This article is on dieting…..again. We are going to talk about making dieting easy, effective and enjoyable no matter what’s your starting point and what’s your goal – lose fat or build muscle.
At the very foundation of a solid diet lies something you don’t actually see being mentioned in most weight loss ads: meal planning. Without proper meal planning you will just drift around without making progress towards your goals and you will be stuck in no time.
Meal planning offers tremendous advantages such as:
- Helps you achieve your goals
- Promotes optimal fat loss rate or minimizes fat loss while building muscles
- Helps you design your own meal frequency and meal schedule that fits your lifestyle
- Helps you design your meals so that it includes foods that you enjoy eating, which make you stick to the diet long term
- You won’t starve
Yet, so many people go off track at this very first step. The last thing you want to do is to be stuck without the right foods and binge eat, or be forced by the circumstances to eat foods are not supporting your goals.
In this article we are going to talk about setting calories and macros for weight loss or muscle building, about examples of foods that I eat and about how to design your own personal meal plan. At the end of the day, the best diet is the one that you can stick to.
But before we start, what is meal planning?
Meal planning is planning ahead what foods you will eat over a certain period of time, with the purpose of reaching specific goal.
In fitness meals plans are characterized by calories, and macros (protein, carbs and fats). That is why you will see meal plans often referred to as “2,000 kcal cutting meal plan” or “2,800 kcal bulking meal plan”.
Meal plans are designed to support certain goals, for example: reaching a certain body fat percentage or building 5 pounds of muscles or other variations on the same idea.
Here is the 5 step meal plan pyramid that works!
Step 1: Energy balance
As I like to say: it all starts with calories. Figuring out calories in versus calories out is the first step you need to make before you start a weight loss or muscle building diet. There is no way around it, trust me! Energy balance or will determine weight loss or weight gain.
No matter what any type of diet or nutritionist tells you, caloric deficit is the only way forward to losing weight. The tricky part here is to determine your daily caloric needs as accurately as possible and then to play around with the calorie intake within healthy thresholds.
Let’s take things one by one.
Determine caloric maintenance
Caloric maintenance is the amount of kcal (or food) your body needs in order to maintain its weight. Anything below caloric maintenance is known as caloric deficit or caloric restriction. Anything above caloric maintenance is known as caloric surplus.
A caloric deficit will trigger weight loss. Your body will not receive enough energy from food and it will start getting the missing energy from fat storages or even from muscles (you don’t want this to happen).
A caloric surplus will trigger weight gain; ideally by gaining more muscle while minimizing fat gains.
In order to place yourself in a deficit or in a surplus depending on what your goals are you will need to determine what’s your maintenance level. Personally, I prefer to use the “pen and pencil method” as I like to call it. Here’s how it works:
- Count your calories every day.
- Weigh yourself each morning.
- Do a weekly average for both calories and weight.
- Repeat for another week.
- If the weight remains the same it means that’s your caloric maintenance.
As you can imagine this method can be quite time consuming but I find it very accurate, compared with the various online calculators that there are available online. Most of these calculators rely on the average basal metabolic rate (BMR), but BMR can vary up to 26% in individuals with similar weight, height and age. It’s just genetics.
You can use calculators to have a “guesstimation” of what your maintenance level should be, but the accurate way is the pen and pencil method.
Make sure to count calories correctly and weigh yourself in similar conditions each day.
This is a process of learning your own body; we are all different so you are the only one that can get this right.
Setting a healthy caloric deficit (weight loss/cutting)
Now that you have a pretty good idea of what your caloric maintenance is you can add the first brick to the meal plan design. And that’s the target calories – how many calories you plan to eat each day.
For weight loss (fat loss) a good starting target is 15 to 20% below maintenance level. If you maintain at 2,000 kcal this would mean a caloric target of 1,600 to 1,700 kcal each day.
Look at the 20% deficit as the healthy threshold I was telling you about earlier. Getting more aggressive than 20% can cause bad things such as excessive metabolic slowdown, muscle loss, excessive hunger. A low calorie meal plan will not help you lose weight faster, it will just make you frustrated and damage your body to the point you will stop losing any weight even if you eat extremely little food.
Tip: You can check if you are losing muscle mass when cutting my monitoring your strength. If you are losing strength it means you are losing muscle as well. If you are maintaining (or gaining strength) you’re good.
Tip: A healthy weight loss rate that will preserve muscle mass is around 1-2 pounds per week.
