How to Set Up a Diet for Fat Loss
(A Comprehensive Guide)
This is a comprehensive guide that outlines how to set up the basic structure for a fat loss diet.
In this article, we will cover the following:
· Identifying and prioritizing what is important and what isn’t
· How to determine caloric intake
· How to determine macronutrient intake
· Progressing the diet
If you follow along, you will have the framework to build a plan for yourself.
Let’s get into it…
A Misguided Focus
When it comes to nutrition for fat loss, many people get caught up in the latest fads or trends that flood the media.
Whether it be low-carb, low-fat, detoxing, cleansing, gluten-free, paleo…
…or the belief that removing just one food from their diet will make all of the difference and end up being the last missing link to finally getting lean and losing fat.
Problem is, this misguided focus prevents people from achieving the results they want.
Nutrition is actually very simple and boils down to a few primary levels of importance.
And it is these very basic levels that people miss and skip over entirely in search of the quick fix or hottest trend.
There is a nutritional pyramid that Eric Helms created, which illustrates the importance of each piece of the nutrition puzzle very well.
Here’s what it looks like:
In sequence from most important, to least important you have:
2. Macronutrients (Proteins, Carbs, and Fats) & Fiber
3. Micronutrition & Water
4. Nutrient Timing & Meal Frequency
The first mistake most people make when structuring a fat loss diet, is ignoring the law of energy balance.
To put it simply, the law of energy balance states that in order for you to lose body fat, you must create a consistent energy deficit (expend more calories for energy than what you intake each day).
This is the most fundamental layer of the entire fat burning process…
A proper caloric intake is critical and what the rest of a properly structured nutrition plan is built upon.
There’s no way around it. Ignore it and it doesn’t matter what you do, you will not lose fat.
Let’s walk through the steps of how we figure out how many calories are needed when the goal is fat loss.
Determining Caloric Intake for Fat Loss
There are a couple of steps here and I’ll walk through each one individually.
Step #1: Estimate Your Caloric Maintenance Level.
Your caloric maintenance level is the amount of calories needed to maintain your weight. If you were to eat at a maintenance level, that would be the same amount of calories as your body burns each day.
Your maintenance level will be based on your BMR (total calories required for natural processes to keep the body functioning at rest, which includes breathing, circulation, body temperature regulation, etc.), as well as activity level.
There are a number of different formulas/calculators you can use to estimate your caloric maintenance level, but one important thing to note is that any initial calculation is just an estimate or educated guess.
Caloric consumption on a daily basis is something that is very individualistic and differs from person to person depending on a number of factors. No single calculation is perfect.
The goal is simply to get the best estimate for your starting point and then once you get going, you can make any necessary adjustments from there depending on your body’s response and adaptation.
I’m going to go through a couple options you can use to get an estimate of your caloric maintenance level.
Step 1: Calculate BMR with Harris-Benedict Formula
With the Harris-Benedict Formula, the first step is to find basal metabolic rate (BMR):
Men: BMR = 88 + (13.4 x weight in kilos) + (4.8 x height in cm) – (5.7 x age in years)
Women: BMR = 448 + (9.2 x weight in kilos) + (3.1 x height in cm) – (4.3 x age in years)
Men: BMR = 88 + (6.1 x weight in lbs) + (12.2 x height in inches) – (5.7 x age in years)
Women: BMR = 448 + (4.2 x weight in lbs) + (7.9 x height in inches) – (4.3 x age in years)
Example: Meet Joe.
Age: 21 years
Height: 5’10 (70 inches)
Weight: 180 lbs
The calculation for Joe would be:
BMR = 88 + (6.1 x 180) + (12.2 x 70) – (5.7 x 21)
BMR = 1919
The only downfall to this formula, is that it does not take into account body composition. And for this reason, it can underestimate the energy requirements of someone who is extremely lean, and vice versa — overestimate the energy needs of a fatter person.
Step 2: Adjust For Activity
The next step after determining basal metabolic rate is to adjust for activity.
We use an ‘activity multiplier’ between 1.2 – 1.9 depending on lifestyle and training habits.
Sedentary (little or no exercise): BMR x 1.2
Lightly active (training/exercise 2-3 days per week): BMR x 1.375
Moderately active (training/exercise 3-5 days per week): BMR x 1.55
Very active (training/exercise 6-7 days per week): BMR x 1.725
Extremely active (training/exercise 6-7 days per week + physical job or 2x/day training): BMR x 1.9
After adding the activity multiplier, you have an estimate of your caloric maintenance level.
Recall Joe from above.
Let’s say he is a student and trains 4 days per week.
He would select the moderately active option and use the multiplier of 1.55.
So we take his BMR of 1919 and multiply it by 1.55:
(1919 x 1.55)
Maintenance Calories = 2974
If you don’t like math, then the following formula can also be used as an alternative to simplify things.
