The following is a guest post by 3DMJ’s Eric Helms MPhil MS CSCS, who currently coaches both of us (Jonny and Yusef). His measured, evidence-based and rational approach has been a huge influence on our approach and the Protocol – listen to our podcast interviews with him and Alberto Nunez here.
Which nutritional ‘i’s and ‘t’s are worth crossing and when: A guide to staying lean without obsessively tracking
My coaching career is based around helping athletes determine which variables are worthy of their focus, which aren’t, when and helping them to place their attention and efforts accordingly. There is no shortage of nutritional information available, much of it is contradictory and a great deal is written without the inclusion of context.
Context is hugely important when addressing nutritional concepts in isolation, as many articles do. Without context, everything appears to be of equal importance at all times and a great deal of effort can be spent micromanaging a laundry list of dietary details. So the question becomes, which of the details needs to be managed and when?
An analogy I often use to describe the different nutritional needs of an offseason bodybuilder or powerlifter compared to a bodybuilder during contest prep or a powerlifter dieting to a lighter weight class, is that the former is walking a wide path while the latter is walking an ever narrowing path slowly becoming a tight rope.
What I mean by this, is that when one is lean and calorically restricted they have less leeway in their nutrition before it has the potential to negatively impact them. A greater amount of energy is created by metabolizing body protein in lean individuals compared to those overweight  and when lean individuals are calorie restricted they experience a reduction in testosterone while those overweight likely will not . For these and other reasons, the leaner you are the more likely you are to lose lean body mass during weight loss [3, 4].
Additionally, resistance training depletes glycogen to a degree  and when glycogen depleted (which is more likely to occur while dieting), muscular performance can degrade . Resistance training is also partially fuelled by intra-muscular triglyceride which is depleted to a degree alongside glycogen during resistance training  and a diet low in fat may not completely replenish intra-muscular triglyceride levels . Since both carbohydrate and fat will likely be restricted while dieting to reach the requisite caloric deficit, performance is more likely to be negatively affected while dieting. Logically, the magnitude of the caloric deficit has a direct impact on how much dietary fat and carbohydrate is consumed and thus it is no wonder that faster rates of weight loss (achieved through larger caloric deficits) can result in poorer strength performance  and muscle maintenance  compared to slower rates. In addition to the physiological impacts, the psychological stress associated with intensive weight loss can be much higher than the stress experienced during a non-energy restricted period [11, 12].
Match precision to needs
Due to all of the above, there are disparate needs based on nutritional status. Thus, I have written extensively about the best strategies for dieting strength athletes and bodybuilders [12-15]. However, when one isn’t dieting and is in the “offeason” or simply doesn’t need to diet (such as in the case of a powerlifter staying the same weight class), what needs should be focused on and what degree of precision and accuracy are required on a day to day basis? Well, this comes down to interpreting concepts and theories and from that interpretation creating a framework for practical application. In the end, that’s what coaches do.
Nutritional science and exercise science rarely tell us explicitly what to do. Rather, they help us determine what should be measured and managed. It is the coach’s job to translate that knowledge into something actionable for the athlete.
An example of this would be managing macronutrient ranges and the size of a caloric deficit. I give athletes a daily target for the three macronutrients and decrease or increase them based on the rate of weight loss that occurs on a week to week basis. During weight loss the specific balance of macronutrients becomes more important because there is an imposed maximum energy intake and an increase or decrease in any macronutrient necessitates the subsequent increase or decrease in another to maintain the caloric deficit.
For this reason, I use a relatively tight range for the macronutrients, often +or- 5 to 10g while dieting. This degree of accuracy helps the dieting athlete walk the “tight rope”. However, it also requires attention to detail, the use of tracking software or applications, a digital food scale, abstaining from eating out the majority of the time and planning some meals or even entire days in advance when traveling.
This degree of attention to detail is certainly sustainable for finite time periods and is the cornerstone of success for all of my clients with finite goals requiring calorie restriction. However, adherence is far and away the most important variable for long term success and the more rigid a plan, the harder it is to adhere to and the less likely you are to achieve your goals using it [16-20]. So in a culture where “if it fits your macros” or “follow a meal plan and eat clean all the time” are often presented as the only two ways of doing things, it seems like you’re stuck with two rigid options.
Option one means every day hitting your macros for rest of your life and option two means eating that chicken breast and broccoli at exactly 3pm for the rest of your life. For most people, neither is sustainable long term and both share the weakness of promoting a black and white mind-set; you’re either on your meal plan or off it or you either hit your macros or you didn’t.
However, these are not the only two options. The solution for folks who aren’t dieting or for non-competitors looking for long term plans, is to seek non-binary approaches. Meaning, it’s not either a zero or a one, black or white, or on or off. Rather, you have a continuum which you can follow and options to use based on the demands of the given situation.
Here are some of the strategies I use to achieve this:
The three tiered system:
- Best: You hit your macros within a certain +or- range.
- Better: You hit your protein within a certain +or- range and also hit a target calorie goal within a certain +or- range.
