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HOW TO: Creating a Meal Plan

January 17, 2014

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I could go on for hours about building a nutrition outline. Each person’s goals are slightly different from the next person I talk with or create a meal plan for. This is not an article to help you figure out exact foods to eat or what macronutrient percentages work for you and your specific goals, but rather to help you understand how to outline your own nutritional plan. With that said, let’s get this started.

First and foremost the most important part of creating any nutritional plan is figuring out overall daily caloric intake. In order to properly plan a nutrition outline you need to first know your own Basil Metabolic Rate (BMR), which is not to be confused with the idiot scale called a BMI that is used by your doctor. Your BMR is the minimum caloric requirement needed to sustain life in a resting body. In other words, this is the amount of calories your body would burn if you were motionless in a coma all day through breathing, regulation of systematic bodily functions, temperature control and other homeostasis bodily controls. This is an important number to know and will vary between gender, age, body fat percentage etc. This number can be found through various formulas, some require you to know your body fat, others base it off a simple formula using measurable requirements.

The Harris-Benidict formula is used worldwide and has been around a long time. While it does have its draw backs, I prefer this one over most:

Men: BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in Inches) – (6.76 x age)

Women: BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight[lbs]) + (4.7 x height [in]) – (4.7 x age)

Once you have calculated your BMR you will then need to figure out your daily maintenance caloric intake. This is determined and varies by the amount of physical activity you do. Your maintenance level is the amount of calories you would need to eat everyday to maintain the exact weight, shape, and composition of your body without any change in diet or exercise.

Take your BMR and multiply it by one of the following numbers that most correlates to you. I tend to err on the lower side of the numbers, so if you question whether you are between 2 sets of numbers, I suggest you pick the lower one.

1.2 – Little to no exercise, desk job all day long

1.35 –Light exercise/sports 1-3 days a week

1.5 – Moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days a week

1.7 – Hard Exercise 6-7 days a week

1.87 – Intense exercise everyday or 2x a day with intense exercise

For an example, Jane Smith has a BMR of 1500 calories found through using the Harris Benedict formula above and she works out at ATS 5 days a week.  She would take her BMR and multiply it by 1.5 (Moderate exercise 3-5 days/week) to discover her daily maintenance calories.

1500 x 1.5 = 2250 (maintenance)

We now know from our calculations that if Jane does not increase her exercise from her normal routine and eats 2250 calories a day she (in theory) should maintain her weight exactly as it is. Everything now is based off this new maintenance number. If Jane wants to gain lean mass she needs to eat an excess amount of calories over 2250. If Jane wants to lose fat she needs to eat at a caloric deficit under 2250 calories.

Now choosing the deficit/surplus of calories is something I’m not going to cover in detail in this article.  Just know that if you cut too many calories it will slow down your metabolism and will have the opposite effect. If you add too many calories while trying to build muscle you will gain fat. It takes 3500 calories to make up 1 pound of fat, so in a perfect world, if you cut 500 calories a day off your maintenance calories you would lose exactly one pound of fat every week (500 calories x 7 days = 3500). This doesn’t always work perfectly, everyone is built differently, some will need a larger deficit while others will need less of a deficit but it is a good place to start. You can, and more than likely will, adjust your levels later on to find the perfect balance.

Now let’s move on to designing this nutrition outline. We know Jane has a maintenance level of 2250 calories a day. Jane is slightly overweight and her goal is to lose body fat while still maintaining as much lean mass as possible. So for our example we will cut exactly 500 calories off her daily caloric intake. Jane’s new daily intake will be set at 1750 calories (2250 – 500 = 1750). There are many styles of nutrition plans and many styles of attacking ones goals, I will cover only a couple very basic ones just so you have an understanding of how to break down macronutrients from your daily calorie intake. When I say macronutrients I’m simply talking about Protein, Carbs, and Fats. Macronutrients make up everything you eat.

Let’s start with protein first. I tend to stick to higher protein levels than some, that is what I have found works for my clients and myself. I’ve created a lot of plans over the years with various styles and designs. This is not an article to debate what the correct percentages of macronutrients are or are not. This, again is to teach you and give a better understanding of how this all works. For this example we are going to stick to a very basic 40/40/20 percentage style. You can also figure out macronutrient needs by basing the numbers off of your lean or overall body weight instead of percentages. The example I’m giving you is a much simpler solution for getting started designing your own plan.

