Losing weight is easy — at least according to every “easy” weight loss program, TV infomercial, and weight loss gadget you see marketed online.
The truth is that losing weight isn’t easy. And if you for one instant think that you can simply pop some magic pill or cut back on a meal here or there and see real weight loss results, dream on – you won’t see tangible results.
Changing your body takes a great deal of effort on your part. In fact, losing weight (and keeping it off) requires a radical change in your lifestyle. You can starve yourself and lose weight, but you’ll almost be guaranteed to put the weight back on given time. Losing weight and keeping it off requires a complete mindset change about what you eat, how you eat, and your general approach to fitness.
The bottom line: if you are not willing to make some serious lifestyle adjustments, then you won’t see tangible and lasting results.
Pep talk done, now let’s get down to the business of losing weight.
There are a number of important factors that all impact your ability to lose weight:
- Caloric Balance
- Meal Composition / Nutrient Macro Profiles
- Meal Timing
- Metabolic/Hormonal Changes
By far the most important factor is your Caloric Balance when it comes to losing weight.
STEP ONE: CALCULATE YOUR CALORIES FOR WEIGHT LOSS
You will not lose weight unless you address the Energy Balance Equation in the right direction. This equation is a scientific fact that states if you eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. And conversely, if you eat less calories than you burn, you will lose weight.
To lose weight then, you must first figure out exactly how many calories you need to eat to maintain a negative energy balance (plain English: a calorie deficit).
Calculating your calories for weight loss involve four steps:
- Calculating your BMR (Base Metabolic Rate)
- Adjust BMR for Your Activity Level
- Calculate Your Caloric Deficit
- Subtract your Caloric Deficit (#3) Figure from your Adjusted BRM (#2) to get your target calories for the day
For a complete breakdown on the above four steps, read our How to Calculate Your Calories for Weight Loss article which will give you the exact details on how to calculate your target calories to eat per day for weight loss results.
STEP TWO: CALCULATE YOUR MACRONUTRIENT REQUIREMENTS
Once you find your target calories for weight loss, you then need to calculate the macronutrient breakdown of those calories. In plain English: you need to figure out how many grams of protein,carbs, and fat will make up those daily calories.
This is probably the most “complex” part of this process, but we’ve written a detailed article on how to calculate your macronutrients for weight loss which should tell you exactly how to go about it.
If you haven’t already, you absolutely need to read that article. But I’ll give a super short summary here.
Macronutrient to Calorie Conversion
1 gram Protein: 4 calories
1 gram Carbohydrate: 4 calories
1 gram Fat: 9 calories
STEP 1. Figure out based on your weight how much protein you need: The standard suggestion on bodybuilding forums tossed around is about 1 – 1.5 grams of protein per lb. of body weight. So if you are a 180lb male, you would opt for a protein intake between 180 grams to 270 grams a day. Depending on your type of diet and how lean you are, you could even adjust for higher protein. Keep in mind protein ratios are controversial and a hotly debated topic.
STEP 2. Figure out based on your weight how much fat you need: The standard suggestion is about .5 grams per lb. of body weight. Again, this could be adjusted depending on the diet of diet you need. It’s not recommended you cut out all fat as a certain level of fat is vital.
STEP 3: After you’ve figured out protein and fat requirements for your body, convert the grams of protein and fat into calories then subtract them from your Target Calories for Weight loss that you figured out when calculating your calories for weight loss. The remaining calories will be made up of your carbs. You can of course adjust for more protein or fat to less the number of carbs. Or if you are on a diet that emphasizes carb intake or lack of carbs, calculate based on carbs first, then figure out protein and fat.
Assuming we are figuring out protein and fat first.
So CARBS per day = CALORIES FOR WEIGHT LOSS per day – CALORIES FROM PROTEIN per day + CALORIES FROM FAT per day.
Example, if we figured out our 180 lb. man needed 180 grams of protein a day, that’s 720 calories (180 x 4 ). Our 180lb man needs about 60 grams of fat, that’s (60 x 9) = 540 calories. Plug this into our formula:
CARBS per day = 1800 – (720 + 540)
= 540 calories from carbs
540 calories / 4 (calories per carb) = 135 grams of grams needed per day.
