A question I frequently get in interview or podcast are what the the most basic components of a fat loss diet are. Basically, what fat loss fundamentals must be present in every diet.
This is actually a very good question and, while I can generally answer it in about 4 sentences, I’m going to do my best to stretch it out into a full length article by overexplaining everything and giving at least some of my rationale for the different recommendations. In many places, I’ll be linking out to other articles on the site that go into individual topics in more detail.
Since this is going to get long, I’m actually going to divide the article into two parts. Today I’m going to focus on what is probably the most contentious area of diet set up, on Tuesday next week, I’ll cover the other factors that I use to set up a basic fat loss diet.
Complexity vs. Fundamentals
It’s quite common, and this is true in all aspects of, well, everything, for people to want to get into really involved interpretations before they have the fundamentals down. I see it in training and I see it in diet; of course the industry tends to pander to that by providing unbelievably complicated training and diet programs that, for most people, simply aren’t necessary.
People always want advanced training programs long before they have the basics down. And they tend to be drawn to overly complicated diet plans when they don’t even have the basics down. I have probably contributed to this to some degree as I do tend to write complicated dieting approaches from time to time (e.g. The Ultimate Diet 2.0).
Of course, there are times, usually for very lean folks dealing with all of the myriad issues involved in getting very lean that necessitate such complex approaches. The UD2, for example, is an advanced diet for advanced dieters.
It’s assumed in that book that the folks reading it have spent a couple of years getting the fundamentals in place. That’s why I didn’t spend any time discussing those fundamentals in that book; if you don’t already have the basics of eating and nutrition down, you aren’t ready for it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop people from trying from time to time.
But at the end of the day, and again this is true in training and in diet, the fundamentals are the most important. Until you have those in place, none of the advanced stuff makes a difference.
And, generally speaking, you find that once you have the fundamentals in place, the advanced stuff doesn’t add that much. Again, in specific situations, worrying about the details matters (e.g. very lean natural bodybuilders trying to get super lean); for most people it doesn’t.
I’d note, semi-tangentially, that there tend to be individual personality differences in how people approach these kinds of topics. Some people are, shall we say, a bit obsessive compulsive (I’m one of them) about things like nutrition and training.
They are the ones who, as Dan Duchaine once phrased it, want nutrition with “all the plumbing”. They want diets to be set out in terms of how many seconds to wait between sets, protein and amino acid recommendations must be set to the milligram, etc. Amusingly, these folks want all of the details whether they are necessary or not in the first place (usually they are not). They just want it for the sheer knowledge of knowing.
At the other extreme are people who get overwhelmed by that type of information, they want easy generalities and lots of detail puts them off. Many people are somewhere in between the two, they want enough details to get the job done well but not so much that they get paralyzed by it. But I’m getting off topic.
The 4 Fat Loss Fundamentals
Ok, before I talk details, let me spell out how I would set up the most basic fat loss diet on the planet. These criteria are in order of importance, by the way and are:
- Create an appropriate caloric deficit/set caloric intake appropriately
- Set protein intake
- Set dietary fat intake
- Everything else depends
Anyone who has read any of my books may recognize this to some degree since I tend to focus on the first 3 and leave 4 up to the specifics of the situation. Now, I’m actually going to spend a bit of time on #1 and for that reason will discuss #2-4 next Tuesday so that this doesn’t get too long to read.
Fat Loss Fundamental 1: Create an Appropriate Calorie Deficit
Ok, this is probably the one that will cause the most controversy which is why I’m going to spend the most time on it. A constant and never-ending cry, and one that has recently come back to life due to some popular but misguided books, is that calories don’t count, or thermodynamics doesn’t apply to humans or other nonsense.
In that vein, a current meme (look it up) is that the energy balance equation is incorrect for various reasons; I addressed this in some detail a little while back in the article The Energy Balance Equation.
In case you can’t take the time to go read it in full, I’ll only say that the people saying that calories in vs. calories out don’t understand the energy balance equation; in fact I saw some hysterical examples of this in a recent thread on a fitness forum.
