Everyone talks about fat loss but does anyone ever really take the time to tell you how it all actually works? Probably not, more likely they tell you why their way is the best without providing anything other than their word to back it up.
Maybe you’re not sure what to do or where to turn as everyone is swearing by a different method; from Ketogenic to Paleo, Low Carb to Atkins, If It Fits Your Marcos to Intermittent Fasting all the way to just not giving a fuck…where do you fit in?
Do you need to fit in? Should you count calories, eat clean and use cheat meals?
Do macronutrient ratios even matter…?
If you think you know the answers I guarantee that at the very least you'll find this journey through fat loss an interesting one and might even learn something new.
So, if you’re sick of living that salad lifestyle in the name of fat loss or if the mere thought of trying to lose fat without sacrificing your lifestyle and your muscle has you feeling like giving up before you start, then this is for you.
This is your one stop shop for all your fat loss answers.
What is fat, why do you need it and what role does it play in your diet?
We’ve always been told that fat is an essential part of our diet but has anyone ever explained to you why?
Fat is one of the three macronutrients, along with carbohydrates and protein, needed by the body to function. Fats, also known as triglycerides are formed from glycerol and three fatty acids, hence the tri in triglycerides.
There are a few different types of fats, with some being healthier than others;
Saturated fat occurs naturally in many foods and is typically solid at room temperature. Eating a lot of saturated fat increases your bad (LDL) cholesterol and increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Saturated fats can mostly be found in animal sources i.e. meat and dairy. Examples include; fatty beef, chicken with the skin on, butter, cheese and more. Some oils can also contain saturated fat, such as palm and coconut oil.
Unsaturated fats are usually in liquid form at room temperature and come in 2 main forms, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Unsaturated fats can have a positive effect on your health when eaten in moderation and should be used to reduce or replace the amount of saturated and trans fats in your diet.
Polyunsaturated fats help to reduce bad (LDL) cholesterol and provide essential fats that your body needs but cannot produce itself, such as omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. The fats can be found in oils (soybean, corn and sunflower) and fish (salmon, mackerel and trout).
Monounsaturated fats also help to reduce bad (LDL) cholesterol and can be found in a variety of oils (olive, canola, peanut and sesame) and other sources such as avocados and peanut butter.
Trans fats are usually found in small amounts in meat and dairy products but are also artificially created by companies due to being easy to use, inexpensive to produce and lasting a long time.
Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels and can increase your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. However, the use of trans fats has been reduced or restricted in many countries due to its adverse effects on health.
Cholesterol is made in the body by the liver but can also be found in some foods. It plays a vital role in how the body works and is used to make vitamin D, some hormones as well as bile for digestion. However, whilst we need cholesterol, too much of it in your blood can increase the risk of heart disease.
When eaten in high amounts fat can led to rapid weight gain due to its high caloric density. Fat has 9 calories per gram (regardless of the type) in comparison to the 4 calories contained per gram of protein and carbohydrate and is therefore a lot easier to overeat.
Nonetheless, fat plays a vital role in the body by performing or facilitating a number of key functions;
- Providing energy in the absence of carbohydrates
- Helping with absorption of fat soluble vitamins
- Protecting your internal organs
- Producing important hormones
- Maintaining your core body temperature
How and why do you gain and lose fat?
To understand how you gain and lose fat we first need to understand calories. A calorie is the unit used to measure the energy found in food or fluids.
Everyday your body needs a certain number of calories just to maintain homoeostasis and perform simple actions such as breathing. This is called your Basal metabolic rate and is the number of calories you need daily just to keep your body functioning at rest.
When it comes to calculating calories for either fat loss or gain you also need to take into account your activity levels for the day. This includes going to the gym or playing sports but not how much you walk or the amount you fidget. The later 2 ‘activities’ are included under energy expended through non-exercise activity thermogenesis.
“Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. It ranges from the energy expended walking to work, typing, performing yard work, undertaking agricultural tasks and fidgeting.”
Your overall daily calories needs combining your Basel metabolic rate, activity levels and any NEAT is called your total daily energy expenditure or TDEE. Using this you can manipulate your daily energy balance to either remain in a negative energy balance (calorie deficit) and lose weight or remain in a positive energy balance (calorie surplus) to gain weight.
