Food is not the enemy: Create a fat loss eating plan you ENJOY.
Putting together a fat loss eating plan can seem like a lot of work.
There’s SO much information out there- carbs are bad, carbs are good, eat more protein, don’t eat too much fat, fats keep us satisfied, saturated fats are going to stop your heart tomorrow, etc.- that it can feel overwhelming and like anything we put in our mouths is going to sabotage us.
Food is not the enemy.
We can create a plan of action that will serve our goals and keep us satisfied. And not drive us crazy in the process.
It’d be impossible for me to tell you exactly what to do, as my body works differently from yours. But what I can do is teach you how to create a sustainable approach to your body change goals.
[PS- the same general mindset and approach will work for muscle-building eating plans too…just add the right foods and eat more, not less. J ]
The key here is to keep in mind our food choices over the long term. Each meal isn’t isolated in space and time; all of our food choices work together. Our bodies respond to consistency (and only consistency), so the goal is to have each choice build on itself. Building momentum is key for me: finding a way to eat at breakfast that serves me makes it more likely I’ll continue the trend at lunch and not totally derail at dinner.
Another goal for me is to not feel hangry. If you know me, even a little bit, even through social media, you’ve figured out something: I love to eat (I said that also like, last week…and the week before…and probably the week before that.). SO, my goal in designing eating programs for any type of body change (fat loss or muscle gain) is to eat as many calories as I can get away with while still making progress. I’m not one to drastically cut- for me, that leads to extreme hunger (which is me being on edge and freaking out over every little thing. My boyfriend/friends really love this…), and, therefore, a greater likelihood of binging (never serves any part of any physical or mental growth plan). It’s harder for me to just freaking move on after I “mess up”…and keeps me “messing up” for a few days before I get my shit together and eat more vegetables than Gushers. Being hangry never leads to good things: we choose foods that are not nutrient-dense, and we typically choose too much of them.
Creating a plan that includes as much food as you can get away with while serving your goals is sustainable, which is a major key (cue DJ Khaled).
Eating less is not as good as eating sustainably.
We want to find a plan that works for us for life, so that we eat the same on Saturday as we did on Monday. We don’t want to keep starting over every week/month/year, a little heavier than the last.
To figure out how many calories you should include in your fat loss plan, we need to know where we are NOW. Be honest! Track what you’re doing, without changing anything, for a few days or so. If you don’t know where you are, you won’t know how to change the little things to make it a sustainable change rather than complete overhaul (how have those worked for you in the past? ;)). To accurately design a sustainable plan, we need more info than calories. Things to monitor in your tracking include what you’re eating, when you’re eating it, your hunger/energy levels/cravings throughout the day (and, if any hit super intensely, when they occurred…because knowing where they happened in the context of what you’re eating will tell you where you’re underserving yourself), how you’ve slept, and your stress level. Your answers to all of this will tell you if you’re eating enough, not eating enough protein (common), not eating close enough to bed, etc. But we need the current picture first.
Track, then tweak.
To answer one of my top 3 most-asked nutrition questions: to figure out how many calories you “should” be eating a day, take your body weight in pounds and multiply it by 12. Why 12? I don’t know, but it seems to be a reasonable starting point for most people. Of course, there will be variations due to individuality, but if you have no clue (I didn’t, when I first got into the industry), there’s a decent place to begin.
I’m not one for counting things. Other than reps and PRs, that is. BUT! It is extremely helpful to spend a day or two figuring out the macros/calories of your most-eaten foods, so you have an idea of what 1900 calories (or whatever) looks like. That way, you’ll be better able to gauge if you’re eating too much or not enough, because just relying on the scale is not always, well, reliable, as you know if you’ve been in this game for any longer than 3 days. I often get discouraged when I make tweaks to my diet and don’t see immediate progress (helloooo, generation of instant gratification). Knowing that my plan is accurate allows me to trust it, stick to it, and not freak out and make change #2359085 (which will almost certainly not lead to progress, as our body responds to consistency) when I don’t see a change on the scale immediately.
Make a plan. Include more veggies and more protein and more satisfaction, less junk and things you’re intolerant to or don’t digest well. Stick to the plan. Trust the process.
Another thing that wards off nights of forgetting what the plan even is is to remember my favorite nutrition mantra: be a little less perfect to be a little more consistent. Since consistency is everything. Adding half an avocado and a little corn to a salad, a steak once a week, or half a cup of froyo are not *technically* “on the plan”, but they keep me satisfied. Having one food like that (it’s typically fat for me, as that feels indulgent and I need very little of it to feel satisfied) helps me stay on track so it doesn’t become 3lbs of guac, a giant steak for lunch and dinner, and half a gallon of froyo the second I get fed up with my plan. If your plan doesn’t include things like this, you’re probably missing the forest for the trees. No food is inherently “good” or “bad”, and including some that may not serve your goals in name but keep you satisfied (read: not starving or insane or obsessed with every morsel of food that passes your lips) actually *does* serve your goals.
In that vein, it’s important in building a fat loss eating plan to remember that productivity is nothing more than a game of cat and mouse: right now, you’re super motivated and ready to tackle anything set in front of you. Before we slay Goliath, David, we need to remember that present you isn’t facing the stressors (sleepless nights, deadline at work, argument with partner, sick dogs, etc.) that future you will face. We have to have contingency plans to trick future you into keeping up the momentum present you is oozing.
