BY PETROS SYRAKOPOULOS
Do you need to eat every 3 hours, or should you follow intermittent fasting? Is breakfast the most important meal of the day, or should you skip it altogether? Should whole grains be the basis of your diet, or should you be avoiding grains like the plague? Should you avoid dietary fat or is low-carb/high-fat the way to go? Do these really matter?
Nutrition magazines, online articles and books are notoriously wrought with conflicting claims, every nutrition expert seems to have a different opinion and there appears to be a different study to support every opposing point of view. This can be all too confusing for people looking to optimize their nutrition, even for people who are willing to invest significant amounts of time to educate themselves and willing to put in the effort required to improve their daily diet, and it’s easy to get caught up in small details and fail to see the whole picture. The best way to deal with this confusion is to understand the basic science behind it all.
|If you want to know the basic principles behind sports nutrition, read on!|
The Scope of this Article
This article is not meant to provide an exhaustive literature review on every aspect of nutrition, nor address every conflicting or controversial claim out there. It is also not meant to provide nutrition information for specific population groups (you aren’t going to find specific dietary information for type-1 diabetics, pregnant women and elderly populations here).
This article is meant to provide a general overview of the basic principles of nutrition for healthy individuals, with a focus on sports nutrition. If your diet isn’t following these basic principles, then it is simply not an optimal diet for athletic performance or general health, no matter how many meals you eat or how many whole grains you consume. Ultimately, it is meant to help you understand the basic mechanisms behind nutrition. It is meant to help you understand “how nutrition works”.
Nutrition and Energy: this is where it all begins
Nutrition is fundamentally about energy. Moving, breathing, thinking, maintaining your normal body temperature… it all takes energy. Living cells consume energy, and the more active they are the more energy they consume.
The human body absorbs energy from food, along the following lines: you stuff your face with food, that food is broken down to smaller components (that’s what we call “digestion”), and some of these components/molecules are absorbed through the intestinal walls, whereby they enter your body (yes, technically speaking, food doesn’t enter your body when it enters your stomach, it only enters your body when it is absorbed from the intestines and enters your blood stream). The rest is “discarded” upon reaching the end of the gastrointestinal tract (you can guess where that is).
The absorbed energy is either used to power current energy needs, stored as fuel for future use, or used as a “building block” for structural/functional purposes (to build new muscle tissue, in the process we call “muscle hypertrophy”, for instance). It is useful to comprehend that every chemical bond of every molecule consists of energy, and therefore, every molecule you add to your body as you grow is energy in the form of structural components (muscle tissue, connective tissue… it is all energy). So, in essence, both extra body fat and extra muscle mass is energy stored in your body.
Whenever the absorbed energy (aka “energy intake”) is greater than the energy you spend (aka “energy expenditure”) you gain weight, and whenever the energy expenditure is greater than the energy intake you lose weight. Since we measure dietary energy in calories (kcal), the former state is called “caloric surplus” and the latter “caloric deficit”. This is the “energy balance”.
It should be obvious that, if you wanted to lose weight you would need to establish a caloric deficit, and there are three ways to do so:
- reduce your energy intake
- increase your energy expenditure
- both reduce your energy intake and increase your energy expenditure
Needless to say, the exact opposite would apply if you wanted to gain weight.
|The energy balance is the relationship between energy intake and energy expenditure.|
Now, if all nutrition was about was gaining or losing weight, then this, along with a rough idea of the energy value of the foods you consume, would be all you would ever need to know. But there is much more to nutrition: what’s the point in losing weight if you lose muscle instead of fat? And what if I don’t care about losing or gaining weight, but I want to be healthy and perform my best in sports? In other words: keep on reading!
The components of food that your body absorbs and utilizes is what we call “nutrients”. Macronutrients are the nutrients that provide you with energy. Micronutrients, on the other hand, are the nutrients that are not used to produce energy, but are used to support your body’s functions in other ways (as “helper molecules” to assist in biochemical transformations, as electrolytes to provide the ions necessary for the production of action potentials, etc.).
