away, is to stop listening to every new piece of ‘research’ that comes out about diet. If you look at a long enough period of time, these studies become conflicting and contradictory, and sometimes even show themselves to be plain wrong. This is because there is a lot of funding available for soft sciences such as nutritional studies. Rich people are highly concerned about their diets, as they don’t have much else to worry about, and so this area is being constantly flooded with money and resources.
So be selective when it comes to finding out the facts. Look only at reputable science journals, and only take account of studies that have been published. Avoid turning to fitness and vanity magazines for advice about fitness and nutrition (and anything else really). The reason to only take advice from published papers, is that sometimes ‘research’ groups will create a marketing campaign for themselves, by leaking a rumour to a newspaper. This is usually easily detectable, as they tend to promise unrealistic results. Red flags here include phrases such as ‘chocolate is good for you’, ‘you only need to exercise for 2 minutes a day’ and ‘eat whatever you want’. There are no short cuts when it comes to losing weight, and you will have to sacrifice a lot, no matter what anyone claims.
So on to your meal plan. The first thing you need to do is to think about your goals. Do you want to lose fat? Do you want to gain muscle? Do you want to lose fat and gain muscle? Your meal plans will vary considerably, depending on which of these applies to you. As you can imagine, the most difficult of these three options is the last one. If you would like to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, you will need to put maximum effort in, and be willing to spend a year sticking to your program to see results.
So once you have figured out your goal, you need to find your corresponding calorie requirements. These will depend on your age, weight and gender (mostly weight). You then need to factor in the amount of protein you require on a daily basis. If your goal is just to lose fat, this is not of paramount importance, as you will receive sufficient protein from a normal healthy diet. However, if you would like to gain muscle, you need to get sufficient protein. This last point can’t be stressed enough – if you don’t have enough protein in your diet, you will fail at bodybuilding. Not only that, but a lot of your weights workouts will be wasted and in vain, because you are not supplying your body with enough building blocks with which to build muscle.
Protein consists of chains of amino acids. It is the amino acids that your body uses to repair muscle tissue after weight lifting. What is actually happening is that you are damaging your muscle by lifting weight, in the form of an inflammation. This inflammation manifests itself in the form of micro tears in the muscle fibre. The body then uses amino acids to repair these tears, and create an extra layer of muscle tissue in order to reduce further tears. Over many months, you will notice that this process becomes visible in the form of muscle mass.
So how much protein do you need? Once again, this will depend on your age, weight and gender. However, a good approximation can be made by only taking your weight into account. If you want to build muscle, most studies agree that you require about 1g of protein per pound of body mass. That means if you weigh 180 pounds, you will need to consume 180g of protein per day, in order to supply your body with what it needs to gain lean weight.
One popular mistake is to think that your daily requirement of protein can be taken all at once, say in the form of a large steak in the evening. This is false, and if you portion your protein this way, you will fail at bodybuilding and at life (OK, I do get carried away from time to time). The reason this approach is fundamentally flawed, is that the body is not able to store protein in the way that it can store carbohydrates. Carbohydrates can be eaten in the morning, and then burned throughout the day. Protein, on the other hand, is only used by the body when it is required – i.e. for muscle repair and growth. If you give your body one huge portion of protein per day, it will use what it needs, and expel the rest as urine. This means you will be wasting a great deal of effort at the gym, as the rest of the day your body will be asking for amino acids that have already been expelled and are no longer available.
The correct way to consume protein is in small portions throughout the day. Optimally, you should divide your total daily protein requirements into 5 or 6 portions, and eat them at regular 2-3 hour intervals. This way, you are providing your system with a constant stream of amino acids, and you won’t run out or take an excess amount. If this sounds difficult and annoying, you’re right, it is. But do you want results, or do you want to keep adding holes to your belt?
The correct way to plan your meals, therefore, is to take both your calorie and protein requirements, and portion them into 5-6 small meals, to be consumed throughout the day. The reason your calories need to be portioned this way, in addition to the protein, is that you should aim to keep your energy and insulin levels as steady as possible. If these levels are steady, your body interprets this as there being plentiful food available, and thus no need to store energy in the form of fat. Alternatively, if you only eat once or twice a day (as sumo wrestlers do), your body will switch to ‘starvation mode’. In this case, it interprets your eating habits as food being scarce, and therefore starts storing fat wherever possible.
As an example of an effective meal plan, a 180 pound male who is looking to lose fat and gain muscle, should consume 2200 calories and 180g of protein per day. If he splits this up into 5 small meals throughout the day, each meal should contain 440 calories and 36g of protein. If you start reading nutritional labels, you will soon realise that this sort of calorie to protein ratio is not easily achievable. You will need to very meticulously and deliberately seek out food with the highest possible protein to calorie ratio in order to achieve correct balance. Most likely, you will need to make adjustments in foods that you are already consuming. For instance, when eating a sandwich, use only rye bread and slice it as thinly as possible. For the sandwich filling, use as much lean meat as possible, and limit high-calorie foods such as cheese.
If in doubt, look up the exact nutritional information of everything you eat, and use kitchen scales to figure out the exact portions. Once you have lost enough fat for your goals, the above process will become more relaxed, as you can start looking for meal combinations that have a higher calorie to protein ratio. For instance, our 180 pound man will still need 180g of protein, but will be able to consume 2700 calories per day, rather than just 2200. This will introduce a lot more flexibility in his meals, and keep his body fat percentage steady.
So remember to introduce the same discipline in the kitchen as you are already showing at the gym. Finding an effective diet is every bit as important as exercise in achieving your fitness goals.