Athlete For Life Part II: Nutrition
How to eat to gain muscle, lose fat, and perform like a champion
By Luka Hocevar, with Sean Hyson
In the first half of this two-part series, I went over ALL the training you need to do to look, feel, and perform like an athlete, regardless of your schedule, age, or injury history. (If you missed Athlete for Life Part I: Training, go here to catch up. As thorough as that article was, it only gave you 50% of the equation. To see the best results, you have to be just as diligent about what you eat as you are with what you do in the gym, but you don’t have to do it overnight.
Now I’ll explain how to eat like an athlete. Hint: it’s not all about chicken and rice. You CAN fit in some junk food too. Read on to see how.
Step 1: Forget The Trends
Many people hold their philosophy on nutrition as dearly as they do their philosophy on life itself. It’s akin to a religion for some. Everybody knows somebody who identifies as a “keto guy,” “vegan,” “intermittent faster,” or “raw foodie,” and if you’ve already pledged allegiance to one of these groups, AND you’re happy with your results, that’s fine. But the first step to adopting a healthy, sustainable, and results-producing diet plan is to realize that there is no “best” diet that works for everyone, no matter what’s currently trending on social media.
Some people avoid carbs. Others do low fat. Some choose to be vegetarian/vegan, and on the extreme other side of the gamut are carnivore dieters, who refuse to eat any plant foods. Any or all of these diets CAN work IF you can stick to it long-term—but because they’re so rigid about what you can and can’t eat, most people are unable to adhere to them for more than a few weeks, and they end up spinning their wheels.
Understand that when someone loses weight on a diet and improves their health, it’s because they achieved a calorie deficit. Whether they realize it or not, following the diet resulted in them eating fewer calories than they were burning in their daily life, and that’s why they got leaner. It wasn’t due to the sudden inclusion of some magical nutrient or the complete abstention from another one—it’s because they ate less. Period.
(OK, some people do lack important nutrients in their diet, such as protein or fiber, and eating more or less of one or more foods can make the difference, but major shifts in body composition owe more to changes in calorie consumption than anything else. Note that I’m not advocating crash diets either, where someone just restricts calories to the point of rapid weight loss. That’s not healthy and it’s certainly not sustainable.)
Don’t believe me? Look at the science. A meta-analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that both low-fat and low-carb diets helped subjects achieve nearly equal weight loss, causing the researchers to conclude that any diet people can adhere to will produce results. In an article for The Atlantic, nutrition expert Marion Nestle summed up the findings of another study that showed essentially the same thing, declaring that, “When it comes to weight loss, how much you eat matters more than the proportion of fat, protein, and carbohydrate in your foods.”
Ultimately, the way you choose to eat has to be something that allows you the foods that you enjoy while giving you the nutrition you need to look, perform, and feel the way you want. The kind of diet I’m about to lay out is very similar to what the majority of bodybuilders and other serious athletes have followed for decades, but with a little more wiggle room built in for foods that aren’t completely nutritious but give you pleasure to eat. I’ve found that this type of diet suits most people, and it will help ensure that you continue to follow the plan month after month and year after year, without getting frustrated by a lack of diverse food choices and falling off the diet wagon… and straight into a pile of cheeseburgers and ice cream.
Step 2: Set A Goal
Everyone reading this is training and eating with one main purpose in mind—to gain muscle, lose fat, or achieve some combination of the two. But all I want you to think about now is how to make that goal more specific and realistic.
Saying, “I want to lose fat and get lean” is a very general statement, and not very motivating. By contrast, saying, “OK, I’m 250 pounds and I want to get down to 205 and 12% body fat, because that’s what I was when I played college ball” is MUCH more effective. So is, “I want to have a 34-inch waist so I fit into my favorite pair of jeans.” Your goal should conjure up a clear image of how you’ll look and feel, and it should provoke an emotional response. That’s part of how you’ll stay on track on days when you’re hungry and tempted to go off-plan. Make your goal look and feel real and inspiring. Write it down, and keep it top of mind.
Step 3: Track What You’re Currently Eating
I don’t want to overwhelm you with calories and macros just yet. A fatal mistake among dieters is trying to make too many big changes much too fast, and your body and brain don’t have time to accept them. It’s a rare person who can go from eating fast food seven days a week to home-cooking lean meats and vegetables and staying with it, and there’s no need to push things that far that fast. To figure out where you’re going on a GPS, you need to first identify where you are now.
