In most fitness circles, creating a calorie deficit, coupled with an adequate protein intake of 1-1.5g per pound of body weight, is the starting point when prescribing the proper approach to optimally shed body fat.
Many people have their own ideas and methods when creating the deficit; some choose to slash calories, others opt for more exercise, while some alternate low calorie periods and high calorie periods. Regardless of the approach, it’s well documented in research that a calorie deficit is required to lose weight. The law of thermodynamics does indeed apply to Homo sapiens as it does to all other species and other forces within nature.
As I’ve written meal plans for myself and for personal clients, I’m always intrigued as to how people with differing psychologies go about their fat loss efforts, how they create their deficits, and how they deal with the successes and failures stemming from their actions.
When it comes to losing body fat, for the most part, it’s fairly black and white. Either one is creating the deficit or they’re not. Either they lose weight or they don’t. After making those statements, it’s only fair to mention there are some exceptions. The exceptions are not to the law of thermodynamics, though. The exceptions are to those who have conditions such as hypo or hyperthyroidism and the other various metabolic issues. For these folks, a slightly different approach may be warranted. However, when the proper medications are involved, an altered approach is rarely needed.
While movement, in some form, is crucial for most successful diets, there’s no way to exercise your way out of a bad or miscalculated diet. It’s just not possible. In lieu of the fact that a deficit is a deficit as I discuss in my free e-book, let’s look at a few reasons why people fail at dieting and how some literally eat their way out of a perceived deficit.
People Don’t Know How To Count Calories
Counting calories, for the most part, is tedious work. I’d wager a majority of the general population has no idea how to calculate their calorie needs or even how to figure out how many calories are in a Snickers bar by looking at the protein, fat and carbohydrates alone.
Then we have to take into account the fact that while most fitness enthusiasts are aware of calories and their role in weight loss/gain, counting calories and creating a calorie deficit is not as clear as it should be.
How do people mess this up?
- Reading Labels Is Hard – Okay, it’s not really that hard but if you’ve never done so and were never taught, how do you know any better? Let’s take milk for example. A serving of whole milk is 8 ounces or 240mL. For those who simply look at the label, they see there is roughly 150 calories per serving: 8g protein, 12g carbohydrates and 8g fat. That’s easy enough to read. However, when they pour their glass of milk, it’s not into a measuring cup or into a glass on a kitchen scale.
They usually pour enough to fill ¾ of said glass. If you actually measure the serving, it will come out to 1.5x or even twice as much as the standard serving. By not using a measuring cup, the potential for a misjudgment of 75-150 calories is too easy. It’s easy to look at a label and just assume that what you’ve been consuming is the standard serving – far from it, actually.
- A Kitchen Scale Is Your Friend – Another common mistake, for those who are accustomed to counting calories or at least getting started, is relying on measuring dry goods like cereal or oats in a measuring cup as opposed to weighing the contents out on a kitchen scale and calculating the weight in grams or ounces. Leigh Peele does a great job explaining how easy it is to overshoot your targets by relying on measuring cups for oats and peanut butter in this video. Do yourself a favor and watch it. It just may change your life.
Another common issue I notice with regards to the food scale is when one is weighing out their dinner critter (meat). On various calorie-counting websites, you have the option of weighing your meat raw or cooked. I always advise folks to weigh their animals in the raw state before cooking. After cooking, the weight of said animal can change drastically due to water loss. Therefore it’s easy to overshoot or undershoot protein intake depending on your method of preparation.
The take-home message here is to be conscious of how you go about calculating your intake. It might take a little more time to weigh out your food but if your goal is fat loss, why take a chance of screwing up your deficit due to overshooting your intake? Why waste time only to get frustrated and discouraged? Do yourself a favor; pick up a kitchen scale and learn how to use it. If you need help and are afraid to ask anyone around you, give me a call.
Their Calorie Deficit Is Miscalculated
There’s a million ways to calculate your daily calorie needs, whether it’s a complicated equation in an outdated physiology book or a simple plug-in-your-stats calculator you find on the internet. Regardless of what you choose, you have to take into account your daily activity, exercise routine, body weight and previous habitual intake.
The most important part of calculating your calorie deficit is having a decent idea of what your maintenance intake is and then setting your calorie intake below what you’re burning daily.
The main reason people fail is because they miscalculate their expenditure. I’ve come across some absolutely ridiculous calorie estimators online. You plug in your stats and get your suggested numbers for losing, maintaining and gaining body weight. Some are so bad that the suggested intake for losing weight would make a sedentary person gain weight. This is where many people run into problems. They try to rely on a fancy algorithm or equations instead of monitoring their intake for a few weeks to establish their true maintenance intake.
Allow me to fill you in on a little secret. I won’t charge you $47 dollars and I’ll probably save you a lot of frustration over the long haul. Here it is. If you’re a desk jockey and sit on your rump a majority of the day, you sure as horse-feathers won’t require 18 calories per pound of body weight to maintain your weight, even if you’re training on the weights 3-4 times per week. However, there are some outliers but most folks who require such an intake are habitually fidgety, hyper and cannot stop moving. This is all thanks to the phenomenon known as NEAT.
