Losing body fat is hard. The next time someone tells you that they have some new, easy solution to fat loss that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, you have my permission to throw them off the nearest bridge. Through it all – the fad diets, the magic pills, and shake weights – one fat loss method has stood the test of time. It’s not sexy, it doesn’t have a fancy name, but it’s the core of why every diet works at all: energy management.
Few nutrition concepts are shrouded in as much misinformation as the management of Calories to cause changes in body weight and body composition. This is really a shame, because understanding this very basic idea takes out much of the guess work and frustration associated with losing fat and keeping it off.
In this article, I’ll briefly touch upon every pertinent bit of information you need to know about how Calories impact your body composition. Along the way, I’ll dispel a myth or two and show you an easy way to apply this knowledge to your diet so you can start getting sexy as hell and having the best workouts of your life.
Calories & Why They Matter for Fat Loss
When discussing nutrition, the Calorie applies to two interdependent concepts.
First, Calories measure of the approximate amount of energy your body derives from food per its weight – usually in grams or ounces. For example, there are approximately 125 Calories in six ounces of raw chicken breast. The approximate number of Calories you consume each day adds up to what I’ll refer to as your daily energy intake.
Second, we measure the amount of energy you expend each day in Calories. Everything you do within a 24 hour period, from sleeping to exercising to chewing up the aforementioned chicken breast results in an expenditure of energy, which we refer to as Total Daily Energy Expenditure or TDEE for short.
NOTE: In a few paragraphs, I'll expand upon why I keep writing "approximate" and why it's important to understand that these numbers cannot be interpreted absolutely.
The relative balance of energy intake with energy expenditure is called energy homeostasis and disrupting this balance causes either weight loss or weight gain. A Calorie deficit – taking in less energy than you expend – will result in weight loss, and a Calorie surplus will result in weight gain.
Do I Have To Count Calories/Weigh All My Food For The Rest of My Life?
No, you do not have to meticulously measure, weigh, and track everything you eat to apply basic Calorie management principles. I actually hate the idea that to see good results, you’d need to micromanage the crap out of your diet. To be clear, although they may appear to be different on the surface, all diets that result in weight loss over time – Paleo, Atkins, Zone, whatever – function on these principles. They restrict Calories indirectly by giving you a list of foods that will make it improbable that you’ll be in a Calorie surplus. Although you’re not counting Calories, you’re still restricting them.
For most people, weighing, tracking and logging food should be approached more like a “test” to see where things are, not as a lifestyle or a long-term behavior. The fact of the matter is that if you eat a pretty similar diet day-to-day, you don’t have to count Calories for your entire life. After you spend a short while developing a few meal plans that takes the basics of fat loss into consideration, you’ll have learned a set of skills that allows you to eat more intuitively while still being aware of how the food you’re eating will impact your body composition. A few days to check-in every few months to make sure things are still on track is all it takes.
Myth: “Calories In/Calories Out” Doesn’t Work
Provided that you manage your Calorie intake to create a deficit, you WILL lose weight. This is backed up by enough research that I am confident to label the dismissal of this very basic concept as bullshit, plain and simple. If you’d like to delve into some papers, check out this link and pick your poison. What you’ll find is that in practically every study where subjects restrict Calories, they lose weight. It’s not a coincidence and it’s not magic.
Of course, there is some logic behind the argument against using Calorie management as a weight loss strategy.
- There are hormonal differences between people that impact how food is digested and utilized.
- Estimating energy expenditure is fuzzy – the numbers are approximate, never exact.
- These same implications apply to the food we eat – not every chicken, potato, or head of lettuce is exactly the same – so estimating energy intake is also approximate.
- Self-reported food logs are subject to a whole range of issues. Studies based on recall are typically inaccurate, and people outright lie about what they eat to avoid judgment, making some data unreliable.
- Last but not least, metabolic adaptations to training and dieting make accurately estimating energy requirements and expenditure more difficult.
All this means is that neither this method nor any other weight loss strategy is binary. It’s fuzzy – an approximation, an educated guess – and that although you need to do some experimentation to find the perfect balance, it’s a verified perspective to approach your goals.
Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss
With all this talk of weight loss, I feel like it’s important for me to emphasize that your aim should not be to lose weight indiscriminately – you want to lose fat – and that’s where things get the slightest bit more complicated.