Start tracking your current food intake. Just write down everything you eat on a normal day, every day for a week, without trying to impress anybody. I.e., if you normally have McDonald’s for lunch, take note of that; don’t suddenly have a piece of fish if that’s not your usual fare just because you feel guilty having to write down Mickey D’s. We’ll work on changing habits later.
You don’t have to record the calories, protein, fat, etc. in each meal, although you can if you like and you’re able to access that information. I’m more interested in you being able to get a picture of what your daily food habits are so you become aware of what you’re taking in. At that point, it will be much easier to see where you can make small changes that add up to a huge difference.
After you’ve spent at least a week recording your daily intakes, begin to slowly refine how you’re eating and adopt new habits. For example, you may notice that you have a tendency to skip breakfast, causing you to overeat at lunch. Or, maybe you grab a sugar-laden coffee from Starbucks on your way to work and that’s your only food for hours. You might decide, then, to start stocking some protein powder, fruit, and low-calorie almond milk to make yourself a smoothie in the morning instead. (Frozen spinach is a great idea here too; it adds some stomach-filling fiber and other good greens’ nutrients and, blended with fruit and other flavors, you won’t taste it at all.) This smoothie will function as a meal-replacement drink, giving you a high-protein breakfast that’s quick to make and travels with you. You can also get coffee separately if you like, but add your own creamer to it to save calories, or learn to appreciate it black, so you don’t add any unnecessary fat or sugar.
Example of a morning smoothie from the Vigor Ground recipe book
Look for ways you can make healthier choices throughout the day. Simple food swaps and a little forethought and preparation have helped many people lose a significant amount of weight in a very short time. Here’s another example. I had a client who liked to drink upwards of 20 alcoholic beverages in a week. I asked him to try to cut that down to less than half, and he soon weaned himself down to eight beers weekly. He also drank a lot of sugary soda. I got him to switch to Diet Coke, and with those two changes alone—reducing his alcohol and his regular soda intake—he lost 19 pounds in 30 days. I’m not saying that will be your result as every person is different, but I wanted to point out how many times simple changes, done consistently, can create some serious results.
Here’s a quick word on alcohol: It adds extra calories, makes it harder to burn fat, and interferes with sleep quality, but I understand that it often plays a role in social settings and can help you unwind. I never tell anyone to cut out booze completely, but be judicious with your drinking. Limit it to two to three drinks (any kind you like) on one to two nights a week. If you track macronutrients, which I’ll explain further down, you can count your drinks toward your carb allotment and, as long as you stay within your allowance, it shouldn’t affect your weight.
Step 4: Calculate Your Calories and Macros
When you think you’ve got a handle on how to eat healthier, you can take it up a notch and calculate the calories you need to eat to hit your goals. Whether you want to lose, gain, or change the composition of your bodyweight, there is an optimal number of calories you’ll need to aim for to do it. Here are the calculations I use to get clients started.
Burn fat: Your bodyweight x 10–12
Build muscle: Your bodyweight x 15–17
Recomposition (i.e., gain muscle while losing fat): Your bodyweight x 15–17
Bigger people who have a lot of weight to lose should tend toward 10 rather than 12 on the fat-loss calculation. But if you’re just trying to drop 10 or 20 pounds, you don’t have to be so aggressive, so multiply by 12. If you’re super skinny and want to gain weight fast, or you know you have a fast metabolism, start at 17 times your bodyweight for muscle building. When it comes to recomping, I find that most people hit the sweet spot at 13–14 times their body weight. Also understand that recomping is a slow and subtle process. Unless you’re brand new to training or coming back from some time off, you won’t see dramatic results with this strategy. I suspect that most of you reading this will need to lose some fat first, while the younger, leaner members of the audience can aim to bulk up. But, if you’re happy with the size you are now and just want to “tone up,” then the recomposition route is probably the right path.
These calculations are just a starting point. If you’re not losing/gaining or otherwise seeing a difference in your physique after a full two weeks eating the calories you assigned yourself, recalculate with a different number and adjust your diet accordingly. It’s a process of trial and error.
Once you have your calories figured out, you need to see how they break down in terms of grams of protein, carbs, and fat. These are called your macros (as in macronutrients). This, also, will require some experimentation. Protein should make up 30–40% your calories, ditto for carbs, and fat should be set at 20–40%. I personally follow a diet that’s 35% protein, 40% carbs, and 25% fat.
How do you find the right percentages for you? It’s really about personal preference, but there are some guidelines to note. The consensus of the International Society of Sports Nutrition is that you should eat about one gram of protein per pound of your bodyweight every day. The research says that’s a little more than enough to support muscle gain when bulking up as well as muscle retention when dieting down; plus, it’s an easy number to remember and track. Protein is the most satiating nutrient, so, if you’ve dieted in the past and found that you were always hungry, you may want to increase your protein even more so to increase your chances of feeling full.
