A Basic Guide to Nutrition for Improving Fitness

Understanding nutrition can feel like peeling off the layers of an onion to reach its core. You may think that you know something well, only to find research or experiences that oppose your views. The studies and experts, just like in fitness, often contradict each other as well.

Jack LaLanne Preparing Food for Good Nutrition

As you delve into the details, you may to start to doubt the foundation of your knowledge.

Training seems much the same way, at least at first. Eventually you come to understand that the basic principles get you just about all of your results. Many breakthroughs only seem that way at first, just to even out in the end or occur only under special circumstances, such as within studies irrelevant to healthy trainees.

Many also misattribute the source of the benefits they gain. The placebo effect likely accounts for much of the progress that people have or believe themselves to have.

Finally, in my opinion, humans are adaptable, thriving on a variety of diets when combined with a healthy lifestyle. We still do our best though with access to a variety of foods.

I am focused on studying exercise, yet know that proper nutrition and rest are absolute requirements for getting results. This has driven me to learn more so that these would not act as the limiting factors to improve myself and clients in the past.

I am not a current student, professor, doctor, dietitian, or even a nutritionist. I am someone who has taken coursework in nutrition throughout college and has absorbed a lot of research and perspectives. Therefore, please see a qualified professional if having any serious issues with your health.


Short cuts make long delays.

– Pippin (J.R.R. Tolkien)

  • Calorie management matters most for building muscle or losing fat.

The most important choice you will make, if you want to change your weight, is how many calories you consume. You should add calories to build muscle and drop calories to lose fat.

Though maintaining weight to build muscle and lose fat at the same time can happen, it seems to occur more readily in beginners, those with ideal genetics, and those who gain a tremendous advantage by taking performance-enhancing drugs.

The challenge is that your body has different hormonal environments depending on if you are gaining or losing weight. This makes recomposition tough. Yet, if you find that perfect number of calories so that your hormones are balanced just right, you may achieve it, though it may not be optimal.

Most people then will have the most success by dieting with a wave-like pattern. This means alternating periods of gaining and losing weight, aiming to put on lean mass and reduce body fat with each cycle, for the same or a slightly heavier body weight.

No firm rules exist on how to apply this system. Typically, you focus on bulking for a few months, finding it easier to improve on your exercises. Most trainees choose to stop gaining weight either when they have grown too fat or go beyond an acceptable weight, though the conditions for each of these are almost always the same.

You could keep gaining though if you did not care about your health, function, and appearance. Sumo wrestlers, though fat, have enormous amounts of muscle.

You follow this stage with a cutting period in which you try your best to at least hold onto your progress, though you will probably lose some. You stop when you have achieved a level of leanness without having lost too much muscle.

During this cutting phase, you can experiment with weekly micro-cycles, perhaps eating a little more on or near your workout days to feel less hungry and more energized. Though the body may use nutrients more quickly after workouts, it seems unlikely that these calories shift more toward lean tissue than fat compared with spreading the calories out into the future. You may recover a bit faster though.

Keep in mind that you will always gain some fat while bulking, and will almost always lose some muscle while cutting. This gets even harder as you become leaner.

If you want the best results, then you will need to measure your food. Avoid changing the number of calories away from your baseline, or the amount that maintains your weight, much further than 500 calories per day. Combined with proper exercise, this may emphasize building muscle.

Muscle can only develop so fast, at a rate much lower than most think, while you can get fat much faster and more easily. Rare exceptions to this rule know it by now already and can try a larger swing.

The obese may want to pass on this suggestion too, since the health problems associated with too much fat seem greater than that of rapid weight loss. A more rapid intervention also helps with motivation, even if sacrificing some lean tissue. Overweight trainees are usually beginners, so they may actually gain some muscle while losing a lot of fat.

In most cases, you have limits in how much you can decrease, such as no less than about 1000-1300 calories for women and about 1200-1500 calories for men. Even these levels may require a multivitamin, and they are not recommended.

Dropping calories too much may adversely affect hormones such as leptin, ghrelin, and insulin, which can make it tougher to lose body fat. Obesity can disrupt the regulation of these hormones through resistance though, which makes things even harder for them.

