If you have ever tried to read up on the internet about the ideal macronutrient ratio, then you know how overwhelming this can be. There are many different diets out there, paleo, Atkins, high fat / low carb, high carb / low fat, low calorie, high protein. Where does one even start! Some of the challenges of picking a specific diet is that there are people who subscribe to it and say that it works. But the underlying principle of things that work are essentially the same. When you reduce calories, eat less processed food, and exercise – this will help you lose weight. Without addressing any diet specifically, I’m going to instead walk through a case study and show how you might rethink some of the fundamentals of setting up a diet and sample exercise prescription for changing body composition – specifically fat loss. Note, this is different than macronutrient ratios for health, which you would want to more closely analyze your micronutrients and may have many other health factors that would need to be considered.
The theories I subscribe to, and some of the most well written analysis / process I’ve seen on this, is by Eric Helms: Muscle and Strength and Nutrition Pyramids. Other big influencers for me are: Lyle Macdonald’s “A Guide to Flexible Dieting“, Mike Israetael, and Brad Shoenfeld, top names in the field, and all with similar philosophies as to the basic pyramid of importance for nutrition for fat loss and muscle building. As Danny Lennon from Sigma Nutrition put it during an interview with Mike Israetael about the pyramid priorities..”So I think when you start to see what guys at the top of the game that are actually looking at science have the same approach. Then you can start to see well yeah that is probably the way to go..”
I’m going to use a case study by a friend that we’ll call Erica, to think through this process. This may be a bit long, but it help gives context to make following along the analysis better. Erica’s story:
“My main health goal is to get my body fat percentage back to around 18-20%. I’m not sure what is it right now, but I know that it is significantly higher that what it used to be. So I have tried several ratios throughout the past 3 or so years. I always notice that when I cut carbs to below 20%, I lose weight, but then I read some other articles that suggested I reduce them even lower to like 10-15%. That is really hard for me because I feel like all I have left to eat is meat, nuts and non-starchy veggies. I’m also not sure about protein because I read differing accounts. One blog I followed (can’t remember the name) suggested that you eat 50% protein which was really hard. On a 1800 calorie diet, that came out to around 225 grams a day. I think the most feasible ratio that I stuck with was 20 carbs, 40 protein, 40 fat. My biggest struggle is keeping carbs low without getting bored with diet. When I was the most fit, I really really watched what I ate – like obsessively. I am trying now to be gentler with myself, but I am having trouble finding that balance. I am lightly active plus 3-6 days of weight lifting. Right now, I work out 5 days a week. 3-4 of those days are lifting. 2 days are cardio. I have been lifting to gain muscle. But at the same time, I am also trying to get back into running. It is more difficult for me to run with extra weight on, so for the past couple of weeks, I’ve switched focus and started to focus on shedding extra weight to get back into running shape. I’m still lifting but I started reducing weight and increasing reps to turn my lifting into more of a cardio/strength training.”
The Pyramids: Understanding Priorities
As you can see, the very bottom the pyramid, before the true pyramid even starts, is behavior and lifestyle. If you do not create a diet you can stick to, then ultimately it does not matter. Even if you go on a very strict diet and lose 15 pounds, if you do not change some fundamental habits at your maintenance level, your body will naturally go back to its settling point that you were at before you lost the weight. So this post will be mostly focused on changing body composition for fat loss, but to keep in mind that maintenance at that new level entails long-term dietary changes as well, just not as much as to lose the initial fat.
Highlighting some of the things that stick out to me to being tailoring a plan for Erika is: Erica is not obese, but wants to lose about 15 pounds. She is weight lifting 3-4 out of the week, but wants to focus more so on fat loss to help her with her running. She increased her reps, and added cardio to try to help with the weight loss. She has trouble with finding a diet that is sustainable.
The basics of the plan for Erika
- Specific fat loss phase coupled with strength training of lower reps, (6-12 range) and higher weights to build muscle, which will help with the fat loss, as muscle is much more ‘metabolically expensive’ to not only maintain, but to build, and to minimize muscle loss during this process
- Some guidelines for maintenance to allow for flexibility in the diet to make it more sustainable over the long-term
Step one: Energy Balance and Calorie Intake
The first step that Erica needs to do is figure out her energy balance and calorie intake for maintenance level (Energy out and Energy In). As she describes in her post she was more focused on ratios before best assessing what her total caloric intake was. Cutting calories too low can negatively affect your workouts, make your body fight back harder and hinder weight loss, or cut into your lean body mass.