If you’re not very active, it’s not unheard of for people having to consume 10-11 calories per pound to drop body fat at a reasonable pace. Depending on the situation, some even have to go a bit lower.
The take-home message here is to calculate your deficit in a realistic fashion as opposed to relying on shoddy calculators. A good estimate for maintenance is somewhere between 14-16 calories per pound for most individuals. Obviously the more active one is, the more calories they’ll require and vice versa.
People Make Subpar Food Choices
With regards to diet, especially in the health, fitness and bodybuilding world, there’s a general focus on healthy, whole foods. This is a good thing but it often gets confusing and skewed depending on how we approach these ideals.
Since I don’t give a rip about the concept of clean and unclean foods, I basically eat what I enjoy and what fills me up. A successful diet is the diet one can adhere to. I don’t care what you’re consuming; if you cannot adhere to the menu or guidelines, you will fail. Read that again. Seriously, go back and read it again – it’s bold for a reason.
Why are there so many diets suggesting an intake of foods such as nuts, nut butters, shakes and snack food like trail mix and other dried foods? How about the 100 calorie packets of Oreo’s or Chex Mix? The main reason is these foods, in general, are considered to be healthy. Just the other day, I saw a doctor on TV citing a paper discussing the benefits of eating walnuts a few times per week. Then I read an article discussing the convenience of dried fruit for a healthful snack when traveling.
The problem here is context. Sure, walnuts are great for you. Dried fruit and other trail mixes can be good for you, too. But what do they do for satiety purposes? Since when are a few tablespoons of peanut butter filling? How easy is it to suck down 8-10 tablespoons at once? That’s a whopping 800-1000 calories down your pie-hole in a matter of minutes. If this is at 10 a.m., you’re in trouble when your weight loss diet calls for 2000 calories and you already consumed half of them in the form of a nut butter.
While the intentions are good, a diet full of these foods are sure to leave you hungry. Being hungry is not fun and if you’re current intake is not giving you the satiety you desire, it’s time for a change. This is why I suggest a healthy dose of veggies, fruit, lean protein sources and whole foods to be a majority of one’s weight loss diet. If you’re into powders for convenience sake, milk protein isolate or complete milk dairy isolate* are decent in terms of satiety.
A Free Meal Becomes a Free Weekend
When a diet is planned to span for much longer than a few weeks, free meals are often included for multiple reasons. One is to provide a mental break from the stress that sometimes accompanies a rigid diet. Another reason is to keep the diet interesting if you like to stick with a certain menu for practical and planning purposes.
The problem I’ve seen and read about on many forums and in some of the comments on various blogs and websites is the loss of control that sometimes accompanies a free meal. This is normally dependent on the dieter and their general relationship with food. A person who etches their rigorous diet in stone and puts a strict guideline on foods that are okay for their diet and other foods that are off-limits will often be the ones who crash and burn.
When and if they actually plan a free meal or a refeed into their diet, it’s usually not often enough and when it occurs, they have no limits or guidelines to follow. They spent so much time figuring out exactly how their diet was going to operate that when it came time to program their free meals, they had no approach or methodological way of going about it.
Instead of a sensible idea, such as ordering a personal pan pizza from their favorite pizzeria, they decide to go to an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. Instead of preparing a solid meal at home, in which they can account for the ingredients used and make only enough for themselves, they decide to go out to a restaurant that serves huge portions on a night with one-dollar drafts of their favorite brew.
There’s nothing wrong with having a few beers or going to your favorite restaurant, but if ones diet is full of constant restriction – the kind of restriction that leaves you constantly thinking about a weekend full of booze or the eat-100-wings-and-they’re-free promotion at the local bar, screwing up your diet is inevitable.
These free meals, after weeks or months of rigid dieting, often turn into free days and sometimes free weekends. The typical thought process goes something like this: “okay, so I’ve just downed 5 beers and a plate full of lasagna; I might as well have that chocolate dessert and then go out for ice cream.”
Depending on how the person handles the situation, they either jump back on the bandwagon the next day or the gluttony continues. Such actions can be mitigated from being a little more relaxed on the diet and incorporating more frequent free meals or desired foods into the diet. When one practices such an approach, the desire to “cheat” or have an epic binge is not so strong and sometimes nonexistent.
Take-home message: When setting up a fat loss diet, especially if you have a considerable time-line (more than 4 weeks), make sure you spend time incorporating foods and free meals into your diet to maintain your sanity.
Knowing how to set up a diet in terms of reading labels, calculating your deficit, making smart food choices and maintaining a flexible approach with regards to your goals will take you further than you’d ever imagine. If fitness, strength training or bodybuilding is a part of your lifestyle, you owe it to yourself to ponder you current ideals, what you’ve done in the past and what your plans are to continue reaching your goals.
How about you? Have you experienced and/or learned from any of these situations?
*This is the first time I’ve tried Complete Milk Dairy Isolate – the taste is great as long as you get the premium flavors and the consistency is thick like MPI. Thanks to everyone who used my TrueProtein discount code JCD370 last month.