During consultations, we ask clients to tell us how active they are based on these descriptions in order to establish their maintenance calories.
However vague you might think those descriptions, or ignoring them altogether, most clients claim they are 'moderately active'. This is usually validated by doing something three times a week for about an hour each time.
But if you consider that there are 168 hours in a week, three hours of activity amounts to just 1.8% of it! When you look at it that way, it doesn't sound even remotely 'moderate'.
Pushing weights in the gym (a popular three-hours-a-week pastime for men) burns even fewer calories than running, which itself might burn just 500-600 calories depending on your speed.
Just as most of us think we are great drivers, most of us overestimate how active we are and underestimate how much we eat. In fact, on average we claim we eat 40% less and do 50% more than is the case!
This is critical when it comes to fat-loss because your activity level is the only thing you can change that will affect your maintenance calories - and you must eat below maintenance to lose body fat.
If you set your maintenance too high then you may actually gain weight, as in this real-life example for a 30-year-old man weighing 100kg:
1. You guess your activity level to be 'moderate' [maintenance = 3000 calories]
2. You plan to eat 2500 calories a day [a daily deficit of 500 calories]
3. Your activity level is actually 'light' [maintenance = 2650 calories]
4. Like most dieters, you miscount. You actually eat an average of 2700 calories each day
5. RESULT: You are in a 50-calorie daily surplus and you slowly gain body fat
Just about everyone (nutritionists and dieticians included) is notoriously bad at counting calories so it is very easy to eat too much, even with smartphone apps.
The bottom line is this - if you are not losing weight then you are not in a deficit. To that end you needn't worry about the actual numbers or count calories - with your current activity level unchanged you just need to reduce consumption until your weight does start to fall. It will only continue to fall if you remain in a deficit (read here why your maintenance is a moving target).
In the meantime you might find this ebook 'Seven Easy Tips for Fat Loss Without Counting Calories' useful to help you achieve your goal!
It is important to understand that the primary driver of increased muscle mass (hypertrophy) is the work done in the weights room. Nutrition, with an emphasis on protein intake, does play a role in enhancing the anabolic (muscle building) effect of weight training and acts as a substrate to help build new muscle tissue. Unlike fat loss, muscle building is a slow and inefficient process – patience and consistency are key.
If you are looking to build new muscle tissue, consider the points below to help maximise this process.
Eating in an energy surplus is likely optimal to promote a muscle building environment and to support progressive training demands. Eating below maintenance calories (ie, being in an energy deficit) decreases muscle protein synthesis and is therefore not optimal if you're looking to gain muscle.
The size of the energy (calorie) surplus depends upon the individual – trial and error works best. A few hundred calories above maintenance is the ‘sweet spot’ for many - unless you classify as a ‘hard-gainer’, whereby fidgeting and unconscious movement (NEAT) reduces the surplus.
A more individualised recommendation is based on changes in total body weight. A 1-1.5% increase in total body weight per month is a reasonable target for most. This, however, can vary depending on training age, genetics and body fat levels. Note – you cannot force feed gains in muscle tissue!
Total Protein – How Much?
In a review published last year, it was concluded that, for the vast majority, a total daily protein intake beyond ~1.6g/kg of body weight per day did not provide further benefit of gains in strength and muscle mass during resistance training. However, to quote the authors ‘it may be prudent to recommend ~2.2 g protein/kg per day for those seeking to maximise resistance training-induced gains’. It is worth pointing out that the analysis did not include those in a calorie deficit.
Greater than ~1.6 g/kg of protein per day may be beneficial for those looking to control hunger and minimise fat gain as protein is more satiating than carbohydrate and fat. With regards to a protein target to maximise muscle mass, I typically recommend ~2g per kilogram of body weight for most as a nice round figure to aim for.
Based on mechanistic research, 4-6 evenly spread (no more than ~4 hours apart) protein feedings is optimal for the goal of maximising rates of muscle gain.
A sample meal distribution to maximise the muscle protein synthetic response could look as follows. '/kg' means 'per kilogram of total body weight'.
From a pragmatic standpoint, particularly when consuming mixed meals, there is no need to focus too much on precise meal timing – the anabolic window has been shown to last 24-48 hours post-training. With that in mind, ensure ample protein in each meal.
A well-designed weight training program will provide a powerful anabolic stimulus for muscle growth and is by far and away the greatest contributor to gains in muscle mass. Nutrition will merely augment the adaptive response. Do both consistently and you’re golden!
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant
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