Nutrition for Aesthetics, Performance, and HealthI hope to clear up some confusion on the balance between optimal performance, health, and appearance. If you want to be at the top of the game In any of these areas, it’s likely that other areas will suffer. Fortunately, these are not one-to-one tradeoffs. There is plenty of overlap when it comes to nutrition for strength, performance, and aesthetics.
Nutrition for Aesthetics, Performance, and Health
By: Jeremy Partl, Registered Dietitian
You can squat the house or deadlift a ton, but most likely you won’t be at your leanest or healthiest state.
Your health markers may be perfect and your habits those of an eventual centenarian, but most likely you will not be the strongest you can be or as shredded as you would like.
You can be bodybuilding-stage lean, but your health may suffer, and your lifts will probably stall or even drop.
Is it possible to have the holy grail of being your strongest, being your leanest, and having perfect health markers?
While I won’t say that it isn’t always impossible, I hope to clear up some confusion over the balance between optimal performance, health, and appearance. If you want to be at the top of the game in any of these areas, it’s likely that other areas will suffer. Fortunately, these are not one-to-one tradeoffs. There is plenty of overlap when it comes to nutrition for strength, performance, and aesthetics. In this article, I will cover the main issues you will encounter as you try to eat to support your goals and will suggest some ways to find the nutritional “sweet spot” to support your training.
Nutrition for Aesthetics
When it comes to nutrition, you’ve most likely heard that it all comes down to the calorie balance equation: calories in vs. calories out. Eat more than you expend, and you gain weight. Eat less than your body utilizes, and you lose weight. Balance the two out, and your weight stays the same. When it comes to nutrition for aesthetics, calorie balance is the number one principle that reigns supreme.
When it comes to gaining weight and aiming to maximize muscle mass, calorie, and carbohydrate needs are typically going to be at their highest. According to a 2019 paper on the topic, here are some suggestions:
- A hyper-energetic diet (~10-20%) should be consumed with a target weight gain of ~0.25-0.5% of bodyweight/week.
- Sufficient protein (1.6-2.2 g/kg/day) should be consumed with optimal amounts of 0.40-0.55 g/kg per meal and distributed evenly throughout the day (3-6 meals), including within 1-2 hours pre- and post-training.
- Fat should be consumed in moderate amounts (0.5-1.5 g/kg/day), generally 20-30% of calorie needs.
- Remaining calories should come from carbohydrates with a focus on consuming sufficient amounts (≥3-5 g/kg/day) to support energy demands from resistance exercise.
This means that an average person weight 175 pounds who is trying to gain weight and whose maintenance caloric balance is 2000kcal/day would shoot for the following:
- 170g protein per day
- 80g fat per day
For someone looking to maintain their weight, these recommendations would be nearly identical, without the surplus calories.
Some caveats with the above numbers: There are a lot of assumptions that go into the above illustration. People vary—from metabolism to activity levels. So even people with similar backgrounds and goals may have very different caloric and macronutrient needs. What the paper supports is the calorie balance equation. Weight gain, loss, and maintenance really is a numbers game.
When it comes to losing fat, recommendations in current research papers are somewhat similar. The main difference is a slightly higher protein intake to minimize lean body mass loss associated with being in a calorie deficit. A paper examining weight loss in the context of natural bodybuilding presents the following recommendations:
- Caloric intake should be set at a level that results in bodyweight losses of approximately 0.5 to 1%/wk to maximize muscle retention.
- Most people will respond best to consuming 2.3-3.1 g/kg of lean body mass per day of protein, eating three to six meals per day with a meal containing 0.4-0.5 g/kg per kg of bodyweight of protein prior and subsequent to resistance training.
- 15-30% of calories from fat, and the remainder of calories from carbohydrate.
Here we see some added complexity to the calorie balance equation in which the types of macronutrients we eat can affect how our bodies store or burn fat and lean tissue.
If you’ve been around the nutrition and fitness industry over the last couple of years, you most likely heard of the If It Fits Your Macros approach to dieting, also commonly known as IIFYM or “flexible dieting.” The main principle of this method is that you can achieve whatever goal you want (getting shredded or jacked) as long as you eat a certain number of calories, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
Anecdotally, there are probably thousands of individuals who have followed this approach with great success. A quick Google search will reveal many testimonials of getting stage lean while eating nutrient-poor food sources. For example, many people proudly state that they have gotten lean while eating pop-tarts, candy, and other “dirty” foods. Relatively recently, Jordan Syatt, a popular fitness trainer and influencer, ate a Big Mac every single day for a whole month and still lost 7 pounds of weight. What this shows is that when it comes to getting shredded, the most important factor is quantity.
