Many commercials and products make weight loss out to be extremely difficult. However, with the right knowledge, weight loss can be relatively simple and easy. Here, we’ll discuss the basics of nutrition and get you started on your weight loss journey.
What is a calorie?
Before talking about weight loss, it’s important to know the basics of calories. Simply put, a calorie is a unit of energy. All foods contain calories and all of our daily activities – exercising, walking to work, breathing – burn calories. In fact, unless you’re a laborer or professional athlete, most of your daily calories will be used by the bodily processes just required to stay alive.
At a high level, the basics of weight loss and weight gain are straightforward. When you eat more calories than you use (in which case you’re in what’s known as a “caloric surplus”) you gain weight. Conversely, when you use more calories than you eat (in which case you’re in a “caloric deficit”) you lose weight.
(Note: some will argue that weight loss is not just a matter of calories, and to an extent they are correct. After all, if it were that simple, we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic. That being said, this does not change the physics of calories and weight loss. You can read more about that here.)
How many calories do I burn every day?
You’re probably wondering how many calories you burn every day. This number – called your “maintenance” calories – is important to know. If you eat this amount of calories every day, you will maintain your current weight.
Your maintenance calories depend on many factors, such as your gender, age and activity level. There are some good calculators and formulas, such as this one, that will tell you your caloric expenditure.
Interestingly enough, a remarkably good rule of thumb is that males burn about 15x their bodyweight (bodyweight, as measured in lbs) in calories every day and females burn about 14x their bodyweight every day. These are rough estimates, of course, but they are often very close.
The most accurate way to find your maintenance calories is to actually measure your caloric intake. If your weight has been constant for the last few weeks, the best way to measure your maintenance calories is to keep a food diary (there are many sites for this purpose, such as FitDay or MyFitnessPal) and record what you eat every single day. After you’ve been doing this for about a week, calculate your average daily calories. The result will be your maintenance calories.
Be warned that this might not be completely accurate; the mere act of logging your food might cause you to change your eating habits.
The basics of weight loss
When you use more calories than you consume, you’ll lose weight. More specifically, you’ll lose a pound of fat when you create a caloric deficit – either by exercise or by restricting your calories – of 3,500 calories.
Let’s look at an example:
Fred is 200 lbs and wants to lose weight. At 200 lbs, we can calculate that he uses 3,000 calories every day (15 x 200). In order to lose one pound of fat in a week, Fred will have to create a weekly deficit of 3,500 calories, or 500 calories per day (3,500 / 7). He can either do this through diet or exercise.
So, if Fred wants to lose one lb, Fred can eat roughly 7 less oreos per day for a week or Fred can run about 3 miles per day for a week. Performing either of those actions will create a daily deficit of 500 calories.
Why is weight loss so hard?
If the information above is so straightforward, why then, do so many people have trouble losing weight? Why is obesity such a huge epidemic?
Well, while the mechanics behind weight loss might be straightforward at a high level, the combination of psychology, physiology and environment, make the actual execution challenging. Luckily, from what we’ve seen, education and hard work is enough for anyone to achieve their weight loss goals.
If you’re reading this then there’s a good chance that you’ve failed on a weight loss plan before. We’ll go through all of the most common reasons that people fail and tell you what has worked for so many of the transformations that we’ve been fortunate enough to follow.
We’re going to tackle each step of dieting by breaking it down into different levels, progressing from easiest to hardest.
Levels will be ranked by priority, and you should tackle them in numerical order. Long term success, however, will require that you hit them all.
Starting Guide to Weight Loss
Level 1: Track your caloric consumption
The first reason that people fail is that they do not measure their caloric intake and expenditure.
Can you imagine trying to save money if you don’t know how much is being spent or where it’s going?
You cannot manage what you don’t measure and weight loss is no different.
Let’s look at the the commonly-heard strategy of “I’m going to run every morning before work.” This is a recipe for failure if a dieter is not tracking his or her caloric intake.
Exercise will increase the amount of hunger in many, and it’s possible that the amount of calories burned are simply overcompensated by “eating more.” In fact, a dieter can actually gain weight if he or she overcompensates too much.
Moderate exercise burns a surprisingly low amount of calories: Consider that a a 220 lb man walking up 27 flights of stairs burns the caloric equivalent of half an Oreo. Yet exercisers will often overcompensate by consuming more calories. Chances are, you know at least one person who regularly grabs a Frappuccino after a tiring cardio session.
Find your favorite calorie logger and start tracking your food intake. Most people will be surprised with just how many calories they’re consuming.
(Note: Some people do better with alternative methods to calorie tracking such as using a set of “rules.” That’s why these people do very well on rules-centric programs such as Primal Eating. Calorie counting will work for everyone who sticks to it, but if you find that it’s not a good fit for you, look at some alternative methods to calorie counting.)