Step 1: Identify Your Genetic Body Type (ectomorph, endomorph, or mesomorph)
· naturally skinny
· fast metabolism
· have trouble gaining weight
· slow metabolism
· body type is blocky, often short and stocky
· gain weight (both muscle and fat) easier than
ectomorphs, but have tough time losing fat
· mesomorphs fall in the middle between ectomorphs and endomorphs
· body type is athletic
· metabolism of more average speed
Step 2: Multiply your bodyweight by the factor below depending on your body type:
Ectomorph: BW (lbs) x 16-17 = Maintenance Calories
Endomorph: BW (lbs) x 13-14 = Maintenance Calories
Mesomorph: BW (lbs) x 15 = Maintenance Calories
Let’s say Joe has an average build and considers himself a mesomorph.
His estimated maintenance level will be 2700 calories per day.
(180 x 15) = 2700.
As you can see both formulas do not yield the exact same calculation, but similar nonetheless.
It’s important to remember that these are general guidelines and estimations. There is no perfect method to calculating caloric maintenance.
Step #2: Create A Caloric Deficit
Once you have a rough estimation of your caloric maintenance level, you’ll want to reduce calories from your maintenance number in order to create the caloric deficit necessary for fat loss to occur.
To eat in a a caloric deficit basically means you will be eating less calories than your body burns each day.
How big should the energy deficit be?
The size of the caloric deficit I recommend is pretty standard for most individuals and is based on the goal of how much weight is to be lost for the week.
For most trainees I recommend aiming for a weight loss target of approximately one pound per week. This is a good rate to allow for sustainable progress to be made, and retainment of lean muscle mass.
There is a general rule that it takes 3500 calories to burn one pound of fat, and while it’s not completely accurate (due to individual circumstances and variances), it is a good guideline to use.
So if the goal is to lose one pound per week, you’re going to need approximately a 3500 calorie deficit for the week.
Divide that by 7 days (3500/7) to spread across the week and you get a 500 calorie daily deficit.
If you determine that your maintenance calories are 2700, you would subtract 500 from maintenance level (2700-500) to get an intake of 2200 calories per day.
This is a great starting point and what I would recommend for most people.
However, if you have significantly higher body fat (20-30%+), you can aim for a faster rate of fat loss, without risking muscle loss. Somewhere closer to two pounds per week may be a better range. In this case, you can be slightly more aggressive with your calorie deficit.
The main takeaway here is that if you don’t create and maintain a net calorie deficit over time, you will not lose fat.
It’s common for people to want to drop calories super low right away in hopes of progressing faster.
However, an excessively low calorie diet (particularly one implemented for an extended period of time), is not a good move and has many negative effects on health and performance including:
· Reduced metabolism speed
· Lower energy levels
· Decreased training performance (which means decreased energy output)
· Hormonal imbalance
· Decreased sex drive
· Fatigue, tiredness and irritability
· A tendency to gain excess body fat when you increase calories to a normal level afterwards
· A tendency to be more likely of binge eating during the diet period
These are all risks you run when you drop calories too low.
…Basically you’ll just feel like crap in general.
Another reason you don’t want to drop calories too low is that it leaves little room to progress.
What happens when you are already eating a very low calorie intake and you hit a plateau where progress stalls?
At some point it’s bound to happen, your metabolism will adapt and slow down, and you’ll be burning less calories at rest. At this point, you either have to increase energy output or decrease intake again in order to progress further.
When starting your fat loss diet, ideally you want to find a caloric intake that allows you to make progress in the right direction, but also leaves you lots of room to make adjustments from there.
Determining Macronutrient Intake
Now that we have calories taken care of, we can look at the macronutrient set up.
This is 2nd in order of importance (recall the nutritional pyramid):
While calories basically determine whether weight will be gained or lost, macronutrients will determine whether that gain or loss of weight is in the form of fat or muscle mass.
The ‘macros’ (short for macronutrients) we consume significantly influence our energy levels, work capacity, recovery from exercise, body composition, and more.
Therefore, how we choose to split them up in our nutrition program plays a significant role in the results we achieve with our workouts and fat loss goals.
The three macronutrients we will be looking at which make up our diet are:
· Protein- 4 calories/gram
· Carbohydrates- 4 calories/gram
· Fats- 9 calories/ gram
Step #1: Setting Protein Intake
The first macronutrient to look at is protein.
Although protein is most commonly thought of for its muscle building benefits, you also need protein for a host of other reasons; immune system function, cell repair and growth, and detoxification just to name a few.
Protein is equally, if not more important on a fat loss phase, than it is on a muscle gain phase, primarily for its role in preserving lean muscle tissue when eating in a caloric deficit and its satiating effects on hunger. It’s one nutrient you definitely do not want to short yourself on.