People tossing out examples that they thought disproved the energy balance equation. But all it showed was that they didn’t understand it. Again, the problem isn’t with the equation, the problem is with people who don’t understand what it represents. Read the article for more.
But the simple fact is this, the ONLY way to force the body to call on stored energy (e.g. body fat) is to create an imbalance between energy intake (from food) and energy expenditure (this is determined by the different components of metabolic rate).
That’s why this is the primary criterion in how I set up fat loss diets. I don’t give a damn what else you do, if you haven’t created an imbalance between intake and expenditure (and you’ll see that there are different ways of achieving this goal), nothing else will matter.
Creating the Deficit: Different Paths to the Same Goal
Now, there are many different ways to create this imbalance and I think that also lends itself to confusion. Each of the below can work to some degree and makes it look like it’s not just calories in vs. calories out. But it still is.
For example, a traditional way is to simply reduce total food intake, that is reduce the quantity of food such that less calories are being eaten. Certainly this works because, by definition, eating less means you’re taking in less calories than when you were eating more.
Another is to change the quality of food but this tends to introduce a subtle confound that most people seem to forget which is that some foods are relatively harder to overeat than others. Put differently, some food are easier to overeat than others.
If changing the quality of food eaten causes people to eat less, and that causes weight/fat to be lost, it’s easy to confuse the quality of the food with the total caloric expenditure. But it’s not the quality of the food per se that is causing the weight/fat loss or gain; it’s the change in total caloric intake due to the change in food quality.
I would mention that changing the macronutrient content of the diet can have a small impact in this regards. For the most part, switching out carbs and fat doesn’t do much despite what many claim. The difference in the thermic effect of food for carbs vs. fat is about 3% so for every 100 calories you switch out one for the other, you might see a 3 calorie difference in energy expenditure.
I’d note that carbs have a the advantage here with a thermic effect of 6% compared to 3% for fat. But the effect tends to be so small as to be irrelevant unless you are looking at whole scale changes to diet. Again, if you replace 100 calories of fat with carbs, you burn 3 more calories per day. If you replace 1000 calories of fat with carbs, you burn 30 calories more per day; you’ll lose an extra pound of fat every 116 days. Whoop de doo.
And while I know someone is going to bring up the issue of gluconeogenesis on ketogenic diets in the comments, I’ll only point out that the impact of this is small and disappears after about 2-3 weeks (when the body shifts to using ketones for fuel). As well, any increase in expenditure from this pathway is balanced against a loss of the thermic effect of carbs.
As well, direct research (by Brehm) shows that there is no difference in resting metabolic rate for ketogenic vs. carb-based diets. The thermic effect of food was slightly higher in the high-carb condition.
If there were a true metabolic advantage in terms of energy expenditure for ketogenic diets, someone would have been able to measure it by now. They haven’t and they aren’t going to and all of the theorizing about it doesn’t change the fact that direct research hasn’t supported the concept.
Now, protein has the biggest impact in terms of the thermic effect of food, switching out carbs or fat with protein tends to increase the energy out side of the equation but you have to make pretty large scale changes for it to be particularly significant.
I’d note that protein also tends to be the most filling of all the nutrients and studies show that increasing dietary protein intake tends to cause people to eat less calories.
Which is another huge confound; if increasing protein makes folks spontaneously eat less, it looks like it was adding the protein per se that did the magic. But it wasn’t, it was the effect of increasing protein on total energy intake that caused the fat loss. Like I said, a subtle confound that people tend to miss a lot.
Another way of course is to use activity to increase energy expenditure. That increases the energy out side of the energy balance equation. I’ll do a full article on the role of activity in weight/fat loss at a later time. But this is one valid way to do it.
Activity not only increases energy expenditure but also impacts on the quality of weight loss (e.g. fat vs. muscle) and can impact on appetite (both positively or negatively depending on the specifics). Again, I don’t have space to cover it here but will in a future article.
The problem for most is that the amount of calories that can be expended by most people in exercise is not large. An irony that I’ve mentioned before is that the only people who can usually burn a ton of calories in activity are trained athletes; and they usually don’t need to lose fat.
