What are the most important factors in a contest prep diet?
Whilst there are plenty of evidence and science based, highly reputable prep coaches that will get you in to a contest ready shape, the fitness industry continues to be shrouded with bro science approaches supported by nothing more than anecdotal evidence. Such people tend to place a heightened sense of importance on factors which play only a minor factor in the nutritional requirements of a fitness competitor. Here is what I would consider to be the three most important components of a contest prep diet.
- How much you eat
At the end of the day a calorie is just a calorie. The foundation of a contest diet is a calorie deficit and regardless of what fancy nutrient timing, clean eating, ketogenic approach you take, without a progressive caloric deficit you simply will not be able to get lean enough to compete.
The size of the calorie deficit depends very much on the individual with factors such as body fat levels at the beginning of the diet, diet length and cardio also needing to be taken in to consideration.
Those who intend to diet for longer or are already pretty lean can afford a smaller deficit as they do not have to lose body fat as rapidly. Evidence suggests that longer diets may be more conducive to retaining muscle as your body is less likely to metabolise protein for energy. Similarly, higher levels of daily energy expenditure through incorporating cardio or generally having a very active lifestyle mean that you can probably afford to eat a little bit more. The daily energy expenditure of a waitress running around a busy restaurant all day or a manual labourer is likely to be far higher than the office worker who sits at a desk and may get up occasionally to walk to the photocopier.
To establish how much to eat you must first know your maintenance calories. Log your energy intake and weight honestly for around a week. If body weight remains constant then this is your maintenance calorie intake. Calculate how many calories you consumed throughout this week and then reduce that number. The extent to which you reduce that number will determine your weight loss. It is generally accepted that a 3,500kcal deficit will equate to losses of around 1lb of body weight however this is a highly debated topic as weight loss is never linear. So reduce weekly caloric intake by anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 kcals depending on your individual needs. Any good coach should be able to help set this up and make adjustments depending on how your body responds.
Macros. This word gets thrown around a lot and is essentially just a fancy way of saying carbs, fats and protein. Individual macros vary greatly and are very much dependent on calorie intake, body fat levels and preference. Macros are basically just a set of parameters that you give yourself to meet body composition goals as rapidly as easily as possible. Increasing protein intake will aid with the retention of lean mass and a minimum amount of fat should be consumed for as long as possible to prevent adverse health effects.
Carbs and fats are mostly based around preference for the majority of a diet and there is no one size fits all approach to macros.
- Food choices
Whilst the individual foods themselves won’t have a huge effect on body composition, they may impact other factors important to dieting such as satiety and overall health. Yes, you can get shredded eating on a diet based around ice cream and protein shakes but realistically, how satisfying is that going to be in the long run?
Vegetables and fruits are high in fibre which can help to increase feelings of satiety and have the added benefit of being low in calories. This means that you can eat a lot of them for very few calories and substantially increase food volume, keeping you feeling full for longer. They’re also high in micronutrients which are essential for overall health.
Some foods may trigger hunger and binge eating episodes which will de-rail even the most meticulously planned diet. We tend to refer to these foods as being ‘highly palatable’ meaning that they are easy to overconsume and are usually very calorie dense. This doesn’t mean that you should cut any enjoyable foods out of your diet as this is likely to lead to even more feelings of restriction and can result in even more destructive binge eating. Out of sight out of mind might be a good strategy for a couple of foods if you know you really can’t control yourself around them. I personally try not to keep peanut butter in the house as I know that one tablespoon is never enough!
Restricting food choices too much and following a ‘bro’ diet can be detrimental to both physical and psychological health. This is a good way to end up with gastrointestinal problems and food aversions which can then lead to eating disorders.