Tracking the right things: Food

Ham? In a Hamburger? Preposterous!

I had already written a lengthy article about a month back about macro-nutrients, protein intake and such, but then Børge Fagerli (Blade) published his “Advanced Concept Diet” (English translation) which summarizes and expands on everything I was going to talk about so I guess I sort of lost track of the reason I was writing all this bullshit and so I put this article in hibernation for quite a while.

But now I remember why I do this. Looking back at the year and my fitness blog I realize some of the things I wrote about a year ago were quite naive and misinformed, and I will probably think the same about these articles when I look at them again one year from now in the future. I’m not a fitness guru, I’m not really saying anything new or revolutionary here but that is sort of beside the point. Before the human race invented the horrible word “blog”, this type of thing I have here on my website used to be called a “diary” or a “journal”. And that is exactly what this is. It is a part of my training diary. What I record here are the learning experiences I have made. Training is all about learning what works for you, and you learn from every mistake you make, but if you don’t keep track of that somehow you will forget. And then you will repeat your mistakes. So this actually ties quite well with my “Tracking the right things” articles. Because one of the most important things you need to keep track of is what you have learned, experienced and felt throughout your journey.

Tracking the right things, part 2: Food

In part 1: Tracking the right things: Weight I talked about how important it is to accurately and reliably track your body weight. Today I will highlight two equally important things you need to keep track of. How much protein and how much total energy (calories) you consume on a daily bases.

First of all, what I want you to understand is that I don’t really believe in specific diets, and especially not the kinds that exclude some arbitrarily chosen food items or nutrients like the recently popular Paleo diet. And this article isn’t going to detail a specific diet either. If you want a good starting point for learning about diets I suggest you start by reading Børge Fagerli’s “Advanced Concept Diet”, have a look into Martin Berkhan’s Intermittent Fasting or buy one of Lyle McDonald’s books on the subject.

Why you should track your macro-nutrients

To summarize what Børge talks about in the Advanced Concept Diet, for bulking, you’ll need roughly 2g or protein for every 1kg of your body weight in order to ensure that you have enough protein for optimal muscle growth (typical recommendation given by Lyle McDonald and others). So a guy weighing 75kg would need to consume roughly 2×75=150g of protein every day which can easily be achieved by eating a lot of meat and dairy products. I do not believe nutrient timing is as important as some will have you believe, but generally speaking it doesn’t hurt to make sure you get the majority of your protein in after your workout. Protein synthesis peaks right after the workout and is usually elevated until the next day. But that doesn’t mean that after a certain amount of time protein synthesis stops completely, you won’t waste any nutrients from any meal regardless of when you eat it.

Furthermore, in the Advanced Concept Diet, Børge mentions that an even greater amount of protein is required when you are in a deficit in order to minimize muscle loss. The recommended amount of protein in a deficit is about 2.5-4g of protein per kg body weight, which for our example 75kg man equals roughly 190-300g of protein every day! This can be difficult to achieve without protein supplementation. Both Whey and Casein are good protein sources. I like to get both by mixing my whey protein powder with milk. However, I don’t drink just protein shakes, 80% of my protein still comes from the food I eat. Supplements are just that, supplements. They are there to “top you off” not to act as some “miracle medicine” that will magically give you ripped abs.

So to summarize, you need protein, lots of it, how much is up to your needs, but taking myself as an example I easily eat about 160-200g of protein every day.

So when you are tracking your calories, which I will get to soon enough, it is important that you also keep track of your macro-nutrient breakdown. Specifically, it is the amount of protein you need to keep track of. And if you are counting and keeping track of your calories, keeping track of the macro-nutrients should be fairly easy. It does add an extra step to the process, but don’t skip it! Keeping track of your protein intake is an absolutely vital requirement if you want to succeed with your training and fitness goals whether you are bulking or cutting. Count your protein in absolute numbers, in grams. And do count the protein from every food source you have, not just the “typical” protein sources such as meat and dairy, it all adds up and the quality of the protein from one dietary source is as good as that of another source.

