So, you’ve decided you want to lose fat and you don’t know where to start.
I wrote a rather lengthy piece sometime back on the numbers of fat loss and this wouldn’t be a bad place to get acquainted with how you can successfully reach your goals.
However, I wanted to look at the numbers from a different perspective for this week’s article.
First off, we need to get a rough idea what your maintenance calories are.
A decent calculator is HERE and you’ll want to be as accurate as possible with acknowledging how active/inactive you are on a given day.
Remember that every calculator is different and if you try 20 different ones, you’ll get 20 different answers. While the disparity between them may not be 1000 calories off, there could be a difference of a few hundred calories between each.
That’s why we’re just looking for a rough estimate to work from.
I’m going to use a very arbitrary goal of 1800 calories for the purposes of this article.
Of note, 1800 calories would be more aligned with fat loss for a female as opposed to a male but the sentiments shared here can apply to both.
I should also mention that 1800 calories is too high for some women and too low for others.
Once you’ve determined your personal maintenance number, you can use a food tracking app like MyFitnessPal, Lose It, MyPlate, MacroFactor, etc. as a place to log your intake. Each of these apps use different algorithms for calculating maintenance calories as well, so expect differences but don’t get too hung up on the numbers (yet). Should you elect to use an app, make sure that you set your goal inside the app for maintenance as opposed to an arbitrary fat loss goal.
The reason I want you to start at maintenance for a period of time (days/weeks) is to understand what that amount of calories looks and feels like. Unfortunately, most people who have been trying to lose fat are either in an aggressive deficit or they’re well into a surplus of calories. Dialing into maintenance isn’t just important when you’re getting started, it’s actually your resting point (albeit with different numbers) when you reach your ideal weight.
To get your intake as accurate as possible, use a food scale to measure the weight of your food, use measuring cups/spoons, scan SKU numbers on food labels and try to limit dining out. Note that many chain restaurants and fast food establishments post their calories which can be helpful but might also be outdated and inaccurate. However, it’s better having some idea what the calories are as opposed to absolutely no idea.
If you’re weighing your food, note that with meats and seafood, it’s better to weigh them raw as opposed to cooked. When you cook them, you’re mostly losing water which reduces the size of the food but not the calories by any considerable margin.
After you’ve spent a few days/weeks at 1800, keep an eye on your body weight. Is it up, is it down or is it the same?
Here’s the interesting thing to note, some people lose weight at their estimated maintenance calories. This can be for a handful of reasons:
1-the perceived maintenance is lower than your actual maintenance (due to calculator differences)
2-your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) levels have increased
3-the quality and intensity of your workouts has increased (you burn more calories during exercise)
4-your protein intake may be higher (contributing to a higher thermic effect of food)
5-eating closer to maintenance makes you less likely to overeat
So, you can make the decision to stay at 1800 until your fat loss stalls or you can start reducing your intake further.
Remember that 1-2 pounds of fat loss per week is a safe, reasonable amount to lose. If you have significantly more weight to lose, closer to 2 pounds loss is realistic and if you have significantly less fat to lose, 1 pound (and sometimes less) is more realistic.
In determining the deficit to create, there is a general theory that the higher you can keep your calories and still see results, the easier the diet will be to adhere to. I’ll say that this theory is probably accurate for many people but not all.
We’ll start somewhat conservatively and break down a deficit somewhere between 10-20% of maintenance.
Approximately 1620 calories gives you a 10% deficit.
Approximately 1440 calories gives you a 20% deficit.
Consider that you work within a range of 1440-1800 calories on a given week. If you can adhere to 1440 for an entire week, your results would reflect it. However, if you’re strength/endurance training with some degree of intensity, you may prefer to shoot you calories on the higher end so that the quality of your workouts doesn’t suffer.
I’ll estimate that our hypothetical woman here is exercising regularly so we want to keep her protein high enough to optimize her training and recovery. A rough range might be 20-25% of your calories in protein per day. The remainder can be split between carbohydrates and fat in a ratio that feels best. In other words, find your calorie goal/range, set your protein targets and leave the rest for carbs and fat. For more flexibility, you may want to aim carbs a bit higher on training days and fat a bit higher on rest/recovery days. That’s only a suggestion.
What if you wanted faster fat loss?
Well, we could be slightly more aggressive and aim for a 500 calorie deficit each day. It’s roughly 3500 calories per pound of fat so a 500 calorie deficit should net you close to 1 pound down each week.
This adjusts you down from 1800 to 1300.
The same protein principle applies. Set your range of 400-480 calories coming from protein and the rest is carbs and fat.
Bear in mind that as we continue to drive the deficit more aggressively, NEAT levels may drop, the quality of your workouts may drop and you may experience more cravings, more irritability, and poorer sleep quality. These are potentials and not guaranteed outcomes.
It’s also important to note that as you lose fat, your body requires fewer calories at maintenance which means that 1800 is now too high and the deficits will drop as well. This may not need your attention until you’re down somewhere between 10-20 pounds lower than your starting weight. A small shift downwards may be all that’s necessary.
What if you wanted to be more aggressive?
There’s a school of thought that a deficit of 50-60% from your maintenance can not only be a faster path to fat loss but potentially with less hunger as well. This may seem counterintuitive. A 50-60% deficit would put you between 720-900 calories per day. Set your protein intake first. Then, set your fat intake at no less than 20% (140-180 calories). The remainder would be carbs.
Many aggressive fat loss protocols that you find being offered to the general public will be in line with this last option. While they may dress it up as something more, what you’ll find is that many fat loss programs that gain traction will put women south of 1000 calories. I won’t say it’s bad or good. I will reiterate that the more aggressively you drop your calories below maintenance the harder it may be to sustain, the easier it may be to rebound AND you may not be able to train with much intensity.
A slightly kinder option is to experiment across the ranges.
Start with maintenance first. Get comfortable there and see if it equates to results on the scale.
If you enjoy training with intensity, a smaller deficit may be the best route to go or at least adhering to a smaller deficit on training days.
You can experiment with lower goals on non-training days if you like but ultimately, you need a plan you can stick with that 1) Allows you to live your life 2) Helps you reach your goals.
A side note: if you have a history of eating disorders, aggressive dieting is not advised.
It can be easy to be seduced by the scale and forget that sometimes the way we want to diet (with a focus on speed) can have a detrimental effect on our mental well-being, our workouts, our sleep, our hormones and our social lives. Be willing to take the process slowly so you can learn more about what works and what doesn’t and modify as you go.