With more than 33% of the United States being overweight, there’s no doubt that there’s a big hype around dieting. That’s why the weight loss niche has become a bit shady in the past years. When there’s such a big demand you will always have scampers trying to sell you poor diet plans that promise overnight results with minimal effort.
The truth is that all diets work on the same principle: calories in versus calories out. It is as simple as that: energy in versus energy out. And if somebody is trying to tell you something different you are talking to either an ignorant or a scammer.
Now, if you are even remotely into fitness or just into living a better, healthier life you probably hear about the caloric maintenance, metabolism or macro split. There are fancy terms that get toss around a lot on this world. They may sound intimidating at first, but it’s not rocket science.
If you know your way around calories and macros, getting fit or achieving any fitness goals you may have becomes a breeze. And that’s exactly what we are going to talk about down below.
Finding your caloric maintenance level
Before you start any kind of diet plan you want to find out what is your caloric maintenance level. For those of you who don’t know, this level represents the number of calories you need to eat in a day for your bodyweight to remain the same.
At caloric maintenance level, your caloric intake is equal to your caloric expenditure. So for example, if you burn 2,000 kcal a day and you eat 2,000 kcal, your bodyweight will remain the same.
The most simple and accurate way of finding out your caloric maintenance level is to track how many calories you are eating and to weigh yourself each day for 7-10 weeks. If your weight didn’t change during that period you nailed it. That’s your maintenance level.
If you’ve gained or lost weight, you will need to increase or lower your caloric intake until you figure out what is your maintenance level. So it’s a pretty simple process, but it might need some tweaking and fine tuning until you get the correct number.
There are other ways to find out your maintenance level, such as using an online calculator – which I find to be less accurate, or by getting your metabolism measured by a fancy machine – which is usually pretty expensive.
Setting your caloric intake
Now that you found out your caloric maintenance the next thing you need to do is to set your caloric intake based on what are your goals: losing or gaining weight. As briefly mentioned above you will need to eat more or fewer calories for that. But there’s a bit more to it. I learned that the hard way right before I became a personal trainer.
You don’t just want to lose weight, you want to lose fat. And you don’t want to just gain weight, you want to build muscle. Apparently, these two represent the same thing for most people, but there’s a big difference, and setting your calorie intake as well as the macro split correctly, makes all the difference.
When you want to lean out and drop some fat you will need to lower your caloric intake by up to 20-25%. That’s the sweet spot for a healthy fat loss rate that will not mess up with your metabolism, mood and personal life too much. So if you found out that your caloric maintenance level is 2,200 kcal, for example, you should cut back to 1,650 – 1,760 kcal a day.
Many people make the mistake of starving themselves by eating too few calories each day, thinking that they will lose weight faster. That’s probably one of the worst things you can do to your body. If you do that long enough, your metabolism will pick up the signal that there’s a severe energy restriction and it will slow down your metabolism, in an attempt to conserve energy and help you survive basically.
Your body doesn’t know you’re dieting. It just does what it can to stay alive. So when your metabolism slows down, your body will burn fewer calories, making weight loss a real struggle even if you are eating less and less food.
When you are restricting your calories with just 20-25% though, you will still be able to eat enough food to keep you happy and your body will not enter into “starvation mode”. By doing this you will be able to lose fat at a rate of 1-2 pounds per week. It may not sound like much, but that fat that you lose for good. There’s no yo-yo effect when you’re not messing up with your metabolism.
If you are trying to tone up a little bit, you will need to develop your muscle mass – regardless if you are a man or a woman. A lean and toned up body will give you that nice sexy or aesthetic everybody is trying to achieve.
Obviously working out plays an important role too, but if you are not eating more your body will not have enough energy to develop new tissue or muscle mass. Now, the issue with eating more is that it can make you fat. That’s why you want to eat slightly more calories.
So a surplus of just 5-10% more calories is enough for your body to get all the extra nutrients to develop muscle mass at the maximum potential rate while minimizing fat storage. 5 or 10% more calories is not a lot at all. Going back to our previous example, if you’re maintaining your weight at 2,200 kcal, you will need to eat just 110 – 220 more calories a day. That can be just one extra banana or a small sandwich.
