Basic nutrition

Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.

As women we tend to have a rather ambiguous relationship with food. Food is cast as the source of pleasure and pain. Pigging out (or even enjoying something really tasty) is often described in sexual or quasi-religious terms of sin. On the other hand, restraint is seen as next to godliness. Remember that scene in Gone with the Wind where Mammy tried to stuff Scarlett full of food before the barbecue so Scarlett wouldn’t be seen actually godforbid EATING in public?

To be successful at strength training you will have to rethink a few old chestnuts, hyuk hyuk. The first is that to gain strength you have to EAT. Your body cannot build muscle out of nothing. You must give it the building materials that it needs. So how can you eat to get strong?

fat, carbs, protein… how much?

All calories are not created equal. I’ll divide them here into three groups of macronutrients: fat, carbs, and protein.


Fat is more nutrient-dense than carbs or protein. One gram of fat has 9 calories, while one gram of carbs or protein about 4. A few pieces of fried chicken equals a truckload of steamed vegetables in terms of caloric value.

Fat is most obviously found in the form of butter and oils, but check labels for hidden fats. F’rinstance in terms of fish, salmon is much higher in fat than the noble tuna (though oily fish have good omega-3 fats). “Low-fat” written on a box of cookies does not mean that it is the equivalent of a carrot stick. Often manufacturers will make serving sizes ridiculously small to limbo under that low-fat bar. In addition, low-fat or not, certain snacks are still high in calories and sugar. More on why “low fat” generally ain’t.

One type of fat that you do need in your diet is that from the essential fatty acid (EFA) category. Flax seed oil and fish oil are the best known examples of this kind of fat, but there are many others. More on good fats

What’s low-fat? Your body needs fat to carry out its daily tasks. As I mentioned, the body requires some EFA intake. The minimum amount of fat needed for metabolic activity is around 4-5% of daily caloric intake. However, if you go that low you will probably find that you have as much energy as a snail in molasses. The standard government recommendation (which, incidentally, matches mine… I assume the Feds are putting microchips in my teeth or reading my mail or something) is around 30% of calories from fat. This means that in an 1800 calorie day, 60 grams of fat are allowed. In practice, most folks can do quite well with a diet that ranges from 25-40% fat. Some folks are even experimenting with very high-fat diets that contain nearly zero carbohydrate, some protein, and the rest from fat.

The take-home here is that you need fat, and shouldn’t drop it too low.


Protein provides the building blocks for muscle. It’s generally found in animal foods but also occurs in smaller amounts in grains and legumes (beans, peas and nuts). If you are active and doing resistance training then getting enough protein is important — it helps rebuild muscle, helps control blood sugar, and helps you feel full longer, which is important for people trying to lose fat and control their insulin levels.

How much protein you need depends on a few factors such as how active you are, and what kind of activity you’re doing. In general, people who do regular weight training need more protein than people who don’t. Recommendations range from about 0.75 grams per pound to 1.25 grams per pound per day (thus, a 150 lb woman should consume between around 112 to 188 grams of protein per day).

We used to think that older people didn’t need as much protein; in fact, research demonstrates that the reverse is true: older people may in fact need more protein as their system becomes less efficient at using it over time. And older people benefit just as much as younger people from postworkout protein supplementation. (For more on this, see Wayne Westcott and Thomas Baechle’s book, Strength Training Past 50 and Westcott, Wayne, William F. Martin, Rita La Rosa Loud and Susan Stoddard. Research Update: Protein and Body Composition. Fitness Management May 2008.)

If you’re just starting out, don’t worry about getting too fussy with this. Just get some lean protein at every meal.

Good sources of protein include:

  • Beef
  • Poultry (chicken, turkey, ostrich, duck)
  • Pork
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Eggs and egg whites (can be bought in pasteurized form) (V)
  • Cottage cheese, milk and yogurt (V)
  • Protein powder (V)

And for the gastronomically adventurous among you, don’t forget some more unsual options, most of which have outstanding protein-to-calorie ratios:

  • Game meat (bison, venison, rabbit, elk, emu, alligator, moose, etc.)
  • Escargots
  • Insects (seriously!)

