Start by reading the basic nutrition section. Think of a good diet as simply assembling blocks of Lego. These blocks are:
- Portion size
- Overall caloric intake
- Meal frequency
Let’s look at each of these in greater detail. By the way, Fitday is my favourite way of tracking intake. It’s easy to use and you don’t have to try to keep all of this in your head.
This is a fancy-shmancy way of saying protein, fat, and carbs. Ideally, each meal should have a little of all three, preferably making protein (chicken, fish, tofu, eggs, beef, whey, cottage cheese, etc.) the centrepiece. Fat should be either EFAs or unsaturated, if possible, such as a spoonful of olive oil, a bit of avocado, some nuts, fish oil, etc. Carbs should be complex, and from whole grains and vegetables (if you find that you are sensitive to carbs, try getting the bulk of your carbs from vegetables).
Thus, a bagel is not a meal because it’s mostly just carbs. A whole grain bagel (complex carbs) with a little nut butter (fat) and a glass of milk (protein) is a meal. Two scrambled eggs and some fruit would be even better.
You should eat a meal size no larger than your two fists together (unless it’s something fluffy, like salad). Many folks often underestimate how much they actually eat. And don’t get me started on restaurant eating, especially in the U.S.! There’s like 3 meals in some of those restaurant suckers!
In general, the more calorie-dense the food, the smaller the portion you should be eating. An ounce of cheese is the size of your thumb, 3 ounces of meat/chicken/fish is approximately the size of a deck of cards, and a half-cup of pasta is the size of a small fist. One very easy way to cut calories is simply to eat what you normally eat, but eat 3/4 of the portions you normally would. Of course this won’t work if you already have weird eating habits like living off cucumber and saltines. You may also find it helpful to buy a food scale and measuring cups. If you’re North American, the appropriate portion is likely less than you think it is.
overall caloric intake
For fat loss, you want to aim for a range of daily calories that is calculated based on your bodyweight (in pounds) as well as other factors.
- To lose fat: 8 to 12 times bodyweight
- To stay the same, neither losing nor gaining (also known as maintenance): 13 to 16 times bodyweight
- To gain mass: 15 to 20 times bodyweight
You will notice that these are fairly broad ranges. This is because the precise intake will depend on other factors besides your general goals.
Aim for the LOWER end of the range if you are:
- less active
- starting out at a fairly high level of bodyfat
Aim for the HIGHER end of the range if you are:
- more active
- starting out at a lower level of bodyfat (e.g. only a few pounds of fat to lose, or trying to get from “normal” to “lean”)
For example, let’s say we have a 150 lb. woman who is in her 20s, fairly healthy and active, and who just wants to lose a few pounds of bodyfat. Her intake might ideally be somewhere between 10 and 12 times her bodyweight.
10 x 150 = 1500
12 x 150 = 1800
So, that means her daily intake of calories should be between 1500 and 1800 calories per day. Don’t forget to adjust intake downwards as your bodyweight drops. For most active women, probably somewhere between 9 to 11 times bodyweight to lose fat is about right. But feel free to tweak things up or down a little as you require.
Divide your desired intake by 5 or 6, and you have the total number of calories for each meal. Assuming we’re eating the upper limit of 1800 calories daily, and we want to eat 6 meals, that means each meal should be around 300 calories. Now you’re probably thinking, “No way! No way can I make a 300-calorie meal!” Well, think about this. A small skinless chicken breast, grilled, is around 150-200 calories. Throw that into a nice salad with a spoonful of olive oil vinaigrette and you have a very pleasant 300 calories. You get 6 of those a day! Pretty sweet deal.
If you’re just starting out, aim to eat 5-6 small meals daily, especially breakfast. This will keep blood sugar levels constant and eliminate cravings.