I really don’t like the word “diet”. I prefer the term “fat loss strategy” because it emphasizes the idea that we should be eating with a particular purpose in mind…and in doing so, there must be a strategy in place to reach that goal. Let’s make this quick and get it out of the way right up front…any diet that promises to shed an unbelievable amount of weight in an unbelievable amount of time is pure and simple bullshit. Let this point really sink in because people may understand this on an intellectual level, but somewhere deep inside, people still look for short cuts to success and there are no short cuts. Muscle tissue stores carbohydrates in the form of glycogen and your muscle holds about 3 to 4 grams of water for every gram of glycogen it stores. Restrict your carbohydrate intake for a week and you’ll greatly reduce your glycogen stores as well as all that stored water. This doesn’t mean you’ve lost any fat…it just means you weigh less when you step on the scale. This is what happens when people claim to have lost 15lbs in just one week on some fad diet…it’s all water weight. If you’re losing weight faster than 1 to 2 pounds per week, odds are that the weight loss is coming from water. If greater than 1 to 2 pounds weight loss persists beyond a couple weeks, you may be eating too few calories and losing muscle…and we don’t want muscle loss, we want fat loss. Remember, we’re looking to specifically lose body fat…not just scale weight. If you’re getting leaner and building muscle at the same time, your scale weight may be deceiving. The scale is just another tool in your toolbox to judge your progress. The mirror may be a better one because who really cares what the scale says if you can see progress with your own eyes.
The Five Steps to Fat Loss Strategy
- Make One Small Change at a Time
- Restrict Your Calories
- Eat to Support Your Lean Muscle Tissue
- Choose Whole, Natural Unprocessed Foods
I know….duh, right? Sounds boring, obvious and overly simplistic, right?
It is, but most people are too busy looking for the magic pill to stick with the basics day in and day out long enough to reap the rewards of their patience and consistency.
Let’s look at each of these steps in more depth.
#1 – Make One Small Change at a Time. The first step is king of them all and is the ruler of the other steps. I would have been happy using it as the name of the article, but “Five Steps to Fat Loss” sounds a whole lot catchier. In order for your new fat-loss strategy to be a success, it needs to be easy to implement and stick to. Ease of compliance is of utmost importance and is the key factor of my five-step strategy. Lack of compliance is the number one reason for diet failure; therefore it is the number one focus of my strategy. I’m not concerned about crafting a strategy to get you from point A to point B in the fastest time possible, because the demands of such a strategy will have caused most people to quit shortly after getting started. The most common approach to dieting is to scrap everything that you’ve been doing up until this very moment in order to “put yourself on a diet”. This usually means a pretty dramatic change in what you’ve been eating, along with a bunch of other unrealistic, sweeping changes in your routine like going from zero days of exercise to five times per week, etc. This is why most people hate dieting and exercise and end up failing at each attempt. It’s too much, too soon, it takes people way outside their comfort zone and it makes them feel overwhelmed. This is why my strategy emphasizes ease of compliance. The best laid plans don’t mean a damn thing if they’re not followed through. The good news is that it’s just not necessary to overwhelm yourself, there’s a better way. I’m suggesting a different approach…starting from exactly where you are and making one small change at a time. The truth is that your body can only mobilize and burn body fat and/or synthesize new muscle tissue so quickly. There’s simply no advantage to be gained by making dramatic, sweeping changes to your existing diet and exercise plan (unless of course directed by a physician due to some medical situation). Once you’re already moving in the right direction, you simply have to be patient, consistent and allow things to happen. There’s no way to short-cut or turbo-charge the process…that’s magic pill thinking. You didn’t just wake up this morning twenty pounds over-weight, so guess what…it’s not going to come off overnight either. Your fat loss strategy will be based on the principle of starting exactly where you are and choosing one or only a few small changes to make in your routine. Implement those changes and give it a week or more until your progress stalls out. Only then will you make another small change and so on until your goals are achieved. Take the following example of where I’m going with this: Bob is in decent health, but has a little extra around the middle. Bob wakes up every morning and on his way to work grabs a bagel w/cream cheese and coffee with cream and sugar. He usually brings some type of cold cut sandwich for lunch with a Coke. Dinner usually consists of chicken or fish with some rice or pasta. He usually satisfies his sweet tooth later in the evening before bed with some ice cream or cookies. It looks like Bob is eating three squares a day…nothing super out the ordinary. Expecting Bob to start eating like a pre-contest bodybuilder and suggesting six small meals per day consisting of chicken, tuna and oatmeal seems a bit ridiculous and will probably take him way out of his comfort zone. Something that Bob can implement tomorrow and stick to would be to suggest he first eliminate the sugar from his morning coffee (replacing it with artificial sweetener if he must), swap his Coke at lunch for water (or Diet Coke if he must) and eliminate or at least reduce his evenings sweets. That’s it…no life altering, impossible to comply with changes…just small, doable modifications to his existing routine. I know, this sounds very unexciting…no fancy supplements, no fad diet names you can tell your friends that you’re following and it’s not glamorous…but this is exactly how real lasting progress happens. Now let’s say Bob’s been following these steps for a few weeks and he thinks he’s noticed a change in his body, but progress looks like it may have stopped. The next step could be to replace his morning bagel with a couple hard boiled eggs. I think you get the idea…let’s move on.