“V” denotes vegetarian option

Protein powders aren’t special things, just handy, convenient, high-quality protein sources. There are many types available: whey, egg, hemp, brown rice, blended vegan (e.g. Vega), etc. Don’t confuse protein powders with those crappy weight gainers that are mostly empty carbs and fat. Check the label to make sure it’s a plain protein powder and there isn’t a lot of sugar and junk in it. I will warn you that egg and bean/pea proteins may cause, ermmm… intestinal distress. Eat at your own risk and risk of those around you! Pull my finger! Hahaha!

There is also some protein in grains and legumes but animal sources are much better in their ratio of protein to calories (in other words, you get more protein out of the same amount of food). Compare, for instance, normal sized portions of the following foods:

  • Brown rice, 1/2 cup: 109 calories, 1 g fat, 23 g carbs, 2.5 g protein
  • Peanut butter, 1 tablespoon: 95 calories, 8 g fat, 3 g carbs, 4 g protein
  • Egg whites, 1/2 cup: 41 calories, 0 g fat, 1 g carbs, 9 g protein
  • Scallops, 1/2 cup: 96 calories, 3 g fat, 2 g carbs, 15 g protein


Think of these as sugars and starches. These are generally found in grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. Try to avoid processed foods and sugars—like “low-fat” snack foods, white bread, pasta, etc.— and choose more complex fibrous carbs from whole foods instead, like whole grain cereals/breads, fruit and vegetables. See the rest of the “eating” section on this site for more.

figuring out what you need

When thinking about modifying your nutrition habits, you must first define what your goals are at the moment. Are you trying to lose bodyfat? Are you trying to gain muscle? These two things are often at cross-purposes, so don’t try to do everything at once. Are you generally sedentary? Are you skiing across the South Pole?

In general the ratio for strength training and fat loss is roughly the same. If you’re eating protein at every meal, small amounts of good fats, and lots of fruits and veggies, it generally works out to about 1/3 each for fat, protein and carbs. This is a pretty good plan for most people regardless of their goals.

However for fat loss and managing insulin levels, many people have good results when they cut their carbs down even more, to fewer than 100 grams per day. People who are very active, especially if doing a lot of endurance training, may find the opposite: that they perform better when carbohydrate intake is higher, although many people overestimate how many calories and simple carbohydrates they actually need, which only improves the performance of the sports drink industry.

Find what works for you. Keep track of how you feel when you eat a certain way. Do you have lots of energy throughout the day? Can you finish a hard workout? Are you losing bodyfat, if that’s your goal? Your proper intake may take a little tinkering at first. If you are getting into heavy training, you can keep a relatively higher carb intake.

In terms of your eating habits, it is generally best to eat small meals 5-6 times daily, with breakfast being especially important. This is good for both gaining muscle and losing bodyfat, since it provides a consistent stream of nutrients, and eliminates the “sugar shakes” of hunger that can send you running to the candy machine at 3 p.m. Again, this isn’t carved in stone: some people do just fine on 3 squares a day; some folks like one big meal and some snacks; some people even purposely fast for brief periods, etc. However, I prefer that beginners get the basics right first, before tweaking: appropriate portion sizes and caloric intake, lots of fruits/veggies, adequate protein/fat/fibre.

Ultimately, what matters most is how YOU feel, how YOU are performing, whether the quality of the food you eat is good, whether your body composition and overall health is good, and whether you are meeting your goals. The folks at Precision Nutrition use three general indicators, which I think are worth mentioning here:

  1. Health: Are you healthy? Does your blood work look good? Are chronic diseases and health problems effectively managed? Is your immune system kicking ass?
  2. Performance: Are you energetic and performing well in the gym? Are you recovering properly and getting better over time?
  3. Body composition: Are you meeting your body composition goals, whether that’s more muscle or less fat? Are you maintaining or working towards an appropriate level of body fat (especially visceral fat)?

diet as lifestyle

Right now I want you to take every diet book and Nutri-System/Jenny Craig/Slimfast product you have and throw it out the window. Then run downstairs and light them on fire just to make sure. Pretend you are cleansing the world of demon spawn.

