The physiology of weight loss is complicated, but the best strategies for losing fat and keeping it off don’t have to be.
1. Eat plenty of protein.
Protein is essential when trying to losing weight / fat for a few reasons.
- Protein helps you keep that all-important lean body mass (which includes connective tissues, organs, and bone as well as muscle).
- Protein significantly increases satiety, which means you feel fuller despite eating less. (And eating more protein often causes people to eat less overall.)
- Just by eating more protein you burn more calories, because of the increased thermic effect of eating.
For example, if you’re eating 2,500 calories daily, 15 percent from protein, 50 percent from carbs, and 35 percent from fats (roughly average for US adults), you’re burning approximately 185 calories per day through digestion.
Maintain your total calorie intake but increase protein to 30 percent, drop carbs to 40 percent, and whittle fat to 30 percent, and your TEE goes up to roughly 265 calories per day.
- For most active men: 6-8 palm-sized servings of protein per day.
- For most active women: 4-6 palm-sized servings per day.
2. Eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, quality carbs, and healthy fats.
Vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, water, and fiber to help you fill up during meals, stay full between meals, keep you healthy, and recover from your workouts.
- We recommend 6-8 fist-sized servings per day for most active men.
- And 4-6 fist-sized servings per day for most active women.
The carbs will fuel training, boost leptin (a super important hormone), keep up sex hormones, and prevent feelings of deprivation.
And the fats also keep up sex hormones, boost the immune system, suppress excess inflammation, and make food taste really good.
- For most active men, this would be 6-8 handfuls of quality carbs, and 6-8 thumbs of healthy fats per day.
- For most active women, 4-6 handfuls of quality carbs and 4-6 thumbs of healthy fats per day.
3. Adjust your intake as you plateau, or to prevent plateaus.
As your weight loss progresses, you will need to lower your calorie intake further to continue to progress, as your smaller body will burn fewer calories, and your body is adapting to your diet.
Be ready, willing, and able to adjust portion amounts by removing 1-2 handfuls of carbs and/or 1-2 thumbs of fats from your daily intake. Then reassess and continue to adjust as needed.
However, one study found that weight loss plateaus have less to do with metabolic adaptations and more to do with “an intermittent lack of diet adherence”. In other words, not actually sticking to a nutrition plan consistently.
Research shows that we usually think we’re eating less and exercising more than we truly are. So do an objective review of your actual energy in and out before assuming your body is blocking your efforts.
4. Understand that this is complex.
So many things influence what, why, and when we choose to eat.
Too often, eating and body size / fatness are blamed on lack of knowledge, lack of willpower/discipline, or laziness. In reality, food intake and body composition are governed by a mix of physiological, biological, psychological, social, economical, and lifestyle influences, along with individual knowledge or beliefs.
One of the simplest ways to make your decision processes easier is to create an environment that encourages good food choices and discourages poor ones. This can mean making changes to your daily routine, who you spend time with, where you spend time, and what food is readily available to you.
But remember that weight loss can and should be relatively slow, so aim to lose about 0.5-1 percent of your body weight per week.
This helps to maintain muscle mass and minimize the adaptive metabolic responses to a lower calorie intake and resulting weight loss. Faster weight loss tends to result in more muscle loss without extra fat loss, as well as a larger adaptive response.
5. Cycle calories and carbs.*
For folks who are trying to get quite lean, at some point you can’t just rely on linear dieting to get you there. By strategically cycling calories and carbs, you can help to limit how much the metabolism-regulating hormone leptin drops (or temporarily boost it back up) – attenuating the adaptive and hunger response.
*Note: This is a higher-level strategy for fitness competitors and elite athletes who need to get very lean (i.e. ~6-9 percent body fat for men, and ~16-19 percent for women). It’s not something for the average person.
6. Refeed periodically.**
When getting to extreme levels of leanness, even strategic calorie and carb cycling might not be enough. So take out the big guns, and employ some periodic re-feeds to temporarily boost leptin and insulin and keep fat loss going.
**Note: This is a higher-level strategy for fitness competitors and elite athletes who need to get very lean (i.e. <6 percent body fat for men, and <16 percent for women).
7. Do a mixture of resistance, cardiovascular, and recovery activity.
Resistance training helps you maintain vital muscle mass, burn calories, and improve glucose tolerance. Cardiovascular exercise improves the health of your cardiovascular system, helps you expend energy, and can improve recovery.
But don’t overdo either one.
Recovery work (e.g. foam rolling, walking, yoga) helps you maintain consistency and intensity with resistance and cardio training, making them more effective. And it helps to decrease stress (lowering cortisol), which also helps you lose body fat and keep it off.
Aim for 3-5 hours per week of purposeful activity.
8. Find ways to increase NEAT.
Even small increases in activity can account for hundreds of daily calories, and therefore make a big difference in fat loss efforts.
Some ideas: Get a stand-up desk or a treadmill desk; fidget; pace while on the phone; take the stairs; park your car farther away from where you’re going.
9. Develop a solid nightly sleep routine and manage your stress.
Sleep is just as important to your successas nutrition and activity levels. Don’t pretend that you can get by with less. It simply isn’t true.
Often, when people lower their stress, they lose a lot of body water. Then they also notice that they may have lost fat too. (Plus, they may discover that chronic inflammation goes down — another win.)
This includes mental and emotional stress. Research on cognitive dietary restraint (i.e. worrying and stressing out about food) shows that constantly and negatively fixating on what you eat (or don’t) can have the same unhealthy effect as actually dieting stringently.
Yet we need some stress to actually help with progress and growth, so find your stress sweet spot.
10. Have some self-compassion.
There are going to be meals or days where you don’t eat as you “should”. It’s OK. It happens to everyone. Recognize it, accept it, forgive yourself, and then get back on track.
Research actually shows that self-compassion and flexible eating is associated with lower BMI and a healthier body weight, lower self-reported calorie intake, less anxiety and stress, and a better relationship with food.