A Step-by-Step Approach to Successful Fat Loss
Like everything in life, when it comes to dieting, sometimes less is more, and being efficient when making diet adjustments stands to benefit any athlete or competitor. The fewer changes an athlete must make in order to coax progress from the body, the better.
Ideally, we make the smallest changes to get the most results, whether those results show on the weight scale, in body measurements, or as body fat percentages. Whether your goal is general aesthetics, functional performance, or bodybuilding, the same theory applies, and trying to go from zero to sixty too quickly is sure to end in failure for any sort of athlete.
In approaching a weight-loss plan, there are a number of variables that can be manipulated in order to accelerate fat loss, including food sources and food quality, meal timing, overall caloric intake, and macronutrient breakdown. Let’s take a look at each.
Why Fat-Loss Diets Fail
Now, I don’t mean “fail” in the sense of giving up and throwing in the towel because your diet is hard. I mean fail in the sense that your body is no longer responding in the expected way when you’re in a calorie deficit and you should be losing weight based on the fact you’re outputting more calories than you’re inputting. When trying to achieve extremely low body fat levels, plateaus often happen because you (or your coach) try to implement too much restriction too soon, and eventually there’s nowhere left to go in terms of cutting calories, reducing carbs, and so on.1
"When trying to achieve extremely low body fat levels, plateaus often happen because you (or your coach) try to implement too much restriction too soon..."
If three months prior to a competition, you’ve already reduced your calorie intake to lower than your basal metabolic rate, eliminated all carbs, and limited food sources to lean proteins, natural fats, and veggies, then it’s likely your metabolism will begin to compensate by slowing down and halting fat loss. In a properly planned diet, this isn’t a problem as there are always variables left to adjust in order to reignite progress. But when calories, food sources, and macronutrients are already severely restricted, there’s often nowhere left to go - but up.
By planning a strategic and progressive diet and making moderate and step-by-step changes from beginning to end, you can achieve continued fat loss and overcome plateaus.
First Things First, Food Sources
The first variable is obvious: cut the crap. By making the transition to whole, non-processed, natural foods - including lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats - the body will achieve more stable blood sugar levels, sustained energy, and a better position metabolically. Not to mention, it will benefit from an overall increase in the thermic effect of food.
"I make sure I’m getting the most bang for my buck not only in terms of volume, but also in terms of nutrient value and fat burning."
In implementing a “cutting” diet, the first thing I do is make the transition to an entirely clean diet, swapping out any processed add-ins, quick-digesting meal replacements, and simple carbohydrates. I make sure I’m getting the most bang for my buck not only in terms of volume, but also in terms of nutrient value and fat burning. The change in food sources alone, without any change in calorie intake, can often be enough to spark fat loss during the initial period of the diet. I recommend profiting from this change in food sources as much as possible before making any other changes in diet.2
Next Up, Calories
The next variable that comes into play is caloric intake. By decreasing calories in a step-by-step manner, it’s less likely you will hit a fat-loss plateau early in the diet. When too many calories come out too quickly, the body beings to make adjustments to protect itself. It lowers certain hormones to conserve energy and essentially works to store fat instead of burning fat.
"By decreasing calories in a step-by-step manner, it’s less likely you will hit a fat-loss plateau early in the diet."
As a general rule of thumb, I know I need around 1,400-1,500 calories when dieting in order to maintain effective workouts. As a figure competitor, the ability to maintain muscle mass is important to me, so I won’t go below that calorie level before making changes to macronutrients. If I have experience a fat-loss plateau at this level of intake, I will move away from the calorie variable and move toward making changes in my macronutrients in order to continue achieving fat loss.
Once you reach a point where continuing to lower your calories could deplete your energy and hormonal necessities, the next step is to make changes to your macronutrient ratios. For most people, this will likely be a transition from carbs to fats as the primary energy source.
For some, this change will progress to a low-carb ketogenic diet in order to continue fat loss. Personally, I have had great success on a ketogenic diet. I use ketosis strategically for specific periods of dieting, but for many people the same results can be achieved with a low-to-moderate carbohydrate intake.3 If the focus of your diet includes maintaining performance for competition, then you may consider lowering fats instead of carbs, while still keeping adequate fat intake to ensure a healthy hormonal profile.
"When making cuts or changes to fats or carbs within your allotted calories, it’s important to take both meal and macronutrient timing into account."
In fiddling with your macronutrients, you may consider implementing the use of strategic cheat meals or refeeds at carefully planned intervals to keep your metabolism charged. When making cuts or changes to fats or carbs within your allotted calories, it’s important to take both meal and macronutrient timing into account. Doing so can help you further the body’s ability to reach extremely low levels of body fat and give you more variables to tinker with.
Macronutrient and Meal Timing
When subtracting carbs, I recommend first removing them from less energy-intensive times of the day, such as outside of your pre- and post-training meals. By maintaining your carbs pre- and post-workout, you ensure proper fuel and recovery for your body. If, as your diet progresses, you need to remove more carbs, you may then consider removing them from the peri-workout period.
When subtracting fats, I use the same theory and remove fats from points in the day where they are less crucial, i.e. peri-workout where they slow down the digestion of carbs. I make an effort to leave fats in near the end of the day to slow digestion and lower the amount of time spent completely fasted, as the fats will allow your final protein meal to digest more slowly through the night.
"By maintaining your carbs pre- and post-workout, you ensure proper fuel and recovery for your body."
By considering the timing of your macronutrients, you take advantage of another variable to alter after switching to whole foods, restricting calories, and adjusting your macronutrient ratios.
What Are You Waiting For?
By recognizing there are numerous variables to adjust throughout your diet and utilizing a less-is-more approach from the start, you are less likely to experience plateaus, as well as metabolic slow down and damage. You are more likely to achieve success in a healthy and balanced way. Although there are numerous methods and approaches to fat-loss dieting, I have found success with this step-by-step approach and recommend to others.
- Cut the crap. Make the transition to whole, non-processed, natural foods.
- Decrease calories in a step-by-step manner.
- Change your macronutrient ratios. For most, this is a transition from carbs to fats.
- Consider the timing of your meals and your specific macronutrients.
Check out these related articles:
- Is Fasted Cardio Superior for Weight Loss or Just a Fad?
- How I "Cheat" My Way to Shredded
- How to Avoid the Fad Diet Cycle (and Keep the Weight Off)
- What's New on Breaking Muscle Today
1. Chan, JL, et al. "The role of falling leptin levels in the neuroendocrine and metabolic adaptation to short-term starvation in healthy men.." JCI. 2003; 111(9), 1409-1421. doi:10.1172/JCI17490.
2. Texas Tech University. "The Whole Foods Diet." School of Medicine. Accessed March 1, 2015.
3. Volek, J., & Westman, E. "Very-low-carbohydrate weight-loss diets revisited." Cleveland Clinical Journal of Medicine. 2002; 69 (11): 849-862.
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