What is the energy balance equation and why does it matter?
The energy balance, as known as ‘calories in vs. calories out’ is the relationship between energy used and energy stored. It has 3 outcomes;
- Weight loss = If you burn more energy than you store you will lose weight
- Weight gain = If you burn less energy than you store you will gain weight
- Weight maintenance = If you burn and store energy in equal amounts you will maintain your weight
The energy balance is important to understand as it’s at the foundation of any weight loss efforts. If you do not eat in a caloric deficit you will not lose weight, it’s a simple as that.
How do you gain fat?
When you eat in a calorie surplus for a prolonged period of time you will gain fat but how does this happen?
A number of things happen when you eat fat;
- Your pancreas secretes enzymes called lipases which breaks the fat down into its separate parts, glycerol and fatty acids
- The glycerol and fatty acids then move through the small intestine where they are reassembled into fat molecules with a protein coating called chylomicrons
- This protein coating makes the fat molecules dissolve more easily in water and allows them to travel into the bloodstream
- In the bloodstream, the chylomicrons are broken down into fatty acids by enzymes called lipoprotein lipases
- The fatty acids are then either used as energy or stored for future use
The majority of fat in the body is stored as subcutaneous fat which means it’s stored under the skin but fat is also stored as visceral fat around the organs, which helps to insulate them and protect them from damage.
It’s also possible for carbs and protein to be converted to fat and stored, however the process is inefficient when compared to the process of fat storage. As a result, the body will favour the storage of fat if given a choice.
How do you lose fat?
In order to lose weight and therefore fat, you must be eating in a calorie deficit and use more energy than you consume for a prolonged period of time.
Your body is always using energy to function and when you eat your body uses whatever you’ve consumed to get its energy.
It’s not until after you’ve finished eating when the food has been broken down and stored that your insulin levels will begin to return to their base level and you’ll stop drawing on the eaten food for energy.
At this point your body still needs energy to function and will begin to breakdown your internal stores to get it.
Your body’s preferred source of energy is glucose which is obtained from breaking down carbohydrates or glycogen, in a process called glycogenolysis. However, if your body uses up or runs out of glucose it will break down fats in a process called lipolysis to make glycerol and fatty acids.
These fatty acids will then either be broken down to get energy or be converted into glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis. In this process, amino acids can also be used to make glucose.
However, this process it’s self won’t lead to weight loss unless you're consuming less energy then you’re using daily, this brings us to the next step.
How do you calculate calories for fat loss?
When losing fat you want to shoot for the 1-2 lbs of weight loss per week as this is the fastest and safest rate to so.
You’ll also still be able to retain the majority of your muscle mass without becoming miserable, fatigued or crash landing ceremoniously into the confectionery aisle at the supermarket, undoing all your hard work.
Fat loss calculation = bodyweight in lbs x 12
Stick with this recommendation for optimal fat loss, energy levels, mood, ease and enjoyment.
From this starting point you can track your daily weigh change, take a weekly average and adjust as necessary to ensure you are losing the recommended 1 – 2 lbs per week.
Remember when dieting to lose weight the goal should always be too:
- To lose fat and not just body weight
- To lose fat in the most efficient way possible
- To retain as much muscle mass as possible
If you diet to just lose weight with no thought about where the weight comes from then you will end up losing not only the body fat you wanted but also the majority of the muscle you worked so hard to get.
What are the best macronutrient ratios for fat loss?
At this point you should know the number of calories you need to lose the recommended 1-2 lbs per week.
It’s time to look at macronutrients.
Macronutrients are the three major food groups that you eat and they are responsible for providing the calories (energy) used to fuel the body.
Whilst the energy balance equation is responsible for weight loss or weight gain, macronutrients influence your overall body composition.
Sure, eating less calories than you burn will help you lose weight but macronutrients are what will help you preserve your muscle mass and primarily lose fat.
- Protein – 0.8 – 1 g per lb or bodyweight
- Fat – 30% of daily calorie intake
- Carbs – remainder of daily calorie intake
(If you need help with the calculations grab my nutrition cheat sheet and calorie & macro calculator below)
The bottom line:
Your weight is governed by the energy balance equation, which means your weight is determined by the rate at which you store energy from the food you eat compared to the rate at which you use that same energy.
