A Comprehensive Guide to Your Diet – How to Eat Well, Lose Weight and Build Muscle

By on December 17, 2015

Diet is a very controversial topic with lots of contrasting viewpoints and lots of people getting very angry at one another. It’s also something a lot of people struggle with because they don’t know which advice to take.

It’s actually very simple to eat well and to lose weight though, regardless of which camp you fall into. And it doesn’t have to involve counting lots of calories or not eating bread. At least, this is what I’ve found works for me.

Below is a simple guide to your diet that hopefully will give you just enough information to be a little more aware of what you eat so that you can make the right decisions necessary to lose weight, build muscle and improve your general health.

Here goes…

The Basics

When it comes to losing weight, the main two camps that people fall into are:

  • Those who say that ‘a calorie is a calorie’
  • Those who say that different calories react differently in the body

Both groups are right.

The first group, people who subscribe to diets like IIFYM (If It Fits In Your Macros) believe that all that matters for weight loss is ensuring that you don’t consume more calories than you burn. That way, you are in a calorie deficit at the end of the day and your body has to burn fat in order to fuel your movements and your bodily functions. Their advice is to first work out an AMR (active metabolic rate – the amount of calories you burn in a day on average) then to track the amount of calories you eat, thus ensuring that you don’t go over that AMR. Simple. Their claim is that this is the simplest and easiest way to lose weight and that worrying about things like insulin spikes is just complicating matters and setting yourself up for failure.

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Then there’s the other group. They point out that not all the calories you consume enter the blood stream in-tact. Some take calories in order to absorb (called the thermogenic effect) and others pass right through. They also point out the role of hormones like insulin, T3 and T4 (the thyroid hormones) and testosterone. Different foods affect your hormones differently, affecting appetite, metabolism etc. Likewise, different foods release into the blood stream more slowly.

Thus they come up with more complex diet regimes such as carb backloading, the low carb diet or the ‘slow carb’ diet. Their argument is that simply tracking calories is soul destroying and inaccurate and that it encourages people not to eat a nutritious diet (the IIFYM crowd point out that you can lose weight on a diet of donuts).

So what do you do?

How Foods Affect Your Metabolism

That argument is going to keep on going and we’re unlikely to have any winners or losers for a long time. But we can take some inescapable truths from each camp in order to come up with a diet that works and that’s easy to follow.

It is definitely true that hormones can have an effect on your ability to lose weight. Those who argue otherwise have clearly never suffered with diabetes, polycystic ovaries or hypothyroidism (or known anyone who has). It stands to reason that timing etc. can have an impact on weight gain then. Eating sugar is bad for you and most ‘simple carbs’ are pretty much empty calories – in that they contain little nutrient density.

What’s also true is that you need your nutrients. You really need them. They don’t just boost your immune system – they are crucial for a vast range of functions in the body from creating your hormones and neurotransmitters, to enhancing your metabolism, to helping you sleep.

Honestly – packing your diet with nutrients is essentially like taking all the best bodybuilding supplements in a way that’s cheaper and more effective. It boosts brain power too! Don’t spend tons of money on multivitamins and supplements – just try to get a balanced, mixed diet.

To demonstrate the importance of nutrients, here are some examples of the things that nutrients do for…

  • Magnesium and zinc increase testosterone production
  • CoQ10 increases mitochondrial function (found in organ meats and beef)
  • Creatine helps you run further and train longer by recycling ATP (found in beef)
  • Choline increases brain activity (found in eggs)
  • Saturated fat is used to create testosterone (found in milk, eggs)
  • Vitamin C boosts your mood (via serotonin) strengthens the immune system
  • Omega 3 fatty acid (found in fish) increases cell membrane permeability – improves communication between cells
  • Vitamin B12 is used to manufacture neurotransmitters
  • Iron increases the ability to get oxygen around the body
  • Calcium strengthens muscle contractions
  • The list goes on and on…

But don’t spend ages worrying about all this. Your body evolved to thrive off of a balanced and rich diet and if you just eat lots of stuff you know is healthy, you will supply your body with plenty of powerful agents to improve your brain power, strength and more.

The chorizo isn't healthy but otherwise this has lots of good stuff in it and is delicious!

The chorizo isn’t healthy but otherwise this has lots of good stuff in it and is delicious!

Protein meanwhile is absolutely essential for building muscle. Your muscle is made from the amino acids in your protein and if you’re training, you need more of it. If you’re interested in bulking, then the evidence strongly suggests you should be eating 1 gram of protein for every pound of body fat(1, 2, 3, 4).

All this is a fancy way of saying ‘cake is bad’. Stop eating cake. Instead, eat more vegetables and meats (organ meats by the way are jam packed with nutrients). But you knew that already.

