How to create a diet: part 2

Continued from part I

2. Setting protein intake

With the more complicated stuff out of the way, the next step of filling the calories with the macronutrients is really simple.

I discussed the issue of protein requirements here so I won’t go into any great detail in this article. The RDA for protein is set at 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight (g/kgBW), while research typically recommends intakes of 1.2-2.2 g/kgBW for athletic populations (i.e. from endurance to strength athletes). As I mentioned in the protein requirements article, I tend to err on the side of too much than too little protein and typically recommend intakes between 1.7-3 g/kg.BW for most individuals. Such intakes are realistically achievable by most and wouldn’t seem to impede on carbohydrate requirements of athletes for a given energy budget.

 

3. Setting fat intake

Unlike protein there isn’t really an evidenced-based dosing range to cite when talking about fat intake. As long as essential fatty acid intake is met, which is virtually impossible not to with a typical diet, fat intake technically doesn’t have to be any higher. Having said that, calories have to come from somewhere. Furthermore, in order for a diet not to be bland, in addition to there being enough fat to optimise the absorption of fat soluble vitamins, I like to use intakes of 1-1.5 g/kg as a starting point, which suit both non-athletes and athletes (due to the contribution of intramuscular triglycerides [IMTG] as a fuel source during exercise) alike.

 

4. Setting carbohydrate intake

Now that we’ve set total kcal, protein and fat, carbohydrates simply fill the remaining calorie allotment. Using myself again as an example, I’ll run through steps 1-4 based on my stats and training/activity.

  • REE/BMR = 24.2 x 78 kg = 1888 kcal. Since the “moderately active” activity factor most accurately represents my current activity I’ll multiply my REE/BMR by 1.55 (1888 x 1.55) giving a TEE of 2925 kcal per day.
  • Since my athletic goals include maximising muscle hypertrophy and strength, I’ll set protein intake at the upper end (3g/kg of BW) of my recommendations. This equates to a daily protein intake of (78 x 3) 234g. As each gram of protein contains roughly 4 kcal, daily protein intake equates to 936 kcal.
  • As I don’t deplete a great deal of IMTG through training, I’ll set fat intake at the lower end of my recommendation (1g/kg). This equates to a daily fat intake of (78 x 1) 78 g. As each gram of fat contains roughly 9 kcal, daily fat intake equates to 702 kcal.
  • To calculate carbohydrate intake in grams, all we need to do is subtract the sum of protein and fat kcal from total kcal, then divide by 4 (the amount of kcal per gram of carbohydrate).
  1. Protein = 234 x 4 kcal/g = 936 kcal
  2. Fat = 78 x 9 kcal/g = 702 kcal
  3. TEE (2925 kcal) – 1638 (936 + 702) = 1287 kcal from carbohydrate.
  4. 1287 / 4 (number of kcal per gram of carbohydrate) = 321 g

Totals:

Energy: 2925 kcal

Protein: 236 g (32%)

Fat: 78 g (24%)

Carbs: 321 g (44%)

This whole process is pretty straightforward and should take a few minutes at most since all you need to know is your current body weight and training volume/frequency.

From the totals, you will also notice I listed the percentage of total energy that each macronutrient makes up. While knowing this percentage breakdown isn’t all that useful for most purposes, it gives you an idea of how your diet compares to ones that are set up as percentages. In reality, these percentages are not too dissimilar from the Zone Diet. However this won’t be the case for everyone as made in the earlier example.

As a final point on this matter, diet percentages are secondary to meeting a person’s individual macronutrient requirements. In other words, once you’ve worked out how much protein and fat you require, allow carbs fill the remaining calorie budget and let the percentages be what they are. Attempting to do things the other way round is confusing and doesn’t address individual needs.

From the current example, my real-world experience tells me that my maintenance energy need has been overestimated by roughly 200-300 kcal. In this case, I’d leave protein and fat intake the same and decrease the suggested carbohydrate intake from 321 g to roughly 246-271 g per day.

From there, you would split the macronutrients up over a realistic number of meals (3-5) over the course of the day and aim to meet these individual macronutrient goals. It is worth remembering that the total macronutrients consumed is far more important (at least in terms of body composition) than the macronutrient subtype (i.e. type of protein, type of fat, glycaemic index etc.), meal frequency, or any specific timing of the ingested nutrients etc. (with the possible exception of outlandish extremes that are very rarely encountered in the real-world).

 

Is this for everyone?

As with everything in relation to nutrition, the answer is almost always, “it depends”. These values aren’t set in stone I just use them as a good staring point. I don’t mind going lower than the bottom end of my protein recommendations (e.g. for people who already have achieved their desired amount of lean body mass and are eating at maintenance). However, rarely do I suggest much more than 3 g/kg, even when dieting (a possible exception being drug-fuelled bodybuilders). After accounting for protein, I typically let fat intake determine carbohydrate intake (as it makes up the remaining calories). However, for type II diabetics or insulin resistant individuals, or just people who don’t tolerate carbs very well in general, I like to opt for a lower carbohydrate intake. Because of this, fat intake has to increase in order to make up the calories.

