Summer is here and maybe you’re riding the gains train but the vast majority of people are still looking to shed some body fat and show off all of their hard work from the long winter months.
Regardless of your goals, it seems like nutrition is often misconstrued; people want to place arbitrary rules on themselves and everything is taken out of context. Your body is designed with certain systems in place to help regulate hunger and maintain your bodyweight.
However, due to the influx of processed and fast foods, many of these feedback mechanisms can become altered and don’t function as efficiently. Calorie counting seems to have become the default answer for weight loss but what do you do if you don’t want to use a scale and MyFitnessPal?
Well, you better keep reading if you want to learn how to maximize your body composition and not get stuck crunching numbers…
1. Macros vs. Micros
Is a calorie just a calorie? The debate rages on between clean eating “broscientists” and amateur athletes smashing poptarts while simultaneously breaking PRs (personal records) – to be honest, I’m not on either bandwagon.
There’s no doubt, you’re never going to get away from the first law of thermodynamics. You can think calories don’t count because you’re on the paleo diet but in all honesty, the only person you’re fooling is yourself. Sure, weight gain or loss always comes back to calories in versus calories out. However, that’s just your overall weight, the number on the scale doesn’t always reflect changes in body composition.
I have a friend who recently coined the slogan “micros matter don’t eat like a dummy” and I couldn’t agree more. Those who preach that macros are all that matters are rather short sighted in their nutritional approach. As Dr. Kevin Currell the head of performance nutrition at the English Institute of Sport said, “We have to unleash the power of food.”
How so? Food is much more than just macros, we have to consider the physiological affects that food has on each individual at both a genetic and metabolic level. People have to realize that simply compartmentalizing food to protein, carbohydrates, and fats is not how most folks approach a meal; we eat meals, not just macros. Not to mention, certain foods can differ in their actual calorie count as compared to the label due to cooking methods, fiber content, growing season, proper digestion, and differences in Atwater factors.
Takeaway: Macros matter but so do micros; prioritize whole foods but allow yourself some dietary discretion to enjoy your favorite foods occasionally. No one should be Spartan in their existence 24/7 365; it takes the joy out life for you and those around you.
2. Fast Food Does More Than Affect Your Waist Line…
If you’ve read any of my previous work, then I’m sure you’re quite familiar with hyper-palatable foods and their influence on satiety. Essentially, hyper-palatable foods refer to ingredient combinations (higher in sugar/salt/fat/etc and lower in fiber/protein), which make certain foods extremely easy to eat in large(r) quantities without feeling satiated. However, these foods often undergo lengthy processing to improve shelf life and contain dangerous additives that can alter natural hormonal regulation within our bodies.
Not only that, if you look at the neurobiology of obesity, there is quite a bit of research correlating consumption of certain foods with reward centers in the brain that bias future food choices. So, these foods not only affect your satiety, they also can potentially influence your subsequent nutrient preferences. The question then becomes, what can we do to combat their effects on our physiques?
I’m sure most people are thinking, “Well, you could just not eat them.” Sure, that’s true, but as I touched upon in point number one, no one should think they have to deprive themselves year round. What are you going to do during the holidays, birthdays, and various parties? Be “that guy” and show up with your own Tupperware? I hope not…
However, when it comes to these hyper-palatable foods, you have to understand how your body is going to react in order to implement specific strategies that will allow you to have freedom in your food choices and not live or die by the scale.
Takeaway: In my opinion, a calorie is not just a calorie. Hyper-palatable foods have much greater impacts than just weight gain or loss. We must always consider the physiological and metabolic impacts of the foods, which we consume.
3. The Caloric Battle of the Century: Brain vs. Body
Your body doesn’t understand caloric density. Let me clarify: your body doesn’t understand caloric density; however, it does understand stretch reflexes.
For example, lets say you eat 4 tablespoons of almond butter – not a whole lot of volume of food for ~400 calories right? Well, have you ever tried to eat 400 calories of mushrooms? In case you’re not familiar with the macros on mushrooms, that would be over 4 pounds of shrooms. Good luck…
As you eat and your stomach stretches, specific hormones are released which send signals to your brain communicating that you’ve eaten enough. But, here’s the cool part; remember how I mentioned that hyper-palatable foods were often low in fiber and protein? Well, the release of certain hormones is dictated by how many times you chew – foods low in fiber and protein are much easier to chew up and swallow in a couple bites.
Think about the difference between a few handfuls of goldfish and an apple. Their caloric density is the same but the overall volume from the apple seems much greater due to the amount of time it takes to chew and swallow.
Takeaway: If you have a tough time with satiety and over-consuming processed food, then consider a few simple ways in which you could maximize food volume while minimizing caloric density – add more fruits and vegetables to your meals, don’t drink liquid calories, prioritize lean meats, and choose high satiating carbohydrate sources such as potatoes.
4. Protein Is Your Friend
Protein has always been a big buzzword in the fitness industry, but lately it has been getting quite a bit of press. Jose Antonio, CEO and founder of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), recently carried out a study in which he overfed resistance-trained subjects 5.5x the RDA for protein.
The participants in the study were consuming anywhere from 300 to 375 grams of protein for the duration of the 8 week study. So, what happened? Despite training volume remaining the same, the high protein group had no changes in body weight, fat mass, fat free mass, or body fat percentage.
In other words, despite consuming more calories than before and provided all other factors were controlled, the subjects had no changes in any of the studied variables. So much for calories in versus calories out, eh?
As I said before, a calorie is not simply just a calorie, each macronutrient has different effects within the body based upon how it is digested, absorbed, and utilized. Protein is highly thermogenic and thus results in increased energy expenditure at rest despite the fact that it increases your total calories.3
Takeaway: If you don’t want to count calories and you’re still hungry after a meal, choose more protein and veggies. Provided the meat is lean and the veggies aren’t swimming in butter, you’re going to get the best bang for your caloric buck.
5. Practice What You Preach
Alright, enough of the scientific jargon and nutritional science, lets get down to the practical nitty gritty. Here’s a few more simple suggestions that you can utilize today to improve your ability to naturally regulate your caloric intake and enjoy life without the strain of counting and weighing food:
- Utilize salad plates instead of large dinner plates to ensure you keep your portion sizes moderate.4
- Limit your purchase of processed foods and keep healthy foods in your direct line of sight so that you’ll reach for them first when you get hungry.
- Don’t eat in front of a screen – TV, computer, iPad, etc.
- Learn to savor and enjoy your food, don’t just eat more simply because it’s a holiday and there is a greater abundance of food.
- Realize that your environment can dictate your food consumption, don’t feel compelled to consume more simply because your friends do.
- More choices create more stress, especially when it comes to food. Pick a few of your favorites and enjoy them rather than trying to have a little bit of everything.
- Packaging and container sizes can have a drastic impact on your overall intake – more is not better, especially when it comes to certain foods.
Nutrition can seem rather complicated overall, but in the end, I think that most will benefit from sticking to the basics – whole foods, plenty of protein, lots of fruits and veggies, quality fat sources, a decent carbohydrate intake (regulated by exercise volume and intensity) and most of all, an emphasis on quality nutrition.
Sure, meal timing, supplementation, macronutrient ratios, carbohydrate cycling, and all of the other “fun stuff” have their place, but the majority of folks are going to see their best results when they focus on getting 80% of the basics correct and quit worrying about the extra 20% that’s not always necessary.
Mike Wines is a strength and conditioning coach, and content editor for Muscle & Strength. He received his B.S. in exercise science from the University of South Carolina. He provides programming and movement based solutions to match each individual’s goals. You can also follow him on Facebook.