This time, we’re figuring out what you need to make this all work. I’m a fan of the low-carb (ketogenic) dieting approach for a lot of reasons and so will be biased toward that here. Low fat is possible but is really not a superior way to go for most people in terms of changes in overall body composition. I’ll save the endocrinology lesson unless people actually ask for it.
This is the only article in this series that will be dealing with math but it’s some pretty important math. First thing to do is to figure out your overall target intake. The best way to do this is to carefully measure everything you eat for about 2 weeks and keep track. If, at the end of that period, your weight doesn’t move (or fluctuates 3lbs in either direction), you’ve found your maintenance level. Once you figure out your maintenance level, reduce that by 20% and that’s your target caloric intake for dieting.
For example, if your maintenance is 2000kCal per day, reducing that by 20% would give you a target of 1600kCal per day.
I’ll break here to mention that there are calculators that exist to calculate your maintenance and such but, in all honesty, those suck out loud. Also, a 20% deficit is the maximum most people should consider. If that’s too hard to stick with, start with 10-15% and taper downward…or just stick with a smaller deficit. Progress will go slower but, if it’s sustainable, that won’t matter.
The alternative is based on lean body mass (LBM). LBM is the amount of bodyweight that is NOT bodyfat. This covers water, muscle, waste, skin, hair, bone, etc. You’ll need the LBM measurement a few other times so let’s figure it out now. You can either use this calculator or take your goal weight and subtract 15% for men and 18% for women. It’s not exact but gives us somewhere to start.
Another example: If a man has a target weight of 200lbs, reducing that by 15% (200 x .85) gives an LBM estimate of 170. Starting out, these rough estimates are fine. Back to calculating target calorie intake.
A good starting point is to take your LBM and multiply that number by 12. We can adjust this later if needed. The man with a 200lb target weight that has 170lbs of LBM can start with 2040kCal.
Got your LBM and your target calorie rate? Good. This will all be over in a couple of minutes, I promise.
The next thing that needs to be figured out is a protein requirement. Protein is the basic building block of your muscle tissue and so is important in repairing and preserving the muscle you have now. However, protein is also easier for your body to convert to energy than fat. If you’re taking in fewer calories than you’re burning, that extra energy has to come from somewhere. That somewhere is your muscles if your dietary protein intake is too low.
I’m going to use protein requirement guidelines suggested by Lyle McDonald (and others) because they’re pretty well accepted in the community.
Basically inactive people (no regular strenuous exercise, maybe a walk now and again) should be aiming for between .9-1g of protein per pound of LBM. People involved in regular exercise should be going for 1.1-1.25g of protein per pound of LBM. People that do a lot of steady state cardio (biking/rowing/running for long periods multiple times per week) should be aiming for about 1.5g of protein per pound of LBM. The last category won’t apply to most people.
As an aside, once we get out of the diet stuff and into the training information, you’ll find out why you shouldn’t do long steady state sessions unless you’re actually a marathon runner or bicyclist or some other endurance athlete.
So, we’ll go back to our 200lb man. Recall that he had 170lbs LBM. If he is on a weight training regimen 3 days per week, he’ll need up to 1.25g of protein per pound. That gives him a daily requirement of about 212g. At 4kCal per gram, that’s 850kCal from protein.
The next thing to figure out is your fat requirement. Total fat intake should be right around .5g per pound of LBM. You want to split that pretty evenly between saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats. We’ll take that mythical man again. At 170lbs LBM, he’ll need 85g of fats per day. At 9kCal per gram, that’s 765kCal from fats.
This is also a good place to throw in a mention of Omega 3 fatty acids. The best place to get these is fish oil capsules. 4-6000mg of fish oil daily should be enough for most people. If that doesn’t sit well, about a tablespoon of flaxseed oil will work too. This…I don’t even bother to add it, really. It ends up being about 60-80kCal. That’s not really worth counting.
So now that we have our minimum fats and protein figured out, we can program in the rest of the diet. Basically, we want to fill in whatever gap we have left. Our test subject man needs a total of about 2040kCal per day to diet. With 850 and 765 being taken up by protein and fat, respectively, we have about 425kCal left to account for. This can be carbohydrates, fats, or protein. It really doesn’t matter and is about whatever makes you happiest. If you go with carbohydrates, try to aim for things that don’t have a lot of refining. Whole grains, oats, quinoa, brown rice, etc. If it’s white, don’t eat it. Fruits are fine as well. As long as you hit your minimums, fill in the rest as you see fit.
What do you DO with all this information? This is to keep track of what you’re eating, so we want a simple way to do that. I recommend FitDay. It’s free and allows you to add an infinite number of custom foods that are always available. Since it’s web based, you can access it from any computer with an internet connection. I believe there’s an iPhone app for those of you into that nonsense as well. Check the site out, create an account, and familiarize yourself with it.
Now that’s out of the way, there are a few addendums we can make here. If you’re not planning to exercise, this doesn’t apply to you. I don’t know why you wouldn’t, but it’s not my place to judge. It’s not necessary at first. After all, while we’re talking about losing weight and/or recomposing the body, all these things apply to maintaining as well. As such, we’re trying to build something sustainable long term…ideally, the rest of your life. We’ll change one thing at a time, isolating and altering variables by themselves. The chances of long term success go up when change is made in small pieces rather than all at once.
The last thing I have to say for this article is on the subject of vegetables. Lots of veggies count as basically free foods. Leafy greens, onions, cucumbers, mushrooms, and celery are some of the better ones. Green salads with minimal dressing are good. Avoid creamy dressings like Thousand Island, Ranch, Bleu Cheese, French, etc. Stick with vinaigrettes as the oils will count toward your unsaturated fat intake. My dressing of choice is Kraft Free Zesty Italian. 15 kCal for 2 tablespoons…really not bad.
These will be the basic guidelines for getting things set up and start cleaning up what you’re actually consuming, hopefully getting rid of some of the junk. Next time, we’ll discuss what, when, and how often to eat, and how to tweak the diet as necessary to keep things moving. It seems like a lot to process now, but it gets a lot easier as we go along. You’ll see.