Strong(her) University Part II: Nutrition 101

TAGS: Jen Comas, strong(her) university, women, diet, Nutrition

Intermittent Fasting. Keto. Carb Cycling. Paleo. Carb back-loading. Vegan. Warrior Diet. Timed carb diet. Zone diet. South Beach Diet. Blood Type Diet. Atkins Diet. Weight Watchers. Vegetarian. Raw Food Diet. Macrobiotic Diet. The pH Diet.

Confused yet? So am I, which is why we are going to go back to the basics for this article on nutrition.

First, I’m going to make a couple of assumptions. I’m going to assume that you need to lose some body fat, want to gain some muscle, get strong(her), improve your health, and feel like a million bucks.

Please note that if you are preparing for a competition, or you are currently lean and want to get even leaner, you will have to employ more sophisticated tactics than what we are going to discuss here. I’m also going to assume that you are not an endurance athlete, because the nutrition required for endurance events (marathons, triathlons, etc) should be geared towards performance, and not fat loss.

In my experience with women and their nutrition, there seems to be a common problem. Most women are eating too many carbs, not enough protein, and oftentimes too few calories overall. When you combine the aforementioned factors along with too much cardio and not enough weight training, you become skinny-fat, also known as flabby.

Talking about nutrition is a tough thing. Everybody wants to overanalyze and argue over every detail. Everybody wants a quick fix, or the latest diet trend. I can only tell you one thing with absolute certainty, and that is: different things work for different people. All I can do is share what has worked for me and what I’ve personally seen work for numerous other people.  I’m not a dietitian, but I don’t think you need to be in order to put together a healthy, nutrition plan that is geared towards gaining a little bit of strength, losing some body fat, and improving overall health and energy levels.

Let’s touch on a little Nutrition 101. Where are your calories coming from? They come from your macronutrients, often shortened and called “macros”. The macronutrients are protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Each gram of protein carries 4 calories. Each gram of carbohydrate also carries 4 calories. Each gram of fat carries 9 calories.

If you eat a food that has 10 grams of protein, 25 grams of carbohydrates, and 5 grams of fat, you can calculate the calories by adding the grams of protein plus the grams of carbohydrate, and then multiplying by 4. You will then multiply the grams of fat by 9. Add those two totals together and you get (roughly) the total number of calories in that food.

10 grams of protein x 4 = 40 calories

25 grams of carbohydrate x 4 = 100 calories

5 grams of fat x 9 = 45 calories

Total calories = 40 + 100 + 45 = 185 calories

A quick note: Some people subtract the grams of fiber from the carbohydrates. I personally do not do this, and feel that it just over complicates things. It is your choice.

How do you determine what your caloric needs are? This can be tricky. First, I will always recommend that you overestimate. It’s better to shoot high and then have to back your calories down, rather than shoot too low. If you underestimate your caloric needs, you risk frying your metabolism and stalling fat loss. That means when you hit that inevitable weight loss plateau (and everybody eventually will), you won’t be able to decrease calories any lower and you’ll be stuck. Stuck, hungry, and still not lean. That is a frustrating combo!

That gives us Rule #1:  Always shoot a bit high when determining your caloric needs.

I have a big problem with people that prescribe diets that are tragically low. I followed a diet that was insanely low and I fried my metabolism. As soon as I bumped my calories up I started viciously gaining weight. It took a full year to undo the damage I did and get my weight to creep back down. Learn from my mistake!

If you are constantly starving, grumpy, obsessing over food, exhausted, and feel cold all of the time, those are signs that your calories are too low.

If there is one thing I hope you take away from this article, it’s that you always have to leave yourself with somewhere to go.

Now, let’s try and estimate how much protein, carbohydrate, and fat you need per day. This is crucial if you want to get leaner.  We’ve all heard that weight loss is simply a mathematical equation: “A calorie in versus a calorie out.” Bologna!

Allow me to give you some personal experience in regards to the “a calorie in versus a calorie out” theory.  At the height of my Cardio Queen days, I was doing about 4 – 5 hours of cardio per day by teaching multiple group fitness classes plus doing my own workouts. According to my trusty heart rate monitor that I loyally wore, I was burning around 3,000 calories per day. According to the food log I kept, I was consuming around 1,800 calories per day. That puts me in a caloric deficit of about 1,200 calories per day. I kept that up for over a year and guess how much weight I lost over the course of that year? 2 pounds. Two measly pounds! According to the ol’ “Calorie in versus calorie out” theory, I should have lost every pound of my being and disappeared into thin air. So as you can see, that theory is ridiculous and I took the liberty of once again making all of the mistakes for you to disprove that theory. You’re welcome.

My diet during that time came mainly from carbs and fats – fruit, bread, granola bars, oats, peanut butter and handful upon handful of almonds. Protein was minimal coming from string cheese, yogurt, and a serving of meat or so per day. Friends, you may be eating the correct number of calories, or possibly even less calories than you need, but if you’re not eating the correct amount of protein, carbs and fat, you are going to be spinning your wheels all the way into Skinny Fat Town.

Let’s get back to business. The numbers I’m going to give you allow for a range, and the reason is because like I stated above, everybody is different. I’m sure you understand that it’s absolutely impossible to give a generic nutrition plan that will yield optimal results for every person reading this. A diet plan for a female that is 5’2” and 120 pounds would be very different than a meal plan required for a female that is 5’10” and 160 pounds.

Protein is pretty straight forward, whether on a training or non-training day. I’d like you to shoot for at least 1 – 1.25 grams of protein per pound of body weight, with a maximum of 175 grams per day.

