Continuing the old “Developing the Female Body” series, part 2 will tackle issues of diet.
Just when you thought you were done, not quite. The training is only one part of the puzzle.
You’ll invariably hear people talking about diet as being various percentages of your results. I think this is stupid, because diet is both everything and nothing.
If you lift but don’t eat properly, you won’t do very well. If you diet properly but don’t exercise properly, you won’t do very well. To discuss either element as independent of the other is frankly dumb. Both have to be done, and done properly, for the best results.
Nutrition, much like training, has a ton of myths surrounding it. Also like training, most of what you’ll hear is bullshit.
The biggest and by far most extensive is the idea of so-called ‘clean eating’. The premise of clean eating is that some foods are good and healthy, while other foods are artificial, processed, and bad, therefore they are not clean. To the clean dieter, there is no other means of controlling the diet. You either eat clean, or you do not. There are good foods and there are bad foods.
Now, to the unknowing, this can sound like a pretty good idea. To the average person subsisting on the typical American diet of junk food, the simple switch to ‘clean’ foods can often have quite a dramatic impact. However, this change has little if anything to do with the actual quality of the food.
The fundamental tenet of nutrition relates to the concept of energy balance. In thermodynamics, energy cannot be created or destroyed in a closed system. It simply changes form. The body, being a closed system, adheres to this law as well. Unless you somehow violate physical laws, this means that calories, being the units of energy derived from food, must be conserved in your body just as in anybody else.
To translate this into simple terms, if you take in more energy than you use up, then you gain weight. If you take in less energy from food than you use up, you will drop weight. The magic of clean eating then is not because of the quality of the foods, but rather the simple fact that ‘clean’ foods on average have less calories for any given amount. The clean dieter has thus reduced his or her calorie intake simply by changing food choices.
The average formula given for maintenance calories, that is the calorie intake that balances with calorie usage, is 15 * bodyweight. In order to gain weight, values at or above this would be used. To lose weight, values at or below this would be used. In practice, 12 * bodyweight tends to be the highest value used for weight loss, with some having to go as low as 7-8 calories/pound. A 100 lb woman would likely need around 1200 calories or less in order to see weight losses, as an example.
Bear in mind as well that this is simply a starting point. The formula is a place to start, and you will likely have to adjust your actual diet based on your results. If you’re trying to lose weight and the scale isn’t budging at 12 calories per pound, then you will have to drop calories further in order to lose.
There are nutrient requirements as well as just considerations of calories. There are three macronutrients found in our food: protein, carbohydrates, and fats. In brief, protein is used in the structural components of the body, carbohydrates are used as energy sources, and fats are used both as structural components and as energy sources.
Protein and fats have baseline essential requirements by the body. Carbohydrates are required in limited amounts, to fuel muscular activity and the brain (roughly 100g per day), although the body has means of converting both protein and fats into usable energy sources. These pathways are not as efficient as glucose, however, which is the end-result of carbohydrate metabolism.
While calories are the ultimate determinant of weight loss/gain, these essential requirements are necessary to be fulfilled in order for (positive) body composition changes to occur.
For most engaged in regular exercise and activity, it is advisable to keep protein at a minimum of one gram per lb of bodyweight, and up to 1.5g/lb. Note that as calories and carbohydrate intake decreases, higher values of protein intake become important. Under conditions of lowered calories, the amino acids that comprise protein are oxidized heavily by the body. By providing an ample supply through the diet, protein in the muscle is spared.
On the other side of the equation, too much protein is converted to glucose in the liver, through a process called gluconeogenesis. Because of this, going above 1.5g/lb (assuming you’re drug free), while not harmful, is likely pointless; you could simply eat carbs and save yourself the money. Protein has an estimated 4 calories per gram. So a 100 lb woman would ideally get between 100g to 150g of protein per day, for a total of 400 to 600 calories.
The remainder of the diet must come from carbohydrate and fat. There’s two schools of thought here, one says high carbs/low fat, the other says low carbs/high fat.
In general many find that they do better, in terms of adherence and cravings, on low carb diets. However those engaged in large amounts of endurance activity, or even those that simply do better on higher carb intakes, may find they need the carbs to support their training.
