The human body is amazing.
If you step back and consider everything it’s capable of, you can’t help but be awestruck by our remarkable ability to survive and even thrive on a wide variety of dietary patterns: low-carb, high-carb, high-protein, etc.
We all know someone who seems to be able to eat whatever they wish without any unwanted consequences, while others seem to gain weight by simply smelling a buffet or watching a candy commercial.
As I study and apply various nutrition therapies to help people manipulate their energy levels, appetite, body composition and physical performance, I’m always surprised at how unique each individual is with their needs and adaptability. There are often significant differences within the same person at different times in their program.
It’s these inter- and intra-individual differences that cause us to question, debate and ultimately ignore much of the nutrition information that makes its way to us. We hear conflicting messages in the media each time new research comes out. Is the high-fat ketogenic, low-fat plant-based or fasting diet the “new” key to lasting health and longevity?
While the media loves these dramatic changes in diet and nutrition information (recall TIME magazine’s 2014 iconic cover story that “ended the war on fat”), like many, you probably find it challenging to figure out how to make practical sense of it for your health.
Take the recent updates to the United States Dietary Guidelines on dietary fat, for example. For the first time ever, there’s not an established “upper limit” for dietary fat intake.
Does that mean you should start liberally drizzling “healthy” olive oil on everything because a bunch of spry, independent 100-year-olds in some Mediterranean village have been for centuries? Or because some Paleo expert sports a six-pack and freely melts grass-fed butter on everything?
For several decades, the Guidelines centered on low-fat recommendations for everyone (defined as <30% of calories from fat). That’s 66 grams of fat per day using a 2000-calorie-per-day diet. Or just 50 grams of fat on a 1500-calorie plan that one might typically consume on a weight or fat loss/fat loss journey.
The new Guidelines reflect the scientific community’s understanding that there probably isn’t one diet that’s right for everyone, and this change was needed. But the new Guidelines are not a free pass to pile on the fat.
No matter how much melted butter enhances the taste of broccoli, our newfound freedom from our former fat phobia comes with very important caveats.
Calories still matter. A lot. Especially when you’re trying to manage body fat levels or body weight.
Dietary fat is energy dense, which means it contains a lot of calories per gram (9 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram for carbohydrates and 4 calories per gram for protein).
When figuring out how much fat fits into your plan, here’s the most practical four step approach I can advise:
STEP 1: FIGURE OUT YOUR TOTAL ENERGY NEEDS
Here at Life Time that’s done through a RestingMetabolicAssessment℠ (RMA), plus a daily activity factor. Using estimation equations (like those used by most food tracking apps and diet centers) is sometimes adequate, but there is a large margin of error, especially if you’ve gone through several weight loss/regain cycles in your lifetime.
For example, my predicted Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), plus daily activity factor, is just under 2700 calories. My actual RMR plus activity factor is 2248 calories per day — almost a 500-calorie variance (or 15% less than predicted).
My goal is to gradually lose body fat (but not muscle) over the next 15 weeks, which will require a modest daily energy deficit of about 500 calories through a combination of portion control and exercise.
I’m left with a target of about 1750 Calories per day on average (some days may be higher due to higher exercise volume or intensity).
Bottom line: if I embarked on a weight and fat loss plan based on my estimated numbers, I wouldn’t be very successful with my timeline because I’d be overestimating.
STEP 2: DETERMINE (STARTING) MACRONUTRIENT NEEDS
Protein needs are the first thing to calculate and fit into my energy “budget” because they’re based on body weight and a chosen exercise amount/type. Based on my goal and exercise volume, my protein intake will take up 620 calories of my budget (about 35% of my calories).
Next, since my exercise plan calls for moderate-to-high volume with some very-high-intensity work, we picked a moderate carbohydrate target (to start with) of 700 calories per day (about 40% of my calories).
With the remaining 430 calories for fat, that means my starting point is 48 grams of fat per day on average (or about 25% of my calories).
What do I eat on such a plan? Loads of colorful vegetables, lean meats and protein flavored with about one tablespoon of olive oil or butter per meal; fruit; sweet potatoes; and protein shakes for snacks. Trust me, I won’t be too hungry. And remember, this is a starting point.
Bottom line: with the help of an expert coach and my personal assessment data, my starting point (especially for fat intake) appears to be quite different from the updated guidelines many other experts would have suggested.
STEP 3: ADJUST THE PLAN WITH SUBJECTIVE & OBJECTIVE DATA
As I execute this plan, I’ll pay close attention to hunger and satiety cues, energy levels and performance during my workouts. I’ll also track weight and body composition changes closely with my coach, because for any process to “work” you have to measure stuff. We can only change what we track.
If I feel like trash, am not losing fat at the expected rate, and can’t progress or recover from my exercise program, my coach and I will tinker with the plan a bit. Maybe we’ll find that I feel better eating more fat and less carbs. Or maybe we’ll realize that I need more total calories and can eat more fat and/or carbs while still losing fat. Wouldn’t that be great?
If I do my part and optimize my nutrition intake within my energy budget, I should see the results I want (gradually lose body fat), improve my performance (build fitness, strength and endurance), and raise my metabolism back to — or perhaps above — my predicted RMR. This would allow me to continue to eat more but carry less body fat.
Bottom line: since I’m tracking so many subjective and objective pieces of information, my coach and I will have more than enough information to make educated adjustments to my program to get the best results.
STEP 4: KNOW HOW TO MANAGE HUNGER
Now, if I end up blowing up my energy budget on one day (or over a weekend), does it matter whether I overeat fat, carbs or protein?
Yes. If I deliberately overeat any of the macronutrients, it will likely slow down or halt any weight or body fat losses, and it might also increase my weight (depending on the degree of overeating). Some of the extra energy gets burned off as extra body heat, but much of it can also be stored away depending on where the extra calories come from.
They found that consuming excess calories from simple carbohydrates (processed, refined grains or various sugars) makes it easiest for us to gain weight as fat deposited in the liver and within our abdominal organs (called visceral fat). Added fructose and sucrose (or table sugar, which is half fructose) were the worst source of surplus calories for all health- and weight-related measures.
Due to the fiber and/or water content of complex carbs (like whole grains, tubers and especially colorful vegetables), it’s almost physically impossible to over-consume calories, so one could argue that it’s highly unlikely people will gain any fat by eating more whole vegetables and fruit.
When people overeat their calories as fat, those extra calories are also very easily deposited as body fat, but it’s more likely to end up in subcutaneous fat stores as opposed to in the liver and visceral stores — unless the extra fat is also consumed with simple carbs. Then all three fat reservoirs will probably grow.
Saturated fats (most studies use palm kernel oil) seem to be more easily stored than polyunsaturated fat (including omega-3s) or monounsaturated fat (like olive oil and avocados).
When people (whether they’re sedentary or active) eat a surplus of calories as protein, the calories are more likely to be used for lean tissue maintenance or growth. In fact, extra protein is very unlikely to be converted to and stored as body fat. Most subjects fed extra protein may increase their weight but those increases are almost entirely from improved bone density, muscle gain or extra intracellular water stores (increased capacity for cell hydration).
Bottom line: if you’re going to blow your energy budget, blow it by eating more fresh produce or protein because it probably won’t make you gain fat, and will most likely even accelerate improvements in body composition.
If this post intrigues you and confuses you all at the same time, that’s normal. Reach out to schedule a consultation with one of our Nutrition Coaches to get started on personalizing your program. We specialize in giving our clients the confidence they need to get the best, most maintainable results.
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In health, Paul Kriegler, Registered Dietitian and Life Time – Nutrition Program Development Manager.
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.