Macronutrients are the following three kinds of molecules: proteins, fats and carbohydrates, and you need to know a few basic things about each one.
Proteins are the building blocks of muscle tissue. They are also basic building blocks of numerous other tissues and participate in just about every function of your body. It is of fundamental importance for sports performance, as well as general health, that your diet provides you with adequate protein.
In addition to muscle being the tissue that produces force and movement, muscle tissue also serves as a storage compartment for protein: muscle protein can be catabolized (i.e. broken down) to be used as an energy substrate in times of energy scarcity, or as protein/amino acids for other other functions of your body in times of insufficient protein intake.
- Proteins are pretty interesting molecules and are fundamental to life, so if you want to learn more, here are a few interesting details:
Proteins are long molecules with elaborate 3-dimensional structures that consist of long chains of amino acids (amino acids are smaller molecules). You can think of amino acids as small lego bricks than can combine in different ways to form some pretty big and complex 3D structures, the proteins.
It is the fact that proteins can have elaborate 3D structures and the fact that there are infinite ways to combine amino acids to construct proteins (similar to how you can build almost anything using a only a few different kinds of small lego bricks), that make proteins suitable to serve as the basic building blocks of life. They participate in virtually every function of your body: they are the basic building blocks of muscle, the basic building blocks of connective tissues (tendons, ligaments and cartilage all primarily consist of different types of collagen, which is a protein), they function as receptors and identification tags in the membranes of every cell of your body, they act as enzymes to catalyze chemical reactions in your cells, they are used to build hormones (growth hormone and insulin are both proteins), they are necessary for good immune system function (antibodies are proteins), and the list goes on.
Proteins is what your genetic code encodes for (a “gene” is a DNA sequence that contains the “building instructions” for a particular sequence of amino acids to synthesize a specific protein). A complete copy of your DNA is contained in the nucleus of every cell of your body and, when a specific gene is triggered, a copy of that gene will be sent to the endoplasmic reticulum to be “translated” into a protein. Of the 21 amino acids used to build proteins, roughly half can be synthesized by the human body but the other half must be supplied through our diet (we get amino acids as constituents of “dietary protein”, i.e. the proteins in our food), and we call these “essential amino acids”. Generally, all types of animal protein are “complete proteins” (they contain all essential amino acids in adequate proportions), but sometimes plant-derived proteins are not complete (so if you are a vegetarian, you need to be a bit more mindful regarding your essential amino acid intake). It should be clear from the above, that a diet that is chronically low in protein isn’t conducive to optimal heath.
Proteins are broken down during digestion and the individual amino acids are absorbed and eventually find their way into your cells. Your cells synthesize proteins of their choice (via gene expression) out of these absorbed amino acids. Most of the amino acids end up in the muscle cells, but all cells require a constant supply of amino acids for protein synthesis. It should be noted that, since protein is constantly used for a variety of functions across the body, there is constant protein breakdown (due to “wear and tear”), as well. This means, that, outside of changes in total body protein (for example, in growing children, in adults who are actively building body mass by weightlifting, and in muscle atrophy due to muscle disuse), there is a balance between protein synthesis and protein breakdown. Any protein intake in excess of what your cells can use is converted into carbohydrates or fat to be used as energy (for immediate energy needs or to be stored in your adipose tissue).
|From individual amino acids to multiple proteins chains, proteins acquire elaborate 3-dimensional structures.|
In sports nutrition, we tend to focus on protein’s function as the building block of muscle tissue. Protein can also be used as a fuel source, or, as we call it in sports physiology, an “energy substrate” (this happens when the protein intake is in excess of what the body can use for structural and other purposes, when the fat and carb intake isn’t sufficient to cover the body’s energy needs, or when the carb intake is minimal). It is important to understand that not only can dietary protein be used as a fuel source, but muscle tissue can also be catabolized (broken down) for its protein to be used as fuel (or, potentially, as a source of amino acids to be used for other needs of the body). In that sense, muscle tissue is not only a force/movement generator, but can also serve as a protein storage compartment to draw from during times of insufficient protein intake.
