Nutrition is, by and large, not very complicated. The most basic, foolproof dietary suggestion you can make to a new client is to simply eat an abundance of meat and fibrous vegetables when they’re hungry. Regardless of their training status and habits, age, current body composition, or goals, that will set them up with a solid foundation on which to build a specialized plan that suits their particular needs.
Things become exceedingly more complicated when you start to dial in on a specific goal. When things become more complicated, things become more confusing. When things get confusing, chaos is the name of the game and things very quickly fall apart.
Many of the folks who come to us have applied nutrition information without guidance, without consideration of individual factors, and they’ve wound up in a rut. They don’t understand where they went wrong.
Look: I’ve spoken with hundreds of people who can adhere to “the plan” with laser focus, who keep excellent track of their food intake, measurements, and training sessions, who are otherwise perfectly healthy, successful folks. They just can’t seem to manipulate their body composition and performance.
Although I’m a proponent of “taking responsibility for oneself”, more often than not it isn’t the client’s fault; the plan just doesn’t fit, and therein lies the problem.
Based upon my personal experience and education, I’ve come to realize that the confusion we’re experiencing as a culture – we, the “fit-minded” of the world – stems from the fact that there is very rarely a clear delineation of WHO a nutrition strategy or paradigm has been devised for.
Is it for a person seeking general wellness? Is it for an elite competitive strength athlete? Is it for a physique competitor? Is it designed to treat or alleviate symptoms of a disease or disorder?
If I had a dollar for every time someone came to us following a low carbohydrate, low Calorie diet while also following an intense, 10 hour a week mixed-mode training regimen (with extra cardio), I’d buy the farm. It’s amost exactly the opposite problem you’d run into if most of your customers were sedentary – those who seek nutrition counseling are often following a high Calorie, high carbohydrate diet while performing very little physical activity.
Both of these groups have two things in common: they’re eating inappropriately for their goals, and their list of desired outcomes practically ALWAYS includes fat loss. In other words, everybody wants a six pack but very few know what it really takes to have one. They almost always head off in the wrong direction, either out of ignorance or misdirection.
Before I continue, let me ask you a question. “What would happen if these two populations switched diets but maintained their current levels of physical activity?”
Nutrition for Performance Athletes vs. Sedentary People
If the two previous examples switched diets, the athlete would make use of the extra energy to drive performance. Ahtletes need to eat quite a bit of food to balance out their energy expenditure. For the athlete, body composition is the byproduct of achieving performance goals, which tend to support overall health. “Health” in this sense means not only longevity and freedom from illness, but also freedom from sport-related injuries both chronic and acute.
A solid plan for an athlete will:
1. Teach eating habits that promote increased energy intake
2. Incorporate supplements to increase general or specific performance
3. Optimize body composition
4. Improve overall health/facilitate improved recovery from training
In the same respect, the sedentary person would see an improvement in health with improved body composition by decreasing energy availability. Since performance isn’t all that important to the sedentary person – they aren’t exercising after all – their energy demands are lower.
“Health” for a sedentary person has more to do with proper daily functioning and resistance to illness rather than resistance to injuries.
A solid plan for a sedentary person will:
1. Teach eating habits that promote reduced energy intake
2. Incorporate supplements that improve overall health
3. Optimize body composition – usually with an eye towards body recomposition or outright weight loss
4. Promote physical activity by making the person feel more “energetic” – typically a byproduct of eating better and losing weight
Nutrition for Physique Competitors
Physique athletes/competitors pursue entirely different goals than the sedentary person or performance athlete. Achieving pure physique goals involves building a substantial amount of visible muscle mass, then “dieting” to an extremely low body fat percentage and stepping on a stage to display the result. Dieting (or prep) takes place over the course of several months and ultimately, the condition (body fat percentage) achieved for the competition is not maintained.
In other words, the physique competitor undereats for several months, gets shredded, and then returns to a normal body fat percentage after the competition. It’s not sustainable and it doesn’t last for long.
For the athlete, performance comes first and body composition is more a consequence of training, yet both factors are important and supportive of one another. For the physique competitor, body composition is paramount and performance is just a means to an end – they don’t have to squat 400 lbs. for reps to look their best come the day of the show, so they don’t have to eat a whole lot; just enough to maintain lean mass.
Health is not necessarily any less important, but it’s not necessarily improved and may be jeopardized when you’re talking about dieting down to the bare essential levels of body fat.
Thus, a solid plan for a physique athlete will:
1. Reduce body fat
2. Maintain lean mass
Remember when I asked you to consider what would happen if a sedentary person switched nutrition plans with an athlete? What do you think would happen if an athlete switched nutrition plans with a physique competitor preparing for a show?
How to Stop Chasing Your Tail
Now that we’ve identified the goals of these three types of people, the answer the question from the previous paragraph should be pretty clear.
Since the dieting physique competitor’s nutrition plan involves cutting Calories to emphasize fat loss, performance suffers. A plateau or regression is inevitable. Since performance drives body composition changes for the athlete, the athlete’s body composition will follow performance – it will stagnate or regress. Health will also suffer and injuries will become more common as the body attempts to cope with the chronic energy deficit. Adaptations include fatigue, anxiety, depression, storage of excess body fat, muscle loss, etc.
Two More Questions
Many of us are training like athletes, setting athletic goals, and idolizing people capable of amazing feats of athleticism.
“Why then are we eating as though we’re preparing for a physique competition?”
Also…”Why are so many of us thrusting, squatting, and snatching our butts off 5-6 days a week but eating as though we spend all day on sitting on the couch?”
I believe that asking yourself questions like this is one of the keys to finally “getting it right.” I’ll talk more about this subject in another article but for now, I’ll leave you to consider the answer.
James Barnum is a nutrition consultant, writer, and competitive powerlifter in the 75kg weight class. He holds NASM CPT and Precision Nutrition L1 certifications, as well as a Florida state record in the United States Powerlifting Association.