Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
For many gym-goers, training is the (comparatively) easy part of building a strong, muscular physique. Show up at the gym, do battle with the weights, hit the shower. The truly hard part of the health-and-performance equation is nutrition. How many calories? High-carb or low-carb? What protein is best? Should you run from saturated fat like you would from that headless dude on Sleepy Hollow? It’s enough to make you throw in the towel and sink your teeth into combo #3 out of sheer frustration.
To eat like a champion, you need to understand the most fundamental aspects of nutrition, which seem to have fallen by the wayside in an age of pick-and-choose dietary lifestyles. So we’re going back to the basics, outlining the four basic building blocks of sound nutrition to help you create an eating plan that suits your particular goals and helps you perform at your best. We promise it won’t be as bad as dodging headless horsemen.
Put simply, calories are a measurement of the energy consumed from foods and drinks. They’re also a measure of the energy burned by getting out of bed and walking around and struggling to get one more rep. The number of daily calories you need to consume is a balancing act. Take in too few calories and your body will struggle to muster up the power, strength and endurance you need to call on when in the gym. Heavy training paired with inadequate calorie intake also can impair your immune system, setting you up for poor recovery and illnesses like colds and the flu. Conversely, if you regularly consume calories beyond what your body needs to support training and normal bodily functions, you could see your tight abs turn to belly flab.
For men and women looking to increase strength, lean body mass and overall athletic performance, a good starting point is to shoot for 2,500 to 3,000 calories and 1,700 to 1,900, respectively. That’s according to Jim White, RD, owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “But remember, everyone’s body is different, so you may need to adjust this calorie intake depending how you respond,” White cautions. Gaining too much flab? Try trimming some calories from meals. Having trouble putting on lean body mass or keeping energy levels up in the face of intense training? Add a few more calories from high-quality foods. “It’s important to tweak your calorie intake until you find the ideal number that works for you,” White says.
To stay on top of how many calories you’re consuming on any given day, you need to add them up. While it might seem like a chore, keeping a food diary can help you become more aware of your overall eating patterns and prevent you from underestimating how many calories you’re actually taking in. We advise keeping a detailed food log for a week and then using an app or online food tracker (like CalorieCount.com) to determine your daily calorie, protein, carbohydrate and fat intake. Make your diary as accurate as possible, and weigh your foods so you know not only what you’re eating but also how much. It’s difficult to eyeball portions, and little snacks you would otherwise forget about can stealthily add up.
In many ways, carbohydrates are the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the nutrition world. Eat the right kinds and they’ll keep your body performing more like a sports car than a station wagon. But step off the straight and narrow, diving into artificial sweeteners and fast-digesting sources, and you’ll soon experience carbs’ dark side.
Why You Need Them: As any weight trainer who has drastically cut down on their intake can attest, carbohydrates are an essential fuel for working muscles. Unlike protein and fat, carbs are quickly and efficiently converted into the energy that hardworking muscles need. So when you’ve just added more plates to your curls, it’s the carbs that are stored in your muscles and liver — as well as some of the sugars floating around in your blood — that make those last few reps possible.
And it’s not just your muscles that require carbs for optimum performance. When you consume a sweet potato or bowl of oatmeal, those carbs are broken down during digestion into the simple sugars that are the primary fuel for your brain. Ergo, brain fog is a common outcome when blood-sugar levels fall too low. (Note, however, that this is not a terminal condition and that the body — and brain — is more than capable of adapting to a low-carb diet.)
Fiber, an indigestible form of carbohydrates, removes waste from the body and is essential for keeping your bowels healthy. Numerous studies suggest that people who consume higher amounts of dietary fiber are more likely to be lean. “That’s because fiber helps slow down digestion, which functions to promote satiety and prevent appetite-increasing drastic swings in blood-sugar levels,” White says.
Where To Get Them: Smart carb intake means whole, unprocessed foods. “These include whole fruits, vegetables, potatoes, beans, lentils and whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, spelt and oats,” White says. These foods are also chock-full of essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Dried fruits without added sweeteners are a good energy source, but the natural sugars in them are more concentrated than in their fresh counterparts, so exercise moderation.
It’s no secret that less-than-healthy carbohydrates dominate most American diets. Food manufacturers strip grains of their bran and germ (their nutritional soul), leaving a pile of nutrient- and fiber-void starchy carbs that, when consumed liberally, can contribute to fat gain and poor overall health. Compromised carbs lurk in all sorts of breads, crackers, pastas and baked goods, often with such white flour euphemisms as “wheat flour” listed among their ingredients. It is possible to consume packaged items like breads, pasta and crackers as part of a healthy diet, but only if you ignore the sales pitch on the packaging and make sure the first ingredient listed is a whole grain like whole-wheat flour or whole-rye flour.
Even more insidious are the many guises of added sugars — like high-fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice and dextrose — that are pumped into everything from ketchup to whole-wheat bread. Providing no nutrient value and contributing to rising blood-sugar numbers, added sweeteners have been linked to everything from diabetes to heart failure to obesity. A recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who got about 20 percent of their calories from added sugars were 38 percent more likely to die from heart disease than those who got less than 10 percent of calories from sweeteners. Remember, these statistics are about added sugars. Science has yet to associate the naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables with any health concerns.
