When most of us want to make some sort of long-term change to our bodies, we generally look for answers in the medicine cabinet. After all, why would you want to actually work at gaining or losing weight when you can quaff some pills? Of course, few people rely exclusively on pills. Most also undertake some half-hearted effort to either eat a little more or eat a little less.

Too bad these ill-conceived, slacker approaches to physique transformation don't work. If, however, these people put a little bit of thought into their approach to diet, they could achieve results that were satisfying, long lasting, and effective. Hence the aim of this article.

Before you can adopt an appropriate, individualized diet, you first have to have a pretty good idea about what your body fat percentage is. Since daily calorie requirements depend both on the amount of lean body mass (all bodily constituents except fat) and activity level of an individual, this is a necessary step. This is because of the radically different metabolic processes required to maintain muscle, as opposed to fat. Specifically, muscle requires a great deal of energy to sustain it, while fat basically sits (or hangs) there. As a result, the daily calorie intake should be sufficient to maintain muscle, but not fat. Therefore, the differences in protein and calorie requirements of two men of the same weight one at 10% fat and the other at 20% are astounding.

Once you know what your body fat percentage is, there are only three steps in determining an ideal calorie level: 1) assessing metabolic rate, 2) choosing an appropriate protein intake depending on lean body mass, metabolic rate, and activity level, and 3) selecting a suitable nutrient ratio according to metabolic rate and body composition goals. The following tables will help you make those determinations.

Table 1: Fast, Moderate, and Slow Metabolic Rates

  1. Fast:  Individuals with a fast metabolic rate exhibit low weight and body fat levels, have trouble gaining muscle, and can generally eat like pigs with no adverse consequences.
  2. Moderate:  These individuals generally desire to maintain body weight, decrease fat, and slightly increase muscle mass. Excess calorie intake usually results in mild weight increases.
  3. Slow:  A slow metabolic rate usually equates to a high propensity for weight and fat gain. These individuals generally desire extensive weight loss.

Note: These estimates are subjective and don't exactly encompass all types of metabolic rates. In reality, everyone is different. It should be emphasized also that varying degrees of all three rates exist. Namely, fast-moderate and moderate-slow metabolic rates are common and can be utilized as intermediaries in the following tables.

Table 2: Protein Requirements as a Function of Lean Body Mass and Activity Level Represented in Grams of Protein Required Per Pound of Lean Body Mass

Exercise Intensity Key

  • 1.  None
  • 2.  Light (3 times a week)
  • 3.  Strenuous (3-4 times a week)
  • 4.  Strenuous (5 times a week)
  • 5.  Intense (5-plus times a week)

Metabolic Rate:


  • 1.   0.6
  • 2.   0.8
  • 3.   0.9
  • 4.   1.0
  • 5.   1.2


  • 1.   0.5
  • 2.   0.7
  • 3.   0.8
  • 4.   0.9
  • 5.   1.1


  • 1.   0.4
  • 2.   0.6
  • 3.   0.7
  • 4.   0.8
  • 5.   1.0

Note: Light exercise refers to walking, jogging, or low-intensity sport activities. Strenuous exercise is considered weight and/or endurance training, while intense exercise is heavy weight training and endurance training. No exercise refers to high intensity computer programming followed by an evening of "Must See TV."

Table 3: Nutrient Ratios as a Function of Metabolic Rate Represented in Percentage of Daily Caloric Intake

Label Key

  • P:  Protein
  • C:  Carb
  • F:  Fat

Nutrient Ratios:

Fast Metabolism

  • P:  17%
  • C:  58%
  • F:  25%

Moderate Metabolism

  • P:  22%
  • C:  55%
  • F:  23%

Slow Metabolism

  • P:  27%
  • C:  52%
  • F:  21%

Note: One gram of protein or carbohydrate equals four calories, while one gram of fat is equal to nine.

Two Examples

Example 1

This individual is a 5'9", 140-pound male with 5% body fat. He exhibits a fast metabolic rate and utilizes intense weight training 4-5 times a week (activity level 4) in an attempt to gain weight. To determine his caloric requirements, he simply calculates lean body mass and chooses an appropriate protein intake and nutrient ratio.

  • 140 pounds x 95% lean body mass 133 pounds lean tissue
  • This individual would require approximately 1.0 g of protein per pound of lean body mass, or 133 g daily.
  • Protein would therefore account for 532 calories (133 g x 4 calories per gram). He would then utilize a nutrient ratio where protein consisted of 17% of his daily calories, such that 532 divided by 17% (0.17) would result in the daily calorie intake.
  • 532 / 0.17 = 3129 total calories/day. To determine the amount of carbohydrates and fat, simply multiply this number by their respective percentages. For example, the daily carbohydrate intake would be 1814 calories (3129 x 0.58), or 454 grams (1814 calories / 4 calories per gram). The daily fat intake is 782 calories (3129 x 0.25), or 87 grams (782 calories / 9 calories per gram).
  • Optimally, this person should eat 5-6 meals per day. If five meals are consumed, each meal would average approximately 626 calories, in the same ratio of nutrients as described above. Of course, this number will vary, especially since post-workout meals should contain more calories.

