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The Ultimate Foundational Nutrition Guide

user-iconDiego Ricaurte

calendar-iconMarch 1, 2020

Foundational Nutrition Series


These days, different magazines, internet articles, and popular influencers are all pitching the latest and greatest diet plan and different ways to eat in order to achieve their goals.

Sometimes they pitch to not eat carbs, or to only eat tons of protein and high amounts of fat in order to achieve that perfect body you crave!

The reality is, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all diet to help you build muscle or lose fat.

There are many things that go into nutrition, but at its most basic form, there are 2 things that dictate how successful a nutrition plan is:

  1. How much food you eat
  2. What types of food you eat

How much you eat relates to the concept of “energy balance” and whether you are eating more calories or fewer calories than you burn each day.

What types of food you eat relates to the concept of “macronutrients” which is basically how much protein, carbs, and fat you are eating each day.

Every diet you read about combines those two ideas. How many calories you take in and the macronutrients that make up those calories dictates how a diet is going to affect your body.

So, whether you are aiming to lose fat or put on lean muscle, it’s the basics of nutrition and energy that you’ll need to accomplish your goals.

To break down these basics, this article will cover 3 guiding concepts nutritional concepts that make up any and every diet:

  1. Energy balance
  2. Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)
  3. Macronutrients

We’ll break down what these three concepts mean in layman's terms, and how to apply them to construct a diet custom made for you!

Energy Balance

The most important part of any nutritional plan is understanding energy balance. 

Whether a diet is keto, paleo, low-fat, or gluten-free, how a diet affects your weight just comes down to how it affects your energy balance.

Energy Balance refers to the relationship between the energy you burn and the calories you take in each day.

A fundamental principle of nutrition and metabolism is that body weight change is associated with an imbalance between the energy content of food eaten and energy expended by the body to maintain life and to perform physical work.

Hall et. al

What this means is if you consistently take in more calories than you burn, you will be in a positive energy balance and will gain weight. 

On the other hand, if you consistently burn more calories than you take in, you will be in a negative energy balance and will lose weight.

Understanding this concept is the first step to constructing a diet that is sustainable and flexible enough to fit your lifestyle. 

If we’re strictly talking about gaining or losing weight, it technically doesn’t matter what kind of food you eat. You could literally eat a diet of Twinkies and still manage to lose weight if you make sure you are eating fewer calories than you are burning.

Food choice does matter, though, when determining what kind of weight you lose or gain. We’ll go into more on into that in the macronutrients section. 

First, we’ll discuss how to figure out how much energy you spend each day (Total Daily Energy Expenditure), and how many calories you need to take in to either gain or lose weight. 


In order to maintain a consistent positive or negative energy balance, you first have to figure out how much energy you expend every day, or your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)

The amount of energy you expend each day is expressed as the sum of calories you burn every day. TDEE serves as your baseline when measuring how to eat in order to gain or lose weight.

OK, so what makes up your TDEE?

Your TDEE is made up of 3 components: 2

  1. Your base metabolic rate (BMR)
  2. Daily physical activity
  3. Thermogenesis

Below, we’ll break down what each component means.

What is Base Metabolic Rate (BMR)?

In layman’s terms, your Base Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the amount of energy your body uses so that you can be alive each day. That means that BMR is the energy it takes for you to breathe, or the energy it takes to keep blood circulating in your body. 

When folks talk about having a “fast metabolism” or “slow metabolism," they are referring to whether they naturally burn a lot of calories or not. Your BMR is the measure of your metabolism.

BMR constitutes 60 to 75% of daily energy expenditure and is the energy associated with the maintenance of major body functions.

Poehlman ET

Your BMR is the biggest component of your TDEE, and accounts for 60-75% of the calories you burn every day. 1

More technically-speaking, BMR is the amount of energy you need to keep your body functioning. 2

BMR accounts for 60-75% of your TDEE.

The amount of energy your body takes to function is something that is personal to you. While your BMR is partially determined by genetics, studies show that increasing the amount of lean muscle in your body can increase your BMR since muscle takes more energy to maintain.3

Working out can also temporarily boost your BMR for a short period of time. 4

This means with daily exercise, you can not only burn extra calories through exercise but also through boosting your BMR.

Even with these variables, though, your BMR will remain relatively consistent.

What is Daily Physical Activity?

Your Thermic Effect of Feeding (TEF), simply put, is the energy you use to digest food. 1 Some types of foods take more energy than others to digest (for example, protein takes more energy to break down than sugars).2 Your Thermic Effect of Activity (TEA) includes physical movement such as walking around, and of course the energy you expend while training or exercising. 1

TEA (Thermic effect of activity) is the most variable component of daily energy expenditure and can constitute 15 to 30% of 24-h energy expenditure

Poehlman ET

Daily Physical Activity accounts for 15-30% of your TDEE.