Set point theory, the concept that your body has an ideal weight and amount of body fat, changing its internal state so that you approach it, does seem to exist. Our ancestors relied on fat throughout our evolution, and the abundance of food today does not reflect the past. You also need some fat just to function.

This cannot overcome the law of the conservation of energy though. Imagine it like pushing a large boulder across a flat surface for a little while until you get to the edge and roll it down the hill. Drop your calories significantly and for long enough, knowing that this will test your resolve, and you will always lose weight.

You burn calories inefficiently through exercise, so avoid doing it more. Even the maintenance of muscle tissue does not help as much as you may hope. Consume fewer calories and keep the same good routine at all times if you want to lose weight.

  • Most people can achieve the minimums in modern society.

Beyond calories, you need to reach some minimums for micronutrients that include vitamins and minerals. Discover these needs by looking at food labels and using guidelines from the national governments. Those that weigh more need higher intakes but will get this naturally with more food.

A simple multivitamin serves as insurance; the health risks from any deficiencies seem much greater than the risk of overdosing. If you have a well-rounded diet, with a little of something from every food group, then you can try doing without one.

The most common vitamins and minerals to supplement beyond this are calcium, magnesium, zinc, and vitamin D. You may want to watch out for too much iron depending on your diet. Vegans and vegetarians need to be aware of getting enough iron, B12, and iodine beyond the ones listed above.

Probiotics may help some people with digestion and boost the absorption of helpful chemicals in our foods.

Fiber acts like a filter to clean out sticky particles that clog your body. It helps to keep you full along with water. By eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, you will not need to worry about getting enough.

We have minimums for the macronutrients too, which include fat, protein, and carbohydrates.

You need enough essential fatty acids (EFAs). Omega-3 fats tend to get eaten less often than omega-6 fats, and some good sources of omega-3 include fish, flaxseed, walnuts, soy, and sea plants. You only need a few grams a day though animals, especially seafood, seem to provide a better source for these fats. Fat has more density than carbohydrates and protein, so it will feel easier to overeat with high-fat meals.

Some saturated fat may slightly help with building testosterone, but likely not enough to see any difference in your training. Too much saturated fat comes at a terrible cost to your health. You should make an effort to consume less, avoiding eating the main source, red meat, too often. Other good foods will provide some saturated fat without you dwelling on it.

Eating more cholesterol, usually through eggs, would seem to help our bodies produce more testosterone. Consider though that the body makes far more than we can get through our diets. Proper training, having sex, sleeping well, and even just setting ambitious goals will raise testosterone too. Supplements have almost no effect.

Protein has a lot of opinions surrounding it. It seems you need more the less you eat and the more you train. Most research shows no benefit beyond .8 grams per pound (g per lb.) of lean mass, with many trainees rounding this up to 1 g per lb. of total bodyweight. Some bodybuilders and nutritionists go as high as 1.5-3.0 g per lb. but rely on citing potential benefits and personal experiences.

Some state that consuming too much protein has no risk, which does not seem true. Even if it fails to stress the kidneys in healthy subjects like once thought, it can boost IGF-1, which can increase cancer growth. Perhaps though we need to blame too much fat, which tends to coincide with high protein.

I suggest getting at least .36 grams of protein per lb., the U.S. RDA, as the minimum. Some people seem to do fine on even less than this, though they tend not to be advanced lifters. If everything else in your routine and diet seems adequate yet you fail to make progress, you should have no issues with increasing it up to 1 g per lb. for bodyweight.

Take into account though that some of the highest rates of growth ever shown in studies, about 15 pounds of lean mass added within a few months, have occurred on amounts as low as 100-120 grams of protein for men.

Some studies seem to show that too much protein blunts testosterone. Most high-protein foods lack fiber to slow down digestion, so you may overeat.

Animal foods have a complete array of the amino acids you need, but with a variety of plants, they could fulfill your needs here too, though digestibility and enough variety could be issues.

The body does not require carbohydrates, but to exercise well and to operate best, they rank just as importantly as the other macronutrients. Lowering carbs too much, usually below 100 grams per day for most men, brings on some degree of ketosis, which has your body use ketones instead of glucose. This reduces the intensity possible for lifting and intervals, and many feel lethargic.

