Not Just About Hitting Protein
Most self-appointed diet gurus and influencers are quick to offer out their own spin of the generic three-step plan to fat loss. Count your calories, get the protein in, and rack up a 10k step count.
Much of the time, it works, and for good reason. These are all absolutely valid strategies for inducing fat loss. Burn more energy than you absorb, and you lose weight. Take your daily protein, and you’re helping protect against muscle loss, which thereby encourages more fat loss.
But the three-step plan, as the ultimate exercise in simplicity, often misses the mark when the dieter attempts to go the distance. Stretched out over months, cracks start to appear. Muscle can be lost, and nutritional deficiencies and hormonal imbalances can be created.
All these unsavoury outcomes have the effect of making you hungry, tired, cranky, and a fair distance away from being able to perform at your best.
Fat loss is a relatively simple proposition that can be spun into motion by your average calories in vs calories out (CICO) plan. Long-term fat loss is far more challenging, and is a task seemingly beyond the majority of people above the poverty line. It has to be sustainable, and to do that, you shouldn’t be narrowing your sights on the mechanisms of fat loss. Make that just a happy side effect of creating a healthier mind and body.
I’m not putting the cheese on. That’s literally how this is meant to work.
By aiming to make fat loss optimal rather than passable, you’ll be able to sidestep many of the issues that still trip experienced dieters that are convinced that they’ve figured out the game. And to do that, you have to go better than basic. So by making a point to avoid the following pitfalls, you’ll be moving miles ahead of the pack.
1. Relying On Cardio
This is going to grind a few people’s gears, and that’s absolutely fine. The calories you burn through exercise play the slimmest of roles in forcing weight loss. And even then, any bonus calories get shaved down as the body gets accustomed to throwing its weight around.
As an example of this phenomenon, a study comparing Hadza hunter-gatherers to western office monkeys found no appreciable difference in metabolic rate. Despite the fact that one group performed considerably more activity.
In other words, solving the CICO formula by increasing the input is just not a great goose to be chasing. The body’s too smart for that, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the metabolism operates as a constrained model. You can’t get much leeway by pumping up the calorie burn. The metabolism can simply respond by cutting other costs and potentially jacking up hunger instead to maintain homeostasis.
Being active certainly helps in terms of promoting wellbeing and encouraging dietary adherence, but you can get there with ways that don’t involve the monotony and destructive potential of banging your heels down on a treadmill.
Weight training also burns calories, and yet it does so much more that leads directly into enabling more fat loss. Treat time like the fleeting commodity it is, and save it.
The Bottom Line – Cardio might help you burn more calories, but it’s marginal, and not going to amount to enough to force weight loss. There’s also evidence to suggest that the body adapts over time to mitigate the extra caloric burn. Lift some weights instead.
2. Not Doing Strength Training
While cardio doesn’t quite cut it, weight training is a slam dunk for fat loss. And by weight training, I don’t mean the plastic barbells you get to wield around in pump classes. Or the aimless shenanigans that TikTok lifters get up to on a daily basis. This is about lifting heavy, with the intent of lifting heavier.
If you’re still bent on upping your caloric burn, you’d be pleased to know that the heavier you lift, the more calories you use up. An 8 rep set of deadlifts at 175kg burns 25 calories. Double the weight, and you’ll double the burn.
That CICO nugget aside, focusing on progressive overload will allow you to maintain or gain muscle mass even as you lose weight, which translates nicely to more fat loss. Weight training by its glycolytic nature also shifts your metabolism further along the spectrum towards insulin resistance, which quells inflammation and allows lipolysis to continue unabated.
The act of burning off your glycogen reserves also dovetails nicely with ketosis, since ketones can’t exert their magical effects until liver glycogen is cleared out. So you’re basically getting fast tracked into ketosis. Which wouldn’t matter if you’re already on carnivore, but is ideal when you’re incorporating some form of carb cycling.
The psychological effect of having something with actual progression in place also can’t be discounted. Whereas cardio tends to come with a ceiling due to time constraints, strength training is a gift with the potential to keep on giving. As long as you’re smart enough to avoid the classic pitfalls.
The Bottom Line – Lifting heavy weights will allow you to safeguard muscle, enhance fat loss, and break you away from the monotonous grind of dieting and cardio.
3. More Reps, Less Rest
For some reason, it’s accepted as general wisdom that you need to announce your cut by taking your programme off the rails. Lower the weight, raise the reps, shorten the rest periods, and pump up the volume.
Which, if you’ve read the article on muscle building mistakes, you’ll realise is the exact opposite to what an optimal programme would be. And yet, I can see how lifters across the globe managed to arrive at the idea. They’re attempting to safeguard the muscle they have while creating extra fat loss.
Not that it makes them any less wrong.
1. They assume that volume causes growth – Which it doesn’t, since volume as the sum of weight x reps is completely meaningless, since it doesn’t calculate the hard reps that actually stimulate growth.
2. They put a premium on the glycolytic burn of high rep training – While I can see some merit to this, you can actually burn as many calories by just lifting more weight with less reps. So low volume training wouldn’t be much less glycolytic, and the difference isn’t worth sacrificing the intensity of your lifts.
The thing is, the optimal muscle building programme is inherently low volume, high intensity. It’s the last five reps from failure that cause growth, and keeping the rep range at around 5-8 will allow you to pocket those stimulating reps without incurring the fatigue of high volume training.
Fatigue that acts to diminish the efficacy of those stimulating reps by lowering the percentage of muscle fibers being recruited.
There aren’t any reasons for you to change your rep range or rest periods while transitioning from a bulking phase to a shred. The goals should still be the same. Maximise mechanical tension, and target progressive overload.
The Bottom Line – Low volume, high intensity, long rest periods for bulking. Low volume, high intensity, long rest periods for cutting. Don’t get cute.
4. Changing The Diet
Do you know why so many people fall into the same trap of reaching the end of a diet and seeing their weight skyrocket back up in record time? That’s because they have one set of foods they use for the off season, and another special set they deploy for the fat loss phase.
Out go the crisps, in comes the salad. In place of potatoes, it’s chicken breast. The saturday cheat day gets replaced with a 24 hour fast.
So even if they manage to successfully grind their way to the finish line using poverty foods, the apple cart gets thrown into the air once the destination is reached and those foods are deemed surplus to requirements.
There’s no rhyme or reason for this. Much like how low volume training is the optimal way to build muscle regardless of your calorie count, a diet of total nutrition and low inflammation remains the best way to further your aspirations. Whether that’s maintenance, muscle gain, or fat loss.
Here’s a thought. Instead of picking a drastically different diet as you begin the plunge, just stick to the same foods at the same mealtimes. You can lower calories by reducing portion sizes or lowering the fat to protein ratio. Your dietary habits wouldn’t change a bit, the apple cart would continue to stay its course, and you’ll stand a much better chance of holding onto your new body fat %.
The Bottom Line – Focus on nutrient dense foods for bulking, continue to eat those foods when cutting. Basically, just stick with steak.
5. Minimising Fat Sources
The classic bodybuilder diet of chicken breast, broccoli, and rice might have been battle tested over decades, but it’s a dreadfully dysfunctional way to go about it.
The thing is, carbs are an inessential macronutrient. The body can cope just fine without it. Protein is essential, but next to useless as an energy source, due to it having to be converted to glucose first.
Fats, on the other hand, are essential and a highly effective energy source. The body uses it to make up its cellular structure, synthesising hormones, and much more. Fats break down incredibly slowly, providing a sustained release of energy without the glorious highs and lows of carbs.
The Bottom Line – Assuming you don’t want to be walking around depressed, with no libido, no energy, and a whole lot of hanger, then you’re best off maintaining an adequate fat intake. Which, at the bare minimum, would be 0.8g/kg of bodyweight.
6. Not Minimising Carbs
So if you can’t switch to tuna, chicken breast, and ham, then how on earth do you lower those calories? Simple, by taking out the one inessential macronutrient. Here’s a fact. You can get by with zero carbs.
Any tissue that needs glucose can get it by metabolising fats, protein, and lactate. The rest can be at their optimal best on ketones and triglycerides. Which are basically broken down fats.
Speaking of ketones, that’s another great reason to take carbs out of the picture. As long as there’s plenty of glucose running through your bloodstream, ketones don’t get to exert their miraculous effects on satiety, energy, mood, and cognition.
Carbs themselves are a weak source of energy. They provide fleeting effects, and can destabilise your blood sugar levels, especially if you’re insulin resistant like the majority of the population. They also tend to come with a host of plant toxins, which have their own special ways of wrecking the system.
So if you’re hovering around 100-150 grams of carbs, you may as well just cut them out entirely. A low carb diet might be keeping you in energy purgatory. Not enough carbs, not enough ketones. Whereas a zero carb diet lets you harness the best powers of fats.
As long as you maintain that critical fat intake. Ditch the chicken breast dinners.
The Bottom Line – Carbs are inessential, and you’re better off without them. They’re the obvious target if you’re looking to slash your calories.
7. Opting For Aggressive Weight Loss
When you’re intent on castrating yourself and making life miserable by messing with the wrong macro, it’s tempting to just get the diet over and done with. Especially if you take particular satisfaction from watching the scale crater on a daily basis.