Setting a healthy caloric surplus (muscle building/bulking)
For building muscle you will need to set your calories just a little bit above the maintenance level. There is no physical way for our bodies to grow new tissue and start to synthesize proteins into new muscle cells or new muscular fibers when we restrict calories, unless under very specially circumstances such as people with a high body fat percentage and very little muscles mass.
The key thing here is to make sure your bulking target calories are within the threshold. Eating like crazy won’t mean you will build muscle faster. It will only make you store a lot of fat faster. It is much easier for the body to put on fat rather than muscles.
Building new muscle fibers is a slowly process that happens over long periods of time. You only need to be a in a very tiny caloric surplus in order to gain muscle at the maximum rate you naturally can, even though there is a lot of bro-science out there saying that you should 4,000 – 5,000 kcal a day when bulking.
Even when lean bulking (bulking while minimizing fat gain) you will eventually gain a few ponds of fat. Think about it a little bit before setting your bulking calories. After the bulk is over you will probably have to cut again in order to strip of some of that extra fat. I don’t want to spend 3-4 months cutting, so keep the fat gains at a minimum.
I good threshold for bulking would be 10% caloric surplus. Just take your caloric maintenance and multiply it with 1.1. Going back to the previous example, someone that is maintaining at 2,000 kcal a day should bulk with about 2,200 kcal a day. Anything above that will result in a poor muscle to fat gain ratio.
Tip: You can estimate if you are gaining muscle or fat by weigh in and measuring waist size. Because most of the fat is stored around the midsection, waist size it’s a very good indicator.
Tip: A healthy weight gain rate that will minimize fat gain is 0.5-1 pounds per week.
Step 2: Macro distribution
The macros or macronutrients that you want to look at are proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Theoretically speaking fiber and water are also considered macronutrients, but the macros that will put calories inside you are just protein, carbs and fats.
1 gram of protein carries 4 kcal, 1 gram of carbs carries 4 kcal as well and 1 gram of fats carries 9 kcal.
So, we have the first building block of the meal plan (the calories), the next step is to split or distribute the calories into macronutrients. This is also called macro distribution and it’s expressed in percentages relative to the total amount of calories.
For example, if your meal plan caloric target is 2,000 kcal and you want to have it split into 30% protein, 50% carbs and 20% fat you will need to eat 150 grams of protein, 250 grams of carbs and about 44 grams of fat.
Before we discuss the right macro distribution for fat loss and for muscle building let’s look a little bit at each of them.
Proteins are the building blocks of the muscles. Proteins create new muscle cells through protein synthesis. A high protein diet is recommended when cutting and a moderate to high protein intake is recommended when bulking. Protein is the main driver for building muscles, but it needs to be supported by both carbs and fat.
Carbohydrates are the fuel we use in any type of physical activity. Carbs put glycogen inside our muscle, which is consumed by the body when working out. Unlike what many believe a low carb diet won’t do you any good, especially if you are working out. It’s not carbohydrates that make you fat, caloric surplus is.
Your performance and energy levels in the gym will pretty much depend on how many carbs you are eating, so don’t go low carb if you are lifting. Better performance in the gym will eventually mean more muscle gains, so getting a moderate to high amount of carbs is very important to support muscle and strength gains.
Fat is very important for maintaining you healthy at a hormonal level, helps maintaining cellular health, and has benefits on skin, joints and other. The tricky thing with fats is that it takes up a lot of your calories – twice as much as protein and carbs.
That is why it’s a good idea the make sure you take in the amount of fat that our body needs to function properly and save the rest of the calories for carbs and proteins – which are actually supporting muscle growth. Fat isn’t.
That being said, our bodies need about 20% of the calories to come from fat in order to run smoothly. That is according to the Institute of Medicine which recommends getting between 20 and 35% of the calories from fats. Anything below that will harm your body and anything above will eat up you calories and leave you with little room for carbs and protein.
Look at 20% as the minimum; you can go up to 25% or even 30% occasionally if you feel like it. Don’t go above 30-35% as this can potentially increase risk for various medical conditions.
The take away bullet point here is that you need to get in the minimum amount of fat our bodies need, but anything above that will reduce gym performance by reducing carbs and protein intake.
Taking into consideration all of the above let’s get to the right macro split.
Setting macro distribution for weight loss/cutting
- 40% protein
- 40% carbs
- 20% fat
This is very high in protein in order to preserve muscle mass in a caloric deficit.
Tip: Very high protein diets can cause constipation. Make sure to get in plenty of fiber to make your life easier.
