Help to separate the (whole) wheat from the chaff
June 21, 2006 9:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm thoroughly baffled about how I should eat.

Over the past year, I've been working on reforming my body. I lost a lot of extra weight that I had packed on since high school and am currently at a healthy body fat percentage (12% - 18% depending on the measurement method). Unfortunately, during that time, I lost a fair bit of muscle, likely from eating too few calories. In short, I lost the weight, but I didn't end up with a body I was really happy with.

About five or six weeks ago, I started to train with weights again. I'm currently working out with weights three times a week, doing high-intensity interval training two days a week, and then do some other form of cardio (it varies-- running, basketball, street hockey, whatever) on a sixth day. I'm fairly happy with this, and I have seen some definite gains in my strength and muscle.

However, I am still stymied by what I should be eating. I used Weight Watchers to lose the weight initially, and it gave me a set amount of points that I ate every day. However, as I said, I think it was too little food for me, a 24-year-old male. I'm trying now to go it alone, but the conflicting reports on caloric requirements have me completely confused.

Depending on the calculators I've looked at, I should be eating anywhere from 2000 to 3500 calories per day, given my current workout schedule. Add to that the fact that some of these things use abstracts like "activity modifiers" and such, I don't have any clue as to if what I am eating is enough, too little, or what. I know WHAT to eat, just not how much of it.

So, what is the most reliable method to determine calorie needs? I track my intake with Fitday, but invariably I'll eat something (eating out, etc) that I have no idea how to count. I want to get something I can focus on-- I work better that way-- but there is so much variance that I have no clue what I am doing.

Compounded to this is the fact that I don't know if, at this stage, I should be "cutting" or eating at maintenance. My ultimate goal is to have six-pack abs, not for the abs themselves, but more for what they represent. I've asked at various fitness forums, and still get conflicting answers. Some have said I should cut until I get down below 12% body fat, others until I get to 10%, and still others have said that I should be working on building muscle for a few months before I bother cutting at all.

I've read a lot, but it seems like every new thing I read conflicts something else I read. So, I'm turning to the hive. Aside from avoiding eating anything I can't count the calories for for a week and seeing what happens (and trying to account for the vagaries and imponderables that also affect body composition), what can the average guy do? Ultimately, I don't care about my weight. I just want my body to look better. I want the gut gone-- there is still a bit of one there-- and I'm not concerned about how long it takes, as long as I know I am taking the right road. About the only thing that I am sure of now is that it is good to drink water.
posted by synecdoche to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You're going to hate this answer, but the right thing to do here is to talk to your doctor about this. In fact, you should ask your doctor to refer you to a nutritionist.

In truth, I don't believe you will get a concrete believable correct answer from anyone, because there isn't one. You should, however, get guidance and information on what signs to look for to see if what you're trying is working.

I'm not a nutritionist, but I believe you're probably overthinking things a little here. I wouldn't worry about cutting additional fat right now, because a good cardio and lifting program will convert some of that fat to muscle if you're working out enough to burn more calories than you're taking in.

Therein lies the key: burn more calories than you take in. The tough part of your question is what kind of food should be making up those calories. I would imagine that if you're lifting weights, lots of protein that's relatively low in fat would be a good bet.

And now the dissenting opinions you got elsewhere will be duplicated here - also dissenting from each other :-)

Whatever you decide to do, good luck!
posted by twiggy at 10:05 PM on June 21, 2006

Twiggy has it right about seeing a professional nutritionist. Everyone's body is different and only a nutrionist can give you the direction you desire.
posted by Juggermatt at 10:17 PM on June 21, 2006

There are several reasons you are hearing different percentages quoted for visible abs. First, it's different for different people - some people are doomed to store their last bit of fat on their belly and will never shake it. Second, as you noted, people's estimates of their body fat vary wildly according to the technique used.

This also means that visible abs actually don't represent that much, other than a commitment to visible abs and the right genes. There are very healthy, fit, lean people out there with small tummies. You might be better to focus on a body-fat percentage or a strength or endurance goal than pursue the chimera of defined abs.

Rephrasing what twiggy said, if you are not gaining weight, then you cannot be eating too much.

Perhaps you would be best served by:
- counting your intake over a couple of weeks using
- computing a daily average
- add a couple of hundred calories per day for a week
- see whether you gain weight
- if no weight gain, try adding another couple of hundred each week until you do.

That should tell you what maintenance is for you. I know that you worry about things that you can't count, but if you estimate and estimate consistently, then it shouldn't matter over the long haul.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:40 PM on June 21, 2006

Are there qualified personal fitness instructors at your gym? They will be able to help you find a fitness plan that best suits your goal, and they should have lots of information on appropriate dietary needs too. When I signed up with a fitness trainer I needed to lose some weight and gain some muscle. He gave me a workout plan and a diet plan, which were a match to each other and took my current physical state into account.