So our hypothetical man’s macronutrient breakdown for the day is:
- 180 grams protein
- 60 grams fat
- 135 grams of carbs
Then it’s just a matter of planning your meals for the day based on those macronutrients.
STEP THREE: START COUNTING CALORIES
Now this can be a bit tricky for people to get right initially because you are going to have to like actually count calories. Yes, you heard me right: you will have to count all the calories in the food you consume. This seems like a daunting prospect, but it’s really pretty easy once you get the hang of it. Make a habit of counting the calories of every meal you eat for a few weeks, and you’ll get a good sense of an accurate guesstimate of the calories you eat from meal to meal.
Initially though, you should invest in an inexpensive electronic weight scale. You can buy these in any department store or from Amazon for under twenty bucks. These are useful because you can measure the exact number of calories you are eating by weight then simply looking up the calories per type of food you are eating from an online nutritional database such as myfitnesspal.com.
How to Count Calories the Exact Way?
- Look up the nutritional profile for the food you are eating
- Place that food on the scale to get the exact grams/ounces
- Look up the caloric profile of that food via an online nutritional database like myfitnesspal.com
- Calculate the calories now that you have the number of grams and the number of calories per gram (or per 100 grams). There are also a host of online calculators online where you simply put in the number of grams or ounces of the food you are eating and you’ll get the calories.
You should read our How to Count Meal Calories article for a precise breakdown on how to count your calories.
While this sounds taxing, you’ll find you probably end up eating a lot of the same foods and you end up memorizing portion sizes and nutritional information. Give it a couple weeks and you’ll be able to estimate pretty accurately the calories you are eating per meal and the nutritional breakdown (carbs, fat, and protein) on the fly.
How to Count Calories the Simplified Way?
The problem with having to measure everything out all the time is it’s so damn inconvenient. I absolutely suggest people who are NEW to counting calories to at least give the exact way a go for a couple weeks to a couple months, if only to build up a good head for guesting the calories in what you eat; this is a skill that is even more valuable when you end up going out to eat at restaurants.
But if you want the easiest way to do things, here’s a few rule of thumb tips that can help you estimate without a scale
- About 140 grams of rice/uncooked pasta is roughly 100 grams of carbs and 200 calories.
- 100 grams of meat (any) is about 20 grams of protein.
- 4 eggs is 28 grams of protein
- Veggies are very low carb and low calories so you can pretty much ignore them as far as your carb count goes.
- Drink fruit juice in moderation – juice is high in sugar (which is carbs) and often high in calories.
STEP FOUR: ACHIEVE A CALORIE DEFICIT EACH DAY
This is where you’ll have to put “the pedal to the metal” as the saying goes. The hardest part about losing weight is maintaining the discipline of a calorie deficit. I won’t sugar coat the words here: this can be a real challenge for most people, especially if you enjoy eating (and frankly, who doesn’t?).
Assuming you’ve followed STEP 1 and calculated your target calories for weight loss, then followed through STEP 2, bought an electronic scale and started figuring out how much calories is in each meal you eat by measuring your meals, the next and most crucial step is to actually hit your caloric deficit. If you don’t create a daily deficit in calories, you simply won’t lose weight. Period.
There are a number of dietary approaches you can follow here to lose weight. Each has a specific philosophy.
Some of the popular and proven programs for weight loss are:
- Paleo / Low Carb Approach (high protien, very low carbs, medium fat)
- Intermittent Fasting Approach (fast for 16 hours a day, eat your calories in an 8 hour feeding window)
- Standard Approach (eat 6 small meals a day)
Personally, I’m a big fan of the Intermittent Fasting movement; specifically, the Lean Gains version. I’ve personally used this to go from 77 kilos to 60 kilos and from 18-20 percent body fat to 5 percent bodyfat. It’s great for maintaining low body fat and I find it works very well with the Muay Thai training lifestyle. And it’s very easy to drop weight without feeling hungry. Add to this that you are not a slave to the kitchen by having to eat 6 times a day as in the standard fitness approach (you can eat once, twice, or three times as long as you eat your calories in your 8 hour feeding period), and it’s a big win win.
