Nutrition Q&A

Nutrition Q&A: Surpluses and Deficits

What I’m saying is that getting stronger is about more than caloric deficit or surplus alone. Yes, nutrition is extremely important and quite possibly at the top of this list along with effective programming and consistency when it comes to getting stronger, but it is not the only factor.

Nutrition Q&A 3/12/21

Question from Jeffrey

What are your favorite calorie-dense foods to easily add in some extra calories when needed, or to add to foods you already eat to up the calories? Particularly foods that still have a decent nutrition profile but can quickly add up.

Are there drawbacks to adding too many calories in a single sitting if it still fits within your daily plan? For example, I can load up a shake with as many calories as I need to, but is there waste or inefficiency in loading too much in one meal?


The most calorie-dense foods to add without adding a ton of volume are fats—9 calories per gram as opposed to carbs and protein, which have 4 calories per gram. Foods like nuts are awesome because, along with healthy fats, you get some protein. It’s relatively easy to consume several hundred calories in a relatively small handful of nuts, and they pack and travel easily.

If you are not opposed to dairy, good old-fashioned milk is my number one recommendation for a balanced food that will add calories quickly. Most of us can easily consume a glass with a meal without feeling too full or bloated.

I never recommend adding a huge amount of calories to one meal or at one sitting because it’s hard to digest, and you can’t maximally utilize the macronutrients—the extra gets either stored as fat or wasted. This is why bodybuilders eat many small meals per day instead of consuming a few large ones. It’s commonly accepted that we can digest and absorb about 30 grams of protein at a sitting. I believe this to be a bit arbitrary and a gross generalization. However, making a shake that contains 1,200 calories with 100g of protein is not going to be productive. This is added stress on the system that we don’t need, never mind the GI distress.

The most productive thing to do to maximize lean gains would be to add about 10-20% (calorically) to each meal by increasing the volume of the foods that you normally eat slightly. If you ate a cup of rice before, eat a cup and a quarter now. Add one more egg to breakfast. Put a slice of cheese on your sandwich. Everything adds up. If this is not enough to meet your goals, I recommend adding an additional “easy” meal to your day, usually post-workout or, in the case of a truly hard gainer, before bed. A peanut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread with 12 oz milk would give you another relatively balanced 600+ calories and serve you better than eating a pint of ice cream will. The casein, a slow-digesting protein in the milk, may even help with sleep.

Question from Kevin Foley

I am a 56-year-old male, and I lift four times a week. I am probably about 40 lbs overweight, and I’d like to lose that. Of course, I need a calorie deficit, but I want to make strength gains, which require calories. The info out there on the internet is so confusing. Any advice you have for a lifter my age with this situation?


Kevin, you are not alone in this situation. The first thing that you stated is that you want to lose weight. Assuming that you are further along in your training than a true novice lifter, weight loss while simultaneously improving your strength has the potential to have some conflict, which is why there is so much confusing information out there about the most effective strategy.

How much conflict depends on your approach. You are absolutely correct that you will need a caloric deficit to lose 40lbs. The bigger the deficit, the less energy you have for your lifting efforts and recovery. It is likely that you will get the best results by eating at a slight caloric deficit, which is roughly 10-15% below your needs for maintenance. For example, if you maintain your weight at 2,600 calories, you would reduce your calories to 2,200-2,300 calories/day. This will allow for slow but sustainable fat loss while maximizing both the retention of lean tissue and the ability to make strength gains.

Calories, however, are not the only factor related to our ability to make strength gains. The other factors become even more important while in a deficit:

  • Are you following a sound strength training program tailored towards achieving your personal goals?
  • How consistent are you with your training?
  • Do you have stressors in your life that detract/distract from training?
  • Do you prioritize your recovery?
  • How is your sleep?
  • Are you properly hydrated?
  • What is your level of motivation going into the session?
  • Do you have a supportive training environment that is conducive to your growth and improvement?
  • How do you handle setbacks?

What I’m saying is that getting stronger is about more than caloric deficits or surpluses. Yes, nutrition is extremely important and quite possibly at the top of this list, along with effective programming and consistency when it comes to getting stronger, but it is not the only factor.

In summary, my advice to you would be to find your maintenance level of calories by eating to maintain your weight for two consecutive weeks and diligently tracking your intake. From there, drop your total calories by 10-15% while keeping your protein intake up and focusing on high-quality, minimally processed whole foods. Additionally, examine the other factors mentioned above and consider whether there is any way to improve on them. Fifty-six is just a number—progress is not as fast at 56 years old as it is at 25, but don’t allow the number to be an excuse. Removing mental roadblocks will unlock some hidden potential!

Coach Gillian Ward is Barbell Logic’s Director of Nutrition. She has spent a lifetime as a high-performing athlete, coach, and fitness and nutrition educator. If you have a question for Coach Gillian that you’d like to see answered in future issues of the Friday Five Newsletter, please fill out the form below.




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