Weight loss is simple. Eat less, move more, and you will get smaller over time.
Yet, despite the simplicity, countless people struggle to make noticeable progress. Even more people struggle to lose actual fat and maintain their muscle.
So, what’s the problem? Information overload.
The internet is a true blessing because we now have access to all of the information we need on virtually any topic. But, that information can overwhelm and confuse people because everyone suggests different things.
To that end, we’ve put together this ultimate dieting guide. In it, we’ll go over absolutely everything you need to know to burn fat and maintain your muscle mass.
Let’s dive in.
First Things First
Before we move any further, we have to discuss three critical points:
- Turning fat into muscle is impossible
- At its core, weight loss is about being in a calorie deficit
- Your goal shouldn’t be weight loss but fat loss
First, understand that turning fat into muscle cannot happen. There is no physiological basis for ever thinking that you can transform a pound of fat into the same amount of muscle. The two tissues are fundamentally different and serve unique roles in the body. Instead, you can lose fat while building some muscle, leaving the impression that you’re turning fat into muscle.
Second, while weight loss might feel incredibly difficult and complex, don’t forget that it all comes down to creating and sustaining a calorie deficit. You must consume fewer calories than you burn, forcing your body to break down fat and lean tissue for the remaining energy it needs to function. The age-old advice of eating less and moving more holds truth because it helps you establish the necessary deficit for weight loss.
Of course, actual fat loss is a bit more complex than just being a deficit, so we’ve put together this guide for you. Speaking of that, when going about getting leaner, your goal shouldn’t be to simply drop scale weight. Instead, you should aim to lose actual fat, which is what brings health benefits and improves how your body looks.
Weight loss can occur from losing fat, water, glycogen, muscle, etc. You might weigh less, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you look better. In contrast, fat loss is concrete, and you know precisely what the objective is. We’ll go over everything you need to know about both and how to focus on fat loss instead of obsessing over scale weight.
The Five Nutritional Fundamentals of Effective Fat Loss
1. A Moderate Calorie Deficit
Quick fat loss is a goal of many people but rushing the process often leads to significant muscle loss. Sure, you drop weight more quickly, but you also become weaker and struggle to achieve your desired lean and athletic look.
According to research, a weight loss rate of 0.5 to 1 percent per week appears ideal for most people. Folks with a higher body fat percentage can lose weight more quickly because they are at a lower risk of muscle loss. In contrast, leaner individuals and those who have been dieting for a long time should lose weight more slowly to protect their lean tissue.
A calorie deficit of 400 to 500 calories is ideal for most people because it leads to quick enough weight loss to keep them engaged without putting them at a high risk of muscle loss. For example, if your daily calorie expenditure (more on that below) is 2,900 calories, you should consume no less than 2,400-2,500 calories daily.
2. An Adequate Protein Intake
Consuming enough protein is equally as crucial for effective fat loss. Proteins are organic molecules that consist of amino acids––the building blocks of life. Eating enough of the nutrient promotes muscle recovery, maintains optimal protein turnover rates (the continual replacement of old proteins with new ones), and supports your health. As a result, you can maintain your muscle and lose primarily fat.
Protein is also crucial for healthy metabolism and satiety. Protein has the highest satiety score among the three macronutrients, making it essential during a diet. On top of that, protein has the highest thermic effect (between 20 and 35 percent). For every 100 calories worth of protein you consume, your body expends 20 to 35 calories to break down and absorb the nutrient.
3. A Meal Frequency That Works For You
Do a quick Google search, and you’ll come across dozens of recommendations for your meal frequency, especially as it relates to fat loss. Some people recommend a lower eating frequency combined with intermittent fasting, whereas others suggest eating more often to stroke your metabolism and burn more calories.
The truth is that research doesn’t find meal frequency to play a role in your overall calorie intake, diet adherence, or results. What matters most is that you follow a frequency you enjoy and consume the right amount of calories.
4. Enough Carbohydrates and Fats
While most people obsess over their protein intake during fat loss, eating enough carbs and fats is equally important. Both nutrients play crucial roles in our health, and not consuming either can lead to issues that lead to sub-optimal results.
For example, carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for the body, and getting enough of them is crucial for your energy levels, well-being, training recovery, and gym performance. Consuming enough carbs leads to better workouts, allowing you to maintain more muscle and strength as you diet.
Fats aren’t as essential in the short run, but they are crucial for numerous internal processes that dictate your health and well-being. Most notably:
- Hormonal balance
- Brain health
- Nutrient absorption
- Cell formation and protection
- Organ protection
5. Proper Food Selection
Fat loss mostly comes down to being in a calorie deficit, eating enough protein, and doing some resistance training. Still, food selection plays a role because of three things:
- Supplying your body with micronutrients and fiber
- Feeling fuller and more satisfied after eating
- Maintaining steady energy levels throughout the day
First, eating whole foods is better for your health and well-being because they supply your body with the many vitamins and minerals it needs to carry out its internal processes. You also get to consume more fiber, which is necessary for gut health and healthy bathroom habits.
Second, whole foods tend to be more satiating than processed ones. As a result, you feel more satisfied throughout the day and find it easier to stick with the necessary caloric restriction for fat loss.