How much protein you require on a daily basis is going to be determined primarily by your body weight and body fat %, but also taking into account your activity level and training demands.
For someone with goals of retaining lean muscle while in a caloric deficit, I like to see protein between 1g – 1.5g/lb of lean body mass (per day).
The harder and more frequently you train, the higher you can go on scale as you’ll need more protein to recover.
I personally find the sweet spot to be around 1.3g/lb of lean mass.
Calculating Lean Body Mass
Lean body mass (LBM) is your total body weight minus your body fat.
Example for a male who weighs 180 pounds has 10% body fat:
First we find the amount of fat mass he has…
(10% of 180) = 18 lbs of fat.
Next we subtract the fat mass from total body weight…
180 – 18 = 162 lbs
His lean body mass (LBM) would be 162 pounds.
Once we have lean body mass, we can calculate protein.
For this example, I’ll use 1.3g/lb of LBM.
So we will multiply lean body mass by 1.3…
162 (LBM) x 1.3 = 211 grams of protein.
Now we have our protein intake for the day.
Step #2: Setting Fat Intake
The next step is to look at fat intake.
Anywhere between 0.3-0.75 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight (not lean body mass, as we calculated with protein) is a good range to start with.
0.3g per pound of bodyweight being a minimum level.
Again this depends on your specific goals, preferences, and body type.
One rule to remember is that fat intake is inversely correlated with carbohydrate intake.
If you are consuming more carbs in your diet, you will consume less fats.
Consume lower carbs, and your fat intake will be higher.
So when determining your ideal fat intake, you’ll want to factor in the type of foods you prefer to eat.
If you prefer fattier foods like eggs, nuts and red meats, you may want to allot yourself a slightly higher fat intake to accommodate those preferences.
If you are a carb fiend and crave things like rice, pasta and potatoes, you may want to err towards the lower end of the scale for fat intake, which will allow for a higher carbohydrate intake.
Athletes with higher training demands will do better with a moderate to high carbohydrate intake to aid with training performance and recovery.
Less active individuals with a lower training frequency, will not need as much carbohydrates and therefore likely do better with a slightly higher fat intake and less carbs accordingly.
With these points in mind, use the ranges below as a guideline when setting your fat intake:
Lower Fat Intake – Set fats at 0.3-0.45 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Select this option if you prefer a higher carb intake. This range will work well if you have a high training frequency and are focused on performance.
Moderate Fat Intake – Set fat at 0.45-0.6 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Select this option if you want a moderate amount of both carbs and fats.
Higher Fat Intake – Set fat at 0.6-0.75 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Select this option if you tend to store body fat easily and don’t tolerate carbs well.
However, keep in mind that depending on your caloric intake, you may not be able to set fats this high as fats are the most energy-dense macronutrient (containing 9 calories per gram) and may push your overall calories for the day too high.
Let’s look at a sample calculation using the example above for the 180lb male.
To keep things simple, we will use 0.5g fat/lb (moderate fat intake) for the example.
Bodyweight will be multiplied by 0.5 to determine fat intake:
180 x 0.5 = 90
This equates to 90 grams of fat per day.
Step #3: Setting Carbohydrate Intake
Once protein and fat intake are determined, the final step is to allot the remaining calories, or whatever is left over to carbohydrates.
In order to do this we must know our total calories from protein and fat.
So we simply add protein and fat calories together.
Working with the 180 lb male from the previous example again, we know his macros so far are as follows:
· 211g of protein
· 90g of fat
So we multiply grams of protein by 4 to get total protein calories…
(211 x 4) = 844 calories total calories from protein
Next, multiply grams of fat by 9 to get total fat calories…
(90 x 9) = 810 total calories from fat
Add total protein and total fat calories together…
(844 + 810) = 1654 calories
Now to figure out the remainder of calories in which will be allotted to carbohydrates, simply subtract the above number (total protein and fat calories) from your total caloric intake for the day, which should be a deficit of calories.
If caloric intake is 2200 calories, the calculation would look like this:
(2200-1654) = 546
This means there are 546 calories left that need to be assigned to carbohydrates in order to fill out your caloric intake.
Divide this number by 4 (given that there are 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate) to figure out how many carbohydrates to be eaten in grams…
(546/4) = 136.5g
Carbohydrate intake for the day is 137g (round up).
Final macros for the day are:
· Protein: 211g
· Fat: 90g
· Carbohydrate: 137g
I’ll quickly touch on fiber as it is essential for optimal digestive and gut health.
As a general rule, aim to consume a minimum of 10g of fiber per 1,000 calories you eat. So if you’re consuming 2,000 calories per day that equates to a minimum 20g fiber intake.
Eating 3,000 calories? That’s 30g of fiber.
