If you clicked this blog post, you’ve most likely set the goal of trying to lose some fat this year. This is my goal for the new year as well. I’m trying to get under 10 percent body fat for the first time in a few years.
If you follow fitness content at all, you’ve probably heard that most diets fail over the long term. In this case, what you’ve heard is true.
Consider a study on The Biggest Loser contest where researchers checked in on the participants from the 2009 show, six years after the show was over. Out of the 14 people who participated in the study, only one person had kept their weight off after six years. Five of the 14 subjects had regained all of their weight back and two of the 14 ended up weighing more than they did before the show even started. This means that half the subjects had at least gained all their weight back.
Similarly, a 2020 systematic review on the challenge of keeping weight off found that while all participants in each of the eight studies were able to induce weight loss during the dieting period, they all saw weight regain after the diet was over. As in the Biggest Loser contest, a few studies showed some participants having overshot beyond the original starting weight.
I think a large part of why this trend is so common is that people often don’t realize that getting lean for a temporary time frame, like a fitness event, a wedding, or a photo shoot is a different goal with a different set of strategies than getting lean and staying lean over the long term.
Before we get into those strategies, to get everyone on the same page, give me one minute to explain how fat loss actually works.
Simply put, fat loss occurs because of a CALORIE DEFICIT.
A calorie deficit means that you’re consuming less calories than you’re burning. Although there’s only one way to gain calories (by eating food), you burn calories in four ways:
1. Resting Energy Expenditure
Your body burns many calories even though you may be just sitting or lying there. Even without moving, your body needs a certain amount of calories for living requirements such as keeping your heart beating, breathing, maintaining hormone levels, and growing and repairing cells. Most people are surprised to learn that REE typically accounts for around 70 percent of their total daily burn.
2. Exercise Activity Thermogenesis
Calories are needed for exercise. However, exercise burns less calories than most people expect, typically contributing 5-10 percent of the daily total burn, depending on just how much one exercises.
3. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis or NEAT
Calories are required for movements and activities that aren't exercise. This component typically falls somewhere around 15 percent of the daily total burn, but can be significantly higher or lower depending on your lifestyle, level of activity, and even your “fidgetiness”.
4. Thermic Effect of Food
Chewing, digesting, and utilizing the food you eat burns about 5 percent of your daily total calories. Your body burns a relatively small number of calories every time you eat something, but the thermic effect varies between specific foods. Generally speaking, protein has the highest thermic effect and fats have the lowest thermic effect, with carbohydrates in the middle. There are no known foods that have a TEF so high that it takes more energy to consume them than they contain. As such, there is no strong evidence that “negative calorie” foods exist.
As another example, instead of 3,000 calories, let’s say that you only ate 2,000 calories. Here, you ran a 500-calorie deficit for the day. That is, your body burned 500 more calories than you ate. If you sustained that 500-calorie deficit over time, you’d lose about one pound per week, which is actually a reasonable target for most people to aim for.
As you can see, that’s all pretty simple. However, there's a very important part that many people miss. It’s important to realize that as you lose weight, the number of calories you burn will decrease. This is called METABOLIC ADAPTATION.
- As you lose weight, you won’t burn as many calories through ‘resting energy expenditure’ because your body is getting smaller.
- Likewise, you won’t burn as many calories per unit of exercise because your body is becoming more energetically efficient.
- Thirdly, you won’t burn as many calories through ‘NEAT’ because your body is becoming less hyperactive and less fidgety.
- In addition, you won’t burn as many calories through the ‘thermic effect of food’ because you’re eating less food.
Keep in mind that in the scenario where you initially ran a 500-calorie deficit, you likely won’t have a 500-calorie deficit after a few weeks or months of dieting. Again, that’s because when you decrease the number of calories you’re eating, you also indirectly decrease the number of calories you’re burning. Sometimes, these adaptations can happen very quickly; even within days.
To account for Metabolic Adaptation, which will occur, you may need to lower calories a bit further to keep up with your desired rate of weight loss. Of course, you can simply accept the fact that your weight loss may take a bit longer than expected.
