Fat Loss by the Numbers

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The only way to lose weight, short of liposuction, is to burn more calories than you consume. A caloric deficit of 3500 calories is needed to lose one pound of fat. For example, if you burn 2500 calories a day and are taking in 2000 calories a day, you will lose approximately 1 pound of fat per week. In most cases, weight loss of more than 2 pounds per week is due to loss of water, glycogen (stored carbohydrates), and muscle mass. A moderate caloric deficit is a very simple concept, yet most people have a very hard time achieving healthy, permanent fat loss. This is usually not a case of lack of will power or dedication, but rather a lack of knowledge. Yes, it does take dedication and will power to achieve success, but arming yourself with knowledge can change a constant struggle into a way of life. There are five main reasons most people fail at fat loss and they are all interrelated.

  1. They starve themselves.
  2. They don’t practice resistance training.
  3. They get discouraged at the first sign of a plateau.
  4. They don’t understand proper supplementation.
  5. They don’t develop permanent lifestyle habits.

Perhaps the most common pitfall of fat loss is the starvation diet. Generally speaking, a caloric reduction of 20-25% is needed for healthy weight loss. This should also allow an individual to maintain or add muscle mass while losing only body fat. A reduction in calories of 50% or more can lead to a significant loss in muscle mass. Subsequently, the person’s metabolic rate will slow rapidly, weight loss will plateau, and ultimately the individual will gain back more fat thatn he/she started with. Take it slow, enjoy the fat loss process, and keep it off for good.

Starvation Diet Calories In Calories Out Caloric Deficit/Surplus Weekly Fat Loss/Gain
Week 1 1200 2500 -1300/day -2.6 pounds
Week 2 1200 2200 -1000 -2.0 pounds
Week 3 1200 1800 600 -1.2 pounds
Week 4 1200 1300 100 -0.2 pound
Week 5 1200 1200 0 No Change
Week 6 800 1200 0 No Change
Week 7 800 1200 400 -0.8 pound
Week 8 800 1000 -200 -0.4 pound
Week 9 1400 800 +600 +1.2 pounds
Week 10 2500 1000 +1500 +3.0 pounds
Week 11 2500 1500 +1000 +2.0 pounds
Week 12 2500 2000 +500 +1.0 pound

As you can see in this example, the subject quickly reached a plateau. When this person reduced calories even further, it simply further slowed the metabolic rate. Eventually the subject gave up and began to eat the same amount of calories he/she ate before the diet. Overall, the subject loss of 7.2 pounds of fat, then gained back 7.2 pounds, for a net loss of a whopping 0 pounds. In reality, this person would probably gain back even more fat over another few weeks because of depression and a reduced metabolic rate.

It is possible to take in the correct amount of calories and still feel hungry. Unfortunately, there is no single solution that will work for everybody. Instead, keep a food log to determine which foods work best at keeping you full and energized. Most vegetables are loaded with fiber, water, and nutrients but contain very few calories. Although fruits contain sugar (fructose), they generally take far longer to digest than processed sweets and can actually help stabilize blood sugar levels and curb hunger. Although fats are a very dense source of calories, they take a long time to digest (as do most proteins) which may give you longer lasting energy and satiety. As you can see, whole foods should make up the bulk of your nutritional intake, but you must discover what specific foods work best for you.

Although it will take much longer to reach a plateau using a moderate caloric reduction, it may happen. Your body will try to adapt to function on the same amount of calories that you consume. If you burn 2500 calories per day and ingest 2000 calories per day, it is likely that over several months, your body will learn to function on 2000 calories per day. There are several reasons this can happen. Body fat does require calories to sustain, so a loss of fat will cause a reduction in metabolic rate. However, an increase in muscle mass can easily offset this. One pound of fat burns approximately 3.5-5.0 calories per day. One pound of muscle burns approximately 35-50 calories per day. From a practical standpoint, this means that adding one pound of muscle for every ten pounds of fat loss will keep your metabolic rate constant (all other things being equal of course). Another factor in which can cause plateaus is adaptation to your workouts. By doing the same workout day after day, you allow your body to become more efficient at it, which means your body will require fewer calories to perform the same amount of work. You can avoid this by switching your exercises and increasing the intensity of your workouts. Even if you do everything correctly, you may reach a plateau. But do not let it discourage you. Simply increase your caloric intake for a week or two and allow your metabolism to speed up. You will not lose any fat at this time, but it will “recharge” your metabolism and allow you to add a couple extra pounds of muscle. Fat loss achieved by moderately reducing calories and overcoming a plateau (still excluding exercise and supplements) might look like the following:

Sensible Diet Calories In Calories Out Caloric Deficit/Surplus Weekly Fat Loss/Gain
Week 1 2000 2500 -500/day -1.0 pound
Week 2 2000 2500 -500 -1.0 pound
Week 3 2000 2400 -400 -0.8 pound
Week 4 2000 2400 -400 -0.8 pound
Week 5 2000 2300 -300 -0.6 pound
Week 6 2000 2300 -300 -0.6 pound
Week 7 2000 2200 200 -0.4 pound
Week 8 2000 2000 0 No Change
Week 9 2500 2500 0 No Change
Week 10 2000 2500 -500 -1.0 pound
Week 11 2000 2500 -500 -1.0 pound
Week 12 2000 2400 -400 -0.8 pound

In this example, the subject faired far better than the first. Although his/her weight loss was much slower during the first few weeks, this subject was patient. The net weight loss was a healthy eight pounds over twelve weeks versus the paltry zero in our first example. Another way to avoid plateaus is to incorporate one or two cheat days per week. This is an option only if you are actually eating well during the week. Once eating correctly becomes a habit, cheat days may not be needed.

Muscle mass burns a significant number of calories, 24 hours a day, 7 days week. An intense weight lifting program also elevates metabolic rate for approximately 24 hours following the session. So why don’t more people incorporate resistance training into a fat loss program? They’re afraid of getting bigger. Most people think they should lose the weight via cardiovascular exercise and dieting first, then add the strength training later. This is absolutely the wrong way to approach fat loss (and I very rarely think of things in absolutes). Muscle is far more dense than fat, meaning if you add 5 pounds of muscle, it will take up far less space than 5 pounds of fat. If you do happen to be one of those lucky individuals who happen to gain muscle mass very easily, but don’t like it, simply back off slightly on your intensity. Your excess muscle will not turn to fat, it will simply shrink back down. Many people may also experience slower weight loss with strength training, and this is fairly common. But we should be interested in fat loss, NOT weight loss. With caloric restriction and cardiovascular exercise alone, glycogen and water are depleted during the first few weeks of dieting (similar to an atkins style diet, but not as severe). This can easily add an extra 3-4 pounds of weight loss, not fat loss, in the first 2 weeks. So are aerobics worthless? Absolutely not, they still burn calories, but, they should be done in conjunction with strength training, not in place of it.

It is important to note that a strength training program may cause an increase in body weight during the first few weeks even if you are losing body fat. This due to an increase in glycogen and subsequent water storeage. Glycogen, the stored form of carbohydrates, are your body’s preferred energy source during strength training. Glycogen also helps hold water within the muscle cells, so the water should make your muscle look larger and firmer, not flatter.

Rather than focusing on caloric intake and fat loss, the following graph will focus on change in body composition (fat loss and muscle gain) and total calories burned per day.

Method Total Body Weight Body Fat % Fat Mass Fat Free Mass Calories Burned
Starting Statistics 200 pounds 30% 60 pounds 140 pounds 2800 calories/day
12 Weeks of Diet Only 192 pounds 27% 52 pounds 140 pounds 2750 calories/day
12 Weeks of Diet and Cardio 182 pounds 23% 42 pounds 140 pounds 2700 calories/day
12 Weeks of Diet, Cardio, and Strength Training 178 pounds 19% 34pounds 144 pounds 2900 calories/day

Proper supplementation can be of great benefit when pursuing fat loss. Most people don’t maximize the benefit of supplementation because they rely solely on supplements at the expense of nutrition and exercise. Others think supplementation is dangerous or only a temporary solution. In reality, supplements can play a key role in permanent fat loss and optimal health. For example, hydroxcitric acid helps the body increase glycogen storage while inhibiting fat storage. As a side effect, it also helps stabilize blood sugar levels. This is especially important in people with diabetes, insulin resistance, or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Caffeine causes the body to burn more calories and spares glycogen while coaxing the body to use body fat as fuel. Ephedrine burns calories and suppresses appetite. The effects are multiplied when caffeine, ephedrine, and aspirin are taken together. While these supplements are very effective, some caution must be used when using them as some can cause an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and nervousness. It is wise to consult your doctor before implementing a supplementation program. In a perfect world, the rate of fat loss might look like the following as you put everything together:

Method Calories In Calories Out Fat Loss
Diet Only 2000 2500 1 pound/week
Diet Plus Exercise 2000 2800 1.6 pounds/week
Diet, Exercise, and Supplementation 2000 3200 2.4 pounds/week

It’s usually not this easy in the real world, but it can be done. This next example shows how fat loss can occurr if you get just some of it right:

Method Calories In Calories Out Fat Loss
Diet Only 2300 2500 0.4 pound/week
Diet Plus Exercise 2300 2700 0.8 pound/week
Diet, Exercise, and Supplementation 2300 3000 1.0 pound/week

The rate of fat loss is not of great importance. The achievement of permanent improvements in health and fitness is.

