The biggest thing you'll want to look at is your overall calorie intake. Calorie intake is the single largest contributor to whether you gain, lose, or maintain weight. If you eat more energy than your body uses throughout its daily activity and processes, you'll gain weight. If you eat less energy than your body's daily energy requirements, you'll lose weight. You can't always perfectly predict how much energy your body consumes in a day, but observing a general trend allows you to determine if you're on the right track. If you're only trying to eat at maintenance, weight fluctuations of 1-5lbs (depending on how big you are and your overall body composition) aren't unusual as your daily activities or water retention can change.
Your diet's macronutrient profile, that is, your diet's overall distribution between carbohydrates, fat, and protein, is the next biggest contributor to your diet (but unless very poor, won't necessarily break your diet if it's not perfect). If your diet has a lot of carbohydrates and fat, but only a few dozen grams of protein, you may not have enough protein to support more muscle mass. Conversely, you could eat only protein and some fat and very little carbs, but you might find that you don't have a lot of energy during your workouts. In general, your daily intake for carbohydrates should reflect the activity demands for that day.
Nutrient timing, or when you eat your food in relation to your workout, is the next important factor, but the smallest of these three. In a perfect world, your heaviest intake would be shortly before and shortly after your workout, with smaller intakes for breakfast and/or dinner depending on when you train during the day. This schedule guarantees that your body has access to nutrients when it will need them the most.
What should my protein intake look like?
You'll want to aim to consume roughly 1g protein/1lbs of bodyweight as a general rule. Current studies don't show a significant difference beyond this threshold, and 1g is actually just a touch closer to the high end unless you're an active athlete who is also trying to lose weight and retain muscle.
Can I only absorb 20 or 30g of protein at a time?
No, your digestive tract is pretty smart and will adapt to different volumes of food efficiently. Consuming a large amount of protein may result in your digestive tract slowing down it's digestive processes in order to absorb the amino acids from protein over a longer period of time, but almost all of that protein will be put to use eventually.
Low carb or no carb dieting is generally not a good idea, unless you are on a harsh cut, which you should not be doing unless you're a bodybuilder prepping for a contest, or unless your abs literally get you paid.
Muscle glycogen depends on glucose, which is only readily derived from carbohydrates. Eating little or no carbs does result in the metabolisation of fat into other byproducts which can be used as energy for the brain, but not at all efficiently into glucose. Also, a strict ratio of fat/carb/protein intake is required for the use of ketone bodies as a primary energy source (the true ketogenic diet requires less than 20g carbs and less than 0.5g protein per lbs of bodyweight, which isn't great for lifting). Outside of that very high fat ratio, in the absence of adequate carbs, it is protein which is broken down into glucose, so a low carb diet usually isn't the best for a person who lifts regularly. Lifters will benefit the most from protein being used for muscle protein synthesis as opposed to being used for the production of glucose.
If you have a big workout, like 3x5 squats and 3x5 bench and a short conditioning workout, or a full powerlifting or weightlifting workout, you'll want to have a high carb intake before and after (about 2-2.5x bodyweight in grams of carbohydrate for the entire day) to give your muscles the energy and nutrients they need. If you're resting from training, you would want to limit your carbs to much less than that, consuming maybe 3/4 of your bodyweight in grams of carbohydrate for the entire day. On a cut, protein would take priority over carbohydrate intake, but most lifters should still be able to reach 1.5-2x bodyweight in grams of carbohydrate while maintaining a caloric deficit to fuel their training days.
How much fat should I be eating?
Fat is used to make your skin and hair healthy, and fat and cholesterol play an important role in the body's natural production of important hormones including testosterone. You neither want to follow the 80s and 90s dieting extremism of "fat is bad" and completely avoid it, nor the early 2000s extremism of "fat is good, so eat a lot of it and dump it in your coffee." Some fat here and there like a tablespoon of butter or olive oil to cook with, a small avocado, a few egg yolks with breakfast, and the fat already present in your chuck roast/ chicken thighs/ground beef/fish/etc. will take care of maintaining a healthy fat intake.
Both saturated and unsaturated fat have benefits on human physiology.
If you're wanting to lose weight, fat is one of the macronutrients you would cut away from your diet first, as fat is dense in calories, and allows you to keep your carbohydrates moderate so that your training doesn't suffer as much.
Honestly, there's so much information out there and a lot of it is conflicting.
I agree. However, you can't go wrong with the following guidlines:
- Try to cook most of the food you eat, or at least make sure it comes from whole foods like rice, potatoes, animal meat that isn't processed (i.e. chicken breasts and thighs over lunch meat), fresh or frozen produce. Cooking your food allows you to control what fats you use in your food and obviously reduces a lot of the guesswork in what mystery ingredients may not contribute to your lifting (or health). Restaurants and fast food contribute to weight gain more than rice, chicken, and carrots do.
- Try to eat a variety of produce, carbs, and meat. Eating a widely varied diet ensures that you consume many different micronutrients, almost all of which are vital or beneficial to your training. No one vegetable or fruit or meat source covers all the bases for the micronutrients you need, so rotating through seasonal produce and trying a different meat every week will give your body access to the many different kinds of micronutrients and healthy fats needed for muscle growth and recovery.
- Eat the carbs you need for energy. There is a lot of stigma against eating rice or pasta, but people don't necessarily get fat from a cup of rice or pasta and a baked potato, they are more likely to get fat from drinking a lot of soda throughout the day and having restaurant portions of fries for lunch and pizza for dinner, i.e. poor portion control.
- Don't avoid fat completely. But if you want to lose weight, skimp on it where you can.
- Weigh yourself every couple days. Adjust your portion sizes if you notice a trend up or down throughout the week.
- Enjoy your food and your meal frequency. A diet you hate is a diet you will quit. A diet that lets you enjoy some of your favorite foods every now and then and boring foods to get you through the week is something you can coast on for a long time and allows you to adjust up or down as needed. Likewise, if you're most comfortable eating frequently or only eating 3 meals, do so, but control portions appropriately.
Everyone responds to different dieting methods in their own way. Some people do very well on a paleo or keto diet due to lifestyle or individual variances. However, for most people, it's usually less confusing and easier to manage using basic portion control of food they make themselves, and adjusting from there.
Brent is the weightlifting coach at Dallas Strength and Conditioning. He has competed at USAW Nationals in 2015 and has been active in competition since 2006.