In order for any fat-loss diet to work, it needs to have three crucial things:
- A sustained CALORIC DEFICIT to cause fat loss;
- WEIGHT TRAINING to support muscle mass; and
- ENOUGH PROTEIN to support muscle mass
Usually, 1.6 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.7 to 1 gram per pound is a good target to aim for. Virtually everything else, including the number of meals you eat, the timing of those meals, and what specific foods you focus on can be largely dictated by your own individual preferences.
Those are the basics for how you lose fat.
From here, most people turn to short-term strategies to try to get that fat off as quickly as possible; but this is a mistake. Yes, all the most popular fad diets will cause fat loss in the short term (that’s what actually caused them to become so popular in the first place), but low-calorie crash diets tend to result in more muscle loss and eventual weight gain.
Although it may be true that isolating yourself from social events and avoiding restaurants may help you fend off tempting foods for some time, it can also deteriorate your relationships and eventually make the diet feel unsustainable. Also, it’s worth considering that cutting out entire food groups may help you avoid overeating for a while, but can eventually lead to nutrient deficiencies and uncontrollable cravings that make weight regain inevitable.
It seems obvious that if you want to not just get lean, but stay lean, you need to take a better approach.
Let’s dig into three specific strategies that’ll help you not only lose the fat, but keep it off over the long term.
DIET MORE SLOWLY so that it barely even feels like you’re dieting at all.
The general science-based cutting rule is that during a fat-loss phase, you should aim to lose around 0.5 to 1 percent of your body weight per week,
Although this is what I typically recommend, there may be some benefits to going even slower. In fact, on my own current weight loss journey, I’ve lost 24 pounds (11 kilograms) and that journey has taken me 40 weeks or just about nine months. I started my cut at 187 pounds (85 kilograms) and now I’m down to 163 pounds (74 kilograms). That evens out to an average weight loss of just over half a pound per week. Because I’ve taken my sweet time with it, the weight loss itself has felt incredibly easy. In fact, it’s been ridiculously easy. I’ve been eating out at restaurants, enjoying a sweet treat from time to time, and going out with friends for pizza and sushi. The slower pace of things has helped me be very chill about my diet.
In the graph above, you can see a few times where my weight spiked noticeably. The first spike was in the middle of August when some friends came to visit Stephanie in Toronto. We were eating out almost every night and I gained two or three pounds that week. However, when I look back, it’s really just a tiny blip in the overall trend. This other spike lasted for most of November. I gained four pounds that month while I was visiting Steph in New Orleans. It was during Thanksgiving and again, it’s not a big deal at all when you zoom out and look at the overall trend.
I think this mindset is not only okay, but actually smarter because it’ll help you not only be chill throughout the diet process, but it’ll also help you stay chill once you get to your goal weight. By going slowly, you won’t feel deprived or eager to get off the diet because you won’t feel like you’ve been dieting very hard all along. This will help you maintain the leanness you eventually reach much more easily and I think it’ll be worth that extra bit of time it takes for you to get there.
To ensure that you’re losing around that ideal rate of 0.5 to 1 percent of weight per week then, I’d recommend a caloric deficit around 20 percent below your current maintenance. To do this, simply take the calories you need to maintain your weight right now and slash 20 percent from it.
How to find MAINTENANCE CALORIES
Method 1 (Faster)
- Multiply your weight (in lbs) by 14-18.
- If you are more active, you may be closer to bw x 18 (or higher).
- If you are less active, be closer to bw x 14 (or lower).
- If you aren’t sure, bw x 16 is usually reasonably accurate.
Method 2 (Slower)
- guess-and -check: Track your body weight and caloric intake for two weeks. Calculate your average weight and average calories for Week 1 and Week 2. Determine the average weight gained or lost from Week 1 to Week 2.
- Find your maintenance based on the weight change. If you maintain your weight, your average calorie is your estimated maintenance.
- If you lost 0.5-1 pounds, your maintenance will be roughly 200-500 calories above your average calories.
- If you gained 0.5-1 pounds, your maintenance will be roughly 200-500 calories below your average calories.
- Continue to guess-and-check for a few weeks until you find the intake at which you maintain your weight.
