Diets 101 part 2: Learning the basics

June 21st, 2008  |  Published in How to eat  |  16 Comments

Start by reading the basic nutrition section. Think of a good diet as simply assembling blocks of Lego. These blocks are:

  1. Macronutrients
  2. Portion size
  3. Overall caloric intake
  4. Meal frequency

Let’s look at each of these in greater detail. By the way, Fitday is my favourite way of tracking intake. It’s easy to use and you don’t have to try to keep all of this in your head.

macronutrients

This is a fancy-shmancy way of saying protein, fat, and carbs. Ideally, each meal should have a little of all three, preferably making protein (chicken, fish, tofu, eggs, beef, whey, cottage cheese, etc.) the centrepiece. Fat should be either EFAs or unsaturated, if possible, such as a spoonful of olive oil, a bit of avocado, some nuts, fish oil, etc. Carbs should be complex, and from whole grains and vegetables (if you find that you are sensitive to carbs, try getting the bulk of your carbs from vegetables).

More on fat |  More on carbs part 1 | part 2 | part  3

Thus, a bagel is not a meal because it’s mostly just carbs. A whole grain bagel (complex carbs) with a little nut butter (fat) and a glass of milk (protein) is a meal. Two scrambled eggs and some fruit would be even better.

portion size

You should eat a meal size no larger than your two fists together (unless it’s something fluffy, like salad). Many folks often underestimate how much they actually eat. And don’t get me started on restaurant eating, especially in the U.S.! There’s like 3 meals in some of those restaurant suckers!

In general, the more calorie-dense the food, the smaller the portion you should be eating. An ounce of cheese is the size of your thumb, 3 ounces of meat/chicken/fish is approximately the size of a deck of cards, and a half-cup of pasta is the size of a small fist. One very easy way to cut calories is simply to eat what you normally eat, but eat 3/4 of the portions you normally would. Of course this won’t work if you already have weird eating habits like living off cucumber and saltines. You may also find it helpful to buy a food scale and measuring cups. If you’re North American, the appropriate portion is likely less than you think it is.

overall caloric intake

For fat loss, you want to aim for a range of daily calories that is calculated based on your bodyweight (in pounds) as well as other factors.

  • To lose fat: 8 to 12 times bodyweight
  • To stay the same, neither losing nor gaining (also known as maintenance): 13 to 16 times bodyweight
  • To gain mass: 15 to 20 times bodyweight

You will notice that these are fairly broad ranges. This is because the precise intake will depend on other factors besides your general goals.

Aim for the LOWER end of the range if you are:

  • female
  • older
  • less active
  • starting out at a fairly high level of bodyfat

Aim for the HIGHER end of the range if you are:

  • male
  • younger
  • more active
  • starting out at a lower level of bodyfat (e.g. only a few pounds of fat to lose, or trying to get from “normal” to “lean”)

For example, let’s say we have a 150 lb. woman who is in her 20s, fairly healthy and active, and who just wants to lose a few pounds of bodyfat. Her intake might ideally be somewhere between 10 and 12 times her bodyweight.

10 x 150 = 1500
12 x 150 = 1800

So, that means her daily intake of calories should be between 1500 and 1800 calories per day. Don’t forget to adjust intake downwards as your bodyweight drops. For most active women, probably somewhere between 9 to 11 times bodyweight to lose fat is about right. But feel free to tweak things up or down a little as you require.

Divide your desired intake by 5 or 6, and you have the total number of calories for each meal. Assuming we’re eating the upper limit of 1800 calories daily, and we want to eat 6 meals, that means each meal should be around 300 calories. Now you’re probably thinking, “No way! No way can I make a 300-calorie meal!” Well, think about this. A small skinless chicken breast, grilled, is around 150-200 calories. Throw that into a nice salad with a spoonful of olive oil vinaigrette and you have a very pleasant 300 calories. You get 6 of those a day! Pretty sweet deal.

meal frequency

If you’re just starting out, aim to eat 5-6 small meals daily, especially breakfast. This will keep blood sugar levels constant and eliminate cravings.

