Foundational stuff is important if you want to have the strategies below work for you. Before you begin you need to know where you are starting:
- Resting Metabolic Rate: How many calories you burn being a couch potato. If your gym tests this by measuring the air flow as you exert effort, get it tested so you know for sure what it is. If not, there are several calculators to help you get started.
- What's your size? Get a flexible tape measure and measure your important dimensions: neck, chest, waist (navel level for guys, about an inch below for women), hips, thighs. You can throw in arms and all that if you want. This is probably going to be the most sure indicator of progress during weight loss.
- Scale weight and body fat%: These are rough indicators, and they will fluctuate day to day, or even within the same day. But it's good to know where you are starting and what you are aiming for. Scale weight is easy to measure, but it doesn't tell you anything about your body composition. Body fat% is hard to measure consistently, and that combined with the scale weight will tell you if you are losing fat, or gaining lean mass.
- The 'before' picture: When you stare at yourself in the mirror every day, your frame of reference is only yesterday. You don't change that quickly. But when you take a before picture and compare yourself a month later, the difference can be quite impressive.
- Your goals: Know where you are going. Concrete and easily measured goals are the best. "I want to lose 3 inches off my abdomen" and "I want to lose 20lbs of fat" are good solid goals. "I want to lose as much weight as I can" is one that will get you in trouble. Time-boxing your goals is another way to keep you motivated. If you want to do XYZ dietary strategy for 3 months, knowing the end time will keep you on it.
- Keep a food log: whether you use LiveStrong.com, FitDay.com, or a paper log, nothing keeps you as honest as reading over all the things you ate. The online logs are pretty handy as you can usually use them even at work, and they take care of tracking the macro-nutrients and all that for you.
- Retake your measurements: anywhere between once a week and once a month, retake all your measurements, scale weight, and body fat measurements. You may even need to recalculate your RMR. The fat laden parts should be getting smaller, and possibly the lean parts will be getting bigger. You'll find that some measurements vacillate more than others--for me my calves and forearms go up and down within a certain range.
- Reevaluate your strategy: If things are going in the right direction at a comfortable rate, don't change anything. However, if you are losing more lean mass than expected, you might need to look at what you are doing to lose weight. Also, if the measurements are going the wrong way, take a look at what you are doing. It might be that certain foods are causing a reaction (bloating), or it could be that you are eating more than you think.
- You won't lose fat if you don't consume fewer calories than you burn. Pretty simple.
- You will lose lean mass. Not all lean mass is muscle, but muscle is something you don't want to lose.
- For sedentary people, 1g protein/kg lean body weight will be sufficient to maintain muscle mass. For weightlifters, you will need 1g protein/pound minimum. This will help support rebuilding muscles after exercise, and even getting a bit stronger.
- Look at your Calorie consumption on a weekly basis instead of a day to day thing. This will help you consider how reasonable your goals are.
- Make your game plan and execute it. If you plan out your meals at the beginning you don't have to make decisions on what you need for this meal right now.
This is one of the most basic approaches to losing calories. Over the space of a week, you will still have a calorie deficit, but individual days will be higher than others. Typically, you time the higher calorie days with your training days. You can have every day with a calorie deficit, or you can keep the calorie deficit on your rest days.
In order to make this strategy work for you, plan your high calorie and low calorie targets ahead of time--and don't compensate for the amount of calories you burn training. It's very likely that you are going to be at a calorie deficit even when you have maintenance+20% calories on training days. That's a good thing while you are losing fat.
This is a common component of all anabolic diets. Essentially, you up the carbs on training day--preferably post work out. Lower carbs on rest days when you don't need them as much. Training depletes your glycogen stores, and cabs restore them.
This approach works by manipulating the insulin/glucagon response from your pancreas. When you have an increased amount of carbs, your body will release insulin to move the energy where it is needed. Your muscles are made insulin sensitive for up to 48 hours post work out. This is when it is OK to have carbs. After that, and there is always the chance it will end up in your fat stores.
Severe carb restriction puts your body into a fasting state, where it converts your fat to ketone bodies. You are having food, and since you are eating your protein (see "Preliminaries" above) your muscles will be safe. The nice thing about ketone bodies is that they cannot be converted back to fat. Unused ketones will be urinated out.
Some things to consider about ketosis:
- The first 3 days are usually the roughest. Your body will be crying for carbs, potentially with hunger pangs even though you are full, headaches, etc.
- It takes 3 weeks for your body to become efficient with it's ketone production. You'll lose the most fat during this time, but also during this time your pancreas will be reset to normal operation in most cases. (Diabetes does not necessarily go away).
- Supplement your vitamins, and calcium.
- Drink lots of water
- Don't train for endurance during this time
- You will have a one time 5lb (2.5kg) lean mass loss when you deplete your glycogen stores.
- You will have the same one time 5 lb (2.5kg) lean mass gain when you start eating carbs again.
Fasting once a week, or for 16 hours a day provides you with a longer fat burning state than you would have otherwise. If you fast once a week, it helps to have a much higher calorie day the day before. It's reasonable to note that ketosis and fasting behave similarly on the body. A word of caution: this is a case where being judicious is very important. One day of fasting will probably do you well. Skipping a meal occasionally will also do you well. Two days of fasting can really hurt you--even when you compensate with a high calorie day before each fasting day.
Mix and Match
Each of these tools work well on their own. You can combine strategies to really help lose the weight in a way that works best for you. For example, the Lean Gains approach mixes intermittent fasting, carb cycling, and calorie cycling to help you lose weight. The percentages vary depending on your goals. Also remember, not every strategy works for every person. I know some people who keto is the wrong tool for the job, even though it worked for me.
The things to keep an eye on while trying to lose fat are:
- Mood and concentration levels. If you are easily irritated, or you can't seem to have a coherent thought, chances are you are trying to lose too quickly for your system. Adjust accordingly.
- Lean mass going down too fast. It's a good chance you are burning muscle. Either your programming or your diet need to change. Possibly both. If your RMR is 3,000 Calories, and you are eating 1,000 a day, you will lose muscle. Don't do that.
- Training may be more difficult, this is a time to be conservative. It may be worth moving to a program with slower gains during this time.
There are certain things I purposely didn't touch on here, but they still can make a big impact on how successful your fat loss journey is. First is the macro-nutrient balance. Bottom line is that if you have the protein where it needs to be, and the overall Calorie content where it needs to be, the rest will fall in place. Second is food selection. There's a lot out there and people who have very different opinions.
We are different, and what works for one person may not work for another. Or it may. Or there will be some progress, but not what it needs to be. One person can have a type of food and there be no issues, while another person gets bloated eating the same thing. If you suspect that happening to you, try swapping out foods until you know what it is.