The weight-loss industry is saturated with pills, powders, cleanses, wraps, and creams. (Seriously, there are fat-loss creams purported to burn fat cells!) No matter how heavily advertised these products are, and no matter how gorgeous their models, losing weight the right way just isn't that easy.
What can work like magic, though, is simply eating fewer calories than you're burning. It's pretty easy to do that every now and then. It's when you try to do it for weeks and months that things get a little trickier. By incorporating insight gained from research-backed fat-loss strategies, you have a better shot at losing the weight you want without compromising your fitness or health.
If you're serious about losing weight, plan on dieting for 10-14 weeks. This will give you enough time to fine-tune your diet for your particular food preferences and activity level. If you cheat on your plan occasionally, just get back to it and keep moving forward.
Get Specific With Your Macros
It sounds simple: Just consume fewer calories than you burn and, voila, you lose weight. What that simple formula assumes, though, is that you know how many calories you're consuming—and burning—every day.
You can get an estimate of how many calories you burn every day by using this calorie calculator. When you fill out the form, do your best to pick the level of activity that matches what you do on an average day. If you say you're more active than you really are, you'll end up with a lot more calories than your body needs, and you'll start gaining weight. For the moment, choose "maintenance" as your goal.
Once you know how many calories you should consume every day to maintain your current weight, it's time to figure out what kinds of foods you should consume to get those calories.
If you ate nothing but Twinkies or apples for a few months, you'd probably lose weight. You'd also lose muscle mass and gym performance—and threaten your overall health. Your goal is to build a healthy diet that gives you the right amount of macros (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) that will sustain you over that time. Let's look at these macros one at a time.
How Much Protein Do I Need Every Day?
As a rule, consume 1.0-1.25 grams per pound of body weight per day.
You can also use this protein intake calculator to estimate how much protein to consume every day.
To get maximum muscle-maintenance and appetite-management benefits from the protein, consume 20-25 grams of high-quality protein every few hours, rather than having one or two protein-rich meals a day.
In addition to giving your muscles the nutrients they need to grow and recover, protein also triggers the release of several appetite-suppressing hormones, primarily cholecystokinin. The more protein you eat, the more cholecystokinin your body produces, and the less hungry you feel.
Protein also has a higher thermic effect than carbohydrates and fat combined. This means that your body must burn more calories to digest, absorb, and distribute nutrients from protein than it must to do the same with carbs and fats. Just by eating protein, you're helping your body lose weight!
Good protein sources include chicken and turkey breast (without skin), pork tenderloin, lean beef (filet mignon, steak sirloin, flank steak), lean ground meats (90/10 or leaner), eggs (yolks and whites), fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, tilapia, cod), seafood, low-fat dairy (Greek yogurt, milk, cheese), whey and casein protein, soy (tofu, edamame, seitan), beef, and vegetable protein powders.
How Much Carbohydrate Do I Need Every Day?
Your goal should be to consume 0.5-2.0 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight per day.
You can also use this carbohydrate intake calculator to estimate your daily carbohydrate allowance.
The number of carbs your body needs depends on how much energy you expend every day. If you work out on Monday and rest on Tuesday, you'll need more carbs on Monday.
- On a non-exercise day, you need about 0.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight.
- If you exercise for 30-40 minutes a day, you need about 0.75 grams per pound of body weight.
- If you exercise for 40-60 minutes a day, you need 0.75-1.0 grams per pound of body weight.
- If you exercise for 60-90 minutes a day, you need 1.0-1.25 grams per pound of body weight.
- If you exercise for 90-120 minutes a day, you need 1.25-1.75 grams per pound of body weight.
Good carbohydrate sources include brown and wild rice, quinoa, whole-grain pasta, bread and tortillas, oats, beans, legumes, lentils, peas, corn, popcorn, whole-grain cereals, fruits, and vegetables.
How Much Fat Do I Need Every Day?
There are a couple of ways to determine your daily fat allowance. You can use this fat intake calculator to estimate, or you can dive into it a little deeper and calculate it yourself. It's more complicated that just using the calculator, but it'll be more accurate.
- Multiply the number of grams of protein you consume every day by 4 to get the number of calories you'll get from that protein.