But the reality is that an hour of activity for most people will not burn a staggering number of calories. Usually caloric restriction per se or a combination of cutting calories and increasing activity is going to be more realistic.
And before you start typing out comments about how all of the above is flawed and thermodynamics doesn’t hold for humans or all of that other nonsense, consider the following realities:
- The number of people who have lost fat by making excuses about thermodynamics and other nonsense: zero.
- The number of people who have lost fat by creating a deficit in one of the ways I’ve mentioned: all of them.
Of course, someone will point to someone who did lose fat without “counting calories” but invariably they did something dietarily that I described above. That is, they made a wholesale change to the types of food that they were eating that caused them to spontaneously eat less food.
Which still makes me right; they created an imbalance between intake and expenditure, they just did it in a way that looked “different” than simply counting calories. But it still had the same end result. They still created a caloric deficit, it was simply “hidden” by what looked like something else.
And make no mistake, I would love it to be different, I would love to be able to tell you how to magically lose fat without some change in your eating or activity or creating an imbalance in the energy balance equation.
I want magic to be real too. And when I figure that magic out, I’ll be a billionaire. And until that happens, the reality is that to lose fat you must create some imbalance between intake and expenditure. It may not be what you want to hear but it is the truth.
Ok, with that introduction out of the way, how do you set calories for a basic fat loss diet? A value that has been used for absolutely years is 10-12 cal/lb, and I explain where that value comes essentially from the estimation of maintenance calories. Essentially it’s a 20% reduction from a rough maintenance estimate of “About 15 cal/lb or so”.
Note: for individuals carrying a large amount of bodyfat, this value may be too high since RMR and total energy expenditure may be lower than the ~15 cal/lb value.
This approach creates your basic moderate deficit diet. But there are cases where a larger or smaller deficit may be appropriate or beneficial. Once again, here I’m focusing on simplicity and the basics and trying to avoid any source of complication.
In general, 10-12 cal/lb tends to be a decent starting point for fat loss diets. Please note that this is only a starting point and will always have to be adjusted based on real-world changes. Some people with high activity levels may need higher calories than that, and folks with lower daily activity levels may need less.
In the modern world, with daily activity levels going down (especially if you work in a sedentary job), lower caloric intakes are altogether too often required. I have known many people who had to go to 8 cal/lb with an hour per day of low to moderate intensity cardio to lose fat effectively.
I was one of them back when my daily activity entailed sitting in front of the computer all day and doing an hour or so of weight training a few times per week. Now that I train about 18 hours per week, I can diet with higher calories if needed.
A question that comes up is whether or not to use lean mass or total weight to set calorie levels. For various reasons I tend to use total weight to set starting caloric intake levels. As noted in the paragraph above, you always have to make adjustments based on real-world changes in body composition and it’s simply faster and easier to use total weight.
It avoids issues with trying to get a good estimate of body fat percentage and saves people the trouble of all that pesky math. In my books I often use a more complicated approach but this article is about simplicity so use total weight.
Fat Loss Fundamental 2: Set Protein Intake
After total calories, the single most important aspect of a fat loss diet, as any readers of my books know, is total protein intake. There are a number of reasons for this not the least of which is this: one major concern during fat loss is the loss of lean body mass (which includes but is not limited to skeletal muscle).
Now, in the early days of nutritional science, researchers did a lot of work trying to determine things like whether or not carbohydrates or dietary fats were more protein sparing (e.g. did their intake prevent the loss of protein) but eventually someone had the bright idea to just test eating more dietary protein.
In what should not have been a surprise, the most protein sparing nutrient turned out to be…dietary protein. That is, providing sufficient dietary protein on a diet was truly the key to limiting (or preventing) the loss of body protein during fat loss.
There are, mind you, many other reasons to eat more dietary protein on a fat loss diet. Another huge benefit is that, of all three macronutrient (protein, carbohydrates, dietary fats), protein is the most filling. That is, it tends to blunt appetite/hunger (the distinction is not important here) the most. For any number of reasons, when I set up diets, I put protein as the #1 factor after calorie levels.