If you are interested in Intermittent Fasting, read our Benefits of Intermittent Fasting article that introduces it.
No matter what dietary approach you choose, the end goal of each needs to be the same: to bring you into a calorie deficit state.
How to Achieve a Daily Calorie Deficit
1. Eat Less
And the secret formula to losing weight is…eat less. Wait, that sounds too simple right? Well simple it is, but it’s not necessary easy to save on calories by eating less. Your body might initially fight you, you’ll feel hungry, you’ll be tempted by snacks, you’ll find it hard to eat out without blowing your calorie count, etc.
By eating LESS than you normally do, you can shed those calories and achieve a deficit.
If in STEP ONE you figured out your target calories needs to be 1800 a day (and this is assuming the standard 500 calorie deficit is already calculated in), you will need to adjust your meal patterns to accommodate for this.
Keep in mind that suddenly cutting your calories can make you feel pretty hungry, at least at first. There are a few ways to get around this. My favorites ar:
- drinking coffee with a splash of milk and no sugar (which suppresses hunger)
- eating lots of lean protein (increases your satiety level),
- chewing sugarless gum
- eating lots of veggies (fills you up but has few calories)
- breaking your meals up into a several feast-sized meals, rather than multiple small ones
2. Change What You Eat
Another effective way to cut your calories is to make food substitutions. It’s very easy to cut your calories by cutting out processed food (frozen, packaged, and fast food) from your diet. Process food often contains high levels of saturated fat which is calorically dense.
It’s very easy to overeat if you make certain food choices. Processed food usually have more calories than non-processed food. For example, taking down a Big Mac with a side of fries and a coke is a good 1300 calories. This is equivalent to a two hour run at a moderate pace. For some individuals this is nearly the amount of calories you need to reach your caloric intake for weight loss. Rather than a burger with fries and a coke, you could opt of a chicken sandwich that’s light on the dressing, some veggies, and water for a 500-600 calorie meal shaving off 600-800 calories from your daily total!
Substituting fast food with whole food can radically cut your caloric consumption each day, especially if you are used to eating processed food.
The bottom line is it’s very possible to drastically cut down your caloric intake not by necessary eating LESS food, quantity wise, but by substituting processed food full of fat for natural food choices that are lower calories and also more nutritionally dense. As a side effect, eating things like vegetables and lean protein, besides having a quality nutritional profile, can help you feel more satiated as well.
- Replace Processed Food With Whole Food
- Cut Out Liquid Calories (Soda, Juice, Alcohol etc)
- Eat Lean Protein which increases your satiety (you feel more full.
3. Mess With Your Meal Macros Ratios
Macros refer to the composition of your food choices, where you can divide your meal into three parts: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. You affect our weight loss results by specifically adjusting your diet to minimize one of of these groups. For example, one popular diet that can result in some remarkably fast weight loss results is the popular Low Carb Diet, where you minimize or almost entirely eliminate carbohydrates from your diet.
Messing with your macros can be incredibly effective in certain cases and is generally what differentiates the different weight loss paradigms out there like the Low Carb Diet, The Paleo Diet, etc.
This is an advanced topic, however, and we can touch on manipulating your meal macros in a future article. Keep in mind that by far the most important factor in losing weight is your caloric balance. You can entirely ignore the specifics of meal macros and only worry about your daily calorie intake and still see awesome results.
Macros really are only worth messing with if:
- You are trying to get a six pack / ripped (especially when you go to ten percent and below bodyfat — for men)
- You are trying some exotic program where you put on lean muscle with little fat (lean bulk)
- You hit a major weight loss plateau
If you want to mess with your macros, you should absolutely know first how to calculate the correct Macros for your target weight loss (or weight gain, depending). Once you have the actual hard numbers of macros in grams for protein, fat, and carbs you need to achieve a certain weight goal, THEN you can start to modify the numbers according to your dietary philosophy (low carb, paloe, Intermittent Fasting (lean gains style) carb cycling, etc).
