When I was 20 yeas old I signed up for Weight Watchers, now I am not sure how Weight Watchers has evolved since 2006 but what I do know is this; I had 20 points for the day and various different foods were allotted a selected amount of points. For the most part it made sense, broccoli was significantly lower than cake, and many vegetables had zero points, which meant they were “free” to eat en mass. Why the system failed to work for me long term was my own tendency to abuse said system. Croissant for 7 points? I’ll have just shy of 3 of those today. A pie only 10? I can have one for breakfast and one for dinner, and voila, 20 points covered.
What I failed to realize in all of this master trickery, is the need for micronutrients as well as the right balance of macro nutrients, together with timing of meals to really enable me to have an all round healthy diet that would simultaneously support my body composition goals.
Keep it simple stupid? I needed to eat the right combination of nutrient dense food to look good and feel great.
This brings me to today, and what I have learnt over the years. Let me start by saying, I am a qualified personal trainer, I have completed a basic nutrition course, but I am by no means a registered dietician. What I would like to share with you is what I have learned, so take with it a pinch of salt (but no more than 4g per day please) and do you own research.
With all the new age information and bro science out there, it’s hard to tell what is a fad and what is valuable. I don’t need to tell you how many different “diets” are on offer, just open pretty much any magazine or instagram hashtag and you’re sure to hear the latest trend to get you to your goal weight in less time than the last diet we promoted.
What I would like to clear up is the following:
Yes some saturated fats aren’t bad for you, but does it mean eating a cake made of almond meal, coconut flour, walnuts, coconut oil and cacao is going to help you lose weight? Not necessarily. Just because some fats are not technically bad for you does not mean you should eat them freely. They are highly calorific and will affect your overall body composition goals. For every 1 gram of fat you get 9 calories. I am not saying don’t eat fat, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that most things in excess are bad for you, just be aware of how much you are taking in daily.
Just because something isn’t bad for you, does not automatically mean it is good for you.
A very low carb diet is the best way to torch unwanted fat. No, and it also non sustainable. Carbohydrates are a vital part for your diet. Yes athletes cut carbs, but more often or not it’s just before a competition, and they also dehydrate themselves, so I am not entirely sure how you plan to apply this to your life long term.
“High protein bro!” Yes and no. Most of us do not reach our protein goals without significant effort. But according to nutritionists, healthy protein levels are 0.75g per KG of body weight, or 0.34g per pound of body weight for the average healthy adult. However, this does not take into account the people who want to significantly increase their muscle mass, and who are lifting weights regularly. Protein intake is therefore dependent on our individual goals. But it is important to note, that protein should form a large part of your meal plans.
Many people will flat out deny the age-old equation of calories in versus calories out. Personally, I went through a stage of denying it too. Counting calories sounds archaic and reminiscent of an anroexic’s food journal, but treated with care and a broader knowledge of macronutrients and micronutrients, calorie counting, in my opinion, is the perfect way to be mindful about what you are eating and being aware of where you are unknowingly consuming excess calories.
What is healthy eating?
There’s eating healthy and there’s eating healthy to lose weight and the two have one very important difference. Eating healthily is eating a balanced macronutrient and micronutrient diet, without exceeding your daily calorie requirements. Eating healthy to lose weight is eating a balanced macronutrient and micronutrient diet with a caloric deficit.
What are macronutrients (macros)? Protein, carbohydrates and fats.
What are micronutrients (micros)? Fibre, vitamins, minerals and even water.
There are 9 calories in 1g of fat, 4 calories in 1g of carbohydrate and protein and 7 calories in 1g of alcohol; which is considered an empty calorie.
To work out your daily calorie requirements
You first need to work out your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) and multiply it by your Physical Activity Level (PAL) and subtract 500 calories to lose weight at a moderate sustainable pace; see The Schofield Equation and PAL factor
BMR x PAL = Calories required to maintain weight
BMR x PAL – 500 = Calories required to lose weight at a moderate, healthy and sustainable pace.
Many will tell you, that by deducting a specific amount of calories you should lose a specific amount of weight per week, and this is where I disagree. There is no way to categorically measure how much weight you will lose when you consider,
1) Over/under estimating your calorie measurements
2) If you are gaining muscle at the same time.