Additionally, research (primarily by a researcher named Layman) has shown that, in contrast to carbohydrate, increasing dietary protein tends to keep blood glucose more stable while dieting. This is important as falling blood sugar can trigger hunger and specifically carbohydrate cravings.
So, as mentioned above, providing sufficient amounts of dietary protein on a diet is key, that’s why it’s the second most important factor I look at in terms of setting up a basic fat loss diet. But how much do you ask?
Now, researchers have an annoying tendency of putting protein and other dietary requirements in terms of percentages but there are many problems with this. That’s why, in all of my books, you will find protein requirements set relative to body, weight in terms of grams/pound or grams/kilogram.
I’d note that, in general, it’s better to use lean body mass to set protein intake, rather than total body weight. I’d also note that, for lean individuals (e.g. a male at 10-12% body fat), the difference is relatively negligible. However, for individuals carrying a lot of body fat, the difference in total and lean body mass makes it important to take the difference into account. This is discussed in more detail in The Protein Book.
That actually depends. A variety of factors go into protein requirements while dieting, the two major ones being initial body fat percentage and activity level. In general, fatter individuals tend to lose less lean body mass than leaner individuals and this means that they don’t need as much dietary protein to spare lean body mass.
Which doesn’t mean that they may still not benefit from higher protein intakes (in terms of appetite or blood glucose control) but, strictly speaking, it may not be required from the standpoint of sparing lean body mass loss. As folks get leaner, protein requirements go up and I find that many nutritionists do not take this factor into account; they give the same protein intake requirements for lean as for overweight individuals.
An additional factor is activity as this is known to affect protein requirements as well. Contrary to what most think, some early research actually suggests that regular activity reduces protein requirements (by improving the body’s utilization of what is being consumed).
However, I’d say the majority suggests that regular activity increases protein requirements and I tend to err on the side of too much rather than too little in this regards. I’d also note, and this is a topic for another day, that aerobic activity and weight training have somewhat different effects on both protein requirements (and lean body mass sparing during a diet).
Dietary Protein Recommendations
So how much? Bodybuilders have long used a protein recommendation of 1 g/lb body weight (2.2 g/kg) while dieting and this certainly a decent starting point. As noted above, I tend to err on the side of too much than too little and for lean athletes dieting, a protein intake of 1.5 g/lb (3.3 g/kg) may be a better starting place.
Again, there is some individual variability in this; some people seem to get by with less protein than others. But for lean individuals a protein intake of 1-1.5 g/lb (2.2-3.3 g/kg) is usually about right. I’d note that in extreme situations, such as my Rapid Fat Loss Handbook diet, even higher intakes may be required. But, once again, this article is about the most generic diet I can set up.
For very overweight individuals, less protein than this is probably required on a strict physiological basis. Assuming no activity, as little as 0.7 g/lb (~1.5 g/kg) may be sufficient. If weight training or other activity is added this can go up. Frankly, the old bodybuilder value of 1 g/lb (2.2 g/kg) of lean weight may be perfectly sufficient.
Again, individuals carrying a lot of body fat should use lean mass to determine protein intake values not total weight. This means having some way of estimating body fat percentage and the amount of lean mass can be calculated using the equations in Body Composition Calculations.
Fat Loss Fundamental 3: Set Dietary Fat Intake
After calories and protein are set, the next issue I look at in terms of fat loss diet is the dietary fat intake. Again, there are multiple reasons for this. At the very least, there is a small but important daily requirement for the essential fatty acids.
In short, there are two essential fatty acids, that is fats that must be consumed on a daily basis for optimal health and function. Those two fatty acids, in this case are the w-3 and w-6 fatty acids (strictly speaking, those terms refer to a class of different fatty acids but that’s more complexity than I want to get into). The parent fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid respectively and these are metabolized extensively to other fatty acids.
