Flexible Dieting: The Best Way to Reach Your Body Composition Goal

Discovering “Flexible Dieting” or If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) has been my saving grace since I got into health and fitness. IIFYM is a way of eating that gives target macro nutrients (Protein, Carbs & Fat) and let’s the dieter choose the foods to hit those numbers. Normally, there is some wiggle room but you want to be as accurate as possible whilst hitting your protein. An example target might be 300 Carbohydrate, 200 Protein and 100 Fat (using round numbers for simplicity). This can be spread apart into 10 meals of 30C, 20P &10F / 4 meals of 75 C, 50P & 25F / 2 meals of 150 C, 100P & 50F. Any combination of meals & macros, as long as at the end of day the target numbers are hit within a certain range, will keep your body composition goals in check (until of course you have to adjust based on your goal, metabolic adaptation, weight loss/gain, etc.). This means that no matter how you slice it meal timing wise, if your maintenance is 2500 calories and you eat 2500 calories, whether in 2 meals or 12 meals, you will not gain weight*.1(*It is important to note that if you have a high salt intake one day or eat a lot before bed where you normally do not, you might be a little heavier on the scale, but this is water weight. The same goes for if you weigh yourself a couple hours before you typically weigh-in.)

I realize I might be losing some people, so here’s an analogy. Who do you think is going to be more successful in saving money and budgeting for the future? The person who spends sensibly, indulges from time to time and just goes by intuition OR the person who has all their expenses tracked, knows what is being taken in/out of their accounts, knows where their expenses are going, knows which months or times of the year they spend the most/least money, knows their standard monthly income and know if a major event is coming up? I take option B all day long. It takes more effort and planning than option A, but in terms of getting closer to the goal it’s a no-brainer. Calories are like money. If you have $2500 (calories) to spend on food per day, it is at your discretion how and when you spend it to reach that goal. You can spend $2500 all at once, spread it out, etc. You can spend 2500 calories on whole, micro-nutrient dense foods that keep you satiated and digest well (smart investments). You can spend 2000 calories on whole foods and 500 calories or less whole foods that don’t necessarily fill you up but curb your cravings. You can spend 2500 calories on junk foods that leave you feeling sluggish, lethargic, bloated and hungry. Or you could blow all your money and spend more than you have, leading to fat gain. Unless your goal is to put on muscle mass, in this case you want to be in a caloric surplus and spend more than you need to maintain your weight, but not too much more.

Meal Timing

Breakfast is NOT the most important meal of the day and it’s actually impossible to “skip breakfast” when you think about it. “Breakfast”= “Break Fast” which is what you do when at any point when you eat after your overnight fast (“sleep”). You CAN eat carbs past 6PM. In fact, a study done by the Journal of Obesity split participants into two groups. The two groups both consumed the same amount of calories and macro-nutrients, but one group consumed carbs throughout the day where the other consumed 80% of their carbs at night. The study showed greater weigh and body-fat loss, greater satiety, greater waist circumference loss, more stable insulin levels and higher leptin levels when the majority of carbohydrates are consumed at night.2

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The concept of “eating 6x per day stokes your metabolism” is a myth. However, research has shown that for optimal muscle hypertrophy & maximizing muscle protein synthesis, 4-6 protein rich meals per day spread out 3-5 hours apart is the best way to go.3 For 95% of people, this doesn’t matter, but if you want to be optimal in terms of building muscle, this is what the research shows. A rough guide for a “protein feeding” is 20-30g of protein in a sitting, but this may change with different body weights, body compositions and the type/amino acid content of the protein.

It’s important to realize that this diet is weird. Most people do not track their food intake. We also have to remember “most people” in America fall into the category of overweight or obese and a vast majority of those who are not overweight or obese fall into the “skinny-fat” category (IE normal body weight but higher level of body fat – think David Spade, Jonah Hill). So if you want to “be normal”, think of what exactly “normal” means, and not just in terms of body composition. Does this mean you have to track and weigh your food forever? Absolutely not. However, it is what’s most optimal if you want to make the most progress in your muscle building or fat loss goals. My goal with this is to eventually be able to eyeball my food and not track calories. However, I personally struggle as a former fat boy. If I ate to my appetite every day, I would put on weight way too fast. You also have to know your body. If you are relatively sedentary & do not strength train often, you will not need as many carbohydrates as someone in the gym strength training 4-6 days per week & leading a more active lifestyle. Certain people are genetically more or less carbohydrate sensitive. I personally notice a huge difference when I’m eating 300-350 carbs per day vs anywhere sub 225 carbs. The difference is mostly in energy, pumps, muscle fullness and cognitive function. Similarly, if I eat too many fats, I notice I feel bloated & my food doesn’t digest as well. Add in that carbs are your body’s primary source of energy, tasty and provide a lot of volume.