4. Move More (Cardio)
Traditionally, cardio is frowned upon in terms of pure weight loss as it’s not as efficient as simply restricting or restructuring what you eat. Case in point, a single Big Mac (500 or so calories) would take you almost 3 hours to walk off or about 50 minutes if you run 6 miles an hour. Would you rather run for close to an hour or simply skip on the Big Mac or replace the Big Mac with a more nutritionally dense by less caloric item?
That’s not to say cardio doesn’t have a host of other benefits such as cardiovascular health, muscular endurance adaptations, etc. But for pure weight loss, cardio is not the best strategy.
Excessive cardio can also catabolize muscle, meaning you will lose weight but lose fat and muscle rather than just fat.
Having said that, you can do cardio to bring yourself into a caloric defect. Understandably, if you are an athlete then there simply is no getting around doing extreme amounts of cardio. Just realize that it CAN increase muscle loss, especially if you are already lean.
Warning: It’s very easy to throw caution to the wind and completely blow out your caloric deficit accumulated for the entire week on a weekend of feasting and drinking. While you can certainly have a cheat day/meal once a week. you have to make sure you don’t overdo it as you can eat into your weekly deficit. See the Can I have a cheat day one day a week question at the bottom of this article.
STEP 4: Strength Training
You’ll need to pick a strength training routine for step 4
Because weight loss ideally refers to the loss of only FAT not muscle and FAT. Unless you are excessively overweight, it’s impossible to retain your muscle while losing only fat without incorporating some type of strength training regimen (i.e. lifting weights) into your program.
Another benefit to strength training, especially if you’ve never done any before, is that it’s entirely possible to build muscle while losing fat. This is extremely hard to do under normal circumstances with the one exception: you have never lifted weights before. Your body will respond greatly to the resistance stimulus induced by strength training and build muscle. The end result here is that you can lose weight while adding muscle tone to your frame, especially reshaping your body!
Even if you don’t add any muscle, strength training while on a calorie deficit will ensure you keep most of your muscle while shedding fat.
Strength training, contrary to popular belief, will not create a masculine frame on ladies. So if you are a woman, erase this thought from your mind; it simply is not true. Extremely muscular women you see on magazines are often on a variety of supplements and steroid treatments to give them that frame.
You want to lift compound weights that work out multiple muscle groups while providing maximum resistance. Compound lifts work your entire body out and put the most stress on your central nervous system, resulting in the most muscular gains per movement.
Strength training is a large article just on its own but it’s an essential part of your weight loss strategy. Can you skip on strength training? Yes, you can skip out on lifting weights, but expect to lose both strength and muscle WITH the fat. For the purpose of this article, I’ll three key strength training factors for maximum muscle retention while you are on a deficit. However, you will absolutely need to follow a specific strength training routine.
For the FULL details on how to start strength training, read our Strength Training 101.
1. Lift Heavy weights with Low Reps
There are many different weight training programs, but whatever program you do I suggest it involves low reps and heavy weights. This puts maximum stress on your central nervous system which in terms tells your body to KEEP your muscle mass even while in a caloric deficit. You want your body to keep muscle when you cut calories and strength training with heavy weights and low reps is one of the best way to tell your body to keep that lean muscle!
Aim for between 3-6 reps, 2-3 sets per exercise. By the third set, you should be reaching failure.
2. Compound Weight Lifting Movements
Muscles are built with compound movements that work multiple muscle groups and put maximum strain on your central nervous system. Doing bicep curls and using those machines at the gym won’t do this!
The core compound lifts that should make up your routine should be:
- Military Press
- Barbell Rows
- Chin Ups / Weighted Chin-ups
- Weighted Dips
There are a number of different strength different tested programs to follow, each with a slightly different philosophy:
- Rippletoe Starting Strength
- 3 Day Split
- 2 Day full body workout
Any of these can work, as LONG as you are consistent about it. Going into the specifics of an exact strength training program is beyond the scope of this article, but click on one of the programs to read more about it.