How Much: A single gram of carbohydrates provides 4 calories. White suggests that individuals involved in strength and power training aim for 40 to 50 percent of their overall calories from carbohydrates. “If you are more endurance driven, shoot for 50 to 60 percent of calories,” White says. A quick math lesson: If your daily calorie intake is 2,500 and you want 50 percent of those calories to come from carbs, your goal would be 313 grams of daily carbohydrates (2,500 ÷ 2 = 1,250; 1,250 ÷ 4 calories per gram = 313). Carb cycling, in which carbohydrate intake is increased on high-intensity training days and is pared down on rest days, can help improve physique and energy levels.
In addition to monitoring carb intake, you should keep watch on your daily fiber intake. The Institute of Medicine, a governing body that sets nutrient requirements, suggests women aim for 25 grams of fiber daily, men 38. These are fairly lofty quotas, and you’ll only nail them if you nosh primarily on carbohydrates from whole-food sources.
Attention is always placed on carbs, but protein shouldn’t be overlooked by anyone aspiring to greater athletic performance.
Why You Need It: The protein in your scrambled eggs and grilled rib-eye steak is made up of strings of amino acids that work to build new cells and fix damaged ones. Among these cells are those present in your muscles, which is why you need dietary protein to help rebuild muscle that’s broken down during tough workouts. Lack of adequate protein hampers lean body mass growth (a key to better power and speed) as well as recovery. “Dietary protein is also essential for supporting a healthy immune system to help keep illnesses at bay,” White says.
Studies show that protein not only helps build muscle, but that higher-protein diets also help burn fat. Protein attacks body fat in several ways. Protein’s thermic effect, which is how many calories it takes to chew, digest, absorb, transport and store the food you eat, is higher than that of fat or carbohydrates. So if you consume 100 calories from protein, fat and carbs, your body will burn off more of the calories from protein, making body-fat storage less likely. Protein also has a high satiety factor (it makes you feel fuller longer) because it impacts hormones that regulate hunger, which is why research shows that higher protein intake can dampen appetite and, in turn, gut-busting overeating.
Where To Get It: To get more bang for your buck, White says to hunt down proteins with a higher so-called “biological value.” When a protein contains essential amino acids (those aminos that cannot be made by the body and must be obtained from the diet) in a proportion similar to that required by the body for growth and repair, it’s considered to have a high biological value. When one or more essential amino acids are scarce, however, the protein is said to have lower biological value. In short, animal protein sources are of high biological value, but most vegetal protein sources are not.
“Eggs have the highest biological value of any food-based protein,” White says. A study in Nutrition Journal found that this gold-standard protein can contribute to improved muscle power and strength. Other edibles with a high biological value include red meat, fish, poultry, lamb and dairy products like yogurt, milk and cottage cheese. The best plant-based protein sources include hemp, legumes, nuts, less-processed soy products like edamame and tempeh, and certain “pseudo grains,” including quinoa and amaranth, that contain a complete set of essential aminos.
And of course we also exhort you to have a preworkout and postworkout shake containing whey protein powder, which can quickly flood your body with muscle-building amino acids. “Whey is particularly rich in leucine, an amino acid that is very good at turning on the machinery that maximizes muscle cell repair and growth,” White says.
HOW MUCH: As with carbohydrates, a single gram of protein contains 4 calories. White recommends that those who design their workouts for strength and muscle building should aim for at least 1 gram of protein for each pound of bodyweight. That means a 160-pound man needs to fill his belly with at least 160 grams of protein, or about 25 percent of total calories if consuming 2,500 calories daily.
Dietary fat is consistently vilified for bringing about coronary woes and providing an express ticket to Pudgeville. The reality is a bit more nuanced. Without an adequate amount of fat in your diet, you have little chance of getting the most out of no-holds-barred workouts and achieving optimal health. The key is sourcing out the right kinds of fats.
Why You Need It: While carbs are the main source of fuel for high-intensity training sessions, the body turns to fat as an important energy source during more moderate endurance exercise, like a long run or bike ride, as well as daily activities ranging from chopping cucumbers for a salad to taking a shower.
Granted, excess fat (adipose tissue) around your midriff won’t do your performance or health any favors, but Rebecca Scritchfield, MA, RD, a sports dietician in Washington, D.C., explains that stored dietary fat also surrounds major organs and bones and acts like a thermal insulator against the cold and protective cushion against the impacts of intense training. “Dietary fat is also required for making hormones like testosterone and estrogen as well as for the proper absorption of the so-called “fat-soluble” vitamins A, D, E and K,” Scritchfield says. Some dietary fat is also necessary to absorb the disease-thwarting antioxidants in brightly colored vegetables and fruits, like beta carotene, lycopene and lutein.
It might sound counteractive, but including healthy amounts of fat in your diet can help you shed, well, fat. A Journal of the American Medical Association report found that individuals on a low-fat diet experienced a decrease in resting energy expenditure (i.e., the number of calories burned while at rest), which could make fat loss more difficult. So it seems that dietary fat plays a role in regulating metabolism. Fat also adds flavor to meals, making them more satiating and helping put the brakes on midnight cookie-jar raids.