For people who don’t really engage in a great deal of high-intensity exercise, fat intake can also be set a bit higher than recommended above (if preferred), with a relatively lower carbohydrate intake. Contrary to what the insulin-phobic “gurus” would like to convince you, calories do count, and after adequate protein is set, skewing fat or carbohydrate either way will have little overall impact on body composition in healthy individuals as long as total calories remain the same. Anyone who says that you can eat as much as you want as long as you avoid carbs has either completely ignored the available evidence on the matter or/and is trying to sell something.

 

What about fat loss or muscle gain?

While these recommendations are fine for people who wish to remain weight stable, most people want to lose weight (fat), and some, gain weight (usually muscle). In the case of losing body fat (speaking exclusively about manipulating diet), I like to increase protein slightly (relative to maintenance levels; see my previous article on protein requirements for details on this) and then create an energy deficit as a percentage of maintenance requirements (by roughly 10-20% as a starting point). The reason being that an often quoted 500 kcal deficit would be quite significant for a small female with a maintenance caloric requirement of 1800 kcal (28%), and less so for a large male with a maintenance requirement of 3500 kcal (14%). Calories would be cut from either fat, carbs or both and would depend on several factors (e.g. level of hunger, type of training, food preference etc.). It should also be mentioned that individuals might wish to eat the same and just increase activity, or use a combination of both dieting and increased exercise to bring about fat loss.

In terms of gaining muscle mass, I’d go with the exact opposite (i.e. increase carbs and/or fat) except for keeping protein the same as maintenance levels. Though these recommendations aren't a bad starting point, I should point out that I am grossly oversimplifying matters, and to go in any great detail would take many more articles.

 

Final point

Though total macronutrient intake would seem to have the greatest overall impact compared with any single dietary modification, other variables such as: nutrient timing, meal frequency, macronutrient subtype, nutrient density (vitamin and mineral content per calorie), non-nutritive dietary components and supplementation, would have a measureable impact on body composition, sporting performance and health. That is assuming the ability of an individual to successfully implement a desired macronutrient intake on a daily basis in the first place.

 

Summary & application

Hopefully these two articles have shed some light on how to properly construct the backbone of a diet (i.e. the macronutrient content) in a simple and individualised manner. Estimating total maintenance macronutrient intake is briefly summarised below and requires knowledge of only current body weight and training load:

  1. Multiply bodyweight (in kg) by 24.2 (males) or 22 (females) to determine resting energy expenditure.
  2. Multiply this value by an appropriate activity factor.
  3. Set protein intake between 1.7-3 g kg of bodyweight.
  4. Set fat intake between 1-1.5 g kg of bodyweight.
  5. Let carbohydrate fill the remaining calorie budget.

This totals would then be roughly divided among a realistic number of meals and modified in accordance with real world observations (i.e. changes in body composition) or body composition goals (e.g. fat loss or muscle gain).

How to create a diet: part 1

Introduction

As you gathered form the title, the purpose of this article is to describe how a diet should be set up, or, at least how I think it should. The inspiration for this article came from the observation (personally, as well as overhearing conversations and scrolling through message boards) that many people are confused about how to set up a diet, whether it is a maintenance diet, fat loss diet or a mass gaining diet. This confusion among the lay public is unsurprising given the popularity of diets such as Barry Sears’s The Zone Diet (which centers around a 40:30:30 ratio of calories from carbohydrates, fat and protein, respectively), Weightwatchers (which focuses more on restricting the total quantity of food consumed by way of counting calories and “points”) and Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution (a virtually zero carb, high fat, moderate protein diet).

There are literally hundreds of these types of diets that are almost exclusively intended for “weight loss”, or fat loss; the term that I prefer. Given the vast apparent difference between such diets, they all share a common theme; to trick you into eating less one way or another, whether this is by counting X, eliminating Y, combining such and such, not eating after a certain time, only eating certain things on specific days etc. Basically, success (i.e. fat loss) is achieved (at least in the short term) with such diets due to calorie restriction, whether the author admits to this fact or not. Another limitation of such diets is that they typically involve a one-size fits all approach with minimal, if any, consideration of individual differences in physiology, goal(s), dietary preferences etc. This is probably why some people swear by one type of diet over another and vice-versa. When in fact, neither are “better” per se. Rather, it is more likely that a favorable diet for a given individual "ticks more boxes", whether it be physiological, psychological or just integrates with their current lifestyle better.

Take The Zone Diet for instance, the amount of each macronutrient consumed at fixed macronutrient percentages is entirely dependent on the total calorie intake. For example, an 1800 kcal diet for an untrained female looking to lose fat would yield a macronutrient intake of 180:60:135 g of carbohydrate, fat and protein, respectively, which actually isn’t a bad starting point. Conversely, if a male endurance athlete with a daily energy requirement of 4000 kcal set their diet up in this manner, it would yield a macronutrient intake of 400:133:300 g of carbohydrate, fat and protein, respectively, which would be way to much protein and fat for their specific needs, and would compromise carbohydrate intake. Furthermore, attempting to stick to a specific macronutrient ratio on a meal-by-meal basis would become a full-time job, even for the most dedicated dieters (read bodybuilders!).