In the case of alpha-linolenic acid (w-3), the main metabolites we are concerned with are EPA and DHA which are more commonly known as the fish oils. They do a staggering number of things in the body and, honestly, if I saw a list of claimed benefits and had not read the research, I’d think someone were selling me a bill of goods.
But they do have all of those benefits and more: they decrease inflammation, may enhance fat loss, inhibit fat storage, and may impact positively on appetite. The w-3 fatty acids are also the ones in the shortest supply in the modern diet unless folks eat a lot of high-fat fish on a consistent basis.
I’d note that simply consuming things like flax oil and such (sources of ALA) are not ideal; the conversion to EPA/DHA is tiny and, in general, I recommend explicit supplementation of the fish oils while dieting.
In the case of linoleic acid (w-6) there are a number of products including arachidonic acid and others. In general, obtaining w-6 fatty acids are not a problem, they are plentiful in the diet. While they don’t appear to have the massive health negatives that are often claimed for them they aren’t usually a problem to obtain in the modern diet. If someone is eating just about any dietary fat, they will fulfill the requirements for the w-6’s.
However the requirement for the above fatty acids is quite small, a few grams per day at most. Even the maximum fish oil intake I recommend is only 6-10 standard 1 gram capsules and most folks will get sufficient w-6 from the fat intake in the other foods they are eating. That’s not much fat.
Benefits to Sufficient Fat Intake
But that’s also not the only reason to consume dietary fat on a standard generic fat loss diet and I actually tend to start with a higher amount than this. Why? There are really two primary reasons and both speak to dietary adherence. This is actually far more important than I think many people realize: any diet, no matter how wonderful, isn’t any good if people can’t stick with it.
As people found out the hard way in the 80’s, extremely low-fat diets tend to be bland, boring and leave people feeling really hungry all the time. Research has even supported this, moderate fat diets tend to generate better dietary adherence in the long-term than very low-fat diets.
Allowing moderate dietary fat intakes means more potential variety in dietary intake (when you’re limited to near zero fat foods, the list of what you can eat can become very small) and dietary fat provides mouth feel, a sensory issue that makes food taste better. Simply: people don’t stick with diets that taste like shit for long.
An additional factor, and one I’ve mentioned in several of my books is that moderate amounts of dietary fat tend to blunt hunger in the long-term (e.g. between meals). Now, this is actually more complicated than I’m making it sound but I’m not getting into the details here. Basically, while dietary fat doesn’t blunt hunger in the short-term (e.g. in the course of a single meal), it tends to keep people fuller between meals. This occurs for a few reasons.
The first is that dietary fat tends to slow how quickly meals empty from the stomach (this is called gastric emptying). Very low-fat meals tend to digest quickly, people often get hungrier sooner which makes diet adherence a problem. I’m sure all readers are familiar with the concept of a meal that ‘sticks to their ribs’ and this is the genesis of this aphorism: meals with even moderate dietary fat sit in the gut longer, keeping the person fuller.
Additionally, research has shown that moderate fat (as opposed to low- or high-fat meals) keep blood glucose more stable, presumably much of this is mediated by a slowing of gastric emptying. Moderate in this case is about 10-14 grams total fat per meal.
Dietary Fat Recommendations
So, in my “most generic diet”, I tend to set dietary fat levels at a nice moderate level; enough to get the benefits above without crowding out the rest of the calories. Now, despite my comments about percentages above, most dietary fat research has only used percentages and I tend to default to that here, suggesting 20-25% dietary fat as as starting place for the generic fat loss diet.
On 10-12 cal/lb this works out to a range of 0.22-0.33 g/lb (0.48-0.72 g/kg). For a 200 lb. (90kg) dieter, this would equate to 44-66 grams of fat per day. Which, across 4-6 meals per day is right about 10-14 grams of fat per meal. Isn’t math fun?
But this amount will allow not only easy intake of the essential fatty acids but allow for some other foods and dietary fat to be included in the meal to make the diet more palatable; it also fits the research with blood glucose stability and hunger blunting between meals.
Now, as with other aspects of the diet, there may be times when less or more dietary fat is appropriate, at the risk of repeating myself again and again, the above is simply for the most generic fat loss diet there is.