Fats are used both as a basic energy substrate and as a structural/functional component of the human body (fat is important for skin and hair maintenance, for fat-soluble vitamin absorption, for immune system function, etc.). Most of the different kinds fatty acids can be synthesized by your body, but a few cannot and need to be provided through your diet (we call these “essential fatty acids”, or EFA’s for short). This means you need at least a small amount of ω-3 and ω-6 fats in your diet.
Virtually unlimited amounts of fat can be stored in your adipose tissue (aka your “fat cells”), which is the main metabolic energy storage department of your body and which can be broken down to provide energy in times of insufficient energy intake.
Fat is used as an energy substrate by the aerobic energy system (in the mitochondria of your cells), but a big number of chemical reactions needs to take place before fat is converted to energy and that makes it a slow process. This means that fat is an excellent energy source for sustained low-intensity activities (walking, jogging, etc.) but it’s not enough when it comes to higher-intensity sports activities (details on energy substrates and energy systems will be provided on future installments).
Carbohydrates, commonly referred to as “carbs”, also play a structural/functional part (carbohydrates are a component of glycoproteins and glycosaminoglycans, like RNA, ATP, collagen, hyaluronic acid and hormones like TSH and EPO, they play a part in cellular recognition processes, etc.), but no particular type of carbohydrate is “essential” in the way that protein and essential fatty acids are, because glucose can be synthesized by your body by breaking down stored fat and protein. Therefore, for the purposes of sports nutrition, the main role of dietary carbohydrates is that of an energy substrate.
Absorbed carbs are eventually converted to glucose and the glucose that is not used for immediate energy needs is absorbed by the liver and the muscle cells to be stored as glycogen (we call these our “glycogen stores”). The liver can store about 75-100 g of glycogen, maximum muscle glycogen is generally between 300-400 g (the larger the muscle mass, the greater the potential glycogen storage), and there is another ~5 g of glucose circulating in the blood (that’s a total of around 400-500 g, with a total of 1,600-2,000 kcal worth of energy). Carbohydrates are hydrophilic molecules, which means they attract water, and that is the reason why there can be significant variation in bodyweight depending on whether your glycogen stores are full or depleted (increased muscle glycogen content pulls more water from the interstitial space into the muscle cell; 400 g of muscle glycogen would result in roughly 1200 ml of extra water). Once these glycogen stores are full, any additional ingested carbs get stored as fat in your fat cells.
Carbs are the substrate used by the glycolytic energy system (the byproducts of glycolysis are then used as a substrate by the aerobic energy system to further extract energy out of them). Glycolysis (i.e. the breaking down of glucose) is a much faster process and it provides energy a lot quicker than the aerobic energy system. For that reason, carbs are necessary for energy production when engaging in higher-intensity activities (as previously mentioned, details on energy substrates and energy systems will be provided on future installments).
As mentioned previously, micronutrients are the nutrients that are not used to produce energy, but are used to support your body functions. They are various chemical elements (e.g. iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, sodium and chloride; we usually call these “dietary minerals” or “dietary elements”) and vitamins (organic compounds that usually act as coenzymes or cofactors for various proteins and are essential for your body to function well).
While it generally isn’t necessary to know the biological role and function of each and every vitamin and dietary element, you should understand that all these nutrients are required in specific quantities (“recommended daily intakes” have been established for each one of them) for the proper function of your body. Deficiencies can have both negative effects on athletic performance (e.g. iron deficiency will result in lower oxygen delivery to your muscle cells) and on health in general, so avoiding vitamin deficiencies is a good idea.
Now that you have a decent grasp of energy balance and nutrients, time to move on to more interesting stuff.
