First you need to work out your caloric intake – this is the amount of calories you need to eat each day in order to lose body fat or build muscle.
The simple way to do this, like I’ve posted probably 300 times in the last few years, is to take your body weight in kilograms and multiply it by 36 this will give you your calorie target for gaining muscle mass.
For fat loss take your body weight in pounds and multiply it by 12.
There are hundreds of different formulas for working out your daily calorie goals but these two are the ones we’ve landed at through years of trial and error with different formulas and 1000s of clients and athletes.
They tend to give a good starting point for 99% of people.
It’s worth stressing that no formula, no matter how clever, can truly know how many calories you need to eat to reach your goal so this is just a starting point, an educated estimate as to how many calories you should consume each day in order to build muscle or lose body fat.
Once you’ve got your calorie target the next thing to do is work out your protein, carbohydrate and fat (macronutrient) targets for the day.
Again, I have two ways to do this.
For fat loss a simple and effective way is to get one third of your daily calories from each macronutrient.
Let’s say for fat loss your daily calorie goal is 2500 calories a day, then you want to get 833 of those calories from protein, 833 from fat and 833 from carbs.
Protein and carbs have 4 calories in every gram so to consume 833 calories worth of protein or carbs you need to eat 208 grams of either macronutrient.
Fat has 9 calories per gram which means to consume 833 calories via fat you need to eat about 92 grams.
This also why some “diets” suggesting that going low fat will help you lose weight, it’s not because fat makes you fat – it’s because fat is a denser macronutrient, it has more than double the amount of calories per gram than foods that are primarily carbs or protein so by restricting fat intake you’re increasing your chance of being in a calorie deficit.
A consistent calorie deficit equals fat loss when paired with intelligent training, good hydration and plenty of sleep.
So using our example again, someone aiming to lose body with a calorie target of 2500kcal a day should shoot for 208g of protein, 208g carbs and 92g of fat per day.
For muscle building we take a slightly different approach inspired by Eric Helms.
First we set our protein targets by multiplying body weight in kilograms by 2.3, so an 80 kilo guy would aim for 184g of protein per day.
Next, we set fat targets – we want our fat target to be about 25% of our daily calories so again using our 80 kilo guy, his daily calorie target for building muscle is 2880.
25% of that is 720 calories, so we then need to divide 720 by 9 (remember there are 9 calories in every gram of fat) this means his fat target is 80 grams per day.
Last is carbs, whatever calories are left over are made up by carbs so in this case our example guy will be aiming for 356 grams of carbs a day.
None of this is set in stone either by the way, some people work better off higher carb / lower fat others off lower carbs / higher fat – it’s not majorly important, in fact carbs and fats are fairly interchangeable. Hitting calorie and protein targets consistently are the key parts.
Once you’ve got all your daily targets you need to think about when are you going to eat this food.
This can actually be pretty straightforward.
Protein intake should be spread evenly across the course of the day.
So if you have 150g of protein to eat and you know you’re going to have 5 meals or snacks each day then all you need to do is make sure that each meal/snack contain about 30g of protein.
To start with this will probably feel a bit tricky ‘cos you have to constantly figure out how much chicken equals 30g of protein, how much whey protein equals 30g of protein and so on.
But once you’re a couple of weeks in to tracking your food (which I’ll talk about later) you’ll know these numbers without really thinking about it too much.
Fat can also be spread out over the course of the day.
When it comes to carbs there are two simple choices.
You can spread them out over the course of the day – this will serve you just fine.
Or, on training days, you can eat most of your carbs in the couple of hours before, during and after training. This is not essential as spreading them out across the day is much easier and more convenient but you may experience some extra benefits in terms of energy and recovery if you ‘bracket’ your training sessions with your daily carbs.
Again this not essential though unless you’re an elite athlete, then I’d advise doing it.
The next thing to think about is food choices, what to eat.
I have two simple guidelines for this.
One: 90% of the time eat single ingredient foods.
That’s all the good stuff, whole, real, healthy food whatever you want to call it but you know what I mean – pick chicken and veg over Chicago Town pizzas.
Two: Be flexible 10% of the time.
This means that sometimes you can eat whatever kind of food you want as long as you’re still hitting your daily nutrition targets.
This allows you to enjoy life a bit and not stress about having a bag of minstrels at the cinema with your missus.
That’s it for food choices.
Stick to those two guidelines and you’ll be sound.
Now all this is great, calculations, formulas, targets, macros but they’re all just numbers on a screen if you don’t actually hit them.
So here’s the important part; tracking what you eat.
People can preach all they want about not needing to count calories to get results but two scientific facts always remain.
To consistently lose body fat you need to be in a slight calorie deficit (consuming less calories than your body burns so it uses stored fat as energy).
And to consistently build muscle you need to be in calorie surplus (consuming more calories than your body needs so you’re providing it with the building blocks to grow).
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again . . . that my friends is science.
Because I labour this point on the importance of caloric intake I was once accused of not being open to other people’s ideas and opinions. I found annoying considering my principles are formed by spending the last 12 or so years being open to ideas and studying under a wide variety of the smartest people in the strength & conditioning, nutrition and sport science world, added to the fact that I actively seek people out to podcast with so I can learn from them and share their perspectives on fitness and nutrition through our platform.
Anyway, my point is you can be an advocate of whatever approach to nutrition that you like (you’ve got to do what feels right for you) but regardless of which approach you take a calorie deficit is needed for fat loss and a calorie surplus is needed for muscle building.
I say all that I to highlight the importance of tracking.
You can’t accurately know if you’re eating the right amount of calories to reach your goals if you don’t track what you eat – without tracking you’re guessing at best.
My preferred way of tracking food intake, and the one we advise our members to use, is an app called MyFitnessPal.
Every time you eat something enter in into the app and it gives you an instant update as to how many calories, carbs, fats and protein you’ve eaten that day. All you need to do is keep eating, keep entering your food into the app, keep checking where you’re up to throughout the day and make sure you get as close to your targets as you can on a daily basis (you’ll never hit them exactly but being in the right ball park each day, like within 150 calories either way will do the job).
So if you get to dinner time, check MyFitnessPal and see that you have 32g of protein, 50g of carbs and 12g grams of fat left to eat then you need to make up a meal that helps you hit those targets – some combination of meat/fish, potatoes and vegetables will probably do the trick here.
Now remember earlier when I said that the daily nutrition targets that we set we just an educated estimate?
This is another reason why tracking is important – those targets might be bang on but there’s also a good chance that they’re slightly off. The only way to know which one it is, is to hit them every day for 3-4 weeks and see how we progress.
So on day one you should take some measurements (weight, body fat, muscle girth) and some photos. Then for 3-4 weeks be really consistent in hitting your targets then do your measurements again.
If you’ve made good progress (lost fat, gained muscle etc.) stick with those targets for another 2-4 weeks before re-doing your measurements once more.
If you’ve stayed the same or made negative progress (and you’ve truly been very consistent) then make some adjustments – increase or decrease your calorie intake depending on what you’re aiming for.
This process should then get repeated over and over again, month after month.
Track, take measurements, adjust.
Track, take measurements, adjust.
Track, take measurements, adjust.
All while sticking to the basic guideline of eating good quality, single ingredient food 90% of the time and being a bit flexible the other 10%.
If you consistently follow this set up for your nutrition I guarantee you’ll make significant progress. It works time and time again for me, our team and our members – all you have to do is make sure you put it into action consistently.