When I was a kid, I did not really care of what and how much I was eating. I grew up in places where food is sacred and there is so much choice of delicious things you can eat that there is always a good excuse to sit around a table and enjoy that meal with family or friends.
My mum always cooked in family and she loved cooking us those delicious food that honestly you can only have in south italy. We as a family always tried to pay attention not to exceed with calories by reducing olive oil to cook, reducing the amount of pasta and so on. But honestly we did not treat that as a concern and we did not have a good background knowledge about how we could really improve our meal plan.
That being said, no one in my family has ever had obesity problem, diabetes or cholesterol problems, I was just part of that human species that believe that fat is bad, that diet is the solution and that when you eat a lot one day, you have to go to the gym the same day to compensate.
As always in life, studying and practicing is the right way to learn and become a better person. and that’s what is happening to me (note that I said is happening...).
My approach to food in my life started changing during one of my first business trip to Seattle. I was working for Amazon and I went there to visit one of the teams I was working with from Dublin.
During one of the coffee break I was chatting with one of my colleagues and we were talking about eating healthy, build your muscle and get lean. At some point I said that I was avoiding carbohydrates to reduce my belly and my weight.
He fairly looked me disappointed (and he had all the reasons to do that) and so he told me that my approach was wrong and recommended me to read a book called “Burn the fat, feed the muscle” by Tom Venuto.
Because I am one always willing to learn and discover new things (yes, don’t be shy or frustrated if you know less than others, it’s actually a good indicator that you are going to learn something new) I just went to amazon.co.uk and bought the book. Now, the cover gave me the idea of one of those bul***it books where the author knows little or nothing about the science behind get lean but I trusted that colleague and I did it right.
That book opened the doors of a new world, it gave me the starting point of a different lifestyle, from the approach to take when eating and drinking to your mindset when you go to the gym and do your workout.
I have to admit that until that point I was doing all wrong simply because I knew nothing and I was just relying on those myths that we all know like:
- eating carbs is bad;
- you should eat as much proteins you can to build muscle;
- you need to take protein powder if you want to get big;
- abs are a special type of muscle that somehow works differently thant the others;
- fat makes you fatter;
- if you eat a lot one day you should go to the gym as soon as possible;
- if you want to lose fat you need to do cardio;
- weighting on a scale is the way to understand if you are making progress;
- you just need to lift weights as much as you can to become stronger;
Believe it or not, none of the previous statements is true. I won’t be spending the rest of the article giving you the right alternative to all of the previous statements for two main reasons:
- I don’t have any degree in this matter and I am not a bodybuilder, I am still working to reach my final goal even though I made lots of progress since when I started;
- There is so much material and articles on the internet about this topic about better people than me that I would just recommend to read them, study and practice.
On this page, I will just focus giving you my general advice and I am quite confident that following them won’t be harmful to anyone, I am quite sure that following these advices regularly will make you better and healthier.
How do you eat?
Let’s start from food. Do you know how much are you eating? When you say “I ate too much” based on what you assume that is true? Is it eating a plate of pasta necessarily a lot?
I learned how to properly eat by reading that book and by reading further articles that explains you the science of eating.
Let's also start simple: let's say that what you eat can be split in three different macrocategories: carbs, protein and fat (not entirely true, but we are not scientists here, are we? 😊) When it comes about food, there is so much to say but if I can put it down only few words I would say that none of carbs, fat and protein has something bad such that you should stop eating them. The key factor to me is measuring and understanding what you are eating.
Carbs, carbs, carbs...
Let’s talk about carbs: people think that carbs make you fat so at some point they stop eating any carb until they get bored and they start eating them again by gaining even more than what they’ve lost during their diet. In reality carbs are not bad, what is bad is eating lots of carbs similarly to when you eat lots of proteins and fats; and the simple reason behind that is because you are generating a calorie surplus that brings you to a potential fat gaining in your body.
