Get on social media or the internet and you will see people go back and forth on which diet is better for fat loss.
“I did keto and lost 15lbs!”
“Yeah well I did intermittent fasting and lost 10lbs!”
“I went vegan and lost 15lbs!”
“I cut out all carbs and lost 20lbs!”
No wonder people spend more time figuring out what diet protocol is “best” for fat loss.
The truth is, any diet protocol can work, as long as it does one fundamental thing: gets you into a negative energy balance over time.
*Side note: Negative energy balance can also be called a calorie deficit. Energy out can also be called burning calories. You will see these being used interchangeably throughout this article.
Once you can understand this fundamental principle of energy balance, fat loss becomes much easier and you won’t fall for the newest fad diet.
There is nothing wrong with following certain diet protocols like keto, low carb, or intermittent fasting.
However, these diet protocols don’t do a good job of keeping this off long term or educating people on why/how they are losing body fat. Restrictive protocols have been shown to be less effective long term compared to more flexible approaches.
Lastly, learning about energy balance does a great job of getting people to take responsibility for their actions.
You won’t say things like it’s my genetics, or my hormones are messed up so that’s why I can’t lose weight. While both of these can potentially make it tougher to get into a negative energy balance, they take the responsibility away from you. By taking the responsibility out of your hands, you all but ensure that fat loss will be an uphill battle.
So let’s get into the fundamentals of energy balance and how you burn body fat without restrictive diet protocols.
What is a calorie deficit?
Simply put, it’s consuming less energy (calories) than you burn each day.
The energy in part is all of the food you eat on a regular basis, even those small handfuls of chips you eat periodically throughout the day still count as calories, unfortunately.
Some foods have more calories than others.
Energy out (burning calories) is a bit more complicated and is usually broken up into four categories.
Resting metabolic rate (RMR): is the energy burned for basic bodily functions. One way to think of it is the amount of energy used when you are at rest. This makes up a large portion of the energy out side of the equation, about 60-75% (going to vary from person to person).
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF): is the amount of energy burned via absorption and digestion. Yes, the calories you consume require calories to digest and absorb. This makes up about 8-10% of the energy expenditure side.
Exercise Activity (EA): this is the activity that is deliberate exercise: running, weight lifting, sports, etc. This factor can have a high variability from one person to the next. For example, a sedentary person could burn 100 calories per day, whereas an athlete could burn 3,000 calories per day from activity.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): this is all of your movements that are not deliberate. Talking, blinking, fidgeting, walking to do everyday chores like going to the bathroom, cleaning etc. In a previous article, I went over how NEAT goes down as you lose weight and how to increase NEAT levels.
These four factors make up the energy expenditure side of the equation. There can be a huge variability between two people (which is why there is no magic calorie amount to lose or gain weight).
Summary: Energy balance is energy in (calories consumed) – energy out (RMR, NEAT, EA, TEF).
In order to lose weight we need energy out to be greater than energy in.
Energy balance varies from person to person
Energy balance in itself is fairly easy to understand, where it gets complicated is how the energy out portion can vary from person to person. Here are some ways it changes from person to person.
Things that affect the energy out portion:
- Body size- those who are bigger, tend to burn more calories. On the other hand, smaller people burn fewer calories
- Age- The older you get the fewer calories you burn. Compared to younger people, who burn more calories.
- Genetics- Some people just burn more calories than others because of their genetics.
- Gender- Men tend to burn more calories than women. Most likely due to men being bigger on average.
- More lean mass- Those who have more lean mass (think muscle), will burn more calories than someone who has less lean mass.
For example, an active tall male that has a good amount of muscle and genetically has an active metabolism uses much more energy throughout the day than a sedentary female, who is short, does not have much muscle, and genetically has a metabolism that is much more efficient with its energy. This is why some people can eat 3000 calories per day and still lose weight, while someone could be struggling to lose weight on 1,200 calories.
What is the best way to find out if you are in a calorie deficit, surplus, or maintenance?
Tracking your scale weight. If it’s going down over time, then you are in a deficit. If it’s not moving much, you are in maintenance, if it’s going up then you are in a calorie surplus.
The other tricky part about energy balance is that the longer you are in a calorie deficit, the more your feelings of hunger increase, in this old article I go over ways to reduce your hunger when dieting.
If you aren’t sure how to track your fat loss progress, read this article.
If you feel like you are already eating a very small amount of food, then make sure you check out this article to see if you are making this common mistake.