The amount of carbs and fat you choose really comes down to what makes you feel good. If your carbs are too low, you might feel lethargic during your workouts. If they’re too high, you might also feel lethargic due to blood sugar crashes that can result after big, carb-heavy meals. If you go too low on fats, which tend to be satiating, you may find that you’re hungry all the time and prone to overeating. If you go too high with fat at the expense of carbs, you may not have the energy for great workouts (as carbs are the muscles’ preferred fuel source). You’ll need to figure these things out for yourself over time.
Furthermore, if you like carb-rich foods like potatoes, rice, fruit, breakfast cereal, etc., budget your diet so it allows more carbs. If you like meats, cheese, avocados, nuts, and the like, give yourself room to eat more fat.
Now let’s do some math, and I’ll use myself as an example. I weight 203 pounds, and I want to recomp to be leaner at the same bodyweight. I’ll multiply 203 by 13 and see that I need to eat a little over 2,600 calories (you can round this number off). I’ll set my protein at 35% of those calories, and since protein contains four calories per gram, that means I need approximately 900 calories of protein (0.35 x 2600), or about 225 grams (900 divided by 4).
I work out a lot and I’m very active, so I like to keep my carbs on the higher side, around 40% of calories. Like protein, carbs have four calories per gram, so basic math tells me that I need to eat 260 grams carbs (1,040 calories). Now I can simply subtract these numbers from the calories that are left to find out my fats. Note that fat has nine calories per gram—more than twice that of protein and carbs.
2600 – 900 – 1040 = 660 calories, or 73 grams fat. But I’ll round this down to 70g for simplicity.
So the macros I’ll start following are 225g protein, 260g carbs, and 70g fat.
Now you might be thinking, “That’s a lot of protein!” Yes, it’s my number, and yours may be lower (or higher), but chances are the protein you’ll need to eat is a lot more than you’ve been eating. You don’t have to start hitting your protein or any other macro number right on the bullseye immediately. Follow Step 3, adjusting your diet gradually until you shape your eating into a menu that lets you hit these numbers. If that takes months, that’s OK. You’ll see results just by eating more protein than you are now and making other gradual changes.
About 80% of your intake should be clean, minimally processed, inarguably healthy food. Twenty percent can be indulgent “junk.” Another way to think about this is eight out of every 10 meals should be strict, while the remaining two can be desserts or snacks (candy at the movies, a cookie after lunch, pizza with your kids, and so on). Try to account for these calories as part of your macros, but in many cases you won’t be able to (who knows what they put in movie theater popcorn?). Be on your game most of the time, and everything will work out.
Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to count every last gram of every food. Think big picture. High-protein foods like meat will always contain some fat, but if it’s only a few grams per serving, just count the protein toward your protein goal and forget the rest. Rice, oats, and potatoes are mostly carbs, so count them as carbs alone. Nuts and seeds contain some protein and carbs, but they’re primarily fat, so don’t worry about the carbs and protein and count them as fat. Forget about “net carbs” and grams of fiber too. As long as you’re consistent with how you count, your macros will be close enough.
Another thing: you don’t have to count non-starchy vegetables. Leafy greens, bell peppers, onions, asparagus, eggplant, and so on technically contain some carbs, but they’re low in calories and high in fiber, so you don’t have to track them. These are HEALTHY foods; eat as much of them as you like! Tubers such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, however, are vegetables that do count as carbs. Avocados are a “green” (and a fruit), but they’re high in fat, and while it’s so-called “healthy” fat seeing as it’s unsaturated, it still counts, so be wary of the fat content here.
Precision Nutrition Graphic
Get in the habit of reading food labels and measuring your portion sizes. A cheap food scale, available in virtually any grocery or drug store, is invaluable for keeping you on track.
I’ll also say this…
The most important numbers are the calories and the protein.
As long as you don’t wildly exceed the amount of calories you’re allowed, you won’t gain fat, and if you eat a gram of protein per pound, you’ll be doing enough to support your muscles. This gives you a lot of latitude to eat more or less carbs and/or fat depending on the kind of day you’re having and the types of foods you can access or want to consume.
Here are some sample healthy meals that can show you what an athlete’s typical day of eating looks like. They’re taken from the recipe books we give our clients to make things simpler for them. Below is a breakfast, lunch and dinner example.
