Browsing through Instagram and coming face to face with all these chiseled bodies, I’m always wondering: what do these people eat to look like that? How are they so disciplined? What have they sacrificed in order to be in the next casting of Baywatch? I imagine I’m not the only one with this rolodex of questions, which explains the rise in popularity of the “What I Eat in a Day” videos by ‘fitfluencers’ circulating YouTube.
Over the years, I’ve experimented a lot with my diet; I’ve tried low carb, intermittent fasting, a 30-day vegan challenge (which, I failed miserably at), high protein, super calorie-restricted, no sugar, etc. I find sticking to the same diet and workout regimen to be monotonous and although I do tend to stick to what I know, I try adopting new mindsets – keeping motivation on the incline by staying receptive to new information and incorporating regular changes in my diet.
I know this ethos has become a common thread throughout my posts, but please note that I’m not trying to push just one diet or nutrition plan on anyone; everyone is different and it’s important that you experiment or seek out resources to help find what works for you. For me, it took a lot of trial and error to finally land on a flexible eating plan that actually aligns with my fitness goals. With time, this plan may shift as new research emerges, my lifestyle adapts, and new nutrition plans pique my interest.
I adopted a new training and nutrition schedule in the spring of 2019 and since then, I have made some transformative changes to my physique, energy levels, and running performance. In this post, I’ll outline some fundamentals for calculating calories and macros, take you through my nutrition plan, detail what a “full day of eating” in a deficit and surplus looks for me, and lastly, will touch on the importance of body recomposition. I encourage you to steal what you want, toss out the trash, and check out the additional resources I listed at the end of this post. Without further ado, let’s get into it…
Intuitive Eating vs. Calculating Calories & Macros
You may have heard the term “intuitive eating” circling around the fitness realm for a few years. Many fitness professionals and athletes follow this protocol and actively preach it. In John Romaniello’s article, “Why Intuitive Eating Isn’t For Everyone”, he explains that intuition is a skill and like any skill, it needs to be developed.
[Intuitive eating] is something you can actively improve. And provided enough exposure in a given context, intuition develops over time regardless of conscious effort. When you spend years weighing and measuring food, “obsessively” tracking macros, you get really, really good at it.
So yes, eating intuitively can work for you if you are a master of portion control, but for myself and plenty of others, it doesn’t. Although I do eat healthy ~80% of the time, if I don’t count my calories and keep track of my macros, I will usually land in a surplus and sabotage my fat loss goals. If I was to answer my stomach’s call all the time, I would be eating two bags of Skinny Pop and shoveling back two protein bars before realizing that I’ve consumed over 1,000 calories (+50% of my daily total) as a mid-afternoon snack. I hate to admit it, but this Skinny Pop example is speaking from experience. I have gotten better at eyeballing food quantities from months and months of measuring, but to reiterate Roman’s point, it’s taken time and meticulous tracking in order for me to cultivate this skill.
After about a year of tracking calories, I still keep track of same in myfitnesspal 5-6 days per week to keep me accountable while I “intuitively eat” (aka eating in a huge surplus) 1-2 days per week. I personally enjoy tracking my calories and weirdly enough, find it fun.
If you’re just starting your fitness journey, it is recommended to count your calories and macros. This can get tedious, but I would recommend sticking it out for a few months until you get a better idea of what you’re consuming in a day and how it’s affecting your weight loss goals.
Gaining Muscle While in a Calorie Deficit
First and foremost, my goal has always been to gain lean muscle while losing fat. I’ve never followed the “bulking” (eating in a surplus for a prolonged period of time while simualteanously gaining quite a bit of body fat) then “cutting” (eating in a deficit) protocol that a lot of fitness professionals adopt, which is why I won’t be expanding on this within this post. There are an abundance of bodybuilders that can educate you better on this topic than myself, just wanted to preface that there won’t be a further deep dive in this discipline. Sorry, friends!
The misconception in the fitness industry is that it’s nearly impossible to lose body fat while simultaneously gaining muscle. This simply isn’t true. The fact is that our system for fat loss and system for gaining muscle are seperate. Therefore, it is very possible to do both…wait for it…AT THE SAME TIME…Mindblowing, right?
YouTuber and fitness professional Jess Nippard explains the distinction of these systems in his video Can You Build Muscle in a Calorie Definite/ Lose Fat in a Surplus?, wherein he elaborates that: “Because fat and muscle tissues are separate systems, it is possible to lose fat due to the caloric deficit while building muscle due to the progressive training and sufficient protein.”