The exact details of your 'diet' are not important for weight loss, if you want to eat 6 meals a day then do it, if you want to eat 2 then sure it's no problem, maybe you want to include dessert everyday or have pancakes or burgers once a week, that's fine too.
The important thing is to consistently hit your calorie and macronutrient goals as closely as possible. I'm not suggesting you eat takeaways everyday or exist entirely on ice cream and biscuits but you can include these things as part of a flexible and rounded diet and still lose weight.
How much fat should you eat?
The amount of fat you need to eat in your diet will vary depending on the dietary protocol you are using and therefore should be based on your daily calories need and the requirements of your diet.
There are numerous different dietary protocols you can choose from and ultimately the one you can stick to long-term will generally be the one that is best for you. However, it is worth noting that any diet that involves restriction will lead to binge eating and poor adherence over time.
Whatever you choose needs to be sustainable.
Remember that fat is calorie dense nutrient with 9 calories per gram, so whilst you need to eat enough for its health benefits be careful eating too much as it’s a slippery slow to excess calories.
On balance, I recommend keeping your daily fat intake at about 25 – 30%, as this is enough to get the inherent health benefits without restricting the intake of your other macronutrients, carbs and protein.
I personally avoid anything that eliminates any macronutrient or food group/type in its entirety and anything that changes my lifestyle in a negative way. Particularly, if you’re physically active and perform regular moderate to heavy weight training then you want to be eating carbohydrates to help fuel your performance.
Fat loss mistakes and how to avoid them
There are 2 decisions you can make when you’re not losing fat:
- Continue to cut calories and increase cardio in an attempt to stimulate further fat loss
- Review your current progress, identify the problem and employ a solution
One of these decisions will result in continued, sustainable fat loss and the other with lead to binge eating, weight gain and giving up.
Whenever, you stop losing weight unexpectedly it’s important you first address the possible issues or fix the common mistakes before considering reducing calories or increasing cardio.
More often than not one of the following are the culprit.
Not tracking calorie intake correctly
This may sound like a no-brainer to some of you out there but you will be surprised by the number of people who neglect to properly track their calorie intake. Just think, if you don’t know your daily calorie intake and do not track your calories then how can you know if you are eating appropriately for your fat loss goal. Remember, the energy balance equation (calories in vs. calories out) is king when it comes to changing body composition, so before you increase your training or change your eating habits make time to work out and track your calories and adjust from there.
Trying to out train a bad diet
Leading on from point one it is vitally important to realise that diet plays a larger role when it comes to fat loss than training does. Of course, weight training is advised to maintain strength and muscle mass when eating for fat loss but do not be fooled into thinking you can out-train a bad diet, as no amount of training will help you lose fat if your nutrition is not dialled in.
Utilising quick fixes
I know it can be tempting, they wouldn’t be so excessively advertised and heavily marketed if they weren’t but trust me they are a complete waste of your time and effort. You must reframe your mindset and understand that anything worth having takes time. Invest in yourself and the time it takes to make meaningful and lasting change, I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Don’t set yourself up to fail! When embarking on your fat loss journey you must set realistic goals. You’re not going to be able to build 10 kgs of muscle in one month, nor are you going to be able to drop 5% body fat in one month. Understand what you want to achieve and how you are going to achieve it, then break it down in manageable chunks. Clinging to unrealistic goals will only serve to disappoint and depress you. It doesn’t need to be this way.
Hidden calories refer to the calories that often don’t get counted and get chalked up as inconsequential. Things like the milk in your coffee, the squirt of sauce and the oil used when cooking can seem negligible due to the small quantities they are usually used in but, if you add up the additional calories over a day or week you’ll find you can end up 100s of calories over your goal without realising it.
Although it sounds rather complicated when you break it down and look at what is actually happening in the body doesn’t need to be this complicated for you.
In fact, losing weight is a straightforward process that simply requires you to burn more energy than you eat on a daily basis. If you can get this right then you’ll find fat loss a breeze.