Adapting the template for the individual
In part three we utilized the fundamental principles of nutrition to create a meal plan for a hypothetical female athlete. In part four, the final installment of the series, we will discuss how to adjust the meal plan for the individual.
Before any adjustments are made we must first ask is the athlete progressing optimally? If the answer is yes, then why consider making an adjustment at all? Only if the athlete is not progressing optimally should an adjustment be considered.
I want to caution that the scale is simply a measurement of weight gain and weight loss and cannot always be used to assess whether the athlete is progressing optimally or not. The goal in our past example is fat loss. What if our athlete is losing fat without scale changes, as evidenced by the mirror, bodyfat, and physical measurements? It’s a consideration to continue to adjust the calories but perhaps the goal is already being met? What if an athlete wants to bulk up for powerlifting and the scale is not moving? That could be acceptable if her lean mass and performance are increasing at optimal rates. In some cases the scale does ultimately determine success and failure such as in weight class sports. Make sure the athlete is progressing optimally towards the actual goals and not simply the metrics.
If the athlete is not progressing optimally it will typically be related to two categories: compliance, and the meal plan itself.
Compliance is of the utmost importance in nutrition coaching. The meal plan can be perfect but if it is only followed 50% of the time then success is unlikely and the coach will not have the necessary data to adjust. Issues with compliance are related to understanding, measurement error, and dedication.
It is important that the athlete understand what is expected of them by the coach regarding the meal plan. The meal plan should be simple and easy to read. The coach should take time to answer questions and explain commonly misunderstood items. For example: it’s not uncommon for my nutrition clients to miss the “anytime” section of my meal template. In that case the athlete could be missing hundreds of calories. During check in the coach should not assume the athlete completed the meal plan exactly as written and should ask the athlete to describe what they consumed. Make your materials as easy to understand as possible. Teach, answer questions, and ask for return demonstration of material. If you are the athlete ask lots of questions, especially is something seems unclear. Compliance is impossible without understanding.
Measurement error occurs when the athlete is either not taking the time to measure food or is doing it with improper tools. Eyeballing a cup of rice can quickly turn from 1 cup to 1.5 cups to 2 cups as the person becomes hungry. The caloric difference between 1 cup and 2 cups of rice is significant by itself but imagine the error compounded over multiple items throughout a week. It becomes impossible to make 100-200 calories adjustments when the athletes actual daily calories fluctuate 500+/- due to measurement error. The athlete should have an accurate food scale, measurement devices, and should measure everything to assure accuracy.
Dedication is the most challenging to address and the most common issue of compliance. The three most common issues I have faced regarding dedication are: food preference, eating outside the home, and the emotional and physical challenge of eating below or above maintenance.
The easiest to address is food preference. If I prescribe rice and chicken and the client absolutely hates rice and chicken then they are very unlikely to follow the plan. If it’s the sixth week of rice and chicken and the client is really bored of rice and chicken, then they are very unlikely to follow the plan. It’s my job to know what other arrangements of foods have similar macronutrients and be able to substitute. It also makes since to provide the client with substitutions they can make themselves. Dislike rice but love quinoa? Easy swap. Dislike chicken but enjoy beef, I am sure we can decrease the fat macros from somewhere else in the program. It’s possible to even accommodate special requests. If a client “needs” ice cream; for compliance, it makes the most since to program it in and accommodate the macros, rather than face an unexpected 500 calorie bolus. In the end calories and macros matter most anyway. Food selection should be variable and easily adjusted.
Food is a social affair for many. Going out to eat with friends, post training sushi with the team, and business parties are a reality. Eating outside the home gives up the precise control over food portion and selection. Traveling with food is helpful but requires discipline not every person will be willing to display. In cases of infrequent social outings, the simplest solution is the introduction of a “cheat” meal. A cheat meal is a meal with limited restriction or all together free from restriction. Cheat meals are often granted one or two times per week. Simply accommodate by lowering the overall calories throughout the other meals of the week. In the case of frequent outings, it requires a more flexible strategy then a strict meal plan allows. Typically, I will move to a macro only driven diet and give the client the tools to monitor their own macros accompanied by education regarding the macronutrient composition of common foods. The coach has less control but the important factors are more likely to be accomplished.
Changing bodyweight both up and down can be uncomfortable. Different athletes and persons are dedicated to their crafts and their goals varying amounts. The degree of strictness and the greater the challenge to homeostasis the greater the discomfort. More discomfort requires greater dedication and resolve. Even though every client ever thinks they can tolerate the process of losing or gaining 2+ pounds a week does not mean that they can. If I client is consistently noncompliant with the diet due to being hungry, or not hungry, or missing meals, or substituting convenient meals, they may not have the fortitude to perform at the current level. This is assuming we have already addressed hunger by selecting high or low satiety foods. To address these clients, we can do a few things. Reinforce the goals and the importance of process in achieving the goals. Decrease the strictness of the diet. For example, moving from a complete meal plan to an intermittent fasting diet, macros only diet, or other. And we can elongate the process to reach the goal. While losing 2 pounds may be to challenging maybe 1.5 or 1 pound is not. It will take longer to achieve the goal but it will certainly happen faster than without following a plan or following a plan poorly.