Application: Implementing this strategy into your lifestyle

The first step is to calculate your maintenance calories that will keep your weight stable. It is important to realize that weight changes day-to-day due to things such as sodium intake, meal timing, GI weight, glycogen levels, carbohydrate intake, bathroom regularity, weigh-in time, stress and many other factors. The smart thing to do is to stick to a calorie goal for two weeks to determine maintenance. There are many methods and no one size fits all. In my opinion, the best thing to do is use an online calculator which will take into accounts things such as your body fat, height, activity level, training style, etc. Go with a number it spits out if you deem it reasonable and eat that every day for two weeks. Weigh yourself every day, at as close of a time as feasible and under the same conditions (IE: in the morning, after using the bathroom, before food/water and in your boxers/underwear) and take the 7-day average. If in the 2 weeks that you weighed and tracked accurately, the 7-day averages match or are very close (IE +/- 0.2 or so), you have roughly found your maintenance. If you have gained weight, you are over your maintenance and if you have lost weight, you are under your maintenance. A body weight gain of 1-pound results in a 3500-calorie surplus for the week. This does not take into accounts things such as glycogen levels (which increase with training + higher carb intake), water retention, increased GI weight, etc. It is important to realize that there are many nuances in determining the partitioning of the weight gain (nutrient partitioning = how much went to fat vs. muscle vs. water vs. glycogen), but to gain 1 pound we can make the assumption of a 3500 calorie weekly surplus, which results in a daily surplus of 500 calories. You can get a little more complicated and eat more on a training day or rest-day, but unless you are close to your genetic potential, it most likely isn’t going to make a difference. Add in the fact that it complicates things and you are growing on your “rest days”, it is best to stick with the same macros & calories every day and realize that the weekly energy balance is king.

When setting up your calories and macros, you want to do the following:

  • Determine your maintenance calories depending on your goals
  • Set protein intake between 0.8g/lb – 1.2g/lb
  • Set fat intake between 20-30% OR .25 g/lb
  • Fill the rest with carbs & or more fat depending on preference, body type, lifestyle
  • Get at least 25g/fiber per day or 10% of total carbs (this can go lower or higher depending on your carb intake and GI system)
  • Get at least 2-3 servings of vegetables per day
  • Get at least 2-3 servings of fruit per day (depending on your carb intake)
  • Eat foods that digest well for you & that you enjoy!

What this looks like (Example):

  • Male, 6’1 – 170 lbs , 24 years old
  • Estimated Maintenance : 2500 Calories
    • 5-6 strength training sessions of 60 minutes per week
    • Moderate activity outside of the gym
    • Healthy metabolic rate
  • Protein:
    • 170 lbs * 1g (per lb bodyweight) = 170 grams of protein
  • Fat:
    • 2500 cals * 25% = 625 calories / 9 (calories per gram of fat)
    • 70 grams of fat
  • Carbs:
    • (170 * 4) + (70 * 9) = 1,310 calories
    • 2500 calories – 1,310 calories = 1,190 calories remaining
    • 1,190 calories / 4 (calories per gram of carb)
    • 298 grams of carbs (300 to simplify things)
  • Total: 
    • 2,500 calories
      • 300G Carb , 170G Protein, 70G Fat
    • Preferred meals = 4 meals
      • Meal 1 = 30G Protein, 20G Carb, 10G Fat
      • Meal 2 (Pre-workout) = 40G Protein, 75G Carb, 10-15G Fat
      • Meal 3 (Post-workout shake + banana) = 35G Protein, 20G Carb, 5G Fat
      • Meal 4 (Dinner) = 65G Protein, 185G Carb, 35-40G Fat

This is almost exactly how I prefer to eat. I like to keep it light in the morning because I’m not so hungry, get a good amount of carbs in pre-workout, get a protein feeding right after I workout and feast for dinner because there is nothing worse than going to bed hungry. Some days i eat 5 meals, some days I eat 3. Some days I have a dessert like ice cream or cookies. If I want to eat a pint of ice cream one day per week ill just make sure I put it in my day & work my other meals around it (this usually means lower fat throughout the day). I do not do this when I’m dieting as it would rob my body of getting the proper nutrients I need due to being on limited calories. 80-90% of my calories come from lean protein sources, fish, potatoes, oats, green vegetables, greek yogurt, nut butters, cheese, sushi, blueberries, bananas, and avocados. One of the steps in my fitness journey was when I was given a “food list” of what to eat and told to “eat like a horse”. The list was essentially paleo with an 1100 calorie weight gainer shake tossed in there. The results were about 16 pounds of weight gain in a little over 5 weeks with the majority of it being fat and very minimal strength increase.  I have the pictures and I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever looked worse. I rarely have cheat meals because quite frankly this way of dieting allows me to eat the foods I enjoy & make me feel good regardless of my goal. I don’t track or worry about it if theres a holiday or special occasion. The important thing to remember is that its’ what you do 95% of the time makes that defines your body composition, not 5%.

