The Nutrition Hierarchy: Performance vs. Aesthetics vs. Health

By Cody McBroom

the nutrition hierarchy

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Stronger, Leaner, Healtier, FOREVER

Introducing Functional Strength Training: 
The Monthly Membership Training Solution For People Who Want To Look, Feel And Function Their Very Best, Forever.

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Nutrition For Performance Vs. Aesthetics Vs. Health

If someone asks me what my goal is, why I’m training this hard and this often, and why I’m so committed to proper nutrition, I’d like to tell them, “I’m training to be shredded while deadlifting 3x my bodyweight for reps… and to live to 100 years old.”

At first, they’d probably laugh at me just because that makes me sounds insane… But truth me told, that absolutely was my goal when I was 18 years old and I would rationalize every single reason as to why I couldn’t make all those happen simultaneously.

But then I passed my 3rd or 4th year of training… Realized that it was getting harder and harder to get stronger and that every time I got super lean for a photo-shoot, my deadlift got quite a bit weaker and harder to perform. This is when I started to really put things together and fully comprehend that you just cannot have your cake and eat it too – or more like, “You can’t eat your cake and have abs or health too, but you can deadlift heavy with it.”

“So what’s the truth? Can you achieve multiple goals at once?”

When it comes to fitness and nutrition, the old saying of “Jack of all trades, master of none” reigns extremely true.

You can get extremely lean, but you won’t be the strongest or the healthiest at the same time.

You can out perform every body on the field, court, platform, or in the box, but you probably won’t be the most shredded or the healthiest version of you.

You can be extremely healthy and plan to live to 100 years old, but you will not be magazine cover ripped or out deadlifting everyone in the gym.

I know, it’s sad. We all want the best of all three worlds, but we need to come to reality and realize that it just won’t happen (simultaneously, at least). Now if you look at the chart at the very beginning of this article, it’ll show you that these all do bleed into each other.

So you will absolutely be healthier by focusing on your strength and you will definitely get leaner when doing any of the above, too. But you will not be the strongest, leanest or healthiest… and 95% of you reading this now live for that “est” at the end of your goal.

What’s your personal potential?

What does absolutely optimal look like, for you?

What would be possible if you attempted to be your strongest?

How would you feel in 30 years if you put all your eggs in the health basket?

These are the questions we’re going to cover and answer for you today, while I break down exactly what it looks like to structure your nutrition for each category and how to look at the long term timeline and strive for all three.

Nutrition For Health

“Go paleo, duh…” Ok, that’s a joke – after my last article here, The Perfect Diet, I had to do it. But in all honesty, that’s actually relative to the first point of striving for health.

Rule #1 – Quality Over Quantity.

When the goal is optimal health, quality wears the crown without a doubt. This is simple, because the better the quality the more likely the food is to be nutrient dense as well as low in any possible pesticides, chemicals, processing, etc.

Rule #2 – Know Your Food, On A Personal Level.

If your nutrition is completely centered on optimizing your health, you need to know where your food is sourced. Where it’s grown, where it’s raised, where it’s traveled from, and where it’s been stored (and how long it’s been stored).

When it comes to health, going local is likely to be your best bet. Yes organic is great, but as we learn more about the organic food world we begin to realize that not all organic can still be trusted. It’s difficult when companies have multiple brands and multiple items, all within the same factory. Not too mention there are a million and one ways to get around wording, labeling and marketing it properly.

That’s not saying organic isn’t a priority, because it is… It’s just saying, be cautious and aware. But this information is also letting us know that local may be the best option, because like organic products it does not have the pesticides, chemicals, hormones, and additives. Local is also a way for us to be confident in how the animal was raised and produce was grown. And last but not least, we know it hasn’t traveled across the country or overseas – which is a trip that can be too long for food to stay clean and bug free.

I’ll tell you one last thing to end this rule… There’s nothing more comforting than eating a steak from a farmer you met in person.

Rule #3 – Follow The Daily Checklist.

