Section 2: Creating an Energy Deficit

Want to Stop Being Fat? Want to Get Ripped? I have the secrets.

Secret 1: Stop eating.
Secret 2: Start walking.
Secret 3: Lift really heavy weights.

Six small meals a day is highly overrated. 2,500 calories in two hours right before bed is highly underrated.

The day I realized that the common wisdom of “six small meals a day” was keeping me from dropping below 10% body fat was the day I began an intermittent fasting routine. Lots of small meals keeps your insulin levels nice and your tummy steadily grumbling for more food. Since I started fasting nearly five months ago, I haven’t looked back. Now I fast for 21 hours straight every single day, and it’s easy. I swear. I’m not a freak of nature. I’m not a wizard. I’m not a wombat. I’ve never been leaner, never been stronger, and I’m still dropping fat AND gaining strength even in my current sub-7% state (albeit slowly) at a caloric deficit. If you search my blog for posts on intermittent fasting, you’ll find an explanation somewhere.

And I'm bloated in this photo from red wine and ice cream!

And I’m bloated in this photo from red wine and ice cream!

Walking is the king, queen and royal baby of “cardio”, hands down

Because it’s freaking easy and it can be done anywhere. I wrote a post on walking a couple of weeks back–you should be able to find via search. Look at my beautiful and indispensable best friend, my FitBit One in the photo below. I’ve topped 18,500 steps today, and the day’s not over yet. That’s almost nine miles worth of steps. I work a full time job, have a wife and young son, and do all the cooking. Next time you think you don’t have time to exercise, think of this post and feel your legs begin to itch.

I credit 63% of my ripped-ted-ness to this little, beautiful device.

I credit 63% of my ripped-ted-ness to this little, beautiful device.

Master your hormones. Lift heavy.

Lifting very heavy barbells using compound movements in a fasted state is my holy grail of hormone control–more specifically, very naturally forcing my pituitary gland to pump lots of fat melting, muscle growth-signaling growth hormone into my bloodstream until the moment when I drive my blood sugar levels through the roof at the end of the day with lots of good food, spiking insulin and directing all those nutrients into my muscles and liver that had been depleted of glycogen from the prior 21 hours of fasting. I know I’m not explaining much here, but if you’re interested, lots more on this can be found on the pages of rippedforever.com.

Covert Insulin Bombs, Lethal Vegetables, IFFYM and the Laziness of Clean Bulking

Calorie control is the name of the game; I had to understand this basic concept first to understand how to get ripped. It’s no secret that whole foods are typically less energy dense and more nutrient dense than processed foods. While the vast majority of my diet consists of unprocessed and lightly processed foods, there are several considerations I have to account for since I spend most of my day fasting, like not just eating the least calorie dense foods. I ate and still eat plenty of vegetables daily, but I do it strategically (see lethal vegetables below).

The secret insulin bomb

Here’s something interesting: I noticed some time ago that if I ate lean protein (like the breasts of flying animals) by itself, it made me feel the same way a straight bowl of plain rice would an hour later–i.e. pretty hungry and maybe a little lethargic. I did some web searching because I thought that was weird; I’d always been told that protein doesn’t stimulate much of an insulin response. It turns out that protein does indeed create an insulin spike, which is closely correlated with the protein source. Accordingly, different protein sources are associated with stimulating different hunger responses (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20456814). Although it might not be so relevant when fasting for 21 hours per day since insulin goes through the roof during the feeding window and it really doesn’t matter, it will be relevant when I switch back to fasting for a shorter period during a more pronounced strength and size development cycle. A longer feeding period = more time to overeat, even when “bulking” (which I have strong feelings about–see below). So insulin control becomes more relevant during this time. To buffer the insulinogenic effects of protein, I’d try to consume some fat with it (that is if I’m not eating a lot of vegetables with the protein) in an effort to smooth out the insulin response. I’ve found that consuming fattier meat like like higher fat cuts of beef or lamb or [prohibitively expensive wild] salmon assists with that. And in complete disregard for the Primal/ Paleo philosophy that practitioners need not monitor their calories because energy balance will take care of itself, I’d still watch them. In my opinion, that’s a dangerous practice.

