Updated: Jan 18, 2021
I know what you're thinking. Another list of click-baity fat loss tips and tricks. Well, you're wrong. I'm here to hit you with the truth about fat loss.
This time of year I get tons of inquiries about how to lose weight. Almost 12 years into my career in the fitness and health industry I can 100% say it is the most common fitness goal folks have. Now, when people say they want to lose weight what they really mean is they want to lose fat. I don't think anyone has ever told me they want to lose muscle. The ideal scenario is to lose fat while maintaining as much muscle as possible.
Big media outlets, click-bait articles, "gurus" who have no idea what they're talking about, and everyone trying to get a big audience with a weird niche have made this fitness endeavor extremely confusing. I wrote this article in an attempt to cut through the nonsense forest of misinformation with my evidence-based machete.
Keto, low carb, low fat, intermittent fasting, paleo, vegan, Atkins, Whole30, juicing, detox this and cleanse that, carnivore?! Whatever the hell... all of them have some type of gimmick, some type of hook, some type of fear-mongering. The people who advocate for and abide by these diets do so religiously and get angry with anyone who dares not to obey their nutritional dogma. All of these diets try to instill this type of all or none mentality that you have to do the particular diet forever or you will never lose fat, be thin, be healthy, make money, laugh, or live until your next birthday. It's too much.
If you're tired of the bullshit, keep reading. If you want to try 3 or 4 more guru's methods while yo-yo'ing in bodyweight, feeling restricted in your diet, and making no progress, go for it! I'll see you back here in a year or so.
Here are the REAL pillars of fat loss. No bullshit. No gimmick. I am not selling anything. You can do all of this stuff on your own after reading this article and never pay me a dime. This is just truth based on YEARS and YEARS of actual science. If you want to actually lose fat, keep it off, and learn how to sustain a healthy lifestyle, keep reading and stay tuned at the end for a few relevant tangents!
Pillar 1: Calorie Balance
We have heard this over and over again.. calories in versus calories out. It's simple! Yet, telling someone that they need to move more and eat less is like telling someone with severe depression to "cheer up!" Just because something is simple, doesn't mean it's easy. Here is a breakdown of the calories in/calories out model.
Our total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is comprised of our basal metabolic rate (BMR), plus our non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), plus our thermic effect of food (TEF), plus our exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT). The goal of a fat loss diet would be to make this TDEE greater than our total daily caloric intake.
This graphic should help visualize the relative contributions of each of these factors. BMR is huge! NEAT (activity just moving around living life) is also pretty big! The thermic effect of food and exercise aren't as huge but it all adds up.
You can estimate these numbers for yourself based on scientifically derived calculations.
Calculate your TDEE using the following:
Use a BMR Calculator like this one to figure out your basal metabolic rate.
Use activity multipliers to estimate your (NEAT + TEF + EAT) to give you the total TDEE
Little/no exercise - sedentary = BMR x 1.2
Light activity/exericse 1-3x/week = BMR x 1.375
Moderate activity/exercise 3-5x/week = BMR x 1.55
Heavy activity/exericse 6 days/week = BMR x 1.725
Extreme activity/exercise every day = BMR x 1.9
Take this number and subtract 300-500 as a START point for calories for fat loss. Monitor your bodyweight or circumference measurements or body composition for a few weeks and see how you do. These are all estimations, anyone who tells you anything is exact is lying. This is going to be trial and error for a little bit. BUT! These numbers get pretty damn close and are an excellent starting point.
Note: Many things can go into BMR including age, gender, size, hormones, etc. Worrying about all that minutiae doesn't help and may just mean that your BMR is different than what a calculator says. No worries! Just try to start out like mentioned above, if after 2 weeks there is no progress (or weight gain) just reduce and continue along.
Pillar 2: Macronutrient Balance
Macronutrients are the carbohydrates, proteins, and fats we consume from foods or supplements. These molecules make up all of the food we eat.
By manipulating your macronutrients within your calorie allotment you can further optimize your nutrition for fat loss (or any goal).
Here is a very brief overview of the macronutrients.
Protein carries 4 calories per gram and can be found in lean meats, dairy, fish, egg whites, protein powders, etc. Protein is the first macronutrient to get dialed in because of its unique ability to help maintain muscle mass during a fat loss diet. What's the point of losing weight if it's all muscle?? Protein also has a relatively high thermic effect and is important for satiety; feeling full. Higher satiety during a diet improves adherence to the diet. Something that you cannot adhere to will never work.
Carbohydrates also carry 4 calories per gram. Carbs are found in fruit, vegetables, rice, oats, grains, and lots of other stuff. Carbohydrates are essential to fuel high-performance exercise and are going to be a great source of dietary fiber and micronutrients that you cannot get in sufficient quantities elsewhere. Carbohydrate intake should be sufficient to fuel exercise and satisfy your own dietary preferences. If you find that you like more carbs in your diet, include more in your diet. If you find that you like fats more, include more fats. Manipulating fats and carbs within your calorie allotment for fat loss does not matter as much as people like to think when calories and protein are controlled.
