Sticking to your diet (dietary adherence) is the make or break of fat loss success and the biggest predictor for long-term weight maintenance.
A common theme among dieters who have been successful in losing body weight is the belief that their method is the only one that works and that success with any other method is inconceivable. They become evangelical about, and emotionally attached to, one particular, restrictive dieting protocol.
The truth is, different diets work differently for different people. Why? Because there are countless methods to lose body fat, but the best one for you is the one you can stick to.
Calorie counting is one such method, and I am very much a proponent of it as a tool in the fat loss arsenal. Tracking calories for a given period can be educational and eye-opening and, for most people, a method worth trialling at least once.
But is not the be-all-and-end-all for dieting success nor a prerequisite for losing body fat.
Calorie counting can certainly be tedious; so if you shudder at the thought of meticulously tracking and/or weighing out your food, or if the diet that worked so well for your friend didn’t work for you, why not try some, or all, of these simple-to-follow tips to help steer you towards achieving your fat loss goals.
THE PRINCIPLE OF FAT LOSS
Before we delve into some non-tracking methods, let me first outline the principle for body fat loss and gain. A change in body tissue mass is most closely related to energy balance over time – i.e. the total amount of fat gained, or lost, over a prolonged period depends on whether you are in a calorie surplus or calorie deficit.
Thus, the fundamental principle governing meaningful fat loss (beyond short-lived fluctuations) is adherence to an appropriate and sustained energy (calorie) deficit. This can be achieved via calorie restriction through the diet, an increase in energy expenditure, or a combination of both.
You do not have to count calories to lose body fat, but there’s no denying that calories count.
TIP 1: AMPLE PROTEIN
Protein is known to have the highest satiating effect (meaning it makes you feel full for longer), per unit calorie, compared to fat and carbohydrates. In free-living conditions, increasing protein intake from 15% to 30% of total energy has been shown to result in a spontaneous drop in energy/calorie intake by 440kcal/day – leading to a body weight decrease of 4.9kg in 12 weeks. Inclusion of a higher protein diet may help combat hunger between meals, thus making the dieting process slightly more pleasant.
Further, with better hunger control, one may reduce the temptations (often experienced when in an energy/calorie deficit) to make poorer food choices, leading to overconsumption of calories, which can ultimately undermine fat loss efforts.
It is worth bearing in mind that dietary protein intake does not need to be overdone. Ideally, ‘how much protein’ should be assessed on an individual level based on age, body composition, training requirements and goal(s), and not using a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
That being said, a pragmatic recommendation of about 2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight works well for most, when looking to lose body fat. If you are overweight/obese, you may wish to aim slightly lower (if hunger is not an issue); if you are leaner, it may be prudent to go slightly higher.
TIP 2: ONE CARBOHYDRATE-FREE MEAL PER DAY
While carbohydrates don’t directly make us fat, per se, there is a tendency for sedentary individuals (e.g. office workers) to over-consume them and therefore ingest too many calories, with respect to their activity levels and lifestyle.
This is particularly true for carbohydrate sources that are nutrient-poor (low in fibre and micronutrients). Consuming one low-carbohydrate, or carbohydrate-free, meal per day can often increase the nutrient quality and protein content of that meal and potentially lead to a spontaneous reduction in calorie intake (because you feel full quicker), meaning greater fat loss!
Note - to maximise training quality, it may be prudent to have the higher carbs closer to your exercise session to aid performance. Trial and error works best here, to figure out what is most suitable for you, considering the nature of your session.
TIP 3: RESISTANCE TRAINING
The health benefits associated with regular exercise are multi-faceted, both with, or without, fat loss, e.g. reduction in visceral fat, decrease in insulin resistance, better mood and increased cardiorespiratory fitness. Regular participation in resistance training, in particular, during an energy deficit can help maintain or even build muscle and therefore improve the quality of the weight loss (ie, most or all of your weight lost is fat, not muscle) Do this in conjunction with ample protein and you’re golden.
Aside from the health and muscle retention benefits, building healthful training/exercise habits, and continuing them post-dieting period, can be fundamental to weight loss maintenance success.
TIP 4: INTERMITTENT FASTING
For many with busy lifestyles, families and work commitments, it is those who combine consistency with simplicity that often reap the best results. One such fat loss and/or weight management tool is intermittent fasting (IF), or time-restricted feeding. IF simply refers to periods of food consumption followed by extended periods of no-to-low food intake, e.g. an 8-hour period of normal-pattern eating, in combination with 16 hours fasting (aka 16:8), the 5:2 Diet; Eat-Stop-Eat (24-hour fasting); and alternate day fasting.
The beauty of this approach is the ability to alter feeding patterns to best suit you. For fat loss, there is no real right, or wrong, way to do it – remember consistency in conjunction with a structure that improves overall adherence and satisfaction is what a dieter should be striving to achieve.
IF as a fat loss tool can work wonders for some – the underlying principle being that it enables one to consume fewer calories than expended, over time. IF will not be suitable approach if it encourages you to (over-)compensate for the skipped meals, by eating more total calories later that day, or the next day, or later that week. Remember: net energy balance matters!
If you are someone who can last extended periods without food, or someone who has yet to try an IF protocol, it may be something worth considering. Experiment with different IF variants, to find out what works best for you. You may surprise yourself, and find it easier to adhere to an energy deficit compared to more traditional dieting approaches.
IF is not magical, but it may be a viable strategy for some to shed those extra pounds of excess body fat. Your best bet is to try it out for yourself.
TIP 5: KEEP YOUR STEPS UP
Finally, tracking the number of steps you take each day is a seamless way to increase energy expenditure, and thus can be a significant contributor towards creating an energy imbalance. Downloading a tracking app on your phone or investment in a tracking device can be hugely beneficial to ramp up activity levels outside of formal exercise and lead one to become more health conscious.
Similarly, activity trackers can also act as an invaluable awareness tool, provide accountability, and enable one to set realistic/achievable targets. Recent research has also shown greater fat loss for individuals who regularly walked throughout their diet period, compared to those that didn’t.
10,000 steps per day has been shown to help with body composition/weight management and other health-related goals. Shooting for 50,000+ steps over the course of a week is a great place to start!
IMPORTANT NOTE: Devices that track steps (like FitBit and Apple Watch) can be very good at tracking the number of steps you WALK but don’t rely on them to tell you how many calories you burn, particularly when you increase the pace to a a jog or run. They can become woefully inaccurate at higher intensities. Similarly, treadmills, bikes and cross-trainers in gyms will attempt to tell you how many calories you just burned but typically bear no resemblance to reality.
Devices that claim to count your calories can also lead you into a mindset where you end up trying to offset or mitigate the effects of exercise with food, along the lines of: “I just burned 600 calories on the treadmill so I can eat more now.” That mindset is almost certain to put you back into a calorie surplus.
To sum up, all of these suggestions ultimately work towards the fundamental principle for sustained fat loss – adherence towards a sustained negative energy balance.
Caveat – if you find you are unable to continue to progress towards your fat loss goals and/or you have experienced the dreaded weight/fat loss plateau, perhaps calorie-tracking for a given period is necessary for you to get you back on track.
Finally, food for thought (pun intended) – ‘Do you have to look at your car’s speedometer to stay under the speed limit? Not really… But if you keep finding yourself with speeding tickets, maybe it’s time to start looking at the dashboard more often.’ – Myolean Fitness
Bodyscan Consultant and Nutritionist