The confusion and misconception surrounding the diet industry is truly astonishing. There are plenty of schools of thought that preach various ways of eating. At times, it can be hard to sort out fact from fiction.
Here’s the truth: You do not need to starve yourself and then slave away at the gym. Even though reaching rapid weight loss goals might sound appealing, after a period of time you can wind up feeling depressed, tired, and unmotivated. No wonder so many people fail! But it doesn’t have to be this way.
If your goal is to make long-term changes to your body composition, then yes, you need to accept the principle that unless you have some type of medical condition affecting your metabolism, you need to use more calories than you get from your food. This is called a caloric deficit. It’s real, it works, and science has backed it up forever.
But losing body fat doesn’t have to be severe dietary restrictions and starvation. If you understand your caloric needs, make smart nutritional choices, adopt healthy eating habits, and incorporate enough exercise, you can still eat the foods you like, and make long-term improvements to your body composition.
When it comes to dieting, the name of the game is balance, not banning. Having all of the necessary information to make smart and informative choices for your body is the most effective (and the most valuable) way to go about changing your eating habits. It’s only then that we can see sustainable change, making diets our friends, not our foes.
Why You Can’t Just Exercise More
Let’s just get this out of the way; you can’t just move more and eat whatever you want if you are serious about losing excess fat. When people think about fat loss or leaning out, diet and exercise are both important parts of the formula. Yet if you have to choose one weight-loss method over the other, study after study has shown that being mindful of your diet— both in quality and quantity— outweighs exercise when it comes to achieving or even maintaining body composition changes (this doesn’t mean you should neglect exercise because regular exercise is a very important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle).
For instance, a meta-analysis evaluating the effects of diet, exercise, or a combination of both revealed that although long-term success was greatest in the combined programs, diet-only interventions, as opposed to exercise-only interventions, achieved similar results in the short-term. Another systematic review showed that diet is moderately superior to exercise for creating changes in body composition.
In a nutshell, you can exercise like crazy, but if you have unhealthy eating habits or you have trouble sticking to a diet, you are only setting up yourself for failure. That’s why it’s key to understand the fundamentals of dieting like calorie counting and food choices.
Understanding Calories and BMR
Ask anyone about calories and you’d probably hear any of the following:
- Low-calorie diets are the holy grail of weight loss. It worked for me!
- A co-worker eats twice as much as me, has never exercised his whole life, but has barely gained weight. Life’s so unfair!
- Calorie counting is useless, so I stopped using calorie-tracking apps.
- I focus on the ingredients rather than obsess over my calorie target.
Baffled with these contradictory statements?
You’re not alone, even acclaimed nutritionist Marion Nestle admits that understanding calories can be complicated. But this whole calorie confusion should not stop you from learning what you can do to become a healthier, better version of yourself.
To start, it’s important to understand what a calorie actually means in terms of your body. A calorie refers to the energy that your body needs to perform vital bodily processes and functions, whether voluntary or not. The operative word here is energy.
Whether you’ve been dozing off for hours or trekking the Himalayas, you are constantly using energy. This process is called your basal metabolic rate (BMR) or metabolism in general. Your BMR is the amount of calories that your body burns–from your heart to your kidneys to your leg muscles–within 24 hours, even if you’re at rest. On the most fundamental level, it’s a simple case of calories in, calories out. In fact, public health authorities make recommendations based on this premise too. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you burn more calories than you take in to successfully lose body weight. In order to shed at least 1 to 2 pounds per week, they further suggested a reduction of caloric intake by 500—1000 calories per day.
As with most things, it’s important to find the version that works best for you and your body. Beginning your next diet requires taking a close look at the caloric deficit that works for you, not for someone else.
How to Choose a Caloric Deficit That Works For You
There are two ways to create a caloric deficit: cutting calories from your meals and increasing your activity level.
Calculate the number of calories your body burns at rest, also known as your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Online calculators exist that will estimate this for you, and some methods of body composition analysis can also estimate your BMR.
Take your BMR and multiply it by 1.2 (this being the conversion rate for a sedentary person. If you have an active job or already exercise and are maintaining your weight, you’ll multiply it by a higher factor). For example, let’s say your BMR is 1631 calories; a rough estimate of your total caloric needs would be around 2,000 calories to maintain weight. Shave off 500 calories for the caloric deficit, and the caloric balance each day to lose a pound of body fat per week will be around 1,500 calories a day.