However, there’s more than meets the eye with Jeff’s deduction. There are of course, caveats which he goes on to explain in further detail:
It’s easier to build muscle in a calorie deficit if you are a beginner, have a higher starting body fat %, are [not] crash dieting (the smaller the deficit the better, keep below ~20% [maintenance]), and eat a high protein diet (keep protein somewhere around 0.8-1g/lb of body weight).
My simple formula is this: eat in a deficit during the week and in a calorie surplus 1-2 days on the weekends (depending on my activity level during the week). On the refeed (surplus) days, I’ll typically add an extra ~500 calories above maintenance. Confused yet? Let’s flesh this out a bit further.
Calorie and Macro Calculations
For my current weight of 133 lbs, height of 5’5 and my classification as “active”, I need to eat on average ~2,000 calories + calories during exercise burned per day to maintain my current weight.
If you want to take a quick second to calculate yours and circle back, you can use this quick and dirty calorie intake calculator.
I use myfitnesspal to track my calorie, macros, and weight loss progress. My goal for weight loss goal is to lose 1 lb per week, which will then automatically adjust my intake calories to 1,600 + calories burned during exercise.
The recommended weekly weight loss goal should be set to ~0.5-1 lb (10-20% off your maintenance calories), however, it really depends on your current weight, gender, and a myriad of other factors that I won’t get into in this post. Generally speaking, this is a good starting point for most.
If I wanted to be really aggressive and cut hard and fast, I’d set my goal to lose 1.5- 2 lbs per week. However, it is not recommended to go in a deficit greater than +20% of your maintenance calories as you risk losing muscle mass you’ve worked so hard at building. I haven’t done this in a long time, but perhaps for the sake of experimentation, I might test this out again and share the results with you guys at some point. But not right now. I enjoy eating too much.
The math behind these calculations is quite simple. Your body needs a certain number of calories to just perform its basic functions and sustain your current weight. As mentioned above, these are your maintenance calories. In order to lose 1 lb of body weight, you need to be in a deficit of ~3,500 calories. Myfitnesspal (the most common) and other calorie-tracking apps are great for setting weight loss goals by calculating and tracking your calorie intake.
On my surplus days, I’ll usually eat 2,500 calories + calories burned during exercise, which will usually put my grand total to ~3,000-3,500 calories depending how much exercise I did on that given day. It is recommended to incorporate a refeed day at least once every two weeks. A rough guide you can utilize based on body fat % is outlined in the chart below:
Pro Physique coach Paul Revelia also recommends taking diet breaks after long periods of eating in a deficit; bringing calories back to maintenance, focusing on recovery, and taking it easy on the cardio.
In regards to cheat days, I’ll typically indulge in a BIG one once a month. I’m no Stephanie Buttermore and haven’t attempted to pound back 10,000 calories in a single cheat day, but a guesstimate of my calorie intake is probably in the ballpark of 4,000-5,000 cals.
How Often Should I Recalculate My Maintenance/Deficit Calories?
When I started my calorie counting journey, one of the biggest questions I had was: when do I need to recalculate my maintenance calories while continuing to lose weight? I was so confused. Should I adjust it for every 1lb lost, 5lbs, or 10lbs lost? I started at 140lbs and wanted to get down to ~130lb.
As my weight goes down, doesn’t mean that I also need to adjust my maintenance calories? The adverse is also true – if I’m trying to put on weight, how often should I recalculate my intake calories as my weight increases?
When researching the answer, it appeared to be overly complicated. However, several resources provided a ‘rule of thumb’ that I found useful. If you’re starting to see plateaus in weight loss or weight gain, while consistently training and eating within your designated macros and calorie goals, it might be time to recalculate. In an article on AWorkoutRoutine.com titled When Should I Recalculate My Calorie Intake And Adjust My Diet?, Jay suggests:
Don’t recalculate or adjust any aspect of your diet until progress has consistently stopped altogether or maybe just slowed down to a significant (and unacceptable) degree. Basically, don’t do anything until there’s an actual need to do so.
Jay recommends re-calculating if you see a stall in progress between 2-4 weeks. When working on a body recomp strategy, there will be some stalls in progress along the way so it’s important to wait at least 2 weeks before making any substantial changes to your calorie intake.
Myfitnesspal will re-calculate your calorie goal for every 10 pounds you lose and record from your starting weight. If you want to force a change, adjust your original weight 10 lbs up from your current weight.
A Warning with Calorie Formulas
It’s important to point out that calorie counting formulas are really just a guesstimate. Unfortunately, you can’t input your lean muscle mass, body fat % or resting metabolism, so it’s difficult to determine the exact formula.
