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The Ultimate Fat Loss Nutrition Guide

user-iconDiego Ricaurte

calendar-iconMarch 1, 2020

Foundational Nutrition Series

Nutrition

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t trying to burn some stubborn body fat. Whether you’re trying to get ready for beach season or trimming off some of that infamous holiday weight, fat loss is a common goal. Unfortunately, it can also be one of the most difficult goals to achieve.

In this post, we’ll walk you through anything and everything you’ll need to optimize fat loss so it is as quick and painless a process as possible. If you’re looking to melt off those extra pounds of fat, you’ve found the right post!

How Many Calories Should I Consume to Lose Fat?

The concept of energy balance (explained in our post on foundational nutrition concepts) says that to lose any weight, it is necessary to burn more energy than you take in. In other words, you have to eat fewer calories than you burn during the day in order to lose weight.

But how much of a calorie deficit is right for you? There are 3 general ranges of dieting that you can pick from, they are:

  1. Conservative Deficit
  2. Moderate Deficit
  3. Aggressive Deficit

We’ll discuss the three ranges in the following sections.

Conservative Caloric Deficit

One option for losing fat is to maintain a conservative caloric deficit. In simple terms, this can mean a slow and mild cut.  

This is the easiest form of a calorie deficit because it involves eating slightly under your TDEE (the number of calories you need to eat to maintain your weight).

A conservative deficit can be achieved by reducing your calories by 10-15% of your TDEE, or by cutting 100-300 calories. A conservative deficit is appropriate for someone aiming to lose as little lean mass as possible while losing weight. 1-11

Fat-free mass and performance may be better preserved in athletes who minimize weekly weight loss to less than 1% per week

Thomas, Erdman, & Burke

A conservative deficit can lead to cutting roughly 0.5 pounds per week. This may be a more appropriate goal if you are already relatively lean (roughly 10% body fat or less) because at lower body fat percentages your risk of losing muscle during a cut is greater. 1-11

A mild cut can also be more appropriate for someone who is new to dieting and wants to ease into the process. It is generally better to start off less aggressively and ease your way into a more intense diet so that it is easier to make the adjustment. It also makes it more likely that you will stick with the process and achieve your goals.

Moderate Caloric Deficit

The second option for a calorie deficit range for fat loss is to maintain a moderate deficit. In simpler terms, this can be thought of as a more moderate cut that is a bit more extreme than a conservative caloric deficit.

This can be achieved by reducing your calories by 15-25% of your TDEE, or by cutting 300-500 calories. 

This deficit leads to roughly one pound of weight loss per week. 

A moderate caloric deficit is appropriate for someone trying to lose a significant amount of fat each week, while still maintaining the majority of your muscle mass. 

This is a relatively safe choice for someone with greater body fat percentages (roughly 12%-25% body fat). This style of cutting can be successful because if you have 12-25% body fat, your body has more fat to use to burn as fuel instead of lean muscle. 1-11

Aggressive Caloric Deficit

Lastly, you can lose fat by maintaining an aggressive caloric deficit.  

In other words, this means cutting a much higher number of calories in order to lose weight fast.

An aggressive cut can be done by reducing your caloric intake by greater than 25% from your TDEE, or greater than 500 calories. For folks that are interested in “how to lose 10 pounds fast”, higher caloric deficits can help deliver these results.

When dieting for weight loss, active individuals also want to preserve lean tissue, which means that energy restriction cannot be too severe or lean tissue is lost.

Manore

A deficit of 750 calories per week will translate to roughly 1.5 pounds lost per week. At a 1000 calorie deficit, you can expect a loss of 2 pounds per week. This is usually only appropriate for those with a higher body fat percentage 25% or higher. Otherwise, this risks losing substantial muscle along with fat. 1-11

A caloric deficit of 750 calories per week will translate to roughly losing 1.5 pounds per week. 

Dieting at a 1000 calorie deficit can help you lose about 2 pounds per week. 