Consult a professional. And like twiggy says, each one will have a slightly different opinion, but pick one you feel comfortable with, stick with it, and you will probably reach your goal just fine. Good luck!
posted by Joh at 12:57 AM on June 22, 2006

There are good nutritionists and bad. Doctors rarely know much about diet.

Golden rule = To gain muscle, you need to consume 1.4 grams of complete protein per pound of lean body mass.

You should keep a food log, and once you hit the protein requirement for two weeks without fail, then start cutting carbs until you find your energy dipping during workouts. Then add post workout carbs and protein.

You should be supplementing with Omega 3.

Silver Rule = Meals should contain either fat and protein or carbs and protein, but NEVER carbs and fat.

The food log is essential, because you need to 1) eat more protein, and 2) develop a data history so you can understand more accurately the impact that dietary changes have on your body composition and performance. 2K calories is a good starting point, as is the Golden Rule, but nothing beats the understanding you get from recording how your body responds to different balances of macronutrients.

Nutritionists can't tell you this. Any good one will say "keep a food journal for two weeks before you come in."
posted by ewkpates at 3:58 AM on June 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

A very useful tool for figuring out what your daily caloric output actually is. The activity calculator even has sleeping in it.
posted by 517 at 5:38 AM on June 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

Yeah, online calorie calculators don't have any deep insight to your personal metabolism. When I plug my weight, height and activity level into those things, I'm usually told to eat 2,200 to 2,400 calories per day. But when I average more than 1,700 calories per day I immediately start to gain weight.

I'm a woman, so my caloric needs are going to be inherently different than yours.

After losing a few pounds through diet, I've added a couple extra hundred calories per day in eggs and soy to my diet along with weight training, and I appear to be gaining muscle mass. If you're a meat eater, lean protein meats would probably be a good idea too.

As for calorie counting when you eat out, here's what I do: if it's a chain restaurant, look at it's web site. Pretty much everyone but Quizno's lists nutritional information online, and you can plug that in to fitday.

If it's not a chain restaurant, make a point of remembering what you ate, what it's main ingredients were, and approximate quantities. First search fitday for the dish name. If you don't find that, enter the ingredients that you're aware of. If it was a really filling meal, it's a safe bet that you should add a tablespoon or two of butter to whatever you know you ate. You won't get a perfect estimate, but this method will give you a good idea of what you've eaten.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:01 AM on June 22, 2006

Body Gem. Loads of gyms and nutritionists have them. Nothing will improve your workout/diet more than knowing some facts about yourself, and that includes metabolic rate as well as body fat percentage.

Personally, when I was working to get lean and muscular for a very demanding sports schedule, a zone-type diet worked for me (I'm female and 30, YMMV).

If you don't know how many calories are in something, ask a woman ;)
posted by methylsalicylate at 7:16 AM on June 22, 2006

I used Weight Watchers to lose the weight initially, and it gave me a set amount of points that I ate every day. However, as I said, I think it was too little food for me, a 24-year-old male.

If this is true, then you weren't doing Weight Watchers correctly. Based on your sex, weight, and age, WW will give you a daily range of points (e.g. 22-27 points a day), or will give you a daily set amount of points plus weekly flex points (e.g. 22 points a day plus 35 flex points a week).

And WW should never allow for "too little food" -- there are always zero-point foods, of which you can have unlimited amounts. You need never be hungry on WW.

posted by booksandlibretti at 11:05 AM on June 22, 2006

Response by poster: books, I wasn't hungry, but going back, I was eating quite a drastic calorie deficit. Also, we were told that you can't have unlimited amounts of 0-point foods, because they do add up. I went pretty much as by the book as you can-- they don't give you a range anymore, they give you a set number and then 35 flex points.

On average (I know this excepts fibre and fat) a WW point is worth 50 calories. By the time I was getting to my goal weight, I was alotted 22 points per day. That's roughly 1100 calories. I'd have to eat a helluva lot of 0-point food to get to a reasonable rate. That'd be okay if fruits were 0 point, but they're not. Most vegetables are, sure, but eating 1000 calories of vegetables is a lot of vegetables.

The Weight Watchers system does not regard gender, which is one of its main weaknesses. I understand that they are currently changing this (a person I talk to online is part of a "guinea pig" group that has a more rigourous method of gauging points, and was allotted an additional 10 points per day).

In any case, whether I did it right or not (and I went right by the book), I lost weight with weight watchers, and my body fat percentage did decrease, but so did my muscle mass. Now I am trying to regain the muscle mass, so my experience with WW is neither here nor there at this stage.
posted by synecdoche at 12:55 PM on June 22, 2006

I'm sorry you didn't get here the usually great recommendations in other threads about diet and exercise.

If you're 24 years old, and going to the gym regularly, don't worry too much about how much. Just eat enough, and it's probably more than you think. Even when I was a skinny 24 year old myself, I never had a 6-pack, but it was because I didn't have the muscles to begin with. You have to have muscle mass before you go for definition. Try this program for abs.

So definitely avoid the weight-watchers(wtf man?), and try some of the diets at T-mag.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 5:44 PM on June 22, 2006

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