Calorie restriction is why you lose weight. Simple, right? You have to eat less than you expend in energy. Calories are energy units. Leftover calories get stored as fat. Boom.
Changing your behavior around food and movement is how you lose weight. It is a total lifestyle overhaul for someone who is overweight and wants to lose it permanently. That means it has to be realistic and sustainable—not a prison you can't wait to escape from. It also probably means that if you try and overhaul everything all at once, you'll feel really overwhelmed really fast and then quit. So, baby steps, angels.
Strength training builds muscle, so it can reshape your body. But all the strength-training in the world can't make up for a shitty diet, plus if you’re eating at a surplus, the muscular changes won’t show.
Let’s say we have a client, we’ll call her Lorraine. Lorraine is 45 years old, 5’5” and weighs 150. She’s looking to get to 125, which on her frame would seem about right, and not crazy magical thinking. Lorraine should be able to lose a pound a week, and 25 weeks is about six months. Slow and steady and realistic. She could speed it up by restricting more, but not so much that her body is like, I'm starving, let's eat! Then she would wind up right back where she started.
Lorraine will need to eat 1550 calories a day to lose fat, if she's moderately active, which I recommend choosing as your activity level when using online calorie calculators. This is the one I use, but there are tons all over the web.
From there, she wants to eat roughly a gram of protein per pound of her goal bodyweight, not exceeding 150. So she’ll aim for 125 grams of protein per day. A gram of protein has 4 calories. So that's 500 calories of protein. The rest of her calories will be distributed between the remaining two macronutrients, carbs and fat. I would say at this point, let those carbs and fats fall where they may and don't make a big deal out of it. As long as her food tastes good and she’s happy and getting her protein, it's cool. Lorraine has no plans to compete in a figure fitness show. She just wants to look lean and muscular, without becoming pathological about it.
The reason the protein requirement here is so much higher than the RDA is because the RDA recommends the lowest effective number for a non-athlete. Now that we’re training with weights though, we are building muscle, and muscle cannot be built without dietary protein.
When you strength train you damage muscle. When you rest the damage is repaired, resulting in increased strength and muscle size. Without adequate protein, your muscles don't have the resources they need to repair themselves and you get nowhere.
Practically speaking, protein is satisfying, so you can fill up faster on fewer calories.
What this all looks like meal-wise depends on how many meals Lorraine wants to eat per day—
Some people say you have to eat six small meals a day to keep your metabolism burning and build muscle. This has not been scientifically proven, thank God. Personally I think eating six small, unsatisfying meals a day is like sitting on the toilet to poo and then not pooing, plus you've got to make six frigging meals. Who has time for that? It's just not satisfying. But you have to do you.
Other people swear by intermittent fasting, where in its simplest form, you only eat in an eight hour window, usually from noon to 8PM. This works really well especially for men, and it works even better when you go low-carb, because you don't get drops in your blood sugar that make you hangry.
For now, let's be basic here and decide on three meals a day plus one late afternoon snack.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner would each equal roughly 416 calories, plus a 300 calorie snack. Protein-wise, that's 31 grams spread over 4 meals/snacks
If Lorraine likes the idea of intermittent fasting, then she can have two big meals—lunch and dinner. 775 calories each. A couple feasts! But that's A LOT of protein to pack in there. It's 62 grams of protein per meal. This is where protein shakes come in. This powder is my favorite (and no I am not sponsored or working for them.) It's relatively inexpensive as whey powders go, and it tastes really good.
So my question to Lorraine is, are you restricting your calories to 1550? If you say yes, how do you know? Are you tracking? If not, start. You can't guess. It's way too easy to rationalize. I mean you can go to bed hungry and that's a pretty good indicator that you're restricting, but you can't be sure. And I want you to think of yourself as your own science experiment. So download the myfitnesspal app and start tracking.
In terms of knowing how much protein is in your portion, you want a fist-sized amount of whatever you choose—diameter and thickness. Or you can buy a food scale and measure it. If that feels slightly obsessive and frightens you a little, use the fist method.
Good foods—a general list:
pork (not bacon, sausage, bologna)
whey protein powder
rice and other grains
crackers, cookies, cake—sugary treats made with white flour
crackers, chips, pretzels—salty crunchy treats made with white flour
soda, juice, sports drinks—sugar you don't need.
alcohol—where is the nutrition here? Nowhere. Plus it can destroy your focus and create binge eating situations that you later feel like a heap of shit for.
Mistakes people make:
1. Being good all week and then overdoing it on the weekend. 1550 calories a day = 10,850 a week. This is an important number. Lorraine needs to hit that weekly. Saturday binge-fests will put her over that number and then all the hard work she did over the week goes down the tubes.
2. Not tracking accurately. Take a look at the items you’re plugging in when using apps. I’ve seen a single egg come up with 120 grams of protein. If you can’t take the time to proofread your tracking, it probably means you’re not being careful enough in general with your diet. This reminds me—I once read that the French don’t call it dieting. They call it “paying attention.” So pay attention, son.
3. Believing that their exercise has burned more calories than it actually has, leading them to think that they "earned" a donut for example. The truth is that it takes you an hour to burn a donut and only 20 seconds to eat it back. This is why exercise is overrated when it comes to losing weight. That said, if you want to stick to your diet, it helps to train your body. The more committed you are to your strength program, the more likely you are to make food choices that support you rather than undermine you.
4. Freaking out after three or four weeks because big changes haven’t happened. A lot of the time you’ll feel like nothing is moving and then BOOM—a drop in scale weight. The worst thing you can do at this point is give up, start skipping workouts and begin overeating. Big changes take time. Let it be a process and don’t minimize the small changes that are happening—things like increased energy, sounder sleep, brighter mood, feeling stronger.
5. Making your meals so puny that you wind up scarfing snacks. When you make a meal, make sure it has that fist of protein, some good fat (think thumb-sized) and a whole hand of carbs. Don't have oatmeal and berries. Don't have bean soup. Don't have salad with no protein in it. Have a grown-up meal.
To sum up, diet is pretty much everything when it comes to weight loss. Strength-training, other than being simply awesome, is the most effective way to reshape your body—but only if your diet is aligned with your training.
Let me know if you have any questions.