Getting more than this can be beneficial, and if you are experiencing any digestive discomfort, increasing your fiber intake is something that I would recommend.
However, you reach a certain point where it becomes “too much” fiber. And for this reason, I wouldn’t advise men go above 60g or women go above 45g of fiber per day.
A Quick Recap on Calculating Calories and Macronutrients for Fat Loss:
To recap, determining your caloric and macronutrient intake for fat loss can be accomplished in a few simple steps:
1) Estimate your maintenance level calories. This is the amount of calories needed to maintain your weight each day.
2) Add a caloric deficit. A 500 calorie deficit works well for most people. If you are significantly overweight, you may be able to get away with a slightly larger deficit without risking muscle loss.
3) Determine your protein intake. Between 1g – 1.5g of protein per lb of lean body mass (per day) is adequate and necessary in retaining lean muscle tissue when in a caloric deficit.
4) Determine your fat intake. Anywhere between 0.3-0.75 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight (not lean body mass, as we calculated with protein) is a good range to start with depending on your individual goals and preferences.
5) Determine your carbohydrate intake. Whatever calories remain after calculating protein and fat intake will be allotted to carbohydrates.
6) Be considerate of fiber intake. Aim to consume a minimum of 10g of fiber per 1,000 calories you eat.
7) Monitor your results and adjust caloric and/or macronutrient intake as necessary. As you continue to lose body fat, you will either have to increase energy output (burn more calories) or decrease energy intake (consume less calories), to promote further progress.
Let’s discuss this one in the next section…
If you follow the numbers you generate for yourself using the calculations outlined in this article, I have no doubt that you will get great results using this as a starting point.
However, once you have made your initial calculations in terms of caloric intake and macronutrient setup, you must keep one very important thing in mind…
It’s only a starting point.
It’s important to understand that whatever macros or calories you work out for yourself is only a ‘best guess’. There is no perfect calculation that is going to be 100% accurate right of the bat for everyone.
In order to get the best results possible, you’ll have to make adjustments as you go based on your body’s response and progress.
How often should I make changes or adjustments?
Typically, if you have not progressed for 1-2 weeks, it may be time to make a change.
Anything less than 1 week is not a reliable indicator of progress.
If a 500 calorie deficit is allowing you to make steady progress at a good rate over the first couple weeks of your plan, keep it there as long as you can until progress starts to slow.
If you start to hit a plateau with the same caloric intake after a few weeks and haven’t lost any weight, then it’s probably time to reduce calories slightly.
How much should I change?
When making adjustments, my suggested incremental change value is approximately 5% of total calorie intake.
Patience is the name of the game.
Make small changes and get the most out of the least.
Ideally you want to make the smallest possible changes that still elicit progress.
When you make a drastic changes or reductions in calories, your metabolism is going to adapt after a certain period. Once it does, you have to make another change in order to see progress again, and you just lost all of the steps in between where you could have still been making progress with smaller changes.
When I am reducing calories, where should those calories come from?
Protein is needed for the maintenance of lean tissue when in a caloric deficit, and there’s almost no reason for it to ever be reduced.
The carbohydrates is going to be your go-to macronutrient when it comes to making reductions in calories.
Fat can also be reduced, but should never go below 0.3g/lb of bodyweight or 15% of total calories.
What kind of progress should I expect in terms of fat loss?
For most trainees I recommend aiming for approximately 1 lb of fat loss per week. This is a good rate to allow for sustainable progress to be made, and retainment of lean muscle mass.
Individuals that have significantly higher body fat (20-30%+) have the ability to lose weight at a faster rate, while safely retaining lean mass. I would recommend shooting for a 2 lb weight loss per week in this case.
If you want to consistently lose 1-2 pounds of body fat each week, you must have a properly structured plan in place that allows you to maintain a net calorie deficit for the week from a proper breakdown of protein, carbs and fats.
Ignore this basic rule, and you’ll be completely wasting your time and effort.
Worrying about things like meal timing, food selection, and fancy supplements are not going to be a good use of your time or energy until you have a proper foundation built. That means calories and macronutrients are set in place. The rest is icing on the cake.
The primary goal of this caloric setup and macronutrient breakdown is to provide:
1) A calorie deficit that is large enough to stimulate significant fat loss, but not so large that your energy levels dip, training performance goes down, and you risk losing lean muscle mass.
2) Sufficient protein intake to support muscle recovery and the maintenance of lean muscle tissue.
3) A balance of carbohydrates and fats to keep hormone balance in check, as well as to keep training performance and output at maximal levels.
It’s important to keep in mind that no set of macros will work perfectly for everyone, and some variables may need to be altered slightly to best suit certain individualistic factors.
However, if you use these guidelines as a starting point, you will be well on your way to achieving your fat loss goals.