However, even if you are consuming 80-90% from whole, nutrient-dense foods, when you dip into low-caloric intakes and low body fat levels, you take the risk of sacrificing health and performance.
Various case studies released over the last decade (and even studies back into the early 1900s) have shown a large number of adverse health effects of getting too lean. Aggressive dieting leads to compromised health outcomes. Some of the potential complications are as follows:
- Hormonal imbalances (lowered testosterone and/or menstrual cycle disruptions)
- Lean muscle mass loss
- Changes to cardiovascular health such as extremely low blood pressure and even lowered ejection fraction
- Developing psychological problems such as depression, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders
Additionally, while many athletes assume that being lean will improve performance, it’s actually usually the opposite. Especially in our population of strength athletes, it is very typical to expect a drop in performance and strength as you seek to get to low levels of body fat. It’s okay to diet aggressively if your goal is the bodybuilding stage, but it is a mistake to confuse weight loss and bodybuilding with either health or performance.
So, what can you do to get leaner without majorly sacrificing health or performance?
Nutrition for Performance
When we talk about performance, we are focusing on your performance on the field or in the gym, where the goal is to improve or maximize specific sports-determined tasks or skills. Depending on the sport, the demands of your body and fuel intake will drastically change.
When it comes to nutrition for performance, the most important factor shifts totally from overall calorie balance to focusing on eating the right things at the right time and manipulating calorie and nutrient intake across different times of the year. In fancy terms, these two considerations are often referred to as nutrient timing and periodization.
Nutritional timing can be a great strategy to optimize training, performance, and recovery. However, most Barbell Logic readers should know that traditional nutrient timing guidelines are typically based on the needs of endurance athletes.
For example, you’ve probably heard about the importance of eating a good meal or snack before a training session or event. For many people, this idea can be traced back to the old days in high school when you would load up on pasta the night before a game to make sure that you were adequately fueled. Or, it could have played out in making sure to get in fast-digesting carbs and/or protein right after your last rep.
While these practices have been somewhat downplayed and debunked, it’s still recommended to have a good amount of carbohydrates before a workout to make sure that you have enough fuel (glycogen) to perform your best in the workout. It’s recommended that these come from low-fiber, easily digestible food sources like refined carbs, sports drinks, candy, etc.
This may be optimal for performance, but it’s probably not considered a “healthy” food choice. Additionally, these calories have to be included in your overall energy intake for the day if aesthetics are being considered.
In addition, many sports nutrition textbooks will recommend consuming additional carbohydrates during a workout, if it is intense enough or longer than 60 minutes. While most of the recommendations are for endurance style activities, it’s not uncommon to see bodybuilders, Crossfitters, and even powerlifters consuming something during training sessions that are fairly long or intense. Providing energy substrate (from food) to an athlete while exercising allows the substrate to be used as the fuel source, preserving the body’s energy stores. In these scenarios, it’s recommended to have an easily digestible source of carbohydrates—something that is high in simple sugars. Again, it’s probably not going to fit the criteria for “healthy” food choices.
Post-workout nutrition timing is a little bit different. While the gym bro may have told you to slam a protein shake after your last set to improve recovery, studies are fairly non-supportive of the imperative importance of immediately needing protein, re-emphasizing the idea that “macronutrient totals by the end of the day may be more important than their temporal placement relative to the training bout.” In general, nutrition after a workout important in two scenarios: 1) if you are training fasted and 2) if you have another training session and/or event within 24 hours.To sum it up, I think it is best to take it from the most recent review on nutrient timing:
“Theoretically, consuming the proper ratio of nutrients during this time not only initiates the rebuilding of damaged muscle tissue and restoration of energy reserves, but it does so in a supercompensated fashion that enhances both body composition and exercise performance. Several researchers have made reference to an anabolic ‘window of opportunity’ whereby a limited time exists after training to optimize training-related muscular adaptations. However, the importance—and even the existence—of a post-exercise ‘window’ can vary according to a number of factors.”
