Dr Emil Hodzovic is an A&E doctor who’s competed in both physique contests and strongman competitions. He’s a Reflex-sponsored athlete and the author of the book High-Intensity Functional Training.
The science of nutrition is, when you get down to it, simple. In its most basic form, you need to set your calories and protein intake according to your goal and stick to that. Consistency and adherence to these simple rules over a prolonged period of time (say six to 12 months) will get you 90% of the way to where you want to be. Everything else is minutiae – it’s the psychology of sticking to it that’s the crux of nutrition coaching.
Some people love a detailed, super-strict meal plan, not because it’s better, but because they find it’s easier to stick to clear, well-defined rules. Other people just need to be reassured that the numbers they’ve been given are right for their goals. A few of my longer-term clients will tell me what they’re eating in a given week and how they will fit it around their training and life commitments, and all they really need to hear is “Yes, that’s fine” with an occasional adjustment. I’m there for reassurance, answering questions and keeping them on track if there’s a danger they may fall off the wagon.
As a coach, I find you see the best results when you break nutrition down into its most basic form and make it fit around the client. You can then coach habits, mindset and behaviour to achieve success and ideally maintain it for long after the end of the “diet”.
When I was getting myself into competition shape I only tracked my calories and protein intake. For even more flexibility, I averaged out my daily intake and output over a week, allowing me to eat and train around my busy lifestyle. That meant as long as I was hitting my target calories over the whole week it didn’t matter how much I ate day-to-day. Coaches who over-complicate the science are either not confident in their abilities or trying to bamboozle clients. With all that in mind, here’s how you should approach your diet to get the results you want.
For pure body composition, sticking to good-quality food isn’t strictly a requirement. You can lose body fat just eating doughnuts – we’ve all seen stories about people doing that. However, just because you can, that doesn’t mean you should – and it certainly isn’t optimal.
As the calories and body fat drop lower you will find you 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 than blowing all your daily calories on six doughnuts at breakfast. Eating in a more balanced, healthy way will not only increase your physical energy in the gym but also improve how you feel over the rest of the day. This in turn will improve adherence, which is the key to any fat loss diet.
Calorie balance is still the number one focus for fat loss but food quality slots in right behind it, especially if you are concerned about overall health. In this case making “healthy” nutrient-dense food a large proportion of your diet is fundamental. That said, the reason I put “healthy” in quotes is there’s no such thing as a bad food out of context of the rest of the diet. The 80/20 rule applies: if 80% of your diet is nutrient-dense and you’re hitting all the prerequisites of a healthy diet (calories, protein, fibre, micronutrients) then it doesn’t matter so much about the remaining 20%. Ultimately, this is what allows adherence and sustainability.
To get that 80% right, there are four straightforward rules to follow, which I like to think of as the four levels of nutrition.
Four Simple Nutrition Rules To Follow
Level 1: Calories And Protein
If you know the calorie intake you need to sustain your body composition (your maintenance intake), the increase you need for mass gain and a decrease you can sustain for fat loss, sticking to them consistently is going to get you a long way towards your goals. The best way of working out any calorie value – gaining, losing or maintaining – is by to either use previous dieting experience (what worked in the past) or find a calorie calculating formula such as the Mifflin-St Jeor formula and apply it to your real life.
Once you have figured out a sensible number, try it for at least two weeks along with daily weigh-ins, so you’re tracking your daily intake and track your daily weight alongside each other, and see what happens. The scales will fluctuate day to day but over time you’ll see the true picture. If over the two weeks your weight stays roughly similar, then you have maintenance. This can be a fairly wide band of calorie intakes, so if you work out that 2,000 calories is your maintenance level then you may find you maintain weight when eating 1,800-2,200 daily. This will depend on the food consumed, daily energy expenditure and how accurate your tracking is.
If the value that you chose is causing weight loss or gain then adjust the calories slightly (try 100-300 a day) and go for another two weeks. Consistency is fundamental to this process – if you have an untracked binge or night on the beer, then you’ll need to start again because you won’t know where you stand any longer.
For protein, aim for 2g per kg of lean mass every day. This is a very standard and “safe” estimate but it makes the maths easy. The science shows that you’re probably OK going as low as 1.6g per kg but certainly there is no harm in going higher, so I tend to set a minimum of 2g per kg while telling clients it’s not the end of the world if some days are a bit lower. In fact, towards the end of long competition preps I will drop protein right down to the 1.6g mark on re-carb days, in order 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 is the first thing to consider. You can trigger muscle protein synthesis (MPS) every four to six hours by eating an adequate amount of good-quality protein – the kind with high leucine content, such as meat or whey. Missing one opportunity isn’t the end of the world but bodybuilding is a game of optimisation, so you might as well hit it every chance you get.
A protein dose every four to six hours is the framework for the whole diet. If 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 consume protein in the form of shakes for most of the day and save 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 four to six hours, no more, but if you miss an opportunity to add a penny every now and then it won’t make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things. However, if you habitually add three pennies a day instead of five or six this will 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-rich meal such as chicken and rice three to four hours before a workout, and then a much smaller carb snack within a 30-minute window before you start a workout (bananas and rice cakes). The carbs right before the workout won’t make a huge difference to weights workouts because they are unlikely to be digested in time, but 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.
What about timing of the other macronutrient, fat? It’s almost totally unimportant. Fat can slow the absorption of carbs and protein, so if you’re eating loads of fat around your workout then you may be affecting how your body is using the more important protein and carbs. But this is a minor detail.
Level 4: Everything Else
Supplements will, er, 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.
When choosing supplements, the big ones are creatine monohydrate, vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids: creatine for performance and the others for general health. There’s lots of evidence that caffeine can enhance physical performance, as can protein, particularly whey. You can get both of these from a normal diet, although supplemented forms can be hugely convenient and help you maintain consistency.