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Fundamentals of Fat-loss Diets

Okay guys, we’re going to take a look at a bare-bones approach to dieting for fat-loss: the essential details. No fluff, no repartee, no psuedoscientific debate.


Here’s what you need to do:


1) Create an appropriate caloric deficit. Not too much (no deficit), not too little (starvation = unsustainable).


2) Set protein intake based off of #1. Protein being the most essential nutrient to any type of diet.


3) Set dietary fat intake. More important than carbs for numerous reasons, also set off #1 & #2.


4) Everything else. From carbohydrate intake, to meal volume/frequency, to nutrient timing, all of this is minutiae compared to numbers 1-3.


*NOTE: This list is arranged in order of importance, if I didn’t make that clear.


Let me just quell the “not all calories are created equal” uprising that I can see brewing on the horizon with a big GRANTED; I’ll give you that (but it’s still minutiae, and for more on this, I really like Gary Taube’s Good Calories, Bad Calories). But, the calories in vs. calories out equation (the energy balance equation) is unequivocally the ONLY factor (that matters) when determining if a diet will yield fat-loss. If expenditure doesn’t exceed intake, you’re not going to come up on the right side of the equation (for fat-loss). Again, let me make this explicitly clear: YOU MUST BURN MORE CALORIES THAN YOU TAKE IN; this is obvious, right? Hundreds of times per month I see Internet fitness “pundits” arguing this fact. I know that eating certain foods make you less/more likely to eat more and certain foods cost more/less to digest than others (truths clung to by said pundits as the ultimate trump card against the calories in/calories out philosophy). The fact is, the practical, applicable effect of these strategies is a drop in the bucket compared to the effect of eating less than your caloric output. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. I know, I’ve said that before, but sometimes everyone in the fitness industry seems to be planted in front of the same damn tree, desperately trying to get out of the forest.


Back to #1, because I promised no fluff; how do you create an appropriate deficit? For the purposes of this article, use 10-12 calories/lb. of body weight. This may seem like one of those old wives’ tales numbers that is seemingly conjured out of convenience, but it is scientifically validated. Please understand that this is a starting point and adjustments are going to need to be made along the way. Also, the less active and more out of shape a person is, the lower the calories are going to have to be.


With regards to #2, we again find that one of those old rules of thumb has scientific backing: 1 gram of protein/lb. of body weight. When dealing with lean(er) individuals, I tend to recommend closer to 1.5 g/lb. With extremely overweight and inactive individuals, as low as .7 g/lb. may be all that’s required. In rare cases, such as a PSMF (protein-sparing modified fasting) diet, the recommendation may exceed 1.5 g/lb. The vast majority of people will find themselves within the 1 – 1.5 g/lb. bracket.


There is a strategy to automatically take into account an individual’s degree of leanness: use 1.5 g/lb. of lean body mass, not body weight. A 150 lb. woman with 20% body fat, for example, is left with 120 lbs. of lean body mass. This woman would require 180 grams of protein per day using the formula in this paragraph. Using the strategy in the previous paragraph (1 – 1.5 g/lb. of body weight), the woman would require anywhere from 150 – 225 grams of protein per day. Our recommendation of 180 grams is wholly consistent with this range.


Fat intake (#3) is fairly straightforward. I favor a moderate intake: enough to satiate and slow the rate of gastric emptying, but not enough to glut the total amount of calories; fat is more calorically dense than protein or carbohydrates. .22 – .33 g/lb. of fat is the normative range; this usually gives 10-15 grams of fat per meal if eating 4-6 times per day (which I recommend).


#4 is reserved for everything else. What’s obviously left over is carbohydrates, oddly something that people put a ton of emphasis on. As you can see from the importance hierarchy, they are last on the totem pole. Again, this is not to say they aren’t important; rather, they are less important than protein and fats. There’s a reason why there’s no such thing as an essential carbohydrate (whereas there are essential proteins and fats). What’s also left over is the logistics: how and where you distribute these calories & macronutrients throughout the day. Obviously, the logistics aspect will be what varies wildly based on personal preferences. Want to see this in action?

Let’s use a hypothetical 200lb. dieter with 15% body fat:


  1. Calories: 200 lbs. x 12 cal/lb. = 2400 calories/day
  2. Protein: 170* lbs. x 1.5 g/lb. = 255 grams/day (1020 calories/day) *Note: I used the lean body mass variation I presented.
  3. Fat: 200 lbs. x 0.33 g/lb. = 66 grams/day (594 calories/day)
  4. Carbohydrates: 2400 calories (#1) – 1614 calories (#2 + #3) = ~200 grams/day (~800 calories/day)


Translate that into something like this:


Meal One: 50g protein, 50g carbohydrates, 16g fat


Meal Two: 50g protein, 16g fat


Meal Three (pre-workout): 50g protein, 50g carbohydrates, 16g fat


Meal Four (post-workout): 50g protein, 100g carbohydrates


Meal Five: 50g protein, 16g fat


Totals: 2376 calories, 250g protein, 200g carbohydrates, 64g fat


There you have it. The essential details of how to set up a fat-loss diet. Good luck!