If you don’t want to track calories at all, you can instead focus on tracking your body weight while making intuitive, common sense lower-calorie food choices most of the time. For some people, those simple common sense choices will be enough to get things moving. For others, a tool like intermittent fasting can be very helpful, or if you’re like me, to relieve tracking stress, you can just loosely track calories and protein without worrying about the carb and fat numbers.
For example, if I’m eating something that’s harder to find the exact macros for, like a specialty sushi roll, I can just eyeball it as 500-600 calories and call it a day. This way, it only takes me a total of maybe five minutes a day to track what I eat.
I should also mention that in addition to giving yourself plenty of time to get lean, you also need to give yourself a realistic end target. No matter how slowly you go, you simply can’t expect to maintain six percent body fat all year round. At a certain point, your sleep, libido, energy, and mood will all plummet and all you’ll ever be able to think about is food. So, even if you could do it, this isn’t a state of existence worth maintaining anyhow.
Generally speaking, most men can expect to maintain something between 10% and 20% body fat. My photos below illustrate something of how this will look. Granted, I do think that your starting place can impact where you end up.
For example, if you’ve been sitting at 40 percent body fat for 10 years, it might be harder for you to maintain 20 percent body fat than it is for someone who’s genetically leaner to maintain 8 percent body fat. You simply need to find an endpoint that’s realistic for you and realize that everyone is unique in terms of how low they can comfortably go. Someone else’s eight percent might be your 18 percent, and that’s okay.
For women, the realistic range tends to be between 18% and 28% body fat, which looks something like this.
If you’re trying to maintain a physique that’s leaner than your genetic body fat ‘set range’, it’ll be very hard for you to sustain it, even if you do everything else right.
LEVERAGE HABITS to make the diet feel as easy as possible
Regardless of how motivated you feel right now, eventually, your motivation will take a dip. When that happens - and it will happen - if you haven’t built the right habits, you’ll most likely start veering off track. However, if you can operate on autopilot, you’ve got nothing to worry about when your motivation wanes.
Here are my favorite SCIENCE-BASED HABIT-BUILDING TECHNIQUES that you can use to make your life a whole lot easier in those later stages when most people slip up.
Bundling refers to pairing an activity that you already want to do with an activity that supports your weight loss goal. For example, I really enjoy watching True Crime video essays on YouTube. This behavior comes naturally for me, but I don’t love doing cardio and thereby, I’m often tempted to skip it. However, if I link the more enjoyable activity of watching crime videos with the less enjoyable activity of doing cardio, I’m much less tempted to skip the cardio. Some of my bodybuilder friends do this by playing video games while hitting their cardio at home. As another example, if you’re trying to build the habit of meal prepping on Sunday, try saving your favorite podcast for when it’s time to do your meal prep. That way you’ll make that new behavior more gratifying in the moment.
ALIGN YOUR ENVIRONMENT WITH YOUR GOALS
An often underutilized strategy for making your actions more automatic and less dependent on motivation is to make modifications to your everyday environment. Your surroundings can play a massive role in how likely or unlikely you are to follow through with a desired behavior over time, so why not spend some time modifying your current environment so that it is more in line with your goals.
Here are a few examples of simple modifications you can make to your home environment to make your nutrition habits easier to stick to:
- If there’s a particular food that you regularly overeat, modify your cupboard to place it somewhere out of sight, or just don’t keep it regularly stocked in your cupboard.
- If you find the time that it takes to cook healthy meals overwhelming, you can make Sundays your meal prep day so that your fridge is always ready to go, ahead of time. If you have the means to do so, you can make things even easier by using a pre-prepared meal delivery service.
- If you stress-eat at night, try to give yourself easy access to alternative stress relievers, such as enjoyable video games, books, or puzzles.
At this point, I’m certain that if you do even most of what I’ve said so far, YOU WILL REACH YOUR GOAL. You absolutely will.
However, that’s not the end. Once you’ve reached your goal, you need a plan for what to do next. This third strategy on my list is the most frequently neglected, in my experience, but also probably the most important.
HAVE A SMART POST-DIET PLAN
There are two very common mistakes that I see people make after reaching their fat loss goal.
