Let me see if this sounds familiar to you…
In April, you picked up a magazine that had some article about the ‘secrets’ behind losing fat for the summer – it probably told you about certain foods that you have to eat for fat loss, the magical property of an avocado that makes you lose weight (with no mention of a calorie deficit).
A few weeks later, you spoke to “that ripped guy/girl” at your gym, and they told you the real secret: carbs are the enemy, bro, cut them out.
But then you read some article on the latest vogue food/lifestyle blog talking about how you won’t lose weight unless you detox first; ah, you think, that’s it!
Confused by this myriad of conflicting (and incorrect) information, however, you find yourself doing nothing. Treading water.
And now it’s summer, and you’re still asking yourself the question: what do I do to lose fat?
Here’s 10 questions to help you troubleshoot your fat loss:
Troubleshoot no.1, always. If you’re not, then you’re not losing fat. If you are not losing fat, you need to make sure you have a rough idea of how much you’re eating.
This is vital, because research consistently shows that people are horribly inaccurate when it comes to estimating their calorie intake.
Stop estimating. You have two choices: track calories, or follow a portion control system.
Tracking calories can be off-putting for some, but an analogy I find helpful is that it’s like learning to ride a bike with stabilisers: once you gain an awareness of portion sizes, rough weights of food and rough calorie levels, you don’t need to track all the time beyond that. I find myfitnesspal to be the best app.
Another battle-tested method is the Precision Nutrition portion guidance system, using your hand as a visual portion guide. This system is flexible, and doesn’t involve conscious calorie counting, but is accurate and has helped thousands of people sustainably lose fat.
Many of the principles of fat loss are just nutrition best practices, emphasised.
The research is pretty clear: higher protein diets lead to greater fat loss over time, preserving lean muscle tissue in the process.
A debate has raged for years about the effects of low-carb diets on fat loss. One element of the research is consistently glossed over by low-carb advocates: that low-carb diets had higher protein intakes than the comparison (often low-fat) diet.
In fact, the weight loss attributable to low-carb diets is primarily a result of higher protein intake, regardless of whether that diet is also low carb or low fat.
So you need to ask whether protein forms the foundation of each meal you eat.
How much protein? As a starting point, I find it hard to go wrong with the Precision Nutrition portion guidelines: one palm-sized serving of protein at each meal for women, two for men. For a macronutrient target, 1.2-2.5g per kg bodyweight, the lower end if you’re sedentary, the higher end if you’re highly active and resistance training.
I can see you lean closer to your laptop screen: what does he mean, free food?!
What I mean is non-starchy vegetables. To lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit. This is incontrovertible, and non-negotiable.
The key is to make it sustainable. To do that, you want to feel like you’re eating a lot of volume of food.
And you can, once you’re eating any of the following: broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, celery, Chinese cabbage, onions, aubergine, courgette, beets, carrots, leeks, lettuce, radishes, peppers, tomatoes, Swiss chard, watercress, rocket, cucumber…
These foods are “free” because they have negligible calorie content, and also because it is the best way to get someone to eat more micronutrients and pack their diet with vitamins, minerals, fibre and water.
The options are endless, the only limit to your salads is your imagination. Your overall health, skin, energy, digestion and body composition will thank you.
It’s hard to continually have to write this sentence, but here goes: carbs will not make you fat on their own, eating more calories than you need will.
So yeah, if you are eating more than you need, and carbs are a significant portion of your daily intake, then cutting back on carbs will help you create a deficit.
But they are not a fat loss panacea. Focus on creating an overall deficit.
Another insidious element that has crept into nutrition, particularly with the rise of social media “gurus”, is this concept of “clean eating.” Or, that “bad foods” can prevent you losing weight (magically, again, without reference to calorie intake), and “good foods” can help you lose fat.
Where calories are matched (seeing a trend yet?) between diets with complex or simple carbs, high sugar and low sugar, low glycemic index or high glycemic index, total weight and body fat loss is relatively the same (although there are differences in health markers, for example LDL-cholesterol will come down with low GI carbs).