It is definitely true though that there are good carbs and bad carbs (like all the other macronutrients), so you should try to avoid or reduce the intake of refined carbs like sugar because they are actually going to trigger a chemical process (driven by spikes of your glycemic index) that will increase your appetite, make you more hungry and also alter your metabolism.
There is another reason that makes refined carbs a bad choice, and it's psychological: they are so good that it is hard to stop eating just a small portion: I would challenge you eating a whole plate of grilled plain chicken against a whole plate of pasta or pizza: which one are you going to prefer?
Important to say: from a calorie perspective, 1 gram of carb gives you e same amount of energy as 1 gram of protein does: 4 calories. So why are you so scared about carbs?
There is an important thing to know about carbs though: you can choose between starchy carbs and fibrous carbs. Things rice, oats, pasta, bread are known as starchy carbs and those are the ones that are more calorie dense and also the ones that are more delicious. Do not avoid them, it would be a mistake! Just try to reduce the amount or if you really want, you can stick to the ones with higher amount of fibers (always read the nutritional information before you buy) because they help you in feeling more full; also try to prefer carbs with low glycemic index: examples are brown rice, natural rolled oats, quinoa, cous cous, whole bread and sweet potato. You should really read more about the importance of fibers in your life...
On the other side we have fibrous carbs: salad, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes, asparagus are just a small subset. They are very rich in fibers (therefore you should always have them) and also the least calorie dense food: overeating fibrous carbs is almost impossible. Fibrous carbs are definitely the best friend you can always count on.
Proteins like there's no tomorrow...
Now it comes the moment where we talk about proteins. It is known that proteins helps you in building muscles and this is kinda true because after a workout your muscles will have to recover and that is when proteins come into action.
What is not true is that by just eating or overeating proteins everything will be fine like if proteins have something special. Keep in mind that 1 gram of proteins = 4 calories similarly to 1 gram of carbs = 4 calories so why overeating proteins should be okay?? 😜
It is actually known that many people feel stronger during workout when their meal plan includes carbs as well as proteins. Overeating proteins does not make you stronger or bigger by default and it can equally lead to gain fat.
The good thing of protein though is that (wait for it...) your body needs more energy to process them therefore by just digesting them you are consuming slightly more calories. Cool, isn’t it?
Said that, there are lots of scientific papers that recommends a max amount of grams of protein based on how much you weigh. You should read more about that to be sure you are respecting those recommendations. I'll just give you the basic info: the recommended intake of daily proteins is 0.8 grams per 1 kg of your weight: so if you weigh 100kg, you should eat 80 grams of proteins per day. This is okay for people that don't actively do workout and their life is sedentary. If your age is in between 25-40s and you have an active life with constant workout, I would not have any problems in recommending you that you can even double that amount (so with the previous example you would eat 160 grams), or maybe even more. I currently weight 73kg and my daily protein intake oscillates between 150 and 200 grams. If you go really high with proteins you won't see any better result in your body.
Fat = Fatter?
Finally, we talk about fat. Fat is the only macronutrient whose 1 gram gives you more calories: 9 to be precise. Please keep in mind that not all fats are bad! There are actually fats that you must have in your meal plan, otherwise you are making a big mistake. Let me give you some examples: avocado, olive oil, nuts, eggs and salmon. You should just have these guys in your meal plan, you only have to pay attention on how much you are eating, because overeating here is really easy.
I understand macronutrients, and now?
I mentioned more than once words like tracking or overeating. If you understand what macronutrients are, the next step is how much to eat per day for each of those macronutrients.
There are so many theories that determine different ratios between the three macro, but because I don't want to go into this topic in a scientific way I am just going to present you the quick and easiest method to decide how much to eat.
You can see that from two different perspectives: how many calories should I eat per day and what should I put on my plate. These two questions are just two different point of views of the same problem.
If we try to answer the first question, we need to keep in mind that as humans we need energy to live, and we are used to measure this energy in calories. There are many ways that would tell you the right amount of calories that your bodfy needs (based on your age, height, weight, body fat percentage and a coefficient that measures how active you are..) but let's assume that mens need 2400 calories and womens need 2000 calories.