If you’re chasing optimal health, there are certain things you just cannot skip or leave unchecked. Here they are:

  • Omega-3’s (Consume fatty fish 2-3x per week or consume fish oil daily – 1.5-3g of combined DHA/EPA is optimal)
  • Probiotic Foods (Strive for fermented foods 4-5x a week or taking a probiotic supplement daily)
  • Eat Til Satisfied, Never Over Stuffed (Overeating isn’t healthy, stop at about 80% full each meal)
  • Low-Moderate Carb Intake (Carbs aren’t an essential nutrient and they’re primarily needed for high performance, so when it comes to health protein and fats take priority)
  • Avoid Processed Foods and Sugar (This goes back to rule #1 – 90% of your diet should be whole foods, things grown on the earth or that once lived on the earth)
  • Eat The Rainbow (No… I’m not referring to skittles; I don’t care what Marshawn Lynch tells you. A healthy diet has a variety of colorful whole foods and focuses on diversity – variance in the diet creates more healthy gut bacteria)

Rule #4 – Get Your Macros Right

I’m a numbers guy and I know many of you reading this are too, so I’m going to give you the 3 best macro ratios for focusing on health before finishing this section.

nutrition carbs fats protein

The big thing to notice and apply here is that fats and protein take the priority. All three of these ratios will work fantastic for chasing health, assuming you’re at a healthy caloric intake (12-15x your bodyweight) and you’re focusing on all of the above, as well.

The way to determine which ratio you will fall in to will be based on your training. The more active you are, the more you’ll need protein and carbs in your diet. So if you train 4-6x a week, go with the 40/35/25 split. If you train 2-4x a week, go with the 40/40/20 split. If you train 0-2x a week, go with the 35/45/20 split.

But regardless remember that these ratios are focused on health as the number one goal and priority.

Nutrition For Aesthetics 

When it comes to nutrition for aesthetics, rule #1 in the health completely flips around. In this situation the most important factor of changing your body composition comes down to quantity (calories in vs. calories out). And they’ve proven this with the Twinkie study, among others, where a man ate Twinkies every single day while still accounting for his caloric intake.

Because his calories were equated for and the Twinkie fit into his individual caloric intake, he saw the same exact fat loss results as the other participant that didn’t get to enjoy any Twinkies. In fact, the other participant was very restricted and this caused him to eat poorly after the study was done. He ended up gaining all the weight back, and then some.

Which goes to show that being flexible with your diet is key for long-term results. But this also shows what rules the diet when it comes to getting shredded and that’s quantity – whether we look at this daily or weekly, calories are what matter most.

So what does this tell us about health and performance while on a fat loss diet?

It means that they both have to take the back burner at some point. Because even if you make sure that 80-90% of your calories are coming from whole foods, when you dip into low caloric intakes, long duration training, and low body fat levels – you take the risk of sacrificing health.

Does this mean you cannot be healthy while chasing aesthetics? No, not necessarily.

But it does mean that it isn’t at the forefront of your priorities and your health may not be as optimal as it could be when you dip into low body fat levels. See when we diet, especially aggressively, our hormonal balance starts to become… well, not so balanced anymore. We may sacrifice some metabolic speed, testosterone levels, low stress levels, and possibly thyroid health.

So how do we avoid being a zombie with our health while chasing a lean physique?

The best thing you can do, is follow this checklist:

  • 80/20 Rule (80% of your diet should be whole foods and follow the health checklist above, you may not always be able to fit it all in but do your best)
  • Focus On Sleep (This is one of the things that typically takes a hit when pushing the level of leanness you’re trying to achieve – it’s also something that can cause serious health issues if it’s not managed well).
  • Be Patient (Having a slower and steadier rate of fat loss is always going to be the healthiest way to do it, whether you like being patient or not. So take your time and plan for a longer fat loss journey)
  • Periodize Your Nutrition (You cannot just diet year-round, you’ll end up beating your body up and your hormones will take the plunge. Instead, diet for 8-12 weeks, take a 1-4 week diet break, and then repeat the process. This will allow for hormonal regeneration and for your body fat set point to potentially reset.)

Because fat loss is more about calories in vs. calories out than anything else, the macros play less of a role. So your goal with tracking your nutrition is first and foremost based on just that, calories.

We suggest consuming between 8-12x your bodyweight in calories, depending on how much weight you have to lose and the duration of the diet. If you can be patient, go with 12x your bodyweight, as it’s much safer. If you have 75+ lbs. to lose, go with 8x your bodyweight, as that will most likely be plenty calories for where you’re currently at. If fat loss is your only goal, you’re ready for a more aggressive approach and it’s only temporary, go with 10-11x your bodyweight in calories and implement refeed days 1-2x a week.

Nutrition For Performance

This is where things start to get even more specific and advanced, because depending on the sport at hand the demands of your body and fuel intake will drastically change.