And if you are making a big dinner, try increasing the ratio of protein and vegetables to potato and chips. You’ll feel fuller and you’ll get more nutrition. You don’t need to eliminate potatoes or anything like that.

And you certainly don’t need to eliminate bread! Or milk! This is what a lot of people are saying right now but it’s simply untrue. Only people with a genuine gluten intolerance or celiac disease need to avoid bread. Everyone else can digest it just fine. Likewise for milk. Apparently 50% of people something, something, blah, blah, blah. It just sounds like false hope and a lazy way to try and avoid actually working out or actually eating less to me.

Even if bread is a little harder to digest, just for argument’s sake, then it’s not to the extent that you need to worry about. Most of the top athletes and top thinkers in the world ate bread. Everyone from Usain Bolt to Einstein – so don’t tell me you can’t get in shape or that your thinking will be ‘groggy’ because you’re eating bread. Cutting out bread isn’t the miracle cure that people want it to be. In fact, nothing is the miracle cure you want it to be.

How about all this about carbs spiking your blood sugar? And sugar being really bad for you? You should eat complex carbs, right?

Well, yes and no. It is true that simple carbs (chocolate, bread, pasta) spike the blood sugar faster than complex carbs (sweet potato, spinach) and theoretically this can make you a little hungrier and possibly encourage more lipogenesis (fat storage). But don’t go crazy with this. Carbs are also useful for giving us some immediate usable energy. Low carb diets are bad for testosterone. And some carbs like fruits are really good for you in other ways. Likewise, eating complex carbs/proteins/fiber at the same time as simple carbs will make them absorb more slowly anyway.

Very low carb diets tend to end up being high in fat. And fat is much more calorific than carbohydrates, so this can be a mistake. Ultimately, if weight loss is your aim then reducing calories will have a bigger impact than reducing carbs. What’s more is that eliminating one food group from the diet will always cause problems and isn’t much fun. It’s just not necessary!

Judge each item in your diet on numerous factors. A simple carb with no nutritional value like cake or white bread? Sure, it’s not good for you. It won’t kill you either though so long as you’re not overdoing it and if you’re getting lots of nutrition elsewhere, you don’t need to worry. And if you’re keeping your calorie intake too low to gain weight then it doesn’t matter much how quickly it’s getting absorbed.

Sadly, there is no ‘trick’ to losing weight, even if some foods are better for speeding up your metabolism than others. Ultimately, the difference will be marginal and consuming no amount of ‘fat burning foods’ is going to make much of a difference to you.

This is where we start to lean towards the calorie counting side of things.

Calorie Counting – But Without the Counting

The calorie counting crew say that weight gain and weight loss are all about how many calories go in and out. Is it that simple? Probably not. As we’ve seen above, hormones and metabolism do play a role and you should definitely discriminate when it comes to where you find those calories.

But at the end of the day, you can’t argue with the fact that if you aren’t giving your body more calories than you’re burning, you will lose weight. Maybe not all your calories are reaching the blood because of the ‘thermogenic’ effect… but this may or may not be the case and is hard to measure. So if you just make sure there aren’t enough calories in your diet in the first place then this becomes a moot point. Simple.

For some people with a hormone imbalance or a conditions like polycystic ovaries, diabetes, low testosterone or hypothyroidism the issue is that you aren’t able to burn the calories. This isn’t easy to track though, so in that scenario you probably will need outside help from a doctor. Many people live with these sorts of conditions unwittingly, so if you really struggle to lose weight you may want to look into it.

For everyone else? You can likely assume that the AMR you calculate is fairly accurate (or accurate enough) and you can use this information to guarantee your calories coming in are lower than those going out.

What is an AMR?

You AMR is your ‘active metabolic rate’. This is your BMR – or basal metabolic rate – plus exercise. Your BMR is the number of calories you burn simply from being alive. Your heartrate, blinking, sweating, thinking, breathing… all of this takes up energy. So even if you didn’t move at all you’d still burn a fair amount of calories. AMR then takes this and adds a roughly average number of calories burned by  your activity.

To calculate these numbers, you can use the following systems:

Men:

BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)

Women:

BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)

To turn this into your AMR, you then multiply that amount by:

  • 1.2 if you’re sedentary (little or no exercise)
  • 1.375 if you’re lightly active (you exercise 1-3 times a week)
  • 1.55 if you’re moderately active (you exercise or work about average)
  • 1.725 if you’re very active (you train hard for 6-7 days a week)
  • 1.9 if you’re highly active (you’re a physical laborer or a professional athlete)

The issue with this is that these numbers really aren’t all that accurate. Your activity might vary wildly from one day to the next and even small factors like your mood (and thus your amount of cortisol) can have an impact on BMR.