The most typical and efficient way to map these calories to macronutrients is by adopting the 50-30-20 rule. With this simple rule you are going to:
- absorb 50% of the calories from carbs - absorb 30% of the calories from proteins - absorb 20% of the calories from fat
Easy right? the moment you understand how much calories you have to eat per day, you will understand how much carbs, proteins and fats you have to eat. This is the most balanced and accepted rule in the world of meal plan. To do that properly, I would recommend to help yourself with smartphone apps that help you tracking calories and macronutrients: I personally use MyFitnessPal but there are lots of other choices. Of course the 50-30-20 rule can be managed based on your style: you can reduce carbs and increase fats (40-30-30), or increase proteins and reduce fats and carbs (30-50-20) but what it matters is that you don't take any drastic change!. Moderation is always the first thing it matters.
This approach takes more effort because you are trying to exactly measure what you are eating. What if you don't want to do that? In this case we should try to answer the other question: what should I put on my plate?
This is an easier approach because it's only based on your visual perception, and as long as you are honest with yourself this is as much effective as the previous approach. The simple rule in this case is that you need to split your plate in three portions: imagine your plate as if it was a round clock; imagine now to draw the following times: 9:00 and 9:20; what you will get is something like this:
Now it's your choice on how to fill those three areas. If you want to focus on getting lean what I usually recommend/do is:
- fill area (3) with fibrous carbs: This is the biggest area therefore you should fill it with what contains the least amount of calories
- fill area (2) with proteins
- fill area (1) with starchy carbs
As I said this is just my recommendation. You can play with all the possible combinations: for example if your working out a lot, putting proteins in (3), starchy carbs in (2) and fibrous carbs in (1) can be a valid option too.
Remember: you must have a goal/target that you can focus on. Just select one target, a feasible one. Based on that target you make the right choice on how to split the plate.
Clearly what I've described so far is just a summary of what I learned and what you should know. There are so many techniques like intermittent fasting and ketosis that deserves entire articles to be explained. Even the approach to macronutrient splitting is something in my mind really fascinating and it would deserves many pages of analysis to understand what's best for you!
I want to give you one final recommendation: your metabolism usually takes 2/3 weeks to evolve, if you keep changing meal plan with no logic you will end up being confused and will not know what worked and what didn’t. For the same reason, if you had an unplanned meal that exceeded your calorie intake, that most likely won’t cause anything as long as this does not become an habit. In relation to that keep in mind that measuring calories it’s about usaing math: you add calories to your body when you eat and you consume (subtract) them by living your life; if you need to lose weight you need to create a calorie deficit, if you want to gain calories you need to eat more to create a calorie surplus.
Said that, if during week days you are diligent and create a calorie deficit of 100 calories per day it means that in five days you created a calorie deficit of 500 calories. if in the weekend you constantly eat in uncontrolled manner and you generate a surplus of more than 500 calories you are basically destroying all the effort you put in those week days, just saying..)
It seems it's working...
If it seems to be working, that's a good sign. But my recommendation is that you want to exactly know if it's working or not, if the effort you are putting is worth it or not. Just stepping up on a scale is not the right choice: it can definitely lead to confusion because even when you gain muscles you are going to weight more, and that's not bad at all. Let's make an example: you start your new workout and meal plan strategy and you weigh 80kg. After two weeks your weight is 81kg. Is that good? Is that bad? You don't really know because if that +1kg was due to bigger muscles mass then it would be a good sign; it that was due to fat % increase, then something has to be fixed.
Another wrong way to check if you are making progress is to compare yourself with someone else and check if you are getting close to him/her. That is completely wrong and it can lead to frustration, because everyone is different.
The only way to track your progress is by measuring body fat. That is the only right way. There are many ways to measure body fat, but the one I use and recommend is by using a body fat caliper (I personally have this one): there are many types of body fat calipers and you can decide which one to be based on your budget. I would recommend to start with something easy and cheap for just one simple reason: the key here is to be consistent in the way you measure, precision does not really matters if you compare it with consistency. Remember that! To be consistent you have two options: either you ask someone to take measures for you and that someone will always be the same (well, at some point no harm if you change it, but try to stick with that for al least 3-6 months) or you do it by your own (with the limitation that you cannot take measures from your back for example).