A more extreme deficit is usually only appropriate for those a body fat percentage of 25% or higher. If you are under this range, losing weight this quickly risks losing substantial muscle along with fat. 1-11

A 1000 calories deficit diet also makes it much harder to stick with the nutrition plan. In order to achieve long-term success, you want to set yourself up for a sustainable diet that you can maintain for a very long time.  

Many folks think that dieting means eating less and eating clean for a couple of months then going back to their old ways, but the reality is if you do not maintain the diet changes that you make, your body will eventually go back to its old form when you revert back to old habits. This is why it is important to craft a plan that is not 0 to 60 mph for dieting, but rather a plan that is marginal changes that you can keep doing for a long time.

Do I Ever Have To Adjust My Caloric Deficit?

While maintaining a deficit, you may find that your weight “stalls” and you stop losing weight. This is because as your total mass decreases, so does your TDEE.  

Your TDEE is based in part on your body’s weight, so naturally if your body’s weight decreases, so will your TDEE. When this happens, it means that you have to adjust your calorie deficit.

If you find your weight loss stalling, try to cut about 100-200 calories from your diet on a weekly or bi-weekly basis until you see progress. This will help you to continue to lose weight in your stomach, face, and other body parts.

What's the Best Macronutrient Split to Lose Fat?

With the optimal calorie deficit in place, the next step is to figure out the right macronutrient split! 

If the concept of macronutrients sounds foreign to you, then check out our post on foundational nutritional concepts! 

Simply put, macronutrients are the mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fats you consume every day. With the right balance of these three macronutrients, you can burn belly fat but also keep that hard-earned muscle.

So what’s the secret formula? In the next section, we will run through how to melt off body fat and achieve that elusive six-pack.

Protein for Fat Loss

In order to lose fat, you need to eat a lot of protein!

The reasons it is helpful to eat a lot of protein to lose fat include:

  1. Protein fills you up more than carbs and fats, so it helps you to eat less
  2. You need protein to maintain lean muscle

Athletes require higher protein intakes to support increased activity and strength athletes benefit from higher intakes to support growth of LBM. Some researchers suggest these requirements increase further when athletes undergo energy restriction.

Helms, Aragon, & Fitschen

While aiming for optimal fat loss, you should consume 1-1.2 grams of protein per lb of bodyweight. 12-19

You’ll notice this range is on the higher end of the protein range suggested in our foundational nutrition post. This is because you need the extra protein to ensure you retain as much muscle as possible while losing weight.

As discussed in the sections above about calorie deficits, you need to be in a negative energy balance in order to lose weight. 

A negative energy balance puts you at risk for losing muscle, but the extra protein in your diet can actually help you preserve that muscle, and also help your body burn fat instead of muscle. 12-19

Fat for Fat Loss

Fat is important in any nutrition plan, as it is necessary for keeping hormonal balance in your body. 

With that said, fat is the most calorically dense macronutrient, so while trying to cut calories it can be very useful to keep fat intake to a minimum. 

The amount of fat you eat should not drop below 15% of your daily calories to ensure you remain healthy and hormonally balanced! 19-21, 26, 27

Low-fat diets result in a reduction in circulating testosterone. Thus, we suggest dietary fats comprise 15-20% of the body builders' off-season and pre-contest diets.

Lambert, Frank, & Evans

Carbohydrates for Fat Loss

While aiming for optimal fat loss, you should consume 2.5 to 3.5g of carbs per pound of body weight. 19, 22-27

When eating for fat loss, carbohydrates still play an important role in your diet (contrary to many current “fad diets”).

Regardless of how much of a calorie deficit you are trying to maintain, cutting out carbs entirely can be unwise. This is because carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of fuel, and remain a crucial ingredient of what your body needs for optimal athletic performance. 19, 22-27

A short biology lesson: when your body looks for energy, it looks to use something called glycogen. Glycogen comes from glucose, which is a compound your body produces when it is breaking down food (in particular carbohydrates).  