What a good diet should look like
A healthy diet in general, including a diet conducive to optimal athletic performance, needs to adhere to the following rules:
1. Adequate Protein Intake
It would seem fair to say that protein is the “basic building block of life”, as explained previously. In sports, getting in appropriate amounts of protein is necessary for muscle hypertrophy and musculoskeletal recovery. Inadequate protein intake, on the other hand, will inhibit muscle hypertrophy and recovery from strenuous exercise. On top of inhibitory effects in athletic training, a diet that is chronically low in protein can have substantial adverse health effects, including muscle wasting, immune system compromise and bone mass deterioration. Furthermore, while the fats (with the exception of EFA’s) can be derived from dietary carbs and carbs from proteins, the proteins of the body are inevitably dependent for their formation and maintenance on the proteins in your food. It is therefore of fundamental significance for sports and general health, to ensure an adequate protein intake.
The question that arises is: how much protein should I eat? There is some controversy and the science on this issue is not yet entirely settled. In my assessment of the literature, when it comes to healthy adults (without pre-existing kidney problems, amino acid oxidations disorders or other interfering conditions), good numbers to aim for would be 0.9-1.2 g/kg/day for sedentary individuals, 1.2-1.4 g/kg/day for endurance athletes, and 1.4-1.8 g/kg/day for strength athletes (“1.2 g/kg/day” means 1.2 grams, per kilogram of bodyweight, per day - so for an 80 kg person that would translate to 96 grams for protein per day). These values will be higher for children and adolescents, and there is evidence to suggest elderly populations may also benefit from an increased protein intake.
|Strength athletes, whose success depends heavily on muscle hypertrophy and strength production, have long-since realized the value of high-protein intakes.|
2. Sufficient Micronutrient Intake
Vitamins and essential nutrients are the second part of the equation that needs to be provided through your diet. For that reason, regardless of whether your goal is optimal sports performance, weight-loss or simply general heath, adequate protein along with adequate micronutrient intake should be the basis of your diet.
Unlike caloric and macronutrient content, it is nearly impossible (and certainly impractical) to assess micronutrient intake per food digested. The common recommendation is to include nutrient-dense foods from a variety of sources. “Nutrient dense” means foods that are rich in micronutrients compared to their caloric content (100 calories worth of salads are a lot more “nutrient dense” than 100 calories worth of pasta). Barring specific medical conditions, a diet that contains a variety of plant-based foods (greens, vegetables, fruits and legumes) on a daily basis, and good quality animal protein (unprocessed red meat/poultry/fish and diary/eggs) on a daily or near-daily basis, will provide your body with adequate micronutrient intake (it should also provide you with adequate dietary fiber, at the same time). In the case of a specific micronutrient deficiency (iron deficiency is common among athletes who generally avoid red meat, and B12 deficiency is common among vegetarians), supplementation is warranted.
3. Glycogen Replenishment
An important part of sports nutrition is replenishing your glycogen stores via adequate carbohydrate intake. Adequate carb intake is much more of a concern for sports nutrition than it is for a sedentary individual who has substantially lower carbohydrate needs (as a matter of fact, if you are sedentary and reading this article to inform your dietary habits, you are probably better off ignoring this paragraph altogether). Hard and frequent training will deplete your glycogen stores and getting in enough carbs to replenish them will benefit your performance in a sports event, your output during training and your recovery from all the hard work.
Your “adequate carb intake” depends on your expenditure, and can vary widely from day to day depending upon the type, duration and intensity of your training. For that reason, different individuals may benefit from different amounts of carb intake and it can be hard to make accurate one-size-fits-all recommendations without a personalized approach. A commonly proposed intake for athletes is 6-10 g/kg/day (my personal suggestion is that experimenting on a person-to-person basis is warranted).
The timing of carb intake can also have an effect on glycogen store repletion. For rapid muscle glycogen replacement, 0.75-1.5 g/kg/hour for 2-4 hours after exercise is advised. This can be particularly important for athletes who need to train and/or compete frequently (every day or multiple times per day).
|Electron microscopy images showing muscle glycogen droplets (“intra” and “IMF” stands for intra- and inter-myofibrillar glycogen).|
4. Essential Fatty Acid Intake
You should include at least a small amount of fats in your diet to cover your EFA needs. That means that you should get at least a small amount of ω-3 (link) throughout the week. Ω-6 fatty acids are also essential, but, unless you are actively avoid all fats, your diet isn’t likely to be ω-6 deficient.