- Good: You hit your target calorie goal within a certain +or- range
This approach is best used when tracking macros is not a major stress for the person. Most of the time, they try to do “Best”, but you encourage them that both “Better” and “Good” are totally acceptable options that can occur on a regular basis. This approach allows for social events, going out to eat, holidays, drinking alcoholic beverages and for times when you accidentally went over on one macronutrient target or, if you were to hit your protein target it would put you over your calories.
Normally we are accustomed to sticking to our targets in a 24 hour period. However, when you have ample glycogen and body fat stores and plenty of calories to play with, you can be more flexible. Take the 24 hour period off the pedestal and all of a sudden you have more options. With the borrowing approach, I tell clients that they can take up to 20% of the macros/calories on any one day, and give it to another day. That way, if a planned event is coming up or if they simply are very hungry on one day or not hungry at all on another day, they can shift their calories around. A 20% reduction on any isolated day in a non-dieted body is going to have very little impact on anything of import, and it allows one to mix and match to account of the occurrences of real life.
Another way to institute borrowing is to set up an excel sheet that calculates a 7 day average of your calories for the week. You can simply have the goal of hitting the target calories on average by the end of the week. Meaning, that by the end of the 7 day period, if your daily goal was 2500kcals, so long as you averaged that over the 7 day period, you’ve met your goal for the week. This way, you can have a day at 3000 calories, a day at 2000 calories, a day at 2700, a day at 2300 and then the remaining three days at 2500 calories and that’s absolutely fine, rather than having to rigidly follow 2500 calories every day.
Hopefully, after spending a lot of time tracking calories and going through a phase(s) where you dieted, you developed new awareness, knowledge, understanding and habits. If you spent months weighing and tracking your food and bodyweight, looking at nutritional labels, learning where calories come from, and changing your eating habits to reach nutritional targets, you are better equipped than you once were. We get so used to following a rigid plan that doing so becomes second nature and can even replace what normal humans use to regulate their energy intake: .
Well, . First step is to see if you are ready for this approach, for a day stop following your nutritional plan. Don’t try to hit your targets, just eat. But, write down what you eat. At the end of the day, without looking at what you wrote down, estimate in your mind your macros and calories for the day. Then, use the notes you took on what you actually ate to record your true intake and compare the two. If you were pretty close in your remembering and estimation to what you actually consumed, you are ready for this approach.
Tweaking without the scale
Now that you know you are accurate without using a tracking app and food scale, you need to assess if your habitual intake is where it should be to meet your goals. If you are accurate but your protein is habitually low, or if you are accurate but you aren’t eating enough calories, or if you are accurate but you never eat fruits and vegetables, you have just identified the things you need to mindfully change.
The following bullet points below offer some guidance on how to do this:
- If your goal is to slowly gain weight and you slowly lose weight or maintain weight when following your habitual eating patterns, strive to be a little full at most meals or during most days of the week. Check your weigh-ins to make sure you are successful in achieving slow weight gain and also not overdoing it and gaining weight too quickly.
- Likewise, if your goal is to slowly gain weight or maintain weight and you gain weight too quickly, try to consciously decrease portion sizes and stop just when satisfied at meals. Also try eating slower to allow time for your satiety to catch up. Once again, double check this strategy with your scale.
- Don’t stress your carbohydrate and fat intake. Unless you are really low on one or the other (which typically takes conscious avoidance and effort), just eat. If you consumed 20% of your calories from fat on one day and 40% on another day, it likely doesn’t matter one bit in the grand scheme of things when you aren’t dieting. So, just focus on calories and protein.
- If you are an offseason strength athlete, you want to make sure you aren’t too low in protein. While there is good reason to eat high protein diets while dieting , you are just fine in the range of 1.6-2.0g/kg when you aren’t lean and calorically restricted . If you find you habitually undershoot your protein, try adding a protein shake or two per day to get up to this range. If you are over this protein range, that’s fine there’s no harm in it so long as you aren’t eating a very low fat or very low carbohydrate intake because of it.
- Try to consume at least one serving of fruits and vegetables for every 1000kcals you eat. If you find you don’t do this habitually, buy fruit and leave it easily accessible and make a point to pack a couple pieces of fruit to take to work or school. For vegetables, try to have a salad each day and that will most likely cover your servings of veg. If you can hit these targets, you’re most certainly going to be consuming enough fibre as well.
These systems can be used in isolation, or in conjunction. For example, you can have a week where you are eating targets just based on calories and protein (the “Better” option from the three tiers), and also borrow 20% of your calories from that day to give to another day of the week. Likewise, you can follow the habit development game plan, and then intermittently go back to tracking using the 3 tiered system and borrowing to ensure you were being accurate and staying on track. None of these systems are mutually exclusive, and when used together they provide you more options, which is the whole point!
So, the take home is that when you are walking the wide path of the offseason, take advantage of it. Stop walking heel to toe in a straight line with your hands out to your sides for balance when you are no longer on a tight rope. Put your hands in your pockets, whistle your favourite song, and meander back and forth on that path. Stop and smell a few roses along the way while you’re at it.
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