- Multiply the number of carbs you'll consume every day by 4 to get the number of calories you'll get from carbohydrates each day.
- Add these two numbers together and subtract the total from your total daily calorie allowance, which you figured out earlier. The result is how many calories a day you have left. These are the calories you'll get from fats.
- Divide this number of leftover calories by 9 to determine how many grams of fat you can have every day.
- You can have 200 grams of protein every day. Multiply it by 4 to get 800 calories.
- You can have 150 grams of carbs every day. Multiply it by 4 for another 600 calories.
- Add 800 to 600 to get 1,400 calories a day from protein and carbs.
- The calculator said you can have a total of 2,000 calories a day. Subtract 1,400 calories from 2,000 calories which leaves you 600 calories left to get from fats.
- Divide 600 calories by 9 to get a little over 66 grams of fat per day.
In this example, your daily macros would be:
- Protein: 200 grams
- Carbohydrates: 150 grams
- Fat: 66 grams
Now That I Have My Macros, How Do I Lose Weight?
Once you finalize your daily macronutrient targets, stick to those targets each day. At the same time, be sure to weigh yourself every other day or so. Weigh yourself at the same time of day while wearing the same kind of clothes—or no clothes at all.
If you've calculated your macros as instructed above, and have stuck to your daily calorie allowance, you should begin losing weight. If you continue following these macronutrient goals, however, your weight will probably start to level off.
In general, a good weight-loss goal is to lose 0.5-1.0 percent of your body weight each week. If your weight-loss stalls, it's because your body has learned how to function on fewer daily calories. To reignite fat loss, reduce your current calorie intake by 15-20 percent. (In the example above, the person could consume 2,000 calories a day. To lose weight, they would have to reduce that by 300-400 calories a day.)
If you need to reduce calories, start by reducing your fat intake. Keep your carbohydrate and protein consumption as high as possible for as long as possible to maintain your energy. Just don't let your total fat intake dip below 10 percent of your total daily calories. Having fewer fats than that in your diet can harm your performance, recovery, muscle maintenance, and testosterone production.
If you have to reduce your calories even more, stop reducing your fats and start reducing your carbohydrates.
That's All Great, But I'm Still Hungry!
If you follow the steps outlined above, you'll be on your way to effective and sustainable fat loss, but you may start to feel hungry a lot and have less energy. To help you navigate this inevitable rise in hunger and fatigue, try these strategies:
- Each day, drink your body weight in ounces of fluid. Filling your stomach with fluid sends satiety signals to your brain, which can help you feel less hungry. Toward the end of your diet, drink 12-16 ounces of fluid immediately before and after each meal to help keep your appetite from raging.
- Choose high-fiber carbohydrates. Fiber slows down digestion, which helps keep your energy levels steady and your appetite in check.
- Include vegetables with each meal. Vegetables are high in both fiber and water, each of which helps you better manage your appetite and energy.
- Consume your carbohydrates before, during, and after your workouts. To avoid low-energy workouts and poor recovery, get 70-80 percent of your daily carbohydrates from your pre-, intra-, and post-workout meals.
Should I Take Supplements When I'm Dieting?
Taking dietary supplements can help you make sure your body has all the nutrients it needs to stay healthy. The following supplements can be especially helpful when you're dieting:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: These are essential fatty acids you have to get from food or supplements because your body cannot produce them. Since you'll be reducing fat early in your dieting phase, supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids will make sure you get the essential fats you need to optimize your recovery, heart health, and cognitive function. Research suggests regular omega-3 fatty acid consumption can even enhance fat loss, as long as you're eating and exercising properly.
EGCG Green Tea: The epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) and caffeine content of green tea provides a powerful one-two punch for fat loss. If you're not a fan of tea, consider a green tea extract supplement, which usually contains more EGCG than a bag of tea.
Creatine: Extensively studied as a sports nutrition supplement, creatine has proven to have a positive impact on strength, muscle, power, and body composition. Taking creatine during a diet helps maximize performance and muscle maintenance, which further helps your body burn more calories and lose more fat.
- Hill, A. M., Buckley, J. D., Murphy, K. J., & Howe, P. R. (2007). Combining fish-oil supplements with regular aerobic exercise improves body composition and cardiovascular disease risk factors. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 85(5), 1267-1274.