What else do you need?

Besides protein, you also need energy and this can come in any form (carbs or fat). I tend to eat about 300g of carbs every day on a bulk, considerably less on a cut, and while I do track that as well, it’s not something I spend time thinking about. I just eat whatever is at hand. Sandwiches, pizza, whatever. A moderate mix of both carbs and fat is probably a good starting point for the average trainee. Once you learn more about nutrition you can try finding out what works for you. But whatever you do, do not cut back on protein!

You also need vitamins and minerals. Generally speaking, tracking these things is not really all that important as you’ll get plenty of essential nutrition from simply eating a varied diet with plenty of vegetables, fruit and berries. However, to be on the safe side, you can take some supplemental “multivitamin pills”. Personally I make sure my multivitamins contain Zink, Iron and vitamin-D. But don’t spend too much time worrying about that. It’s a multi-vitamin, it has multitudes of vitamins in it. Nuff said? How much they should contain is not really important as the pills are just to “top you off” remember? Generally those pills contain enough to give you your full daily requirement according to the “Recommended Daily Intake (RDI)”, but if you exercise a lot you will probably need more. And sometimes much more. Omega-3 is a good example of this. Usually the fish oil capsules contain 200-500mg of fish oil, but Lyle McDonald recommends around 2-3g of fish oil every day! Thankfully, there are some brands that package the oil in huge 1g capsules.

Tracking your total calories

First of all, is it enough to “guesstimate” how much you are eating? A banana is roughly 100kcal, a glass of skim-milk is roughly 40kcal and so on? Well, it might work if you have the experience to make these kinds of guesstimations. Most people do not. I used to think it was enough to guesstimate and I see a lot of people still think that. The truth is that you will unknowingly build up many small errors which over time can grow significant enough so that you do not actually know if you are on a surplus diet or in a deficit. I made an experiment where I found that my guesstimations lead to a margin of error of roughly ±300kcal per day. For the average guy who exercise that equates to a ±10% margin of error which is completely unacceptable. Try it yourself, go get yourself an apple or some such and estimate it’s weight in your hand, then put it on a scale and weigh it. Chances are your guess is off by more than 10%. If you have such a large margin of error you are pretty much in the dark when it comes to telling wheter or not you are hitting your target. The only way guesstimations would work is if you are extremely strict and eat the same food every day in the exact same serving sizes.

There are no shortcuts. You need to measure your food. By the gram. The only way you can actually learn to make these guesstimations is to spend at least 2-4 weeks measuring every single thing you put in your mouth and logging everything in some kind of log (I recommend a spreadsheet, but there are a lot of online tools you can use as well).

In order to make this work you need a good scale. It should be accurate and reliable and easy to use. Digital kitchen scales are pretty good these days. It needs to have a 1g precision. Just make sure you get a model that boots up instantaneously, as having to wait 3-4 seconds for every time you use it gets annoying very quickly and chances are you will not measure that fruit you grab with you in a hurry to catch the train if you have to wait for the scale to boot up, even if it’s a matter of seconds.

A lot of people discount the counting of calories because of how tedious they think it is. Yet at the same time, these same people will tell you you need to eat 5-6 small meals per day or you will “destroy your metabolism” and other stupid things like that. Let me ask you, what takes more time? To plan, in advance, 6 meals per day to fit within a certain amount of calories? Or to simply eat whatever you like and continuously keep count of a single total figure and just stop eating when you reach your target calories for the day?

The answer may not be completely obvious but the truth is nutrient timing and meal partitioning is a very minor issue compared to the fundamental principle that energy in = energy out. If you keep track of your calories you don’t have to worry about anything else, eat 2 hyuuge meals per day on a bulk, eat 10 small meals in a day on a deficit, who cares? Your body certainly does not. What it cares about is how much energy it is receiving over time. Just add up the calories. So forget meals, forget having to plan what you eat. Just eat until you hit your target. After you hit your target, you stop eating for the day. Very simple. If you worry about protein, start by filling in your protein quota, then keep eating whatever you like until you hit your calorie quota. This is my approach. It works for me. It may not work for you, but what I’m saying is, it doesn’t have to be very complicated to work.