Responses

  1. jill says:

    November 28th, 2009at 10:07 am(#)

    My daughter is a recovering anorexic. She has a BMI of 17 and still needs to put on about 8 more pounds to be in the “normal” range. She has gained 6.5 pounds in the last six months. We’ve not allowed any exercise (she was a runner) since she dipped (97lbs) below 100 lbs (5’4″). She’s at a physical size she feels comfortable with and would like to add muscle weight. She says she understands she will have to eat more calories to do so. Her diet has always been healthy (prior to restricting and excessive running) as we are a fish/egg~cheese/vegetarian family. Any tips on how we can get more good fats and proteins in her diet. She eats a lot of nuts and protein bars already. She’ll have an Ensure Plus if we’re on the go and makes smoothies with Greek yogurt and soy protein. She stays away from cheese unless I incorporate it in a meal (enchiladas, frittata). Also wondering how to get her started safely on weight lifting for building lean muscle and increasing her weight w/o negatively impacting her perception of appearance. (She is in weekly counseling and weekly visits with a nutritionist).

  2. amanda says:

    January 6th, 2010at 7:38 pm(#)

    The math is a little scary for me because I’ve always been told to try for around 1400/1600 calories a day. But I weigh 331 pounds today – multiplied by 8 that’s 2648 calories a day.

    Granted I can get there pretty easily with pringles and Big Macs! But I can’t imagine eating the amount of HEALTHY food it would take to reach that number.

    Does the math hold all the way up the scale? Or is there a place where it tops out and “above this number only eat x calories a day”…?

  3. Mistress Krista says:

    January 7th, 2010at 6:26 am(#)

    Amanda: If fat loss is your goal, better to eat to appetite. If you eat lean protein, good fats, and lots of veggies with a few fruits, let your appetite guide you. Be aware of when you are truly hungry, and when you feel satisfied (not stuffed). That’s a better way to eat in general anyway.

    For 331, 1400-1600 calories a day is a bit low. Why not aim for something like 2000, and make those 2000 really good quality calories?

    You’re likely right in that there is an optimal range for those coefficient recommendations.

  4. Sonya says:

    January 9th, 2010at 10:57 pm(#)

    Hi

    I’ve lost my freshman 15 and continue to weight train and run, but since I’ve been home for the holidays I’ve had random pig out sessions that are making me paranoid about regaining the lost weight…would it be a bad idea to modify my diet according to the caloric guidelines you put up here for a couple of weeks to compensate for the unnecessary snacking or should I just return to my pre-holiday way of eating and use my appetite to guide how much to eat?

  5. Mistress Krista says:

    January 10th, 2010at 7:06 am(#)

    Sonya: Use your appetite to guide you to eat now. Simply stop at a slightly lower level of fullness than you normally do. Aim for feeling “not hungry” but “not quite full”. You should feel more or less satisfied but not stuffed. If your goal is to compensate, then simply eat as you normally would, but a teeny bit less. Use your stomach signals to guide you. This is often much more successful than focusing too much on calories.

  6. Sonya says:

    January 11th, 2010at 11:28 pm(#)

    Great, thanks so much for the advice!

  7. Catherine says:

    February 6th, 2010at 4:05 pm(#)

    I am 50 years old, 151 pounds, and work out at least 5 days a week (spinning class, weights, and also with a trainer). Have been on a 1500 cal diet that has been working well, but my nutritionist wants me to go up to 1800. I have done so, but this seems a little high for my desired goal to lose weight/body fat. She really wanted me to head up to 2000, we compromised at 1800.

    Does this seem reasonable? I burn between 500-1100 calories every day that I exercise – one of the niche things of having a heart rate monitor :) I am in training to build cycling-specific conditioning and endurance training in particular.

    She is probably right, I know that we have to have enough calories to support our activity level before we can really lose weight – but at the rate the inches are coming off, combined with my energy level and no signs of hunger, I am wondering if I really need to move my calories up to 1800.. Curious to hear what you think on this.

  8. Mistress Krista says:

    February 12th, 2010at 5:40 am(#)

    Catherine: At your age, weight, and activity level, 10 to 11 x bodyweight in daily calories (1500-ish to just under 1700) is probably fine. If you feel good inside and out, if you have lots of energy for what you want to do, if your bloodwork (hormones, triglycerides, etc.) are normal, if you’re meeting your goals, if the quality of what you’re eating is good (ie not 1500 cal of Pop Tarts), then keep doing what you’re doing.

  9. Catherine says:

    February 12th, 2010at 10:31 pm(#)

    Thanks Mistress Krista! I noted that as soon as I added the 300 calories that she wanted me to add- that I immediately started gaining weight.

    I do eat good quality food, though perhaps the range is kind of narrow :) Some days I do burn far more calories than others, so perhaps those are the days that I will add a couple of extra hundred calories and leave it at the lower level the rest of the time.