If anyone has any questions about any of the contents of this article or wants to reach out, please do!

References

  1. Buchholz AC, Schoeller DA. Is a calorie a calorie?. Am J Clin Nutr 2004; 79(5): 899S-906S.
  2. Sofer S, Eliraz A, Kaplan S, Voet H, Fink G, Kima T, Madar Z. Greater weight loss and hormonal changes after 6 months diet with carbohydrates eaten mostly at dinner. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2011 Oct;19(10):2006-14.
  3. Norton, Layne E., and Gabriel J. Wilson. “Optimal Protein Intake to Maximize Muscle Protein Synthesis.” Optimal Protein Intake to Maximize Muscle Protein Synthesis 2 (2009): 54-57.Bio Layne. Agrofood Industry Hi-tech, Mar.-Apr. 2009. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

What I’ve been going through…

I feel like I can finally talk about it. For the better part of the past 18 months and probably even before that, I have been dealing with low testosterone (medical term secondary hypogonadism). I was tested multiple times and I was producing less than half the testosterone of an 85-year-old man.

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My testosterone levels were 168 ng/dl and my free testosterone was 1.6 ng/dl. This chart gives perspective to average testosterone levels within an age range. It is important to note that these levels are highly individual. Meaning that some people feel low T symptoms at 400 ng/dl & some people feel them at much lower.

I had no appetite, persistent stomach problems, metabolic issues, no sex drive, no self-esteem, no energy, did not feel “alive”, brain fog, depression, didn’t wake up the way a man should wake up, lost my “drive”, was losing muscle, strength and gaining body fat despite not having my appetite & still training. testosterone-fat-mass-and-muscle-mass1 I first “felt” some of these symptoms during the latter half of my senior year in college. I had no motivation to go out, talk to girls, became even more shy than I normally am, had extremely low self-esteem, noticed I was getting a little weaker, becoming more estrogen dominant and wasn’t enjoying life the way I should. I just kind of wanted to be “alone”.  College friends, does my behavior make sense now? Even prior to this, I found that no matter how hard I worked in the gym, I could never really achieve my physique & strength goals and often found kids who didn’t even workout looked better than I did. For anyone that doesn’t know me, I am extremely hard on myself, so this may be an exaggeration. After I was first tested and got MRI results back revealing I did not have a pituitary tumor, the doctor wanted to put me on TRT (Testosterone Replacement Therapy AKA “Steroids” but not in doses that a professional bodybuilder would use.) testosterone-injectionI did a great deal of research & found that while this was an option, I wanted to avoid it at all costs due to the implications. The implications from TRT are that exogenous hormones shut down your body’s natural production & you become reliant on the needle. TRT injects testosterone, which tells the brain that plenty is being made so it does not have to make any more. This leads to the pituitary stopping the production of Luteinizing Hormone (LH) and ceases the body’s natural production of testosterone (1).The scary part about this is that it drastically reduces your chances of having children in the future, something that a 23-year-old man shouldn’t have to think about, especially one whose life is very family focused, is very lucky to have been brought up in an awesome family and dreams of having a family of his own in time! TRT is a lifesaver and a “fountain of youth” for many older men and has countless benefits, many of them being anti-aging and muscle sparing. After all, it is a substance banned by almost every sporting organization and deemed a performance enhancing drug. Most people with low testosterone fall into one or many of these categories:

  • overweight and have excess body-fat (>20%)
  • extremely stressed out
  • have poor sleep habits
  • alcoholics or abuse other substances such as prescription medications or hard narcotics
  • chronic dieters
  • endurance athletes who do not nourish their bodies properly
  • natural bodybuilders who are in the last leg of their contest prep and leaner than 6-8% body-fat (although there is some wiggle room here based on genetics)
  • are deficient in certain micronutrients such as zinc, vitamin D and omega 3-fatty acids
  • have a physical disorder of the testicles that hinders their production such as testicular cancer or past testicular trauma
  • have a pituitary tumor that blocks testosterone signaling and production