5. Total Calories
Don’t forget that nutrition is fundamentally a story about energy. The total amount of calories you should consume depends on your caloric expenditure and your goals. As mentioned previously, to gain weight you need to be in a caloric surplus, and to lose weight you need to be in a caloric deficit. But since practically no one wants to gain weight via gaining fat, or lose weight via losing muscle, there is a bit more to it than that.
Muscle hypertrophy requires three things:
- Adequate Protein Intake: to build new muscle you need to be providing your muscle cells with new building blocks. Luckily, we’ve already made sure you’re eating enough protein, haven’t we?
- Anabolic Stimuli: eating enough protein isn’t going to build muscle for you if you are sitting on your ass all day long. Building new muscle requires your muscle cells synthesizing more muscle proteins, and, if you’ve been paying attention, you should already know this requires the DNA in your muscle cell nuclei to “express” the corresponding genes in order for them to be translated into proteins. Resistance exercise is the stimuli that will trigger that gene expression. (as an aside, the reason why anabolic drugs have such a dramatic impact on muscle hypertrophy is because they do exactly that: they provide a strong stimuli for the muscle protein gene expression)
- Caloric Surplus: building new muscle means increasing the total energy stored in the tissues of your body. This requires eating more calories than you expend (you therefore need to increase your caloric intake).
Losing Body Fat
Efficient fat loss requires three things:
- Caloric Deficit: losing fat means reducing the total energy stored in the tissues of your body. This requires eating fewer calories than you expend. You can do that by either decreasing your caloric intake, increasing your caloric expenditure, or a combination of both. If you are training for sports then your training is a given, therefore decreasing your caloric intake is what you should focus on.
- Anabolic Stimuli: if you burn more calories than you eat, you body will need to catabolize (i.e. “break down”) tissues to provide for the remaining energy needs not covered by dietary energy intake. If you’ve been paying attention you should realize that both muscle tissue and adipose tissue can be broken down to provide energy. The good news is that if you provide an anabolic stimuli to every major muscle of your body, that will result in retaining muscle mass while burning fat. This is an important point to understand: resistance training while on a weight loss diet will result in a greater decrease in body fat percentage versus dieting down sans resistance training, even if you lose the same amount of total weight in both cases.
- Adequate Protein Intake: in order for the anabolic stimuli provided by your training to be successful and for your muscle tissue to be retained, you also need to make sure you don’t decrease your protein intake while dieting down (as a matter of fact, increasing your protein intake while on a weight loss diet might help). Luckily, if you’re adhering to the basic rules mentioned above, you’re already on top of this one.
Improving Body Composition While Maintaining Your Bodyweight
Oftentimes in sports, an athlete may wish to remain at the same bodyweight but improve his body composition (i.e. lower his body fat ). In bodybuilding/fitness this is often called a “body recomposition”, or a “recomp”.
The most common way to achieve this is spend a period of time focusing on gaining muscle, then focusing on losing body fat (as per the directions in the previous paragraphs). It should be pretty straight forward how this is supposed to work: first you get on a caloric surplus to gain the desired amount of muscle mass, and subsequently you get on a caloric deficit to get back to your original weight aiming to retain the muscle you gained.
Whether muscle gain and fat loss can happen while maintaining the same bodyweight throughout the process is sometimes considered a controversial issue, and a number of different approaches have been proposed by “nutrition and fitness experts”, most of which involve some form of caloric variability over the week (eating more on some days, less on others), like intermittent fasting, carb backloading, cyclic ketogenic diets, etc. In my opinion, this is just another case of missing the forrest for the trees: the fact of the matter is that there is some natural variance in your caloric intake regardless of if you aim for it or not, and if you aim to stay on caloric maintenance (eat as much energy as you burn), maintain an adequate protein intake and provide an adequate anabolic stimuli (though frequent resistance training), over time your body composition will improve without major bodyweight fluctuations.
|Adjusting the energy intake according to your goals is necessary for optimal performance in your sport.|
Adjusting your Total Calories
So far you have done the following:
1. You’ve established the basis of your diet (adequate protein plus adequate micronutrient intakes, plus a bit of ω-3 every now and then).