Example 2

This individual is a 6'0", 190-pound male with 18% body fat. He desires to lose a little weight and a lot of fat to become "toned." Since he gains weight rapidly if his calorie intake soars too high, he is considered to have a moderate-slow metabolism. He currently trains with weights and runs for thirty minutes five times per week. He would therefore fall between activity levels four and five, requiring approximately 0.85-1.05 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass.

  • 190 pounds x 82% lean body mass 156 pounds lean tissue
  • 156 pounds x .95 g protein 148 g protein daily
  • Protein would therefore account for 592 calories (148g x 4 calories per gram). A nutrient ratio for an individual with a moderate-slow metabolism would be 24.5% protein, 53.5% carbohydrates, and 22% fat (percentages derived from using the average of moderate and slow metabolism ratios). This individual's daily calorie intake is determined by dividing 592 by 24.5%, resulting in 2416 calories.
  • Utilizing the same method as outlined in example 1, the daily carbohydrate intake is 1292 calories, or 323 grams. The daily fat intake is 531 calories, or 59 grams.

The Importance of Nutrient Timing

The number and content of daily meals is an extremely important but overlooked facet of proper nutrition. The timing and quality of foods ingested, especially pre- and post-workout, is often the difference between a successful diet and another failed attempt at physique enhancement. Skipping breakfast, avoiding post-workout meals, and consuming high-glycemic carbohydrates before workouts can easily transform a sound meal plan into an unwitting disaster. Interestingly, however, even the most sensible diets ignore the crucial nature of nutrient timing.

As stated numerous times, elevating the metabolic rate is one of the most efficient ways to burn fat. The digestion of meals requires calories by itself, so the more often the body must break down food, the more efficient it becomes. Therefore, small meals should be consumed throughout the day to maximize the metabolic response. Related to this is breakfast, the "most important meal of the day." Though the post-workout meal may be equally important, the consumption of a large breakfast has been shown to result in significantly greater fat losses than diets that avoided it. Since the metabolic rate is fastest in the morning and slows throughout the day, it's more likely that the calories consumed during breakfast will be utilized by the body and not stored as fat. Skipping breakfast, on the other hand, may result in vital losses of muscle and a subsequent decrease in metabolism.

For much the same reason, the post-workout meal is equally essential. Following exercise, the body exhibits an elevated metabolic rate, much like it does upon awakening. A lack of food following exercise, therefore, results in muscle tissue breakdown and, of course, a corresponding tumble of the metabolic rate. Research has proven that the synthesis rate of protein doubles following exercise and remains elevated for over 24 hours. In other words, the body is primed for the acceptance of protein for muscle maintenance and growth. Equally important is the ample consumption of carbohydrates. Following exercise, the body is somewhat depleted of its glycogen stores. Remarkably, it has been shown that high-glycemic carbohydrates post-workout are the preferred source to replenish the body's energy stores. Not only does this result in greater storage for recovery and subsequent workouts, but it also significantly decreases muscle breakdown.

To obtain the most optimal effects of the previous findings, post-workout meals should contain about twice the normal amount of carbohydrates, and protein and should be ingested immediately following exercise. For example, an individual eating five meals per day and 3000 calories would consume a post-exercise meal of approximately 1000 calories, while the other four meals would average 500. All subsequent post-workout meals should also contain a larger percentage of protein than pre-workout meals to comply with the body's elevated protein synthetic rate.

A final fitness faux pas is often the pre-workout meal. How many fitness enthusiasts eat a bagel before exercise? It seems that this is one of the most common pre-workout foods due to its alleged "energy" benefits. However, look at its glycemic index it's a whopping 103 (higher than most sugars)! The detrimental effects of this are monumental. The corresponding insulin response will not only decrease energy stores for exercise; it will also prevent fat breakdown at the same time. Fortunately, low-glycemic foods have much the opposite effect. They exhibit the ability to improve exercise performance without significantly compromising energy stores after a workout. This, in turn, leads to enhanced recovery and accelerated progress.

A Word About Consistency

A suggested meal plan is not perfect, and individual tinkering will be required to determine the ideal diet. Losing weight too quickly is a sign of muscular and water loss, not necessarily fat loss. Therefore, those individuals should increase their caloric intake slightly. Other situations might require minor tinkering, also.

Variety is important, too, as the body adapts to all changes. Likewise, an identical food and daily caloric intake will not only drive one to insanity, but also to stagnation.

If there's one truth about building an improved physique, it's that it takes time, dedication, and consistency. Losing or gaining weight should be a slow, gradual process to ensure the changes are of the appropriate type. This is one of the reasons so many diets fail and the gimmicks appear. In the future, everything short of chemotherapy will be offered as the new miracle in weight loss. In time, though, that particular diet or gimmick will too fall by the wayside and fat will again begin to settle hideously on the waistline. And all the while, lurking in reality, was the true miracle in physique excellence a sound approach to diet and exercise.