What’s even more difficult is tracking the output; aka the calories burned from exercise. I personally don’t add my strength training sessions since it’s too difficult to determine the calories burned and I want to remain conservative. I do, however, input my cardio sessions (running + the stationary bike). This is far from perfect, but keeping my output recordings consistent has worked for me. It’s worth mentioning that some devices do track this (ie. Fitbit) – I don’t own one, but if you do, then feel free to add your calories burned based on your fitness activity tracker.
Not only are the calculations flawed, but the actual calculations on the food labels are also flawed…YESH. So why even bother tracking? Well, simply put, because it does work. For the general population, the basic calorie counting apps that are premised on weight can do the trick. Even the mere fact of understanding portions, calorie output and input can help you make better decisions as to what and how much you’re putting in your body. This awareness alone can really help move the needle in losing body fat.
A great analogy I recently read is to look at training like cooking and nutrition like baking. Romaniello writes that nutrition is a hint of a science. You need to figure out the macro splits that support your goals and the timing of nutrition.
Not only do you need the exact right ingredients, you need the exact amounts of them. And you have to add them in precisely the right order. If you mess up one single piece of that, everything pretty much collapses. Like a soufflé, to stay with the metaphor.
Based on research, to build muscle and lose fat, it’s recommended to first focus on getting your daily protein intake and then split up the fats and carbs from there.
There are a ton of different formulas out there, but to keep it simple, I use the 2g of protein per kilogram of body weight which I learned from Mike Thurston.
So for my current weight of 60 kg x 2g/kg = ~120g of protein per day
I focus on a diet that’s high in protein, high in carbs, and lower in fat. The macro split I generally follow is 30% protein /50% carbs/ 20% fat. However, I mostly just worry about getting my daily protein intake in first. My carbs and fat then naturally fall into the above split for the most part.
After years of experimentation and for the amount of cardio I do, I operate better off a higher carb, lower fat diet. However, lots of individuals operate in the opposite fashion. Again, this is totally dependent on the individual and there is no right answer. Everyone is different, so experiment yourself and see what works.
My Nutrition Plan: A Full Day of Eating
To give you a full holistic view of what I consume throughout the day, I put together some specifics because personally, I’m a lady that enjoys the details. When it comes to my fitness goals and eating, vagueness to me is anathema. With that being said, I wanted to provide a specific breakdown of a typical day of eating in a defecit and a refeed (surplus) day looks like:
Full Day of Eating in a Deficit
Full Day of Eating in a Surplus
Although losing body fat can be painfully slow at times (we’ve all been there), the regimen I outlined above has been sustainable and kept me sane. I remind myself to stick to the plan, stay within my calorie and macro goals, and most importantly, enjoy the process.
I love eating. I’ve always loved eating and the feeling of food deprivation is something I can’t live with. Although I have come a long way from wolfing down two bowls of Reese Puffs and microwaved nachos + cheese as an after-school snack in my teenage years, I still love food. In fact, carbs are my love language (I’m single and ready to pringle… I mean mingle, ladies).
The best way for me to diet while cutting is to consume high volume, low-calorie, high protein foods (ie. veggies, lean proteins, lots of rice cakes, popcorn, etc.) and avoid/minimize calorie-dense foods (ie. nut butters, hummus, oils and fats, etc.).
One of my favourite resources for low calorie/high volume recipe ideas is YouTuber Will Tennyson. Not only is he hilarious, but he has unique recipes that are delicious…and nutritious!
I do eat a lot of the same meals, but I actively try to vary my cooking methods or dabble in different types of spices. During the week, I usually stick to meat and veggies with a complex carb (sweet potato/brown rice) for dinners and on weekends, I like to eat a bit more carb-heavy in the evenings. If my training is particularly intense during the week for an upcoming race, I will up the calories and even do a refeed day or two during the week. I don’t do much meal prep on Sundays because I like to just relax on those days and actually enjoy cooking fresh meals throughout the week, but a ton of people swear by their meal prep days to keep them organized and accountable.
I’ve added a quick section on nutrition timing because there’s a lot of misinformation being circulated. You may be asking yourself “what and when do I need to eat in order to get the most bang for my weight loss buck?” To be completely unoriginal in my answer, I’m going to settle with the vague response of: it depends. It depends on a myriad of factors, however, there are some rough rules that might help guide you:
My pre-workout nutrition varies and is usually contingent on how I’m feeling when I wake up. Over the past few months, I’ve gotten back into doing my workouts in a fasted state. However, there are a few caveats I face in order to reap the benefits of fasting. I need to workout within 2-2.5 hours upon waking up (otherwise I get too hungry), I have to eat carb-heavy snacks in the evening before bed, and my workout duration needs to be under 2 hours in length. For these workouts I do about 1 hour of strength and ~40 mins to 1 hour of cardio (running + cool down on the bike).