2. You’re taking care of replenishing your glycogen stores in order to fuel sports performance.
3. You’ve learned that you need to manipulate (increase or decrease) your caloric intake according to your goals.
Everything else you eat on top of 1+2 is basically extra calories to meet your caloric goals. There is no good reason to worry about the macronutrient composition of these “extra calories” (once you’ve taken care of replenishing your glycogen stores, how many of the extra calories are carbs and how many are fats should not make a difference). For these extra calories it’s still a good idea to opt for high-quality “nutrient dense” foods (fruits, whole grains, full-fat dairy products, nuts, “healthy fats”, etc.) while avoiding low quality food choices (highly processed meats, highly processed snack items, sugar-sweetened beverages, foods high in trans fats, refined-sugar-heavy foods, etc.), but as long as you cover your nutritional basis, hit your caloric goals, and don’t go to extremes, allowing yourself some leeway shouldn’t negatively impact your goals.
Ok, now that we’ve got the basic concepts covered, lets take a quick look at how you can put all that to practice:
By now you’ve (supposedly) understood how the energy balance equation works, you know what each macronutrient does and you are aware how much of each you should be getting to reach your goals. But how do you begin to apply all that into your actual diet?
Things you’ll need to do include the following:
Get a basic idea about the nutrient profiles of various foods
You’ll need to do some research on the nutrient profiles (particularly the macronutrient content) of the foods in your diet, especially the ones that tend to be the most common/frequent in your diet. Easy ways to do this include using google, using any number of websites with databases of nutrition data for common food items, cellphone apps, etc.
As a general point of reference, here is a simplistic way you could think about things:
- red meat = protein at ~25 g of protein per 100 g of lean meat, plus some fat depending on how fatty the item is, and a good source of iron
- poultry = protein at ~25 g of protein per 100 g of lean meat, plus a bit of fat depending on how fatty the item is
- fish = protein at ~25 g of protein per 100 g of lean meat, plus some ω-3 fats depending on how fatty the item is
- dairy products = some protein plus some carbs and some fat depending on the product (low-fat products have less fat, cheeses have fewer carbs)
- eggs = around 10 g of protein and 10 g of fat per 100 g
- greens/salads = micronutrient-dense, generally insignificant calories
- fruits = micronutrient-dense carbs
- legumes = carbs, plus some protein, and a good source of micronutrients
- nuts = plenty of healthy fats, plus some carbs and protein
- starches (bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, etc.) = lots of carbs
- sweets/pastries/chocolates/“sugary drinks/stuff” = empty calories
- alcohol = empty calories
Now, this list is obviously somewhat over-simplified, and if you want precise information you’ll need to look up the nutrient profile of each specific item in question, but it can be useful as a “rule of thumb” when thinking about food choices.
Keep track of the stuff you eat
I actually generally advise against following a strictly set diet plan, weighing the things you eat, and keeping precise diet logs, because I think that is too much of a pain in the ass and too obsessive-compulsive to be realistic in the long-term for most people (and probably not good for the mental health of the ones who would indeed be able to adhere to that in the long-term). I do, however, think that a few weeks of keeping precise track of what you eat, via using a kitchen scale, writing things down and calculating your total macros at the end of the day, can be very valuable as an “educational process” to go through, with the end goal of increasing your “awareness” regarding the macronutrient profiles of the foods you commonly eat.
