When you first start lifting weights, it can all seem pretty overwhelming. You will likely feel confused about how many sets and repetitions you should be performing, how much weight you should be lifting, how you should be structuring your workouts, and where – if at all – cardio fits in.
It’s likely that somewhere down the bottom of your list of concerns is what you should be eating. But underestimating the importance of nutrition is a big mistake!
At least 70 to 80 per cent of your physical results will come from what you put in your mouth: unless you are eating the right quality and quantity of food, you are wasting all your hard efforts in the gym.
Although I follow a pretty varied diet including a lot of “treat”-type foods, I acknowledge that most people can’t eat like this right off the bat if they are trying to achieve an aesthetic goal.
So, let’s go back to basics. As a beginner getting started in the weight room, ensure you are doing the following:
- Take in enough calories to fuel your activity: The number of calories your body requires to achieve its goals will depend on a number of factors including your resting metabolic rate (which is affected by age and gender), activity level, genetic history, height and weight. You can read more about finding your ideal caloric intake here, but you will need to first calculate how many calories you are burning per day. To do this, I would recommend using one of the calculators in the aforementioned linked post and track your daily caloric intake and weight over a two week period. Once you have determined the level of calories you need to maintain your weight, reduce the figure by 500 if your goal is to lose fat or increase by 500 per day if your goal is to gain muscle mass. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the more dramatically you drop your calories, the more fat loss you will see. If you drop your calories below about 1500, your body will in fact hold on to fat and you will risk permanently damaging your metabolism.
- Consume an adequate amount of protein: It is important to consume a high amount of protein whether your goal involves fat loss or muscle gain. When you perform exercise, you damage your muscle cells. Protein is required to repair and rebuild this tissue. Having a high intake of protein will also enable your body to maintain its muscle mass while dieting. At least 20 grams of protein should be consumed with every meal and snack. Some good choices of protein include eggs, greek yoghurt, cottage cheese, chicken, turkey, fish, beef, and whey or casein protein powders as an additional supplement.
- Include a variety of healthy fats in your diet: Fats are essential for normal body functioning. I usually recommend a minimum of four serves of healthy fats per day, and more if you are following a plan which is on the lower side of carbohydrates. Avoid fats immediately post-workout, as they will slow digestion – not ideal when you need nutrients delivered quickly! One serve of fat may include one tablespoon of olive or coconut oil, one tablespoon of nut butter, one piece of cheese, half an avocado, a handful of nuts, or a portion of red meat or fatty fish.
- Do not fear carbohydrates: Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap in the past few years, however, they are your body’s preferred source of energy. As such, they should contribute a substantial amount of calories to your diet. The best sources of carbohydrates include oats, rice, sweet potatoes, fruit and squash. If you are trying to reduce body fat, concentrate your carbohydrates into as few meals as possible to provide your body maximal opportunity to burn fat, but if you are trying to gain muscle you should be eating carbohydrates with every meal.
- Eat regularly throughout the day: There is no need to jump into a bodybuilder-style of eating eight small meals a day, unless that is something you genuinely prefer. Most people thrive on four or five moderate-sized meals per day, as this will enable better nutrient absorption and also keep your blood sugar levels more stable without getting in the way of real life. You will feel energised for your workouts and also be less tempted to binge due to extreme hunger.
- Avoid elimination diets initially: When you get started on a new fitness regime, it is tempting to simultaneously ban entire food groups as you think it will give you better results. Truth be told, you will see great results as long as you focus on lifting weights regularly at a proper intensity while following the advice in this post. You don’t need to worry about any particular diets such as intermittent fasting, Paleo or FODMAPs etc. You can include all kinds of foods in your diet with no restrictions, provided you are eating well the vast majority of the time.
- Eat a meal rich in protein AND carbohydrates pre- and post-workout: I firmly believe that both your pre- and post-workout meals should be high in protein and carbohydrate. The protein will help to repair your muscle cells after they have been damaged by lifting weights, and the carbohydrates enable this process to take place while also replenishing your glycogen stores.
- Track macros: Once you have determined the overall number of calories you would like to consume, you must then decide how to split those calories between macronutrients. Protein and carbohydrate yield four calories per gram, while fat yields nine calories per gram. I recommend consuming 0.8-1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, and 0.3-0.6 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight. Multiply those numbers by four and nine, respectively, and then the balance remaining is how many grams of carbohydrate you should be eating per day. For example, consider a 150lb female who is looking to lose weight consuming 1700 calories per day, and enjoys eating fats more than carbohydrates. Her protein intake should be 150g (150 x 1 =150g of protein x 4 = 600 calories from protein) and her fat intake should be 75g (150 x 0.5 = 75g fat of fat x 9 = 675 calories from fat). She will have 425 calories left over (1700 – 600 – 675 = 425) for carbohydrates, or 106 grams (425/4 = 106). A simpler way to calculate all this is with the IIFYM calculator! I would recommend tracking your macros daily for one to two weeks maximum until you feel comfortable you are consuming the right number of calories, as it can become an unhealthy obsession.
This is what I may recommend to a beginner who has just started lifting weights and is looking to increase muscle definition and drop body fat.
Breakfast: two whole eggs cooked in coconut oil and 1/2 cup oatmeal with one teaspoon of honey
Lunch: 170g (6oz) chicken breast with mixed vegetables and half an avocado
Pre-workout snack: 3/4 cup greek yoghurt with 1/2 cup berries and 1 TB nut butter
Post-workout: one scoop of whey protein powder with one cup of almond milk
Dinner: 170g (6oz) steak with a baked potato and salad
*Note: A protein shake post-workout is not essential, but it will help those who struggle to hit their protein targets. Whey will also reach your muscle cells faster than regular food. If you are not having a protein shake, I’d recommend eating as soon as possible after finishing your workout. If you are having a shake, eat a solid meal 45 to 60 minutes later.
The above guidelines are general and suitable for most beginners. If you are still completely confused, I’d recommend hiring a professional who can help you achieve your goals!
Is this how you structure your dietary intake? Is there anything in this post which you don’t do already?