Carbs, as I mentioned before, will ultimately end up as glucose in the bloodstream, available for uptake by cells for use as energy. This process is often linked to the hormone insulin, which is considered a storage signal as it is linked to the processes by which cells take in nutrients.
Insulin causes an upregulation of the molecules responsible for glucose uptake, as well as other related pathways. Because of its nature as an energy-providing hormone, it tends to also signal anabolic/growth processes as well. However, cells have also demonstrated the capacity for nutrient uptake without the presence of insulin, so it is not the complete picture.
For all intents and purposes, the two tissues you’re most concerned with are going to be muscle and adipose (fat). How these tissues respond to insulin is determined by a quality called insulin sensitivity. Insulin-sensitive tissues require less insulin to exert a given effect than in more insulin resistant tissues.
In an ideal situation, you’d have high insulin sensitivity in your muscle tissue, and high insulin resistance in your body fat. Unfortunately, this is genetically determined and not something you’ll have any control over, barring a few exceptions (one of these being drugs).
Broadly speaking, this controls another aspect of nutrition called partitioning. This is basically what goes where, a ratio of nutrients that are diverted to muscle (and other essential functions) vs. those diverted to fat tissue. As with the above, there’s little short of drugs we can do to manipulate this. Diet and training modalities might give you the ability to skew it 5-10%, if that.
What this means is that for any given weight you gain, x amount will go to muscle and y will go to fat tissue. If you gain muscle in a ratio of 2:1 with fat, then for every 2 lbs you gain, you’ll gain 1 lb of fat. This works in reverse as well.
Now, don’t freak just yet. There’s a bit more to the regulatory system here, and what I just wrote doesn’t imply what you think it might.
The body’s overall metabolic status is controlled by a master hormone called leptin. It also happens to be upstream of just about every process in the body that is related to metabolic function. In other words, having a normalized amount of leptin is something you want.
Leptin signaling is strongly linked to body fat levels, as well as to calorie intake. If you’re carrying a decent amount of body fat and eat well, you don’t have to particularly worry about this. On the other hand, if you’re on a contest diet of 1000 cals per day and have crazy low levels of fat, then you’re likely near bottomed out.
This has interesting implications. Centrally speaking, leptin is linked to a whole bunch of neurochemical mess in the brain. It’s downstream of the dopamine pathway, which is responsible for things like pleasure-reward feedback. This might well implicate it in eating disorders. The hormones that control appetite also hang around this area. Again, no shock.
Thyroid, androgen, and adrenal output are all modulated by leptin to some degree or another. Which means that if you diet too hard, too long, you’ll basically crash. The body appears to have an equilibrium point where it “wants” to be, in terms of body mass and composition, which is referred to as the setpoint. Going below the setpoint, along with chronic underfeeding, is what causes these problems. <
We can take a few things away from this. Firstly, someone that’;s above his or her setpoint doesn’t have to worry so much about the partitioning issue I mentioned before. There’s plenty of leptin signaling going on, assuming a sane calorie deficit is in place, and proper strength training can help preserve muscle tissue.
Secondly, starvation diets are not a good idea at least over the long term. There’s been quite a buzz about the phenomenon of so-called “metabolic damage”. Now, insofar as I know, which admittedly is not an infallible answer, the only way to truly damage the metabolism is to physically or chemically do something to the thyroid gland that causes it to stop functioning. The down-regulation of metabolism, the crash, has been shown in research to be limited to about 30% or so of baseline, and is easily undone by raising calories for a few weeks. There’s nothing permanent about it, again barring actual damage to the thyroid gland (admittedly, something that seems common in women).
Now, applied properly, leptin-crushing low calories can be used. However this requires periodic increases in calories, and especially carbohydrate intake, called a refeed. Refeeds will vary in composition, and strictly defined they are simply periods of over-feeding. However, carb-based refeeds are the preference in many instances, due to the fact that glucose uptake by fat cells is the source of leptin signaling. Carb-based refeeds can span anywhere from 2g/kg to 16g/kg of carb intake, although the higher end of that is generally not a requirement. For most purposes, 2-7g/kg is likely plenty. In the research, intervals of less than 5 hours have been pretty useless for increasing leptin, so that’s something to take into account also. This ties into the concept of cyclic dieting, which I'll cover a little more later.
