Eating more is at the core of having the body of your dreams. Eating to actually get lean, strong and fit doesn’t come by eating like a bird! But why eat more? How does that even work? Here’s the skinny on eating more to get lean + strong…
Psst! The best way to use this information is to read it alongside my DIY Macro Guide! Think of this as your pocket companion guide.
Eat enough to prevent hangry
You’ve heard advice to “eat less, move more,” which centers around a calories-in, calories-out model for weight loss. Well, what happens when you eat less? You get hungry. What happens when you exercise more? You get hungry. How long does that model last before your elbow deep in the box of Teddy Grahams or gnawing off the cheese block?
What anyone who just offers that advice fails to realize is that losing body fat to reveal strong muscles involves hormones, not just calories. Hormones are the messengers that tell the body to burn fat or store fat, remain full or feel hungry, have cravings or not, enjoy balanced energy or feel fatigued. Hormones can even impact your mood and motivation to exercise.
If hormones read the instructions sent from your body, macros write the instructions. And by keeping hormones in mind when setting your macro targets, you can reduce hunger, control cravings, elevate energy and increase metabolism. Isn’t that a much different picture than a calories-first approach?
Here’s how you know you’re eating enough: Instead of opting for the largest calorie deficit possible across the whole week, opt for the smallest one. Just as you wouldn’t just up a 50 lb. dumbbell if you’ve only been working with 20 lb. weights, it’s better to incrementally adjust your nutrition.
On the topic of strength training, if you’re a novice, you might consider bypassing a calorie deficit and instead eat at “maintenance”. Because you’re a new lifter, you can see strength and lean muscle gains as well as fat loss at a much faster rate than a moderate or advanced trainee. Get yourself a trainer or formal training program that has you progressively overloading your activity week to week and eating enough to feel full, satisfied, and energized while you do it!
Eat enough to keep hormones happy
Eating in a way that supports optimal hormone balance starts with eating enough calories. Ever notice when you’re on a dieting stint, you feel more cold or have dry skin? Maybe your monthly cycle gets a little longer or shorter! Those messages from your hormones are basically saying, “Alert! More food needed!”
Following a macros approach doesn’t inherently lead to hormone balance. But most people find that eating a variety of whole, real foods rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals in PFC balance at meals does make tracking easier! So, by default, we usually see better insulin, cortisol, and sex hormone balance in individuals who track macros.
Start by working backwards from your total macros for the day and creating meals that have a sizable mix of all three macros in each. This makes for stable blood sugar, which translates to stable insulin. Insulin can be thought of as the “master hormone” that turns on and turns off many other hormones in the body. By keeping this bad boy happy, we keep thyroid, estrogen, progesterone, cortisol happy as well.
Here’s how you know you’re eating enough: when setting your protein, fat and carbohydrate targets, visualize a pizza that’s pretty evenly split in portion sizes between you and two of your friends. We wouldn’t want one friend to get a tiny pie sliver while another is enjoying a gigantic portion all to themselves. Same goes for macros. Percentage of calories coming from protein, fat and carbohydrates should be catered to your personal preference and activity level, but you’re looking for ranges such as 20-30% for protein, 25-35% for fat, 35-45% for carbohydrates to keep hormones happy.
Eat enough carbohydrates to fuel your workouts and protect lean muscle
High intensity interval training, bootcamp-style workouts, metabolic conditioning and weightlifting require carbohydrates, which is why you were totally wilting in your workouts on that low carb diet!
Your body uses carbs stored in your muscles (glycogen) and carbs floating around in your blood (glucose) to power you through your workout. Once you’ve used up that available glycogen and glucose, your body looks for ways to conserve energy. What happens next is increased fatigue, decreased focus, power and strength and over time that leads to impaired results. Carbohydrates are “muscle sparing,” which means when your body has enough of them, it won’t draw as many amino acids (protein) from muscle tissue for fuel — and you’ll “max out” before your highest potential. This becomes important as your workout reaches the one hour point and beyond.
You might be thinking, “I always eat carbs before and after my workouts though!” Sadly, your opinion about how many carbohydrates are appropriate for you is likely warped by diet culture and restrictive plans of your past. Carbs get a bad rep! Half a banana is not going to cut it here! You might never fully refill muscle glycogen stores — especially if you take the common approach to “eat fewer carbs on less active or rest days.”
Here’s how you know you’re eating enough: After you’ve calculated your carbohydrate targets with your personal preferences and training modalities in mind, do a double check to see your target is not lower than 1 gram per pound of body weight. In an example of a 160 pound active woman, we would not want to see her calculated carbohydrate macro targets lower than 160 g per day as a general rule of thumb. If your target is lower, consider bumping up your percent of calories coming from carbohydrates to find a new, higher carbohydrate target.
Eat enough protein to support fat loss, not muscle loss
There is more than one destination for a calorie. Decrease calories and you might lose fat, but you might lose muscle instead. Increase calories and you might gain fat, but you might gain muscle. The type of activity you do and the amount of protein you eat can determine the outcome. This is why combining strength training with a moderate protein intake is so powerful in achieving your desired results.
An average healthy diet provides enough protein for a sedentary person, but you’re not average! Your workouts are the highlight of your day. You push your limits and challenge yourself every week.
Bumping up your protein means more satiety, a better body composition and a higher metabolic rate. (How much better does that sound than the alternative of feeling hungry, losing muscle and knee-capping your metabolism from following a low-calorie diet?!)
Eating more protein suppresses hunger and appetite for longer than eating the same amount of the other macros (fats and carbs). This means if you eat 100 calories in the form of grilled chicken breast, you’ll be fuller longer than if you eat 100 calories in the form of crackers or olives.
Protein is the only macronutrient that increases the metabolic rate. This translates to more calories burned over the whole day when you eat more protein and especially if you spread that protein target across 3-4 sizable meals. Even without eating less, simply by changing the content of the calories that you eat to include more protein, you could see change in the way you look and feel.
Protein is also the key for achieving the “superficial” goals we all have: Eating enough protein, probably more than you are, provides the body with the building blocks to gain and maintain lean muscle. Muscle mass takes up less space than fat mass on your body’s frame — meaning you could easily look 20 pounds lighter than what the scale says. (Which is another reason scale weight is such an arbitrary measurement!). Skinny and flabby is the look of weight loss while lean and tight is the look of fat loss.
Here’s how you know you’re eating enough: After you’ve calculated your protein targets with your personal preferences and training modalities in mind, do a double check to see your target is not lower than .8 g per pound of body weight. If you’re vegetarian, you’ll shoot for .7 g per pound of body weight or more. In an example of a 160 pound active woman, we would not want to see her calculated protein macro targets lower than about 115-130 g per day as a general rule of thumb. If you calculated your macros and the protein target is lower, consider bumping up your percent of calories coming from protein to find a new, higher protein target.