Q: How do I create a nutrition plan to fit my needs?
A: This is a question that I get all the time and I really wish I had a better answer for you but unfortunately there is no one size fits all plan that will help you achieve your fitness goals. That is because everyone is different in their genetic make-up as well as their fitness goal. I would never give the same advice to a man that wants to gain lean mass and a woman who wants to lean out, it just doesn’t make sense.
Each person needs to have a plan that is specific to their body and their goal, which brings up the next question… How do I know what my body needs? While there is not a set calculation that will spit out your macronutrients or calories for that matter we can get a pretty good idea from online calculators or tracking your food intake.
What am I doing now?
One of the first things I do when working with a new client regardless of their current fitness level is figure out what they are doing now. One thing I have learned is that people tend to over/under estimate their caloric intake. For example I might have a guy tell me “I eat like a horse and I can’t gain weight!” My first question is “how many calories are you eating every day?” The usual response is something along the lines of “well… I don’t know but it’s gotta be 4,000!”
Unless you have a crazy metabolism or you Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is through the roof you probably are not getting 4,000 calories. The first step then is to track your food intake for about 4-7 days so we can get a baseline/average caloric intake. I suggest an app like MyFitnessPal – it has a really convenient barcode scanner so you don’t have to enter everything manually, plus you can see your macronutrient (protein, fats, and carbs) breakdown in an easy to read pie chart. Once we have an average daily intake we can move forward and figure out what you need.
How many calories should I have?
Next I will adjust your calories/macro intake to fit your goals. This will be different for everyone so we will go over two examples; one gaining plan and one cutting plan. First we’ll go over a mass gaining plan.
Say you are a man eating an average of 2,000 calories right now and not gaining weight – we obviously need to add more calories to your diet. Sure, we could jump up to 4,000 but you are going to be miserable and stuffed and you won’t last long on a force feeding plan! Instead we need to introduce more calories gradually; this will also help with unwanted fat gain. Your body will need time to adjust to any new increase or decrease in calorie intake so we take it slow. When adding calories I suggest a 5-10% weekly increase. For our example that means 2,000 calories x 5% or 2,000 x 1.05 which is 2,100 calories.
What should my macros be?
Now we can break down your calories into your macros – your protein, fats, and carbs. Something to remember is that every 1 gram of protein and carbohydrate contains 4 calories, while every 1g of fat contains 9 calories. Fat is the most dense macronutrient, protein is the most satiating, meaning it will keep you fuller for longer and the amino acids will help repair and rebuild new muscle mass so I recommend starting there.
I suggest that about 30% of your calories come from protein. So, of your 2,100 total calories, 630 calories will go to protein, if there are 4 calories in each gram of protein you should consume 158g of protein (I also factor in body type and size but this will do for a start.)
Next comes fat – I recommend that 20-30% of calories come from fat. Of your 2,100 calories again 630 calories go to fat (for 30%) but remember, each 1g of fat contains 9 calories so you should consume 70g of fat/day. I recommend getting a majority of fats from health oils, avocados, egg yolks, nuts etc.
Last but certainly not least (and most people’s favorite) carbs! Using 30% for both protein and fat we have 40% left over for carbs. Carbs are your body’s number one energy source, not to mention your brain runs on glucose (the broken down from of carbohydrates) and if you are trying to gain weight you may need to gradually increase this number. With carbs at 40% we get 840 calories giving us 210g carbohydrates.
How many meals should I have?
Finally, now that we have all of our macronutrients broken down – 158g protein, 70g fat, and 210g carbs, we need to decide how many meals each day you can get in. I recommend eating every 2-3 hours you are awake (usually 5 or 6 meals). This will serve two purposes: 1. When your body gets about 20g protein every two to three hours it will keep protein synthesis running throughout the day making the uptake of nutrients after your workout even more efficient. 2. It will make the meals a bit smaller and more manageable if you are not used to eating like this.
What if I am trying to lose weight?
When we are trying to cut or lose some weight we use the same steps but in the opposite direction (caloric deficit rather than surplus.) We are going to follow same initial steps – 1. tracking your calories to find a baseline. 2. breaking down your macronutrients by percentage then into grams/day. There are a few main differences that we will go over when creating a plan to cut some weight.
Let’s look at the same 2,000 calorie baseline example, only this time we want to lose weight instead of gain it. While there are many different routes that someone can take to cut (carb cycling, manipulating fats and carbs based on workout/rest days,) we will go over a more basic example. At the most basic level we need to create a calorie deficit. Keep in mind that when you are at a caloric deficit you will likely be hungry at first but I urge you to resist snacking!
What kind of calorie deficit should I start with?
When cutting down I again suggest a gradual approach, but we can handle a little more of an aggressive – I suggest 10-15% reduction to start. If we are starting with the same 2,000 calories we are going to take away 10% for this example: 10% of 2,000 equals 200 giving us 1,800 calories to work with.
What should my macros be for weight loss?
The break down steps is similar with some exceptions; the first being we may need to cut down fats and carbs with might lead us to increasing protein which will also help keep you full. Let’s go with a breakdown of 35% protein, 20% fat, and 45% carbohydrates.
Again starting with protein – 35% of our 1,800 calories gives us 630 calories for protein which is going to give us 158g of protein/day. With our fat at 20% that gives us 360 calories for fat which translates to 40g of fat/day. Finally, with carbs at 45% we have 810 calories to give to carbs with leaves us with 203g carbs/day.
How often should I monitor my weight?
As you can see these macros are not that different, but you will be monitoring what happens to your body WEEKLY to see what needs to happen next. Did you not gain weight? Do you need to ease up on cardio? (I never suggest stopping, cardio has too many benefits to cut out) Maybe you didn’t lose much or any weight. This is exactly why we monitor and adjust weekly.
No plan, no matter how perfect will not work forever, but with weekly monitoring and fine tuning you can use this formula to help achieve your goal of creating a plan to suit your needs and your goals!
Dustin is a physique competitor and owner of nutrition and training business, DP Fitness.