To better understand what comprises Energy Out, lets analyze the graph below from the textbook Nutrition for Sports and Exercise 3rd Edition:
You can see here, that a large chunk of your energy expenditure is your resting metabolic rate, (RMR) and the biggest chunk within your control is exercise. RMR is comprised of:
- Body composition (muscle burns more calories than fat)
- NEAT (Nonexercise activity thermogenesis) which is a fancy way of saying this is all the movements you do throughout the day which often are done subconsciously. Like twitching, getting up from the couch, walking around, yawning. This is influenced by both habits but also our diet. Women tend to respond strongly to low calorie diets by subconsciously saving energy and moving around less when calories are restricted too low or for too many days. The opposite is true to an extent, that when you go over your calorie balance, you tend to move around more and expend more calories. This is one of the things that contributes to your settling point.
So how does one go about estimated this complex process? One good way is to use an electronic device, such as an apple watch, fitbit, Garmin watch, etc. These are reasonably accurate but not completely. You can also log and estimate your activity to give you a ballpark estimate, or use an equation, which is highly variable, but can put you within a general range.
To log: Here’s a good website to help you get a ballpark for different sports and exercising.
Equations: A ballpark equation is to multiply your weight by 10, then multiply by activity. Also from the Muscle and Strength Nutrition Pyramids
Erika weighs 160lb, and she has a lightly active job and has 3-4 days of weight lifting. Because this graph includes ranges for both women and men, we are going to use the low end of the activity multiplier of 1.5 as women burn less calories both while at rest and during activity. So 160x10x1.5= 2400 on the low end, and 2,880 on the high end. You can see that’s a pretty big range. It gives us a good estimate, but tracking the calories and energy expenditure will help zoom in on this.
For calories in: The best way to figure this out is to suck it up and measure your intake and monitor your weight for 2 weeks. This means measuring your food with a digital scale, (before its cooked for consistency) and weigh yourself every day at the same time. While this won’t show changes in muscle mass, it’s a small enough window that you should be able to track averages, and over a weeklong period of time to subtract for water weight fluctuations. So track the average for week 1 and 2. To track your calories: If after two weeks you are way out of the range given from above you might take a closer look at you measuring skills as it is quite easy to input food wrong, or even the website that is tracking it might even be off. It is an imperfect science, but should fall within a ballpark.
Whew! Now that we’ve made it through that, you want to figure out what you calorie intake should be depending on your goals.
For women, recommended about .5-1% of your bodyweight a week. Since Erika’s main priority is not muscle preservation, we can use the high end of this, at 1%. Using 160lb, we multiply that by .01 and get 1.6lb a week. A pound of fat equals roughly 3500 calories, so we multiply 3500x.8 and get 5600 in a week to lose. Divide this by 7 and we get 800 calories a day to be below maintenance. Keep in mind this is a very targeted phase, and not to be sustained. Assuming Erika’s maintenance was 2400, she would be eating 1600 calories a day. But since she is lifting or doing cardio most days, this increases her food intake. Lets say she burns 300 calories for a workout, then she would eat 1900. These numbers are just best guesses that will be modified after she spends her next two weeks tracking to best figure out maintenance level. Erika has said she wants to lose 15 pounds. After the first two weeks of figuring out some data, losing about 1.6 pounds a week we can see this will take Erika at least 10 weeks. Lets extend this to 12-13 to account for fluctuations, life happening, making it harder to lose weight the leaner you get, and for a diet break halfway through to reset her hormones that will begin fighting the weight loss within 4 days of starting a weight loss plan.
Determining Macronutrient Ratios
Now that you’ve stopped reading, we get to the good stuff. Lets say Erika has determined that 2400 is correct for maintenance and is going to consume 1600 calories a day to aim to lose .1% of her bodyweight a week which for right now is 1.6lb. (This number will continue to be modified as you lose weight) And using this as a percentage you can see that for people who have a lot more fat to lose, it is safer to lose more per week than someone who is leaner.
Pre step one: Erika’s weight in kilograms is 160lb/2.2= 72.72kg You don’t have to do this, but I like to keep posts consistent.