Regarding fat intake, you’ll hear anything from ZOMG FAT EVAL!! to people that think fat should be a major source in the diet (ketogenic eating).
The truth, as usual in this type of thing, is somewhere in the middle. You need fat in your diet, for a whole lot of things. Along with protein, fat comprises most of your tissues that aren’t water. Fats are stored in adipose tissue as triglycerides, which also provide a source of fuel for aerobic metabolism when released into the bloodstream.
There are different types of fat, which fall into the categories of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated (which includes the essential fats).
Essential fats are divided into the omega-6 and omega-3 categories, derived from two polyunsaturated fats called alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid. Essential fats are crucial to a number of processes, including inflammation and healing as well as neurological and cardiovascular health. The omega-3s in particular have also displayed a positive effect on partitioning away from fat cells and towards muscle, although this is a subtle, long-term benefit.
Virtually all of the essential fats are derived from polyunsaturated fat, and these include flax, canola, safflower, and borage oils, certain nuts, and fish. Plant sources do not contain EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) or DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are the two omega-3 fats. These are found in fish and fish oils.
The essential fats can all be synthesized to some degree or another from other omega-6 or omega-3 fats, but having a dietary source of EPA and DHA is valuable as this conversion does not always provide adequate amounts.
In terms of daily recommendations, fat intake should generally fall around 0.5g per pound, although this is a fairly arbitrary intake. In situations of lowered carb intake, dietary fat is used as caloric ballast to fill the remaining energy requirements once protein reaches the desired levels. Regarding essential fats, the only suggestion is to get 5-10g of omega-3s per day from dietary sources (fish oil is a good place to start).
As a rule of thumb, any remaining fats should come from other polyunsaturated sources, or from monounsaturated oils like olive oil. Olive oil in itself is an overall healthy food, containing large amounts of vitamin E and known as having strong antioxidant properties.
Saturated fats from animal sources are generally not desired as large parts of the diet, but like everything else it’s not an all or nothing proposition. Getting a little in won’t kill you, and is likely beneficial.
In addition to this, there are also the medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) and diaglycerol (DAG) oils which can be a part of fat intake. These fats differ from others in that they are preferentially used for energy by the body, which can make them useful in periods of lowered carb intake. Both of these have been implicated in metabolic increases and positive changes in body composition, but so far as I can tell there's nothing actually supporting that claim. Coconut oil is a good source of MCTs (although it is high in saturated fat). DAG oil can be purchased under the label Enova Oil.
Contrary to popular belief, dietary fat does not make you fat. Eating too much, period, makes you fat. Now, strictly speaking, fat absorbed into the bloodstream from the gut does enter fat cells. The issue is, in a calorie deficit, it simply doesn’t stay there. This is not a matter of insulin, or clean eating; it’s a simple fact that the body is not going to store energy when it cannot fuel its basic functions. The body is designed for survival, and storing valuable, needed energy when it’s already not able to cover its basic needs is not a survival strategy. Thermodynamics will win out over insulin every time.
Certain diets that are moderate in protein, high in fat, and very low in carbs have shown themselves to have interesting effects in the body. In a chronically carb-deficient state, the body metabolizes fat into compounds called ketones, which can be used for fuel in place of glucose, albeit in a limited sense. Being in ketosis is often accompanied by fatigue, mental fuzziness, and occasionally with a feeling of having extra energy due to an increase in catecholamine levels.
Interestingly, these ketogenic diets have shown fat losses with calorie intakes closer to maintenance level than “glucose based” dieting, and studies have been done showing no negative impact on lipid profiles (cholesterol, triglyceride levels, etc).
This is not to say that ketogenic diets are somehow superior to other approaches. Rather, it’s to point out that high fat intakes do not correlate with body fat. Calorie balance is the ultimate determinant, followed by essential protein and fat intakes.
The rest is largely irrelevant. Once you get down to it, the quality of your food just isn’t that important for fat loss purposes once you have an appropriate calorie intake and essential nutrient requirements. Make sure to read ALL of that statement, not just half of it.