I was none of these. My secondary hypogonadism was most likely caused by the combination of me being obese throughout my childhood and then essentially starving myself with a constant calorie deficit for the better part of 3 years. I sought a second opinion and the Doctor put me on Clomid, traditionally a female infertility drug that brings up testosterone without hindering your natural production and has much less side effects than TRT. Clomid essentially signals your pituitary gland to produce more testosterone by making more Luteinizing Hormone (LH) and blocks estrogen at the pituitary and hypothalamus, therefore “turning off” the body’s signal to stop producing more testosterone when your estrogen reaches a certain level. Clomid is commonly used to “restart” testosterone production as it does not interfere with your body’s natural testosterone production as traditional TRT would. It also does not offer any of the performance enhancing benefits that traditional testosterone does because it signals your body’s natural production of testosterone as opposed to injecting exogenously. In some cases, the main issue with clomid is that it does raise your total testosterone, but your free testosterone (testosterone in the bloodstream that can be absorbed) remains where it was before. Your blood-work will look better, but you will still be symptomatic. I was going to go about this the natural way with the addition of Clomid; try to optimize my sleep, further optimize my diet, supplement smart, reduce stress, drink alcohol even more sparingly and try to enjoy life more. I will make a detailed post on these exact changes I have made and what has and hasn’t worked another time. Diet-wise, at first I tried restricting myself to a gluten-free diet due to some stomach issues which are related to the hormonal issues, but guess what, I don’t have celiac’s disease so it didn’t do anything. As a matter of fact, what helped me feel a lot better was when I let all of that BS to the side & ate whatever I want*. My current diet is macronutrient (Protein, Carb & Fat) based, so I have a certain set of macros that I hit everyday. I can hit these numbers with any food I choose. My diet is basically split with 80% micronutrient dense whole food (potatoes, oats, fruits, veggies, rice, avocados, lean proteins, greek yogurt, cheese and healthy fats) & 20% “whatever I want”(Oreos, ice cream, reeses, cookies, chocolate). I can space it however I want, but 6/7 days of the week I get at least 4 protein feedings in throughout the day and usually save somewhere between 50-75% of my calories for dinner/before bed. I couldn’t imagine eating another way. I will do a separate post detailing flexible dieting and how it saved me from 6x per day bro-science meal plans, but that’s for another time. A lot of people think it’s weird that I track and weigh my food, but I really do not care and I’m not as obsessive about it as I once was. When I travel, I don’t bring a food scale or anything like that as I can pretty much eyeball how much food is there and guess the macros of a meal if no nutrition facts are available. Sidetrack, I will never be someone who drinks alcohol regularly and quite frankly if I never drank again I wouldn’t care. I heavily drink on occasion because I do not believe in moderation. I wouldn’t eat to not be full/satisfied and I take the same approach with alcohol. Plus, I really do not like doing this because it puts me out of commission the next day. Work friends/colleagues, this is why I never drink at dinner nor drink at happy hour (this & the fact that I usually have to drive home). College friends, that’s why if I drank, I drank and if i didn’t, i didn’t. That’s why I wouldn’t drink on a random Monday night or get a beer at meals. Heavy alcohol consumption reduces your baseline testosterone levels by 23%, increases cortisol production by 36% and increases aromatase enzyme activity (this is the enzyme that converts testosterone into estrogen, the female sex hormone)(2,3); furthermore, when alcohol is in your system, your body does not oxidize fat or build muscle tissue. Essentially, when alcohol is in your system, you are stuck “in limbo” and it isn’t healthy for your hormones at > 1-2 drinks. Now, I am NOT saying that you should never drink, but for me, I would rather eat extra food as opposed to drinking alcohol because of these effects mentioned & the fact that I love food and account for my calories on a daily basis. Add in the fact that my testosterone was already low, the thought of it getting lower frightened me and I didn’t want to feel even worse than I already did. Now, there is nothing wrong with fitting a beer or glass of wine in to your day. However, in my mind, it isn’t worth sacrificing 40 carbs & 10 fat to have a drink that I don’t even enjoy and won’t help my body recover from training stress. It also doesn’t help that beside red wine (which my family made & I have made with my papa and uncle when I was younger), I hate the taste of alcohol but like the effects. Besides pina coladas, those are delicious.