So we know our overall daily caloric intake that Jane wants to fulfill for her goal of losing body fat is 1750 calories. If we stick to our 40/40/20 percentages we know that 40% of those calories will be from Protein, 40% from carbohydrates, and 20% from fats. We also know that each macronutrient carries different calories per gram.

Protein = 4 calories per gram

Carbs = 4 calories per gram

Fats = 9 calories per gram

We will start with Protein first. 40% of 1750 is 700. We then take that number and divide it by 4 (the number of calories per gram in protein) and come up with 175g of protein a day. We then move on to Carbohydrate requirements, which are again at 40% of 1750. Since carbohydrates are the same calories per gram as protein, we know that they too are 175g a day. All we have left is fat, which at 20% of 1750 we come up with 350 calories a day from fat, we divide that by 9 (calories per gram for fat) and come up with 39g of fat per day.

Protein = 175g (40%)

Carbs = 175g (40%)

Fats = 39g (20%)

Now if I personally were designing her plan, I would not have her carbohydrates set as high as 175g a day for the goals I have outlined. If someone is trying to lose weight with a moderate plan I tend to stick below 100g of carbohydrates a day, but I will go as low as 25g a day of carbohydrates for more extreme nutrition plans. You would follow the same format as above just in a slightly different order.

Since I know that 100g of carbs is only 400 calories, I know I now need to add more fats and/or protein to her daily plan to meet our caloric requirements of 1750. I need to make up an extra 300 calories that I lost from lowering her carbs to 100g/day. So her plan might look like this:

Protein = 200g (800 kcals) (46%)

Carbs = 100g (400 kcals) (23%)

Fats =61g (550 kcals) (31%)

800 + 400 + 550 = 1750 calories/day.

The daily intake goal of 1750 calories a day does not change due to different macronutrient  percentages. Instead you make the macronutrients meet that calorie requirement while falling into the percentages you choose for yourself. Choosing which percentages will get you to your specific goals is saved for a whole other, more in depth article. The percentages vary drastically dependent on different goals.

You now have a basic understanding of how to design your own meal plan. Keep in mind that your daily caloric intake is the MOST important number. If your daily routine is thrown off by sick kids, too many meetings at work or just unusual stress and your macronutrients are thrown off from your designed plan, just make sure you still meet your overall daily calorie requirement.

Now you may be asking yourself what foods you need to eat to reach these percentages. Again, this is a basic outline so you will need to play around with your food amounts and what food choices you decide upon. Here is a simple list to build your design around. Adjust the serving sizes or amounts for each to fall into your caloric requirements.

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Now you need to pick a reliable calorie tracking website or phone app. I prefer Fitday.com because I have used it for years to track calories, macronutrients, and it is easy to use. Other popular ones are myfitnesspal, myplate, etc. I’m sure you can find many more through a simple google search. The program you use makes no difference, just find one that works for you. Don’t bother trying to follow their predetermined calorie needs, you already have your own figured out from the above formulas. Use them as a calorie tracker only.

Now start tracking your foods. I don’t care if you think you already know how many calories you eat, if you refuse to track your foods, I will refuse to help you with your nutrition. You NEED to track your calories in order to know what your exact daily caloric intake is. By tracking your calorie intake you are much more aware of what you are eating and therefore able to adjust your calories as needed. Not tracking your caloric intake is the most common reason for failing to reach goals and the most common reason for giving up on a nutrition plan. I also suggest not trying to build your nutrition plan throughout the day, plan it and write it all down ahead of time. It is called a nutrition PLAN for a reason.

Now start throwing these basic foods into your calorie tracker and build your very own personalized daily meal plan. Shoot for 4-6 meals a day and adjust the serving sizes to meet your calorie and macronutrient needs to help you reach your goals.

Good Luck!!

Aaron Fondry, B.S. Exercise Science, CPT, CSCS
Atlas Training Systems
Strength and Conditioning Specialist
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