Because we’re all coming from different experience levels regarding this topic, I wanted to start with the basics so that we’re all on the same page. This post will target more of the general population and those who are just beginning their fitness journey. So for my friends that are a bit more experienced, bear with me! I will go continue going much further into depth with each blog post in this series.
The most important thing I want to emphasize in this post is that we are all different. We are all uniquely diverse, we each have different backgrounds, dieting histories, metabolisms, activity levels, eating habits, lifestyles; which all need to be taken into consideration before beginning a diet. It also means that we all have different starting points and should approach a diet differently.
What works for one person may work for you, or it may not. But whether it does or not, tailoring a diet plan to your individualized situation and needs has been proven time and again to be the most effective approach in optimizing health and maximize weight loss goals.
This post is meant to be as an overview; information you need to take into consideration before starting a diet. Like I said, I will expand on each of these topics in my posts to come.
How to diet to maximize weight loss goals: The Basics
- You have to be in a caloric deficit.
- We ALL have different starting points and it is important for you to determine yours.
- Starting with minor modifications is critical because you will need to make modifications along the way.
- Adequate protein intake and weight lifting are important to make sure you are predominately losing fat instead of muscle mass.
- Don’t choose foods just because they are considered “healthy.” You need to educate yourself on the calorie content and macronutrient breakdown too.
- Don’t underestimate the power and role of sleep.
1. You have to be in a caloric deficit to lose weight.
This one is probably obvious but it definitely requires some further context. No, a “1500 calorie deficit” by itself is not defined as a caloric deficit. Nor is 1200 calories or 1700 or whatever number you may have associated in your head for it to be. This number, this deficit, varies among every single person depending what their current maintenance level of calories is. As in, each person’s deficit is dependent on the amount of calories they are currently eating and maintaining their weight at.
For example: if Jill wanted to lose weight and was currently eating an average of 2500 calories a day, a deficit for her would be consuming 2100. But if Kate wanted to do the same and was used to eating an average of 1900 calories a day, a deficit for her would be 1500.
Yes, technically 1500 would be a deficit for Jill too, but this deficit is excessive given the calories she was previously eating at. This extreme is not only totally unnecessary — wouldn’t you want to eat more and still lose weight if you could? But is also setting her up for failure by not leaving much leverage to continue making changes as her progress begins to stall. This is why it is important to know YOUR starting point. I’ll expand on this more below.
2.We all have different starting points and it is important to determine yours.
The best way to do this? Learn to track your food.
The most accurate way to determine what an appropriate caloric deficit is for YOU is to take 1-3 weeks to track everything you eat, eating as you normally would.
This is literally so important. Taking this step allows you to identify your starting point so that you can determine exactly how much of a deficit is optimal for you.
Not only that, but so many people tend to underestimate how much they are actually consuming. Tracking will help you put different foods and portion sizes into perspective, ultimately giving you the knowledge and capability to make smarter choices in the future without having to measure everything out.
During this week of tracking, you are gathering data about your current habits: how many calories and how many grams of each macronutrient (carbs, protein, fat) you are currently eating, as well as other vital things to consider, such as fiber and sugar intake. You should be eating exactly as you have been! I know you will be eager to start making changes in your diet, but this step is important for accurate data collection so that you CAN use what you found to set goals and monitor progress. Otherwise, it will be completely irrelevant.
After the initial data is gathered, you can most accurately identify a calorie deficit goal, as well ideal macronutrient targets. This data is imperative when it comes to making modifications throughout your diet. Without this data, you are making modifications blindly. You are essentially guessing as you go; and maybe you will see some progress, but it most surely won’t guarantee continued progress. And even more importantly, greater weight loss in the long run as it would if you were utilizing the data to your advantage.
3. Start with minor to moderate modifications in your diet and exercise routine.
Sure, a more aggressive diet can achieve weight loss in a shorter amount of time, but research and experience have shown that there are limitations to how deep of deficit you can go before it causes serious damage to your metabolism. For men, this is generally around 1500 calories a day, and for women, around 1200.