Now, those of you that know me know that I LOVE going to the gym, specifically bodybuilding style training. It’s my stress relief, my sanctuary and has completely changed my life. I’ve come a long way from being a cardio bunny when I first started out @ 250lbs (#1 fitness regret of my life, which I will get into in later posts) to hiring a professional natural bodybuilding coach Jeff Nippard. (Plug: Jeff is BY FAR the best fitness investment I have ever made in my life, he actually is one of the people who inspired me to start this blog and we have made more progress in 3 months together than I did in any other period my training career.) Anyway, the most painful thing was going to the gym, putting my best efforts in with all legitimately science backed programming & getting weaker, losing what little muscle I had and gaining body fat at the same time. I think that anyone’s goal in the gym (and life) should be to better themselves in some way, whether its physique, strength, cardiovascular or health oriented, you should be getting better with time until a certain point. For me, the day I go to the gym to stop looking and performing better is one of a couple of days: 1) The day I look like Arnold, The Rock or Steve Cook (Hint: None of these guys are “natural” so if I look like them you know the route i’ve chosen) or 2) The day I stop going to the gym. Going to the gym & not getting better is like working the same job for your entire life and never getting a promotion, what’s the point? It wasn’t until around November of this year that I finally started feeling like a man again. My bodyweight reached an all-time low of 155 lbs in August after I got back from an international business trip. I couldn’t squat my bodyweight, couldn’t bench 135, was getting nagging injuries from training, probably couldn’t get an erection with Viagra and I could probably squeeze my thumb & finger around my bicep. I now weigh around 173 (with some holiday water weight gains tossed in) & am leaner, stronger & healthier at this bodyweight than at any point in my life. This is only the beginning. Last month I had blood-work done and my testosterone levels came back in the normal range; total, bio-available & free are up around 400% since I had them drawn last year. I have cleared some major hurdles, but I’m not done yet. I still have to improve my free testosterone, reduce my SHBG and estradiol levels & get my overall levels even higher. It took me a long time to get into this mess and will take a long time to get out of it. It has not been easy, but this experience taught me so much. I wish it happened or I detected it earlier, because in doing COUNTLESS hours of research on hormones, the endocrine system, training, diet and medicine, I found my true passion and wish I had made a career out of it. I’m not saying it’s too late, but leaving a well-paying job to go back to regular university to complete pre-requisites for medical school, taking exams and then medical school which will take 8-10 years & $100,000-$500,000 of debt in addition to my current student loan debt + money not made doesn’t seem very practical; but we’ll see where the future takes me. That’s why I’m starting this blog. I want to voice my thoughts, share the knowledge I have gained and try to connect with others! I have wanted to do this for a long time, but i’m finally taking the plunge. I constantly worry about what other people think of me and how “it would look” if I did something like this. Honestly, I know I would have more regret and despair if I did NOT start this. If people want to speak negatively about me, go ahead! It won’t be the first time and it won’t be the last!

I don’t believe in New Years Resolutions. Every year from the ages of 11-18 I made a New Years Resolution to lose weight, etc. Every year I made it a couple of days until my birthday came around (January 7th) and gave in because I fell off the wagon & couldn’t resist my Mom’s baked goods (I think she puts crack in them :)). It wasn’t until a random Wednesday of my Senior year of high school I looked in the mirror and was disgusted with what I saw. The rest leads me to today. I am posting this because one of my life goals is to get out of my comfort zone, put myself out there and pursue my passions. I know I have acquired a great deal of knowledge over the past couple of years and I can’t wait to finally share it. If I can only help or reach one person, that’s enough for me.

Besides a few of my closest friends & my family, I’ve kept this a secret & haven’t spoken a word to anyone. That’s one of my regrets. If anyone wants to reach out to me to talk about my journey and has any questions or words, please don’t hesitate! The journey can be a lot harder if you don’t have someone to talk to. My contact information is below.

Email: zeejhess@gmail.com

Instagram/Twitter (for food pics, training snippets, why 2pac is the GOAT rapper & entertainment): zhess11

References:

  1. Miller, Shira, MD. “Clomiphene Citrate (CC Pill, or Clomid) – A Testosterone Therapy Alternative for Men with Low Testosterone Levels.” Shira Miller – MD – Anti-aging and Menopause. N.p., 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 09 Jan. 2017. <http://shiramillermd.com/blog/clomid-men-testosterone-alternative.html&gt;.
  2. Valimaki, M., JA Tuominen, I. Huhtaniemi, and R. Ylikahri. “The Pulsatile Secretion of Gonadotropins and Growth Hormone, and the Biological Activity of Luteinizing Hormone in Men Acutely Intoxicated with Ethanol.” Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 14 Dec. 1990. Web. 09 Jan. 2017. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2128439&gt;.
  3. Emanuele, MA. “Alcohol’s Effects on Male Reproduction.” Alcohol Health and Research World. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1998. Web. 09 Jan. 2017. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15706796&gt;.