Another option is to use a fitness tracker which will try to measure the calories you burn in a day directly – though this is far from fool proof either. Nothing is fool proof – nothing will take into account all the tiny individual differences that can have a big impact on your calorie burn.

(A fitness tracker is quite useful when it comes to working out roughly how many calories your workouts burn. I know now that my long runs burn about 700-1,000 calories where as my weightlifting burns about 200-500.)

microsoft band 2

Generally though, it’s normally true that people tend to settle around a rough equilibrium. What I mean by this, is that most people aren’t rapidly growing in size and they aren’t rapidly shrinking either. That is to say that you’re eating just the number of calories required to stay at your current size with your current amount of exercise. So if you drop your current caloric intake by a significant amount, you can bet you’re probably going to lose some weight. Conversely, if you start eating lots more than you are now, you’ll probably get bigger.

And if you want a rough ‘average’ AMR then 2,000 is a fairly safe bet.

So while none of this is completely accurate, you can fairly safely assume that if you drop your caloric intake by a fair amount each day and if you’re eating under 2,000 calories… you’ll probably be alright losing weight.

Reducing Your Calorie Consumption

Next up is the problem of how you’re actually going to go about reducing those calories. Like I said – counting calories is miserable and inaccurate. Instead, I prefer to ‘guestimate’ calories which works well enough for my purposes.

So for a while, count your calories and see how many you’re consuming on a regular basis. How many calories are you eating most days? And which things that you eat are the main culprits?

Track your calories for about a week and then you can get a rough idea of how many calories you need to remove from your diet to go into a deficit (note that you may not necessarily want a deficit – if you’re trying to build muscle then a slight surplus may be preferred).

Aim for about 200-400 calories under your rough AMR. Why? Because that way, if you make a mistake or if you’ve done your calculations wrong… you’ll still be under your target and you’ll still be in a deficit overall. Try it for a while and if you’re still not losing weight, then you may want to try lowering your target further. Or consider going to the doctor – you may be insulin resistant or suffer from hypothyroidism.

Likewise, look at the things in your diet that are currently adding the most calories and stop eating those things. I used to eat the occasional burger at Weatherspoons thinking ‘burgers aren’t all that bad’. Guess what? That particular ‘gourmet burger’ packed in an insane 1,100 calories! That’s over half of most people’s calorie burn. So no more of that then!

Bringing it All Together Into a Simple Diet Routine

In order to make sure you’re maintaining a calorie deficit in order to lose weight, or that you’re hitting your target to maintain/build muscle, I recommend using a basic understanding of calories with a rough estimate of how much you’re consuming.

And to make this as easy as possible, I use the following strategy:

In the mornings and at lunch I eat pretty much the same thing every weekday. Sounds boring? Maybe, but who really has that exciting a lunch everyday anyway? Most of us eat lunch quickly from a lunch box on our lunch breaks, so does it really matter if it’s not super exciting?

By keeping your breakfast and lunch consistent, you can know exactly how many calories you’re consuming without having to ‘count’ a single one. What’s more, is that you can make sure you’re getting some nutritious stuff in there. It saves time, it’s easy and it removes confounding variables – keeping things consistent allows you to hone in on where things are going wrong more easily.

For those of you looking to add muscle, this also helps you to get your grams.

  • Every morning I eat a bowl of cereal. That puts me at 200 calories.
  • Then I eat 2 pieces of chicken (ready cooked for convenience) and a banana. That puts me at around 400 more calories – so now I’m on 600 calories.
  • Then I eat a salad for lunch from Morisons. This salad contains three eggs, so that puts me up to around 1,100 calories total.
  • I then have a smoothie. That’s 100 more calories so I’m at 1,200 calories.
  • When I get home, I usually have two nectarines. Now I’m at about 1,300 calories.

Now I know as near as possible how many calories I’m consuming up to 5pm.

That means that I can eat anything up to 1,000 calories for dinner and know I’m going to be alright. That’s because I’ve worked out my average calorie burn

My delicious and nutritious salad. Today I had four eggs! P.S. Saturated fat is not responsible for LDL cholesterol as once believed...

My delicious and nutritious salad. Today I had four eggs!

to be about 2,300. By sticking to 1,000 calories or less, I’m still at or under my target and I’m still not going to gain any weight.

Very few meals are over 1,000 calories, so I can go shopping with my wife and there’s no reason to be careful about what I eat. It’s great! My dinner almost always contains more protein too.

I also know for sure I’m getting lots of vitamins and minerals from the salad and I’m getting loads of amino acids and protein from the chicken, the eggs and dinner.