Now this does not give you carte blanche to live entirely on protein powder, fish oils, and ice cream. While it would undoubtedly work in the strictest sense of losing fat, there are some confounding factors that would likely not make it a pleasant experience.
Psychological Like it or not, mental health is a big factor in dieting. Some people simply cannot touch “bad” foods without going on benders. By “bad” I mean foods that are high in carbs and fat and low in nutrients, the usual suspects when it comes to junk foods. If you’re one of these people, then simply staying away from this kind of thing is probably a good idea.
Appetite Control Carbs can make a lot of people hungry, and this ties back in to the mental aspect of things. Appetite tends to be controlled much better by protein and fats, while carbs have the opposite effect. Eating “bad” foods can make dieting that much harder for some people because of this.
Overall Health and Recovery Generally speaking it’s just better to eat foods that are unprocessed and nutrient-dense. This will tend to improve your overall health, not to mention other aspects of training and general everyday life.
While the impact on fat loss will not be different all things held equal, these factors can end up being the make or break in a diet’s sustainability.
Above all else, your ability to stick to a diet is FAR more important than the catch-phrase or cute name that is used to describe it. Eerily similar to training in that regard, and a theme you would do very well to remember.
A diet that is designed with your particular goals, physiological needs, and mental idiosyncrasies in mind, so that you’ll actually stick to it while getting what you need, will be better than any other alternative, always.
Female-specific Issues with Dieting
A total calorie deficit with adequate essential nutrients is required to see losses in weight and changes in body composition. However, this can cause a problem in some women. As noted before, some people can require extreme calorie deficits in order to see continual losses in fat mass. In females, this can be problematic in terms of getting in required nutrients, not to mention what seems to be a greater susceptibility to metabolic issues from dieting. This can be solved with two approaches.
1) Add some activity to expend energy. By doing this, you can increase the net deficit by means of using up extra energy, as opposed to taking in less energy through food. Even 200-300 extra calories a day can be quite helpful from a nutrient standpoint. In smaller women, cardio in some form is virtually mandatory due to this issue, along with possible blood-flow issues to fat stores in the lower body.
As an aside, this is probably why you see so much cardio used by female bodybuilders and figure competitors. While some extra activity is a good thing, too much is not, and it’;s very easy to tip the scales from “good enough” to “way too damn much”. A recommendation of 20-40 minutes per day of low-intensity cardio or 10-15 minutes of anaerobic work (if it can be fit into the schedule) is plenty.
In general it seems a lot of people will find that more activity and higher calorie intakes will give better results, but taking this to an extreme may not always be a good idea, nor practical for most people. <
2) Cyclic dieting. By alternating periods of very low carbs and calories with frequent refeeding, and periods of higher carbs and a smaller calorie deficit, many of the metabolic issues can be avoided. For our 100 lb woman, this might look like so:
In this instance, the carbs will come almost entirely from trace carbs found in other foods. There will be 2-3x weekly refeeds, at 2-5g/kg of carbs (90-225g) each. This will serve to off-set the lowered calories. Anecdotally, women in general seem to do better with smaller but more frequent carb-ups as opposed to fewer, larger refeeds.
The number and carb amounts of each refeed would be dependent upon the calorie intake and leanness of the individual. As a rule, the lower the calories and the leaner the person in question, the more frequent refeeds should be.
1300 calories (~15% deficit)
The moderate calorie phase would still place the individual in a deficit, but a less severe one, 13 calories/pound as opposed to 11.5 cals/lb in the low-calorie phase. This would serve as a mild break from the more extreme dieting, while still allowing some progress to be made.
Due to the oddities of metabolism, a fluctuating approach like this actually tends to provide better results than simply trying to brute-force through a diet. It’s counter-intuitive in many ways, but it works. Of course, there are some women that won’t need even that; the low-calorie phase with refeeds will be more than sufficient for dieting. However having the occasional diet break, be it structured like above or even just forgetting about the diet entirely for a week, will very rarely cause problems when done every 6-8 weeks.
Putting a Diet Together
This, much like training, is not rocket science. It’s a simple matter of doing a little math, based on your body weight and your goals, then matching the numbers to your food choices.
