Improving your body composition (losing body fat and building lean muscle) is not just about calories in and calories out, but more importantly, what percentage of those calories come from protein, carbohydrates and fats (macronutrients). A diet based on 70% carbs and sugars, 20% fats and 10% protein will have different results than a more balanced 40% carbs, 30% protein and 30% fat split. The first macro split will not likely help you improve your body shape, even in a calorie deficit, but the latter probably will. All these macronutrients have different roles in the body, they get digested and utilized differently and create different hormonal responses, therefore it is very important to understand that not all calories are the same. However, I want to keep things simple for you in this post, and teach you how you can build a balanced meal and diet, using some basic principles and portion guidelines. Following these tips will help you to get all the nutrients you need to be healthy, energised and to get in great shape for life.
I recommend eating 4-6 meals a day, depending on how long your day is, and whether you prefer to eat smaller meals more often, or bigger portions less frequently. It is down to personal preference and the individual’s lifestyle.
Start the day with a healthy breakfast within 1 hour of waking and eat something every 3-4 hours after.
When you prepare your meals always ask yourself these questions:
Where is my protein?
Where is my vegetables, greens and/or fruit? (micronutrients and fiber)
Where is my healthy fats?
Do I need starchy carbs with this meal?
Include protein with every meal
When you train with weights in the gym, you basically tear down your muscle fibers. In order for them to recover and grow stronger, you need adequate protein in your diet as your muscles are made up of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. It is best to spread your daily intake evenly throughout the day, because your body can only digest and utilize a certain amount of protein at a time. Including protein with every meal will keep your muscles fueled throughout the day, and make you feel satisfied for longer. Some examples of protein sources are any type of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy (if you can tolerate), vegan protein sources such as tofu or tempeh, protein powder, legumes (however they do contain carbs as well) …etc. A portion of protein for women is about the size of your palm (without fingers). Aim to get 1g of protein/pound of body weight a day, and spread this evenly across 4-6 meals a day.
Have vegetables, greens and/or fruit with your meals (micronutrients and fibre)
Vegetables and greens are so important and should be the base of your meals. They are full of essential vitamins and minerals, that are necessary for optimal functioning of the body. Greens help to balance the body’s PH level, which ideally should be slightly alkaline. Experiment with different kind of salad leaves, herbs and vegetables, to get a wide range of nutrients. Try to include green juices in your diet as often as you can. Veggies and greens are full of fiber and are very low in calories, so you can fill up on them as much as you’d like.
Fruits are also essential in a healthy diet however, they do contain some sugar, therefore I recommend having 2 portions a day if your goal is to improve your body composition. Fruits are great snack options between meals, or to use them in your post-workout smoothie.
Include healthy fats with your meals
Fats are essential for optimal hormonal functions, glowing skin, strong nails and hair and they are also necessary for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins like vitamin D, E, K and A. Fats are the most calorie dense out of the 3 macronutrients. 1g of fat provides 9kcal whilst 1g of protein and carb has got 4kcal, therefore we need to be mindful when it comes to portion sizes. For instance, it is very easy to overeat nuts and nut butters, so make sure you portion them out into individual servings. Also, instead of pouring oils on your salad from the bottle, use a teaspoon to measure it out. This way you are in control of how much you use. Examples of healthy fat sources are avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, coconut oil, omega 3 fish oil. A portion of fat is about the size of your thumb.
Starchy carbs and when is the best time to eat them
Carbohydrates are highly important for providing energy to the body and brain, and also for recovery. How much carbohydrate a person needs is very individual, and depends on many things such as activity level, body fat percentage and the ability to metabolise carbohydrates properly. People who exercise more and/or have an active job need more carbohydrate than a sedentary/ inactive person. Also, if someone is leaner and have more muscle mass, they are usually able to tolerate higher amount of carbohydrates than someone who has higher body fat percentage or overweight.
Generally, for fat loss, the best times to include starchy carbohydrates in your meals are at breakfast and post-workout, because at these times insulin sensitivity is higher, therefore carbs will not likely get stored as fat.
If you are leaner, you can also include some starchy carbs in your pre-workout meal (1-2 hours before).
If you are very active at work, on your feet all day and go to the gym on top of that, you will need even more carbohydrates so include them with your main meals and pre- and post workout.
Try to monitor for a couple weeks how you feel after eating carbohydrates and if they make you feel sluggish in the morning, try to have them around your workout and in the last meal of the day. A lot of people find that consuming carbs post-workout and in the evening has a better effect on energy levels and can also help you sleep better.
Oats, sweet potato, brown rice, quinoa, good quality wholemeal bread… are good sources. A portion of carbohydrate is about the size of you your fist.
Based on these principles your plate should look something like this:
Avoid fats in your post-workout meal. After training, you need fast absorbing nutrients for optimal recovery and fats slow down the absorption of protein. Post-workout, aim to get a meal high in protein and carbohydrates but low in fat.
Generally, if a meal is higher in starchy carbohydrates, try to go lower in fats, and if a meal has no starchy carbs only vegetables, include more fats with it.
Have more starchy carbs on the days when you are active and train with weights, and less carbs on your rest days and cardio days.
I hope you find this helpful. Please remember that everyone is different, therefore my recommendation is to experiment with different portions and meal timings, monitor how you feel, your energy level, mood, sleep…etc and find what works best for you.
If you have any questions please do not hesitate to get in touch with me. I am always happy to help. 🙂