It can be quite daunting for newcomers to the gym when it comes to nutrition. It’s no surprise that many people fall victim to following extreme, fad diets simply because they sound intriguing or because the “really ripped guy” in the gym does it.
Given this, this article will help you elude wading through all the nonsense and instead help you learn how to create your own diet plan from the ground up and teach you the essentials needed to do so. We will cover the basics of macronutrients and micronutrients, meal timing/frequency, meal composition, and finally finish off with some sample diet layouts.
This section will seem rudimentary to most of the nutritionally apt readers out there, but nevertheless it is important to quickly cover what macronutrients are and the role they play in building a proper diet plan for active individuals.
To start, we humans (and other lower organisms) subsist on nourishment/energy provided by foods. The nourishment provided by foods comes in the form of macronutrients, which contain energy in the form of heat called “calories”. These macronutrients include proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
Of these three basic macronutrients, proteins and fats are considered “essential”; this is to say that one must ingest them to survive since the body needs them to carry out vital processes. While carbohydrates are not considered an “essential” macronutrient, they are still an important component of most any active individuals diet (more on this in the “carbohydrate” section below).
As you can imagine, the topic of nutrition becomes increasingly complex (especially in the context of performance and physique enhancement) when looking at the specific needs of the aforementioned macronutrients, so we will cover the basics of proteins, fats and carbohydrates below:
Proteins— Proteins are an essential macronutrient composed of moieties called amino acids and play a critical role in muscle development and maintenance as well as many other physiological processes including: energy production, brain metabolism, cardiovascular function, immune system function, and several others. (1)
Proteins (like carbohydrates) contain 4 calories per gram. They are typically categorized as either complete or incomplete. Complete proteins contain all nine of the essential amino acids (EAAs) whereas incomplete proteins lack one or more EAA.
To give an abridged flow of how proteins actually work, think of amino acids as the building blocks of proteins; proteins, then, can be thought of as the building blocks of muscle tissue since muscles are the richest reservoirs of amino acids in the human body. (2)
Hence gym-goers often associate protein with “muscle building” and this often leads to superfluous intake of protein since people assume you can’t have too much of a good thing.
While nominal protein ingestion is certainly vital to building and maintaining muscle tissue, it is not necessary (nor advised) to overload your diet with excessive protein because it won’t help you build “extra” muscle.
Fats—Fats differ in energy content from carbohydrates and proteins in that they contain 9 calories per gram; given their energy density they tend to provide a good amount of satiety. Fats are essential for cellular integrity and play a variety of roles with regards to cellular mechanisms; thus, fats should not be under-eaten, especially in active individuals.
Fatty acids come in either saturated or unsaturated forms. The media and people looking to shed body-fat generally demonize saturated fats, but they have their role in a healthy diet much like any other nutrient.
Contrary to saturated fatty acids, unsaturated fatty acids contain one (monounsaturated) or more (polyunsaturated) carbon-carbon double bond (thus the carbons are not saturated with hydrogen atoms). Monounsaturated fatty acids are primarily found in nuts and vegetable oils. The oft-touted omega-3 fatty acids are all polyunsaturated and found primarily in fresh fish.
Carbohydrates—Similarly to proteins, carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram. Carbohydrates are not considered an essential macronutrient because theoretically humans can subsist on proteins and fats, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that would be optimal.
Carbohydrates are typically categorized as either simple (mono and disaccharides) or complex (polysaccharides). Simple carbohydrates include foods like table sugar (sucrose), corn syrup, molasses, etc. Some example sources of complex carbohydrates are oats, wheat flour, quinoa, and sweet potatoes.
While not technically considered essential, carbohydrates are in fact conducive to muscle growth as they spare proteins and are insulinogenic (save for fructose). Numerous studies have verified that the muscle protein synthesis response to a nominal dose of amino acids can be enhanced by the presence of an increased insulin response.(3,4)
Determining energy and macronutrient requirements
Given the nature of dieting being relative, and the fact that every individual has their own goals, it is impractical to apply preset quantities of macronutrient and calorie demands of all individuals. Given this, we will just cover some basics to consider and the rest will have to come from individual manipulation and trial and error.