Step One: Protein
Protein intake first. In order to preserve muscle, increase satiety, number of grams will be determined first. Protein is one of those things that advice ranges all over the board including from different textbooks. You can see my musings on this on an earlier post here. I have decided to find people in the field that I trust and stick with them for consistent recommendations. This is based again on Eric Helm’s and validated by other authors I respect who advise 2.3-2.8g/kg while dieting. This recommendation includes women and men, so women would be on the low end of this, and could get away with being even a bit lower. For Erika, who weight lifts 2x per week and is not trying to build muscle in the process we will set this barely lower than the range at 2.2g/kg while dieting. 72.72×2.2=160g per day. 160×4=640 calories. 2000 calories – 640 calories = 1360 left to divide between fats and carbs.
Step 2: Fats and Carbs
This is much more subjective, and once you set the minimum values of each, Erika can change the ratios and see how her body responds and also adjust based on preferences. There is no magic number for any individual. If you are exercising more, you will need more carbs to fuel your activity. But beyond general minimal intake, these percentages within your calories limit can and should fluctuate throughout the week. Flexible targets make the process less stressful and can take off your mind something that doesn’t really matter. There are some people who do respond better to either a low carbohydrate or low fat intake, although the general population (around 80%) would fit into the above categories. The most common exception would be for those that are diabetic would need to to have a lower carbohydrate intake. If you think you might be one of outliers, the best way to test it would be to first 1) get the bottom parts of the pyramid in order (calorie expenditure, protein intake set) then 2) set your carb intake at a static amount and stay there for 4-6 weeks. Then do the same with your fat ratio to set at a low amount. Make notes daily about your energy levels, how your training is going, your hunger, etc. This may seem like it is a lot of time to figure this out, but if your body is not responding to what generally works for most people, then it is worth the initial time investment to figure out what you can change to make you more successful. It is important to emphasize – this is only necessary if you are dieting and already eliminated other reasons for not losing weight, such as not calculating energy balance correctly, not counting food intake correctly, or simply not giving it enough time – at least 8 weeks, for your body to adjust.
Last but not least, if you have the personalty type that doesn’t do well with flexible targets, then you can set stricter guidelines for yourself. But Erika is not diabetic and has said that sticking to a super low carbohydrate intake made this hard. There was no reason for her to be doing this to begin with.
Some sample ranges that Erika might choose to divide her targets could be
Protein 640 calories (160g x 4 calories / g = 640 calories)
Fat 540 calories (60g x 9 calories /g = 540 calories) 27%
Carbs 805 (204g x 4 calories / g = 805 calories) 40%
But this could also be
Protein 640 calories (160g)
Fat 360 calories (40g) 18%
Carbs 1000 calories (250g) 50%
Micronutrients: Vitamins and Minerals
Within this general macronutrient ratio, Erika can fill up her food intake with a variety of non processed food as much as possible, which will take care of her micronutrients that help keep her healthy. There is a lot more to say on this, but it is beyond the scope of the post. This is operating under the principle of flexible dieting, and sticking to a 80/20 rule. That if you have cake, or some wine, if it fits within your overall calorie balance, within your macro’s and you are getting in enough micronutrients for healthy living, your goals will not be compromised. Sugar and white bread are not inherently harmful. The biggest reason why these are problems in people’s diets is that people eat too much of them, and it affects the overall calorie balance, not because they are inherently bad. If you end up going over one day, you can “borrow” calories from the next day, or even pre-plan to go over by eating a bit less the day before. The next post will continue the discussion on having free meals, and also extended planned periods of time (2 weeks or more) where you are back at maintenance calories in the middle of a diet to let your hormones reset and to also not let your body get too used to the lower calorie balance.
Exercise prescription for Erika is to keep in the lifting schedule, but have the weights within a 6-12 rep range, or even lower. Higher volume under higher tension is necessary to build muscle which will help Erika lose fat during this process, help prevent against muscle loss which inevitably will happen during a fat loss phase, but better prepare her for maintenance as well. Increase in the muscular skeletal system is one of the biggest predictors of people keeping off the weight.
Moving to maintenance, Erika will revisit her 2 week measuring of her energy expenditure as this will change during weight loss. She will also take into account and to also account her exercise plan for how many extra calories she’s expended. Lets say then that her maintenance is at 2200. She should aim to stick within that, and apply the same principles as above. Protein intake can decreased a bit a maintenance, but as an endurance runner, will still need roughly 1.4-1.8g /kg and to support her continued muscle building. Weighing yourself is a good way to keep on track instead of measuring your food at maintenance. If you are starting to gain more than 3-4lb, you can rein yourself in, lower calorie balance by just a bit, and catch things before they go way up.