The lethal combination of fasting and vegetables

Blogs are all about the hype, so the above heading is clearly necessary. Fasting + vegetables = death? No, not really, but fasting + vegetables could = trouble maintaining muscle mass. As I’ve increased my daily intermittent fasting window from 16 to 18 to the current 21 hours (9pm-6pm), my feeding window has contracted [very obviously] to just three hours. This is relevant for a couple of reasons that can work together against muscle and strength development. The first is stomach shrinkage; my stomach capacity has absolutely decreased since I began fasting more than four months ago, and especially since bumping up to 21 hours. The second is the space vegetables occupy in that smaller stomach. Although very nutritious, low-calorie and voluminous vegetables like lettuces, cabbage, broccoli, etc., take up precious space and digestion time, making it tougher to consume all the calories I need to maintain strength and muscle mass. One simple solution is to increase the feeding window. The other is to increase intake of calorie dense whole foods, like rice, potatoes and butter, oats and casein, cheese and sunflower butter or a serving of ice cream and a denser vegetable, like squash or sweet potato.

My experience with IFFYM (If It Fits Your Macros)

I mention a few times throughout this blog that I’m not a big fan of the “If It Fits Your Macros” (IFFYM) style of eating for a couple of reasons. If you’re not familiar, IFFYM permits an individual to eat literally anything he or she desires as long as macronutrient/ caloric targets are not exceeded (a macronutrient target is by definition a caloric target–request more explanation in comments if interested). I’ve certainly read about individuals who have gotten ripped eating whatever quality of food they choose, like donuts, fried chicken and pizza. Although I haven’t ever fully immersed myself in IFFYM, I experimented for a time with being more lenient about food choices, eating chips, pizza, mac and cheese, stuff covered in chocolate, more ice cream than normal, etc. While eating this way was extra fun, I found it to be counterproductive to my goals for a couple of reasons.

  1. I retained noticeably more water eating this way. I don’t know exactly why, but I have a feeling that the increase in sugar more than salt had something to do with it.
  2. My sleep quality was reduced. Perhaps something to do with elevated insulin levels or other hormone imbalances, but I won’t speculate beyond that.
  3. I was much hungrier more of the time. Granted, I had not begun fasting intermittently until later, so some of the hunger could likely have been attributed to blood sugar fluctuations that were the result of eating anything. But I’m almost certain that the hunger was closely linked to the poorer quality of the food I was eating. Specifically, my diet included more sugar and processed carbohydrates, which both elicit a significant insulin response (except for fructose, but that’s a whole other beast–request explanation in comments if interested).

I also think IFFYM exposes an individual to more unnatural chemicals and substances that are used to stabilize, preserve and flavor processed foods.

The Laziness of Clean Bulking

I’m doing my level best not to speak disparagingly of others across this blog. But if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s to read comments on forums left by people who say they are “clean bulking.” What they really mean (usually) is that they’re getting fat eating oatmeal, potatoes and milk. For me, it’s not only completely lazy, but it’s counterproductive as well. Why the heck would a person who isn’t a competitive bodybuilder want to be fat, bloated and slow for a good portion of the year, and then ripped for a few months? Sure, it could definitely be fun to overeat for most of the year, but I other thoughts about that. Fat is fat. It’s not like, “Oh, my left love handle is the bad one. It came from triglycerides that were the end product of Yodel and potato chip metabolism, but my right one, well, that’s the good one. That one is made of triglycerides from rice and seaweed.” Being fat is not healthy, and that’s not my opinion. I’m not suggesting that I think everyone should be at 6% or 8% or even 10% body fat, no. I’m talking about guys (mainly) getting up to 20% and 25% fat when “bulking”. The negative hormonal and metabolic effects of that level of fat are palpable, but especially so when swinging weight so hard from one season to the next. I think the idea of a “clean bulk” is used as an excuse for overeating with the belief that it’s necessary to build muscle and strength. Overeating is never necessary for building strength. Proper eating is. Eating just the right amount is. Understanding what the right amount of eating is for one’s own body and lifting regimen requires some time and work that I think the “clean bulker” either doesn’t want to put in, or might not know how to put in. Clean bulking might be healthier than IFFYM (or dirty bulking) because “clean” foods contain fewer chemicals and sweeteners, but fat is fat. Fat is fat.

