The question "How do I lose weight?" gets typed into Google 110,000 or so times per month. The answers that pop up are usually ridiculous "tips" that don't actually explain what a person needs to do in order lose weight and keep it off.
The truth is that sustainable weight loss occurs by making healthy alterations to your diet, eating fewer overall calories, and exercising at least 60 minutes 3-4 days per week.
How To Lose Weight:
- Know how many calories your body needs.
- Follow a balanced nutrition plan and track your calorie intake.
- Exercise at least 60 minutes, 3-4 days per week and lift weights.
- Perform high intensity interval training 3 days per week.
- Aim for a 1 to 2 pound weight loss each week.
The trouble, however, is that most of us don't like to make changes to a lifestyle we're comfortable living. So eating less and moving more becomes a fierce battle. The couch and a bag of chips win far, far more often than they should. You can argue and struggle as much as you like, but the only scientifically proven way to lose weight and keep it off is through diet and exercise.
Some of you may be saying, "Well, no duh, but diets and exercise take way more time and effort than I'm willing to give. I don't want to eat salad and do P90X for the rest of my life." We completely understand and absolutely agree. Now, don't get us wrong: losing weight does take effort, but it often doesn't take so much effort that you need to ditch your favorite activities or foods.
Here's the basic, worthwhile information you need in order to lose weight and keep it off.
Fat Mass and Fat-free Mass
One reason the answer to "How to lose weight?" is so messy is because it's actually the wrong question. You can break down your body weight into two main categories: fat mass and fat-free mass. Your fat-free mass includes your muscles, organs, bones, and connective tissue. In other words, your fat-free mass is what would be left if you removed every single fat cell from your body.
Muscle mass is a major component of your fat-free mass, and it should weigh more than your fat mass. Furthermore, muscle mass has a huge impact on your metabolic rate; namely, the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn at rest. Muscle also helps to support your joints, helping to improve balance and reduce the risk of injury.
Your fat mass is just that: fat. Now, your body needs fat. There is an essential amount that each body needs in order to maintain its natural functions. That amount will vary between body type, age, sex, physical activity level, and fitness goal. For the general population, the levels accepted as healthy are between 21-32 percent for women and 8-19 percent for men.1 Higher levels of fat can lead to weight-related health risks such as type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
All of this information boils down to one point: Losing weight in a healthy way means losing fat.
In order to lose fat, you're going to have to change what you put into your body. Your body needs food to carry out its functions so you can stay alive. But people are really good at eating more food than they need, so the excess gets stored as fat. It doesn't really matter whether those extra calories come from cake, protein shakes, or spaghetti; if you eat more than what your body can use, it gets stored.
Dieting is the most difficult part of the fat-loss process for most people. It's estimated that 45 million Americans go on a diet each year.2 Given the current rates of obesity in this country, we can clearly see the success rate is low.
So, we want you to let go of the word "diet." Not only does that word have a negative connotation, but it also usually means you're doing it for a short period of time.
Instead, think of the food you put into your body as your nutrition, which is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. Every person has a different palate, a unique attitude toward food, and various likes and dislikes. That means you need to find a nutrition plan that works best for you.
Your nutrition plan should be based upon how many calories you need each day to fuel your body. Because we know that fat loss occurs when you spend more calories than you take in, it's smart to know how many calories you're eating and using each day.
Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is how many calories you'd need to maintain weight if you did nothing all day. Your BMR can be altered by your lifestyle. This handy-dandy total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) calculator, which is based on the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation, will take your BMR and factor in additional calories based upon your activity level, age, and gender.
Calculate Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure!
Mifflin St. Jeor equation
Men: 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) - 5 x age (y) + 5
Women: 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) - 5 x age (y) - 161
* Moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week): BMR x 1.55
Although this calculator is a great tool, it's not perfect. Keep in mind this is just an estimate, and although the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation is commonly used to assess calorie needs, it has been shown to underestimate resting metabolic rate.3 Furthermore, many of us overestimate, underestimate, or flat-out lie about how much we weigh or exercise. Even if you were honest with the calculator, it doesn't mean the number will be 100 percent accurate. Whatever number the TDEE calculator gave to you is a starting point—not a law for you to abide for the rest of your life.
Your TDEE is how many calories you expend every day. If you want to lose fat, try to eat about 15-20 percent less than you burn.