Your body needs glycogen in order to have enough energy to perform everyday tasks like breathing as well as enough energy for you to be able to exercise.

If you completely cut carbohydrates from your diet or significantly reduce how many carbs you eat, your body is forced to use other sources of energy, like fats and proteins. 

While this may lead you to believe it will burn extra fat from your body, that is not the case. Any diet with a caloric deficit that is high in protein will preserve your lean muscle and promote fat loss, regardless of your carbohydrate intake. 

For this reason, cutting out carbohydrates is not necessary to maximize fat loss.

Research suggests that for optimal athletic performance, you should aim to consume 2.7g – 4.5g of carbohydrates per lb of bodyweight daily, but with fewer calories in your diet it is very common to go under this recommendation.19, 22-27

For this reason, cutting out all carbohydrates is not necessary to maximize fat loss.

Regardless of how much of a deficit you are trying to maintain, it is important to not neglect proper carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrates are your body's preferred source of fuel and allow for the production of glycogen, the intramuscular fuel source. and even if you aren't trying to gain muscle, they remain a crucial ingredient of what your body needs for optimal athletic performance. 19, 22-27

Putting It Into Practice

Now we’ll walk through the steps to construct a custom diet for optimal fat loss!

Step 1: Calculate Your TDEE

For this example, let’s pretend that you are measuring TDEE for someone that is 5 feet and 9 inches, 30 years old and 160 pounds. The goal of the nutrition plan is fat loss. 

Entering this information into a TDEE Calculator, give you an estimated TDEE of roughly 2000 calories. Since we want to lose fat, we’ll aim for 500 fewer calories than this for a moderate deficit. This means we’re aiming to consume 1500 calories a day. 

Step 2: Calculate Your Protein Intake

Now we’ll figure out the macronutrients in our 1500 calorie diet. First, we’ll find how much protein is needed:

  • Assuming we want 1-1.2 grams of protein per lb of bodyweight, multiply your weight by 1.1 (the middle of this range). That means we want about 175g of protein per day. 
  • There are 4 calories per gram of protein, so by multiplying 175 by 4, we also find out that 700 calories of our 1500 will be dedicated to protein daily.

Step 3: Calculate Your Fat Intake:

Next, we’ll figure out how much fat is needed:

  • We know we need 15-25% of our calories from fat. To leave as much room as possible for carbohydrates and minimize calories, we’ll aim for 15%. 
  • 15% of our 1500 calorie diet would mean 225 calories from fat
  • There are 9 calories in each gram of fat. If we divide 225 by 9, we find that we should aim to consume roughly 25g of fat daily.

Step 4: Calculate Your Carbohydrate Intake:

Now that we know we need 175g or 700 calories of protein per day, and 25g or 225 calories of fat every day, we can dedicate the remaining calories to carbohydrates.

  • This leaves 500 calories worth of carbohydrates in our 2000 calorie diet, or 125g of carbohydrates daily.

While this is well below the recommended level of 2.7g-4.5g of carbohydrates per lb of bodyweight for optimal athletic performance, it is still enough to provide energy, maintain nutritional health, and leaves enough room for the protein and fat we know we need. 

With that, we have a complete nutritional plan for a 5 foot 9, 160lb 30-year-old aiming to lose 1 pound of fat a week while preserving lean body mass!

Conclusion

In summary, to achieve your goals of getting lean, make sure to do the following:

In summary, to achieve your goals of getting lean, make sure to do the following:

  • To lose fat, you have to maintain a negative energy balance or take in fewer calories than you burn. 
  • You can lose weight without special dieting by just managing your calorie intake. 
  • A more conservative deficit will mean slower fat loss and a lower risk of losing muscle.
  • A more aggressive deficit will mean faster weight loss while increasing the risk of losing muscle.
  • Once you ensure a negative energy balance, eating the right amounts of each macronutrient is also critical to optimal fat loss. 
  • Eat a diet rich in protein to reduce hunger and ensure muscle retention.
  • Include essential fats to maintain a healthy hormonal balance
  • Consume complex carbohydrates to fuel your workouts

Altogether, these factors will create an optimal environment for fat loss from a nutritional perspective, and leave you with a slimmer, more shredded physique!