Carbohydrates are where people tend to get carried away. While carbs are not the enemy, you do want to consume them at the correct times and in a responsible manner because it’s easy to go overboard and your body loves to store these guys as fat. The general rule for you at a starting point is this: on weight training days, I’d like to see you consume 1 – 1.25 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight, with a maximum intake of 150 grams.

On days that you do not weight train, or days that you only do cardio, I’d like you to stick to .50 - .75 grams of carbs per pound of body weight, with a maximum intake of 125 grams.

This is definitely a bit on the generous side, but we are going to shoot high to leave you somewhere to go when weight loss stalls.

This leaves the rest of your calories coming from fat. On strength training days when you are consuming more carbohydrate, I’d like to see you consume .25 - .30 grams of fat per pound of body weight, with a maximum of 50 grams.

On non-training days, or days that you only perform cardio, you’ll be consuming less carbohydrate, so I’d like to see you consume .30 - .40 grams of fat per pound of body weight, with a maximum of 75 grams.

Let’s do some more math to make sure you all understand. Let’s pretend you are a 140 pound woman and you are going to strength train today. That means you will consume between 140 – 175 grams of protein (1 – 1.25g of protein per pound of body weight).

You will consume 140 - 150 grams of carbohydrate (1 – 1.25g of carb per pound of body weight, with a maximum intake of 150g).

Since your carbs are a bit higher today, you’ll consume .25 - .30 grams of fat per pound of body weight, which gives you between 35 – 42 grams of fat.

For this same woman on a non-training day, you’d still consume the same amount of protein, which will be 140 – 175 grams of protein. You will consume .50 - 1 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight, which would be between 70 – 125 grams. You’d consume .30 - .50 grams of fat per pound of body weight which would put you between 42 grams – 70 grams of fat.

I can practically hear everybody’s panties getting all bunched up. Before you rush to the bottom of this article to post a slew of derogatory comments, hear me out. Yes, I understand that the high range is a bit high, and the low range is a bit low. It is now up to you to find something within those ranges that suit your personal needs. I could easily give you a meal plan that would give you immediate results by starving you and making you miserable. However, there are a few problems with that. First off, you’ll likely lose your marbles and fall off the wagon by eating everything in sight. Or even worse, you may actually stick with a starvation diet which will kill your metabolism, burn through your hard earned muscle, and bring all fat loss to a screeching halt a few weeks from now. I refuse to do that to you because I want to help you – not set you up for inevitable failure.

The first thing I suggest you do is find out what you are currently consuming. A lot of people have absolutely no idea. The only way to know for sure is to start a food log, which is Rule #2. Write it down, do the math and find out how much protein, carbohydrate, and fat you are taking in per day. If you’re not sure which macros are in what foods, you can go to www.FitDay.com or www.CalorieKing.com to find out. There are also a ton of nutrition apps that you can download to your phone. I use the “Tap ‘n Track” program for iPhone and I love it.

After you know where you currently stand, you need to make some decisions. If you train hard, chase kids around all day, and are on your feet all day at work, then I’d suggest you start near the high end of the ranges. If you only train and then sit at a computer all day, I’d suggest you start somewhere in the middle of the ranges. And for crying out loud, don’t kick this thing off by starting with the lowest possible food intake. Why? Because again, when you plateau (and trust me, you will!) you have to be able to decrease your calories and/or carbs without dying of starvation or wrecking your metabolism.

What foods are good food choices? This brings us to Rule #3 – consume whole, unprocessed, all natural foods. That means that your food has one ingredient, and that ingredient is itself. Chicken – ingredients: chicken. Broccoli – ingredients: broccoli.

Breakfast: 6 egg whites, 4 oz sweet potato, 1 oz avocado, and green tea

Good choices for protein include, but are not limited to: chicken, turkey, fish, shrimp, scallops, crab, lean cuts of grass-fed beef, eggs, protein powder. No, not deli meat or sausage links.

Good choices for carbohydrate include, but are not limited to: sweet potatoes, oats, brown rice, fruit, brown rice cakes, Ezekiel bread, quinoa, or beans. No, not bagels or granola bars.

Good sources of fat include, but are not limited to: olive oil, avocado, coconut oil, coconut milk, nuts or nut butters. No, not a bunch of cheese.

Speaking of cheese, consuming dairy products is not conducive with fat loss in most people that I’ve seen. If you are trying to lose body fat, I’d suggest eliminating dairy products for a couple of weeks to see if you notice a difference.

Now, let’s go over how to structure this thing. I’m going to assume that you are eating six mini meals a day.  Rule #4 is that you will eat protein at each of your meals. I suggest that you eat your carbohydrates during your first three or four meals of your day. I recommend that you eat a bit of fat at each meal, with the majority of your fats coming in the last few meals of your day that do not contain carbohydrates. The exception is your post-workout meal. If you train in the evening, simply take the carbs out of one of your afternoon meals, replace it with some fat, and plug those carbs into the meal you eat right after you train, then proceed with your meals as normal.

You can eat green veggies at any meal you’d like. I personally have never counted macros from green veggies like broccoli, asparagus, spinach, or zucchini. Even right before my competition, I was eating big bags of broccoli each day and it wasn’t detrimental to my physique at all.

  • Rule #1 - Always shoot a bit high when determining your macronutrient needs.
  • Rule #2 – Keep a food log.
  • Rule #3 – Always consume unprocessed and naturally occurring foods.
  • Rule #4 – Eat protein at every meal.

I hope this has given you a general idea of how to structure your diet for long term success. Since every body is different, it boils down to trial and error. I did most of the errors for you in the past, so hopefully you won’t make the same mistakes.

In the next installment, I’ll be giving you some tips and tricks that will make it easier for you to prepare your meals and stick to your plan.

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