Deficiencies will harm your health, and in many cases, prevent progress. Meet with a doctor and get blood work done if you do not feel right. For someone training naturally, eating a balanced diet leading to good health works best.

  • There are no shortcuts.

The body has countless pathways that send signals to the brain, letting it accurately know the state of your body. You cannot trick your body for long, and calories will always determine your weight. By trying to do so, you may sacrifice your health by focusing on a macronutrient that brings no better results.

Too many carbs or protein will make you convert more dietary fat into body fat. Too much dietary fat converts readily into body fat, leading to gluconeogenesis to create glucose that replaces carbs. Too little fat leads to a process called de novo lipogenesis, which creates body fat first from carbs and then from protein. So no matter how you divide it, too many calories leads to more body fat.

Consider that research in the past, as little as 10 years ago, seemed to show the advantages of low fat and high carbs for fat loss, the reverse state of what many people believe today. This research led in part to the traditional bodybuilding diet of lean protein and complex carbs. The mainstays of chicken or fish with rice and vegetables is healthful but not special. Perhaps the blandness made it more appealing in a way to the hardcore.

Though many will feel fuller on more protein and fat, along with the fact that processing protein has a small thermic effect that burns some calories, foods rich in carbohydrates contain more water and fiber, which fill you up without any calories whatsoever.

You really cannot do anything short of changing your hormones artificially to build much more muscle while losing more fat. Getting enough protein will ensure you gain as much muscle as you can.

Practices such as aerobics on an empty stomach may tap into fat at first, but it all evens out in time. This will also prevent you from using more intense bursts of speed.

Some people choose extreme diets with the best of intentions. Most do it though to take the easy way out, instead of accepting the real challenge of reducing calories. Extremes make it less likely that you will get the minimums you need for nutrients and therefore good health.

  • Misattribution often occurs.

Trainees often attribute too much of their own or the results of others to training or diet. This ignores the influence of genetics and drugs.

People tend to change many variables at once, choosing to emphasize whatever grabs their attention. For instance, many will claim that more protein drove their growth but forget that they added calories too.

People overlook temporary effects as well. The pump they get during bodybuilding-style routines, which occurs for a short time only, makes them feel like they built more muscle.

Someone could think that they lost weight quickly with a shift in their macronutrients when instead they consumed less sodium, causing less water retention and revealing the muscles better.

  • Focus on whole, natural foods.

The compounds in whole, natural foods have synergies that we know of or await our discovery. They contain phytonutrients and other chemicals eliminated in processed foods.

Most of us eat too many processed foods. Too much fat and sugar along with a lack of fiber make them dense and easy to gorge on. The tasty calories trigger dopamine spikes in your brain, similar to that of a drug user, making you want more in the future.

Artificial trans fats created for processed foods harm your health terribly. Toxins, preservatives, and other additives likely increase the risk of cancer and may bring other problems.

Reintroducing certain whole foods like beans though may feel tough on your bowels on the short run. You can try techniques like soaking them in water to remove some irritants or exclude them altogether, but your body may adjust too. Our bodies are meant to handle the bad so we can accept the good.

Avoid lies that justify poor choices. Eating a so-called paleo diet loaded with oils, or claiming that eating plants alone is best for health, both reveal wishful thinking. Neither of these options are optimal.

Animal foods such as lean meats, seafood, dairy, and eggs provide good fats such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a bit of saturated fat, and other nutrients including zinc, heme iron (better absorption), and vitamin B12. Other chemicals that will boost performance and health that are exclusive to or more concentrated in animal foods include creatine, carnosine, cartinine, taurine, COQ10, choline, selenium, and iodine.

Many of these non-essential, in that you are an animal so can produce them yourself, yet give small but real benefits to performance and health.

Fish, for example, brings what many scientists consider the best source of omega-3 fats, since they are already broken down into EPA and DHA. Most plant sources, except sea vegetables, come in ALA form that the body seems to convert inefficiently, especially into DHA.

It seems we operate best on a diet with both plant and animal foods.

  • Avoid sensitivities and allergies.

