Go to Google and type in “weight loss” or “fat loss”.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
That is a lot of results, isn’t it? And for good reason.
According to the Center for Disease Control, the number of adults in the United States who are either overweight or obese is 69%. Its no wonder that there are so many articles, programs, and diets aimed at helping people lose weight.
Now, you may be thinking, “If there is so much information about weight loss available, why are obesity rates so high?”
Well, for one thing, just because there is a lot of information out there doesn’t mean its good. In fact, a lot of it is bullshit. Plain and simple. There are a lot of people out there trying to sell you something just to make a quick buck. They don’t care whether or not their program or product works for you, as long as they get your money. This happens in a lot of industries and unfortunately the fitness industry is no different.
The second problem is, because there is so much information available, both good and bad, it’s hard to figure out exactly what works; especially because of the large amount of contradictory information out there. Its no wonder many people looking to start a weight loss program feel lost, frustrated, hopeless and give up before they even start.
When I first started my journey, I was in the same boat. I read everything I could, but there was so much information that it got really confusing. Eventually, through a lot of trial and error, and a lot of reading, I was able to separate the good information from the bad.
And when I became a trainer myself, my number one goal was to provide people with high quality, no-nonsense fitness information that wasn’t watered down with B.S. and sales pitches, but rather gave the reader something useful and something they could implement in their own lives to help them reach their goals.
Which brings me to today’s topic, and more specifically, the topic of the next four articles: Creating an Effective Fat Loss Program.
In these articles I am going to be discussing, in-depth, what I believe are the four pillars of an effective fat loss program. They are:
Like legs on a chair, if you have all four of these as the base of your program, you are more likely to remain stable and upright. Start taking one or more of these away however, and you’re likely to fall flat on your face.
Calorie & Macro Accountability is number one on the list because frankly, it is the most important. Diet is 80% of the weight loss battle and you can’t out-train a bad diet. At the foundation of any good weight loss diet is some kind of caloric accountability, whether it be counting calories, macros, following a meal template, etc. But before we get into that, we need to be clear on what we are trying to accomplish, and how to set ourselves up for success.
When people say they want to lose weight, what they really mean is they want to lose body fat. Now you may think that I’m just arguing over semantics here but there actually is a pretty big difference.
Weight loss is the reduction in your body weight. Like I discussed in my article about tracking progress, your weight is a reflection of everything in your body, muscle, fat, organs, waste, water, etc. The problem with just aiming to lose weight is that you might not lose just fat; you could lose valuable muscle tissue as well.
Fat loss on the other hand refers to a reduction of fat mass from your body. When you see someone who has made a dramatic transformation, say going from a beer belly to a six-pack, it is because they lost body fat and maintained muscle mass.
Why is muscle so important? Well, for starters, muscle gives you that highly sought after lean, sexy, “toned” look. But much more important than that, muscle has a large impact on your metabolism. The more muscle tissue you have in comparison to fat tissue, the higher your metabolic rate. That means the more food you can eat while maintaining your body weight.
And lastly, as we age muscle becomes more and more important in helping us stay healthy. Somewhere around the age of 30 our bodies become less efficient at maintaining muscle mass (due to hormonal changes associated with aging including a decline in testosterone production).
In fact, people who are physically inactive can lose 3-5% of their muscle mass per decade after the age of 30. Loss of muscle mass increases the likelihood of falls and fractures as we age because with a loss of muscle mass comes a loss of strength. So you can see, maintaining what muscle tissue we have and even increasing it is very important.
Many celebrity trainers, magazines, infomercials and websites all try to tell you that there is some secret to burning fat. That if you eat this many meals a day or cut out these five foods from your diet that you will magically burn fat.
There is only one way to lose fat, and that is by creating a negative energy balance within your body. The energy you take in (food you eat) must be less than the energy you expend (from daily activities, exercise, breathing, etc). When this happens, your body will turned to stored fuel to make up the difference. Through a mix of proper diet and exercise you can force your body to use fat as this fuel source.
So we know we need to create a negative energy balance to lose fat, but how much? And how do we know if we are in a caloric deficit? Well, for starters, you don’t really need to create that much of a deficit to lose fat. One pound is equal to roughly 3,500 calories. So in order to lose one pound per week you would need to create a weekly deficit of 3,500 calories, or 500 calories a day. Not that much really (we’ll talk more about setting expectations for fat loss in Part 4).