Setting macro distribution for muscle building/bulking
- 1 gram of protein for body weight
- 20-30 % fat
- the rest from carbs
A bulking diet should be high carb in order to supply you with plenty of energy in the gym. This is when you should be making strength and muscle gains and the carbs are going to help.
Step 3: Food selection
If all of the above was pure math and boring science stuff, now things get a little bit more interesting and fun.
There’s this misconception that you need to eat certain foods or don’t eat some foods if you want to lose fat. This is complete crap. You can eat anything you want as long as you get in your calories and you get in your macros. This is also referred to as the If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) diet.
Therefore, food selection is all up to you. Of course the macro distribution will impose some limitations, you won’t be able to eat ice cream all day long, but you can include a desert or a pizza here and there as long as you follow the plan.
For me personally, this step is really easy because once I find a food I like, I can eat it for ages and still enjoy it every day. Here are some foods that pop up a lot on my meal plan:
- greek yogurt
- low fat cheese / cottage cheese
- fish (cod fillet)
- lean beef
- frozen veggies
- sweet potatoes
- pretzel sticks
- diet Coke
Tip: Get creative and include in your meal plan the foods you like. This will make it very easy to stick to the diet.
Step 4: Meal scheduling
“You need to 7 small meals a day to lose weight.”
“You need to buy this weight loss supplement and include it in each of your meal.”
Sounds familiar? This is just a marketing bullshit that encourages us to consume more, to buy more and to spend more money.
The only thing you need to know about scheduling meals and meal frequency is that it doesn’t really matter. You can have 5 meals a day, you can have 2 or you can have 10. It doesn’t really matter as long as you get your calories and macros.
Plan your meals so that they fit nicely into your daily schedule. You don’t like eating breakfast? Great, skip it. You like eating at 10 pm? Great, eat at 10 pm.
If you like training fasted you can do it without any issues. It won’t affect your workouts, especially if it’s early in the morning when the energy levels are up. A pre-workout supplement or a coffee would help though.
The only thing I recommend is getting in a post workout meal that should consist of approximately 30% of your total daily caloric intake. Post workout means up to 2 hours after your workout. This has to do with nutrient timing, but we’ll talk more about that another time.
The purpose of the post workout meal is to:
- Take advantage of the protein synthesis which is higher post workout (for a long period of time, not just 2 hours).
- Replace the glycogen stores from the muscles after the workout.
Tip: When cutting I recommend having fewer and bigger meals which will give you a more satiating feel.
Step 5: Meal plan term
Lastly but not least a cutting or bulking meal plan should have a term or deadline. You can’t cut forever and you can’t bulk forever. This is something that you need to figure out and set on your own based on your starting weight (or body fat) and on your target weight (or body fat). Putting a time limit on any type of goal is also a good idea from a motivational point of view.
Estimate the term by using these fat loss / weight gain rates:
- 1-2 pounds per week for cutting
- 0.5-1 pounds per week for bulking
Cutting phases should be kept as short as possible while maintaining a moderate caloric deficit of 20%. The reason for this is that you want to spend as much time as possible in maintenance or bulking, not in a deficit. Another reason for it is the impact on BMR, which slows down a bit during the cut. You want to keep this at a minimum.
Also, when you get out of a cutting phase do it gradually, through a reverse dieting phase. Up you calories slowly (100-200 kcal a week) until you reach maintenance or bulking. This will allow your metabolism to catch up with the calories.
These are the 5 steps you need to know in order to design a meal plan or a diet that you can stick to and that will get you the results you want. It really not rocket science guys and gals….it’s just a little bit of science.
Debugging a meal plan
Before I wrap this up I want to take just 2 more minutes of your time to talk about what to do if you are not seeing any results, after designing your own meal plan based on the 5 steps above.
Not seeing the results is a common thing actually and you don’t need to feel frustrated by it. Just keep calm and analyze everything. Here are some of the most common mistakes and causes for not making progress.
By measurements I mean weight and waist size. Both can fluctuate a lot day to day based on water retention. If you weigh yourself in the morning after a salty dinner you can see as much as 2 pounds more on the scale. This doesn’t mean you are not losing weight, and you should look at it as just a fluctuation.
Of course, you need to be consistent with your measurements, use same conditions each time.
Revisit calories and macros
Counting calories and macros is not an easy task at first and it’s common to have it a little bit off in the beginning. Even if it’s not off by a lot it can make the difference between fat loss and maintenance. If you don’t see the scale moving in the direction you want adjust calories up or down by 100 kcal and observer both the weight and waist for the next week. If you are still not making progress up or down calories with another 100 kcal and observe, until you are making progress.