One thing to consider, being in a calorie deficit over the week is much more important than what happens on a day to day timeframe.
So one bad day won’t ruin your progress, or vice versa.
Here are strategies we work on with online clients to get them into a calorie deficit
Portion control: hand portions/weighing food
Figuring out portion sizes for your body’s needs are very important. Most of us have been taught to eat whatever is in front of us, what this does is gets you to ignore and override important hunger/fullness cues from your body. Many people just aren’t aware of this and will overeat by 100-500 calories per meal, even if it’s healthy foods.
So finding portion sizes that meet your goals and body are important.
One thing that we will work on with online clients is hand portions. Hand portions are great because you have them with you at all times, and your hands are proportional to your body.
Another option to nail down portion sizes is weighing your foods with a digital food scale.
Getting a food scale and portioning out foods can also be great. This allows you to see what an actual portion size looks like. You do not have to do this forever, however, weighing foods every 3-6 months (for about 4-8 weeks at a time) is probably a good idea. You wouldn’t believe how quickly you can forget what a portion size looks. I personally only weigh foods when I am cutting (about 2-3 times per year).
How to use a food scale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kizveVq2jyM&t=4s
Tracking calories/macros: give calorie examples and macros
Tracking calories and your macros are probably the gold standard for getting you into a calorie deficit. However, it requires the most work.
The more experience I get coaching others, the more I realize how important tracking your calories and macros at least once is for learning how to get into a calorie deficit.
Without tracking you are blind.
I like to think of it as a budget.
If you are trying to save money, you start to track your income and expenses to see where you can make changes to save more money.
The same is true with tracking calories.
Here are some examples to give you an idea what your calorie intake could be if you want gain, maintain, or lose.
Multiply your weight in pounds by these numbers.
For example, a 170lb person wanting to cut would do 170 x 11.
A lot of people get anxiety about tracking calories.
However, this doesn’t have to be a permanent thing. With online clients we work through nutrition phases, and one of those phases could be tracking your calories for 4-12 weeks. Then eventually you would take a break. Maybe you track again down the line, or maybe you don’t.
Increasing physical activity: weight train, increase activity
This seems like common sense. However, there are many people who don’t move much at all. They usually have a sedentary job and are used to not being active throughout their life.
With clients, we work on increasing activity through steps. Tracking steps can be a great way to increase your activity which will help you get into a calorie deficit. Also, higher activity levels can help with better appetite regulation . Aim for 8k plus steps per day.
Resistance training is a must. Remember, those who have more lean mass (muscle) burn more calories.
With online clients we have them work on picking a day to meal prep. Sunday is the most common day. Ideally, we would prep for the trouble meals like lunch and dinner for the workweek.
These are problem meals because:
You likely don’t have time to cook a healthy meal
Higher stress levels so you are more likely to give in to poor food choices
Tired from work, so you don’t have the energy/willpower to put into a healthy meal
By having these meals meal prepped for the week you avid all 3 of these problems, and more importantly you arent “winging it”.
Here is a great article from Jeremiah Bair going over how to meal prep.
Eat most meals at home
Simple, when you go out to eat it is tough to eat in a calorie deficit. The goal of restaurants and fast food places is to get you to come back, so they are going to make it taste good, they dont care about your fat loss goals.
Not to mention the portion sizes are large and are not personalized to you. Studies have shown that eating out regularly is associated with higher body fat levels and less fruit/veggie consumption.
For online clients, we focus on limiting meals outside of your house to 1-3 per week.
Keep meals simple
A lot of times clients make choosing meals super complicated. They do this by wanting something new every time they eat or just trying to make overly complicated meals.
The truth is that for fat loss your meals are going to be boring most of the time.
Pick one from each category (a few examples):
Protein: chicken, turkey, fish, lean ground beef, lean cut of steak, protein powder
Carbohydrates: rice, potatoes, oats, tortilla, bread, pasta
Vegetables: broccoli, asparagus, carrots, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, spinach
You can mix and match and you have meals for weeks.
There are a variety of spices and sauces/dressings you can use to make these meals more tasty.
Limit processed foods
Processed foods make it tough to maintain a lower caloric intake since most of these foods are high in calories and low in nutrients. They make it tough to eat in moderation, and even worse they make you want to eat more. Check out this article on processed vs unprocessed foods.
If you are looking for expert training and nutrition coaching then apply for online coaching here.