Anything involving general movement contributes to the Daily Physical Activity portion of your TDEE. Your Daily Physical Activity includes physical movement such as walking around, and of course the energy you expend while training or exercising. 2

Daily Physical Activity is the second biggest contributor to how many calories your body burns each day.

If you want to increase the number of Daily Physical Activity calories you burn, you can take some simple steps such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, going on a walk, or exercising more.

What is Thermogenesis?

Thermogenesis sounds like a complicated term, but simply put, it is the energy your body uses in order to digest the food that you eat. 2

TEF (Thermic Effect of Feeding)  is the cumulative increase in energy expenditure after several meals and constitutes approximately 10% of daily energy expenditure...

Poehlman ET

Some types of foods take more energy than others to digest. For example, protein from something like chicken takes more energy to break down than sugars from a chocolate bar. 5

Thermogenesis makes up the last 10% of your TDEE.

Eating foods that are harder to break down technically will increase the calories you burn through thermogenesis, but not to the degree that will make a large difference in your overall TDEE. If your aim is to burn more calories, you’re better off exercising instead of aiming for thermogenesis-enhancing foods!

So how do I figure out what my TDEE is?

With this basic understanding of the components of your TDEE (daily energy expenditure), the next step is figuring out what your own TDEE is. 

To start, you’ll need to estimate your TDEE using an online calculator. There are a number of online calculators available, we recommend using this TDEE calculator.

Once you have an estimate of your TDEE, you will have to track your daily caloric intake as well as your weight to figure out if the estimate is accurate. For every pound you gain per week, you are taking in roughly 500 calories above your TDEE per day (and vice versa for every pound lost). 

So if the calculator estimated your TDEE to be 2000 calories, and after a week of eating 2000 calories a day you gain 1 lb, then your TDEE is actually 1500 calories (500 less than the estimate. If you lost a pound that week, then your TDEE is actually 2500 calories (500 more than that estimate). If your weight stayed the same, then the estimate is correct and your TDEE is 2000 calories!


Energy balance covers the basics for gaining and losing weight, but when it comes to optimal fitness, that’s only part of the equation. Achieving your fitness goals and ideal body composition is not just about gaining or losing weight, but also about what kind of weight is being gained or lost.

So what are Macronutrients?

Macronutrients are a key part of the human diet. 

There are three primary macronutrients in our diet: 

  1. Protein
  2. Fats
  3. Carbohydrates.

Each of the macronutrients, carbohydrate, protein and fat, has a unique set of properties that influence health, but all are a source of energy.

Carriero et al.

In this section, we will be reviewing these three macronutrients and how they factor into your daily nutrition, muscle growth, and fat loss goals.


Proteins are the building blocks responsible for the growth and maintenance of your eyes, skin, hair, nails, organs, and of course, muscle tissue.

You get protein from a variety of sources including both animals and plants.  

Protein comes from: 6

  1. Meats like chicken or beef
  2. Dairy products like yogurt or cheese
  3. Fish like salmon or tuna
  4. Eggs
  5. Grains like bread or pasta
  6. Nuts like almonds or walnuts
  7. Legumes like green peas or black beans

Protein needs for energy-restricted resistance-trained athletes are likely 2.3-3.1g/kg of FFM scaled upwards with severity of caloric restriction and leanness. 

Helms et al.

There are 4 calories per gram of protein in food; that is to say for every 1 gram of protein you consume translates to 4 calories of energy intake. 

Academic research suggests that regardless of whether you are aiming to gain muscle or lose fat, you should try to consume roughly 0.8 to 1.2 grams of protein per lb of your own weight. 7-14

Where you should fall in this range varies depending on whether you want to gain muscle or lose fat. For more on this, check out our post on Muscle Growth Nutrition and Fat Loss Nutrition


Fats are another type of macronutrient in the everyday diet.

Many articles and videos about how fats are bad for you, but this is actually incorrect! Your body needs to have some fat in order to function.

Fat is a necessary component of a healthy diet, providing energy, essential elements of cell membranes and facilitation of the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

Thomas, Erdman, & Burke

Fat is essential to your body’s cells and genetic makeup. Fats make up cell membranes, cholesterol, and 60% of your brain. They play an important role in maintaining hormonal balance in your body, and absorbing vitamins and nutrients, and maintaining cell health. There are 9 calories per gram of fat in food which makes fat the most calorically dense macronutrient. 14, 22-23

This means that fats not only serve as a critical source of energy for your body, but they also should be consumed in moderation. Greasy snacks and even nuts have a high fat content, which means a potentially unexpected number of calories. 

