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The Fundamentals of Fat Loss Diets Part 2

On Friday, in The Fundamentals of Fat Loss Diets Part 1, I started to answer the following question: “What’s the simplest fat loss diet you can draw up, with the fewest details for people to get obsessive over?”

In that article, I listed the following 4 topics that make up the ‘base’ of a fat loss diet, again in order of importance:

  1. Create an appropriate caloric deficit/set caloric intake appropriately
  2. Set protein intake
  3. Set dietary fat intake
  4. Everything else depends

In Part 1, I looked at the issue of calorie balance and setting calories appropriately.  As I stated there, despite claims to the contrary on various places on the Internet, without the creation of a caloric deficit (either through manipulation of energy intake OR energy expenditure), no fat loss can occur.

In Part 1, I also provided a rough starting point for caloric intake of 10-12 calories per pound of total body weight.  As noted in that article, this is only a starting point and, depending on the specific, relatively higher or lower caloric intakes may be more appropriate.

While much of this variability is due to differences in daily activity level and/or individual physiology, there are also various pros and cons to using larger or smaller deficits, a topic I discuss in Setting the Deficit – Small, Moderate or Large.

Today I want to look at the other three components listed above, protein intake, dietary fat intake and then the everything else depends catetgory which is where the individual variability comes in.

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 as discussed in What Does Body Composition Mean).

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. This was actually such an important role for dietary protein that I made it #1 on the list of 9 Ways to Deal with Hunger on a Diet.

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, as I discuss in Diet Percentages 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.   This is discussed in more detail in Initial Body Fat and Body Composition Changes

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) but 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).

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.


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.  This topic is discussed in A Primer on Dietary Fats and all of my books but I’ll recap briefly here.

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.  And while they don’t appear to have the massive health negatives that are often claimed for them (see A Primer on Dietary Fats Part 2 for a bit more about this), 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.

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.

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.


A Quick Summary

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

  1. Calories: 200 lb * 12 cal/lb = 2400 calories/day
  2. Protein: 170 lbs * 1.5 g/lb = 255 grams/day (1020 calories/day)
  3. 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:

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.

I addressed these in some detail in the 4-part article series Comparing the Diets.  And while 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 in The Fundamentals of Fat Loss Diets Part 1, 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 also impacts on carbohydrate requirements.  As discussed in How Many Carbohyrates Do You Need, activity levels can drastically affect carbohydrate (and of course calorie) requirements.  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 that 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.

And that’s a Primer on Fat Loss Diets.

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