The two most important things when it comes to nutrition for performance are (1) periodizing your calories and macros throughout the seasons and (2) focusing on absorption, nutrient timing, and nutrient deliverability when it’s time to compete or perform.

Periodizing nutrition for athletes should looks as such:

performance nutrition table

When it’s offseason, the most important thing from a nutritional standpoint is going to be recovery. Recovery of tissue, yes – but more importantly of the nervous system and the hormonal system, which are both directly linked. The best way to do this is going to be having more fats in the diet as fat intake is directly related to improving hormonal health. Protein will remain high, as that will also help recovery stay optimal. Carbs will drop a bit simply because training has also dropped at this point of the year/season, therefore they’re not needed as often.

Pre season is where we start to ramp things up a bit in training, both intensity and frequency, and this means we’ll need to start introducing more carbs back into the picture. Because we cannot afford to sacrifice the protein, we’re going to lower the fats just slightly to make more room for added carbohydrates. This ratio will also allow the carbohydrates to be digested, absorbed, and utilized more efficiently as they’re needed.

During season, it’s all about performance and in most cases that means the body is in a much higher demand of glycogen – especially the more glycolytic the sport becomes. So in this case, we drop fats down while bringing up carbs dramatically. This is a good timing for an intra and post carbohydrate shake as well (something like cyclic dextrin). Protein + Carb shakes are great post workout for any athlete perform very intense activities who does not have a meal ready to go immediately after. The reason is less about restoring glycogen, although depending on the sport that can be helpful, and more about shutting off or blunting the cortisol response from training hard. This is going to allow the CNS to shift into parasympathetic mode faster and allow true recovery to begin, rather than waiting hours for nutrients and keeping the cortisol response elevated too long.

The simple reality with high performing athletes is, they need carbs!! We should not be stripping carbs away from them unless we intentionally want them to perform at a lower level.

The calories got higher and higher throughout the table, as you may have noticed, and the reason for this is simply because calories are energy – literally.

So if the athlete is going to be practicing more and more and then performing more and more… They’re naturally going to burn through more fuel and need to take in more fuel in order to keep performing at the level they intend to perform at. During the off-season they’re just not training or competing as often and therefore do not need as many calories.

But regardless an athlete should very rarely ever be in a deficit, that’s asking for under recovery to occur (which leads to under performing). But an athlete should never really be in an excessive surplus outside of very high performance periods because they also don’t want to risk the chance of adding excess body fat that may slow them down.

So as you probably guessed… Here’s your performance nutrition checklist!

  • Easily Digestible Foods Around Training (Consuming protein and carbs pre and post training will be huge for athletes, but it’s most important to make sure they’re fast acting nutrient foods)
  • Macros > Micros (In the offseason, you’ll need to balance this out a bit and focus a lot more on health. But in season, you’re a competitive athlete and quantity will be king because fuel is priority)
  • Intra/Post Workout Carbohydrate Shakes (In sports that are high glycolytic, like CrossFit for example, it will be highly beneficial to drink some highly branched cyclic dextrin during and after training. But with all other sports, if you’re performing at a very high intensity and do not have a meal to eat right afterwards… A post workout protein + carb drink/shake can be massively beneficial as it will help blunt the cortisol response and get you moving into recovery mode much quicker – very beneficial for the CNS)
  • Periodize Your Calories and Macros (Follow the table above, seriously. I cannot stress how much that will make a difference in your athletic career over the long haul)
  • Focus On How You Perform, Not How You Look (There will always be that genetic freak who plays a sport AND is ripped to shreds… But when you’re eating to perform, 75% of the time you won’t be that guy. You will absolutely be lean, but not shredded. In fact, I’d have you consider that you’d likely perform BETTER with a small amount of body fat, rather than next to zero)

About The Author

cody mcbroom

Cody McBroom is a strength coach, certified nutrition coach, writer, podcaster, and owner/head coach of the Online Coaching Business Boom-Boom Performance. Cody’s expertise is in Nutrition and Fat Loss Transformations specifically. He is also known for his free daily content where he takes science based fitness and nutrition information, and delivers it in a simplified “real-life” approach through all of his platforms (instagramFacebookblogpodcast, etc.).

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One Comment

  1. Tyson Brown January 2, 2018 at 8:10 pm - Reply

    This was a very simple and comprehensive guide!

    I was also a numbers guy, but i found a lot of my clients aren’t so we’ve worked on portion sizes instead ad it seems to work well!

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