The first step in developing a meal plan when your goal involves some form of body composition change, whether fat loss or muscular hypertrophy, is to have an idea of how many calories you burn on a daily basis. This can be determined in a variety of ways being very scientific using different devices that calculate the amount of energy you burn, to mathematical formulas that predict how many calories you burn, or just a rough approximation of what you think you burn on a daily basis. Regardless of what method you use as a starting point, over time you will learn to refine that number based upon the results you achieve on a weekly basis.
Calorie Deficit for Fat Loss
Once you have determined the total number of calories you burn on a daily basis, you need to decide on the number of calories you are going to eat everyday. In general, a deficit of 500 calories a day is a good starting point for most people. That means that you will consume 500 less calories than you body burns each day. To make up the deficit, your body should use some of your stored body fat for energy. The important thing to realize is that having a greater deficit will not necessarily lead to more fat loss.
Your body’s primary concern is survival and maintaining relative allostasis. If you consume too few calories each day, your body will perceive that as a huge stress, a threat to your survival, and will down regulate different physiological functions as an attempt to improve your chance of survival. Instead, your goal should be to consume enough calories that your body can maintain close to optimal functioning of all your bodily processes, while still losing as much body fat as possible. This will be a trial and error process where you measure your results on a weekly basis, as well as taking objective and subjective measurements of how your body is functioning over that same week. Eat too few calories and you may notice that you have low energy and are very irritable. While eating too many calories, and not maintaining enough of a deficit, will cause you to have less fat loss on a weekly basis.
Daily Calorie Planning
After you have determined the number of calories you burn on a daily basis and subtracted the number of calories to create your deficit, you now have the number of calories you should consume daily. From there, you need to decide how many calories you are going to allocate to each meal. The simplest approach would be to divide the number of calories by the number of meals you plan on eating each day. A simple example would be, 1500 calories consumed evenly over three meals would be 500 calories per meal. If you plan on eating five meals, that would be 300 calories per meal.
In reality, you may decide to individualize your calorie allocation for your lifestyle. You may decide that, instead of five even meals, you want to have three meals and two snacks. This could mean each of your three “meals” is 400 calories while your two “snacks” are 150 calories. The total calorie consumption for the day still totals 1500. This process will take some time, and trial and error to decide what works best for you. In general, early on in this process, try to make the meals relatively even calorically, instead of consuming a large percentage of your calories in one or two meals.
Protein provides the amino acids necessary to repair the damage done by the stress of life. The general recommendation is to consume one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. There may be people that claim this is too much protein and try to justify that assertion. There are circumstances where less protein may be alright, but it is the exception, not the norm. Again, the amount of stress you are subjected to on a daily basis is quite high from a historic standpoint, whether you realize it or not. As a result, you need to consume a relatively large amount of protein to have the amino acids necessary to repair the damage from those stressors. Over time, you will learn to adjust your needs based upon results and subjective feelings and metrics.
Using a hypothetical individual that weighs 150 pounds, they would need to consume 150 grams of protein per day. Protein contains four calories per gram. So, in this example the individual will be consuming 600 calories per day from protein, which means protein makes up 40% of the calories consumed.
After determining the amount of protein you need to consume daily, you then need to decide how you are going to distribute that throughout your meals of the day. This is where individual preference matters. Using the 150 grams of protein per day from the example above, if that is divided over three equal meals, that results in 50 grams of protein needs per meal. One large egg has 6.3 grams of protein. That would require you to eat 8 eggs for breakfast, which probably isn’t realistic. One third pound of chicken breast has 30.3 grams of protein, which means you would need to eat about a half pound of chicken to consume 50 grams.
You have to be creative with how you will achieve your protein goal while eating foods that you enjoy. Also realize, that consuming 150 grams of protein over five meals will make the serving sizes seem a little easier, for some people, than trying to eat all 150 grams in three or less meals.
For individual’s with a fat loss goal, the general recommendation is to eat less than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. This should result in a variety of things that will improve your overall health as well as fat loss, one of which is improved insulin sensitivity. For some, this may seem like a low amount of carbohydrates, but when you look at the carbohydrate content of different food, you will realize that you can still consume lots of good food, it will just force you to eliminate the foods that aren’t conducive to your fat loss goal.