Where To Get It: Not all fats are created equal. The best ones help keep your heart beating strong and bolster fitness gains, while too much of the wrong ones can torpedo your health and athletic performance. Here’s a quick primer.
Named for its single double bond in the fatty-acid chain, monounsaturated fat is considered to be particularly heart healthy. “Monounsaturated fat offers protection against heart disease by lowering harmful LDL cholesterol while raising beneficial HDL cholesterol numbers,” Scritchfield says. Research also shows that a main mono fat called oleic acid can impact gene regulation in a way that promotes fat-burning metabolism.
Top sources: Nuts, nut butters, seeds, avocado and various culinary oils such as olive, canola, avocado and almond
By far the powerhouse fats in this category are the omega-3s, which have been linked to a wide range of health benefits, including improved heart, joint, brain, immune and eye health. Scientists at Saint Louis University have also found that diets rich in these fats can tame muscle soreness following intense workouts and help flip the switch on muscle protein synthesis.
While most people don’t get nearly enough omega-3s, another type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-6 has become ubiquitous in the standard American diet. “When consumed excessively at the expense of omega-3 fats, omega-6s can encourage inflammation in the body, which sets the stage for disease progression and poor exercise recovery,” Scritchfield says. Omega-6 fats have infiltrated our diets mostly through cheap vegetable oils such as soybean and corn that are used in packaged processed foods and restaurant meals. A diet based on homemade whole foods and foods rich in omega-3s should keep your omega-6 intake in check.
Top omega-3 sources: Fatty fish like wild salmon, sablefish and sardines, grass-fed beef and dairy, goat milk, omega eggs, walnuts, flax, chia seeds and hemp seeds
Don’t go overboard on this fat, but don’t avoid it entirely. Emerging research is showing that saturated fat has been wrongly denigrated as the ultimate health pariah. Case in point: A large review of studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine determined that the link between saturated fat and heart disease has largely been overblown. Further, a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that individuals who replaced saturated fats in their diet with high-glycemic carbs like white bread and sugary drinks experienced an increased risk of suffering a heart attack during a 12-year study period.
Some dietary saturated fat is essential for hormone production, including testosterone, the primary anabolic hormone in men. Lauric acid, the saturated fatty acid in coconut, laurel and palm kernel oil, appears to have strong anti-bacterial properties, and because of its unique structure, it’s more likely to be burned for fuel than stored as flab.
Top sources: Grass-fed meats (including game meats), dairy such as yogurt, butter and milk, virgin coconut oil, red palm oil and dark chocolate
This killer fat is proof that man can’t reign supreme over nature. The man-made fat was created as a replacement for saturated fat to enhance the flavor, texture and shelf life of certain processed foods like margarine, shortening and baked goods. Research is now clear that unlike naturally occurring saturated fat, regular intake of even small amounts of trans fat can increase your risk for diseases, including diabetes and heart disease. What’s more, researchers in Denmark found that people with higher levels of trans fat in their bodies were more likely to be overweight. But thanks to Food and Drug Administration regulation and laws that vary from state to state, the amount of trans fat found in packaged and restaurant food has steadily decreased in recent years. However, you should still scrutinize ingredient lists on packaged foods and online restaurant menus for hydrogenated oil, which is code for trans fat.
How Much: A single gram of fat provides 9 calories, meaning that it packs more than twice the amount of energy than protein or carbohydrates. So while some fat does a body good, too much could add unwanted pounds. “Fat should not total more than 25 to 35 percent of the calories you eat in a given day,” Scritchfield says. If you’re aiming for 2,500 calories a day, you should take in no more than 69 to 97 grams of fat. About 10 to 15 percent of your total fat intake should consist of monounsaturated fat, roughly 10 percent polyunsaturated and 5 to 10 percent from saturated fat. “Keep in mind, most food sources contain a combination of different fats, so eating a varied diet will help provide a healthy balance of fat sources,” Scritchfield says.
A PERFECT DAY OF EATING
OK, that’s a bit misleading. There is no such thing as a “perfect day of food,” but this sample meal plan can be a road map to creating your own winning diet based on the principles above.
- ¾ cup oatmeal topped with:
- 1 cup blueberries
- 1 tablespoon almonds
336 calories, 14 grams protein, 48 grams carbs, 13 grams fat
- ½ cup plain 2% Greek yogurt
- 1 tablespoon hemp seeds
155 calories, 21 grams protein, 11 grams carbs, 7 grams fat
- 3 ounces chicken breast
- 1 cup cooked quinoa
- 2 cups steamed broccoli
- ¼ avocado
503 calories, 40 grams protein, 56 grams carbs, 15 grams fat
- 1 small apple, sliced
- 2 teaspoons almond butter
144 calories, 2 grams protein, 23 grams carbs, 6 grams fat
- 1 cup milk
- 1 small banana
- 1 scoop whey protein
272 calories, 27 grams protein, 36 grams carbs, 3 grams fat
- 1 scoop whey protein (mixed with water)
85 calories, 20 grams protein, 1 gram carbs, 0 grams fat