3. Consume High Amounts of Protein (helps preserves muscle mass when on caloric deficit)
When you are on a calorie deficit, it’s critical that you consume plenty of protein — more than you normally would. Aim for 1 grams of protein per lb of your body weight. That means if you are a 200lbs man, aim to get 200 or so grams of protein per day. You can get your protein from lean meats like chicken breast, steak, fish, eggs, cottage cheese, and protein powder.
Strength Training and Cardio…Can You Combine Them?
If you are an athlete or have a cardio heavy schedule during the week, it can be a great challenge mixing strength training and cardio. They both start to eat into the other after a while; you’re endurance goes down because you are sore and tired from lifting heavy weights and you can’t lift as much because your body is tired from all the cardio. However, there are a few things you can do to ensure both strength training and cardio don’t affect each other too much which I’ll talk about in a future article (I mix training Muay Thai in Thailand 5-6 days a week with a 3-4 day heavy lifting schedule). I’ll do a specific article on combining strength training with Muay Thai in the future.
Read my Strength Training for Muay Thai article here for the details on how to combine Strength Training and Muay Thai training.
Do realize though that you won’t be able to fully focus on max strength while you are doing intense cardio. And to some degree your cardio endurance might suffer from some of the strength. Still the benefits from being stronger can definitely boost your athletic performance in many cases.
STEP 5: Track Results & Adjust Calories as Needed
It’s very important that you track your results. If you don’t, you won’t know where you stand and what sort of exact results you are achieving.
Assuming at this point that you’ve figured out your target calories for weight loss, you’ve calculated your macronutrients and created a daily meal plan from these, you are counting your calories to ensure you are eating at a deficit and hitting your target calories and macros, and you are on a strength training (weights) program.
TRACKING FAT LOSS
1. Weigh Yourself Every Monday
It’s important to be consistent about when you weight yourself. Choose the exact same day to weight yourself. I suggest Monday morning after you finish your morning bathroom business before breakfast. This is the lightest you will likely be. Once you establish your weight, write it down with the date.
2. Take Pictures of your body
It’s also a good idea to take some before and after shots. It works better if someone holds the camera for you so you can take several posture shots. This will be useful for tracking your body changes as time passes. It’s extremely satisfying seeing the physical changes that have occurred in your body as you look back at your old photos!
Take two sets of pictures, flexed and non-flexed, every two to four weeks.
3. Take Muscle Measurements
Use a flexible measuring tape to measure key areas so you can track the exact dimensions of your body fat loss. Measure the following circumferences:
- Leg (upper thigh)
If you do all the above, you’ll have a solid track record of your progress from week to week and month to month with visual evidence.
ADJUSTING CALORIES BASED ON RESULTS
You can use the information gleaned from tracking your body weight to tinker with your calorie intake.
If you are not losing weight after two – three weeks, reduce your calories slightly (by several hundred calories). This is why it’s very important that, at least initially until you start to see tangible weight loss results from week to week on a regular basis, you need to calculate your meal calories exactly. How can you reduce your calories exactly if you don’t know how many you are eating?
STEP 6: Be Consistent
Transforming your body takes time. It’s NOT an instant process, but rather one of months (or longer!), depending on what your specific goals are. But the key to gaining results is to maintain a calorie deficit (through diet and or cardio), strength training, tracking your results over time and readjusting. But you must be consistent. If you maintain a calorie deficit for 5 days, then spend the weekend drinking and pigging out on fast food completely blowing your caloric deficit for the week, you won’t see weight loss. If you fail to lift weights or you go the the gym inconstantly, you won’t see nearly the same results you would have.
Being consistent about your weight loss program with diet and strength training and tracking your results is key to success.
Questions & Answers
How Long Will It Take To Lose Weight?
1 lbs. of body fat is approximately 3500 calories. So take a caloric deficit of -500 a day x 7 = 3500 calorie deficit to lose 1lb of fat per 7 days at a deficit, or about 4lbs of fat per month. If you are on a 1000 calorie deficit per day (not recommended unless you are very high body fat with a lot of weight to lose) you can lose 2lbs of fat a week, or 8lbs a month.