You’ll hear a lot of numbers thrown around for how to calculate your calorie requirements. They’ll all take into account your body mass, your activity level, and make some attempt to extrapolate this based on research to give you an idea of how much you need to be eating in terms of calories.
I’m going to go on a tangent here for a second, because this is important. It relates to the idea of accuracy vs. precision. An accurate measurement represents reality. A precise measurement is one performed to a high degree of detail. Accurate and precise are not the same thing.
When we estimate both energy needs and the energy content of food, the key word to remember is estimate. You’re never going to know with any kind of accuracy how many calories you expend. There’s simply no practical way to measure the energy that the human body expends in total. The same applies to food. The calorie values we assign to food are based on averages, not to be considered accurate measurements.
What this means ultimately is that both energy intake and energy content of food are, at best, educated guesses. They’re not hard and fast numbers. This is the point I’m trying to make: at best, you’ve got an estimate, and in the best case scenario, you’ve got a margin of error of 200-300 calories. Best case.
The implications of this are pretty simple, though. It means that obsessing over your food is fairly pointless. What you should do is establish a baseline, both of your energy requirements and of your food intake. Then you can use this as a starting point to make adjustments until you get where you want to be.
Now with that out of the way, it shouldn’t surprise you that I’m going to take a straightforward approach to estimating your caloric needs. You can use more complex formulas if you want, but simplicity is elegance. The best rule of thumb I’ve seen so far is to estimate your maintenance needs at around 15 times body weight. If you’ve got a faster metabolism, use 16. Slower, use 14. This came from a paper I don’t have right off hand, but was a pretty rough estimate based on a moderate activity level.
For weight loss, the high-end number is around 12 calories per pound. Notice I said high end. This means that you will likely have to go lower than this to see losses. Depending on how lean you are and how your body responds, numbers of 7-8 calories per pound aren’t out of the question. Start at 12 and go from there.
This gives you an idea of your overall needs. Now you have to figure out your amounts of protein, carbs, and fat. Fortunately this is pretty easy. You’ll sometimes see percentages applied to macronutrients. I think this is pretty pointless. A percentage doesn’t tell you anything about absolute amounts. Go by absolute numerical values.
For protein, a value of 1 to 1.5g per pound is about right. The lower your calories, the higher the protein requirement. But only to a point. Going much above 1.5g/lb is pretty pointless, since it will be converted to glucose anyway (via gluconeogenesis in the liver). You might as well be eating carbs at that point.
Carb intake will vary. For a “normal” diet, 2g/lb is about right. However, for someone concerned with weight loss, I’d strongly consider limiting carb intakes to no more than 100-150g per day, and even then only on days with high/intense activity levels. Again this is an individual issue, but most people tend to do better in terms of weight loss and body composition with lower carb intakes. Doesn’t necessarily mean low-carb or no-carb, just carb controlled.
There are a lot of carb-cycling diets out there that make use of this principle. Some of them are pretty good. However, some of them seem fairly arbitrary in how they determine intakes. Personally I like approaches that have some logic to them that makes sense to me. I’m not going to say they don’t work; some folks swear by them, and I’ve not had enough experience with them to say they will or won’t.
I do use the approach, but in a more conservative and rigid manner. For those looking to improve body composition and lose weight, the approach is normally applied with three weight training days which are used as higher carb days. Two of these have 100-150g of carbs. The third is a refeed day with a variable, but high, carb intake. Non-weight training days are prescribed as protein-fasting or ketogenic days, with little to no carb intake, mostly protein, and a few essential fats. On all days except the refeed, calories are kept under maintenance level.
Total activity level is determined by calorie intake. The lower the calories, the less activity you can support. Anecdotally, most will do better with a little higher calories and a little more activity, although this isn’t always practical for a variety of reasons. Your mileage may vary.
So to recap, here are the steps to designing a diet:
Establish baseline calorie needs
This means that you’ll ideally want to consider 15 calories per pound as being your maintenance point. Start with a mild deficit, say 20-30% below this value, or 12 calories per pound, whichever is lower, then adjust your intake as needed. If you’re looking to gain weight, simply do the opposite. Start with a small surplus, then adjust as needed.