The First Three Fat Loss Fundamentals
Ok, let me recap the first three components of the diet. I’m going to assume a 200 lb (90 kg) dieter with 15% body fat (so he has 30 pounds body fat and 170 pounds lean body mass). His super generic basic fat loss diet would be the following
- Calories: 200 lb * 12 cal/lb = 2400 calories/day
- Protein: 170 lbs * 1.5 g/lb = 255 grams/day (1020 calories/day)
- Fat: 200 lbs * 0.33 g/lb = 66 grams/day (594 calories/day)
You might note that his total protein and fat don’t add up to the daily total. Rather, he’s only fulfilled 1600 calories per day with those. That leaves 800 calories which would be generically assigned to carbohydrate. That’s 200 grams or 1 g/lb total weight, another common value often used for basic diet set up.
And that might be a great generic fat loss diet for this person but that brings us finally to:
Fat Loss Fundamental 4: Everything Else Depends
Essentially in setting up the generic diet, I set calories, set protein and set fat. Those are the three aspects of the diet that I consider most important. You can think of them as the ‘essential’ aspects of the fat loss diet. Everything else, as you can imagine depends.
In the quick summary above, I went ahead and calculated out what a typical dieters overall diet would be assuming that the remaining calories of the day went into carbohydrates. But this isn’t an automatic assumption.
That’s where it gets complicated. Issues such as activity level, insulin sensitivity and the specifics of the diet all go into how I would determine what, if any modifications would be made to the generic template.
Wwhile I can’t look at those all in detail in this article (and I tried to put my general “scheme” for how I work this stuff out in A Guide to Flexible Dieting) I do want to look at a couple of examples where the “it depends” bit might get modified for their individual needs.
Clearly daily activity is one of those factors and impacts on many issues I’ve discussed not the least of which is caloric intakes. As I mentioned above, while 10-12 cal/lb tends to be a good starting point for caloric levels, it can vary.
Individuals with very high daily activities (usually athletes in training) will tend to find that those values are too low. By the same token, individuals with very low daily activities (e.g. you ride a desk) may have to go lower than that to effectively lose fat. I’ve seen sedentary folks need to go as low as 8 cal/lb (and that’s with an hour of exercise per day) to effectively lose fat.
Activity can drastically impact on how many carbohydrates are needed in a day. Individuals involved in large amounts of activity will not only find that they need more than the generic 12 cal/lb for dieting but might find that the above 1 g/lb carb intake is insufficient for training and recovery.
In contrast, someone with limited or no activity during the day might find that reducing carbohydrate (and replacing those carbs with dietary fat) might be a more appropriate choice. That would be in addition to possibly needing to reduce caloric intake in total.
In a related vein, insulin sensitivity seems to impact on whether or not individuals do better or worse with higher carbohydrate or higher fat diets, as I discuss in Insulin Sensitivity and Fat Loss. Now, in general, with increasing body fat, insulin sensitivity tends to decrease.
Note: this is absolutely NOT universal; overweight individuals can be insulin sensitive and lean folks can be insulin resistant.
As well, individuals carrying more weight often can not or simply don’t engage in regular activity. The combination of those two factors interact to mean that lower carbohydrates and higher dietary fat intakes are often more appropriate.
There are others, of course. Individual variance, food preferences, etc. all go into modifications of the generic diet template. I don’t have space to address them all here but hopefully have given people a starting point.
The generic diet template is exactly that, it’s a summary of what I consider the three most important factors to any fat loss diet: caloric intake, protein intake, dietary fat intake.
Those three tend to be relatively unchanging in my diet plans (although there are exceptions, The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook is very low in fat but it’s also meant to be short-term). Everything else depends on the those factors that they depend on.
- Insulin Sensitivity and Fat Loss
- How We Get Fat
- 3 Reasons Diets Don’t Cause More Weight Loss in the Obese
- Muscle Loss While Dieting to Single Digit Body Fat Levels
- The 3500 Calorie Rule