You’ve probably heard a lot about meal timing and frequency. The truth is, when you eat isn’t as important as eating enough for your goals. Research shows that it’s best to get four or five protein feedings, evenly spaced throughout your day, to maximize muscle growth, but you don’t have to chug a protein shake immediately after a workout—and eating every two to three hours does not “speed up” your metabolism. Look to have a normal breakfast, lunch, and dinner—if that suits your schedule—and a few high-protein snacks throughout the day to round things out.
Step 5: Plan, Prepare, Cook
The only way you’ll be able to stick to your macros over time is to plan your meals and prepare the ingredients in advance, as well as cook for yourself as often as possible. This may mean a massive shift in your lifestyle, but it’s a positive one, and once you get in the habit of it, it will be hard to break.
Always know what you want to eat tomorrow. That’s how you’ll avoid scrambling when you’re busy and relying on takeout and other comfort foods. When you know you have to work late and won’t be able to get home for dinner, make a meal you can take with you and store in the office fridge while you burn the midnight oil. If you know you’re having a lunch meeting with clients at a restaurant that only serves heavy, calorie-dense fare (a barbecue joint, or an Italian place that’s famous for its pizza), go ahead and enjoy yourself, but have lower-calorie, high-protein foods prepped and ready for your other meals so you can balance it out. Make a list of all the healthy grab-and-go stores and eateries in your area and all the good menu options they have so you know where to go and what to order when you’re on the run and time is tight.
Here’s something I share with clients to answer when it comes to preparing for the next day (I took this from a snapshot of an email I sent to a client):
When eating out in general, learn to eyeball your portion sizes. A four-ounce serving of meat or fish will usually contain about 25 grams of protein, while a fist-sized serving of potatoes, rice, or other grains will be about 40g carbs. Order menu items that give you one to three servings of protein and one to two of carbs, and try to minimize any additional fats to control calories. Load up on vegetables for your side dishes and appetizers. Get sauces and dressings on the side, and, when in doubt, ask how foods are prepared. Avoid fried dishes and things cooked in a lot of oil or butter.
Sundays are pretty chill for most people, so I usually recommend using that time to get ahead. Prepare at least three days’ worth of meals on Sunday, grilling chicken breasts, baking potatoes, chopping vegetables, etc., and packing them accordingly. If you really don’t have the time or patience for that, pony up for a meal-delivery service. There are dozens of companies that offer healthy, pre-made, and absolutely delicious meals (or ingredients for meals that have been measured and prepped for you to make quickly yourself). You can order a few dishes from them at a time or enough to cover every day of the week, depending on how much you want to spend.
Step 6: Hydrate
Water is imperative for performance, and the hotter the weather and the more you sweat, the more adamant you have to be to make sure you’re drinking enough. Generally, any beverage can count toward your water goal. That means diet soda, sparkling water, coffee, tea, sports drinks, etc.—but NOT alcohol. You should aim for plenty of plain water too. That ensures that you’re getting the fluids you really need without calories or nutrients that dehydrate you (which caffeine can do in larger amounts).
The formula for finding your fluid intake in ounces is bodyweight x 0.5–0.66. That means that a 200-pound person should drink 100–132 ounces of fluid daily, erring on the higher side on hot summer days.
Step 7: Supplement As Needed
Few people really “need” supplements, but they can make getting the nutrition you require much easier. I’ve found that most of my clients start out low in vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, and omega-3 fats. They also have trouble eating enough
greens, which can lead to low levels of various vitamins and minerals, so a greens supplement can be useful. The only way to be sure of what nutrition you might be lacking is to see your doctor and get blood work done. I’ve partnered with Marek Labs and do a comprehensive lab for many of my clients to discover what they’re deficient in and then build their nutrition and supplementation around that.
As I mentioned above, getting enough protein can be a real struggle too, especially as you get bigger and stronger and your protein requirements increase. Protein powders such as whey or egg white, as well as plant-based options, can make hitting your number more convenient. You might also consider creatine. It’s the world’s most popular sport supplement, and for good reason—it can help you build muscle, gain strength, and perform better at anaerobic activities, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition—and since it’s fairly inexpensive as supplements go, I generally recommend it.
While I take quite a few supplements, my favorite, and the ones I use most are from Thorne Health, which you can find here (sign up for an account and I’ll also give you 20% off for life, yep you heard that right).
Now you know how to lift, eat, and overall live like an athlete, now and for the rest of your life. Again, if you missed Part I on training, check that out now, and for more info on changing your eating behaviors, see my video on a 3-step model to easily change your nutrition habits.