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Estimating caloric and macronutrient requirements

The introduction has hopefully made a decent enough case for an individualised yet simplistic approach to setting up a diet, as opposed to having people gambling with a fad diet in the hope that it pays off. The framework that I use focuses on setting individual macronutrient requirements in four steps. After estimating total maintenance calories (1), I set protein (2), then fat (3) and let carbohydrate make up the remainder (4).

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1. Estimating total energy expenditure

 When speaking of a maintenance caloric intake, what I really mean is a caloric intake that will more or less match energy expenditure, hence, maintain body mass. Total energy expenditure (TEE) consists of resting energy expenditure (REE) or basal metabolic rate (BMR), thermic effect of activity and the thermic effect of food (TEF).

While technically not the same thing, REE and BMR are often used interchangeably, and for all practical purposes, their differences are nothing to be concerned with when estimating caloric needs. REE/BMR pretty much represents the energy cost of sustaining life and is measured at rest in a fasted state. TEA includes the energy cost of all physical activity, both voluntary and involuntary (i.e. non-exercise activity thermogenesis). Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which makes up approximately 15-30% of TEA, includes things such as shivering, fidgeting and anything else that involves movement but isn’t really classed as exercise. TEF accounts for the average thermic effects of the macronutrients during digestion and roughly accounts for 10-15% of TEE. The TEFs for the individual macronutrients are: protein (25-30%), carbohydrate (6-8%), fat (2-3%).

As TEE is made up of the sum of REE/BMR, TEA and TEF, we have to be able to measure, or, at least estimate these individual components in order to work out an individual’s daily caloric requirements. Since most reading this won’t have access to a lab in order to measure REE/BMR, we have to estimate it using one of many prediction equations. The ‘Harris-Benedict’, ‘Mifflin-St Jeor’ and ‘Owen’ equations are the most popular ones in use, with the ‘Mifflin-St Jeor’ equation being the most reliable of the three. The equations are outlined below:

 

Harris-Benedict:

Men: 66 + (13.75 x weight) + (5 x height) - (6.76 x age) Women: 655 + (9.56 x weight) + (1.85 x height) - (4.68 x age)

Mifflin-St Jeor:

Men: (10 x weight) + (6.25 x height) - (5 x age) + 5 Women: (10 x weight) + (6.25 x height) - (5 x age) - 161

Owen:

Men: 879 + (10.2 x weight) Women: 795 + (7.2 x weight).

What I use:

Men: 24.2 x weight. Women: 22 x weight

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Where height is in centimeters, weight is in kilograms and age is in years.

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I have also included the one I use with clients which is much simpler yet seems to produce values in line with the more complex equation. To illustrate this, I’ll run my stats through each equation and report by REE/BMR for each, where height = 181, weight = 78 and age = 23 (table 1.).

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Table 1. My estimated REE/BMR based on popular equations.

Equation used

Estimated REE/BMR

Harris-Benedict:

1889

Mifflin-St Jeor:

1796

Owen: 

1675

What I use:

1888

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As you can see from table 1, there is little difference between all the estimations. If anything, the Owen equation appears to be the odd one out in this instance. Given that the Harris-Benedict and Mifflin-St Joer equations take weight, height and age into account, there may be some discrepancies between those and my equation (which only takes body weight into account), at the extreme ranges of such values. However, for all commonly encountered/ realistic ranges in height, body weight and age, all four equations will produce very similar estimations.

Now that REE/BMR is taken care of, we need to factor in activity (TEA) and the thermic effect of food (TEF). Depending on the type, intensity, duration, and frequency of physical activity, energy needs for physical activity may vary from ~20% to 70% or more of REE/BMR. To estimate this energy need, you can multiply the previously estimated REE/BMR by and activity factor that is most similar to you your current exercise routine and lifestyle/job:

- Sedentary = BMR X 1.2 (little or no exercise, desk job)

- Lightly active = BMR X 1.375 (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/wk)

- Mod. active = BMR X 1.55 (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/wk)

- Very active = BMR X 1.725 (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days/wk)

- Extr. active = BMR X 1.9 (hard daily exercise/sports & physical job or 2X day training, e.g. marathon, contest etc.)

These various activity factors are quite generalised and therefore can have significant margins of error, thus negating the need to factor in 10-15% for the TEF. For this reason, an estimated maintenance caloric intake shouldn’t take precedence over real world changes in body mass or composition. Those who are aware of their maintenance needs (i.e. are weight stable for relatively long periods of time) and daily caloric intake needn’t bother with these estimations since they only serve to set a ball park estimate of maintenance caloric intake. It is also worth mentioning that elite endurance athletes (with very high training volumes) can easily exceed the highest activity factor outlined above. Using myself as an example, again, my activity levels are pretty moderate, so I'll use the  '1.55' activity factor. This equates to a total daily energy expenditure of roughly 2925 kcal. Now maintenance calorie needs are estimated (based on equations or real-world observations) we can go about filling this calorie allotment with varying proportions of macronutrients based on individual needs or preferences.

Continued here in part II