What Should You Eat To Lose Fat?
Fat loss is simple. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it IS simple. If you want to lose fat, the number one thing you need to address is your diet.
Read this post for a breakdown of everything you need to know about how to eat for fat loss.
This will cover:
- The number one rule you need to obey for fat loss.
- How to eat your favourite foods whilst still losing fat.
- Minimising hunger as you eat for fat loss.
- How to avoid losing muscle as you lose fat.
- Which foods raise your metabolism and by how much.
- Why calories aren’t equal in every sense.
1. The First Rule of Losing Fat
The absolute number one rule when it comes to fat loss, is you have to eat fewer calories than you expend in a day.
Now, this is an oversimplification, but generally if you try to follow this rule by estimating your daily expenditure, then accurately tracking food to fall about 20% below that number, you can lose fat at a sustainable rate. You can get a ballpark figure of your daily calorie expenditure by using this calculator.
2. You can lose fat while eating anything
If you’re eating fewer calories than you expend, then technically you can eat ANYTHING (even chocolate cake) and lose fat – it doesn’t make a difference to fat loss if calories are equal.
Now, that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as “food quality”. Chocolate cake isn’t “good for you”, but you can still eat it (or anything else) as long as you stay within your daily calorie limit.
3. Food quality matters for health and to lose fat
Chocolate cake, and other treat foods, don’t contain many nutrients that your body needs for optimal health.
“Treat foods” are nearly always low in protein, which is needed for maintaining or building muscle, and low in micronutrients (e.g. Zinc, Iron, Magnesium, Vitamin A, C, D, B12 etc.) all of which you need to get a certain amount of for optimal health and functioning.
Whilst you can eat chocolate cake within your daily calories, you can’t expect to fill up your calories from junk and continue functioning optimally for long. You need to get enough micronutrients to maintain optimal health. You’ll soon know if you’re nutritionally deficient.
4. Calories aren’t equal in every way
So you can eat anything and lose fat, as long as you are eating the right amount of calories.
However, certain foods cause you to burn more calories, because digesting them requires more energy – they require your body to work harder. In other words, some foods “raise your metabolism” – meaning you get some calories back in your budget if you eat them. This is known as “the thermic effect of feeding”.
The foods that have this affect are those that are high in protein.
All foods are made up of varying amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrates (these are macronutrients).
Protein requires much more energy to be digested compared to the other macronutrients. Some studies quantify the thermic effect of protein at 20-30%, carbohydrates at 5-10% and fat at 0-5%.
So, if you eat chicken breast with the fat trimmed off, it will be close to 100% protein content. If that chicken breast was 300 calories, you would actually burn up to 90 calories just through digestion. This would put the “net” calorie count for a 300 calorie chicken breast at 210 calories.
For comparison, 300 calories of food that is mostly made up of carbs would only require 15-30 calories for digestion, and for fat the amount would be even smaller.
Whole, unprocessed foods also require more energy to digest them vs. processed and highly processed foods. Processing foods makes them easier to digest. The best thing is to focus on foods that are as close to their natural form as possible (single ingredient foods e.g. cuts of meat, fish, fresh fruits and vegetables) and not boxed, packaged and processed foods.
Focusing on unprocessed foods will probably mean you’ll get closer to the higher end of those thermic effect ranges I gave above.
5. Make sure you don’t lose lean mass
Lean mass refers to everything making up your body composition that is not fat. You want to lose fat, not muscle. Losing muscle will lower your metabolism meaning you burn fewer calories. It’s also not the way to go if you want to look good, or if you care about your strength and quality of life!
The best way to ensure you don’t lose muscle is to not go into too big of a calorie deficit. Keep your deficit to no more than 25% of your daily calorie expenditure. If you burn 2,500 calories in a day, don’t go below a 1,875 calorie intake. The bigger your deficit, the greater the risk you run of losing muscle mass.
Another key factor influencing whether you lose or maintain muscle mass when in a calorie deficit is your protein intake. You should eat at least 0.8g of protein per lb of your bodyweight. It is optimal to split this up across the day, rather than having an intake that is skewed to one end of the day. “The consumption of a moderate amount of protein at each meal stimulated 24-h muscle protein synthesis more effectively than skewing protein intake toward the evening meal.” – Link
6. Highly satiating foods are the way to go to lose fat
You can eat anything you like and lose fat, as long as you eat fewer calories than you expend (although you should take the thermic effect into account as described above). But if you want to make it EASY, you should eat the most satiating foods.
Satiety basically just means how full a food makes you feel. The most filling foods tend to be the same as the highest thermic effect foods.
You can eat 400 calories of sugary cereal for breakfast or 400 calories of eggs and the effect for fat loss would be the same if you’re in a calorie deficit and everything else is equal. The eggs will keep you full for much longer (likely until lunch) as they’re much higher on the satiety index. If you opt for cereal (or pastries, doughnuts, toast etc.) you’ll probably find you’re hungry again before lunch and have the desire to snack. If you can stick to the same calories eating less satiating foods then you’ll be fine, but the likelihood is you’ll consume more calories at other meals and in between meals.
Other foods that are highly satiating are those high in fibre, such as vegetables. Fibre cannot be absorbed by the body, it passes straight through without being digested. Foods like vegetables are high in carbs but some of those carbs will be from fibre. This means that although they’re included in the calorie count, you don’t absorbed the carbs from fibre.
If you focus on highly satiating foods, fibrous veg and high protein, you can be VERY full and still lose fat.
Example meals I’ve eaten on a fat loss diet:
Key Points: A summary of how to lose fat with your diet
- Calories are key. Eat fewer than you expend (aim for a 20% deficit).
- You can eat anything within your daily calorie limit and still lose fat.
- Focus on high protein to burn more calories through digestion.
- High fibre foods are higher volume (more filling) and the calories from fibre don’t count.
- Unprocessed, whole foods require more calories to digest than highly processed foods.
- Focus on more filling (satiating) foods to stay fuller for longer and reduce the number of calories you eat at your next meals and between meals.
- A higher protein intake is associated with greater rates of muscle protein synthesis. In other words, eat at least 0.8g of protein per lb of your bodyweight. It’s better to split this up evenly across the day, for example with 4 roughly equal servings 3 hours apart.
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