Congratulations on leveling up!
Level 2 – Make dieting relatively painless
We can do this by:
2a. Creating a smart caloric deficit.
2b. Eating 1g of protein per lb of target body weight.
2c. Eat mainly unprocessed foods with a fibrous vegetable at every meal.
Now let’s assume that someone religiously logs their caloric intake and exercise. That doesn’t mean that they’re automatically on the path to success. If you’ve ever dieted before, then the following situation will be familiar: you might have seen initial success after using sheer willpower to stick to salads and grapefruit for the first week, or maybe even the first 5 lbs. At some point, however, your willpower cracks.
One slip up leads to another. Eventually, you’re back to where you started.
As it turns out, our bodies are ridiculously good at fighting weight loss. As we diet and lose more and more weight, our bodies “fight back” by increasing hunger and often increasing lethargy. This means success inevitably breeds additional hunger, at least with the way that most people diet. (If you’re interested in geeking out about this stuff, you may want to check out “Set Point Theory”)
Additional hunger begets the need for more willpower to say no to eating. And, as it turns out, willpower is a finite resource. That’s why – if you’re hungry enough and are offered enough times – you’ll eventually say yes to that cookie or slice of pizza.
If this seems like a dismal fate, thankfully it’s not. We’ll let you in on something that many successful dieters have learned: if you do things correctly, it takes a lot less willpower to fight hunger and lethargy than you might think.
In fact, following the dietary guidelines below might leave you feeling fuller while you’re losing weight.
2a. Create a smart caloric deficit
The most obvious reason that people fall victim to diet adherence is that they “crash diet.” Simply put, they create a caloric deficit so large that the constant fight against hunger is unsustainable.
The first thing that you should do is pick a reasonable caloric deficit. Most people should aim to create a 3,500 calorie deficit (remember, that’s 1 lb of fat) per week and no more than 7,000 (2 lbs of fat) per week. A good rule of thumb is that you should aim to lose 0.5%, but no more than 1%, of your body weight per week.
The heavier you are, the easier it is to create a large deficit. In fact a 400 lb man can create a 2,000 calorie/day deficit by eating 4,000 calories/day. (And he did!)
Most people should aim for one pound of weight loss per week, which is actually quite a lot of fat. Unfortunately, many who are constantly exposed to the false advertising of “lose 5 lbs in 5 days!” that you’ll hear in commercials and products – they never work, by the way – may think otherwise.
If one pound per week seems like too little to you, then consider two things:
- In your first week, you will likely drop a lot of “water weight” due to some of the physiological aspects of dieting. A 3,500 calorie deficit may cause additional weight loss beyond what you expect, sometimes as much as 5 lbs. Consider this a nice potential bonus of sticking to a very sensible diet plan!
- If you “only” lost 1-2 lbs per week, keeping this up for a year would cause you to lose 50-100 lbs. Of course, there may be pitfalls along the way, but you will still be a new person after a year. Don’t forget that following these rules will make dieting relatively painless compared to other plans that you’ve tried.
As a refresher, here’s how to hit your weekly caloric deficit:
- First, find your maintenance weight through one of the methods above – let’s say it’s 2,500 calories.
- If you want a caloric deficit of 3,500 calories within a week, then you will need an average daily deficit of 500 calories (3,500 / 7)
- This means that you will need to aim for 2,000 calories per day (2,500 – 500).
2b. Find your target body weight in pounds, then eat that number in grams of protein.
Now that you have a reasonable caloric target in mind, we can start utilizing strategies to keep you constantly full throughout your diet. The first, and most powerful strategy, is greatly increasing your protein intake.
Protein is the most “satiating” (i.e. filling) macronutrient and many who are constantly hungry on a diet find that increasing their protein intake greatly reduces their hunger. For many dieters, this has been the key difference in diet success.
Out of all the macronutrients (protein, fats, carbohydrates), protein also has the highest “thermic effect.” This means that your body burns more calories from processing protein than processing fat or carbohydrates.
Lastly, if you start strength training (as you’ll see below in Level 3) then this amount will also allow you to build muscle. More muscle increases the amount of calories you burn throughout the day. Oh, it also makes you sexier.
How much protein should you consume?
Nutritionist Alan Aragon recommends finding your goal body weight in pounds and eating that number in grams of protein are a bare minimum. Therefore, if you are a 140 lb woman looking to get down to 120 lbs, you’ll need to consume a minimum of 120g of protein.
For many people, this target will seem difficult to hit at first and eating will seem like a chore. That’s a good thing; you’ll remain full while working towards your protein goal.
(Protip: If you find yourself in a situation where you can’t “count” protein, eyeballing always works. A cooked amount of meat that’s the size of a deck of cards is equivalent to about 25g.)