If I’m running 13 miles or more, I always eat beforehand and during. To suppress my appetite, I’ll drink coffee pre-workout and a mix of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) + creatine intra-workout. On the days I have a later workout or am absolutely starving, I’ll have a light snack or a full breakfast. I always listen to my body and base my pre-workout meal (or lack thereof) on what my training regimen encompasses that day.
Whether or not you believe that breakfast is a necessity in the morning, there’s no denying that this has been a long-standing point of contention. For the sake of neutrality, I won’t dive into this debate, but I personally prefer to do my workouts fasted. I find that it provides less cramping, more mental clarity, and overall more energy in my workouts.
The term ‘intra-workout nutrition’ refers to periodic eating during your workout. Personally, I don’t consume calories during my regular workout sessions; it’s usually more of a hindrance than a help. However, if I’m doing a longer run (approximately 13+ miles / +21 kilometers), I’ll incorporate some race nutrition in the form of gels, chews, or I’ll stop at a grocery store along my route and grab a banana.
If you do decide to eat during your workout, a carb source that can be quickly digested is usually recommended (ie. fruit, gummies, gels, etc.). Again, there’s no tried and true formula. Take the information you learn and experiment. Observe results. Revise if needed. Rinse. Repeat.
The post-workout varies person-to-person and is also dependent on the type of workout, but for me, my post-workout meal is often pretty large as it’s usually my first meal of the day. I stick with high protein and low carb, as I like to consume more carbs later in the day when my appetite increases.
I used to think that I needed to consume an obscene amount of protein immediately post-workout (within 30 minutes – 1 hour), however recent science has shown that window to be much larger now. In order for protein synthesis to occur, the window has been expanded to 4-6 hours around training in order to reap the protein/muscle repairing benefits. Since I workout fasted, I try to eat within 1 hour after my workout to fit within the 4-6 hour window, but again I do listen to my body. Sometimes I’ll eat immediately after and at other times, I will wait up to 2 hours after my workout (usually no longer than that, however). Depends, depends, depends how I’m feelin’.
The last but equally important topic we need to cover is body recomp. In order to gain muscle, it’s vital to go through the process of body recomposition. You need to train and build muscle in order to grow your lean body mass, while simultaneously losing body fat. It’s a tough balance; there’s a lot of moving parts and science behind how to build muscle.
Even if your current diet is providing results, you still need to work on a body recomposition strategy in order to visibly see muscle. To spare you the repetition, I won’t go into detail about training since this is a topic I’ve covered across numerous other posts. However, the Cole’s Notes version is this: building muscle with the progressive overload methodology is how you’ll transform your physique and build muscle. Disciplined nutrition will support muscle growth and eating in a deficit will stimulate fat loss. To learn more about the exact training splits I use, you can reference my post, How I Transformed My Body and Running Performance in 1 Year.
It is possible to gain muscle while losing weight simultaneously, but it’s also dependent on your fitness goals. Eating in a deficit 5-6 days per week and eating in a surplus 1-2 days per week has helped me strike a balance between these competing interests.
I’ve tried the crash diets and aggressive cuts, but those are extremely short-lived, not sustainable, and to be completely candid, makes life miserable. I enjoy my nutrition plan and the foods I eat; replacing high calorie, high fat with low calorie, high volume substitutes leaves me satisfied rather than deprived.
This is a basic outline of my nutrition plan, but I’m not extremely strict. I try to be flexible; if during the week, my body is craving more calories, I’ll give in and eat in a surplus. For me, sacrificing my energy is never worth hitting a weight loss goal. I try to monitor how I’m feeling and even keep a journal of my energy levels and moods while trying out a new diet.
As much as nutrition is vital to the success of your fitness goals, a solid training program is equally as essential to make transformative changes to your physique. I’ll link to a few of my favourite training resources at the bottom of this post.
Lastly, I wrote this article due to the influx of questions I received on Instagram. I’m always looking for new ways to add more value and share what I’ve learned/what’s worked for me with you all. If you have any topic suggestions or follow-up questions, feel free to email me anytime.
- The Ultimate Lean Bulking Diet video by Jeff Nippard
- What I Eat in a Day to Lose Weight video by Will Tennyson
- My favourite YouTube channel for new workouts & exercises: Anabolic Aliens
- Nutrition & Food Prep: Burn Fat & Build Muscle by Mike Thurston
- The Post Workout Anabolic Window
- When Should I Recalculate My Calorie Intake and Adjust My Diet