The composition of your meals, along with your choice of exercise, will tip the scale in favor of losing less muscle mass/more fat as your weight drops. Losing muscle isn’t ideal at all if your goal is to look good in your bathing suit, so taking every advantage to preserve it is going to be important.
To keep this article from getting too long, I’ll only briefly touch upon macronutrients (macros for short) and exercise since these variables do influence body composition, but you can read more about them in related articles here on Eat To Perform.com.
How Macronutrients Influence Fat Loss
Macros are the bits and pieces of your food that you derive energy from. Protein and carbohydrate are worth 4 Calories per gram and fat is worth 9 Calories per gram. Beyond their contribution to your daily energy intake, each macro lends itself to different functions within your body.
Protein breaks down into amino acids, the building blocks of every itty bit of your body. Protein intake will influence lean mass (muscle) retention on a diet. You should keep it around 0.8-1 gram per pound of body weight when you’re trying to lose fat. If protein falls too low, you risk losing a disproportionate amount of muscle as you lose weight and you’ll potentially end up looking blurry, undefined, and skinny rather than looking lean. Better safe than sorry – eat more protein!
Carbohydrates are your body’s primary source of energy. Your brain uses a lot of carbs, and your muscles store several hundred grams of carbs as glycogen. Muscle glycogen is immediately available during exercise so keeping your stores full is important to maintain strength, speed, and overall performance. In the simplest terms, your workouts will suck if you don’t eat enough carbs and that will make it difficult to provide a stimulus to maintain and potentially gain new muscle.
Fat is necessary to build cell walls, produce hormones, and transport fat soluble vitamins. Your body usually has plenty of fat hanging around to make this happen (you know, the stuff you have chilling around your tummy) and I’d recommend that you use fat as a way to round out your daily energy intake, especially on days when you’re not exercising (more on what I mean by that later).
Low Carb or High Carb?
The debate on which is better for fat loss – high carb or low carb – is like comparing apples to apples. Both of these approaches work when they restrict Calories. Low carbohydrate diets are effective for greater weight loss in the short term, but long-term there’s basically no difference.
My personal take on the subject is that periods of lowered carbohydrate intake can be followed up with periods of higher carbohydrate intake to get the best of both worlds ala “Metabolic Flexibility for Fat Loss.”
How Exercise Influences Fat Loss
The most obvious benefit of exercise is that doing more work with your body increases your TDEE and creates a larger Calorie deficit, however, I caution against using exercise as a means simply to burn Calories. Since your goal is to lose body fat and preserve muscle mass, you should do something that sends a signal to your body to hold onto as much of that muscle as possible. The Calorie burn should be a secondary consideration.
Without going into too much detail, the best exercise you can do to preserve muscle is resistance training. There are a ton of different ways to go about resistance training, and they’re all going to be effective. I’m partial to barbell training, bodybuilding, and powerlifting but HIIT, WODs, and even calisthenics will do the trick. The most important decision you need to make is just to get it done 3-4 times a week and work on constant improvement. More reps, more weight, better form, greater endurance.
“What about cardio?” For our general opinion on how cardiovascular training fits into this whole shebang, check out this article. Basically, we think cardio should be treated like weight training – not as a way to burn Calories, but as a way to become a more functional human being.
How Many Calories Do I Need To Eat To Lose Fat?
Here we are, the question everyone wants to know the answer to. I wish I could just give you a number and send you on your way, but the number of Calories you need on a daily basis for fat loss is individual. It’s dependent upon your weight, height, body composition, and activity level. Fortunately, By applying simple math to your stats and multiplying it by an activity modifier, you can make a good guess at your TDEE (and this is a big part of what ETP coaches help people with).
How Do I Make This Work For Me?
The next step is usually to create a Calorie deficit, and that’s where most people royally screw the pooch.
When someone reaches a fat loss plateau, the tendency is to keep pushing in the completely wrong direction – they eliminate all processed foods, reduce Calories, reduce carbs, work out more days a week, start taking fat burners – and that rarely if ever ends well. Read this article where I go into detail about what happens if you continue down that road for too long and why you want to avoid it.