Once you've established your daily calorie intake, we suggest initially tracking your weight on a weekly basis. This will help determine if you need to adjust your calorie intake to optimize your fat-loss goals.
The Yo-Yo Problem
Eating fewer calories than you burn seems simple enough, right? But things can get a little tricky. Television shows that reward rapid and drastic weight loss alter our perception of what is realistic and sustainable. To add to that, our "more is better" mentality often tells us that if removing 300 calories from our daily nutrition leads to a small amount of weight loss, then imagine what taking out 500 or 600 calories can do!
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Cutting your daily calorie intake too low (under 1200 calories) can lead to a host of issues like binging and yo-yo dieting. If you're hungry all the time and have no energy, the chances of you maintaining your diet are minuscule. You may lose the weight you want, and lose it rapidly, but as soon as you go back to eating your normal foods in the normal amounts, you'll regain all the weight you've lost—and in some cases add on an extra few pounds.
Complicating things even more, research has found that repeated cycles of weight loss and weight gain can make subsequent weight loss efforts nearly impossible. This "yo-yo" style of dieting may lead to dieting-induced food efficiency, leading to permanent metabolic and physiologic alterations which promote weight gain and inhibit subsequent weight loss. This style of dieting can also lead to a slower resting metabolic rate.4
It's far more likely you'll have successful, manageable, and sustainable fat loss if it comes off slowly.
For the first couple of weeks, you're going to have to read labels and measure portion sizes. Yes, that takes a little more effort than you usually make, but it's really important that you start to get to know your body and how much food it needs.
"Counting calories" may seem archaic, and you've undoubtedly heard the commercials on television that promise you can lose weight without doing it, but there really is no other way to lose fat mass unless you eat fewer calories. And the only way to know you're eating fewer calories is to count them!
Technically, you could lose fat by eating one less MacDonald's hamburger than you usually do each day. You don't have to get much more scientific than "eat less." However, if you would like to increase your fitness as you decrease fat mass, you can also look into how much of each macronutrient you're consuming.
All food is derived of four macronutrients (macros): carbs (CHO), fat (FAT), protein (PRO), and alcohol. We don't recommend getting your calories from alcohol, so we'll just concentrate on the other three.
Carbs, fat, and protein each plays a special role in your body. You need all three in order for your body to function optimally. Most American diets are too heavy in fat and carbs and don't have enough protein. So a good ratio to start with is 20 percent of your calories from fat, 40 percent from carbs, and 40 percent from protein.
You can make alterations to this ratio depending on what foods you like, how your body responds, and your daily activity level. If you'd rather, you can change this ratio to make 30 percent of your calories from fat, 30 percent from carbs, and 40 percent from protein. Or, you can do 20 percent from fat, 30 percent from carbs, and 50 percent from protein. The idea here is that macronutrient distribution does not follow a one-size-fits-all template. We encourage you to play around with the numbers and find what works best for you and your lifestyle.
No question about it, increasing your protein requirements in your diet is especially important when you increase your activity level. Not only does protein help your body build and maintain muscle mass, it may help to facilitate weight loss, and can increase satiety when compared to lower-protein diets.6
Protein, carbs, and fat—oh my! Read on to learn more about macronutrients, how they fit into your nutrition plan, and the easiest ways to measure them.
These days it's pretty easy to do a quick internet search and find hundreds of different diet plans, some low-fat, others low-carb, but unless you're training for a physique contest, we think it's best to keep a good ratio of all three macros in your nutrition plan. Having a balanced nutrition plan will not only help you lose weight, but will help you be able to maintain this plan in the long term. Maintenance is an essential part of losing fat and keeping it off.
Once you have the diet figured out, start thinking about exercise. Your body will need to use more energy in order to make it through a workout. That energy comes from the food you eat. So, by exercising, you're burning more calories.
If you're new to the exercise world, start off with a regimen you enjoy: Running, playing racquetball, or Sunday soccer with your friends. Whatever keeps you active for 60 minutes 3-4 times per week will help you lose fat.
When you start a new program that your body is not accustomed to, expect to be a little sore, tired, or both. Start at a comfortable pace. Going balls to the wall the first few times you exercise could leave you feeling so sore that you have to take the next month off. Spending four weeks on the couch instead of in the gym will put you right back at square one, which just plain sucks.