Identify stressful situations that typically affect your eating (spoiler: probably most of them do). Recognizing what these are in advance, while we’re devising a plan to eat sustainably forever, will allow us to have ways to overcome them before we’re elbow-deep in a bag of chips. The easiest thing for me to do is to substitute food with something else.
Different stressors produce different reactions, so I have a few contingency plans depending on stressor. If I’m feeling upset and have a problem I don’t yet know how to solve, for example, instead of eating, I’ll savor one glass of wine somewhere outside my kitchen (I live in a one-bedroom apartment…so, usually, in bed. #adulting). Drinking the wine and paying attention to how it tastes is incongruous with eating for me- I prefer a singular wine experience in this moment. If I’m emotionally overwhelmed from having too much on my plate, I try to take a walk with my dogs after dinner. Getting out of the house and undergoing a leisure activity gets my mind off food, and the aforementioned plan of one glass of wine would quickly spiral into two or three plus some salami or something, in this case.
Knowing what your triggers are and how you typically react to them will help you identify solutions pretty quickly. I recommend doing this in the planning phase. It’s typically too much for me to handle being overwhelmed AND trying to find a way to avoid wine or junk food if that’s all I can think about, but knowing the solution in advance helps me to run on autopilot and just do it. I can stay on track and not derail my plan (and then later add to the stress by thinking about what a failure I am because I can’t even stay on plan…you know this mental rabbit hole.). I am in control of my choices, despite how I feel.
Another hack that is wildly helpful to me is to stay mindful of my food consumption. Super simple, super obvious, super hard to do if you don’t know how to do it. The way I began being mindful (I didn’t end up here overnight) was to wait 5-10m after I was finished with a meal. Let me tell you, if you’re used to eating until your heart’s content, and then later realizing that your heart’s content is 3x as large as your stomach capacity, that 5m can feel like an eternity. Or at least as long as incline sprints or burpees feel. But, after that brief respite, evaluate yourself: are you still hungry? If you are, does that hunger need to be filled with cheese, or would veggies or a protein shake suffice? Eat in service to yourself: work with your body and your cravings, not against them.
Calorie balance is the most important thing in achieving body change, no doubt about it. Rather than counting your life away though, I’ve found that once you get a handle on the approximate appropriate number for you, there are a few things we should be paying more attention to than numbers.
1. Eating in a consistent deficit. This is where the weekly routine comes in: it’s far easier for me to stay on track on a week-to-week basis than a day-to-day basis, as a person who hates to track every second of my life (I mean, come on, we all have enough things to keep track of. Let’s not make food harder than it has to be.).
2. Eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods. Although we are evolutionarily engineered to crave salty/sweet/creamy/fatty foods, recognizing the reason we’re programmed to overeat those foods is vital: they hit the calorie jackpot, and our brains are excited we’re consuming enough calories for weeks, in case our hunting and gathering hits a dry spell. Great news! We aren’t hunter-gatherers anymore. So pump the brakes on eating every last bit of those foods every time you get your hands on them, because in the Western world the supply of those foods virtually never runs dry. The ice cream will still be there tomorrow, I promise. Have some asparagus first.
3. Increase your protein. Protein is essential for building muscle. Even if you don’t want to look totally yoked, adding muscle will give you the look you’re looking for: toned, lean, sculpted, not skinny fat. Bonus: adding muscle will burn more calories even at rest, so it will be easier to stay lean once you are lean. Life hack.
4. Design your eating plan so that you can exhibit consistency. Your body responds to consistency. You keep eating salty fatty foods = you keep feeling bloated and lethargic. We include whole vegetables and lean proteins = we feel fuller and lighter. Of course, consistency includes allowing ourselves the freedom to maintain our quality of life. Unfortunately, I can’t answer how wide your wiggle room needs to be for you to stay on track. You have to do the detective work yourself! But creating your DNCs (Daily Nutritional Commitments) should cover this. Eating as much as possible, covering as many nutrient bases as possible, still sticking to caloric budget, but also enjoying your life. Because tweaks in food plans are meant to improve your health and, therefore, your happiness, not cause an obsession that makes you feel like you’ll never be happy again.
5. Drink water. LOTS of it. A good place to start is dividing your body weight in pounds in half, and drink that many ounces a day. I drink a gallon (I don’t weigh 256lbs.). Hydration is important for hundreds of reasons, including but not limited to better digestion, clearer skin, improved brain function, and quicker elimination of toxins. Drink.
6. Find the appropriate pacing. We want to avoid losing too much fat too quickly. This will send our hormones into a weird flux, making it more difficult to lose more fat and keep it off. Remember, we’re avoiding the quick fixes and trying to find a way that works for the rest of our lives. Very rarely does this mean a rapid fat loss, because that’s almost never a good thing (of course, there are exceptions…but you’re likely not the Golden Ticket.). It’s likely if we lose too much fat too quickly that we’re on an unsustainable plan.
7. Exercise. You can’t outwork a poor diet, but we can help our dietary efforts along in our movement. Intensity is king! And so are weights, IMHO. Get off the recumbent bike and into the weight room. Or find a class you enjoy that will create muscle. Or find a trainer you resonate with who will teach you how to appropriately move and load your body. This will ensure that the weight you’re losing isn’t muscle being stripped away and will keep you motivated, especially if you’re having fun.
There you have it! I’d love for you to try any of these strategies out and let me know what you think. Or share with me some of your go-tos!