WHY A “HEALTHY DIET” IS NOT ENOUGH FOR REAL MUSCLE GROWTH & FAT LOSS
I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve this same basic dialogue with one of my readers…
“Sean, I’ve been trying to put on muscle for the last 6 months, and even though I train hard and eat right I can’t seem to make any real gains. Do you have any tips for me?”
“What’s your diet like?”
“For breakfast I usually have a protein shake and some fruit… Lunch I’ll have chicken and rice with veggies… Then I’ll have another shake and go train… Dinner is usually fish, potatoes and more veggies… Then I’ll have a small healthy snack before bed, usually some cottage cheese and mixed nuts.”
“Roughly how many calories does that all amount to each day on average?”
I’ve said this many times before, and I’ll continuing hammering it out there because it really is that important:
It does NOT matter how “healthy” you eat throughout the day or if your diet is made up of nothing but lean protein, high fiber carbs, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats…
If your total daily energy intake (calories) is not consistently landing within the proper range based on your goals, you are NOT going to build muscle or lose fat to any significant degree. Period.
Sure, for some people it may be possible to gain a small amount of muscle while in a calorie deficit if the conditions are right… and likewise, it may also be possible to lose a small amount of body fat while in a calorie surplus…
However, if you have the definite goal that you want to bulk up and put on muscle or that you want to lean down and lose body fat and you want to do it to a significant, measurable degree in either direction then you need to be tracking and managing your net energy balance to at least a reasonable degree throughout the week if you want to see real, consistent results.
If you want to build muscle, then you need to provide your body with an energy surplus by consuming more calories than you burn each day. This provides your body with the excess energy that is needed to synthesize new muscle tissue.
No consistent energy surplus = no significant muscle growth.
If you want to lose fat, you need to create an energy deficit by burning more calories than you consume each day. This forces your body to break down its excess fat stores in order to obtain a source of fuel.
No consistent energy deficit = no significant fat loss.
It’s really as simple as that.
Other “fitness experts” can talk all they want about how you must consume thisspecific set of “healthy” foods and avoid others at all costs…
How you need to consume your calories and macronutrients in some highly specific pattern and layout throughout the day…
Why it’s all about sticking to a diet containing high fat, low fat, low carb, high carb, high protein, low protein or something in between…
Or even worse, how getting into shape is simply an issue of “optimizing hormone levels”, “flushing out toxins” or some other pseudo-scientific B.S that no one (including the people making those claims) even understands in the first place.
Yes, there are many smaller details that go into planning out an effective muscle building or fat burning diet that maximizes your results, but NONE of those details will make any difference at all if you’re simply eating too much or too little based on your goals.
And sadly, many people make this basic, fundamental mistake for months and even years on end without even realizing it, and then don’t understand why they aren’t making any real progress.
They simply look at the foods they’re consuming each day and consider it to be a “healthy” combination (even though there is no universal agreement at all on what a “healthy diet” even is in the first place), and then assume that their lack of results must be due to something else.
Now, I recognize that every person is unique and has different goals and a different approach to their fitness program…
If you’ve never tracked a calorie in your life but are still seeing consistent muscle building or fat burning progress that you’re satisfied with just by sticking to what you consider “high quality foods” and by eating a bit more or less of them, then all the power to you.
Just because someone decides to get into better shape doesn’t necessarily mean they have to go “all out”, and there are varying degrees of detail and accuracy that are appropriate for each person.
A reasonable percentage of people who aim to lose fat by merely “eating healthy” and using portion control will still see great results regardless, not because those foods have some special inherent fat burning properties, but simply because most traditional “healthy foods” are not very calorie dense and thus enable that person to maintain an ongoing deficit without having to track anything.
The same goes for building muscle. If you have good genetics where your body favorably partitions calories towards muscle growth rather than fat gain, then you probably can just “eat a bit more” and still see impressive results overall. I know many guys in the gym who do just that, and for the first couple years of my own training I successfully used that approach as well.
However – and this is big however – if you’re currently not seeing the results that you truly desire and that you know you’re capable of, or even worse, if you’re not seeing any results at all, then it’s time to buckle down, put in the work and start tracking your diet with at least a reasonable degree of accuracy each day.
Figure out roughly what you require in terms of total calories, protein, carbs and fats to support your specific goal (whether it be lean muscle gain or fat loss)… and then either start tracking your food intake each day as you go along using an app such as MyFitnessPal, or take some time to lay out a basic diet plan for yourself and just follow that.
How should you go about determining your calorie and macronutrient needs?
Well, keep in mind that it’s usually a bit of an “educated guessing game” at the start, and it will usually take a few weeks to determine the right figures for yourself since no set of calculations will be perfect. You’ll first need to see how your body responds and then make adjustments from there.
Your basic goal when trying to gain muscle should be to land within a calorie range that allows you to gain somewhere around 0.25 0.5 pounds per week. This might not sound like a lot, but it adds up very quickly and is a standard rate of muscle growth for a natural trainee.
For fat loss, aim for a calorie range that has you losing around 1-2 pounds per week.
You can check out the following resources to lay out a starting diet for yourself…
In the end, you can train in the gym until you’re blue in the face and you can eat “healthy” until the cows come home, but if your total calories and macronutrients are missing the mark by too large a margin, you’ll either progress way below your potential or you won’t progress at all.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m obviously not saying that you shouldn’t strive to follow what you consider to be a healthy diet…
All I’m saying is that in the absence of proper energy balance based on your goals, eating “healthy” is NOT enough if you’re aiming to put on a significant amount of muscle or burn a significant amount of fat.
Proper dietary tracking is not as difficult as many people make it out to be, and it could very easily mean the difference between a hugely successful fitness program and one that completely fails altogether.
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