You’ll know you got your numbers right when you are gaining 0.5 – 1 pound per week. If you are gaining more than that it means you should cut back on your calories.
Breaking it down into macros
Taking things one step further, if you really want to dial into your diet and step it a little bit you want to look at your macros too – namely at the protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
Each of these macronutrients has a caloric content. One gram of protein contains 4 kcal and so does one gram of carbs. And one gram of fat contains 9 kcal. All three are essential for a healthy lifestyle. So, no, carbs are not bad for you – even though low carb diets are all the rage nowadays. You need to eat foods that contain all three, in a slightly different combination, depending on your fitness goals as well as personal preference. Some people like to eat more carbs, some like more protein and it’s perfectly fine to eat the foods you like as long as your overall diet is well balanced.
Macro split for a caloric deficit
When you are trying to lose fat and you place yourself in a caloric deficit, you should be very picky about the foods you eat and about the macro split.
You want to keep a close eye, particularly on the proteins. A higher protein intake will preserve muscles mass. When you are eating less, you will lose fat, but you will also lose some muscle mass. In order to minimize the amount of muscle mass you lose you will need to up your protein intake, and of course to set the right caloric intake, as I mentioned above.
Another cool thing about proteins is that they will make you feel fuller, even though you are actually eating fewer calories. Foods with high protein content are known to be more satiating, so they are helpful when you are dieting down.
A good macro split for cutting would be 40% proteins, 40% carbs, and 20% fat. This means that you need to take 40% of your calories from proteins, another 40% from carbs and the remaining 20% from fats.
For a 2,000 kcal diet that means 200 grams of proteins, 200 grams of carbs and 44 grams of fats.
Macro split for a caloric surplus
If you are in a caloric surplus and you are trying to get bigger, you have more freedom. You can pretty much set your macros to whatever you want as long as you follow a couple of rules.
The first thing – you want to make sure you get it around 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. The second thing is to eat plenty of carbs. Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy used by the muscles (through glycogen), so a high carb intake will help you perform better during your workouts.
And by performing better you will activate and work out your muscles more effectively, which results in better muscular development. So don’t go low carb when you are trying to bulk up. I would say that you can take as much as 50% of your calories from carbs.
Lastly but not least, fill up the rest of the calories with fats. Ideally, you don’t want to get more than 30% of your energy from fats though, but that should be plenty for most people.
Macro split for maintaining
When you’re maintaining you can do pretty much whatever you want as long as you keep the protein intake at 1 gram per pound at your fats above 20% – nothing much to say here.
Advanced dieting techniques
Now, there are a couple of so-called “advanced dieting techniques” things you can do when the caloric deficit really gets to you – because let’s face it, this is the hard part – when you’re dieting down. Everything else is a breeze.
A common technique is called “carb cycling” – and as the name suggests it involves alternating between low carb days and high carb days or even no carb days. High carb days typically mean that you get 2-3 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight and on low carbs days you eat just 0.5 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight.
Carb cycling works by playing around with your insulin levels, which (among other things) tells your body when to burn fat and when to store it.
Another dieting technique that works out great by helping you cope with the deficit easier is “calorie rollover”. Basically, this means that you have 3-5 day in a row where you eat 100-300 fewer calories than you normally would (on top of that 20-25% deficit).
This will allow you to roll over all those calories to a high-calorie day, where you could eat up to 1,000 extra calories or so, depending on how many calories you “saved”. The main benefit of this technique is that it allows you to have a nice, big and enjoyable meal every now and then, making the cutting phase more manageable.
Obviously, any of these advanced dieting techniques should be implemented towards the end of your diet, when you really feel the deficit getting to you.
So that’s pretty much it in a nutshell. I think we just scratched the surface of dieting, calories, and macros, but this should be more than enough to get you started.
Try to be as accurate as possible with everything, get your numbers right and you are set to go. If anything doesn’t go right, make sure to revisit your caloric intake as well as your macros split and double check everything.