One pound a week might look like rookie numbers. So you rev the engine, drop the calories further, and set your sights on a brisky two.
Unfortunately, a sharp deficit opens you up for a world of hurt. You’re egging the body on to cannibalise its muscle tissue, and increasing the risk of developing nutrient deficiencies that can manifest in raised hunger levels, rampant inflammation, and scuttled hormones.
So not only does the tough get going, but you’re seriously increasing your chances of losing the muscle that you hopefully worked so hard to gain. This is why I’d always recommend trying to lose weight as slowly and steadily as possible.
Then you’re making sure you continue to provide the body with total nutrition, maintain your best intensities in the gym, and skirt past the usual metabolic perturbations that are part and parcel with aggressive cutting.
A good rule of thumb is to aim to lose 0.5% of your starting bodyweight every week. Which for 93kg me, works out nicely at around a pound a week.
The Bottom Line – Opting for fast weight loss will inevitably result in muscle loss, increased hunger, and imbalance hormones.
8. Relying On The Scale
Most people are still guilty of making the classic blunder of defining themselves by whatever number decides to flicker up on the scale. This screws you up on multiple counts.
A terrible reflection of actual fat loss – Adipose tissue is only one of many things that can jolt the scale in one direction or another. Muscle is an obvious one, and then there’s the fact that 55-60% of the body is water, which can be impacted by various inputs like stress, salt, and sugar.
Women have it particularly bad, because of the hormonal chaos that further screws up their fluid retention. The outcome being that there is that, even if fat loss was somehow linear, it wouldn’t show up as a straight descent on the scale.
The disconnect of outcome-based goals – Fixating on a target bodyweight actually leads to worse results and lower wellbeing. You’re effectively telling yourself that you won’t be content until you reach an arbitrary number that may end up being too soon or too late from the actual goal physique you have in your head.
The person who enjoys walking, will walk a lot further than the one who’s in it for the destination. A better strategy would be to focus on more immediate goals, such as getting PRs on your big lifts, or creating an optimal sleep routine. You can check on the scale periodically, along with measurements and pictures, to monitor progress and ensure you’re moving in the right direction.
The Bottom Line – The scale is a poor reflection of actual fat loss, and shouldn’t be used to judge your success on a diet. Use it as just one of many measurements to qualify your success.
9. Including Cheat Meals
The promise of a saturday night Chinese takeaway might be the only thing keeping you on the straight and narrow of your gruelling diet. And while that may be true, that’s more of an indicator that your diet just isn’t producing the goods.
However beautifully justified they might feel for those few tantalising minutes, cheat meals are an exercise in self-sabotage. You’re rewarding good behaviour with bad outcomes. Even if you manage to control the caloric splurge, that’s still flaring up your cravings, putting you back in a state of brain fog, and making the return to dieting that much harder.
Thankfully, this is a crisis with an easy alternative. You can still relax over the weekend, without the intention of distending your belly of all the forbidden foods you’ve been craving. Just bring your calories up to maintenance levels, and spice things up while still keeping seed oils and plant toxins to a minimum.
If you’re on carnivore, try different meats, cheeses, and even a few low toxicity carbohydrates.
In this fashion you’re providing some mental release, alleviating any strain on the metabolism, while continuing to keep inflammation down. It’s the perfect compromise.
The Bottom Line – Diets can be immense psychological tests, and adding cheat meals to the fray will only make things worse. Reward discipline with more healthy foods that further your goals, rather than the opposite.
The optimal fat loss programme isn’t a race to the bottom. It’s a steady descent that prioritises strength training and nutrient density. At the minimum, you hold onto the muscle you have. But if you’re a beginner, you should be aiming to accrue a few extra gains on the way down. In order to make that happen, the goal should be to lose weight while eating and lifting as much as you can.
Unless you’re trimming down to single digit body fat, there’s no reason you should have to grind your way to the finish line. Enjoy it for what it is, a wonderful time where you get to see your body change for the better, with each week.
So the solution isn’t to slash calories by half, add some salad to flesh out the plate, and throw in some fasted cardio. The solution is to eat plenty of steak, and take up some low volume, high intensity lifting. You’ll be breaking past the finish line and a canter, and standing a much better chance of not ballooning back up.
Weight loss is easy. Maintaining that weight loss is a challenge too great for most. But if you play your cards right by avoiding these classic trips, you’ll be a member of the lucky few.
In order to maximise your fat burning potential
- Keep your calories as high as you can while still losing weight
- Prioritise strength training
- Eat steak
- High fat, high protein, low to no carbs
- Don’t run