To eat is necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.
In my previous article, I outlined the basics of flexible dieting and focused on one approach that I believe to be a stepping stone to more complex ways of flexible dieting: counting calories and macros.
In this piece, I want to cover some guidelines on how to design a diet for either fat loss or muscle gain, including a proposed diet duration, macros and calories calculations, and how to transition away from dieting.
How to Design Your Own Diet: Fat Loss
First, let’s define what a “successful” fat loss diet is: it’s a period of time spent in a calorie deficit, during which weight loss occurs at a moderate rate, so that the “new” weight achieved at the end can be maintained in the long term.
In general, losing up to 5-10% of your starting bodyweight during any diet phase is a good idea to prevent your body from becoming too effective at conserving energy, which will make it harder to lose fat unless you reduce calories and ramp up activity to unsustainable levels; to reduce mental fatigue from extended diets; and to salvage your relationship with food and your own body image.
If you start out leaner, not overweight or obese, you might want to shoot for the lower end of the range. If you carry more fat, you can also shed more with reduced risk of lean mass loss, therefore you can aim for 8-10% of your starting bodyweight.
A moderate rate of loss would be 0.5-1% of your starting bodyweight per week. As a result, the duration of a fat loss diet will range between 10 and 20 weeks on average.
At the end of the diet, a stretch of time spent maintaining your new weight will help your body settle at the lower level of body fat attained. Furthermore, you will get a mental break from dieting and will be able to increase your food intake, thus decreasing the risk of overeating, binge-eating, or excessive preoccupation with food (also known as “food focus”).
This maintenance phase would ideally last at least four weeks or a third of the time spent in a calorie deficit.
After this time period, you have three choices:
The more fat you have at the moment, the longer it will take to achieve a healthy weight and body composition. Don’t take this as a negative. Look at it as an opportunity to learn about a balanced diet and healthy nutrition.
Moreover, celebrate every maintenance phase that you run.
Most of us tend to focus on the amount of weight lost as a success, but the true success is to be able to maintain that loss after the diet.
The more numerous successful maintenance phases you have, the more skilled a dieter you will become, empowering yourself to retain a healthy mindset about food for the rest of your life.
Calculating your calories and macros for fat loss
As a reminder, 3500 calories equals roughly 1 lb of fat, and 7000 calories equals roughly 1 kg.
There is a caloric difference between 1 lb of fat and 1 lb of muscle, which makes this equation not 100% accurate, but it is still a valuable metric to use when you are planning your starting numbers. As mentioned in last week’s article, these are all estimations that you will change along the way, depending on your weekly weight changes.
That said, you can follow these steps to calculate your initial calorie deficit:
How to Design Your Own Diet: Muscle Gain
Again, let’s start with the definition of a successful muscle-building phase: it’s a period of time in which weight is gained at a moderate to slow rate to maximise the accrual of lean mass and minimise the accumulation of body fat.
There is no minimum or maximum percentage of bodyweight to gain during the overall phase and, for this reason, there is no recommended length of time, either. In general, you could aim to gain weight until you reached a level of body fat you were uncomfortable with.
These are some signs that you might be at an excessively high body fat percentage:
Not all signs may apply to you, and you might experience some that are not mentioned here. To note, the last side effect of weight gain listed could be mitigated by a period of time spent at maintenance, before a calorie surplus is resumed, so it might not necessarily mean you have to end your weight gain and start dieting for fat loss.
This list is meant to offer some guidance on what a “high” body fat percentage actually means. Many struggle with the thought of fat gain, so they may be tempted to cut a muscle-building phase short when they have barely gained any weight.
The rate of weight gain depends on your training experience:
These guidelines may work best for individuals at a healthy average body fat percentage, not for those in a condition of extreme leanness.
For example, a bodybuilder coming out of contest preparation would be down to essential body fat levels, therefore gaining at a fast pace of 1.5% bodyweight per month or even more quickly would be more beneficial to reverse negative adaptations to dieting and restore the athlete to full health.
Once you have chosen your desired rate of gain, you could use Steps 4 to 8 from the previous section to calculate your daily calorie surplus and translate that into macros and calories. Obviously, you would add instead of subtracting this surplus from your maintenance calories.
To note, during a muscle-building phase, you are likely to be training harder than you are when maintaining, thus expending more calories. Moreover, the process of repairing tissue after a workout requires additional energy, therefore the suggested calculations might not actually put you in a true surplus.
You might be eating more calories than before, but those calories are now your “new” maintenance.
As an alternative to that strategy, you could increase your calories by 10 to 20%, choosing the lower end of the spectrum if you aim to gain at a very slow rate and going towards the higher end if you aim to gain a little faster. You can then adjust calories as you progress with the diet, judging from the way your weight reacts to the increases in food intake.
For the first two weeks, don’t worry about your weight.
If you see a quick spike, consider that you are eating more than before. You may have more food in your stomach, more glycogen in your muscles, and more water retained with the glycogen, all of which contribute to the apparent weight jump.
If you are still gaining too fast after two weeks, you may want to adjust your macros and keep experimenting every week until you find the calorie intake and macronutrient split that best complements your goal and your training.
In Future Episodes:
Due to high demand from my vegetarian and non-meat-eating clients, next week I’ll have some veggie-friendly protein hacks for you.
Any questions on diet design? Let me know in the comments!
A personal trainer who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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