You’ve probably heard the old saying “abs are made in the kitchen” – there is a lot of truth in the old saying.
Chances are, going to the gym and working hard for your physique presents little or no issue at all, but when it comes to nailing down proper nutrition, things start to get a bit more difficult.
Unfortunately, the nature of building a bulletproof physique requires attention to both hard work in the gym and a solid nutrition plan which is kept consistent for months.
Luckily, the days of eating only chicken, rice and broccoli 24/7 are a thing of the past (although it can still work if you enjoy it) and we now understand that there are more enjoyable and advanced strategies we can successfully apply to our nutrition regimes.
In this article, I’ll provide 5 top nutrition tips you can use to master your physique.
1. Master Energy Balance with Low Calorie Dense Foods
First, time for a little science. The key principle here is energy balance, which dictates your whole body image over months or years.
To lose body fat, you’ll need to ensure that you are consuming fewer calories than you are expending. This is considered to be a negative energy balance1.
This negative balance can be achieved by restricting calories relative to your maintenance intake (the amount of calories you can consume without losing or gaining weight), increasing your activity level, or a combination of both.
While increasing this energy deficit can certainly be achieved via a number of different ways, my favorite method is to focus largely on consuming low calorie dense foods.
The idea of opting for low calorie dense foods allows for a few positive changes to occur without you even knowing!
Firstly, having low calorie dense foods means that you can consume a larger amount of food per day, without having a large impact on the total amount of calories that you are consuming.
This is quite beneficial, especially if you’re trying to restrict calories. An increase in the volume of food you are eating not only gives you the perception that you’re eating more food, but the extra volume can help stretch cells in the stomach, inhibiting the release of the hunger hormone, ghrelin2.
In essence, you get to eat more food, but not significantly impact your calories; a win-win in my book for attempting to master your nutrition.
Next, by opting for low calorie dense foods, you’re likely to increase the amount of protein and fiber in your diet, both of which can have significant effects on your muscle mass and appetite3,4,5,6,7.
As you likely know, increasing protein intake when restricting total calories is absolutely essential to ensure that you’re maintaining lean muscle mass. Not to mention the fact that both protein and fiber from vegetables will help reduce your appetite, making it a bit easier to stick to your diet over the long term8.
2. Try Carb Cycling
Carb cycling is one of the hottest new trends in the fitness world, but rest assured, it’s not just a short-term fad.
The idea of carb cycling doesn’t come from the concept of carbs being bad, but rather from the fact that high amounts of carbohydrates can contribute to a higher total calorie intake.
Instead of just consuming an equal amount of carbohydrates and calories every day, carb cycling takes your activity level into account to ensure that you’re only consuming as many carbs and calories as your body requires.
Basically, it provides your muscles with fuel when you need it but restricts them when you don’t, helping reduce fat accumulation over time.
To apply this, on high volume/activity days, you can consume a relatively large amount of carbohydrates, since it’s likely that those carbohydrates will go towards fueling muscle growth and refilling muscle glycogen.
On rest days however, the energy demands of the body are likely significantly lower. On these days, you can restrict carbohydrates and even total calories if you desire, to ensure that you’re not accidentally consuming more carbohydrates and calories than you need.
- Leg Day /High Volume Day: High Carbohydrate Intake
- Upper Body Strength Day / Moderate Volume: Moderate Carb Intake
- Rest / Off Day: Low Carbohydrate Intake
Carb cycling is a simple method of moderating carbohydrate and calorie intake based on your activity level and energy requirements.
3. Use Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent Fasting (IF) is another popular style of eating that has been around for centuries but has only made its way into the fitness world in the past couple of years.
This style of eating incorporates extended periods of fasting, followed by shorter windows per day to eat food.
IF’s shining attribute is that practicing it allows followers to consume less food throughout the day when they are just sitting at the desk in the office, resulting in less total calories and ultimately weight loss9,10.
Considering that typical IF protocols call for 16 hours of fasting followed by 8 hours of feeding, those using this style of eating often find it quite difficult to compensate, calorically speaking, for the 16 hours of fasting, leading to weight loss. For most, this means they consume less total calories per day, without even having to count calories.
Additionally, there is some evidence that ghrelin, the hunger hormone, acts according to a circadian rhythm of eating and is reduced once you become use to the fasting period. If you ask most long-term fasters, they will agree they don’t actually feel hungry during their fasting window11.
To use IF, I suggest sticking with a normal calorie intake, but simply fast for 16 hours and eat for 8, preferably after training in the gym. Fortunately, a large portion of the fasting period can be completed during the night while sleeping. Simply consider your last meal of the day the beginning of the fasting period.
If you are worried about muscle retention, you can also reduce it down to say a 12 hour fast, 12 hour feed, which is a popular middle ground for bodybuilders.
4. Use Nutrient Timing To Your Advantage
Using nutrient timing is an extension of carb cycling and intermittent fasting.
While total calorie intake is the most important aspect of mastering your nutrition, manipulating when you consume certain macronutrients based on activity can bring your nutrition and physique to the next level.
The concept of nutrient timing is fairly straightforward in that you’ll only consume certain macronutrients based on when you’re training.
For instance, protein is a macronutrient that contributes to building muscle and suppressing appetite. Because of this, consuming protein almost always is acceptable, regardless of time of day or activity level.