Finally, your efforts for weight loss should become ingrained into your daily routine until they become habit. This is perhaps the most important rule. If you do everything perfectly, lose forty pounds of fat in six months, but don’t develop habits, chances are you’ll gain it all back. It is better to take your time, lose forty pounds over two years while developing permanent habits. This way you will keep it off without a struggle.

Troubleshooting Even with all this information, it may be difficult to initiate a successful fat loss program. The following examples are intended to illustrate common mistakes people make.

  1. Underestimating Caloric Intake – Studies show most overweight individuals greatly underestimate the number of calories they consume. This can be caused by:
  2. Failing to count the calories consumed as snacks
  3. Failing to count the calories consumed as drinks (especially soda)
  4. Failing to count the calories from fat free foods
  5. Underestimating portion size of meals
  6. Underestimating caloric content of high fat foods or condiments

The following is an example of how slightly misjudging calories on several foods can add up. If the individual is burning 2000 calories per day, he/she would expect to lose a little over a pound a week. In reality, he/she would not lose any weight.

Food Counted Calories Counted Food Actually Consumed Calories Actually Consumed
8 oz Orange Juice 120 12 oz Orange Juice 180
2 Large Eggs 140 2 Large Egss 140
1 Slice Wheat Bread 80 1 Slice Wheat Bread 120
1 Tablespoon Butter 120 2 Tablespoons Butter 240
Turkey Sandwhich 300 Turkey Sandwhich plus Mayo 400
1 Medium Apple 120 1 Large Apple 180
Chicken Salad w/2 Tbs Dressing 340 chicken Salad w/4 Tbs Dressing 460
1/4 oz Cashews 180 1/3 cup Cashews 240
Total Calories 1400 Total Calories 1960
  1. Overconsuming Calories on the Off Days

Lets assume an individual is consuming an average of 2500 calories per day during the week. This person is burning 3000 calories per day. On Friday and Saturday this person takes two cheat days. This person had a caloric deficit of 4000 calories during the week (3300 subract 2500 multiplied by 5 days). This is the equivilent about 1 pound of fat loss. On the weekend, however, his caloric intake looks like this:

Friday Calories
Restaurant Omelet, Toast w/Butter, 16 ounces of Juice 750
Whopper with Cheese, Large Fries, Large Drink 1420
4 Slices of thick Crust Pepperone Pizza 1120
20 ounces Cola 280
Candy Bar 280
3 oz of Potato Chips 420
5 cans of Beer 750
Saturday Calories
Pancakes W/Butter, Syrup, and Sausage 800
8 oz Fried Fish, Tarter Sauce 16 oz Chocolate Milk 900
12″ Italian Sub w/Oil & Dressing, 20 oz soda 1240
20 oz Juice 280
2 oz Chips w/Sour Cream 360
Onion Rings 460
3 cans of Beer 450
Total Calories In Over Both Days 9500
Total Calories Out Over Both Days 6000
Total Caloric Surplus 3500
Caloric Deficit From Earlier in the Week 3500
Caloric Deficit and Fat Loss for the Week 0

III. Failing to Workout with High Intensity

Lack of effort=lack of results. A low effort 60 minute resistance training work out may burn 250 calories. This will not be sufficient to elevate your metabolism for any significant period of time or build any muscle mass. A high intensity 30 minute resistance training workout, with compound movements and minimal rest, may burn 300 calories. Plus, as stated earlier, your basal metabolic rate (rate at which the body burns calories at rest) will remain elevated by approximately 10% for another 24 hours afterward. This will burn another 150-200 calories. You should also add muscle mass which further improves your chances of success. Cardiovascular exercise should consist of a long duration and low intensity (such as walking) or a short duration and high intensity (such as sprinting) to minimize overtraining of the legs.

There you have it. We could go into much more detain, but this should help you construct the outline of your fat loss approach. Until you get the numbers down, everything else is futile.

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