But how do you know if you are in a caloric deficit to begin with? To know this, you need to calculate your BMR or Basil Metabolic Rate. This number represents how many calories your body needs on a daily basis to stay at your current weight; also known as your maintenance level. There are four things that contribute to your maintenance level:
1. Basil Metabolic Rate (BMR)
Your BMR accounts for a majority of the calories you burn on a daily basis. This is essentially the amount of calories your body needs to stay alive. BMR is based on total body mass and lean body mass. The more body mass you have, the higher your BMR. Also, like I stated earlier, the more lean body mass (muscle) you have, the higher your BMR as well.
2. Activity Levels and Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption
This is basically how many calories you burn through exercise. It can be hard to measure this because how many calories you burn is largely dependent on what activity you are doing and the intensity of that activity. We’ll discuss how to take this into account a little later but basically, the more you move, the more you burn.
Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption or EPOC is the number of calories you burn after you exercise due to the activities you performed. The higher intensity the activities, the more “after-burn” you will get. This is difficult to measure however and is usually not taken into account.
3. Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
TEF is the amount of calories you burn through the digestion process. Your body must expend energy during digestion and in order to expend energy it must burn calories. TEF is largely based on the makeup of your diet and therefore is generally not taken into account.
4. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) and Non-Exercise Physical Activity (NEPA) Levels
NEAT is the number of calories you burn through normal human movements, such as fidgeting, scratching an itch, etc. NEPA is how many calories you burn through intentional, non-exercise movements, such as walking to and from your car, or shopping.
Since NEAT and NEPA vary widely from person-to-person it is impossible to measure these accurately. Someone with a desk job may burn 200 calories a day through NEAT and NEPA where as someone with an extremely active job could burn up to 800.
Now that we know what all goes into determining your caloric maintenance level, lets take a look at some of the different equations for calculating it.
There are many different formulas for calculating BMR. However, the following five formulas tend to be the most accurate. Also, because of the effect body composition has on your metabolic rate, the best formulas take into account lean body mass (LBM) when determining BMR.
Five most accurate formulas for calculating BMR.
1. Katch-McArdle Formula
BMR = 370 + (21.6 x Lean Body Mass (kg))
2. Mifflin-St Jeor Equation
Men: (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (4.92 x age) + 5
Women: (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (4.92 x age) – 161
3. Cunningham Formula
RMR = 500 + (22 x Lean Body Mass (kg))
4. Revised Harris-Benedict Equation
Men: BMR = 88.362 + (13.397 x weight in kg) + (4.799 x height in cm) – (5.677 x age in years)
Women: BMR = 447.593 + (9.247 x weight in kg) + (3.098 x height in cm) – (4.330 x age in years)
5. Aragon BMR Equation
25.3 x Lean Body Mass in kg OR 11.5 x Lean Body Mass in pounds
All of these formulas are going to yield pretty similar results. Lets take a look at an example:
Greg is a 176 lbs (80 kg) dude with 10% body fat; meaning Greg has 17.6 or approximately 18 lbs of body fat. That means his LBM is 158 lbs or 72 kg. Greg is 26 years old and has a height of 6’1” (185 cm). Lets see how Greg’s maintenance calories stack up using the different formulas…
Katch-McArdle – 1,925
Mifflin-St Jeor – 1,833
Cunningham – 2,084
Revised Harris-Benedict – 1,894
Aragon – 1,822
As you can see these are all within a few hundred calories of each other. Since the Aragon equation is the easiest to calculate, we’ll use that number.
Now that we know Greg’s BMR, we need to figure in calories burned through exercise and daily movement. This is known as your Total Energy Expenditure (TEE). To find Greg’s TEE, we need to multiply his BMR by one of the following multipliers:
Greg does heavy resistance training 4 days per week so he would probably be considered moderately active. So we take his BMR of 1,822 calories and multiply it by 1.6 (Note: Its better to take the higher end of the multiplier and cut calories later if need be)
Greg’s TEE: 1,822 x 1.6 = 2,915
So there you have it. You now know how to find your maintenance calories. You simply just need to eat less than that on a daily basis and you’ll lose fat right?
You can simply count calories, eat less than your maintenance and see decent results. But what if I told you that just counting calories was not the best way to lose fat and reach your goals?
Calories are made up of four different macronutrients:
*Alcohol is a unique macronutrient because it is not present in food and has a different effect on the body compared to other macronutrients. More on this later.