#2 – Exercise. Exercise is way too broad of a topic to be discussed in any great depth here. However, my recommendation is that everyone should be engaging in some combination of resistance training, cardiovascular conditioning and mobility/flexibility work on weekly basis. Resistance training makes you stronger, builds lean muscle, increases bone density and generally makes you feel like a badass. Conditioning keeps your lungs and ticker healthy and prevents you from wheezing like an asthmatic from simply walking up a single flight of stairs. Mobility/flexibility work allows you to get off your couch without feeling like you’re an 80 year old with titanium hips. Nobody expects you to be an Olympic athlete, but all of us should be striving to improve in all these areas. Apply the same small change rule here as well. If you’ve been completely sedentary for months or years, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Make one small change at a time to your exercise routine and work up to doing something every day. Remember…”If you don’t use it, you lose it!”
#3 – Restrict Your Calories. There no way around this…at the end of the day, fat loss is a matter of calories in vs. calories out. Therefore, the small changes you make must eventually result in a caloric deficit. The first recommendation is to burn more calories….see #2 – Exercise. The second recommendation is obviously to clean up your diet. However, counting calories is not for everyone. Overly complicated calorie calculators that attempt to determine your daily caloric needs based on your age, height, sex and activity level really only get you in the ballpark…plus I don’t trust any product labeling to be 100% accurate either. At the end of the day, the map is not the terrain. It all comes back to starting from where you are and approaching your eating strategy in a way that maintains compliance. Remember, compliance is the key. However, I know some of you would like to see the numbers, so the quick and dirty calculation is to multiply your current bodyweight by 15 to get a ballpark figure for the total daily calories you need (in theory) to maintain your bodyweight. One pound equals 3,500 calories…so if you wanted to actually track calories, you would have to run a caloric deficit of 500 per day to lose one pound per week. I have to say again that you can’t live and die by the numbers, so focus on making small changes and stick to the plan. Assuming that your bodyweight has not been skyrocketing recently for any particular reason and has been relatively steady for a while, odds are in your favor that a few simple tweaks to your existing diet will result in some noticeable progress and the momentum you need to keep moving forward.
#4 – Eat to Support Your Lean Muscle Tissue. Muscle is extremely hard to come by, so don’t let it waste away by eating too few calories or not enough protein and healthy fats to support your level of exercise and to ensure proper recovery. Again, counting calories or grams of protein is a huge headache for most people…that’s why I don’t recommend it for everyone…it’s that whole compliance thing again. However, upwards of 1g of protein per pound of lean bodyweight per day is a popular recommendation for those who weight train frequently, with the minimum recommended being about half that amount just to be a healthy human. Unlike carbs and fat, it’s pretty difficult to over-consume protein and it’s the least likely macronutrient to be stored as fat. Aim for complete sources of protein like lean meats and eggs. Vegetarians should make sure they are eating a balanced source of foods for a complete amino acid profile. Generally speaking, over time you want to migrate towards a diet that’s relatively high in protein, moderate in healthy fats and moderate to low in overall carbs. The human body absolutely requires sufficient protein intake and essential fatty acid intake of linolenic and linoleic acid for survival. Carbohydrates are NOT a requirement for human survival. There is no such thing as an “essential carbohydrate”. My recommendation for those looking to cut calories is to reduce their intake of simple sugars and saturated fats.
#5 – Choose Whole, Natural, Unprocessed Foods. This should be obvious, but the foods we choose to eat should actually be…you know…real food. Real food comes direct from the animal, the tree, the plant or directly out of the ground with little to no processing. Real food contains more nutrients, contains less harmful compounds and causes less digestive issues than foods that are overly processed, stripped of nutrients and loaded with chemicals. Use common sense here. Fresh caught fish is real food, frozen fish sticks are not because they are highly processed. Fresh chicken breast is real food, chicken cold cuts are not. You get the idea. Meal replacements and protein powders may have their place in a well-designed eating strategy for some athletes focused on performance, but I would also limit their use in favor of whole foods whenever possible. Same goes for drinking diet sodas and the like. Always opt for clean, filtered water over diet drinks loaded with artificial sweeteners, colors and other chemicals.
Wrapping It Up The truth is rarely ever glamorous, but there is beauty in simplicity. Let go of the magic pill mindset and buckle down with the basics. Your patience will be rewarded if you follow this five step strategy in your quest to forge a leaner and meaner you!
John Wojciechowski, MS, CSCS, is certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. His broad training and coaching experience gives him a unique perspective on physical training and passion to help others succeed.
He is the owner of BETTER STRENGTH & PERFORMANCE , a private strength training studio in West Orange, NJ, whose mission is to inspire others to live stronger lives through passionate, high quality, private coaching.