The issue is that if you keep it up, even mild Calorie restriction that doesn’t threaten your life (you’re not starving) results in metabolic adaptations that actually make it harder to lose weight. To make matters worse, once you regain lost body weight, it takes quite a while for these adaptations to reverse. Weight change models support the theory that these adaptations are predictable (at least in non-diabetics).
NOTE: If you're reading this article and you have a diagnosed medical condition that impacts your weight, consult your doctor and get your health under control before you worry about getting ripped.
For the rest of us, there’s enough evidence to suggest that the longer you restrict Calories, the fatter you’ll end up when you go off your diet. The solution then is to only diet for short periods of time and spend most of your time focused on maintaining fat loss and staying the hell away from the adverse effects of Calorie restriction. The process we have most of our members follow is outlined below. It may seem confusing at first but it’s a fairly linear progression that works for practically anyone who wants to lose fat and keep it off.
Phase I: The Diet Break
Most of our readers and members, and indeed most people who want to lose body fat, are under eating when they get to the point where they’re ready to do things right. They’re experiencing a certain level of metabolic dysfunction from years of trying to lose weight through other methods that don’t account for metabolic flexibility, and it needs to be undone before they can lose fat efficiently. This is how you do it:
- Spend 2-3 days tracking food with MyFitnessPal. Chances are that your food logs will not line up with the number our calculator gives you.
- Gradually work towards your calculated TDEE. We recommend adding or subtracting food by 200 Calorie increments each week. If you’ve been following a low carb diet, add carbohydrates in slowly.
- During this period, your weight will likely increase by a few pounds. If your calculations are correct, it shouldn’t be more than 3-5 pounds in the morning, depending upon how heavy you are.
- As you start eating at TDEE, your weight should stabilize.
- Eat at TDEE for 1-3 weeks, depending upon how long you’ve been dieting and how lean you are.
During this period, most people start noticing that their muscles look more full, that their performance increases, and that their energy levels go through the roof. At this point, you’re ready to tackle fat loss.
Phase II: Losing Body Fat
As you transition into your fat loss phase, you have several options but our go-to is to utilize Calorie cycling methods to slowly drop body fat while preserving or even building muscle mass.
We’ve written a number of articles that detail fat loss approaches, but there are some general rules to follow:
- Subtract 200 Calories from your TDEE and eat this on workout days. This reduction should come primarily from fats.
- Eat fewer carbs on days you don’t work out hard (walking and light stuff is fine). Drop 100-125 grams of carbs and you’ll create a 400-500 Calorie deficit and stimulate fat loss!
- Stick to foods that fill you up on your lower Calorie/lower carb days. Prioritize protein and fibrous veggies and take in most of your carbs around your workouts.
- After 6 weeks, return to maintenance approach by following the steps outlined in Phase III.
That last rule is probably the most important, yet most difficult to understand aspect of successfully losing body fat and keeping it off for good. You cannot simply reduce Calories and keep pushing or you will not be able to maintain your results – as I mentioned earlier, you’re just going to get fat when you come off your diet.
For a more detailed examination of a Calorie cycling approach, read The Wave Method.
Phase III: Un-dieting/Maintenance
This phase is very similar to Phase I – it’s really another diet break – but it’s shorter.
- As before, gradually work towards your TDEE. We recommend adding or subtracting food by 200-300 Calorie increments each week, mostly from carbs.
- After about 2 weeks, you should be back to eating at your TDEE and your weight should have increased by a few pounds.
- After things stabilize, repeat Phase II.
…and that’s it. Throughout this process you’ll figure out how this impacts your performance and how you can tweak the parameters to get the best results. As I said a dozen times earlier, this is all approximate so experimentation is required.
Why This Method Works & Why You NEED To Take Diet Breaks
Put simply, the method I’ve outlined works because you aren’t pushing the pedal too hard for too long and eliciting negative adaptations to either Calorie restriction. You’re not going to feel burnt out all the time, you’re not going to be craving food you can’t eat, and you WILL see results if you stick to it. By starting at a stable Calorie intake, the changes you make to your diet result in more predictable patterns of fat loss. Best of all, you’re not going to extremes and there’s always a plan that gradually takes you back to your center.
For more on “un-dieting” and how you can recover from chronic Calorie restriction and lower your body fat set point, read my article “Tear Down The Wall” and don’t forget to check out the video below for one simple change you can make to start seeing real results that last.