On nutrition labels, macros are measured in grams. One gram of each macro yields the following caloric value:
In addition to macronutrients, there are also micronutrients, which consist of vitamins and minerals. While micronutrients do not contain any calories, they are important for your overall health. Most fruits and vegetables are high in micronutrients but a good multivitamin can help fill any gaps in your diet.
So if calories are made up of macros, why cant we just count calories?
Well, I’m glad you asked!
Each macronutrient plays a different yet vital role within your body, no matter what Dr. Atkins or anyone trying to sell books tells you. Proper manipulation of these macros can help you reach your physique goals a lot faster than counting calories alone. Let’s take a couple minutes talk about these roles.
Protein plays a huge role in your diet. Protein will help preserve lean muscle tissue if you are in a caloric deficit. It also helps control your appetite better and will keep you satisfied for longer periods of time. Plus, it takes the body more energy to digest protein. This means you burn more calories gram for gram digesting protein than with any other macronutrient.
Unfortunately, the modern diet is lacking in adequate protein intake. Protein intake needs to be high enough so that while in a caloric deficit your body doesn’t start eating its own muscle tissue. You can look all over the internet and find different recommendations for how much protein you should consume on a daily basis. Recommendations also vary on whether your intake should be based on LBM or total body mass; your current weight or your goal weight.
I like to use lean body mass when it comes to setting macro recommendations. Since protein helps spare lean muscle tissue while dieting it only makes sense that you should use LBM to calculate your requirements.
For fat loss I would suggest a range of 1-1.3g/lb of LBM. So, to make it simple, say you weigh 200 lbs with 10% body fat. That would give you 180 lbs of LBM. Therefore you would want your daily protein intake somewhere between 180-230g.
Remember, it’s usually better to start a little higher within the range and adjust based on results. It’s always easier to take calories away when dieting than add them in. And in the case of protein, the more you consume, the more satiated you will be.
Fat plays a vital role in the body and is essential for proper hormonal function, especially testosterone. Testosterone is a huge player when it comes to fat loss, muscle gain and sex drive. If your fat consumption drops too low, testosterone production will suffer. Fat also assists with brain function and vitamin absorption.
Fat is the most energy dense of all the macronutrients so over or under-consumption of fat can have a big effect on your caloric intake. For fat intake, I like to set it equal to 0.4-0.7g/lb of LBM. Generally, the higher your body fat percentage, the more fat you can get away with eating. So if you have more body fat to lose, use the higher end of the range. If you are leaner, start lower.
Carbohydrates are the only macronutrient the body doesn’t need to survive. But they also make up some of the more delicious foods out there so why would you want to live without them. More importantly though, carbohydrates provide the fuel for good workouts, especially when resistance training is involved.
When consumed, carbs are stored in the muscles as glycogen and used as energy during a workout. The body can still produce the essential pieces needed to fuel workouts without carbs, but not as efficiently. Your overall energy levels during a workout are important because of the large amount of physical exertion needed to lift weights to maintain or increase muscle mass.
Carbs and fat are often cycled depending on the day. Training days require more carbs and less fat while the opposite is true for days you are not resistance training. Similarly, the more intense your workouts, the more carbs you can get away with eating. If you are performing low intensity workouts, you do not need to consume that many carbs.
When trying to figure your carbohydrate intake, calculate your protein and fat intake first. Then, fill whatever remaining calories you have left with carbs.
Lets go back to Greg.
Remember we figured Greg’s TEE was 2,915 calories per day. Now lets figure out what his macronutrient split is.
Lets start with protein. Remember Greg has a LBM of 158 lbs. Because Greg trains hard 4 days a week, we’ll set his protein at 1.2g/lb of LBM.
Protein = 158 lbs x 1.2g/lb = ~190g
Now fat. Because Greg is leaner (10% bf), his fat intake should fall on the lower end of the range. We’ll go with 0.5g/lb of LBM.
Fat = 158 lbs x 0.5g/lb = ~80g
Lastly, we need to figure out Greg’s carbohydrate needs. We do this by finding out how many calories he’s consuming from protein and fat, then simply filling in the remaining calories with carbs.
