Want to eat healthy? Lose weight? Burn fat? Build muscle? With so much bullshit out there, EBT is here to set things straight using science. Here are the facts about nutrition that you need to know to get started, no matter what your goal. There is a lot of be said, but these are the basic principles that everyone should know before deciding what to do with their diet.
A: KNOW YOUR MACRONUTRIENTS
For obvious reasons, we need food. Our body requires energy to move, but also to keep the internal machinery going. You also need other nutrients for certain processes to work optimally.
We measure energy in calories (kcal), and our bodies mainly get it from three sources:
Carbohydrates: Also known as “sugars”. They are found in many forms. 1 gram of carbohydrates contain 4 calories of energy.
Fats: Also known as “lipids”. 1 gram of fats contain 9 calories of energy.
Protein: Made of building blocks called amino acids. 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories of energy.
These three energy sources are in the fitness world known as macronutrients or “macros”. The calories you get from your macros are used as “fuel” by the body. If you get too many calories, your body will “store” the leftovers, usually as fat under the skin and carbs in the liver and muscles. Our bodies can actually turn carbs into fats, fats into carbs, protein into carbs and carbs into some protein, and it will store energy in whatever it decides is important. If you ever get too little calories, the body can then use this stored energy to keep you alive.
B: KNOW YOUR MICRONUTRIENTS
Apart from macros, there are other nutrients that are important. You do not need to know much about these at the moment, but they include:
Vitamins: Lack of these generally leads to some sort of disease. There are many, and as a beginner you don’t need to keep track of them. These include Vitamin A (Retinol), B1 (Thiamine), B2 (Riboflavin), B3 (Niacin), B5 (Pantothenic Acid), B6, B7 (Biotin), B9 (Folate), B12 (Cobalamin), C, D, E, and K.
Minerals: These are generally needed by your cells to work optimally, and a lack of them can lead to various symptoms including tiredness and cramps. There are many, but the main ones are Phosphorus, Iodine, Iron, Calcium, Potassium, Copper, Sodium, Selenium, Zinc and Magnesium.
Fiber: Fiber is a form of carbohydrate that isn’t absorbed, but rather stays in your gut and is excreted (pooped). It is thought to be important for gut health, as the friendly bacteria in your gut can use it.
These are known as micronutrients as they are smaller molecules which don’t contain calories. When it comes to minerals, it is important to remember that more is not always better. Popular belief is that more vitamins equals more health, and this is not true. You can eat too much of some vitamins and minerals, which also can cause damage. This is generally only achieved when taking supplements, so nothing you need to worry about. Nobody actually knows the optimal dose of vitamins and minerals, we only know the minimal required doses to avoid disease.
C: CALORIES CONTROL YOUR WEIGHT. ALWAYS!
Now that you understand the basic nutrient types, it’s time to understand what actually matters for weight loss. When it comes to your WEIGHT it doesn’t matter how many “healthy” foods you have in your diet: if you are eating too many calories, you will not lose weight. Eating too many calories simply means that your body has taken up more energy than it has used, and this energy needs to go somewhere. It’s physics. Eating more calories than your body uses is called being in a caloric surplus and leads to weight gain. Eating less calories than your body uses is called being in a caloric deficit and leads to weight loss.
Every single diet that has ever been shown to lead to weight loss has done so because it leads people to eating less calories than they burn, i.e. a caloric deficit. Be it keto,vegetarian diets, low-carb high fat, paleo, intermittent fasting or Atkins – these diets all create a situation where you eat less calories, reach a caloric deficit, and lose weight.
So yes, you could eat burgers, fries and ice-cream and lose weight as long as you are in a caloric deficit. Do we recommend you to do this? No! Why? Well:
Your diet needs to satisfy your hunger cravings. Burgers, fries and ice cream will leave most people hungry even though they have eaten enough calories. The result is that you end up eating too many calories and gaining weight.
It’s not all about the weight, you generally want to lose fat and avoid losing muscle mass. Eating enough protein is very important for this. A diet based on burgers, french fries and ice cream will probably not give optimal protein levels (see below).
You will most likely not get enough micronutrients. While burgers, french fries and ice cream are foods high in macronutrients, these food types are generally low in vitamins and minerals which are essential for your long term health. Even though calories will control your weight, lack of vitamins/minerals can make you feel tired, weaken your immune system, nervous system, and give you a range of other diseases in the long run.
We often hear people say that “it’s not as simple as calories in and calories out, the body is more complicated than that”. These people are wrong, it’s really that simple! In practice, there is one more thing you need to know.
The number of calories you need to lose or gain weight varies over time! This is partially because you use different amounts of energy from day to day, both consciously and unconsciously, but also because your body will change your metabolism to stop your from gaining or losing too much weight. Generally eating between 1800 and 2500 calories per day is enough to maintain muscle mass for most people.
This means that you can’t simply stick to a set number of calories to gain or lose weight. Also, eating too few calories can make you lose muscle and going overboard with too many calories will make you gain unwanted fat. To avoid unwanted muscle loss or fat gain, you need to stick to a sweet spot specific to your goals when it comes to calories. We break down exactly how to do this in our book Diet Like a Doctor, available here.
The point is: calories matter, and anyone who says that they don’t is someone who you shouldn’t be taking advice from.
D: PROTEIN CONTROLS MUSCLE MASS VS FAT
Weight loss isn’t everything. Just because you are in a caloric deficit and losing weight doesn’t mean that you will be healthier or get the body of your dreams. If you follow EBT, chances are you also want to keep that precious muscle, lose fat and maybe even perform better in your sport. No matter what your goal, you probably benefit from adding more protein to your diet.