Consuming 50 grams of carbohydrates from leafy green vegetables will be extremely hard. One cup of raw spinach has 1.1 grams of carbohydrates, the majority of which is fiber. Imagine eating 50 cups of spinach a day. One cup of chopped carrots has 12.3 grams of carbohydrates. Eating four cups of carrots a day is a lot of carrots. One cup of raw strawberries is 11.1 grams of carbohydrates, which means you can eat almost five cups, if that is the only source of carbohydrates for the day. Thinking beyond just the carbohydrates, there are lots of vitamins and minerals found within all of those vegetables and fruits.
Now start looking at the nutrition labels of the various processed foods you eat regularly, and the amount of carbohydrates per serving. One cup of white rice has 53.2 grams of carbohydrates. One cup of potatoes has 26.2 grams of carbohydrates. Compare the amount of food you can consume between the vegetables/ fruit and the starchy foods. Now think about the difference in micronutrients between the two groups of food.
As with the example from above, looking at the protein content of different foods, you need to figure out how you are going to distribute your carbohydrate consumption throughout your day, and then what sources of carbohydrates you plan on eating. Over time, you can adjust your carbohydrate intake based upon your body composition, your fat loss progress, and subjective metrics. Just don’t use your desire to eat more carbohydrates as a justification for eating more. There should be a quantifiable reason why you decide that you should increase your carbohydrate intake.
Carbohydrates contain four calories per gram, the same as protein. Using the recommended consumption of 50 grams of carbohydrates, that would add 200 calories to your daily total. Again, you can choose how to allocate the grams of carbohydrates and calories throughout your meals and snacks.
When it comes to calculating the amount of fat to consume on a daily basis, for now, you will use whatever remaining calories after subtracting your protein and carbohydrate amounts from your daily calorie goal. Using the example from above, 1500 total daily calories minus 600 calories from protein and 200 calories from carbohydrates would leave you with 700 calories to be consumed from fat. Unlike protein and carbohydrates, which both contain four calories per gram, fat contains nine calories per gram. Therefore you can consume about 80 grams of fat per day.
In most cases, a large percentage of the fat you consume will be found in the whole foods that you eat. Read the nutrition labels or review a nutrition database to see how much fat is in your serving size of a particular food. Depending on how you choose to prepare your food, and whether you need additional fat in a given meal, different cooking sources of fat can be used like butter or different oils.
Planning Your Meals
Now that you have an idea of how many grams of each macronutrient to consume, the challenge is to select foods to meet those amounts. You will need to refer to nutrition labels on foods or use an online database to find nutrition information based upon different serving sizes. The actual meal planning process will take some time and involve lots of trial and error. You will pick a food, select a serving size, and see how the nutrition content meets your overall requirements.
Using a spreadsheet where you can record each food item, the serving size, and the macronutrient content will be extremely helpful and useful. Adding formulas to your spreadsheet will make the calculations of the macronutrients, calories, and ratios even easier. The challenge then becomes trying different combinations of foods and serving sizes to fit the meal and daily macronutrient and calorie structure you are trying to achieve.
As you go through the process of planning your meals, realize that it will be hard to get each meal to perfectly fit within the macronutrient and calorie structure you have planned. There will most likely need to be minor variations in total nutrients, calories, and ratios. However, don’t use this realization as a justification to overindulge and become too flexible with your meal planning. In the long run, you are only hurting yourself and your results. Try to take the time to find new and creative solutions to meet the structure you have planned.
The last thing you should compromise on is total calories for the day. Then, try to stick very closely to the recommendation of staying below 50 grams of carbohydrates. Varying the amounts and ratios of protein and fat should provide a little more flexibility that will enable you to consistently plan meals that fit you goals while also being enjoyable to eat.
Once you have gone through the process of creating a few different meals that fit your structure, it will initially be easier to try different variations of that, while still maintaining the same macronutrient and calorie structure. It will also be helpful to eat these similar meals on a recurring basis, so you aren’t required to create upwards of 21 different meals on a weekly basis. Over time, the more comfortable you get with the meal planning process, you will have the ability to have an ever expanding variety in your diet.
Tools and Resources
- Nutrition Database