That's been my answer for most of the questions I've received. It's not because I'm being lazy or blowing people off, it's just the honest truth.
It seems as if our information-overload era has caused beginners and advanced athletes alike to focus way too much on the extras of dietary programs and not enough on the basics. This isn't good.
Tweaks and theories and out-of-the-box dietary protocols might make for interesting LiveSpill discussion, but they're all just the proverbial icing on your gluten-free cake. You must first understand – and then implement – the major steps necessary if you're ever to achieve your "get shredded" goals.
Let's take a step back from the fine print and look at the bigger fat loss picture – the fat loss hierarchy, if you will.
The order goes like this:
- Food choices
- Total calories
- Essential nutrients
- Energy nutrients
- Meal frequency
- Food/macronutrient distribution
A very successful friend of mine often quotes the slogan "Productivity in 11 Words":
One thing at a time, most important thing first, start now.
In that spirit, let's start with step one to help you become more efficient with your fat loss approach.
#1 Food Choices
Notice I said food choices, not macronutrients, because infinitely more important than the low carb versus low fat debate is the refined food versus real food debate.
If people just cut out refined stuff, ate real foods (animal proteins, vegetables, whole-food fats, natural starches), and paid attention to absolutely nothing else, they would improve their health profile and lose body fat. Would it be enough to get them T Nation-style ripped? No. But it would take them a good percentage of the way.
Let's say making this change would get them inside the Red Zone. Virtually every other nutritional topic is about whether you make that extra effort to get the touchdown or just settle for a field goal.
I place food choices ahead of total calories for two reasons:
I care about achieving physique enhancement goals, but I also care about health.
These goals do not have to be mutually exclusive, as many uninformed athletes or non-athletic scientists would have you believe.
It seems that there are two extremes in our industry. On one end, you have many bodybuilders and fitness girls who will follow extreme training, diet, and drug protocols to achieve a freak physique, unknowingly (or knowingly) compromising their long-term metabolic, hormonal, mental, and overall health.
On the other end, you have many "life-extensionists" who obsess over improving every decimal point in their biomarkers of health, but leave any thought of physique enhancement behind.
I don't care if I make it to 120 years old if I have to live and look like a goblin to do so.
It's not an either-or situation – you can improve your health and improve your physique at the same time. The food choices we make can merge those two goals. You might not end up looking like Ronnie Coleman or living as long as Yoda, but you'll do okay on both fronts.
If total calories are controlled, you can lose body fat while still eating Ding Dongs and Ho-Ho's, but what's that doing to your internal health? As the late, great Serge Nubret once said, "Every sickness comes from food."
The answer to America's health problems and obesity epidemic – and the majority of your fat loss questions – is quite simple: cut out refined foods and just eat nature's foods, in their unaltered state. Nuts (fat) are better for you than high fructose corn syrup (carb), but equally so is a potato (carb) better for you than refined vegetable oil (fat). That's my stance, and I'm sticking to it.
I care about the sustainability of a plan.
Any plan can work for the short-term when motivation is high. However, it's virtually impossible to stay in the relative calorie deficit necessary for fat loss (step #2), at least for any meaningful length of time, if you're making poor food choices.
In other words, you can't cut calories while eating crap and expect to stay the course.
This is where point systems or other calorie counting diets fail. You're not going to be able to stay on a diet plan for long eating low-calorie lasagna, fudge cake, or "snack packs." Fake foods like this are just empty calories with no functional nutrients. They have no effects on satiety or hormones that regulate appetite and energy intake.
You'll feel constantly hungry, deprived, and miserable dieting on these foods. Eventually, you'll wake up next to a few empty doughnut boxes left over from an uncontrollable binge. As motivation declines, the time between these binges will get shorter and shorter until one day you realize that you're eating crap just about every day and completely give up on your fat loss plan.
That's why people yo-yo on and off these plans. They're not sustainable.
On the flipside, it is almost impossible to overeat if you're consuming only real foods. I've had clients struggle to net 2000 calories a day when they cut out all refined foods (including oils) and ate only lean proteins and vegetables (including potatoes and yams).
Nature's foods are nutrient dense, high satiety foods, and you'll have a much easier time maintaining a calorie deficit if you emphasize them. You'll also get more nutrients out of 2000 calories of real food than 4000 calories of manufactured food. This is extremely important when operating in a calorie deficit.
The Strategy: Cut out refined foods, even refined "health" foods like cereals, breads, and various oils. Eat real foods: lean animal proteins, vegetables, whole fruit, whole-food fats (from your animal protein sources and if more is necessary, from nuts, coconut, avocado), and natural starches (potatoes, yams).
In the Great Macro Debate, the second most important step in the fat loss process seems to have been completely lost amongst physique dieters everywhere – total calories. No miracle combination or drastic cutting of any macronutrient can circumvent the law of thermodynamics.
Did we not learn this lessen in the Low Fat era? You can cut your fat intake to zero, but if you're eating above your total calorie limits with refined carbs, you're going to get fat.
Today's low-carbers are making a similar mistake. I don't care if you haven't touched a carb since Brigitte Nielsen was hot, if you overshoot calories by eating unlimited fat, you won't get lean.
This brings me to something every low-carber needs to understand: being in a state of ketosis itself does not ensure fat loss.
Ketosis is simply an altered physiological state in the human body. When carbs are extremely low, glycogen becomes depleted, the body will then use a greater percentage of fatty acids to fuel the body and use ketones to fuel the brain. It's merely a shift in fuel dynamics. The body is running on fat metabolism, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to burn more body fat, although that's what you might infer.
The other rules of body fat loss still apply, not just the metabolic condition your body is in. Ensuring you're in a relative calorie deficit is still the most important step in winning the fat loss war.
