You’ve taken a long hard look in the mirror and decided enough is enough. You want the body of your dreams and it’s time to get lean. But where do you start?
If you’ve been following my recent posts, you’ll know that there are two fundamentals to getting lean.
- Establishing a negative energy balance
- Following a program of resistance training
First, without a negative energy balance, your body will not have to use stored energy to meet its daily energy demands. That’s why it’s critical that you understand your maintenance calories and establish an appropriate deficit.
Second, we’re not here to simply lose weight. If losing weight were the goal, we could sit in a room with minimal food and just wait it out. Trouble is, that approach would burn as much muscle as fat leaving you looking like a chewed-over bone. Our goal is stripping fat and preserving lean mass. Hence, we need a carefully crafted program of resistance training.
Previously, we covered the fundamentals of energy balance and how to calculate your maintenance calories. But now that you’ve settled on the goal of getting lean, we need to go a little deeper and give you some specific pointers on how to calculate your deficit and breakdown your energy target across nutrient groups.
This is not THE way. It is A way. There are a great many approaches to fat loss, and they can all work. In fact, there are so many approaches that you could lose 5lbs just researching and reading them all. So if you’ve had success with or read something different to what you see here, I’m entirely unsurprised. What you have here is an approach that works, and one that I and others have had success with in the past.
Calculating your daily calorie target
First things first. Do you have a good sense of your maintenance calories?
Shredding fat is going to require that you are taking in less energy from food than you are expending to stay alive and maintain current activity levels. That means adjusting-down your maintenance calories to establish a calorie deficit.
The typical starting point for establishing a deficit is 500 kcal, a number that originates from the premise that 1 lb of fat contains approximately 3,500 calories of energy. Hence, the daily deficit of 500 kcal (3500 divided by 7).
It’s long since been proven that the 500 kcal approach to setting a deficit is somewhat of a blunt instrument, and does not take into account a whole variety of factors, including the fact that energy needs are constantly changing, no two pounds of human fat are the same, fat loss is non-linear, levels of leanness, hormonal landscape, differences in people’s start-points etc.
That’s why this number is just a guideline and will need to be adjusted to cater for different individual’s start points and throughout the course of fat loss in response to your body’s changing energy needs.
To account for some of these factors, Tom Venuto has adopted a sliding scale for calculating a deficit based on a percentage of your maintenance calories:
- 15-20% below maintenance calories = conservative deficit
- 20-25% below maintenance calories = moderate deficit
- 25-30% below maintenance calories = aggressive deficit
- 31-40% below maintenance calories = very aggressive deficit (risky)
- 50% below maintenance calories = semi starvation/starvation (potentially dangerous)
Depending on my goal, for simplicity, I usually just start with the 500 kcal deficit.
Given I am of generally average height and build with fairly average energy needs, this tends to be a pretty good starting point for me. However, for shorter, more aggressive corrections in body fat levels, I will look at deficit in the 25-30% range. Remember, the more aggressive the deficit, the harder it can be to maintain compliance and manage your energy needs. So pick a deficit in accordance with your goals and experience.
Once you have your daily calorie target, you’ll want to consider your macros.
Breaking down your macros
Macros is short for macronutrients and refers to the composition of foods. As you probably know, every food is made up of some combination of protein, carbohydrate and fat, along with micronutrients and water.
In short, protein is the building block of muscle, while carbohydrates and fats are sources of energy.
Of course, this is a dramatically simplified view, as all three macronutrients are important for normal body function and each has a role to play in how our body uses or stores energy and preserves or builds new muscle.
In terms of breaking down macronutrient targets, my personal approach to fat loss is anchored around a classic bodybuilding style diet that is high in protein, moderate in carbohydrates and low in fat.
Why lower fat?
As I stated earlier in this post, there’s more than one way to achieve fat loss, and establishing a negative energy balance is still the most crucial aspect. However, I prefer to keep fats lower for a number of reasons.
- Fats are incredibly energy-dense, meaning you often don’t get a lot of food (volume) for your calories.
- Given restricted calories to work with, we need to ensure that we have enough room in our macros for muscle sparing proteins, and adequate carbohydrates to fuel daily activity.
As an aside, I do recognize that some people will succeed on ketogenic diets, which are extremely low in carbs and utilize fat as the primary source of energy. However, my personal experiences with this approach were suboptimal, and while I did lose body fat, I also struggled with muscle retention and fluctuating energy levels.
So how should we break down your calorie target across these macronutrient groups?
Protein should be kept high throughout the cutting phase.
In addition to helping preserve muscle mass, protein also has a higher thermic effect. This means that the cost of breaking down and extracting the energy from protein is higher. Said more simply, for every 100g of protein you consume, some 20g to 35g are “spent” in the process of consumption.
The starting point for protein is generally 1g per pound of body weight. So if you’re 200 lbs, that’s a daily target of 200g of protein.
As protein has ~4 kcal of energy per gram, we multiply the 200g by 4 to give 800 kcal of energy.
The discussion on the effect of dietary fats on body fat levels rages on. And there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that increased dietary fat intake does not equate to increased body fat levels. However, during fat loss, given the energy density of fat, I try to keep fat intake relatively low leaving room for carbohydrates to fuel our physical activity.
Fat is energy dense at ~9 kcal of energy per gram. As a result, I cap fat intake at somewhere between 20% and 25% of total daily calories.
To establish your fat intake, you need to calculate 25% of your daily calorie target. So, for example, if your daily calorie target is 2500 kcal, you would be looking at 625 kcal (25%) of energy from fat. This equates to 69g of fat respectively (625 divided by 9).
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you’ve heard from at least one person or another that carbs are pure evil. However, despite the bad rap carbs have had over the last few years, carbohydrates are still the best source of energy to fuel physical activity.
What matters most with carbs is the type and quantity of carbohydrates we eat. Remember, food quality matters.
Like protein, carbs come in at ~4 kcal of energy per gram. To calculate the proportion of your macros to allocate to carbs, we simply take the energy balance remaining (2500 – 800 – 625) of 1075 kcal and divide by 4. That gives us 268g
A few notes on macros and tracking
It’s worth being VERY clear that all of our efforts around tracking are approximate and generally inaccurate.
Why? Because between different food types, food preparation, digestive health, individual genealogy, inaccurate labeling and inaccurate tracking, there is just no way we are calculating or hitting these macros with accuracy.
The point with macros is to establish targets for nutrient partitioning that support our transformation goals. In turn, what’s important is the way in which macros guide your food choices and the consistency with which you track your food.
Consistency > Accuracy
Whether you are tracking via an application like MyFitnessPal, weighing, measuring or using the Precision Nutrition system of palms, fingers and thumbs, it’s the consistency with which you measure that counts—both in terms of individual meals and your meals over time. Through consistent measuring, we can make adjustments over time irrespective of the inaccuracy.
So never stress about hitting macros spot-on. A little over on fats and a little under on carbs is just fine. It’s the same with protein.
Remember, energy balance dominates the landscape for fat loss. Macros always come in second.
Energy Balance > Macros
Finally, due to the body’s constant strive for homeostasis, your energy needs change over time. As soon as you restrict energy in (food) or increase energy out (exercise), your body starts to find ways to adapt and reduce energy demands. That’s why we are always adjusting food intake or exercise levels to re-balance the equation and get back to a negative energy balance.
So we’ve established our energy needs and calculated our macros. Time to get in the gym and hit the weights! But where do you start? In the next post, I’ll talk about techniques and protocols we can use when training for fat loss and outline a program you can use to torch body fat.
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