Protein Calories = 190g x 4g/kcal = 760 calories
Fat Calories = 80g x 9g/kcal = 720 calories
Add those together and Greg is eating 1,480 calories from protein and fat. Now we subtract that number from his maintenance:
2,915 – 1,480 = 1,435 calories remaining
Now we take that number and simply divide it by 4 to give us our carbohydrate intake:
Carbs = 1,435/4 = ~360g
Now, that may seem like a lot of carbs, but remember Greg does heavy resistance training four times a week, which allows his body to better utilize carbs.
So, after we figure all that out, in order to maintain his body weight, Greg’s daily food intake would look something like this:
Calories – 2,915
Protein – 190g
Fat – 80g
Carbs – 360g
To check our math, simply multiply each macronutrient by its caloric value:
P(190 x 4) + F(80 x 9) + C(360 x 4) = 2,920 (rounding will account for the extra 5 kcals)
Pretty simple right?
But, if you’re like me and don’t like all the math, there are a number of online calculators that can figure out your maintenance calories and some can even figure out your macro split.
Here are a few of the better ones:
IF Calculator (really has nothing to do with intermittent fasting, but that’s just what its called)
Hey, wait! Didn’t you say something about alcohol?!
Yes I did. We’ll talk about that now.
For most people, alcohol consumption is a fact of life. For that reason complete avoidance can often set people up for failure because they adopt the mindset, “Well, I already screwed up and had one, may as well have ten more.”
And while alcohol by itself isn’t going to make you fat, it is important to remember that it does contain calories (1g = 7 kcals) that will count towards your daily intake. Combine that with the fact that alcohol is often paired with carbs such as beer, juices or sugary carbonated beverages and you have a recipe for overshooting your daily caloric intake.
In addition to making you funnier, more social and more comfortable interacting with the opposite sex, alcohol has a unique effect on the body. Calories from alcohol can be used as fuel, but they cannot help you recover from a workout or build muscle. When alcohol metabolizes in your body, the by-product created is acetate, which your body considers toxic. For that reason, your body will prioritize the burning of alcoholic calories over everything else. So if drinking pushes you over your daily caloric limit, anything more you drink or eat later will be stored in your body as fat, depending how far over maintenance you are that day.
So, you’re probably asking, “How can I drink and not hurt my progress?” The key is moderation. Having 1-2 drinks 1-2 times a week wont kill your progress. It’s just important to remember a few key things:
Creating a negative energy balance can be done any number of ways. Increasing your activity, reducing portion size, etc, all could lead to fat loss. However, your progress would be very inconsistent or would stall all together after a while.
Because the truth is, that while some of these methods could lead to short-term weight loss, it is very difficult to achieve long-term, sustainable fat loss without tracking your food intake one way or another. And here’s why:
When people think of counting calories, what comes to mind for most are images of reading food labels, carrying a notebook around and meticulously writing down and adding up everything you eat.
And there is some truth to that.
Everyone should count this way, at least for a little bit. What it does is get you in the habit of tracking and help you learn more about the food you eat. Plus it helps you practice your math skillz.
But, speaking from experience, it can also be time consuming and just a pain. And in a world where we seem to be short on time anyway, why not save time where you can.
We live in a world with smartphones, tablets and the internet. There are plenty of apps and websites willing to do this work for us! From my experience, the best app/website I have found is MyFitnessPal. It. Is. Fantastic! It takes almost all of the work out of counting and it takes less than five minutes a day.
All you need to do is plug in your food or scan a barcode and the app will do the rest, telling you how many calories you are eating and even give you a macro split. You can save meals for quick access later and the database has almost every food imaginable, or something very comparable. And best of all, it’s quick and easy. Every morning when I wake up, I pop open the app, plan my meals for the day and I’m done. And if I have to make an adjustment along the way, it can be easily done anywhere!
Having a good understanding of your diet and how much you are eating on a daily basis is vital for fat loss. All these numbers can seem daunting and overwhelming, but they really aren’t. The key is to take it in steps, mastering one before moving onto another. Just start by counting calories, or simply making sure you are getting enough protein each day. This alone is enough to get you started and seeing results.
And what I’ve found is that once people get into it and start seeing results, they want to keep going. Then, once the base habits are built, it becomes easier and easier to build upon them, until one day counting your macros becomes just another part of your routine and you don’t even think twice about it. Because at its core, fat loss or fitness in general, is not about having the best diet or training plan, but rather, building good, sustainable habits that make you a healthier, happier person.
Today we talked a lot about calories and macros, and in Part 2 we’ll build upon this by talking about specific diets. We’ll break down some of the different diet approaches out there and discuss which ones may work for you.