For those few of you who are extra OCD about counting stuff: common practice would have you estimate your caloric expenditure by way of estimating (or directly measuring) your basal metabolic rate and estimating the calories expended during daily activities and during training, then keeping track of the calories of everything you eat and making sure you achieve your desired energy balance. Now, in my opinion, there are various issues with this approach (estimations are way too inaccurate for it to be worth it to accurately count and add everything up, plus different foods take different amounts of energy to be digested… plus that shit will eventually drive you crazy!). My advice is to simply keep track of the amount of food (carbs and fat) in your “extra calories” and increase or decrease that according to your bodyweight progress. Which takes us to the next point:
Keep track of your bodyweight
This one’s a no-brainer. You’ll need to be keeping track of your bodyweight, in order to see if it progresses according to your goals, so you can adjust the “extra calories” as needed. Keep in mind that some significant within-day and day-to-day oscillation is natural (depending on hydration status, endocrine variations, how full or depleted your glycogen stores are, etc). This means that, in order to get reliable indications regarding your bodyweight, you’ll need to weigh yourself frequently (2 to 4 times per week is reasonable) and pay attention to the general tendencies towards losing, gaining or maintaining. It’s also a good idea to weight yourself at the same time of the day every time (morning before breakfast would probably be your best option).
Closing words: keep your eyes on the big picture
Don’t sweat the minutia. Most factoids and pieces of advice about nutrition commonly thrown around are widely insignificant at best (and straight up false at worst). Consider the following: if establishing a solid nutritional foundation and eating according to your training goals is 95% of the puzzle, does it make sense to even worry about the remaining 5% if you haven’t got your foundation locked down? Keep your eyes on the prize, take care of your basis, and don’t let minor details throw you off your track.
We all keep hearing claims like “you should eat every 3 hours”, “you should only eat at night”, “your shouldn’t eat carbs in the evening”, “you should skip breakfast”, “you shouldn’t eat more than 30 g of protein per meal”, “you should avoid grains”, “you should avoid dairy”, “you should avoid gluten”, “you should avoid fat”, “you should eat low-carb”, “you should ingest this or that amino acid”, etc… often asserted by “experts” of various kinds. The fact of the matter is that all these claims don’t really have solid science backing them up and it’s dubious if they even matter in the real world. And they absolutely are not going to help much if your diet doesn’t adhere to the basic principles described earlier to begin with.
Regarding meal frequency: you can eat your food in one or two big meals, or five or six smaller ones, or in three main meals and a snack or two. It simply doesn’t make a difference, so simply go with what is more convenient and what makes you feel better. Just make sure you get your glycogen stores replenished for training, and make sure you get your necessary macros and “extra calories” at the end of the day.
Regarding nutrient timing: carb timing is the one thing that appears to have some fairly solid experimental backing (as was mentioned in the glycogen repletion paragraph, carb timing may be applicable specifically to athletes who train every day or multiple times per day). Protein timing remains a bit more controversial and, in my opinion, the science isn’t really there to reach a definitive conclusion. In any case, if it is convenient for you to get some protein around your training session, you can do it and simply count it towards your daily protein intake (if it’s not convenient, I wouldn’t lose sleep over it).
Regarding avoiding food groups: barring specific medical issues (conditions like lactose intolerance or celiac disease), it’s perfectly fine to eat from any of the food groups you choose, as long as the food quality is good. There is also no one specific food that you have to eat. You can drink milk if you want, or you can avoid it if you don’t like it. And you can eat grains if you want, or you can avoid them if you don’t like them (although this may make your carb intake a whole lot harder to achieve). Just make sure the basis of your diet (adequate protein plus adequate micronutrient intake plus a few ω-3’s every now and then) is there for you, and aim to stay away from low-quality foods the majority of the time.
|Keep your eyes on the prize, maintain a sound diet according to your goals, train hard, and be consistent.|
In general, there is way too much bullshit being thrown around in the nutrition field, and, in my opinion, most of the nutrition research out there is of low scientific quality to begin with (which is one of the reasons why it seems like there is a study to support every opposing claim). Be skeptical towards “easy solutions” or “shortcuts” that promise an edge (“if you skip breakfast your anabolic hormones will spike and you’ll burn more fat” kinda sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?).
For healthy individuals, what science can confidently say is: get enough protein, replenish your glycogen in time (only applicable if you are an athlete), eat a good amount of plant-based foods, stick to high-quality foods as much as possible, try to have a varied diet. Repeat this long enough, add proper training and enjoy the results. That’s it. No bullshit. No shortcuts. No gimmicks. Just solid nutrition, effective training, consistency and hard work.