Counting calories, using food scales, tracking macronutrients, timing meals down to the minute, and using other tedious dieting methods are all the rage these days. If it isn’t backed by science or uttered by some decorated nutritionist with a ton of letters behind his or her name, then it is thrown on the bro-science heap of hunches, uneducated opinions, and old wives tales.   


But eating to improve your body composition shouldn’t be rocket science. The human body isn’t a machine that behaves in the exact same ways each and every day. The so-called perfect science of nutrition isn’t actually all that perfect. A life exists beyond this full-time job you call a diet.


For a moment, forget the minute details and the worry of exact numbers. Stop sweating over the small stuff. There is another way to approach food that utilizes practicality along with personalized portion sizes to simplify this process. Let’s take a look at a simple three-step approach to building a diet for increasing muscle mass. These steps may seem elementary, but they are designed to get you pointed in the right direction to build a solid foundation of eating.


salmon dinner

If your diet is starting to feel like a full-time job, it's time to try a different way. [Photo courtesy Pixabay]


Step One: Measure in a New Way

It’s time to ditch the food scale and use something that’s much more transportable – your hand. Use your hand to measure out servings of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat). This will be relative to you personally since everyone’s hand size is slightly different. And if you just so happen to have big hands, then lucky you.


You may feel a bit skeptical about this first step but I will show you how to adjust portion sizes when necessary. These are estimated amounts for men and women, so don’t feel pressured to be exact since caloric needs fluctuate every day. Below is a quick guide when selecting serving sizes for each meal.


For men

  • Protein: 2 palm-sized portions.
  • Carbohydrate: 2 cupped hands of starchy carbohydrates and 2 fist-sized portions of vegetables.
  • Fat: 2 thumb-sized portions.


For women

  • Protein: 1 palm-sized portion.
  • Carbohydrate: 1 cupped hand of starchy carbohydrates and 1 fist-sized portion of vegetables.
  • Fat: 1 thumb-sized portion.


Step Two: Choose Macronutrients

Next, choose from a list of healthy macronutrients. What I have included below isn’t an exhaustive list, so feel free to add in some of your favorite healthy choices. Avoid highly processed carbs and hydrogenated fats as they will wreak havoc on your dieting efforts. Stick to whole-food protein sources for your main meals. Protein supplements are convenient and effective at certain times but relying on them too much won’t produce the type of results you’re after.



  • Lean beef, turkey, chicken, fish
  • Eggs, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt
  • Beans, legumes
  • Whey and casein protein powders



  • Starches: oats, sweet and white potatoes, whole grain breads and pastas, brown and white rice.
  • Fruits and vegetables: apples, oranges, all types of berries, spinach, green beans, broccoli, tomatoes, etc.



  • All types of nuts and seeds, natural nut butters
  • Avocados
  • Olive oil, flax oil, and fish oil 


Step Three: Plan Your Meals

To keep things simple, start your new eating plan with three main meals and two small snacks per day. The above macronutrient guidelines (measurements and types of foods) should be applied to those three main meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner). The snacks will include one in the afternoon and a post-workout shake on days you train. Adjust portions according to your training needs. Skip the post-workout shake on non-training days.


  • Afternoon snack: 1 palm-sized, easily digestible protein or 1 or 2 scoops of quality protein powder shake mixed with water and 1 piece of fruit.
  • Post-workout shake: 1 or 2 scoops of quality whey protein powder mixed with fruit and milk or water and one serving of healthy fats.


Sample muscle-building eating plan


  • Breakfast: oatmeal mixed with skim milk, 5 eggs (2 yolks and 5 whites) scrambled with spinach, peppers and onions
  • Lunch: chicken breast on wheat bread with cheese slices or with 1 sweet potato, mixed nuts, and an apple
  • Afternoon snack: Greek yogurt and berries
  • Post-workout: muscle-building recovery shake (whey, fruit, natural peanut butter)
  • Dinner: grouper or salmon fillet, wild rice, salad with added veggies and oil-based dressing



Is this enough food? What about all those plans calling for six or seven meals per day?


This plan is a starting line to get you into solid eating habits. Once those are established, you can adjust portion sizes up or down regarding your specific goals. Simple plans without the confusing guidelines that require a calculator yield the most success. Plus, imagine the time it would take to prepare and eat seven or more meals per day. No thanks.


How do I increase or decrease overall calories if I need to?


You can increase or decrease overall calories in two ways. To increase calories, either add an additional whole or half meal daily, or increase portion sizes of protein and/or carbohydrate in each meal by 50 percent. For example, men can add a meal with one palm size of protein and one full handful of carbs. To decrease calories, cut two starchy carbohydrate portions in half, or eliminate starches from one meal entirely (preferably at night). Experiment with one or the other to see which works best for you.


I need to lose weight but can’t seem to drop anymore weight. What do I do?


If you find that you have followed the plan closely and have plateaued or are struggling, try replacing a portion or two of starchy carbohydrates with more servings of vegetables. Veggies are filling and you can practically eat as much as you want, especially during fat-loss diets. You’ll feel fuller, longer. Also, be sure to keep water intake high.


Can I have a cheat day?


Yes. Since the diet plan includes plenty of healthy foods, little-to-no sugars, highly-refined carbs, and if you are progressing at a slow and even pace, a cheat meal is definitely in the picture. Just make sure it’s for one day and only a maximum of two meals for that day. Don’t go overboard with an all-weekend binge. Enjoy those two meals and have whatever you want.


What about additional supplements?


The plan mentions casein and whey protein powder as options for snacks and the post-workout shake. However, don’t get into the habit of taking too many supplements at once. Otherwise, how will you know which worked and which didn’t? Also, the overreliance on supplements will yield little benefit. Nothing beats whole food meals with natural sources of macro- and micronutrients.


What about alcohol?


Keep alcohol consumption at a minimum. Some consumption can be beneficial to overall health (e.g., red wine), but never overindulge. Only you will know how your body handles alcohol. If you are the type who likes to party on weekends and imbibe a little too much, then stop. Too much alcohol robs your muscles of precious recovery abilities by blunting protein synthesis (a vital muscle building process) and dehydrating muscle cells. If you choose to drink, infrequent and moderate is the way to go.   


Start Simple, Make Changes Slowly

If you are apprehensive about starting this plan, keep in mind that the important thing is to start somewhere. Once you get into a groove with portion sizes, macronutrients, and consistent eating you’ll soon learn how to shift gears. If you have to make changes, do so gradually and give each one a few weeks to take effect.


The side benefit of this plan is the reduction in stress and relief that you can finally enjoy life without constantly measuring and portioning food to exacting detail. Any plan is only as good as its execution. But the beauty of this plan is that it isn’t a complex math equation, just simple approximations that are easy to practice and adjust. Keep it simple, stay consistent, and train hard.


Do portion sizes matter as much as the quality of your food?

Let's Talk About Diet, Part 1: Quantity Versus Quality