One way to calculate your energy demands is to first and foremost ensure you eat a sufficient amount of protein. For most active weight trainees, this means eating around 1g of protein per pound of lean body weight.
Once protein needs are set, you move onto carbohydrate demands (which will be largely dependent on your individual insulin sensitivity). Then finally, once protein and carbohydrate demands are set, you “fill in” the rest of your caloric needs with fats.
Here’s an example of how this would work for someone with 150lbs of lean body mass on a 2500-calorie diet:
- Determine Calorie Needs: M&S BMR Calorie Calculator
- Set protein intake at 1g/lb of lean body mass: 150g protein per day
- This individual is moderately insulin sensitive so we’ll set his carbohydrate intake at 2g/lb of lean body mass: 300g carbohydrate per day
- Since carbohydrates and proteins contain 4 calories per gram, then we have (150+300) x 4: 1800 calories from proteins and carbohydrates
- Therefore, this individual’s fat intake will come from the leftover calories to reach 2500: 2500-1800=700 calories/9 calories per g of fat=~75-80g of fat per day
Importance of micronutrients
Micronutrients are constituents of food sources that don’t provide caloric energy but still perform a range of physiological duties and are paramount to maintaining optimal health; these include compounds like vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, and organic acids. Many of these compounds serve as antioxidants in humans.
While it is impractical/cumbersome to methodically track your entire micronutrient intake, it is still important to make sure you meet adequate amounts of most vitamins and minerals so you’re not deficient. That being said, it is often just as bad to have an excessive intake of certain micronutrients, so don’t go overboard.
Meal timing and frequency
Meal timing and frequency has been a topic of controversy for decades so rather then argue for one stance or another this section will give you the gist of what to be concerned about with when creating your diet.
Suffice it to say, the highest priority on the hierarchy of dieting is meeting your calorie and macronutrient quotas at the end of the day, not the timing of your meals. That being said don’t take this to mean that meal timing and frequency is completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but just that you should follow a plan that allows you to consistently hit your calorie/macronutrient goals and perform at your best.
If this means eating 2-3 meals a day spaced further apart or eating 6-7 more frequent feedings throughout the day then so be it. I will say however that very extreme protocols, like eating all of your calories in one meal a day or eating every hour around the clock are definitely not optimal, nor very practical.
Periworkout Nutrition--Due to the acute physiological effects of weight training, it is somewhat beneficial to take advantage of favorable metabolic adaptations by eating your largest meals around the training timeframe. However, if this doesn’t fit your schedule, don’t worry; just make sure you get some food (especially protein, more on this below) in within a few hours after resistance training.
Protein quantity and frequency—Most gym-goers think you need tons of protein to sufficiently stimulate muscle protein synthesis but a mere 20-30 grams of a leucine-rich protein source (e.g. most animal proteins and whey protein) will provide a sufficient elevation in muscle protein synthesis for a solid 3-4+ hours post ingestion (and this could be extended even further depending on co-ingestion of other nutrients).
Therefore, it is not necessary to eat protein frequently throughout the day like traditional bodybuilding dogma would suggest. Just bear in mind that if you are on the other end of the spectrum and only eat 1-2 meals a day, you are likely limiting your capacity to stimulate muscle growth.
Another topic of controversy in the nutrition realm is that of meal composition. Some people believe that fats and carbohydrates shouldn’t be ingested together, for fear that the resulting insulin release will signal the body to store all the fats you just ate.
Firstly, the preceding supposition is wildly simplistic and rather baseless. In fact, ingesting fats with carbohydrates (especially unsaturated fats) will actually attenuate the insulin response to a meal and slow down digestion (and increase satiety).