Is Calculating LeanGains Macros and Calories Irrelevant?

I used LeanGains to develop and maintain this condition... but I also didn't.

I used LeanGains to develop and maintain this condition… but I also didn’t.

I owe a good deal of my success in learning how to get ripped to Martin Berkhan, founder of the LeanGains intermittent fasting protocol. When I began to understand that intermittent fasting was conducive to both caloric control and muscle maintenance and/ or gain, I really began to understand how to get ripped. But reflecting on my experience with LeanGains recently, I realized that I had actually been following relatively few of the program’s guidelines, yet I still got ripped, and I still put on muscle. Naturally, I began to wonder how relevant those guidelines were. Since I’m interested in determining how little effort is really required to get ripped and determining what’s best for me, I decided to pull LeanGains apart and examine the pieces.

The Big Five

  1. I see lots of inquiries online about how to calculate daily LeanGains macros. If you were to ask me how, I’d tell you that I’m really not sure because I never did it… yet I still got ripped using LeanGains.
  2. I also see lots of discussion about how to get ripped by employing LeanGains’ caloric cycling rules of 20% above maintenance on lifting days and 20% below maintenance on non-lifting days. I definitely couldn’t provide much information on the subject because, again, I never did it, yet I still managed to get ripped using LeanGains.
  3. Then there’s the issue of using BCAAs every two hours after a lifting session when fasted until the eating window opens. I frequently either forgot to take them, was too busy to take them, or purposely didn’t take them… yet I still got ripped fasting daily for 21 hours per day.
  4. Of course,  to the above point, I just naturally stopped following the 16/8 fast/ feed guideline a few weeks after beginning LeanGains in favor of 21 hours fasted… and yes, I still got ripped using LeanGains.
  5. Then there’s the reverse pyramid style training program that Martin Berkhan himself uses, or did at some point. It seems like a good program, but I never used it exclusively and I still got ripped following LeanGains.

These realizations led me to the conclusion that I was having a delusion that I was following LeanGains, when I really wasn’t. But I still got ripped. Placebo? No.

How to calculate LeanGains macros? The question might be irrelevant.

I’m gonna come right out and say it: macro cycling played no role in me getting ripped. If it had, I don’t think I would have been able to drop from 13% body fat to 7% (9 lbs of fat) with only a 2 lb net weight loss. That means I gained 7 lbs of muscle at the same time.* I paid exceedingly little attention to my carb to fat ratio. When I look back at my MyFitnessPal logs (which automatically tracks macros) I see that there was no pattern to my fat/ carb intake. I sometimes ate high fat on lifting days and high carb on non-lifting days. Sometimes it was reversed. Sometimes I only ate 120g carbs, sometimes 250g. Sometimes I forgot to eat carbs, as in “40-grams- for-the-day-from-broccoli-and-kabocha-squash” forgetting to eat carbs. After conducting a bit of a deeper dive into my nutrient data, I discovered that my three-day carb average was usually in the low 200g range. From that fact alone, I’d have to conclude that averaging 200g per day over three days is adequate for me and enables optimal lifting performance. That said, I always maintained consistent protein intake of 130-150g/ day. I’m not suggesting that macro manipulation is wrong–it’s just not right for me.

*In the spirit of full disclosure, I had dropped heavy lifting in favor of total engagement in a [stupid] metabolic conditioning program [that ate my strength and muscles for a snack] for the eight months before I began fasting intermittently. This possibly primed my body to respond more rapidly when I began lifting heavy again. As an aside, something else I don’t understand about macro cycling under LeanGains is that carbs are to be consumed on lifting days, after lifting. But from that time until after the next lifting session (48 hours), carb intake is to be reduced significantly. It makes more sense to me that carbs are increased on the rest day evening so that the muscles are primed with glycogen for the following day’s lifting session.

I said nah-ah to cycling daily caloric intake.