Third, whole foods contribute to steady energy levels and prevent your blood sugar levels from moving up and down. As a result, you feel better, you’re more productive, and you’re at a lower risk of the dreaded afternoon slump.
How to Set Up Your Nutrition For Sustainable Fat Loss
Step 1: Determine Your Calorie Intake
The first step to setting up an effective fat loss diet is to determine your calorie intake and calculate a deficit. As discussed above, being in a calorie deficit drives weight loss, so don’t skip this step.
To get started, we will first need to calculate your “maintenance calories”, which is the number of calories your body needs to intake a day to support your calorie expenditure, or to put it simply, maintain your weight. Everyone’s maintenance calories are different because there are various factors to consider. Your maintenance calories will change over time, so it is essential to recalculate them every few months. The first step in calculating your maintenance calories is calculating your BMR (Basal Metabolic Formula), which is essentially calories burned while your body is at rest. Then you should factor in calories burned through activity, so you must multiply your BMR x the “Activity Multiplier.” The activity multiplier is based on how active your lifestyle is.
For this calculation, we will use what’s called the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation. It is a very accurate formula to calculate maintenance calories.
BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)
BMR = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age in years)
BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)
BMR = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) – (6.8 x age in years)
Once you’ve determined your BMR, multiply the value by the one that best reflects your activity level:
|sedentary||little or no exercise||BMR x 1.2|
|lightly active||light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week||BMR x 1.375|
|moderately active||moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week||BMR x 1.55|
|very active||hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week||BMR x 1.725|
|extra active||very hard exercise/sports & physical job or 2x training||BMR x 1.9|
This calculation will provide you with a rough estimate of your “maintenance calories”––the total number of calories you burn each day. To lose weight, you will want to be working on a calorie deficit (calories in are lower than calories out). You would want a calorie deficiency so that your body is forced to draw from stored body fat for energy, which is why you would lose weight. Generally, 1 pound of fat is equal to about 3,500 calories, and it is safe to lose between 1-2 pounds of fat a week. For moderate weight loss, your calories in should be 500 less than your calories out. For extreme weight loss, you safely do between a 500-1000 calorie deficiency.
Step 2: Calculate Your Macronutrients
Once you’ve determined your calories, it’s time to calculate your macronutrients ratio. Your macronutrient ratio will depend on your goal, for example, weight loss. Keep in mind that there is no definite “correct answer” to a macronutrient ratio. You will have to play around with it.
For weight loss we recommend the following ratio:
- 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight
- 0.35 to 0.45 grams of fats per pound of body weight
- Remaining calories from carbohydrates
For instance, if you weigh 180 pounds, it might look like this:
- 144 to 180 grams of protein daily
- 63 to 81 grams of fats daily
- Remaining calories from carbs
Don’t worry too much about your precise macronutrient intakes. Follow the above rules, and you will set yourself up for great success.
Recalculate Your Calories Frequently
You need to recalculate your calories every few weeks. As your weight changes, your required calories will also change. You will stop seeing results if your calculated calories are not updated.
Step 3: Start Tracking Your Nutrition
Once you’ve done the initial calculation, it all comes down to getting started with tracking. A simple solution is to download an app like MyFitnessPal and make an account. Start logging the foods you’re consuming and their respective amounts. The great thing about such apps is they do all the calculations for you, making it effortless to track how many calories and macronutrients you consume daily.
You should also get yourself a simple kitchen scale for weighing your foods. Eyeballing food amounts can also work, but humans are bad at estimating their calorie intake by looking. A scale ensures greater accuracy, making it easier to reach your goals.
Mistakes People Make When Dieting to Lose Fat
1. Being Impatient
The biggest mistake people make when dieting is rushing the process because they want results quickly. The problem with rushing is that you must eat much fewer calories than you’d like, resulting in excessive hunger and making you more likely to give up.
On top of the above, rushing the process also increases the risk of muscle loss because your body can only break down so much fat in a given period. Plus, a lower calorie intake would make you feel tired and weak, resulting in worse training that further puts you at risk of muscle loss.
2. Not Tracking Progress
The second common error when dieting is not tracking progress, making it difficult to know if you’re on the right track. As a result, you’re more likely to make rash decisions or change things when you shouldn’t.
Here are some of the best ways to track fat loss progress:
- Average weekly weight – weigh yourself at least four times per week, calculate the averages, and monitor changes from week to week
- Progress photos – photograph yourself from multiple angles once per month and track your visual progress over time
- Circumference measurements – use a tape measure to track circumferences of your arms, chest, waist, hips, and thighs every month
- Gym progress – log your workouts inside a notebook or a training app to monitor your performance as you get leaner
3. Not Eating Enough Protein
As stated numerous times before, getting enough protein is crucial for your health and fitness. Consuming enough of the nutrient is even more critical while losing fat because you’re at a higher risk of muscle loss.
On top of that, not getting enough protein can slow down your post-workout recovery, impair your performance, and harm your health.
4. Dieting too Frequently
The last huge mistake is dieting too frequently and always trying to stay lean. Doing so might make you feel good, but being in a calorie deficit all the time stops you from building muscle.
Dieting should be used sparingly and proportionally to your time spent in a calorie surplus for muscle growth.