Fats carry 9 calories per gram. These little molecules are very energy-dense but are also essential for health (EFAs). Nuts and avocados supply healthy fats, micronutrients, and fiber. Oils and fatty fish supply omega 3 fatty acids that are beneficial for health. Fats are very easy to overeat being that they are so tasty and carry more calories per gram than the other macronutrients. Just like carbs, if you prefer a diet higher in fat then go for it! Just make sure you lower the carbs so you are still within your fat loss calories.
Calculate your macros.
Set protein at 1g/lb of bodyweight. If you weigh 150lbs, consume 150g/day.
Set carbs based on exercise intensity and preference. A good start point is 1.5-2g/lb of bodyweight. If you weigh 150lbs, consume 225-300g/day.
Fill in the rest with fats. For health, fat shouldn't really be below 10-15% of total caloric intake. Around 20-30% of caloric intake seems to be a good place for most. 0.4g/lb of body weight is a good place to start. If you weigh 150 lbs, around 60g/day of fat could be appropriate.
The total for this example would be:
150g protein, 275g carb, 60g fats = 2240 calories.
If after calculating these macros the total calories are in excess of the calculated fat loss calories, simply remove some carbs/fats until you are at an appropriate but reasonable deficit for fat loss. (See Pillar 1 if you need a refresher).
Pillar 3: Food Quality
Depending on where people are starting, food quality can have a huge impact on their fat loss. Higher "quality" foods in this sense are those that have tons of nutrients but fewer calories per unit of weight. An extreme example would be broccoli versus skittles. Obviously, broccoli is healthier than skittles, but why? 100g of broccoli is about 30 calories, 3g protein, 5g carbs, 2.5g fiber, and 0g fat plus a slew of vitamins and minerals. 100g of skittles is 405 calories, 0g protein, 90g carbs, 0g fiber, 4g fat, and virtually no vitamins or minerals. Broccoli is a very nutrient-dense food.
Many people who have a lot of weight to lose can simply eat higher-quality foods and drop pounds because they are inadvertently eating fewer calories.
Whole foods like lean meats, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, oats, potatoes, nuts, seeds, etc are much more nutrient-dense and contain much more fiber than their highly processed counterparts.
So you can eat more (in terms of food weight, not calories), feel full, and lose fat just by focusing on quality.
If you are already fairly lean, and already eat mostly high-quality foods then Pillars 1 & 2 also need to be paid attention to for further progress.
This week try to focus on eating mostly whole foods, a lot of vegetables and fruit, and a lot of fiber. Try to make 80-90% of your total diet from these foods. This is not only beneficial for fat loss but also general health as a higher micronutrient and dietary fiber intake is associated with better health outcomes.
Pillar 4: Sustainability & Adherence
Consistency > perfection. Nothing will work unless you can do it for a long time. Most of the popular diets proposed by media outlets, magazines, your favorite guru or influencer are restrictive in some way. Either restricting food groups, food additives, entire macronutrients, bizarre categories of foods based on color, restricting foods based on blood type (most ridiculous yet), or restricting eating windows and times. Time and time again, when compared to non-restrictive diets these diets have much higher dropout rates and much worse adherence. This inevitably leads the individual to gain any weight lost back and usually more.
Finding something that is sustainable for you is what you will adhere to. Sticking to higher-quality foods (see Pillar 3) 90% of the time but allowing the things you like the other 10% will set you up for a lifetime of success.
Take this dinner I had the other night for example:
Lean protein (top round steak is very lean)
High fiber (broccoli + sweets have tons)
High food volume
Tons of micronutrients
Some stuff I just like (the ketchup)
If you can't stick to a diet while eating dinners like this then maybe this isn't the best time to be attempting a fat loss diet.
If you can adhere to this diet while trying to lose fat then adhering to it during maintenance will be a piece of cake. I know it's cliche to read, but it's literally just a lifestyle at that point. This will look a little different for everyone. For my clients that I have had great success with we focus on the big pillars and allow the food they enjoy in moderation. It seems simple. The execution is not always easy, but it is simple.
These pillars aren't sexy. They don't sell magazines. They won't make me any money. But they work. And they will keep working forever. And they will allow you to have a life AFTER dieting that does not include a rebound of weight.
Want more guidance for your fat loss efforts?
Contact me to set some goals and smash them with my sports nutrition coaching and online personal training.
Thank you for reading. If you found this helpful, please share this article with friends, family, or online!
Tangent 1: All of the aforementioned bullshit fad diets that claim any results do so by creating a calorie deficit by restricting the time you're allowed to eat or what foods you can eat. If you cut out an entire macronutrient (no carbs) then duh you're going to be eating fewer calories. All the other nonsense they claim is just that, nonsense and has not been validated in the literature against calorie and protein controlled diets that are far less restrictive.
Tangent 2: Research is extremely difficult to read and interpret. One single study cannot be taken as gospel because there are probably 5-6 saying the opposite. The more into the research you get, the more difficult you will find it to read and interpret new studies. That is why I rely on Systematic Reviews/Meta-analysis and Industry Position Statements. Professional researchers analyze all this stuff for you and put it into one package. My reference for this article is the ISSN 2017 Position Stand on Diets and Body Composition.
Tangent 3: If you, or someone you know, have found success with any of these fad diets or restrictive methods then good for you! You are an outlier. Individuals may find some of these approaches work for them and their lifestyle or preferences, but they are likely still an extremely inappropriate recommendation for the masses.