Just like we don’t say the word “tone” any more, neither do we say “diet”. Research shows that 95% of dieters gain all the weight back, often with interest, in three years. In other words, diets—as in drastic short-term caloric reduction—don’t work in the long run.

For one thing, the body has very good mechanisms to prevent starvation. These mechanisms control appetite (the interest in food and eating), hunger (the physical sensation of being hungry, like a growling stomach) and satiety (the feeling of fullness). Hormones also influence thinking and behaviour. (Notice, for example, how tasty everything looks — even the marshmallow in a jar, eeuww — when you’re grocery shopping at 5 p.m. on an empty stomach.) Perhaps you just relied on a short term solution and didn’t consider a long term plan. Perhaps you have emotional and psychological issues around food and eating, which enable you to sabotage yourself. Perhaps you’re trying to eat well without putting any effort or preparation into it. Perhaps you hoped that some magic pill would solve everything without any work. Or maybe it’s all of the above. The result is the same: bodyfat returns, often bringing extra luggage for its stay.

Although we can learn from bodybuilders, because of all people they know about losing fat and keeping muscle, a beginner need not concern themselves with the stringent diets of competitive bodybuilders or fitness models. Indeed, people have often referred to bodybuilders and fitness models as “competitive dieters”. Competitive dieters are notoriously awful for abusing their body, and what you don’t see after the lights go down on their ripped bodies is the sometimes drastic off-season weight gain, fainting in the parking lot, zombie-eyed lack of energy from caloric deprivation, disordered eating, iron deficiency anemia, amennorrhea (cessation of menstruation), premature osteoporosis, hair loss, and depressed immune system. If you want to compete, go ahead and enjoy your six months of dry chicken breasts (plus some multivitamins—you’ll need ’em!). But if you’re a beginner who is working out just to be fit and healthy, don’t diet as a short-term solution. Eat for wellness and optimizing the body’s natural processes.

Don’t get discouraged, thinking that you have no control over your bodyfat levels. I made the mistake 12 years ago of thinking I was stuck with my genetics and that attempting to lose fat would be pointless. Turns out I was wrong.

So what does work? Long-term eating modification; in other words, lifestyle change. Small changes made in permanent eating habits can have big long-term effects. Gradually cutting back on portion sizes. Eating more fibre, and fruits and vegetables. Switching to water instead of soda. Not eating at Burger King for lunch (one Whopper has around 1000 calories!). Think in terms of lifelong eating patterns. Can you face living on the grapefruit or cabbage soup diet for the next 60 years?

You can achieve long-term fat loss from a reduced caloric intake provided that:

  • the caloric restriction is moderate
  • you don’t drop your calories too low for too long
  • you focus on quality of food as much as quantity
  • you understand that sustained bodyfat loss is a long-term project that also requires permanent maintenance through good nutrition and active living, just like brushing your teeth or weeding a garden
  • you combine moderate calorie restriction with resistance training

See Dieting 101 for more information.


The beginning lifter does not need much supplementation. Gains are easily made at this stage so you shouldn’t worry about anything other than proper nutrition. For many folks, just getting the basics down pat, and doing things properly every day, is a big enough challenge. (Quick: What green vegetables did you eat yesterday? I’ll wait. Yeah, I thought so. No supplements for you yet, young lady! March back into that produce aisle!)

The only supplements I would recommend at this stage are a good multivitamin, adequate but not excessive water, and perhaps a protein shake if you have difficulty getting enough lean protein in your diet.

For folks who are looking for a little something extra and have the basic nutrition fairly well under control, I recommend adding:

  • Omega-3 fatty acid supplement (such as fish oil capsules or flavoured liquid fish oil)
  • A probiotic to keep intestinal flora happy (or just have some yogurt)
  • Creatine, which helps with strength and recovery (although if you eat plenty of red meat you may not respond much)