Nutrition is essential to all types of health and wellness, from physical to emotional. Unfortunately, you can’t out-train a bad diet, which is why it’s essential to learn the principles of nutrition.
If you don’t eat right, you will never have the body that you want.
You also won’t have the confidence that you deserve. Or, the health to support a long and energetic life.
For most people, diet has about 5 times (5X) greater effect on body composition than physical training.
The good news?
You don’t have to suffer or constantly diet. You do need to learn sustainable eating habits, which is based around a few core principles of nutrition.
I regularly eat hamburgers, hot dogs, and waffles. But, I also eat a lot of salad and vegetables, because I know these principles and how to apply them to get results.
Importantly, when it comes to nutrition, a few key variables matter more than everything else combined. I reveal these for you below.
Core Principles of Nutrition
While many people make nutrition out to be complicated, the core principles of nutrition are simple and learnable.
In short, the foundation for all fat (and weight) loss diets is to be in a caloric deficit. Only in this condition can your body readily drop body fat.
The opposite is true for a muscle-gain diet, where you will substantially benefit from being in a caloric surplus. Only in these conditions will your body optimally add new lean muscle tissue.
While you can sometimes recompose fat to muscle in a calorically balanced (“maintenance”) state, this is much more difficult.
Generally, a caloric balance that matches ‘calories-in-with-energy-out’ will only support body recomposition if you pair it with consistent strength training over a prolonged period of time—typically many months to a year or more.
Furthermore, it is usually novice lifters that see gains with this approach or people with higher levels of initial body fat.
Thus, if you’re looking to drop body fat, you need to learn how to eat in a caloric deficit. And, if you’re looking to add muscle, you want to learn how to maintain a caloric surplus.
Lever #1: Maintaining a Caloric Deficit
When it comes to nutrition, calorie count will be responsible for the vast majority of the results that you can control — typically half (50%) or more.
How did I come to this conclusion?
Well, I reviewed a few hundred nutrition studies on PubMed.gov, an amazing biomedical literature database maintained by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I only considered articles published within the past 5 years, in order to prioritize the latest research. This figure is an unofficial “aggregation” of what has repeatedly appeared within the scientific literature.
Plus, I asked the fittest and leanest people that I know—bodybuilders! They generally agreed with this figure.
Lever #2: Macronutrient Balance (“Macros”)
Ok, now that we understand the importance of a caloric deficit, what’s the next most important “lever”? This is an important question, and thankfully, there is a simple answer.
It is balancing your macronutrients, which are:
Technically, there are other macronutrients, which are dietary fiber, minerals, vitamins, and water.
However, the only three macros you need to be concerned with for body composition purposes are fat, protein and carbohydrates.
Ideally, you will eat a balance of these three of the macronutrients in each meal. If you’re a beginner, you’d do well to aim to have your meal-time calories split at about:
- 40% protein
- 30% carbs
- 30% fat
Just remember, fats are calorically dense at 9 calories per gram, so you only need a small amount of fat to reach 30% of your total calories per meal. In contrast, protein and carbs are only 4 calories per gram, so you will eat more of these foods.
Of course, macro breakdowns can and should be adjusted based on your goals, but if you have no where to start, then this macro balance will get you started.
I use that 40/30/30 macro breakdown in my own life.
Macronutrient balance is responsible for approximately one-quarter (25%) of your results.
Simply put, calories and macros are the two biggest “levers” that you can (and should) use to achieve the body that you desire.
Lever #3: Nutrient Timing
Ok, so if calories count for 50% of your results and eating the right balance of macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrates) produces another 25% of your results, what is responsible for the remaining 25%?
After that, when you eat (know as “nutrient timing”) is responsible for about 10% of your results.
The best example of when you eat making a difference to body composition is that your body is better at processing carbohydrates for use—and not for storage as fat—if you eat them around periods of physical activity.
Among other reasons, this is because channel receptors on your muscle cells open up after undertaking intense physical activity.
Another example of nutrient timing is eating within approximately 30 minutes of waking. The reason this matters is that studies suggests how soon you eat your first meal after rising may affect your hunger hormones.
The hunger hormones you need to know about are:
- Leptin is a hormone that is produced by fat cells that can lower your appetite.
- Ghrelin is a hormone that is produced by your stomach, with small amounts also released by your pancreas, small intestine, and brain. It can increase your appetite and support fat storage.
Obviously, you’d like to create an internal hormonal environment that has higher levels of leptin and lower levels of ghrelin.
Lever #4: Food Composition
Next, food composition is responsible for approximately another 5% of your results.
Food composition means that it’s important to eat real, whole foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals and healthy fiber to fill you up. This matters, it just doesn’t matter nearly as much as calories or macronutrient balance.
Lever #5: Supplement Use
Supplement use is responsible for another 5% of your results.
An example of supplement use would be ingesting a whey protein shake to help you fuel muscle recovery immediately after a workout. Another example would be consuming a slow-digesting protein like casein before bedtime to facilitate nighttime recovery.
Or, you might use creatine to help you perform slightly better during strength lifting or high-intensity exercise.
Lever #6: Other Variables
Finally, other variables like hydration, sleep quality, inflammation, and stress reduction account for the final 5% of your nutritional success.
Hydration is simple to understand. You need to drink adequate amounts of water to function at your best. Plus, water improves digestive system function, which can assist with eliminating fats more efficiently from your body.
Sleep matters because the quality and timing of your sleep regulates your cravings, hunger hormones and even your capacity to regulate your caloric consumption.
Inflammation matters because it can lead to insulin resistance and obstruct with your response to leptin, the hormone that lowers appetite and tells your brain to stop eating. Tumeric is an effective supplement that can lower systemic inflammation.
Similarly, stress causes the body to release the steroid hormone, cortisol. Cortisol exerts numerous effects, one of which is that it appears to facilitates fat storage in the belly.
Nutrition Principles to Live By
Simply put, you don’t need to know everything about nutrition. However, you would be extremely well served to learn about your personal caloric needs and how to eat below or above them to achieve your specific goals.