Now here’s the part where you get to make a decision by choosing a calorie-reducing strategy that works for you. How will you create this 500-calorie reduction?
For example, if you already feel like you are eating very little, cutting 500 calories from your meal plan might be extremely difficult for you. You can make up the bulk of your caloric reduction by increasing the energy you expend throughout the day.
You could also go the alternate route. If you think you can get the bulk of your calories from your meal plan without a small increase in the exercise you already do, that’s also an option.
Counting calories is a good way to change your behavior towards food. When you track what you eat, it promotes mindfulness of your dietary habits–not just in how much you’ve just eaten, but also in what you just ate. Take food diaries for instance. A systematic review of studies on the subject revealed that there is indeed a significant association between self-monitoring and weight loss. Given these facts and research findings, the three biggest takeaways are:
- Stop nitpicking on whether it’s the quality or quantity of calories that matter. Take small steps by saying no to second portions during dinner, or opting for a banana instead of a cookie.
- If possible, always opt for the less processed choice. Processed foods take much fewer calories to digest than their unprocessed counterparts. This leads your body to store the excess as fat.
- Try to pair carbs with protein and fat in every meal. Meals high in nutrients like protein and fiber are generally more filling, leading you to feel more full on fewer calories.
A Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning
Prep Your Way to Success
If you want to eat less and change the way you eat, change up your approach. Meal prepping is a healthy habit that many individuals have had success with because it helps you achieve sustainable outcomes in your weight loss or body recomposition efforts.
Every meal plan will vary from one individual to another. First, people have different health goals. Second, some folks will have a different approach to their diet choices. For instance, you might want to go low-carb and choose the ketogenic route, but not everyone can do this diet. Some folks are comfortable planning a week in advance and freezing neatly-labeled plastic containers every Sunday night. Others wing it every two or three days by grocery shopping for produce in the middle of the week besides their weekend market trips.
Regardless of goals and dietary or fitness preferences in improving body composition, a workable meal plan system is a must. The ultimate goal is to avoid feeling frazzled the next time you have to think about your next meal and having to resort to a goal-busting junk meal (here’s looking at you, freezer pizza).
To help you steer clear from unhealthy food choices and achieve healthy body composition goals, let’s get the ball rolling with these actionable, real-world tips in creating and sticking to a meal plan for the long haul.
1. Have a well-stocked pantry.
Sticking to a meal plan for the long haul can be made easier with a well-stocked pantry. Make sure you keep a list of essential groceries whenever you go to the supermarket, to make sure you never run out.
This list of staples may include eggs, your favorite protein, whole grains, yogurt, healthy oils, herbs and spices, butter, leafy greens, and a can of black beans. Having these ingredients on hand means you can quickly whip up a simple well-balanced meal when you’re short on time.
2. Pick a day to cook up a batch or prep certain meal components.
For many meal preppers, the weekend is when the action happens. Mornings are for grocery shopping while afternoons are dedicated to prepping and/or batch cooking.
When it comes to batch cooking, you can prep and batch cook some components. For example, your roasted chicken on Sunday can be cut up and used for sandwiches on Monday and pasta on Tuesday. As you cook up batches (or double batches if you like), the freezer will be your new best friend. There’s no use calling it a meal plan if you have to start a recipe from scratch every night.
3. Be realistic and make room for wildcard days.
There are seven days in a week but you don’t have to come up with a seven-day weekly meal plan. Remember to change up your routine so you don’t get bored.
Before you plan and prep for a week’s worth of meals, double-check your social calendar. If nothing’s set in stone, give yourself some slack (say one or two lunches or dinners in a week) just in case something comes up at the last minute. If you’re into batch cooking, you can even schedule days for leftovers for that little extra bit of flexibility.
4. Embrace meal formulas rather than recipes.
Starch+protein+fat+vegetables is a good example of a meal plan formula (Feel free to cross out a component depending on your dietary needs and preferences, but remember not to cut out those healthy fats). By embracing meal formulas instead of sticking stubbornly to pre-made recipes, you don’t have to scroll through Pinterest for hours if you’re feeling uninspired when creating a meal plan. The key is to be mindful that whatever formula you use, there are different food groups that fit your needs (plenty of protein and healthy fats are essential for workout recovery). It’s important to change up your food choices for both nutritional reasons and to prevent boredom. Just because you are meal prepping, doesn’t mean you need to cut out variety.