And if I know I’m going out for a likely-calorific dinner, or for drinks with mates? I can just tweak my morning/lunch routine by leaving out the bowl of cereal or skipping the smoothie.

I find that the hardest part of sticking to a strict diet is the social element. People don’t like it when you say you don’t want dessert and it’s very hard to go out for meals when you’re trying to lose weight. So just do the boring bit when you’re at work/in a rush in the morning. You might want to play around with different foods to find something low calorie that sustains you through work, but it’s not hard to be sub-800 calories by the end of the working day leaving you with tons of wiggle room. Mine is only so high because I’m very active, I’m not trying to lose lots of weight and I’m always trying to add muscle.

At this point you may be tempted to remove saturated fats from your diet. After all, they contain 9 calories per gram whereas carbs and protein contain 4 calories per gram. But remember earlier we said that saturated fats were used to make testosterone? They’re also good for your brain. Don’t overdo it but don’t throw them out of your diet either. Balance is key.

If you want to reduce your caloric intake then do so while maintaining the same ratios of key food groups. Everything we eat, we eat for a reason.

What you can lose from your diet though are those ‘empty calories’. Those are the calories that contain no useful nutrition. So that means the really processed sausage rolls and the mars bars. Often these are simple carbs though so are fruits and they’re very good for you. Either way, eating any kind of empty carb will only add to your calorie count without giving you any useful benefits. It also won’t fill you up or sustain you – very often cravings are actually deficiencies in our diet. We crave certain things because our body needs more calcium/magnesium/glucose. It’s the same reason your dog eats gravel sometimes – it’s called pica and it’s basically the dog’s brain telling it to get more calcium!

So use this system of finding a healthy, balanced, low calorie lunch and breakfast and just stick to it. You’ll lose weight and fuel yourself with all the stuff you need. And all this without counting calories or stopping eating any bread. It really is quite easy, you just have to have a vague awareness of what’s going into your diet and try and keep some part of your routine consistent.

If I had one tip though it would be: stricter diet during breakfast and lunch, have fun in the evening.

How to Bulk

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This is actually boar or something weird. I had it the night before my wedding with a milk stout and then felt very ill. Bad call!

If you’re interested in building muscle rather than losing weight then very little changes. All that will change is your goal. Now you should be aiming to stay in a caloric surplus, because building muscle actually requires calories and you’ll also want those calories to help you work out.

How do you ensure that you aren’t just going to get really fat doing this? Two ways: the first is to train really hard (though you also need plenty of rest and sleep in order to grow – train too hard and you’ll just burn all those calories). The second way is to get most of those calories from protein which is less likely to be stored as fat and is more useful for building muscle.

If you look at someone like Hugh Jackman, Henry Cavill or Dwayne Johnson, they’ll typically consume about 3-4,000 calories and a lot of that will be protein. I don’t recommend going that high to begin with as you might just get a gut. This also depends a little on your individual metabolism and hormone balance. If you’re an ectomorph then you can increase your calories much more and you should actually rest a lot more which is when you’ll build the muscle. The main mistake that most ectomorphs make is to train too hard and end up burning off too many calories/not resting enough which is when they’ll grow.

Conversely, if you’re a mesomorph or an endomorph then you’ll probably need slightly fewer calories-worth of protein and you’ll want to train more intensively without worrying so much about cannibalizing that muscle. It also depends on how much you want to be lean. But once again, stay consistent with your diet and training and just tweak it to get the results you want.

Some Tips to Help You Cut Calories, Increase Protein and Improve Your Nutrition

Let’s end with a couple of quick and easy things you can do to get more nutrition in your diet, to increase protein and to get rid of unwanted calories:

  • Stop drinking soda drinks – These are the epitome of empty calories and they’re super high in sugar. Swap them for water and some juice (juice is also high in sugar, though it’s packed with nutrients).
  • If you have a regular cappuccino/latte then swap that for an Americano. Creamy coffees are often 100 calories+. Americano is zero.
  • Stop having butter on your bread underneath other spreads
  • Stop putting sugar in your tea
  • Grab a genuinely healthy smoothie (read the back) for a convenient and easy way to get some nutrients in you
  • Find a salad bar – the salad I get at Morison’s is really cheap and convenient and lets me eat a ton of salad + eggs
  • Use a protein shake that is low in calories. Protein shakes may not be as nutritious as getting protein from your diet but they’re a very convenient tool because they’re cheap, practical and tasty.

Ultimately, your diet shouldn’t be that complicated. Just get everything you need and keep the calories at a reasonable level. The easiest way to be consistent with your diet most of the time and to ‘overshoot’ your objectives so that you leave yourself a little leeway.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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