So there is no need to neurotically avoid anything you have been told is “bad”: stop putting a moral value on food, now. Be flexible
What this means, practically, to balance health with sustainability, is that you should focus on complex, nutrient dense carb sources (rice, quinoa, sweet & white potatoes, couscous) 90% of the time, and understand that when (because it’s inevitable) you want to eat some sugary empty calories, then it won’t stop your fat loss once you maintain your energy deficit.
As with anything in nutrition, moderation in this case is sorely lacking. Case in point is something I call “Paleo Syndrome.” This afflictive state is characterised by the person who avoids all carbs like the plague, gorges on nut butters and avocados, and remains fat. It is a river of self-denial.
Look, fat is healthy. But there is no need to ever overdo/restrict one macronutrient.
This is a particularly important point for strength training enthusiasts or Crossfitters (a population who especially bite the low-carb dogma hard): maintaining a higher carb intake at the expense of dietary fat is more effective at preserving lean muscle mass in an energy deficit.
On the other hand, fat-phobia is also still alive and well, particularly amongst women. It could be that low-fat products may in fact be halting your fat loss efforts: as a result of the “halo effect”, people are more likely to eat more of a product labelled “low fat” because they perceive it to be healthier. For more on this, read my previous article.
So, don’t get conned by low-fat advertising, and don’t get conned that you can eat as much fat as you like as long as you’re low-carb.
Even without the diet troubleshoots, alcohol is where many of our fat loss efforts stall.
People conveniently forget that there are calories in alcohol. People also conveniently forget about the calories they eat while under the influence of alcohol.
Alcohol ranks second behind dietary fat in caloric value; fat has 9 calories per gram, alcohol 7 (protein and carbs have 4 calories per gram).
And alcohol is technically an energy nutrient, but we don’t derive any nutrition from it.
You want to maintain your focus on what matters: your energy deficit. In this sense, treat alcohol dispassionately i.e. treat it like any other energy nutrient. If you’re going to drink, reduce your carbs and fat to make room for the calories that come from alcohol.
To date, the best advice I’ve come across about preventing alcohol contributing to fat gain/halting fat loss is this post.
To sum the points made in that article:
If you’re someone who drinks moderately and often (a glass or two of wine with dinner, for example), then you can always just include that in your daily calorie totals the way you would any other food.
It bears repeating here though; none of these strategies matter if you raid Burger King at 3am.
What is the “Kellogg’s Method”, you ask? It’s a term I use for a widely held misconception that we should shovel carbs in at breakfast, usually taking the form of breakfast cereal washed down with a concentrated fruit juice.
I have explained elsewhere why morning carbs are a disaster; the cliff notes version is that high carb breakfasts lead to a quicker return of hunger by mid-morning, and more calories consumed at lunch.
Contrary to everything you’ve been told, eating a majority of your carbs in the evening leads to greater weight loss than the same amount of carbs spread throughout the day. Evening carbs also promote better sleep, and attenuate the stress hormone cortisol, both of which are important factors in fat loss (See no.’s 9 & 10 below).
Shift away from conventional wisdom: emphasise protein and fat early in the day, shift your main carbohydrate meal to the evening.
It pains me to see people grinding out miles pounding the pavement, and wondering why they’re not shedding fat, or worse – are skinny-fat.
One of the keys to effective fat loss is having a high metabolic rate, or the amount of calories you burn just by laying on the couch. The biggest influence on your resting metabolic rate is the amount of lean muscle tissue you carry, so strength training becomes an important weapon in your fat loss arsenal, as resistance training can prevent lean body mass loss.
In addition, high intensity interval training (like cycle sprints) leads to adaptations that increase our capacity to burn fat. Resistance training also leads to better glucose uptake, meaning increased carbohydrate tolerance.
If you want to accelerate fat loss, focus on adding resistance and/or high intensity interval training to a controlled calorie deficit.
And remember the importance of preserving lean body mass for fat loss? Well lack of sleep can make you lose up to 55% more lean body mass than someone eating the same diet but sleeping 8 hours per night.
The message is clear: prioritise your sleep.