LeanGains suggests that its practitioners swing caloric intake hard from day to day based on lifting vs non-lifting days. The recommendation is +20% on a lifting day, and -20% on a rest day. On a 2,500 calorie diet, that’s a 1,000 calorie swing multiple times per week. I found that it actually became complicated and felt very unnatural to consume so many calories on a lifting day. This stands in paradoxical contrast to how natural fasting for 90% of the day feels to me now. The rationale behind the guideline is that the body requires all that extra energy to build muscle. But in my experience, like macro cycling, it just doesn’t matter. I maintained a daily calorie deficit of 300-600 calories whether lifting or not. This can only mean that for me, protein synthesis is relying to some extent on fat stores for fuel. This would make sense since we know that fat stores provide a buffer for energy imbalances (i.e. deficits), although I’d imagine that a body fat threshold exists below which muscle catabolism becomes more efficient than fat catabolism. Whatever the case, the takeaway from this I believe, is that there’s flexibility in any program. This is certainly not a knock on LeanGains or its creator. But if I hadn’t experimented and listened to some things my body (and brain) was telling me, I might not have been as successful in achieving my goals. That’s what learning how to get ripped was all about for me.

The little jury in my brain is still partially out on BCAAs

I admit, my statement about BCAAs at the top of this post might have been a touch hyperbolic. I do take BCAAs, but not like I used to. When I began fasting intermittently, I gulped them down according to Martin Berkhan’s recommendations of before, during and after lifting, and every two hours until feeding time. But after a while, I began to get lazy about the two-hour rule to the point where I didn’t have any between 8am and, say, 2 or 3pm at which time I’d have my first meal (that’s since changed to 5 or 6pm). I pretty much failed at adhering to that guideline and I still got ripped. Now it’s true that I might have hindered my gains [picture the Hodge Twins saying that], but it just goes to show that there’s no hard and fast line that defines the boundaries of how to get ripped. I do, however, believe that BCAAs have played a critical role in my lifting performance. On two occasions I tried lifting under truly fasted conditions without anything in me but water. In a word: disastrous. In two words: utter failure. My guess is that BCAAs are so acutely effective for my lifting sessions because they provide energy in the form of calories, which I think is separate from other anabolic qualities they possess. I’ve estimated that one scoop of the BCAA supplement I use (Modern BCAA +) contains 30 calories*, so a couple of scoops before and during lifting provides around 60 calories, which provides an energy boost, albeit modest.

*Unlike the case for foods, the U.S. FDA only provides nonbinding supplement labeling recommendations (you can read all about the boring details here) . More specifically, supplement manufacturers are not required to list caloric content anywhere on the product label. Nevertheless, BCAAs are building blocks of proteins, and do contain approximately the same number of calories per gram. Keep in mind that although a 7g scoop of pure BCAAs might contain ~28 calories (7 x 4), it might contain more or less depending on the extent to which other ingredients are present in the supplement (e.g. electrolytes, artificial sweeteners, etc.).

Eating doesn’t matter. I don’t ever eat.

Of course that’s not true, but it sometimes feels like it. While LeanGains programs for a 16 hour fasting window, on many days of the week I easily go 21 hours without eating, which a year ago I would have said is preposterous, foolhardy, pointless, difficult and just plain backward. My fasting pattern just naturally evolved from the initial 16 hours; I wasn’t intentionally trying to extend it. My point is (again) that based on my experience, the processes and practices for getting ripped are flexible and customizable to an individual’s preferences and needs.

There are lots of ways to lift.

LeanGains’ founder is fond of the reverse pyramid lifting method, which, in my opinion, is an awesome technique that I use as a component of my own strength program (you can learn about the details of the RF Strength Program here). But because I or someone else thinks it’s great and has had success using it doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. I’m not suggesting in any way that LeanGains is claiming that it is; I’m just making the point that modalities for getting ripped are multifarious. The most effective eating style, supplement stack (if you’re into that) and lifting routine is one that is crafted by the individual to his or her unique predilections and requirements (as long as basic core principles are accounted for).

How to Get Ripped, Section 2.1: The Zen of Intermittent Fasting

I dropped breakfast and pushed lunch to late in the afternoon.