- Many people don’t have any post-diet plan at all. In this case, as motivation decreases, they revert back to their old eating habits and gradually creep up in weight until eventually, they’re back to square one. The solution here is very simple. You simply need a post-diet plan.
- At the end of the diet, over the course of several weeks, it’s common to gradually increase your calories from your deficit intake, up to your maintenance intake. Known as reverse dieting, the practice can be as bad as the first mistake, if it drags out the diet unnecessarily. Too often, meticulous reverse dieting keeps you hungry for longer than you need to be and leads to an eventual breakdown of willpower.
Even though it’s quite popular, I don’t actually recommend it as part of a post-diet plan. Instead, I recommend going to your new maintenance calories right away. If you no longer have the goal of losing weight, why be in a caloric deficit? If you’re not cutting anymore, you should get to maintenance and get on with your new goal of maintaining.
Finding your new maintenance calories at the end of a diet can take a bit of trial and error, but for the most part, should be something around 200 to 600 calories above what you were eating at the end of your cut.
To illustrate, let’s say you’re eating 2,000 calories by the end of your diet. The very next day, you should boost your calories up to 2,200 to 2,600 calories. I’d suggest going closer to 2,600 if you didn’t crash diet. From there, you should aim to gradually increase your calories until you get them as high as possible, while still maintaining your body weight on average.
Continuing with this example, let’s say your cut is over and you go ahead and bump your calories up to your new maintenance intake of 2,600 calories. That’s a great start, but it doesn’t mean that 2,600 calories is now a fixed maintenance for you. You should instead think of your maintenance as a dynamic range. This means that you might be able to maintain your weight by eating anything from 2,600 to 3,000 calories. Over time, you should try to increase your calories toward the top end of your maintenance calorie range.
This process doesn’t need to be long and dragged out. Simply monitor your average weight trend from week to week and if you’re still more or less maintaining, it may be time to add some calories. This is a good idea, not because it’s a special trick for boosting your metabolism, but rather because if you can eat more food, you’ll feel less restricted, which will make it easier for you to maintain your weight. More food also improves training performance, and this is always a good thing, especially if you’re looking to enter a lean-gaining phase after your cut.
If you don’t like to track calories, you should still continue to track your body weight once your cut is over. Regular weighing has been associated with better long-term weight maintenance in the scientific literature and that behavior alone will help keep you accountable to your new goal of maintaining.
This doesn’t mean you need to weigh yourself every day, but I usually do recommend weighing yourself at least two or three days a week during a maintenance phase, as long as doing so doesn’t give you any emotional stress.
I’d like to take a minute to recommend the MacroFactor app. It’s another tool that you can use to help you reach your fat loss goals. I’m a part owner of the app and have been involved in the app’s development since day one. I truly believe it’s the best nutrition app on the market.
First of all, unlike most diet apps, it isn’t just a food logger. It’s quite literally a nutrition coach that uses science-based algorithms to detect changes in your metabolism and make adjustments to your food intake, based only on your individual weekly check-ins. This is insanely helpful for accountability.
Also, unlike most apps, MacroFactor was designed with both weight loss and weight maintenance in mind. In fact, after you’ve reached your weight loss goal, there’s something called Dynamic Maintenance Mode that‘ll help you keep your weight within plus or minus two pounds of your end weight. This is a huge feature that I haven’t seen any other diet apps use.
It also has the fastest food logger in existence, which means tracking shouldn’t feel like a chore. Of course, like any new piece of technology, it may take a few days to get the hang of it. Unlike any other apps I’m aware of, it also doesn’t punish you if you miss a day here and there. So, you can be more chill about your diet overall.
If this sounds like something you’d like to try out for yourself, you can get a free 2-week trial of MacroFactor at the link below.
There’s also a very active Facebook group and subreddit that I keep an eye on. There, you can ask questions or post updates. I find these communities are really helpful for accountability. If you do sign up, make sure you get in there as well.
A summed-up video of this blog is also available on my YouTube channel below.
How To Get Lean & STAY Lean Forever (Using Science)
That’s it for this one, guys. Thank you so much! I’ll see you guys all here for the next blog.
Biggest Loser Study:
Weight Loss Maintenance Paper: