Before I attempt to tackle this rather large topic, I thought I should offer a few thoughts right off the bat.
Succeeding at fat loss is more than just calorie awareness. It is your mindset, it is your approach to life, love, comfort, and stress.
I’ve written so much about fat loss over the last several years and it seems there is always more to say.
Even though this particular article will concentrate heavily on the numbers involved in fat loss, I will say that the numbers aren’t everything.
For many people to succeed at their fat loss goals, they only have to make some small changes and stick to them.
This might include:
–Measuring the cream in your coffee as opposed to eyeballing it.
–Reducing the frequency of snacking/grazing.
–Eliminating the consumption of food after dinner.
–Being more mindful of alcohol intake (and the eating associated with it).
But if you feel as if the scale is not showing you the direction you need it to go in, you may need to develop some skills around calorie intake and how stress and exercise are potentially working against you.
Let’s get started.
There are a host of different calorie calculations which allow you to determine roughly how many calories you expend in a day.
For simplicity’s sake, I am posting a link for the Harris-Benedict calculator. You are welcome to compare these numbers against other calculations but be aware that the total may not change greatly.
To calculate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, click this link and fill out the required information.
Some things of note: obviously your height, weight, age, and gender should be easy things to plug in.
You’ll see a button that says “Advanced Mode” and this will ask you to plug in your PAL (physical activity level).
Be honest about the amount of exercise you do and factor accordingly.
The TEE number is the number I’d like you to make record of.
For frame of reference, my TEE is: 2547.
Considerations of Accuracy
Now, I want to discuss accuracy.
In other words, is the number that you got correct?
Remember that the number you came up with is an estimate and if you try several different calculators, you might come up with slightly different numbers.
However, we’re going to assume that the number is indeed the most accurate it can be.
One thing we (as people) are not so great at is predicting/estimating how active we are.
For instance, when I calculated my TEE and I had to pick my PAL level, I selected “hard exercise 4-5 times a week”.
Now, I do not train that hard 4-5 times a week. At best, I train moderately for 30 minutes or less, 3-4 times a week. The reason I selected higher is because I have a very active job PLUS I train in addition to that. If I had only selected my PAL to reflect the way I train, it would be down one notch and that changes my TEE from 2547 to 2289. That’s a difference of 258 calories (or one 12 oz craft beer, half of a cookie, half of a slice of pizza, 2.5 oz of cheese, or a generous pour of high proof bourbon).
Strength training typically doesn’t burn a lot of calories but you do have the upside of building muscle mass which does contribute to the big picture of fat loss.
It’s also important to note that strength training is not synonymous with CrossFit, boot camps, or places like OrangeTheory even though all of them utilize strength training in different ways.
Those are methods of training that are designed specifically for high intensity and to emphasize caloric “burn”.
At this point, (if you need to), I would suggest you go back to the calculator and see if your PAL was entered in correctly just to make sure you’re at the right starting point.
Let’s discuss some other things that might affect the accuracy of your TEE.
Keep in mind that the TEE is “roughly” what your body burns in a day, so, if you eat/drink that amount, you will maintain your current weight. I’ll use my numbers as point of reference. If I want to maintain my current weight of 135 pounds I will be able to consume approximately 2500 calories a day.
There are some other things at play as well.
For instance, I fidget a lot and in addition to walking around my personal training studio, lifting (racking and re-racking 1000s of pounds per day) per job requirements, I rarely sit down, I average 15K steps per day and I am always playing air drums if a good tune comes on. In other words, I rarely stop moving. This “fidgeting” is commonly referred to as NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis).
Why does NEAT matter?
Well, remember that strength training is not the same as high intensity training. There can be a significant drawback to high intensity work and it’s something that ABSOLUTELY has an effect on the way that CrossFit, boot camps, and OrangeTheory work.
When you perform high intensity training, you are potentially burning more calories during exercise. This is great as far as burning calories goes.
The drawbacks are generally two-fold 1) Your body ramps up hunger signals and you are inclined to “eat back” what you burned AND 2) because you sufficiently kicked your ass in that workout, your NEAT goes down. (There are exceptions of course as not every body responds to exercise in the same way).
My most “active” clients, the ones who log the most hours and mileage in a given week of traditional cardio do NOT have free reign when it comes to their caloric intake. They still have to watch the amount of food they consume. So, if you don’t fall into the category of VERY active, you will likely have to pay close attention to intake as well.
I hate to say it, but if your job requirement has you in front of a computer/at a desk for 6-8 hours a day, you are not an active person. That doesn’t mean you can’t be active outside of that time but it absolutely plays into your PAL and, by default, your TEE.
Let’s also talk about variability of TEE.
I’ll use my wife, Marissa, as an example. Most of Marissa’s time is spent trying to keep our son from burning the house down. It’s active! However, she is currently directing/choreographing a production at a local theatre. When she starts a show, she not only has the time with our son but she is also choreographing several dance numbers. She then has to go to the theatre and teach the numbers. This is her “cardio” and her TEE would be higher on days like this. Once the cast knows the steps, Marissa is no longer dancing. Her TEE goes down.
So, back to accuracy…is your number even right?
Well, one way to find out is to test it. Try eating at that amount for 1-2 weeks and see what happens. Weigh yourself, hold yourself accountable, be candid, be honest, educate yourself with the results. Now, I know some people might be looking at that number and saying to themselves, OMG, if I ate “THAT” much I would gain weight!
So, keep in mind a few things:
1) You may have overestimated your PAL
2) Even if PAL is right, the number may still be higher than what your body can metabolize
3) Your daily intake might be lower than that BUT your occasional dietary spikes set you higher and your weekly intake then averages higher than you think.
How To Lose Fat
So, you’ve reconfigured your TEE and you believe the number is right. This is a general starting point. In theory, anything below this number, achieved consistently, will result in fat loss.
Since we’re working with estimates, this is a reminder that one pound of fat is approximately 3500 calories, so, between the deficit you create below your TEE by eating less and any additional movement you do, you’re working towards that goal of 3500 calories over and over until you achieve your desired weight.
Mathematically, it all makes sense. In execution, it gets messy.
Let me sidestep this for a moment and we’ll talk about food trackers like MyFitnessPal.
When you start an account with MFP, they will ask you questions very similar to the calculator you started this exercise with. In addition to those factors, it’s going to ask you a very loaded question as it pertains to fat loss:
How much would you like to lose per week?
Last time I checked, there were options of anywhere from 0.5-2 lbs per week. Since most of us in ‘Murica are terribly impatient and we want the weight off RIGHTEFFINGNOW, we select 2 pounds.
Now, let’s assume you’re a woman. I’m going to take one of my client’s numbers and post them because she is on a fantastic trajectory right now with weight loss. If she wanted to lose 2 pounds a week (net loss of 7000 calories or 1000 calories per day), that would be taken from her intake of approximately 2551 calories. If we reduce 1000 calories per day in a given week, she would need to consume 1551 calories per day to lose 2 pounds per week. Now, if she starts that plan and she does not lose 2 pounds in a week, there is the chance that her 2551 was estimated too high (which means the reduction is not low enough) OR things like her NEAT have declined because she made such a drastic cut to the calories, therefore she is not burning as much in a day as she thought.
In addition, a smaller body requires fewer calories so, in theory, my client would need to revisit her calculator every 10-15 pounds down and readjust the calculator to her current weight. That means that where 1551 calories worked for awhile, she may have to downshift to 1500, 1450, 1400 etc. Also, if she is not consistent with carbohydrate intake, this may give a her a “false” read and project weight higher than it “actually” is.
Take what I just said with a grain of salt BUT if you have been consuming, say 50g of carbs per day and then you jump to 100g of carbs the day before a weigh in, don’t be surprised if the scale goes up. This is not fat. This is water weight. Also, there’s no real reason for you to be consuming 50g of carbs per day unless you are a keto dieter.
Also, human error being what it is, there is always the chance that my client’s assumed 1551 is not consistently as accurate as she needs it to be.
There is a school of thought (I’m inclined to agree) that the goal with fat loss is to be able to eat as much as possible and still lose weight. So, my client might have better overall success if she shoots for, say 1800-1900 calories as opposed to 1551 because her NEAT stays higher, she feels better, she sleeps better and she can still keep up with her other activities. This is where experimentation is key.
Of course, the lower you drop intake, the faster you get to the goal BUT if you can’t adhere to low calories week in and week out, you’re going to backpedal and lose ground.
There is also the notion of very low calorie diets (VLCD) too, to the tune of less than 1000 calories per day. This is still an option but you MUST be strategic with it. You could do 7-10 days very low and then spike to maintenance for a few days. Taking my client as an example, if her TEE is 2551 and we cut her down to 551 calories (a deficit of 2000 per day) for 10 days, that’s 20,000 calories cut or just shy of 6 pounds lost in 10 days. She would need to spike her calories back to maintenance for 2-4 days (approximately 2551 or just lower) absorb a small weight rebound, and then attack the low calorie plan again.
Note: I don’t recommend this in general but it can work in extreme circumstances. The most important thing is that you reset those maintenance levels, DO NOT push 500 calories indefinitely. This is not healthy, safe, advised, etc.
Sometime back, I was speaking with another client about her weight loss. She had lost a bunch of weight, gained some back and was trying to recommit. The problem was that she was exercising so much that her body was fighting her with lack of recovery and insatiable hunger. I told her to push her calories up. At the time, we were estimating her maintenance to be about 2000 calories. I told her to shoot for a very small deficit (100-200 calories). This worked. Her body felt better, weight loss continued and everyone was happy. Often, aggressive dieting is NOT the answer.
Reminding everyone who cares to hear it, you didn’t gain it overnight, don’t try to lose it overnight. You’re asking WAY too much of your body and your sanity.
Now, let me cover one of my male clients. This gentleman’s estimated TEE was 3500. Recently, he asked me what calories he should shoot for. I pulled a number out of thin air (sort of) and told him 2000 calories. He lost weight (shocker, I know).
Let’s go back to our math.
If we create a 1500 calorie day deficit for him (3500-2000 = 1500 deficit) and multiply that by 7, he stands to lose about 3 pounds per week. Remember that a smaller person requires fewer calories so at some point, he may need to reconfigure his numbers. In theory, he will continue to lose at a good clip at 2000 calories a day intake BUT because the cut is so big, his NEAT may decrease, his libido could tank, he could become more irritable, he may not recover from his workouts as well, etc. He may find that even though he would like to lose weight faster, he also would like to feel better. He pushes his calories up to, say, 2500 calories and, while weight loss is a bit slower, he feels better. This is the win. This is also where you might hear people say: I am eating more and I’m losing again. It’s true and accurate but it requires some context.
Discomfort is a given with dieting. Being ravenous is not. Yes you will be hungry when dieting and there isn’t much you can do about that but if you truly believe you are ravenous, then you are either training with too much intensity, your deficit is too big or both.
Another thing that bears mention, is that when my male client gets to his ideal weight, whatever that number happens to be, he will NEVER be able to eat 3500 calories a day ever again unless he wants his weight to skyrocket. That doesn’t mean he can’t have an occasional weekend bender where he loses his mind and eats a pizza by himself but, for all intents and purposes, those days are gone.
I’m going to finish this part with a little reminder of that ever popular notion of 1200 calories (more for ladies than for guys). Here’s the thing: 1200 calories is either just right for you or it’s too low. If you cannot consistently hit this number while you’re dieting, it’s probably too low. You will likely have to be more patient with your weight loss and find a higher number that you can live with and be okay with a slower rate of progress.
Do I think the number is appropriate? Yes, sometimes. But not all the time and not for every woman. Judge accordingly.
Please understand this one very important fat loss concept: the more aggressive you want the results to be, the more aggressive of changes you will have to make.
If you’re just farting around with little changes here and there and being consistent with none of it, your results are going to be poor. That being said, there is every single reason in the world to take a slower, more methodical approach to fat loss and treat it like a marathon, not a sprint.
Be patient, learn things about yourself that you haven’t take the time to learn because consolation has always come at a caloric cost.
Note: If you have a history of Binge Eating Disorder, you are going to have to be closer to your TEE and not do any type of aggressive dieting. Your deficit will have to be small and you will likely do best with scheduled, strategic, planned meals. Aggressive tactics and unpredictability can trigger an episode.
But Why Can’t I Lose The Damn Weight?
A question came from one of my clients who asked when it might be useful to apply a very low calorie diet (VLCD) approach.
When is it appropriate to use them? I have a few scenarios which might apply.
–If you “need” to fit into a certain outfit for a particular event and you need to fit into it soon, a VLCD might be worth considering.
–If you “need” to weigh a certain amount for a photo shoot, competitive event, etc. a VLCD might be worth considering.
–If you are under a medically supervised scenario such as preparation for gastric bypass, etc, a VLCD might be part of your reality because after surgery, you will essentially be forced into a VLCD style of living.
Alright, a quick refresher:
-You used the calculator and you have your TEE so we know roughly what you burn in a day
-You double-checked that number based on your current level of activity
-You understand how fast fat loss can work (and bite you in the ass) plus you understand how a smaller deficit could be more beneficial
Let me say this with all candor: fat loss does not solve every problem in your life, it only solves “some” problems. Also, while your fat loss goals are genuinely important, you may not need to lose as much as you think to improve your life.
Assume that due to your current weight, you are seeing some health “problems” such as sleep apnea, Type II diabetes, etc. You could lose as “little” as 10% of your body weight and see these circumstances improve or be eliminated. In other words, if you are having health issues at 275 lbs of weight, you could drop roughly 27-30 lbs and see your issues resolve themselves. Losing “some” weight as opposed to lots and lots of weight PLUS eating better and moving your body more can have tremendous benefit. You might think that you need to go from 275 to 175 BUT that may not be a realistic outcome for you at this time. Shifting the needle from 275 to say, 250 or 245 can do a world of good for you.
Now, WHY are you not succeeding at fat loss?
If you’ve pulled a common thread from what I’ve written so far, it’s that potentially your methods towards fat loss to date, have been too aggressive. Yes, you may have been successful at Atkins Diet back in 1988 BUT you have also regained all that weight and then some. I would kindly say to you, that 1) Your body is not the same as it was in 1988 AND 2) Atkins was just too aggressive and therefore, not sustainable. This does not equate to your worth as a human being, it simply means that aggressiveness with dieting is not always where you need to go. You need something slightly more sane and perhaps slower.
I’m going to ask you one very big question which will play into your fat loss success rate:
How stressed out are you?
Before you answer, I want you to think about a few things:
-Some people have very stressful jobs and there is very little that they can do to change that without leaving the job, getting a new boss, etc. So, if your job is what stresses you out and you’re not going to leave it, understand that the job stress is out of your control.
-Some people are caretakers and having the life/livelihood of someone else in your hands is stressful especially (but not exclusively) if that person/persons are near the end of their life. For instance, from the time my father was diagnosed with cancer until the time he left this world, we had 9 months. Those were 9 months where it would not have been an ideal circumstance to diet. If my father had been sick for, I don’t know…3 years, 5 years, there likely would have been some times or pockets of time where dieting would have not been an unreasonable task.
-Are you going through a major, life-altering event: divorce, change of job, relocation/moving, etc.? This might not be an ideal time to diet.
-Are you clinically depressed/or living with clinical anxiety? This is a stressor.
-Are you going through menopause/peri-menopause? This is a stressor.
-Are you not getting consistent, quality sleep? This is a stressor.
-Are you an alcoholic or do you have substance abuse challenges? This is a stressor.
This of course is outside of the wheelhouse of things like a pandemic which, while very stressful is now completely imbedded in our society. Dieting when COVID started was probably not ideal, dieting now is probably “easier”.
Now, remember two things: dieting is a stressor, exercise is a stressor. The more aggressively you diet, the more stressful it is on the body and the mind. The more aggressively you train, the more stressful it is on the body and mind. If your life is already stressful and you attempt to diet aggressively and train aggressively, take a guess at the toll it will take on your…body and mind.
This is where you are going to have to play something of a game with your body. Take your current life circumstances as it relates to your goals and ask yourself: How hard can I push right now?
There is a very good chance that the answer is: not very hard. This is okay.
Ask yourself if this is a reasonable time to diet. Be honest. Some people can diet at this time of year, some cannot. Know thyself.
I would be remiss to not mention as well, that your ability to succeed at fat loss not only has to do with how you navigate stress but the words you say to yourself (your negative self-talk).
For example, let’s assume that you weigh 180 pounds and it is the heaviest you have ever been. You might say things about yourself such as: I look like such a “insert negative descriptor here” OR I don’t take pictures because I feel like such a “insert negative descriptor here”. Now, imagine a person who is within earshot of hearing you say these things. This person used to weigh 240 lbs and now they weigh 210 and they hear you describe yourself in such a negative light at 180 pounds…and they think to themselves “My God, I would kill to weigh what that person weighs. If they think they look like “insert word here”, I wonder what they say about people like me?”
Does that seem damaging to you?
Change your self-talk. It not only affects you, it potentially affects others. And everyone deserves to feel the best they can about themselves AS THEY ARE RIGHT NOW. Because being “thinner” doesn’t mean you’re “better”.
For the record, I’ve heard plenty of “thin” people (author included) who bad mouth themselves and their bodies. Negative self-talk affects everyone. Do your best to minimize it’s effect in your life.
Typically, if we’re bad mouthing ourselves, then the way we feed ourselves has a sneaky correlation, too (a.k.a When I feel like shit, I eat like shit).
Being very simplistic in saying this: manage your stress and your diet should improve. Manage your self-talk and your diet should improve. If you are not succeeding at fat loss, dial down the intensity and manage the things that are in your control.
Lastly, while none of this stuff should be surprising to long-term clients of mine, if it were my fat loss goals, here are some non-negotiables I would focus on.
-Eating enough protein. For ladies, upwards of 100g protein per day. For fellas, upwards of 150g per day. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just close.
-Eating enough fiber. For ladies, upwards of 20-25g per day. For fellas, upwards of 30-35g per day. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just close. Sources of fiber can include: chia seeds, flax seeds, green, leafy vegetables, berries, whole grains (gluten-free or otherwise). Remember that foods which contain fiber also include calories and you still need to account for total calories.
-Drink more water. If you have to ask how much, my very smart-ass response would be, more than you’re currently drinking.
-While calorie counting is not for everyone, it is a skill worth learning if you are stuck and a food scale can be one of the most helpful devices you purchase. Whenever I want to be as close to “spot on” with my intake as possible, I count calories. I HATE guessing.
-Two of the most useless phrases in a health-minded person’s lexicon would be: “But I don’t eat that badly” AND “I eat mostly healthy things”. If you’re not losing fat, these phrases mean absolutely nothing. Focus on portion sizes, spend some time with measurements and prepare to have your eyes opened.
-Plan for success, don’t hope for it. Hope is for slot machines and lottery tickets. If you want to change your body, you’re going to have to plan better.
-Does willpower matter? Yes, but maybe not as much as you think. Does motivation matter? Yes, but maybe not as much as you think. As stress ebbs and flows in your life, motivation and willpower will also. If you’re putting all your eggs in one basket and assuming that motivation and willpower will carry you to the promised land, you’re screwed. Show up when you don’t feel like it, work at the details when motivation is low, and be forgiving of yourself when you think you’ve done all the right things and that bastard scale doesn’t pat you on the back. Keep trying. It will pay off.
-Treat your body as if you want it to last for the long haul. Treat it with care, treat it with respect, treat it with kindness. Your body will thank you and reward you in kind.
-You might need a therapist along the way to 1) Help you manage your stress 2) Help you manage your expectations 3) Help you develop new coping skills. Your mind is sacred ground, protect it at all costs.
Note: Calling it what it is, men have weight loss EXPONENTIALLY easier than women do. It’s not fair, but it’s reality. If you are a guy and you are watching the women in your life struggle with fat loss, realize that there are things happening not just as a result of lower caloric intake (lower TEE) but hormonally, psychologically and physically which makes fat loss more difficult (and generally slower). Be supportive. Don’t sabotage. I don’t envy fat loss for anyone, it is sincerely that difficult and ladies have it toughest of all. Add in things such as PCOS and menopause/perimenopause and fat loss is even more difficult.
There is a movement in this industry shifting into the health/wellness conversation that we should take a weight neutral approach to our bodies as opposed to a weight losing approach. I will reiterate that due to your current life circumstances, you may not be in the best psychological/physical place to focus on fat loss. However, if you feel that you can approach your goals from a place of self-love and self respect, it is my hope that an article like this one can be helpful.
Also, remember that YOU are in the driver’s seat. You determine the path you want to travel, the tools you want to use, and the support system that you want to cheer you on along the way. Pick wisely, accept the deviations and detours and empower yourself with good food, smart training and a life ahead of you worth living.