References

  1. Helms ER, Zinn C, Rowlands DS, Brown SR. A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: a case for higher intakes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2014;24(2):127-38. Link
  2. Helms ER, Aragon AA, Fitschen PJ. Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014;11:20. Link
  3. Kim JE, O'connor LE, Sands LP, Slebodnik MB, Campbell WW. Effects of dietary protein intake on body composition changes after weight loss in older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutr Rev. 2016;74(3):210-24. Link
  4. Murphy CH, Hector AJ, Phillips SM. Considerations for protein intake in managing weight loss in athletes. Eur J Sport Sci. 2015;15(1):21-8.  Link
  5. Pasiakos SM, Cao JJ, Margolis LM, et al. Effects of high-protein diets on fat-free mass and muscle protein synthesis following weight loss: a randomized controlled trial. FASEB J. 2013;27(9):3837-47. Link
  6. Phillips SM, Van loon LJ. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S29-38. Link
  7. Phillips SM. A brief review of higher dietary protein diets in weight loss: a focus on athletes. Sports Med. 2014;44 Suppl 2:S149-53. Link
  8. Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016;48(3):543-68. Link
  9. Chaston TB, Dixon JB, O'brien PE. Changes in fat-free mass during significant weight loss: a systematic review. Int J Obes (Lond). 2007;31(5):743-50. Link
  10. Manore MM. Weight Management for Athletes and Active Individuals: A Brief Review. Sports Med. 2015;45 Suppl 1:S83-92. Link
  11. Huovinen HT, Hulmi JJ, Isolehto J, et al. Body composition and power performance improved after weight reduction in male athletes without hampering hormonal balance. Journal of strength and conditioning research. 2015; 29(1):29-36. Link
  12. Helms ER, Zinn C, Rowlands DS, Brown SR. A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: a case for higher intakes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2014;24(2):127-38. Link
  13. Helms ER, Aragon AA, Fitschen PJ. Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014;11:20. Link
  14. Kim JE, O'Connor LE, Sands LP, Slebodnik MB, Campbell WW. Effects of dietary protein intake on body composition changes after weight loss in older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutr Rev. 2016;74(3):210-24. Link
  15. Murphy CH, Hector AJ, Phillips SM. Considerations for protein intake in managing weight loss in athletes. Eur J Sport Sci. 2015;15(1):21-8. Link
  16. Pasiakos SM, Cao JJ, Margolis LM, et al. Effects of high-protein diets on fat-free mass and muscle protein synthesis following weight loss: a randomized controlled trial. FASEB J. 2013;27(9):3837-47. Link
  17. Phillips SM, Van loon LJ. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S29-38. Link
  18. Phillips SM. A brief review of higher dietary protein diets in weight loss: a focus on athletes. Sports Med. 2014;44 Suppl 2:S149-53. Link
  19. Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016;48(3):543-68. Link
  20. Achten J, Halson SL, Moseley L, Rayson MP, Casey A, Jeukendrup AE. Higher dietary carbohydrate content during intensified running training results in better maintenance of performance and mood state. J Appl Physiol. 2004;96:1331–40. Link
  21. Casey A, Short AH, Curtis S, Greenhaff PL. The effect of glycogen availability on power output and the metabolic response to repeated bouts of maximal, isokinetic exercise in man. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1996;72:249–55. Link
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  23. Fleming J, Sharman MJ, Avery NG, et al. Endurance capacity and high-intensity exercise performance responses to a high fat diet. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2003;13:466–78. Link
  24. Pizza FX, Flynn MG, Duscha BD, Holden J, Kubitz ER. A carbohydrate loading regimen improves high intensity, short duration exercise performance. Int J Sport Nutr. 1995;5:110–6. Link
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Date Created: March 1, 2020

Last Updated: April 4, 2020

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