To achieve compliance with a diet can require flexibility from the coach. Each person is an individual and requires individual adjustment. Assure that the client understands what is expected and has the proper tools to carry out the plan. Improve compliance by prioritizing calories and macros while being flexible with food selections and meal timings. Reinforce the importance of sticking to the plan. Finally, don’t be afraid to elongate the process for those who are struggling. Compliance with a suboptimal plan will beat noncompliance with an excellent plan.
The meal plan itself, is simply an estimation and even if the athlete is perfectly compliant, may not create the desired result. Let’s assume that the athlete is very compliant but still not meeting her goals. The common issues with the meal plan are: not meeting the weight change rate goal, fat and muscle ratio issues, and loss of performance.
Too keep this simple, rate of weight loss or gain is a calories issue. If an athlete is losing weight too slowly, her calories need to be reduced. A typical adjustment would be 200-500 calories. The first place to find those calories will be from the energy macronutrients: fat, and carbohydrates. I aim to maintain fat at a minimum of 20% of caloric intake and therefore carbohydrates are first to be reduced on training days. On non-training days where fat is set at 30% typically, either fat or carbohydrates can be adjusted downwards. In obese categories or for those who have had their carbohydrates and fats heavily restricted it makes since to begin decreasing protein instead. Typically, protein is set at one gram per pound of bodyweight. For those in this category using ideal bodyweight instead of true bodyweight will allow some of the caloric reduction to come from protein, protecting necessary carbohydrates and fats for muscle sparing and hormone production.
If an athlete is gaining weight too quickly, calories similarly need to be reduced. The actual change of measurement isn’t really the issue, it’s the principle that the faster weight is gained the more likely it is to be a higher percentage of fat then if it were done more slowly. Maintain protein intake and reduce carbohydrates on training days and carbohydrates and/or fats on non-training days.
If an athlete is losing weight too quickly, then calories should be adjusted upwards. The actual change of measurement isn’t really the issue, it’s the principle that the faster weight is lost the more likely it is to be a higher percentage of muscle then if it were done more slowly. Maintain protein at one gram per pound of bodyweight and my preference is to increase carbohydrates while maintaining fats at a steady 20%/30% on training and non-training days. It’s not wrong to adjust fat instead of carbohydrates and is a useful tool if the volume of food is difficult to consume since fats are more calorically dense.
If an athlete is gaining weight too slowly, then calories similarly need to be increased. Maintain protein at one gram per pound of bodyweight and increase carbohydrates and or fats.
Rate of change adjustments can and should be made weekly if the athlete remains compliant and the data is reliable.
Fat and muscle ratio issues take longer to diagnose and are more complicated to address. When dieting, if muscle is being lost in too high of a percentage, then the diet will ultimately fail and athletic performance will decline. This is assessed via visual assessment, bodyfat testing, and performance indicators. The scale will show movement but the other data will not demonstrate a positive change. The athlete is obviously resistance training, right? Then the first thing that should be considered is whether the rate of change is too aggressive for the age, weight, and sex of the athlete, assuming macronutrients are in reasonable ranges. See chart below for general recommendations.
Selecting a less aggressive rate of change will allow more muscle to be preserved. The other immediate consideration is the duration that athlete has been losing weight. The longer the duration of weight loss the higher percentage of muscle loss. Twelve weeks is a good stopping point for most people but do not be afraid to stop earlier if this issue arises. Another consideration is hormone levels and thyroid function. It is beyond the scope of this article but getting these tested can provide valuable insight for the individual that cannot seem to lose weight without losing muscle.
If aiming to build mass and too large a percentage is fat, the same principles apply. Assess appropriateness of rate of change, duration of the bulk, and hormone function. Some populations and people build muscle very slowly and rate of change should be the first addressed.
Loss of performance during fat loss is an expected outcome. When in caloric deficit, recovery is compromised and performance often suffers as a result. If performance rapidly declines it becomes important to address. As before, address rate of change, duration, and hormone function. Additionally, consider increasing calories around and especially before training. Reassess macronutrients to make sure they have not been adjusted to far out of norm. Consider a short period, start with a day or two up to a week, of caloric loading to replenish carbohydrate stores. This is especially important surrounding important weeks of training or competitions. “Cheat meals” can come in handy here. Aim to optimize performance but learn to expect a small decline.
Ultimately a nutrition plan needs to be extremely flexible and will very likely require adjustment. I only discussed a few of the more common issues and adjustments, but there are many ways to approach the problems and what works for one may not work for another. Rate of change issues are simply a calorie issue. Adjust as appropriate. Fat and muscle ratio issues are more complicated and involve assessing rate of change, duration of diet, hormone profile, and activity. Loss of performance can be an expected outcome in a significant caloric deficit but can be mitigated with strategic increases in calories surrounding periods of important activity.
When compliance and a solid meal plan combine excellent results can be achieved. Nutrition is truly a game of hypothesize, test, adjust, retest until what works is found, guided by a few fundamental principles. Through the scientific process a set of parameters or multiple sets of parameters can be found that will optimize the performance, aesthetic, and general nutrition goals of the individual.
To summarize the series:
I hope that you enjoyed the series. Stay tuned for more focused nutrition articles in the future. Please leave a comment or like if you enjoyed the content. Thank you for reading!