So just take your target fat loss in pounds and multiple it by 7 to figure out how many weeks it will take to achieve your goal.
Exception 1: Calorie Creep: Now in reality, not everything is so cut and dry. You may initally find that you lose a lot of weight the first couple months (depending on how much fat you initially had) but the results dramatically slow down. This is likely your body adapting to your caloric drop and fighting your efforts and or the fact that as you lose weight and become lighter, your body needs less calories and you haven’t re-adjusted your calories taking this into account.
Exception 2: You are low body fat: As you get lower and lower bodyfat (12 percent and lower but even more so in the single digits), your body starts to slow its metabolic rate to prevent fat loss. This is a natural protection mechanism your body has to prevent starvation. As such, you might need to lower your calories more the lighter you go to break through this.
If -500 calories is 1lb of fat a week, why not just do -1000 calories a day and double the weight loss?
Because if you are at two much of a deficit, you can freak your body out and go into STARVATION MODE, of which one side affect is that your base metabolic rate can drop by as much as 40 percent. That’s not a good thing. If your Metabolism drops too quickly, you don’t leave your body too much room to lose more weight unless you cut even more calories by diet and cardio (and chances are you will be too fatigued to do either). It’s better to slowly lower you calories over time so your metabolism can cope with the changes.
-500 calories is about as low as you should go if you are under 20% bodyfat. In fact, you should aim for a percentage of between 15-20percent of your Adjusted BMR as your deficit rather than -500, especially if you are leaner and lighter as -500 might be too much of your daily calories as a deficit. If you have a lot of bodyfat (say 30%), you can go higher than 500 calories as a deficit — say 800 or 1000 calories (look at a 30% deficit figure).
Can I skip with the whole strength training thing?
Sure, but expect to shed muscle as well as fat rather than mostly fat. You’ll lose weight for sure, but you’ll just get slim, not ripped.
Can I ignore the diet and only do cardio for weight loss?
Sure, but keep in mind that cardio is far less efficient than controlling your weight. If you are an athlete and you do crazy amounts of cardio — say you live at a Muay Thai camp in Thailand, train twice a day and run twice a day, then you certainly can cut weight without worrying (too much) about diet. However, you WILL see faster results if you factor in diet at least somewhat. I’ve personally seen people train full time at a Muay Thai camp, burning upwards of 2000 – 2500 calories a day but STILL not lose weight until they managed their diet, cut out fast food, processed snacks, and soda!
Can I have a cheat day one day a week?
Absolutely, just keep in mind what’s important is that your total caloric expenditure at the end of the week is roughly balanced.
If you are at a -500 calorie deficit Monday to Friday, you’ve burned away 2500 calories of body fat, assuming everything is going as it should. But then if you through caution to the wind order and eat a large pizzas from Dominos and take them down (2500 calories in each pizza) after a night of drinking 10 beers (200 calories each), you’ve added an extra 4500 calories at LEAST to Saturday’s calorie count. Assuming you’ve already eaten breakfast and lunch for 1000 calories, your Saturday net calories is 5500 rather than say the 1800 you need to eat for a -500 calorie deficit.
That 2700 calories is going to make a huge dent in your weekly caloric deficit goal of 3500 calories a week. Considering that from Monday to Friday you burned 2500 calories, that 2700 calorie surplus will put you + 200 calories over bringing you into the red for 200 calories.
So this one night of pizza and drinking subtracts your previous five days of cutting -500 calories and actually puts you in a positive caloric state! If you completed the next day as normal, you’d only have a net loss of -300 calories for the entire week! That’s 1/12 of what you were aiming for and the week’s hard earned work is pretty much a write off.
Naturally, there will be times when you completely blow your diet. There are some strategies I use as part of my Intermittent Fasting diet strategy that address this issue and allow me to stay lean and at a deficit while pigging out on a massive calorie blowing meal. I’ll talk about this in a future article. But here is one tip: You can “buffer’ your calories for the day by skipping (fasting) say breakfast and lunch and just having a massive feast of a dinner (say an 1800 calorie dinner). This is one way you can have your cake and eat it too, literally.