There is a relationship with stress and fat loss as the stress hormone cortisol also has a role in regulating blood sugar, increasing blood glucose levels in response to stress.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels promote abdominal fat accumulation. Compounding this cortisol-mediated propensity for increased abdominal fat, chronic stress and high cortisol levels lead to increased desire for high calorie junk foods.
In a nutshell, when you’re stressed you make bad food choices and store more of it around your waistline.
You need to create a calorie deficit. You can choose to track calories, or use a portion control system like PN. Both are effective. Choose what works for you.
If you want to calculate calories for fat loss, keep it simple: multiply your bodyweight in pounds by 10-12 for an aggressive calorie deficit, or 12-14 for a more moderate deficit or if you’re strength training 3-4 times per week.
The foundation of every meal should be a protein source.
For animal protein sources (meat, fish, poultry) eat 1 palm sized serving for women and two for men. For dairy sources like cottage cheese or Greek yogurt, one cup serving. For plant-based dieters, 1/2-cup (women) to 1 cup (men) serving of legumes at least twice per day.
If counting calories, set protein at 2g per kg bodyweight: so if you’re 85kg, you’ll eat 170g protein. Subtract the protein calories (170 x 4 = 680kcal) from your targeted calorie total.
There is no prescription here, other than to eat as much non-starchy veg as you like.
Eat less if you’re overweight. Eat more if you’re lean and/or training intensely.
Remember that there are no “bad” foods, only too many calories – so yeah you can eat the apple fritter pastry, just keep your calories in check and make sure 80-90% of your diet is whole food starchy carbs and 1-2 pieces of whole fruit per day (preference depending).
If you don’t want to count calories, then follow this simple prescription: keep carbs low in the morning and during the early part of the day, focusing on non-starchy veg and 1-2 pieces of whole fruit, then have 1-2 servings (the size of your fist – 1 for women, 2 for men) of starchy carbs in the evening with dinner.
If you are counting calories, then set carbs based on your current body fat and activity.
If you’re lean and strength training, set protein and fat first.
In our example above, the 85kg individual is eating 170g or 680kcal of protein per day, and for arguments sake is targeting 2,000kcal per day. Setting fat at 25% calories means he’ll eat 500kcal of fat (2000 × .25 = 500), so 500 ÷ 9 = 55g fat per day. Subtracting the combined fat and protein calories (680 + 500 = 1,180kcal) off his target (2,000) leaves him with 820kcal for carbs, which gives him 205g carbs per day (820 ÷ 4).
So he ends up with a macronutrient profile conducive to strength training in an energy deficit for fat loss:
If you’re overweight, then do the opposite: set carbs at 25% of calorie intake, and divide the remaining calories by 9 to portion the remainder to fat. In this case, an overweight individual at the same weight would end up with:
As far as timing goes, consume a majority of these carbs in the evening and/or post workout
Don’t get conned by the halo effect into eating more of a low-fat product.
And don’t get conned by “Paleo Syndrome” and the idea that you can eat all the fat you like as long as you restrict carbs.
Balance your fats – eat oily fish 2-3 times per week or take a good fish oil supplement. Balance your omega-3:omega-6 ratio by increasing fish oils and minimising processed and packaged foods. Your saturated fat will come as a by-product of animal produce intake, and/or you can add coconut or butter.
Set fat in relation to your carbohydrate intake as set out in step 3 above.
Either track alcohol calories as you would food into your target daily calorie intake, or eat protein and veg only, with no added fats or carbs on days you plan on drinking, saving a calorie buffer for alcohol.
Avoid beer and cocktails where possible, drink wine and spirits with sugar-free mixers.
And avoid the late-night cave in.
Eat protein, fat and veg for breakfast and lunch. Have a piece of fruit or two through the day if you like. Save your starch for dinner.
Resistance train. Do sprints outdoors, on a bike, or on a rowing machine.
Improve your sleep hygiene. Sleep 8 hours a night.
Meditate. Do yoga. Read. Do whatever takes you into a no-mind state.
And lastly: focus on the process, not the goal.