Moving your muscles against resistance helps them grow and get stronger. Having more muscle mass also means that you burn more overall calories, which can help you lose more fat. Resistance training has profound effects on your bones and joints, and helps to prevent osteoporosis (loss in bone mineral density), sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass), and lower-back pain, assuming you use proper exercise form.5
We're proponents of lifting weights, but we get that going to a gym can be really intimidating, especially if you're new to fitness. The best way to fit lifting weights into your lifestyle is to start small. Buy a couple dumbbells and try some at-home workouts a few times per week.
You can also try one of our free trainers. Choose your goal and get started! In each trainer, you'll get exercise and nutrition plans. You'll get to know our exercise and recipe databases so you can feel comfortable training in the gym and cooking healthier food
High-Intensity Interval Training
Interval training can also be a very effective fat-loss tool. It's pretty easy to incorporate into any fitness plan because it can be applied to a variety of settings, and different types of equipment can be used. Choose an activity that you can do at a high intensity (greater than 80 percent of your maximum heart rate) for 30-60 seconds, then follow it with 30-60 seconds of rest. HIIT works best if you do it for about 20 minutes. So, for example, bike hard for 30 seconds, then rest for 30 seconds. Continue in this fashion for 20 minutes, and don't forget to add in a warm-up and cool-down.
You can use the bike, elliptical, or treadmill. Or you can do bodyweight exercises like air squats and jump rope. Choose whichever equipment and exercises you like best, but try to keep a 1:1 work/rest ratio and go for at least 20 minutes.7
At first, this work/rest ratio may seem really difficult, but after you get stronger and fitter, you'll be able to go harder during those work periods, or even lengthen them.
If you're doing well with your nutrition, then try doing HIIT three days per week.
The scale can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Although your goal is to lose fat, sometimes the scale doesn't accurately reflect what's going on in your body.
No matter your fitness level, your body weight can fluctuate by five or more pounds in a single day. Depending on how much water you drink and food you eat, your body weight will likely change. These changes in a day don't mean that you've suddenly put on five pounds of fat. For this reason, it's important to weigh yourself at the same time every day.
When you do weigh yourself, remember that sustainable progress is usually fairly slow. Depending on how many calories you cut out of your diet and how much exercise you're getting, it's normal to see about 1-2 pounds of weight loss per week. Anything more than that is probably too fast. Slow, maintainable weight loss is always the best choice.
It's also important to limit how often you step on the scale. We suggest using it only once per week so you don't get discouraged. It may also behoove you to take weekly progress photos. That way, you'll notice those small changes and feel motivated to keep going. It may also be helpful to get your body fat checked as you go, but it's not essential.
If you get really interested in lifting weights, you may find that your weight goes up instead of down because your muscle mass is increasing. Remember, the scale doesn't always tell the whole story, so pay attention to the mirror.
If you know you stress out about the number on the scale, then stop using it.
Not every day is going to be a great day, and sure, you'll encounter the occasional hiccup when it comes to your nutrition and training plan. Know that now and accept it. But if you stay dedicated to eating fewer calories and being a little more active, you'll slowly but surely see those pounds come off.
By far, the most important part of losing fat and implementing healthier habits into your lifestyle is bettering your self-image and happiness. How you look is not nearly as important as how you feel. Maintain positivity and you'll see the changes you want to see!
- American College of Sports Medicine. (2013). ACSM's guidelines for exercise testing and prescription. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
- Nutrition & Weight Management. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.bmc.org/nutritionweight/services/weightmanagement.htm
- Hasson, R. E., Howe, C. A., Jones, B. L., & Freedson, P. S. (2011). Accuracy of four resting metabolic rate prediction equations: effects of sex, body mass index, age, and race/ethnicity. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 14(4), 344-351.
- Blackburn, G. L., Wilson, G. T., Kanders, B. S., Stein, L. J., Lavin, P. T., Adler, J., & Brownell, K. D. (1989). Weight cycling: the experience of human dieters. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 49(5), 1105-1109.
- Halton, T. L., & Hu, F. B. (2004). The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss: a critical review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 23(5), 373-385.
- Winett, R. A., & Carpinelli, R. N. (2001). Potential health-related benefits of resistance training. Preventive Medicine, 33(5), 503-513.
- Boutcher, S. H. (2010). High-intensity intermittent exercise and fat loss. Journal of Obesity, 2011