Before becoming ripped this time around, I used to eat breakfast. As a NASM Certified Personal Trainer (I used to train people as a hobby), I told my clients that they should eat breakfast. Why did I do that? For one, “everyone” on TV, the internet and in the business said you’re supposed to, and for two, it seemed to make sense. How else would you have energy to exercise? You’d certainly waste away without breakfast. Needless to say, I’ve discovered through my own experience that this just isn’t true. It was a pretty significant moment of realization for me. I frequently eat my first meal of the day around 2:30 or 3pm, which concludes an 18 hour fasting period.

Martin Berhkan is the father of an eating protocol (many consider it a lifestyle) called 16/8 intermittent fasting a.k.a “LeanGains“. Some people reading this might already be familiar with it. The core principle is that you don’t eat for a period of 16 hours straight, after which you can eat within an 8 hour window. I’ve adjusted it to my own preference of typically 21 hours fasting, three feeding during the week and around 18 fasting, six feeding during the weekend.

There are several styles of intermittent fasts with each specifying a different fast length and frequency. Examples include the Warrior Diet and Eat Stop Eat, the details of which aren’t relevant to this post, but they’re all the same in principle: don’t eat for a certain period of time, then eat within a specified time window.

Many individuals have found LeanGains to be exceptionally effective for maintaining both leanness and an internal environment conducive to protein synthesis (i.e. muscle development). Berhkan cites multiple studies that explain why intermittent fasting is so effective. The main concepts include the following:

  • Little to no circulating insulin during the fast promotes a flush of human growth hormone, especially after heavy lifting. This provides an ideal stimulus for muscle growth. Additionally, growth hormone is a potent fat burning and muscle sparing agent.
  • Fasting promotes muscle glycogen depletion to the extent that the muscle will be apt to rapidly “soak up” nutrients once reintroduced when the fast concludes.

As an aside, Bojan Kostevski of lift-heavy.com recently released some very interesting research on intermittent fasting and its effects on human health. You can find it here.

Stop eating to reduce hunger… WTF?

I’ve read numerous studies on this subject, some cited by Berkan, others that I found on my own. The evidence is clear that contrary to conventional wisdom, muscle loss is not an issue when fasting for short periods like this (even 21 hours is considered to be a short period). But in the end, I have a basic theory (that I mentioned in an earlier post) about why intermittent fasting can be so effective: it is a tool that enhances control over caloric intake. Because insulin levels are minimized during the fast since glucose isn’t present in the bloodstream, blood sugar undulations are nearly nonexistent and hunger is suppressed to a great degree. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t done it myself, but it absolutely worked for me. Less hunger = better compliance with caloric restriction goals. I’d even venture to say that for me, fasting has made appetite control as close to effortless as possible. All in all, I tend to think it’s a little less scientific than some proponents make it out to be, but that’s just my opinion. I’ll stress again that I chose intermittent fasting because it integrates well with my lifestyle and I enjoy it for several reasons. I love not having to spend time preparing food and eating in the morning, and I also prefer pushing my first meal as far into the afternoon as possible because when I’m at work I can’t really enjoy what I’m eating. This is why I like to eat the majority of my calories at home in the late afternoon and evening.

But there’s also something almost spiritual about fasting for me. Somewhere between 14 and 16 hours in, I usually begin to experience a mild euphoria and my ability to concentrate goes through the roof. I’d read many accounts of this phenomenon and can say from my own experience that it’s real. Additionally, not having to think about food for hours of the day is truly freeing. Before I began fasting, I felt like I was hungry all the time at work, thinking about what I should eat next. Insulin circulating through my body kept me hungry, and the small snacks I ate were never ever completely satisfying; they just kept me hungry. Having a maximum of only a six-hour feeding window now means that when I eat it can be a lot of food and very satisfying, and that’s good for my soul.

Coming off the fast

I typically prefer to come off my fast (especially a 21-hour weekday fast) with decaf coffee (decaffeinated via water or CO2 method only) and a quarter cup or so of whole milk. I don’t like to jam a bunch of food down my gullet straight away. This is completely a personal preference.

All this said, I don’t believe that fasting is a requirement for getting ripped, since I’m pretty sure that old school guys like Ed Holovchik, Steve Reeves, Jack LaLane, Lou Ferrigno, and early Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t get ripped fasting–they lifted heavy using strength programs designed for progressive overload, controlled their calories and rested. But fasting is great for me, and I don’t think I will ever stop fasting intermittently since I find it so crucial to effortlessly staying ripped.