Once you’ve figured out the number of meals you’re prepping for, coming up with meals will be an effortless system. It also makes for smooth-sailing ingredient shopping because you’re shopping by food group and not by food items for a specific recipe.
3 Common Diet Mistakes
The (Typical) Don’ts of Dieting
That sense of finally moving in the right direction…it can be pretty exciting.
It’s no secret that making healthy choices about the quality and quantity of the food you eat is a huge part of becoming a healthier version of yourself. But the reality is the actual long-term success rate of diets is dismal. Sometimes people dive into their diets only to give up on them within weeks. What’s worse, studies have shown that only 1 in 5 people are successful at keeping the weight off in the long run. That means 80% of people fail to achieve their health goals. Is it due to a lack of discipline? No!
A lot of people are making mistakes, and without proper guidance and education, chances are you too may end your fitness journey frustrated. Let’s take a look at the most common reasons that diets fail and explore strategies to help you push through those barriers and get closer to becoming a happier, healthier you.
One: Poorly Defined Goals
Having a dietary plan in place is a great place to start–as long as you have realistic expectations and clear goals. Now, before we dive into this, let’s get one thing out of the way: ideally, health and wellness is a journey, not a destination. The pursuit of a healthier mind and body is something that never truly ends and should simply become a way of life.
But…embracing that way of life isn’t easy. And expecting someone who’s never had to worry about nutrition or training regimen to become a health nut overnight is unrealistic. That very mentality is the foundation for why so many diets fail.
The average first-time dieter is going to be looking at an uphill battle. Yes, they’ll have to combat all of their old habits and temptations. And sure, making a health-oriented lifestyle second nature is a tall order. But if we really want to know what really ruins people’s efforts, we need to take a look at the glaring flaw in most nutrition plans: the lack of clearly defined goals.
It may sound obvious, but many people begin fitness journeys with only the vaguest of goals, which sets them up for potential failure, especially in the long-term.
Clearly Define Success
If you ask the first-time dieter, they might say that they want to lose 20-30 pounds or ‘look good in a swimsuit’ in 30 days. Setting these types of goals are a common mistake. Most people typically don’t have reasonable expectations on how long it will take to make substantial changes. By setting unrealistic, vague goals you are setting yourself up to fail. If you want to ensure your success, you need to understand not only where you stand right now in terms of body composition, but where you want your body composition to be in the future..
Once you understand how much Lean Body Mass and Fat Mass you have, you’ll be in a better position to tackle the next important question: which do you want to address first?
Your body will have a unique response to different programs. Whether you decide to focus on fat loss first or developing Lean Body Mass, the key is that you create a goal-oriented plan that can keep you on track.
Additionally, dieting is more than just figuring out what you should be eating. The ideal diet has to be paired with a series of realistic, achievable goals that you can measure. What gets measured gets managed, and vague goals are the bane of any successful training plan. The more well-defined your goal is, the easier this journey will be for you.
So now that you’re tracking your body composition, you’ve clearly defined a goal and you’ve chosen an approach. These are all powerful concepts, but the glue that will hold them together is the use of milestones to reach that goal.
Milestones matter because they help you celebrate small successes on your fitness journey. They’re the answer to the question of ‘how do I keep myself on track for the next 3 months?’ When you create a list of milestones, you’ll have built a roadmap for your fitness journey. Once you understand what your goal looks like, each milestone can be used to keep you charging in the right direction. Beyond that, they give you the opportunity to make health and wellness second nature over time.
What do realistic milestones look like, from a body compositional standpoint? These will vary for everyone, but generally speaking, someone who creates a caloric deficit of 500 calories per day (a 3,500 calorie weekly deficit) stands to lose 1 pound of body fat per week, or 4 pounds a month if the diet is “perfect” all month.
It gets trickier to set muscle milestones because there are so many factors that contribute to effective muscle gain. However, assuming you’re new to muscle-building, one realistic estimate is that you can add about two pounds of muscle per month, with this number decreasing over time as you continue to lift.
If you really want to make being healthy a habit, create a series of milestones and you’ll have more than the undeniable proof that what you’re doing just isn’t working–you’ll be on your way to making health a priority in your life.
Two: The Expectation of Perfection
By nature, diets tend to be restrictive. In fact, most diets are designed with the intent of planning out each of your meals for you. Meal planning can help. The idea is that by erasing the need to think about what your next meal will look like, you’re more likely to make the right choice and stick to your diet.
