Yo-yo dieting isn’t wise nutrition management, but it made me an expert at losing body fat. (Learning how to keep it off came later unfortunately.)
All fat loss requires is that you burn more energy than you take in. It’s a simple concept, but there’s a lot of room for error in practice.
The principles listed here make the process as easy as possible and help prevent rebounds and unnecessary metabolic slowdown.
1. Minimize food reduction
Calorie reduction should be no more than is required to induce desired fat loss.
There are a few reasons for this, one of which is enjoyment—very low calorie diets are miserable—but also for plateaus, which are likely and require further energy reduction to overcome. If you’re not eating much at the start, you’ll have to go even lower to get past these plateaus.
2. Measure progress
Gauging progress is critical, otherwise it’s guesswork. The most easily-accessible tools are scales, fitness trackers, the mirror, limb and waist circumference measurements with a tape measure, skinfold calipers, a camera, and food tracking software.
Use a body weight scale at minimum, and add other methods depending on how much data you want to track (don’t get overwhelmed thinking you have to track everything). Ongoing consistency of measurement is key, and I’d suggest doing it at least once per week.
3. Eat plenty of protein
Although weight will normally decrease, fat loss should be the goal, not weight loss per se. That means holding onto as much lean mass as possible, which is everything on our bodies except fat tissue.
Dietary protein is critical for maintaining lean mass, and it has the added bonus of helping curb hunger. Plus it’s the macronutrient least likely to be stored as body fat.
It’s most efficient to create an energy deficit by reducing food intake. However, exercise can burn some extra energy too, particularly when it gets your heart rate up over time. It doesn’t have to be super-hard though, even an hour walking can give you a nice boost in calorie burn.
And resistance training for muscle maintenance/building is all but non-negotiable, both for cosmetic effects and health benefits (there’s a reason it’s sometimes referred to as the fountain of youth). If I had to choose between it and cardiovascular exercise, I’d take resistance training every time.
5. Cut at a moderate rate
Coaxing fat loss is generally better than forcing. Crash diets and sudden decreases in weight provoke a strong physiological response. The body does its best to slow down, hang on to remaining body fat, and increase the likelihood of gaining it back (which can be pretty uncomfortable and hard to resist).
This reaction is reduced with a more gradual approach.
1-2 lb fat loss per week is fair guideline, however, it’s not one-size-fits-all. For instance, if you have a lot of fat to lose, you can get away with a faster rate.
A caveat: some people prefer to lose weight fast because they find it helps maintain motivation, and the faster progress offsets any side effects. Provided there is an exit plan and you know that you’re in for increased difficulty, the get-in-get-out approach can work.
6. Have patience
This is one of the hardest parts of fat loss, and easier said than done—when your mind’s made up to get in shape, you naturally want instant results. Even so, hasty decisions can be problematic.
When it seems like you’ve hit a plateau, it’s wise to wait at least a week before further reducing food intake. Body weight can fluctuate a lot, and isn’t always indicative of fat loss or gain.
Often after a few days there will be another drop in weight, and further changes can be saved for when they’re really needed. Every caloric reduction you make limits your future options, and that’s why patience is so important here.
The approach I take
A weight loss plan should be customized based on time-frames, health, and preferences, but to give an example, here’s how I do it.
- To create an energy deficit, I mostly reduce my intake of fat and carbohydrate.
- The amount of protein I eat remains constant at a level of about 1 gram per pound of body weight as an easy general guideline. This is above the minimum amount necessary to maintain lean body mass. However, there’s no evidence that a high protein intake is harmful in healthy people, and I’d rather err on the side of too much than too little. Plus I just like high protein foods.
- I typically start with a drop of 500 calories beneath what it takes to maintain my body weight at a given time. It produces substantial results quickly, which is good for motivation, but subsequent reductions are much smaller. When weight loss stalls, I further reduce calories by 100. If I’m towards the end of a diet and calories are already low, I might only reduce them by 50. These cuts are small, but are normally sufficient to get progress going again.
- I make sure to get some type of cardio in—at least half an hour of walking a day (but often two half hour walks bookending the day), or some higher intensity intervals for a shorter duration.
- This is all supported by regular weight training. I workout at least three times a week anyway, and I make no special changes for fat loss.
- I weigh myself every day first thing, after going to the bathroom. That’s recorded in a spread sheet, and I monitor the trend, not the individual numbers. I also use a diet-tracking app, fitness tracker for step-count, photos, and belly skinfold measurements once per week. I’ll also use a tape measure for limb circumferences, but only at the start and end of the diet. To be clear, I love numbers and data—this level of tracking isn’t necessary.
Thanks so much for reading.