    I appreciate your feedback, that was my assumption, but wanted to check that out.

  10. MsChaos says:

    February 15th, 2010at 6:00 pm(#)

    I am currently lifting, but also cycling quite a bit, and walking

    I weigh 265 lbs and I try to follow my appetite and one day I will hardly want my salad, but the next day I inhale it all and then start looking for friends

    I am fairly good with protein, complex carbs and good fats (with occasional dark chocolate)

    any ideas on how to keep my body fueled but not get to s place where I want to over eat as I feel almost ill due to the fact that I am so hungry?

  11. JennB says:

    February 21st, 2010at 12:44 am(#)

    Hi Kara,

    I’m loving all your advice so far, thanks for the great articles!

    I’ve been working out at the gym 5-6 days a week for a month and have been trying all sorts of different ways of eating, but nothing has really triggered my weight loss yet. Some sites tell me to eat 1900 calories a day (I’m about 192 pounds, 21 years old, 5’8″), while others tell me to eat 1200-1500. My gym suggested a meal plan that would have me at 900 calories a day, which sounded impossibly low to me. My weight hasn’t budged in three weeks, and I’m not sure what the right target is. I’ve been aiming for about 1800 a day in these last few weeks, but as I’ve said, stayed the same. Would you be able to point me in the right direction as far as what a good caloric intake would be for losing 1-2 pounds per week, or perhaps give me an idea of what I’m doing wrong?

    Thank you!

  12. Mistress Krista says:

    February 21st, 2010at 9:10 am(#)

    Jenn: Aim for 10 to 12 x bodyweight in daily calories. Record carefully, don’t just guess. 900 calories is idiotic.

    Also realize that weight loss is not necessarily fat loss. 1-2 lbs/week is not realistic nor does the body run on that kind of schedule. Track your progress by how your clothing fits, and how you feel.

  13. Mistress Krista says:

    March 12th, 2010at 8:26 am(#)

    Jill: For protein try adding a hemp, brown rice, or whey protein. Supershakes are a great way to get valuable nutrients. You can throw some fish oil in here for the good fats.
    http://www.precisionnutrition.com/super-shake-creation

    Re: the larger question of how to get her involved in weight training — this question is a bit too complex to answer here, but in general this should be done in conjunction with the counselor and a highly trained exercise physiologist with experience in training women with eating disorders. I recommend three books:

    Appetite Awareness Training

    DBT Skills Workbook for Bulimia
    Life Without Ed

  14. Mistress Krista says:

    March 12th, 2010at 8:34 am(#)

    MsChaos: This is a great resource:
    http://www.amazon.com/Appetite-Awareness-Workbook-Overeating-Obsession/dp/1572243988

  15. Melissa says:

    June 23rd, 2012at 4:49 pm(#)

    This formula seems super low to me. I am mid 20s, very in shape. I’m a triathlete and I do lots of weight-training, boxing, etc. I’m 5’7″ and 137 lbs. I’m thinking/hoping most of that weight is muscle (lol), because I’m a size 4 and pretty slim. I am, however, really struggling to lose remaining body fat so that my hard work (building muscle!) is rewarded, aka I want really visible abs, etc. I’ve been logging calories and I average about 1600-1700 on days I don’t work out and about 2100 on days I do (just to give you an idea I do burn at least 800 calories on workout days – usually more). I eat very healthily and am very protein-conscious. I am a vegetarian though and wondering if adding meat back in my diet might help me to get more lean. Your calculation would mean I would have to eat less than 1400 calories a day – does this mean even on workout days, I shouldn’t be eating much more than that? I feel like I wouldn’t be able to survive on 1400 cals a day and would be miserable and starving and have no energy for workouts! I’m a pretty mindful eater and rarely eat when I’m not at least moderately hungry. I am really struggling and any guidance/advice would be SOOO appreciated. I love your website! Thanks so much!! :)

  16. Mistress Krista says:

    June 24th, 2012at 8:08 am(#)

    @Melissa: First — go with feeling over formula. If the formula doesn’t work for you, throw it out.

    Second… I can’t help but wonder… why does a size 4, “pretty slim”, very active woman need to lose more fat? Why is she logging her calories so carefully, especially when she is careful to eat mindfully and when physically hungry? If you’d like to lose some unwanted fat, I strongly suggest you unload the “mental fat” of counting calories and trying to see visible abs — and enjoy the fact that your overall body and brain connection to food seem to be working just fine as they are.


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