Not only are extremes dangerous, but they are not substantial. They are not enjoyable and people typically fall back into old habits quick because they are not easy to maintain.
This where data collection regarding food intake and exercise is important. Once a baseline is established, minor tweaks can be made to one or both if weight loss has stalled or no changes are being made.
You see, after a while, your body WILL adjust to this new lower level of calories and increased cardio. Our bodies are smart and they will now start to maintain at this new intake and expenditure level. When this stall happens, you will no longer see progress unless you continue to decrease your calories or increase your activity level.
That is the problem with drastically reducing calories and significantly increasing calories initially. You have no wiggle room when weight loss has stalled and changes need to be made.
This is why determining your individualized goals and continuing to make minor adjustments to your plan as needed is so important. This form of data collection is one of the best and most scientifically backed tools so why not use it to your advantage to maximize success?
4. Just because it’s “healthy” doesn’t mean it’s always the best option to choose.
Just as shown in the picture above, there are many foods that fall under the category of “healthy.” I’m not saying that these foods aren’t because they definitely provide excellent nutrients to the body. But what I do want to point out is that they are calorically dense. Meaning they have a high amount of calories per small portion and generally speaking, the majority of the population tends to underestimate their consumption of them.
I remember being particularly shocked the first time I weighed out my peanut butter to put on my toast. I always thought I was just using a tablespoon, when come to find out I was eating 3 tablespoons. That is 200 calories over what I thought I was consuming. And I’m telling you, that kind of stuff adds up!
This is another reason why tracking food has helped so many when it comes to their weight loss goals. Just because you think something is healthy, or it is being advertised as healthy, doesn’t mean that isn’t loaded with calories or fat. Even just tracking for a short time allows you to become aware of portion sizes and make smarter choices in the future.
5. Prioritize protein intake and strength training.
It is important to have a balanced intake of all macronutrients, but protein is critical to preserve muscle mass throughout a caloric deficit.
You also need to develop a workout routine that maintains muscle mass and promotes greater calorie burn in the long run.
This means prioritizing strength training. You have got to lift some weights! And I am not talking about the 3lb weights that weigh as much as your water bottle. Not only will strength training give you that “toned” look you are looking for, but it is also is essential in promoting weight loss from fat as opposed to muscle tissue.
What do you think JUST doing cardio does for you? Sure, it may burn more calories during the actual workout. But it does not provide for continued calorie burning and increases in metabolism like strength training does. More importantly, it does not provide the stress to the muscles that is needed to maintain and/or build muscle mass.
In fact, cardio does the exact opposite; it signals muscle wasting. By just doing cardio, you not stressing the muscle, and therefore sending the signal to your brain that your muscle is not essential. When this happens, more muscle is burned than fat. Doing this for a long period of time usually results in “skinny fat, where you may lose weight, but you still have fat, except now with no definition or tone.
This is why we should not be making cardio the priority. This a topic that I definitely want to elaborate on in the posts to come!
6. Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep.
For most of us, sleep tends to take a back burner when it comes to prioritizing how we spend the hours of our day. Even just losing an hour or two has been shown to vastly affect our health.
You may be aware of the role sleep plays in mood and energy levels throughout the day, but the effects of adequate sleep on the body actually advances so much deeper than that. Sleep is your body’s time to recover. It’s when your body channels its parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) state, gets rid of excess wastes, builds connections between neurons in the brain, and processes thoughts and memory.
Hormones released during sleep are also the ones that build and repair the body. So you can see that by not getting enough, your body may not recover fully, resulting in decreased performance, excess cortisol and stress, and “fogginess” as a result of your brain not be able to adequately process everything from the previous day.
Like I said, these are the “basics” and most important things to take into consideration when starting a diet. In the posts to come, I will talk about making modifications to macros and exercise, setting up a workout regimes, diet/cutting strategies, and how to break plateaus. If you have any specific questions or things you want me to cover, let me know!