In low carb, unlimited fat and protein diets, you can still enter a state of caloric excess. And even though your body has shifted to burning a greater percentage of fatty acids as fuel, it will simply obtain fatty acids and ketones from the abundance of dietary fat you're taking in if you're in caloric excess.
It will not be forced to tap into internal body fat stores as a reserve fuel. Instead, the excess calories will be stored as body fat, regardless of whether insulin levels are constantly kept at a low level.
Why then, do people so easily dismiss total calories and cling to low fat, low carb, or low common sense diets?
Telling people to make proper food selections and control calories is boring. There's nothing sexy about it. There's nothing innovative or cutting edge in it. In a world full of technological advances, to tell someone to follow sound, sensible, and basic principles almost seems archaic and uninformed. There has to be a new revolutionary way that's easier, more efficient, and pain-free, right?
"Macro-bashing" plays to people's desires. These plans seem like they require more discipline – you have to eliminate certain food groups. "No carbs today, Dude." But these diets actually require less discipline. They demonize a certain nutrient and point to it as the cause of all of our body fat problems. Eliminate that nutrient, and you can eat as much as you want of everything else.
That's what people really want to hear, isn't it? You can eat as much of "X and Y" as you want, as long as you don't eat "Z." Eat vegetable oil, cream, and cheese to your heart's desire as long as you don't have that carb gram from a carrot stick. In a world of overindulgence, the lazy want to be able to gorge on something.
I'm not saying it can't or won't work, but for the majority I've seen, it doesn't. If you've banished carbs to the Underworld, yet are still struggling with fat loss and are looking for answers, now you have one – controlling calories is still king.
The Strategy: If you want to lose fat, your ballpark calories should equal 10-12 calories per pound, or per pound of lean body mass if overweight. Another option is 15 calories per pound of target weight (since 15 calories per pound is maintenance). You'll have to adjust based on results and feedback anyway, so no need for more complicated formulas.
#2 Essential Nutrients
The food we take in can be broken down into two broad categories: essential nutrients and energy nutrients.
Essential nutrients are necessary for normal metabolic, hormonal, enzyme, and immune system functioning. They provide the base ingredients necessary for building and maintaining the body's structural components, including skin, hair, and muscle tissue.
Essential nutrients can't be produced by the body and must be obtained through the diet. Thus, their intake should never be compromised regardless of your efforts to cut calories for fat loss. We'll be cutting energy nutrients, not essential nutrients.
The foundation of any complete diet plan should be lean, animal-based protein foods and vegetables, not "zero carb pizza" or "low calorie cookies" or any other refined food that makes you feel like you're doing something good for yourself.
Animals and plants provide us with the essential nutrients and micronutrients we need, in the right amounts and ratios that Mother Nature intended. They were the basis of the diets we evolved from. It makes sense that they should be the foundation of a modern diet geared towards optimizing health and improving body composition.
The Strategy: Set essential amino acid/protein at 1.5-2.0 grams per kilogram for strength training athletes (just under the standard 1 gram per pound). If you believe in more protein, bump it up to 1.5 grams per pound. Next, set essential fatty acid needs. EFA's can be obtained as a byproduct of your lean, animal protein sources. An estimate is between 0.2-0.3 grams per pound.
#3 Energy Nutrients
Beyond accounting for essential nutrients, all other food intake is simply a source of energy.
Changing your body composition comes down to varying your energy nutrient intake. We set essential amino acid and essential fatty acid needs and never go below these base levels. All other food intake is just a source of energy. Dietary fat is an energy source just as carbohydrates are an energy source.
There's no mystery to fat loss. We need to reduce energy intake enough to create the calorie deficit necessary (step #2) to force our bodies to tap into an internal reserve fuel source, namely body fat. This can be accomplished by reducing carbohydrate intake, reducing fat intake, or both.
In other words, protein and vegetable intake remains constant, carbohydrate and fat intake can go up or down as needed. We simply manipulate those macronutrients based on our current status, body type, and physique goals.
Many obese, sedentary, and insulin resistant patients have improved insulin sensitivity, blood sugar control, biomarkers of health, and lost a large percentage of body fat on low-carb/Paleo plans.
However, many bodybuilders and fitness athletes step on stage peeled to the bone following carb-based/sports nutrition-type plans.
Who's right? The fact that people have achieved outstanding fat loss results with such different methods suggests that they're both right. Scientific research and anecdotal evidence can be found to back each one up as well.
I've recommended both approaches to different types of clients, based on the situation, as I'm a staunch believer that various diets have worked for various athletes.
I know it seems earth shattering in today's anti-macronutrient climate, but even a balanced diet (i.e. Zone or Isocaloric Diet) can work.
Anyone who tells you differently is either selling you something or is so caught up in the dogma of a system that they can't see outside of it.
Now I do believe that each one is more efficient than the other for specific demographics, and I think that's where the confusion comes in. The reasoning behind my belief has to do with exercise physiology and fuel dynamics.
I think sedentary and insulin resistant/obese populations respond better to low carb diets, and anaerobic athletes respond better to carb-based diets.
The Strategy: Distribute remaining calories (total calories - calories from protein - calories from baseline fat) between either added whole food fats or natural, starchy carbs, based on your individual situation.
There's more to talk about, but alas, time is money and I've had a triangle choke on your computer time. I'll be devoting future articles to meal frequency and food distribution, because there's so much to talk about.
But remember, those are lower down on the hierarchy for good reason. Meal frequency doesn't matter until you take care of rules #1-4, starting with making optimal food choices that nourish your body. Everything else is subordinate to that, and for good reason.
Remember: One thing at a time, most important thing first, start now.
Start with Step #1.