Fat Loss Priorities
There are many approaches to nutrition that work.
Some coaches will tell you that all you need to do is count calories.
Some coaches will tell you the opposite - that calories should never have your focus, and instead you should only pay attention to the quality of the food you eat.
Each point of view - and all the shades of grey in between - has some validity.
What we know about fat loss is that your total energy intake definitely matters. The research is irrefutable, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either not familiar with the scientific literature or is lying to you.
Obviously, we can manipulate the energy in/energy out equation by either taking in different amounts of food or expending different amounts of energy through activity.
Fanny previously wrote an article on general movement for fat loss, the goal of which is to improve your general quality of movement, but also to provide a boost to NEAT - non-exercise activity thermogenesis. In other words, the movement you do during the day that isn’t planned exercise.
In this article we’re going to look at the main components involved in achieving fat loss from a nutrition perspective. More specifically, the point of this post is to show you that even though a diet setup might focus on a particular area, it can produce meaningful effects on the other factors involved in fat loss.
This might sound like it’s a bit confusing - after all, most articles you read try to point you to the ONE THING YOU MUST DO TO LOSE WEIGHT.
But actually, it really means that we have a great deal of flexibility with which to set up a diet, and so long as we ensure adherence to the fundamental principles, you can utilise a variety of methods to ensure compatibility to your lifestyle.
This ultimately leads to consistency - the key factor in maintaining your desired weight.
So, let’s dive into it!
Looking at the science, we can say for sure that the most important variable in fat loss comes down to creating an energy deficit, but there are other factors that are important too:
1. Energy balance
2. Macronutrient ratios
3. Food quality
4. Meal timing
We also have an abundance of evidence showing that there is an optimal protein intake that is conducive to both muscle building/retention and fat loss (and by the way, it’s probably about double the recommended daily allowance).
So, how do we control calorie intake?
You could calorie count, but it’s not strictly necessary. Some people will do really well by trying to hit their numbers every day, and others will fail miserably.
Turns out, you can control calorie intake by focusing on one of the “less important” fundamentals principles in the fat loss hierarchy - like food quality, for example.
The most obvious diet set up that focuses on food quality is the paleo diet - the typical guidelines are to eat foods that are minimally processed, leading to a focus on animal proteins and vegetables.
Unsurprisingly, when you cut out foods that are relatively low in satiety, but energy dense, you automatically regulate your energy intake. I’ve never seen anyone overeat leafy greens, and focusing on whole animal foods provides a huge amount of filling protein.
Even on the starch side of things, potatoes and rice are fairly energy dense, but also come up as some of the most satiating foods available.
So we’re left with a big focus on food quality that intrinsically takes care of the energy balance equation and ensures our macronutrient ratios are balanced.
Let’s tackle another diet setup.
According to the research, meal timing is pretty far down the hierarchy for fat loss compared with energy balance and macro ratios. However, some diet setups focus on timing - such as intermittent fasting.
The typical IF model tends to use a 16 hour fasting window and an 8 hour feeding window. There are lots of variations, but let’s use this as an example. By cutting out your ability to eat for most of the day, you are effectively putting a limit on how much food you can consume.
There are plenty of people out there who will hit their 8 hour feeding window and gorge themselves silly, but it’s really hard to consistently pack away as many calories as you would if you had double the amount of time to available throughout the day to eat.
IF is pretty good, therefore, at controlling snacking throughout the day - as well as the overall volume of food you can fit into each day. So while the focus is on meal timing, the fundamental principle of energy balance is also addressed.
The point I’m trying to make is that although there is a lot of argument for and against each diet regime, in essence most of them will work just fine. In theory, if you stuck to the numbers, you could get shredded on KFC - but, you won’t be able to eat much food (because it’s really energy dense) and you’d feel terrible (because it lacks micronutrients).
I like to think of myself as diet agnostic. There are some methods I've more success with than others, but almost anything is workable in some way provided the fundamentals are taken care of.
As a coach, my job is to come up with a setup that addresses the fundamentals in such a way that my clients will be able to stick to it long term - I don’t care if you can count calories like a robot for 12 weeks if all you’re going to do is go right back to what you were doing before.
By the same token, I will never tell someone that they can’t afford to eat a little ‘junk’ food every now and then - because as long as their overall energy balance and macro ratios are correct, they will lose fat regardless!
I’m going to stop there for now - this is obviously a topic that could go on for pages and pages.
Let us know if you’d like to see more articles expanding on the principles involved in diet design!
Evans EM, et al "Effects of protein intake and gender on body composition changes: a randomized clinical weight loss trial." Nutr Metab (Lond). (2012)
Farnsworth E, et al "Effect of a high-protein, energy-restricted diet on body composition, glycemic control, and lipid concentrations in overweight and obese hyperinsulinemic men and women." Am J Clin Nutr. (2003)
Golay A, et al "Similar weight loss with low- or high-carbohydrate diets." Am J Clin Nutr. (1996)
Golay A, et al "Weight-loss with low or high carbohydrate diet." Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. (1996)
Leibel RL, et al "Energy intake required to maintain body weight is not affected by wide variation in diet composition." Am J Clin Nutr. (1992)
Loenneke JP, et al "Quality protein intake is inversely related with abdominal fat." Nutr Metab (Lond). (2012)