How to Get Ripped, Section 2: Creating an Energy Deficit

In my experience, understanding how to get ripped means understanding how to lose fat and not muscle. The way that I lost fat was by creating a deficit of 300-600 calories each day. This point is so simple, but so critical that it’s worth spending another minute on.

In my experience, learning how to get ripped = learning about maintaining an energy deficit.

In my experience, learning how to get ripped = learning about maintaining an energy deficit.

Well known and respected exercise physiologist Lyle McDonald wrote a great article on this. I think it’s definitely worth the 10 minute read on his website. Try paying special attention to the section titled “Muscle and Fat are not Identical”:
http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/fat-loss/the-energy-balance-equation.html

If you’re opposed to reading it, here’s the crux of his lesson:

Energy In (corrected for digestion) = (BMR/RMR + TEF + TEA + SPA/NEAT) + Change in Body Stores

It means that if you eat 2,000 calories (corrected for a handful of calories you poop out as the result of fiber intake) and you burn 2,000 calories between your resting metabolic rate + the number of calories required for digesting food + calories used during deliberate exercise + calories burned as the result of spontaneous movement (i.e. fidgeting) + change in tissue energy mass, you will maintain your weight.

Simplified even further, fat loss all still boils down to energy balance i.e. energy in vs. energy out.

In recent years there has been a groundswell of ideas and studies conducted by researchers relating to why we get fat. Many of these studies have spawned their own diets and eating styles e.g. Atkins, Paleo, Primal, Keto, NutriSystem, intermittent fasting, the more general “eating clean”, etc.

As a matter of personal choice, I have modified the Primal style of eating and LeanGains intermittent fasting protocol to my own preferences. But my takeaway after experimenting with many eating programs is that at their core, they are simply tools that can help an individual achieve caloric targets. Read that again. And one more time. My opinion, based on experience with all of them, is that they’re not terribly special in any way other than that they improve caloric control potential and can be relatively easy to incorporate into one’s life.

Might not matter what you eat

Paleo, Primal and keto (although Primal and Paleo can both be integrated into a ketogenic diet) heavily emphasize eating primarily vegetables, meats and fats (including saturated animal fats), and minimizing carbohydrate intake. I’m not saying anything new here: fat, protein and vegetables are satiating and minimize insulin response (although protein spikes insulin when consumed alone). High carbs (especially sugar) = big insulin response = blood sugar drop = hungry again = less likely you’ll be able to or want to achieve your caloric/ fat-burning goals. If you wanted, you could technically eat 500 calories worth of only bread every day below your caloric maintenance level and lose fat. You could eat McDonalds or shrimp or cheese or marshmallows or only barbecue sauce and still lose fat as long as you put your body into an energy deficit. I should say here that in my experience, a low carb diet is not conducive to getting ripped since heavy lifting is required and maintaining adequate muscle glycogen stores helps with that. More on my opinion of carbs here.

Dropping fat is only half of the requirement for getting ripped; the other half is maintaining, and ideally building muscle at the same time. Once muscle becomes a requirement, then the macronutrient composition of the diet becomes important, but in my experience, still not to the extent that some might say [link to macro blog post].

What about “Eating clean”?

I believe that “eating clean” is just another tool that assists in achieving caloric goals. Since “eating clean” typically means staying away from fast/ processed/ boxed/ canned food/ refined sugar (a la Primal/ Paleo to some extent), you’re likely eating vegetables, meat and unprocessed or minimally processed fat (dairy, animal fat etc), and plant-based carbs like sweet potatoes, white potatoes, rice etc. Although some of these foods can spike insulin, on balance, this style of eating keeps insulin under control and moderates hunger. I think it’s really that simple.

Stew Cylinders: How to Accurately Calculate Servings, Calories and Nutritional Content in Recipes

Generally, I have no trouble tracking calories and nutrients I consume thanks to MyFitnessPal, which is a neat little application (Android/ iOS/ web) that basically does everything for you. It’s powered by an absolutely enormous food database. All that’s required of the user is to search for a food, enter the number of servings and submit. The process takes all of two or three seconds once you get into the swing of things. It’s easy enough to track the consumption of discrete food items, like grilled chicken breast or a tablespoon of coconut oil or 200g of sweet potato (so long as you have a food scale or are good at estimating). But things can get tricky when attempting to calculate the number of calories and nutrients in a recipe and even trickier when calculating the portion size of that recipe you might have consumed.