This is why I don’t believe calorie counting is as black and white as it may seem, but where I do believe in its benefits is creating mindfulness over what you are consuming on a daily basis. Personally, I was astonished as to how many extra calories I was eating out of boredom or just because something was in front of me. Counting my calories keeps me accountable and makes me think twice before shoving something into my gob for the sake of it.
Now, back to macros and micros
Which is more important; calories or macros and micros? Well let me ask you this, what is more important to make your car drive, petrol in your tank or air in your tires? Both (unless you want to be difficult and tell me you can push a car as long as there is air in the tires, or cars have the run flat feature – to you I say, shush!)
It is impractical to get all your calories from only one macro group, as macros have different purposes. Without carbohydrates, your protein isn’t going to your muscles and your energy to exercise will be less than none. Without fats, your body won’t be able to absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Without satisfying micronutrient needs, your macros won’t be used effectively. It’s not as simple as saying, “if it fits my macros I’m eating whatever I want”. The quality of your macros and micros is drastically important, especially considering insulin spikes, hormone levels, energy requirements (depending on activities), appetite, cognitive function, sleep issues, metabolism, food addiction, harmful chemicals in processed foods, the list goes on and on.
We also need to factor in the time between our meals. Many experts agree on between 2 and 4 hours depending on what you are doing. It is very important to keep our blood sugar levels stable to prevent the urge to binge or satisfy a sugar drop with processed, high sugar, quick and easy to access foods.
Generally the following balance of macros is recommended; protein 0.75g per kg body weight for the average healthy adult (or between 0.8g and 1.5g per POUND of body weight, **see note below), 25-35% fats and 35-50% carbs. I recently read online in a forum the following “equation” when prioritising your calories and macros: Calories > Protein > Fats > Carbs.
**Quick point on protein, this is the most argued subject on all the bodybuilding, fitness, weight lifting, blogs, websites and forums. 0.75g/kg seems low, I know, but that RDA was put in place considering a sedentary healthy adult. The most accepted and agreed upon protein intake for someone wanting to build muscle, tone up or gain mass is approximately 0.8g-1g per POUND of body weight for females and 1-1.5g per POUND of body weight for males.
I am not saying you can’t ever eat a doughnut, cake, chocolate, pastry, hot dog etc, in fact I would encourage you to do so once in a while, because as soon as you start labeling the foods you crave as bad, you will crave them more, we can’t help but to want to rebel. But once you start practicing a regular healthy lifestyle you stop craving those things for the majority of the time.
My “rule of thumb” advice to you is the following:
- If it grew out the ground, eat it.
- Make vegetables the star of your plate.
- Opt for wholegrain carbohydrates
- Even if you aren’t a pro, there are so many easy meals to make, that take no time at all and taste better than your local take away, like this one.
- When grocery shopping, spend most of your time in the fresh produce aisles.
- Grocery shop once a week with all your meals planned ahead of time.
- Choose a protein for each meal and then buy ALL the vegetables to add to it.
- Eat a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables.
- Don’t beat yourself up for “breaking the rules”
- Avoid sugar as best you can. Read the labels of whatever you’re buying. If sugar is one of the first ingredients, put it down.
- Try to have a “non-traditional carb’ for dinner, for example zoodles instead of pasta, or caulirice instead of rice. Not because I think pasta or rice is bad for you, but it’s a good way to get yourself to eat more vegetables.
- As Michael Pollan says in his book “Food Rules”; if you aren’t hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re probably not that hungry.
At the end of the day, there will be varying opinions and we rarely get it perfect, but just short of perfection is excellence and if we are at least trying to be mindful, trying to make the best choices when we can, we will start to see progress and we won’t feel like we have failed or as if we have some unattainable goal to reach every single day.
Calorie Counting Tool
A great tool to help you track your calories, as well as your macros and micros is My Fitness Pal. I am in no way affiliated with the app or brand; I just truly love how it works. When you start, it seems like a nuisance to find all the things you eat, but you eventually build up a stockpile of frequently eaten foods and it makes it easier to select. After a while you also learn to know what type of portions and meal composition you should have without needing a calorie counting tool. Word to the wise, get a food scale!
All summed up
So in summary, count your calories if it works for you, but make sure you are looking at where your calories are coming from. Balance your plate with all three macros, making sure you have a variety of vegetables and protein sources to ensure you are getting the micronutrients you need.