Most of us want to be leaner and/or look better naked; as such fat loss tends to be the most common goal you come across in the fitness industry. At the heart of it fat loss is pretty simple, just eat less calories than you burn on a daily basis right? Easy.
If it’s that simple then why do so many of us eternally struggle to achieve it? I find with a lot of people they struggle with two main things: simply getting started and having a structure.
In this article I intend to lay out a step by step guide to setting up your own fat loss diet so that you can get started on your fat loss journey and know that you are on the right path.
Before we get started though let’s address a few hard truths about fat loss to make sure we’re not going to be blindsided but a huge dose of reality when we try to start our fat loss journey:
You need to monitor what you eat
If you want to make sure you are in a calorie deficit then you need to monitor your food intake in some way so you know how many calories you are eating! Also, we will need to adjust your food intake as we progress and it’s hard to adjust your food intake if you don’t know what it is in the first place. And no, it’s not obsessive. No-one questions your nan weighing out all the ingredients while she makes you your favourite brownies. So why is it then “obsessive” to weigh out what you’re going to put in your mouth when you’re trying to improve your health and wellbeing?
You will be hungry
Yes, huge shock here. Being hungry seems to be everyone’s greatest fear. As if they may fall dead of starvation if they get hungry for a few hours. Listen, if you want to lose a meaningful about of fat you WILL be hungry at times. Yes being hungry sucks, but so does looking like a walrus that has crawled on to land every time you strip down to your underwear. Decide which you want more.
It takes time
If it took you several years of over-eating to get to the position you are in, please don’t expect to be “ripped” in 12 weeks. Most people fail their fat loss journey because they simply have unrealistic expectations of how much fat they can lose in a time frame, or even how much fat they need to lose to look decent. You may even need to do more than one fat loss phase if you have quite a lot to lose, and that’s fine.
Step 1 - Estimate your calorie needs
Getting your calories correct is over 90% of the battle. Yes, macros, food quality, training strategies etc. all play a part. But none of those will make you lose fat if you are not in a calorie deficit. You’ll often hear “I just can’t lose weight even though I’m in a calorie deficit”.
I’m sorry this just doesn’t happen, mainly due to the laws of physics, which kind of govern the entire universe. It can happen in a few extremely rare circumstances, but I assure you, this is not you.
So let’s get this part correct. To start your fat loss diet you want to set your calories somewhere between 10 and 12 calories per pound of bodyweight. There will be some outliers (i.e. if you are extremely overweight, have a very high metabolism or have been in a deficit for too long) but this will work for the vast majority of people. If you have an active price plan, your numbers will be available on your training app.
The most accurate way however will be to assess how many calories you have been consuming on average leading up to this point. 100 calories less is enough to begin your deficit and will avoid us dropping too many calories too quickly. We will discuss this at the start of your training.
You have to understand that the initial part may be a trial and error process until we find the sweet spot. This will require you to be consistent and persistent in order to get accurate data. You can’t manage what you don't measure. So get this first bit right and you will make it easier in the long run.
Step 2 - Protein intake
If you only do Step 1 and stick to it then you’ll already be doing better than 90% of people when it comes to losing fat. But let’s go ahead and assume you are someone who wants to be lean AND muscular as opposed to “skinny”.
Keeping your protein intake high will help preserve (or even grow) muscle tissue during your fat loss phase. Keeping all our hard earned muscle is going to have a big impact on how we end up looking and feeling at the end of this journey. Plus there’s the added bonus of the fact that higher protein diets help you burn more calories indirectly through something called the Thermic-effect of food.
Protein intake – 1-1.25g per lb of bodyweight
This will be more than enough for most people. There’s no real evidence to suggest that more than 1g protein per lb of bodyweight will have any beneficial effect. However some people do just function very well on a high protein intake so there’s no need to change this during a fat loss phase. Protein can also be very satiating, so it can be worth keeping protein high for that reason alone.
Right if you’ve got your calories and protein intake nailed, congratulations, you’re 95%+ of the way to having an awesome fat loss plan. Now we’re going to be dealing with marginal gains and stuff that just helps the dieting process suck a little bit less. Which, is in fact very important, as the less crap you feel doing something the longer you will generally stick to it!
Step 3 - Carbs/Fats
This part is honestly down to personal preference now. There’s no scientific evidence to show that low/high carb/fat diets are superior so long as protein and calories are equal. So I would suggest going with what suits you best and matching it to the demands of your training phase.
I would however make the following suggestions:
High carb/Low Fat – Works better if you’re a naturally anxious or stressed person or if you’re life circumstances are particularly stressful currently. The extra carbs will help buffer cortisol and stop you feeling stressed out. I would also encourage this if your training volume is relatively high.
High fat/Low carb – Works better for people who are work well under-pressure and/or are very self-confident. These people tend to have a high tolerance for cortisol/stress and function better when adrenaline is high. I would avoid this if your training volume is high.
Step 4 - Food quality
The foods that you choose to eat while fulfilling your calorie/macro requirements DO matter. Yes it’s true you could definitely lose weight while hitting your targets from McDonalds and Oreos. In the short-term this may work just fine. But nothing great is ever achieved in the short-term and the goal here is to set us up for longterm, sustained success when it comes to becoming and staying lean.
Where possible you want to get as much of your diet from single ingredient “clean” food for many reasons:
Less calorie dense – meaning you can eat a higher food volume for the same number of calories. Helping you feel fuller for longer.
More micronutrients – when calories start to get low we don’t have as much food to get our daily vitamin and mineral requirements from. The lower calories get the more and more important it becomes that we stick to food high in micronutrients so that we hit our daily needs. And no, eating McDonalds and taking 2 daily multivitamins doesn’t get around this….
Gut Health – a high intake of processed, refined foods leads to a lot of gastric distress and inflammation. Which in turn can leave us feeling bloated, lethargic, nauseous amongst other things. Look after your gut and it will look after you. We want to feel good through this process remember.
Creating good eating habits – possibly the most important factor of all. Ok you may be able to diet down on burgers and ice cream. But then when you stop your “diet” and stop focussing on fat loss what foods do you think you’re going to be eating? You guessed it. These are probably the same foods that you got you fat in the first place right, why? Because they’re hyper palatable and calorie dense, the absolute deadliest mix when it comes creating habits of over-eating. Use your diet to engrain good dietary habits that you are going to keep with you in the long-term so you don’t fall in to the “yo-yo” dieting crowd.
Step 5 - Plan diet breaks
As I alluded to earlier, diet breaks are going to be essential for anyone who has a significant amount of fat to lose. If you have more than 10% of your bodyweight to lose then chances are you are not going or shouldn't do that in one phase.
A diet break will help you reset mentally and also help bring your metabolism back up so you can begin dieting down again on a higher food intake, rather than falling into the trap of forever slashing calories.
These are my guidelines regarding diet breaks:
Take a diet break when you have achieved 7.5-10% weight loss (compared to your bodyweight) at the latest, when progress has stalled significantly or when your workout performance is consistently reduced.