This is the whiteboard cling on the side of my fridge where I track recipe ingredient weights.

This is the whiteboard cling on the side of my fridge where I track recipe ingredient weights.

For example, I might make a huge pot of stew, then eat a bowlful of it, but how do I know how much I’ve consumed? Well, for one, I could measure out a couple of cupfuls of stew into my bowl, but how do I know how many calories and macros are in those two cups? I’d need to know two other things: 1) how many calories and macros the whole pot contained, and 2) how many cups of stew are in the pot. That second part is actually a lot trickier than it sounds, especially when it’s a huge, hot pot of stew that I might not be inclined to measure out cup-by-cup into another pot to determine how many cups I’m starting with. So what to do? Here’s the process I follow; although it might seem complicated on first read, I promise it’s not in practice:

  1. MyFitnessPal includes a function that allows recipes to be created that are comprised of multiple food items. It also requires the user to enter the number of servings the recipe makes. Since I never know this (I make up recipes as I go), I always tell the app that it makes ONE serving. I’ll explain why in a minute. I then weigh out all the items in the recipe and enter them into the app. Once the recipe is created, the app generates a nutrition table for it that lists calories, macros and some vitamins/ minerals. Since I’ve indicated that the whole pot is a single serving, the table might show me something like “5,387 calories per serving.”

    A recipe profile in MyFitnessPal. Note that I have this set as a single serving.

    A recipe profile in MyFitnessPal. Note that I have this set as a single serving.

  2. Now I have to figure out how many cups are in the pot of stew. I could, of course just estimate. If I know my pot holds eight quarts I can come up with a reasonable estimate. But sometimes reasonable isn’t good enough, especially if what I’ve made is very energy dense. If I’m off by a few cups (which is likely), that can significantly throw off my individual serving calculations. To get an accurate answer, I first measure the depth of the food in the pot with a ruler (either on the inside with a plastic ruler I’d only use for this or on the outside of the pot). Say it’s six inches deep. Then I measure the interior diameter of the pot; say that’s nine inches. Since the pot is a cylinder, then so is the stew inside it. So now I know I have a cylinder of stew that six inches high by nine inches in diameter.
  3. Now all I have to do is calculate the volume of the stew cylinder. There are lots of online utilities that can do this, but I use Wolfram Alpha for virtually every mathematical calculation I have to perform in personal and professional life. You can enter what you want calculated in plain English, so I enter “number of cups in a cylinder 5.5 inches tall by 9 inches diameter.” Boom. Done. It tells me there are 6.06 quarts or just over 24 cups in my stew cylinder.
    Wolfram Alpha comes in very handy for stuff like determining the volume of a stew cylinder.

    Wolfram Alpha comes in very handy for stuff like determining the volume of a stew cylinder.

    This is the conversion table generated by Wolfram Alpha.

    This is the conversion table generated by Wolfram Alpha.

  4. Remember how I told MyFitnessPal that the pot of stew was one serving? This step is where it comes in handy. I can now make my serving size whatever I want. So if I want the pot to be 10 servings, I know that’s 2.4 cups (24/10). Now I can scoop 2.4 cups into my bowl and log it in MyFitnessPal by selecting the recipe and entering a fractional serving size, i.e. 0.1 servings since I’m eating a tenth of the pot. All my nutrients are calculated and added right to my daily totals. If I want to only have a cup of the stew, I simply divide 1 by 24 and get ~0.042, so that would be the serving size I enter into the application.

Determining the correct calories could also be accomplished by weighing the empty pot on a food scale, and then weighing it again once full of cooked food and logging the difference. Then you’d weigh the portion you wanted to eat and convert it into a fraction of the whole and enter it into MyFitnessPal as described in #4 above. The problem is that 1) my food scale maxes out at 5.5 lbs. and most of the stuff I cook plus the cookware is much heavier than that, and 2) the hot pot might melt the surface of the scale (mine is plastic).