The obvious challenge when you are in a deficit is to stop in time and if you simply keep track of your calories, it’s very simple, you just need the discipline to stop even though you are still hungry. Unfortunately I can’t teach you discipline over the internet. Drink a lot of water. :-P

The challenge when you are on a bulk is to eat even when you are full. You can’t really auto-regulate a surplus as it’s hard to tell when enough is enough. So once again, continuous tracking of calories becomes very useful. I make it a rule that I’m not allowed to go to bed until I’ve hit my minimum quota for the day. So before bedtime, all I have to do is check my total calorie count for the day. And if I’m say 300kcal short off target, I simply go into the kitchen and make myself a sandwich and a glass of milk or whatever. No planning required. If I’m missing a very large amount of calories, say more than 1000kcal for skipping a meal that day, I just pick something energy dense like nuts or ice cream or candy, chocolate or whatever really and just jam it down.

The bottom line

So you could summarize and say that by being a bit OCD when it comes to the counting of calories, it allows me to be less strict when it comes to other aspects of my diet. Fact of the matter is that even when I’m on a deficit I occasionally eat pizza and other so called “junk” food. I just eat less. By focusing on the fundamental principles and forgetting everything about the minor details that do not matter in the bigger picture, I ensure not only that I stay on track towards my fitness goals but also simplify the whole process. If you still don’t get it, read this: Lyle McDonald: Fundamental Principles Versus Minor Details.

Finally here are some practical tips I picked up during the year:

  • Try to use the nutrition information on the packaging if it is possible, and be wary when using online databases and tools as they can differ in many ways (the data might be for cooked/uncooked food, special brands, etc).
  • If you use online tools such as “Fitday”, never use generic nutrition data such as “one normal sized egg”. What is “normal sized” in one part of the world can be very different from what is “normal sized” for you.
  • Be clever when measuring your food. Instead of measuring everything separately and getting tons of dirty dishes, just place your plate on your scale, start the scale (it should normalize to 0g) and add one food item at a time, noting down the weight. If the scale allows it you can reset the scale between each measurement, but if it doesn’t, it’s easy to calculate by subtracting the previous weight from the total. Have a pocket calculator handy next to your scale so you can quickly do the calculations.
  • Another way to be clever when measuring food is to measure the weight of the container before and after a meal. For instance, if you have jam with your french toast, measure the weight of the entire bottle of jam, before and after the meal and just subtract the new weight from the old. This way you don’t have to measure and keep track of every spoonful of jam separately and you don’t have to messy up any other dishes than your plate and utensils. This is very useful for anything that is sticky and/or used in small quantities such as butter, oil, jam etc.
  • Measure only what you eat, if you eat fruit that contains large seeds, measure the fruit before and after eating the meat of the fruit and subtract the weight of the parts you didn’t eat (the seeds, peels etc).
  • For beverages, such as milk, it’s easier to use standard serving sizes based on the size of the glasses you use in your home. Measure up exactly how much a glass of milk weighs and how much an empty glass weighs, subtract and in the future always make sure you always pour up the same amount. Then all you need to record is how many glasses you drink and multiply with the standard serving size.

In the concluding part of this “series” I will talk about how and why you should track your training progress.

3 thoughts on “Tracking the right things: Food

  1. ok the math doesn’t add up. You are saying I should eat 170g protein in one day!!! but then you say its ok to only eat two meals per day?! I would have to eat 85g of protien in one sitting. That is too much my body would not be able to absorb all the protein so most of it would be wasted.

    You have to spread out the protein during the day so it all is absorbed in the muscles.

  2. Good read, many people put a lot of effort into their training yet are too lazy to count their calories and then they wonder why they are not getting anywhere….. common sense and hard work (both inthe gym and outside) and time = results.


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