For the purpose of gaining muscle or losing fat, you should aim to consume 15-25% of your calories in fats. This figure will remain constant regardless of whether you are trying to gain muscle or lose fat. 14, 22-23

Carbohydrates (Carbs)

Carbohydrates (commonly referred to as carbs) are the main source of energy for you during everyday life and exercise.

Carbohydrates are the main energy source of the human diet. The metabolic disposal of dietary carbohydrates is direct oxidation in various tissues, glycogen synthesis (in liver and muscles), and hepatic de novo lipogenesis.

Jequier E

There are 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate in you consume, just like in protein. There are many sources of carbohydrates, but in a typical diet they come from sugars, starches, and fibers found in fruits, grains, vegetables, and milk products.

Academic research suggests that for optimal athletic performance, you should aim to consume 2.7g – 4.5g of carbohydrates per lb of body weight daily. 

With that said, since protein is vital for maintaining and building muscle, and fat should not go below a minimum of 15% of your total caloric intake, it is common to go below this recommended range, especially if you are trying to lose weight. 14, 16-21

Putting It Into Practice

With an understanding of TDEE, Energy Balance, and Macronutrients, you now have all the information you need to build a custom nutrition plan. We’ll walk you through the steps here in this section

Step 1: Calculate Your TDEE

Let’s say you are 5 feet and 9 inches, 30 years old and 160 pounds and want to maintain the muscle in your body. 

  • First, we’ll enter that information into the TDEE Calculator, your estimated TDEE is 2,011 calories rounded to 2,000 calories. This is the number of calories I’d want to consume if I wanted to maintain my weight.  
  • Since we want to maintain our body weight, we’ll aim for a 2,000 calorie diet (same as the estimated TDEE).

*Remember, if you end up gaining or losing weight, the estimate was incorrect. How much weight you gained or lost will tell you where your actual TDEE is (1lb gained or lost is equal to a difference of 500 calories).

Step 2: Calculate Your Protein Intake

Next, we need to figure out the macronutrients in our 2000 calorie diet. First, we’ll need find how much protein is needed:

  • If you weigh 160 pounds, you should try to consume 128 to 192 grams of protein. This is calculated by multiplying 160 by 0.8 grams and 1.2 grams.
  • We’ll take the middle of that range, and say we want 1g of protein per lb of body weight. That means we want 160g of protein per day. 
  • There are 4 calories per gram of protein, then we know 640 calories of our 2000 will be dedicated to protein.

Step 3: Calculate Your Fat Intake:

Next, we’ll figure out how much fat is needed:

  • We know that we should aim to consume 15-25% of our calories from fat. Let’s say we decide to go with 20%.
  • 20% of our 2000 calorie diet would mean 400 calories from fat in this example. 
  • There are 9 calories of continuing along with the example from above. If we divide 400 by 9, we find that we should aim to consume roughly 45g of fat daily.

Step 4: Calculate Your Carbohydrate Intake:

Now that we know we need 160g or 640 calories of protein per day, and 45g or 400 calories of fat every day, we can dedicate the remaining calories to carbohydrates.

  • This leaves 960 calories worth of carbohydrates in our 2000 calorie diet, or 240g of carbohydrates.

While this is below the recommended level of 2.7g-4.5g of carbohydrates per lb of bodyweight for optimal athletic performance, it is still enough to provide energy, maintain nutritional health, and leaves enough room for the protein and fat we know we need. 

With that, we have a complete nutritional plan for a 5 foot 9, 160lb 30-year-old aiming to maintain weight as well as preserve muscle!


This wraps up our Foundational Nutrition Guide! To summarize (your complimentary TLDR):

  • If you consistently take in more energy than you burn, you will be in a positive energy balance and will gain weight. 
  • Likewise, if you consistently take in less energy than you burn, you will be in a negative energy balance and will lose weight.
  • Your TDEE will tell you how much energy you burn each day, and it is comprised of your base metabolic rate (BMR), daily physical activity, and thermogenesis.
  • Your macronutrient balance will determine what kind of weight you gain or lose.
  • Protein will help you retain or gain muscle. Consume between 0.8g to 1.2g of protein per pound of bodyweight
  • Fats maintain an optimal hormonal balance and provide a secondary source of energy. Make sure to have at least 15% of your total caloric intake from fat
  • Carbohydrates are critical for energy. Eating between 2.7 and 4.5g of carbs for each pound you weigh is ideal for athletic performance, but going below that amount is common in order to make room for protein and fat in calorically strict diets.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out our other articles to understand nutrition plans specifically for muscle growth and fat loss!


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Date Created: March 1, 2020

Last Updated: July 17, 2020

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