Set a protein intake between 1g/lb and 1.5g/lb
Remember not to go below 1g/lb. If you’re eating more carbs and total calories, protein doesn’t have to be as high. The lower your calories and carbs go, the more protein you’ll need. Ironically you actually need more protein while losing weight than you do while gaining, so keep that in mind as well.
Set carb intake appropriately, either low, moderate, or high
Here you could define low as under 75-100g, moderate would be 100-200g, and high would be anything over 200g per day.
For performance needs and weight gain, 200g or more per day is a good starting point. If you’re looking to improve body composition and drop fat quicker, keeping carbs under 100g per day is a good idea. The moderate approach is the balance point, still allowing improvements in body comp while not entirely sacrificing performance.
Fill in the remainder with fats
Once you’ve established your protein and carb intakes, you simply fill in the rest with fats. If you’re 120 lbs, are shooting for 12 cals/lb (1440 cals) and getting 1.25g/lb of protein (150g/600 calories) along with 100g of carbs (400 calories), then you’d simply add that up (1000 calories) and subtract it from your calorie goals (1440 – 1000 = 440 cals). Then take the number of calories you have remaining and divide by 9 (there are 9 calories per gram of fat), so 440/9 would give you roughly 49g of fat, which I’d probably round up to a ballpark figure of 50g.
It really is that simple, folks.
Add refeeds if your calories are too low or when you become lean enough to require them.
How do you know? Well, it’s really hard to say without trial and error, but considering that BMR is around 10 cals/lb, anything below that will be starvation level. Eating below that point for extended periods of time is not a good idea.
However, this will also depend on your current body fat levels. The more fat you hold, the longer you’ll be able to diet at that level with minimal negative effects (due to the leptin signaling). The opposite holds true as well. If you’re already pretty lean and trying to get leaner, you’ll likely need more refeeds. In women this seems to hold especially true beyond a certain threshold.
A lot of women find they don’t do well with larger carb loads, so spreading it out into more frequent, but smaller, refeeds can be beneficial. Cravings for carbs seem to become more common at this point, as well, which may be another indicator.
If you’re eating above this point, chances are you can go quite awhile without the need for an actual refeed. It will always be a trade-off of bodyfat levels and calorie intake. The fatter you are, the more you can get away with brute-force approaches. Once you become leaner, it becomes more beneficial to cycle things by including more calories and carbs.
Stick to it. This is not an overnight or a temporary process.
Which is where most people fail. A diet is not something you go on for six weeks to drop 5 pounds, then just go right back to how you ate before. It’s no surprise you gain it all back, if not more on top of it.
Dieting requires consistency and it requires that you not ever go back to how you ate before. The psychological elements of dieting, not surprisingly, are why you have people constantly failing and some even going as far as to say diets don’t work.
You have to stick to it, and sticking to something is always a lot easier to do if it’s not a miserable process. This is why I ranted so much earlier about clean eating and the OCD weighing and measuring of food. All of those things might make you feel better mentally, like you’re doing something, but they won’t net you any better results. For all the OCD women with food issues that do these things and get results from it, there are a great many more that suffer, see no results, and ultimately end up binging in response to the ultra-restrictive diets.
Don’t get me wrong, some respond well and do just fine on ultra-restrictive diets. If that’s your cup of tea, more power to you. But it is not a requirement to see success, it won’t ensure any better results, and you’re not a failure if you can’t eat that way.
And that’s just about that. It really is just that simple; follow a few basic rules, do the math, and you’ve got your diet. Notice I didn’t give out any meal plans. That&’s because meal plans are stupid. It takes away your freedom to choose foods for one, and rigidly locking yourself into a strict plan is not typically the best way to go about things.
You can use www.fitday.com, www.calorieking.com, or several other online calorie-counting web tools to track your diet. The USDA website has a food database for download that has the nutrient values for most common foods. Or just use a simple pen and paper.
Control your food choices in the context of your calorie and macronutrient needs, and you’re fine. It doesn’t have to be exact. If your total comes out to 48g and you’re supposed to get 50g, don’t freak out. You’re well inside the margin of error anyway. I don’t even bother rounding things to less than 10g for that very reason.
Dieting is just not that hard, in concept – follow these basic guidelines and you’ll get where you want to be.