(Note to vegans/vegetarians: Keeping your protein intake high might be a bit more challenging, but there are certainly ways to increase your protein intake and still adhere to your dietary restrictions.
If you are vegetarian, eggs, milk, and supplementing with whey or casein protein are great ways to increase your protein intake. For vegans, beans and lentils will help.
It may be more difficult to hit our recommended number, just by the nature of restricting a lot of protein-rich foods.In this case, try to stick to everything else while still keeping protein as high as you can with your restrictions. There are lost of folks that have successfully lost weight on a vegetarian or vegan diet.)
2c. The rest of your calories – eat unprocessed foods with a fibrous vegetable at every meal.
After you’re done getting your required amount of protein, a majority of your calories should come from natural, unprocessed foods. That is, if the food item didn’t “grow” at any point, then it shouldn’t make up a large portion of your calories.
Why is this important?
When many people attempt to reduce their calories, they either stick to the same foods and eat less – or worse – they turn to processed “diet” foods. These are often labeled “low fat” but actually higher in sugar and worse for you.
Using either of these methods will leave you hungry and unsatisfied. If you’re used to eating four slices of pizza, it’s hard not to think about that fourth slice if you stop at three this time. You may even feel hungrier after a meal than before you started dieting.
Instead, make up the majority of your non-protein calories in unprocessed foods like fibrous vegetables, brown rice, oats, kale or olive oil. Foods like broccoli and cauliflower are so filling and low in calories that you can usually eat as much of them as you want without having to count their calories. (Their calories still count but most people can’t eat enough of them to really matter.)
Of course, that doesn’t mean that “junk” foods or foods that you were used to are completely off limits – a calorie is still a calorie after all and labeling foods as “good” or “bad” can in fact be harmful – but try to keep these foods to a small portion of your calories. Less than 30% of your weekly calories is a good starting number.
When you go from four slices of pizza for dinner to 10 ounces of top round steak, a cup of brown rice and as much broccoli as you want, you’ll be so full that you won’t realize you ate 300 calories less.
2a. Find your goal body weight and eat that number in grams of protein every day.
2b. Eat the amount of calories every day that will allow you to create a weekly deficit of 3,500 calories (more if you have more weight to lose).
2c. Eat a majority of the rest of your calories in unprocessed foods.
Level 3 – Incorporate exercise (especially around strength training) to create long term success
A warning about focusing on exercise for weight loss without a good diet in place
You’ll notice that exercise is the last thing to be mentioned when it comes to weight loss. For many people this might come as a surprise.
As it turns out, exercise alone is quite ineffective at helping people lose weight and many people fail for this very reason. It’s not that they were physically lazy – they just didn’t properly educate themselves to succeed.
In fact, there are studies showing the inefficacy of cardio when it comes to reducing weight in overweight or obese populations. Now, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t exercise or that cardio is bad.
This simply means that without a good diet, exercise will fail in more cases than not. This specific type of failure is especially harmful; failing to lose weight despite weeks of engaging in painful, unenjoyable exercise may leave a person with ill feelings towards fitness.
Luckily, there is a correct way to incorporate exercise into a weight loss regimen. One trend that you’ll see in a lot of success stories in which folks have lost weight and kept it off is that they focused on strength training. More specifically, they got better at lifting relatively heavy weights through compound lifts.
Why strength training in particular?
As mentioned earlier, strength training allows you to put on lean mass (i.e. muscle) which in turn increases your metabolism and keeps you burning additional calories all day.
Think of the difference between strength training and cardio as buying vs. renting a house. The time you spend building muscle not only burns calories, it goes towards accumulating long term rewards, namely an increase in caloric expenditure.
Lastly, many who are extremely overweight will just find strength training more pleasurable than running or other forms of cardio. Cardio can be extremely difficult or painful if you have a lot of weight to lose.
Again, this doesn’t mean that cardio is bad; it’s great for health and you should do it if you find it fun. In fact, many have lost weight through cardio as the primary form of exercise. If this is you, consider it a testament to your grit and fortitude.
If you follow all of the rules above, you should see success in your weight loss journey without many of the pitfalls that have plagued others, and you, in the past. Dieting is very different than the media, supplement companies or infomercials will portray.
Unlike what shows like The Biggest Loser might have you think, you don’t have to live in constant pain, hunger and misery. Those methods do not work in the long run. Unfortunately, the simplicity and ease of losing weight the correct way would probably not make for a good TV show.
If you should fail, don’t give up hope. Get back up and try again. Many successful weight loss transformations took several “revs of the engine” until they were successful. We’ve seen enough amazing transformation stories to firmly believe that with enough determination, there is a way for everyone to reach the next level of fitness.