Most foods that irritate people are within the following categories:

  • Dairy
  • Eggs
  • Soy
  • Wheat (specifically gluten)
  • Fish (usually shellfish)
  • Nuts (including peanuts)
  • Foods high in tyramine, which tend to be fermented

Any food though can bother you. Many then wrongly assume that foods harming some people, or themselves, will harm everyone, and ignore any benefits.

Pay attention to how you feel when consuming foods, not the advice of others. If they affect you poorly, take them out or get testing to know for sure.

  • Timing, composition, and the frequency of your meals matters little for changing your weight.

Certain plans can make you feel better in other ways though, such as by making you less hungry and happier for the same amount of calories. The end result remains the same no matter how you eat, even if different in the short term.

Fasting can have you potentially eat less since you have less time for meals. You can indulge in larger portions. Many adherents claim more energy during the fast. Fasting longer than 24 hours may tap into your muscle stores, but perhaps your body rebuilds that muscle quicker? I am not sure. This would make sense given the muscle memory phenomena in lifting.

You can ignore the glycemic index, a measurement that compares how quickly carbs convert to glucose, for weight gain or loss. It may still have effects on feelings of energy and satiety. To avoid a feeling of crashing, you can just eat high glycemic foods along with other foods containing protein, fat, and fiber.

  • Your diet can affect you beyond weight gain or loss.

Even a good food like spinach is high in oxalates, which may worsen the symptoms of certain diseases. It can affect the absorption of key nutrients such as calcium. This shows the value of variety when it comes to food.

Many come to feel sluggish when consuming too much sugar, which spikes insulin and then lowers blood glucose, which can lead to a crash in energy. Well-balanced meals can make you feel more stable.

Certain diets, such as the DASH diet, have proven to reduce blood pressure. The eating plans promoted by doctors Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn have proven to reverse heart disease.

Nonetheless, deficiencies in vegan and vegetarian diets are likely without enough knowledge and planning, or perhaps regardless.

Dietary changes will affect your bowel movements, especially when adding fiber. Do not judge the diet prematurely within the first couple of weeks.

Eating large meals before training can shunt blood toward digestion instead of the muscles, and you may feel bloated too.

Drinking 4-8 glasses of water or some other liquid daily should prevent dehydration which can harm performance.

Special diets and supplements may aid those with health conditions yet not help normal people. Many make this mistake when analyzing nutrition.

In small amounts, the research appears to show that caffeine and alcohol have a net positive benefit. Too much will harm you though. Alcohol can blunt testosterone and raise cortisol while caffeine can reduce sleep. These drugs are addicting, and you build up a tolerance too. You will need more and more to feel the effects you enjoy.

A Basic Guide to Nutrition for Improving Fitness

Achieving good health and monitoring your calories matter the most. Focusing on eating a variety of foods with a single ingredient will work best. No purely good or bad hormone exists, and this represents a good way to view macronutrients and food in general.

You do have some flexibility. What you do most of the time matters most and not what you decide here and there. You can refeed, or have days where you consume far more calories, occasionally even while on a strict diet.

As with fitness, many assume that more is better. Avoid viewing nutrition this way; turn on the right switches to allow improvement.

Get enough nutrients and protein. A bit of saturated fat is fine. Shun extremes. Focus mostly on the right foods; you already know what they are. Monitor your progress.

Things do get harder as you age, and this is unavoidable. You can delay the process and continue to improve in part by eating well.

Exercise helps to protect us against the bad effects from food, which are unavoidable, similar to how oxygen harms the body. Extreme diets seem better tolerated when the lifestyle otherwise includes exercise, minimal stress, social bonding, and other factors that boost long-term happiness.

People have thrived on many diets. You are unique and may respond to foods differently than others. Only you can determine what works by experimenting and getting a doctor’s help if needed.

Beyond diet, stay safe and get results by lifting weights with these three exercises only and using intervals. Get enough restful sleep. Take walks and see lots of bright light during the day.

There are no great secrets in nutrition. You may find tiny nuggets by sifting through the research. Drugs can change you dramatically but go beyond nutrition, while remaining unacceptable on a personal level for most of us.

Follow this basic guide to nutrition for improving your fitness. Watch your calories and reach your minimums. It is simple to understand yet hard to follow.

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