Dr Emil Hodzovic is an emergency-room doctor who’s competed in both physique contests and strongman sport. He’s a Reflex-sponsored athlete and the author of High-Intensity Functional Training
The science of nutrition is, when you get down to it, is really simple. In its most basic form, you need to set your calories and protein intake according to your goal and stick to it. Adherence and consistency over a prolonged period of time (say 6-12 months) to these simple rules will get you 90% of where you want to be. Everything else is minutiae and the psychology of sticking to it for that time frame is the crux of nutrition coaching. Some people love a super-strict, super-detailed meal-plan, not because it’s better, but because it gets buy-in, and this buy-in means they will stick to it.
Some people like these specifics and some people just need to be reassured that the numbers that are set are right for their goals. A few of my longer term clients will tell me what they’re doing this week nutrition-wise and how they will fit it around their training and life commitments and all they really need to hear is: ‘Yes, that’s fine’ and an occasional tweak or adjustment. I’m there for reassurance, answering questions and keeping them on track (for example, when they fall off the wagon).
You get the best results as a coach when you break the nutrition down into its most basic form and make it fit around the client. You can then coach habits, mindset and behaviours to achieve success and ideally maintain it for long after the end of the ‘diet’. You can then add extra layers of complexity as needed (if at all). I got myself into competition shape by only tracking my calories and protein intake and for even more flexibility and I averaged out my daily intake and output over a week, allowing me to eat and train around my busy lifestyle. This means as long as I was hitting my calories as an average over the whole week it didn’t matter how much I ate day-to-day.
The coaches who over-complicate the science are either not confident in their abilities or don’t actually know what they are doing and are trying to bamboozle clients. With all of that in mind, here’s how you should approach your diet to get the results you want.
For pure body composition, food quality isn’t strictly a requirement. You can lose body fat just eating donuts, as we’ve seen in the media multiple times. However, just because it can be done, it doesn’t mean it should be done and it certainly isn’t optimal. As the calories and body fat start to drop lower you will find that you will get more hungry and good quality food will give you far more bang for your buck in terms of satiety, balanced energy levels and nutritional value then blowing all your daily calories on 6 donuts at breakfast. Doing it in a more balanced healthy way will not only improve physical energy in the gym but also how you feel over the rest of the day and this, in turn will improve adherence which is the key to any fat loss diet.
If health is your main concern then calorie balance is still number one but food quality slots in right behind it and in this case eating ‘healthy’ nutrient dense food as a large proportion of your diet is much more fundamentally important. That said, there’s no such thing as a bad food out of context of the rest of the diet and the 80/20 rule applies so if 80 percent of your diet is nutrient dense and you’re hitting all the prerequisites of a healthy diet (calories, protein, fibre, micro-nutrients etc) then 20 percent of the diet can be much more flexible as this will allow adherence and sustainability at the end of the day.
Level 1: Protein and calories
If you know your maintenance intake of calories, as well as the levels you need for mass gain and a cut you can sustain, sticking to them consistently is going to get you a long way towards your goals. The best way of working out any calorie value (whether it’s gaining, losing or maintaining) is by taking a best guess either using previous dieting experience (i.e. what worked in the past) or a calorie calculating formula (for instance the Mifflin St Jeor formula) and then applying it to real life.
Once you have a number that is vaguely sensible try it for two weeks (minimum) along with daily weigh-ins and see what happens. By this, I mean track your daily intake and track your daily weight alongside each other. The scales will fluctuate day to day but the average will show the true picture and if over the two weeks your weight stays roughly similar then you have maintenance. It’s worth noting that maintenance is a wide band of calorie intakes, so for example, if you work out that 2000 kcal is your maintenance then you may maintain weight between 1800-2200 calories daily. This will depend on food consumed (thermic effect of food), daily energy expenditure (NEAT and PAEE) and how accurate your tracking is.
If the value that you chose is causing weight loss or gain then adjust the calories slightly (by a 100-300 a day) and go for another 2 weeks. Consistency is fundamental to this process as if you have an untracked binge or night out then you are going to need to ‘start again’ as you won’t know where you stand any longer.
For protein we aim for 2g per kg of lean mass. This is a very ‘safe’ estimate but it makes the maths easy. The science shows that you’re probaby OK even going as low as 1.6g per kg and certainly there is no harm in going higher so what I tend to set is a ‘minimum’ of 2g per kg but it’s not the end of the world if some days are a bit lower. In fact, towards the end of long comp preps I will drop protein right down to the 1.6g mark on re-carb days to maximise the number of grams of carbs i can consume within the same calories.
Level 2: Protein timing
Nutrient timing is what you need to concentrate on after you’ve nailed your calories and total protein intake. It won’t have a huge impact on fat loss per se but it will optimise the process in terms of energy for training and muscle retention.
Protein: You can trigger muscle protein synthesis (MPS) every 4-6 hours by eating an adequate amount of good quality protein – that is, the kind with high leucine content e.g. meat or whey. Missing one opportunity isn’t the end of the world but in the game of optimisation that is bodybuilding you might as well hit it every chance you get. This ‘protein dose every 4-6 hours’ is the framework for the whole diet and as long as you’re getting this in, everything else can pretty much be flexible. This also means you can go for prolonged periods doing a sort of intermittent fast which I do often, where I only eat protein in the form of shakes for most of the day thus saving my calories up for the evening when I am most hungry.
Think of MPS like filling a jar with pennies to save up £100. You can add a penny every 4-6 hours but that’s it. If you miss an opportunity to add a penny then it won’t make a huge difference in the greater scheme of things but if you make a habit of only adding five pennies a day instead of six this will build up over time and hold you back significantly.
Level 3: Carb timing
Carb timing is important pre workout, and almost totally pointless post workout. I recommend eating a decent carb meal 3-4 hours before a workout (chicken and rice) and then a much smaller carb snack within 30 minutes of starting the workout (bananas and rice cakes). Although the carbs immediately before the workout won’t make a huge difference to weights style workouts as they are unlikely to be digested in time they do have a measurable positive effect on performance due to receptors in the mouth.
Carbs immediately post workout are only really relevant if you are training your full body twice in one day – for instance, if you’re a team sport athlete.
Fat timing is almost totally unimportant and I only mention it for the sake of completeness. Fat will slow the absorption of carbs and protein so if you’re eating loads of fat around your workout then you may be slowing the absorption of the more important protein and carbs. This is a minor detail.
Level 4: Everything else
Supplements will supplement an already optimised diet and can add huge convenience to an athlete’s life in the modern age. None of them are essential and people can achieve 95% or more of their goals without them. In terms of supplements, the big ones are creatine monohydrate, vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids: creatine for performance and the others for general health. Caffeine is another highly evidenced and ergogenic aid as is protein (in any form but specifically whey when talking about supps). Both of these can be achieved from a normal diet but the supplemented forms can be hugely convenient and for the sake of consistency it is worth having them available to you.
Creatine and caffeine then everything else for performance.
Vitamin D and Omega 3s are great for overall health and well being but can technically be gained without supplementation.
Whey protein is a high-quality and convenient source of protein but has no real further benefits.
Anything else is either situational or more speculative and certainly not essential. However far you want to take your body composition, get things in the right order: don’t worry about carb timing if you haven’t even got your protein intake right. Start smart, track efficiently, and you’ll get better results – with less fuss.