There are multiple measures you can take, but even here I would just recommend to start simple and take three-four measures: around your waist, on your chest, on your leg and finally you measure the circumference of your waist. Once you take these four numbers you need to write them down and do that every two weeks. You can also use some formulas that takes in input these numbers and gives you an indicator of body fat percentage, but the alternative here is that you just write these numbers as they are because the rule is easy: if they go down you are on the right way, if they go up you need to revisit your workout and meal plan.
Personally, I think that this method works pretty well and if you haven't done nothing about that before in your life, you'll see how much it will help you to have better results. In any case I prefer using to have a body fat percentage number because I can use that to have an estimation on how much I should eat. In fact, there are formulas that takes in input parameters like your age, weight, % fat percentage, height, and a sedentary factor and tells you an estimation of how much calories your body needs on a daily basis. There are two formulas that I use and then I compute the average:
- Harris-Benedict Equation
- Katch-Mcardle Equation
I can share with you the spreadsheet I use to track my progress; it should be easy and intuitive but feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions.
It's a lot about food, but not only that...
Food is essential if you want to reach your target, no matter what it is. But even though you could reach it by laying on the bed all the day, this is definitley not the right choice.
Working out (at the gym, home or wherever you like) is important. Doing it the right way is essential. Progressively overloading your workout is the key. Yes, it's called progressive overload. That's why, similarly to what we said for food, you have to track all the excercises you are doing, and for each of them you should be interested in tracking the following three things: number of reps, lifted weight and resting time. The key of progressive orverload is that you have to make progress in at least one of those three factors we've just mentioned. By doing that, you are making sure that day after day your body is simply capable of doing something that the day before was not able to do. This is the key, and it's very easy to understand.
So the easiest way to do it is to start with a workout plan (aks your personal trainer or just a gym trainer) and print it on a paper, by leaving proper space to track those three variables. Check-in every time you do a workout and save all this info. The next time you go to the gym, you should check what you've done the last time and do better than that. I am quite confident that if you do that, together with the right meal plan, you'll see results.
It's also true that understanding your body is not easy. We can say that there is no workout that suits everyone, and this is also valid for the meal plan. You have to fail, you will fail! But failing is not bad; failing means that you've tried a combination, it did not work so now you have one combination less to try. With combination, I mean choosing a type of workout and a meal plan and stick with that for at least 4 weeks.
Now the questions for you is: how many workouts have you tried? Did you track its progress? How many combinations of meal plan and workout you experimented and measured progress?
I suspect you will realize that you were missing a specific goal/target (e.g. want to loss 2% of body fat), you will realize that you never properly tracked your meal plan together with your workout, and you did not experiment so many workouts but because you are lazy you sticked to the one you know.
Finally, I also wanted to share with you the workout I've been following in the last 3 months: it's a Push-Pull-Leg workout, which means that you have three different workout days. It's up to you if you want to exactly follow as it is or if you want to cut some excercise or replace it with something you prefer. Frequency is also your choice: the only rule you have to follow is once again consistency! Do not go to the gym once every two weeks because you won't make progress, but at the same time going to the gym every day without having the chance to recover can also be wrong; if you can go to the gym from 3 to 5 times you are on the right path.
Some useful links
Thank you for having read my article. I hope it was useful. If you want to know more, just send me an e-mail and we can have a chat. But I am also going to give you some useful links that helped me to understand more about this topic:
- Burn the fat, feed the muscle (WebSite)
- Athlean-X (WebSite)
- Athlean X (YouTube Channel)
- Damien Patrick (YouTube Channel)
- MyFitnessPal (WebSite)
- Personal Trainer Collective (Instagram Page)
- Scott Herman (YouTube Channel)