Of course, that works perfectly well on paper. But in the real world, it’s hard to be perfectly consistent. The reality is mistakes will be made, and that’s okay. The issue here is that many people tend to fall into the trap of saying “well, I already messed up lunch. I’ll just make today a cheat day and start again tomorrow.”
Unfortunately, a cheat day can quickly turn into a cheat week and slowly but surely, people are completely off track. Think of this as the ‘New Year’s Resolution Effect’. Trying to take on too much, too soon is tough enough, but expecting everything to go perfectly according to plan can be a recipe for disaster.
This expectation of perfection is more than just unrealistic. It has the potential to undermine the average person’s health journey and, worse, make them think that they’re incapable of dieting properly.
So, how do you avoid this dieting trap? Simple: stop expecting perfection.
To clarify, if you want to have a successful diet, stick to the script as best you can. But the occasional cheat day won’t undo weeks or months of training and dieting. You need to be willing to forgive yourself for any mistakes that you make along the way.
Just remember that moderation is key here. A cheat day once a month is one thing, but a cheat weekend can get out of control quickly. Once that cheat day is over, you need to be ready to tackle tomorrow with the same intensity as before.
Three: An Imbalanced Approach
This is arguably the easiest mistake to make when it comes to your health and wellness journey. And the worst part? This issue might seem minor, but it can have a massive impact on your results. So, what is this mysterious issue we keep alluding to? Imbalance.
One of the most common issues that you’ll notice with a person just getting started on their fitness journey (and even seasoned veterans) is a lack of balance between diet and exercise when it comes to their approach.
Some people are guilty of making their diet a priority and neglecting their physical training. Others are guilty of putting all the focus on their physical training without paying too much attention to the quality of their diet. No matter which side of the imbalance an individual is on, that person’s results and progress will suffer.
Without proper training, expecting your body to increase lean body mass and decrease fat mass by itself is wishful thinking, at best. Study after study has shown that the most effective way to help your body build lean mass and lose fat mass is through a regularly implemented strength training regimen AND an optimized diet.
For those of you who think they can just start some type of exercise plan and see results, think again. If you want to hit those milestones that you’ve planned out and actually improve your body composition, you’ll need to have a diet that allows you to improve it. Specifically, you need to be following a diet that falls in line with your current body composition and body composition goals. How can you do that?
Are you trying to optimize your diet for weight loss? Then you’ll need a caloric deficit. Trying to gain Lean Body Mass? You’ll need to go beyond your typical caloric needs. Knowing your body composition and having a clearly defined goal means that you can use tools like BMR diet-hacking to get results sooner and more consistently than ever before.
Keep in mind that building new habits and improving your health is not going to be simple. Even if you’re able to take these lessons to heart and overcome these three common obstacles, you’ll still face unexpected difficulties. Dieting, training, and the overall journey towards becoming healthier will almost certainly be a challenging experience. But if you’re ever in a tough spot, keep in mind the overall theme of these solutions.
The tangible solutions of creating milestones, discarding the expectation of perfection, and having a balanced approach to your diet and training all have one thing in common: They’re built on the understanding that, at the end of the day, you’re a human being.
People make mistakes and poor choices. And change is anything but easy. Accepting how hard this journey is going to be is the first step to actually completing it. The second step? Realizing that you can do this if you set yourself up for success and arm yourself with the knowledge to reach your goals.
Your Next Steps
Whether you’re starting to track your daily caloric intake or focusing on the quality of food you consume, figuring out if any of these steps work for you is incredibly important.
A good way to track progress is to measure body composition regularly. There are several ways to do this, and it has been repeatedly proven that body composition is more reliable than BMI to gauge body fat percentage and your overall health.
Body composition analysis can also help you create a calorie target by measuring your BMR (as mentioned earlier) and TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure). Your TDEE is the total amount of calories you burn in a day while your BMR is the number of calories that your body requires to maintain its bodily functions.
If you decide calorie counting is right for you, be sure to pair it with portion control and regular physical activity as part of a successful long term strategy toward a healthy lifestyle. However, if calorie counting is not right for you, there are plenty of healthy and successful ways to alter your eating habits.
Making healthy changes in our day to day life is something that can actually be enjoyable, not feared, especially when it comes to dieting. Instead of dread, focus your energy on finding a personalized plan that works best for your body. Getting control over your daily intake can help you create balance and, eventually, produce desired results.