Carbohydrate, on the other hand, plays little role in suppressing appetite but rather contributes to energy production and storage, such as refilling muscle glycogen. Thus, it makes sense to restrict intake of this macronutrient based on when you exercise and how intensely you exercise.
While carbs in themselves won’t make you fat, it does make more sense to have 70g of carbs before or after a workout rather than at breakfast when you are about to sit at a desk all day, right?
To use nutrient timing for carbohydrates, you can use carb cycling on a daily basis, but take it a step further by using a method called carb back loading.
Carb back loading is another simple technique where you restrict carbohydrates until after you’ve completed your training session. This is because muscle contraction causes transporters in muscle cells, which help store blood sugar, to move to the membrane of cells, making the progress into the muscle easier for growth and recovery12,13.
To use nutrient timing, I suggest consuming protein and fat primarily early in the day and save the carbs for your training window. This allows you to maximize the benefits of carbs, while keeping calorie intake down throughout the day, when you probably don’t need it.
5. Choose Smart Re-feeds Over Cheat Days
One of the most popular topics in the fitness world is that of having cheat meals or cheat days. This often equates to consuming traditional “junk food” with little regard to actual calorie intake.
Unfortunately, having intense restriction followed by what often ends up being binge sessions can lead to terrible eating habits - it therefore also frequently results in ruining your progress.
Rather than going from intensely restricting to then feeling the need for cheat days, I suggest incorporating, on a daily basis, more of the foods you desire in moderation and then occasionally having pre-planned refeeds to bring your calories back up to maintenance.
Periodically returning calorie intakes to maintenance levels certainly is beneficial in terms of metabolism and is largely the reason that cheat meals were even considered in the first place. Unfortunately, media has since turned the idea of “refeeds” into glorified binge sessions (14, 15, 16).
Rather than having cheat meals, have planned days when you increase calories back up to normal maintenance levels, but do so in a controlled and calculated fashion.
For example, you may diet for 10 days, but then have a 2 or 3 day refeed where you simply eat 600 more calories each day, mainly from carbs. Although 600 calories doesn’t seem like much, 150g of carbs from whole food sources will soon add up and help reduce hunger.
There’s also positive research showing this method can improve your metabolism and anabolic hormones such as testosterone, which often decline during a typical diet.
From now on, ditch the cheat meals and use a planned refeed every 2 weeks instead. The refeeds can still be super tasty, just focus on whole foods such as homemade Mexican or Italian rather than a takeout pizza.
5 Nutrition Tips To Master Your Physique
While mastering your nutrition can often be difficult, using the tips provided in this article should help you get the nutrition side of things on par with your efforts in the gym.
Focusing on low calorie, high volume foods, while adjusting your nutrition, based on activity levels and energy requirements of the body, is essential for mastering your physique.
Just remember, total calorie intake and other basics such as adequate protein are still key. However, once they are all in place, some of these advanced methods can give you the edge you need to take your physique to the next level!
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- Sakata, I., & Sakai, T. (2010). Ghrelin cells in the gastrointestinal tract. International journal of peptides, 2010.
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- Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., & Fitschen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 20.
- Tinsley, G. M., Butler, N. K., Forsse, J. S., Bane, A. A., Morgan, G. B., Hwang, P. S., ... & La Bounty, P. M. (2015). Intermittent fasting combined with resistance training: effects on body composition, muscular performance, and dietary intake. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(1), P38.
- Moro, T., Tinsley, G., Bianco, A., Marcolin, G., Pacelli, Q. F., Battaglia, G., ... & Paoli, A. (2016). Effects of eight weeks of time-restricted feeding (16/8) on basal metabolism, maximal strength, body composition, inflammation, and cardiovascular risk factors in resistance-trained males. Journal of Translational Medicine, 14(1), 290.
- Lesauter, J., Hoque, N., Weintraub, M., Pfaff, D. W., & Silver, R. (2009). Stomach ghrelin-secreting cells as food-entrainable circadian clocks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(32), 13582-13587. doi:10.1073/pnas.0906426106
- Ju, J. S., Smith, J. L., Oppelt, P. J., & Fisher, J. S. (2005). Creatine feeding increases GLUT4 expression in rat skeletal muscle. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 288(2), E347-E352.
- Watson, R. T., & Pessin, J. E. (2006). Bridging the GAP between insulin signaling and GLUT4 translocation. Trends in biochemical sciences, 31(4), 215-222.
- Davoodi, S. H., Ajami, M., Ayatollahi, S. A., Dowlatshahi, K., Javedan, G., & Pazoki-Toroudi, H. R. (2014). Calorie Shifting Diet Versus Calorie Restriction Diet: A Comparative Clinical Trial Study. International Journal of Preventive Medicine, 5(4), 447.
- Müller, M. J., Enderle, J., Pourhassan, M., Braun, W., Eggeling, B., Lagerpusch, M., … & Bosy-Westphal, A. (2015). Metabolic adaptation to caloric restriction and subsequent refeeding: the Minnesota Starvation Experiment revisited. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 102(4), 807-819.
- MacLean, P. S., Bergouignan, A., Cornier, M. A., & Jackman, M. R. (2011). Biology’s response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 301(3), R581-R600.