As we wrote above, protein is made of building blocks called amino acids. Your body uses the amino acids from the protein you eat for many different processes in the body, and one of these processes is maintaining and building muscle. The more muscle you have, the more protein you need to be eating to maintain. This is why should keep separate track of your protein intake, measuring your protein needs based on your body weight (per kg or per lb body weight).
Optimal protein levels are 1.6 – 2.2 g / kg (0.7 – 1 g / lb)
So if you weight 70 kg (150 lb) you should be eating around 110 – 150 g of protein per day
You should stick to these levels no matter if you are eating 2000 or 3000 calories daily. When dieting you should even aim to stay in the upper range (around 2.0 g / kg or 0.9 g / lb body weight. If you instead measured protein intake in % of calories, you would probably end up eating too little protein when dieting: It doesn’t matter that 80% of your diet is protein if you are not getting enough grams for your muscles, leading to muscle loss.
Most people today are eating around 1.2 g / kg (0.5 g / lb) (3). That makes for about 85 grams per day if you weight 70 kg (150 lb).
From a health perspective, the minimum recommended amount is 0.8 g / kg or 0.4 g / lb (2), but what works is not the same as what works best!
Boosting protein intake will benefit muscle growth by almost 40% (3), strength development by almost 10% (3) and will also make you feel fuller, so that you eat less calories at the end of the day. (4)
There are several ways you can increase protein intake in your diet:
Eat more protein-rich foods: these include eggs, yoghurts, quark (extra popular in Sweden!), cottage cheese, beans, lentils, chicken, fish and meats. Simply increase the amount of these foods in your diet. Try counting how many grams you are getting for a few days so that you know how much you need to be eating.
Add a protein supplement: If you find it difficult to adjust the foods you eat, protein supplements are a convenient way of adding more protein to your diet. A protein shake contains on average 30 grams of protein, meaning that the average person goes from suboptimal 85 grams of protein per day to optimal 115 grams of protein per day!
There are many supplements to choose from including whey protein, casein protein, soy protein, pea protein, milk protein, BCAA supplements and EAA supplements. Research hasn’t shown that one source is better than the other for building muscle. Therefore EBT recommends you to choose the supplement that is cheapest, from a producer you trust. This usually means choosing whey protein for most people. We do not primarily recommend investing in BCAAs och EAA supplements as they are more expensive and don’t provide any known added long-term benefit.
It’s important to remember that the most important thing is how much protein you have eaten by the end of the day. The details don’t matter! Protein timing, how much you should eat before or after your workout, before you sleep, how many grams you need per meal etc all probably have minimal importance compared to the actually amount of protein that you end up eating by the end of the day. So keep it simple and do what works for you!
Just make sure to get protein from a mixture of sources This is because protein is made of different amino acids and different protein sources contain different amounts of the various amino acids. If you only stick to one source, you risk missing out on some of the essential amino acids, which can affect health and your ability to optimize the amount of muscle you build. If you are vegetarian or vegan, this may be a bit tricker, but is absolutely possible.
Also remember that the recommendation “eat more protein” doesn’t mean the same as “eat more meat”. While you CAN get more protein by adding more meat to your diet, it is equally possible to add more beans and lentils to your diet. This is both cheaper and more environmentally friendly.
E: HOW YOU GET YOUR NUTRIENTS MATTERS
Now you know that calories from macronutrients largely control your weight and body composition, and micronutrients contribute to general health and performance. Another factor which is still poorly researched, but that you definitely need to be aware of, is HOW you get your macro and micronutrients. This is mostly important when it comes to avoiding hunger (satiety). Drinking your 100 calories is probably not the same thing as eating 100 calories.
To explain this, we will use a study on apples (1). The study compared giving people the same amount of carbohydrates (60 g) from whole apples, apple purée or apple juice. Because apple juice can be consumed much faster than whole apples, participants were asked to consume their given food over a given amount of time. The participants were asked to rate their feeling of hunger and fullness before and after consuming their food. The results are very interesting:
As you see, eating whole apples made the participants feel fuller compared to the other versions of apple. This isn’t surprising when it comes to apple juice: it doesn’t contain any pulp and has less fiber, which probably explains why it doesn’t satisfy hunger cravings as well.
The more interesting comparison here is between apple puré and whole apples. Both contain exactly the same macronutrients and micronutrients, but whole apples resulted in less hunger. So “breaking up” a food (also known as processing) more seems to make it less filling.
The take home here is: If you want to reduce hunger hunger, base your diet on whole foods as much as possible. This means eating as many whole/chopped/sliced up fruits and vegetables as possible. The more processed a food, the less filling it is likely to be compared to how many calories it contains. There are exceptions to this rule, but it is a good rule of thumb to base your diet on. It all comes down to food quality, and knowing how to choose the right high quality foods for your diet will make things much easier.
Food quality is more complex than just food processing, however. To really know what foods are suitable or not for your diet, you need a more complex list of rules to follow. We give you these rules and much more in our book Diet Like a Doctor, which we highly recommend you check out if you want the details of what constitutes a great diet, and how exactly to go about eating healthy for lifelong results. We give you step-by-step practical rules to follow to implement the knowledge above. Learn more by clicking here.
Haber GB et al. Depletion and disruption of dietary fibre. Effects on satiety, plasma-glucose, and serum-insulin. Lancet. 1977 Oct 1;2(8040):679-82.
The National Academies Press. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (2005) Chapter: 10 Protein and Amino Acids. Page 589.
Morton RW. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. Br J Sports Med. 2017 Jul 11. pii: bjsports-2017-097608.
A. Fraser. Investigation of the effects of macronutrients on satiety when energy density is matched. Volume 71, Issue OCE2 (Summer Meeting hosted by the Irish Section, 16–19 July 2012, Translational nutrition: integrating research, practice and policy).