When it comes to the manipulation of calorie and macronutrient intakes across various times of the year, the most relevant discussion points are individual goals and time of the year. In general, during times of the year when someone is consuming a calorie surplus (most likely the off-season), there is likely to be less of a focus on specific nutrient timing. This is due to the fact that with an abundance of nutrients, it’s likely that the individual will be well fueled for training sessions. Good nutrient timing principles still would apply to maximize performance during sessions. Even with suboptimal timing, performance is likely to improve if you are applying progressive overload and good training principles. The bottom line is that food is great for adding pounds to your lifts.
However, during maintenance and fat loss phases, nutrient timing principles become of increased relevance. It is more critical during these periods because there isn’t necessarily an abundance of nutrients, making it more important to provide fuel during key times of the day to maximize performance during training sessions.
Oftentimes, even when someone practices nutrient timing and/or periodization of nutrients during a fat loss phase, it is still likely that an individual will reach a point where their performance suffers. Whether it be a drop in strength, decreased endurance, etc. not providing enough “fuel” to the body can compromise performance.
Nutrition for Health
When it comes to eating for optimal health, the number one thing you can do is upgrade the quality of your diet choices. As I covered in another article, moving away from a “Western” diet is probably one of the most important things you can do to improve your overall health. While it isn’t clear specifically what constitutes a “healthy” diet, it is pretty clear that we should not be eating high amounts of added sugars, trans fats, saturated fats, and sodium.
Whether you choose to follow a Whole 30, ketogenic, or any other dietary approach, there are a few foundational principles that tend to be found in nearly all of these styles of eating.
- Emphasis on whole foods
- Limiting highly and ultra-processed foods
- A hefty dose of plant-based foods
- Consumption of a wide variety of foods and colors
- Modest amounts of protein from dairy, animal products, and/or plant-based proteins
- Drinking mostly water and other non-caloric beverages
With this all being said, calorie balance is still a very important factor. You can eat all the “healthy” foods that you want and still become overweight/obese. So, no matter what the Paleo zealot will tell you….you can’t eat bushels of bananas or an abundant amount of avocados without considering your overall calorie intake.
This is probably the area of nutrition where there is the least interference on aesthetics and performance. In other words, most people can consume a “healthy” diet while achieving a good looking physique and performing optimally.
One important scenario to consider is when you are gaining weight and/or have a high-calorie intake. Sometimes filling up on ONLY whole foods becomes very difficult. You can only stomach so much volume and fibrous foods that you may actually NEED to utilize more calorie-dense foods. Ideally, you could still use nuts, dried fruit, etc. that are minimally processed. However, sometimes it does call for eating and drinking things that are considered less “healthy” like PB&J or juice to get the calories in.
Finding the Sweet Spot
Hopefully, this article was informative and educational. Yes, we all want to “have our cake and eat it too.” But, the sad realization is that this is not always the case. More often than not, we have to sacrifice one goal/focus to improve another.
But, how can we mesh all three areas? Below, I provide some brief suggestions and actionable advice on how to find commonalities between the areas so that we can find the sweet spot that keeps us lean, healthy, and strong.
- Remember the 80/20 rule. A good rule of thumb is to aim for at least 80% of your diet to come from whole foods to ensure you are getting adequate micronutrition, while being able to consume some of those foods that may be more optimal for performance…or just allow you to enjoy your diet a bit more.
- Make sure your other lifestyle factors are on point. Hitting a plateau or seeing a performance drop? Besides your diet, other factors to consider are that you are getting quality and quantity of sleep, minimizing outside stressors, etc.
- Periodize your nutrition and training. Like I mentioned in the article, there is more room for error with being in a calorie surplus when it comes to maximizing performance. For most of the year, you should probably avoid being in a calorie surplus and having very high levels of activity.
- Take it slow. If you have the time, taking things slower and avoiding the extremes of very low-calorie intake and/or even doing the “see food” diet will allow you to see the best results in terms of satisfying goals in all three realms.
When it comes to nutrition, you can “have your cake and eat it too.” But, most likely, if you are looking to be well-balanced, you will be a “jack of all trades and master of none.” Apply these principles and the knowledge you gained to do your best to move closer to the former than the latter.