Secondly, as mentioned before, insulin (and therefore carbohydrates) are conducive to muscle protein synthesis when ingested along with protein. (3,4)
The main thing to consider about meal composition is that you don’t need to segregate your macronutrients. Complete meals (i.e. one’s containing fats, proteins and carbohydrates) are perfectly acceptable and will likely be best for most individuals (not too mention they're practical).
Some people may prefer to time out there carbohydrate intake so most of it comes in the periworkout timeframe, which is fine; does it provide a significant advantage over those who eat the majority of their carbs at other times of the day? Not likely.
Again, as noted in the meal frequency section, the highest priority on the hierarchy of dieting is meeting your calorie and macronutrient quotas at the end of the day. There is no need to micromanage every meal and only eat certain macronutrients together. For most people, complete, balanced meals are the most practical and optimal approach.
Sample Diet Layouts
One thing to keep in mind is that the human body is highly adaptable and you can make most any diet regimen work, there really is no single “wrong” or “right” way to go about it. As aforementioned, consistency and applicability are of utmost importance. Be flexible and try new things if you’re not happy with your current regimen.
Note*: As a template, these sample diets are all based on the same 2500 calorie diet (consisting of 150g protein, 300g carbohydrate, and 75-80g fat) that we used earlier
Sample Nutrition Plan 1: 4 Meals with AM workout
- 7:00 AM—Wake up
- 7:30 AM—Breakfast/Pre-training Meal (720 cals/35g pro/100g carb/20g fat)
- 10:00-11:30 AM--Train
- 12:00 PM—Lunch/Post-training Meal (760 cals/45g pro/100g carb/20g fat)
- 5:00 PM—Dinner (620 cals/40g pro/70g carb/20g fat)
- 9:00 PM—Late-night Meal (400 cals/30g pro/30g pro/20g fat)
- 11:00 PM—Bed
Sample Nutrition Plan 2: Intermittent fasting style diet with PM workout
- 8:00 AM—Wake up
- 3:30 PM—Pre-training Meal (825 cals/50g pro/100g carb/25g fat)
- 5-6:30 PM—Train
- 7:00 PM—Post-training Meal (880 cals/50g pro/125g carb/20g fat)
- 10:30 PM—Late-night Meal (770 cals/50g pro/75g carb/30g fat)
- 12:00 AM—Bed
Sample Nutrition Plan 3: 5 meals with fasted AM training
- 7:00 AM—Wake up
- 8:00-9:30 AM—Train
- 10:00 AM—Post-training Meal (615 cals/40g pro/80g carb/15g fat)
- 1:00 PM—Lunch (435 cals/25g pro/50g carb/15g fat)
- 3:30 PM—Mid-afternoon Meal (390 cals/25g pro/50g carb/10g fat)
- 6:00 PM—Dinner (575 cals/30g pro/80g carb/15g fat)
- 9:30 PM—Late-night Meal (505 cals/30g pro/40g carb/25g fat)
As you can see from the preceding template diet plans, the possibilities really are limitless so be open to experimenting and tweaking. The information in this guide should serve as a good starting point for your nutrition plan, but it is not meant to be an exhaustive resource. There are many variables and factors to consider when it comes to nutrition so always keep an open mind and try new things when you think something might work best for you.
1) Timmerman KL, Volpi E. Amino acid metabolism and regulatory effects in aging. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2008 Jan;11(1):45-9.
2) Rodriguez NR, Vislocky LM, Gaine PC. Dietary protein, endurance exercise, and human skeletal-muscle protein turnover. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2007 Jan;10(1):40-5
3) O'Connor, P. M., Bush, J. A., Suryawan, A., Nguyen, H. V., & Davis, T. A. (2003). Insulin and amino acids independently stimulate skeletal muscle protein synthesis in neonatal pigs. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology And Metabolism, 284(1), E110-E119.
4) Kimball, S. R., Jurasinski, C. V., Lawrence, J. C., & Jefferson, L. S. (1997). Insulin stimulates protein synthesis in skeletal muscle by enhancing the association of eIF-4E and eIF-4G. American Journal of Physiology-Cell Physiology, 272(2), C754-C759.