People fail at a diet for many different reasons. Sometimes the person gives up too quickly. Sometimes they just do not put in the amount of work that is necessary to change their body. However, sometimes, the diet fails them.
It has been my experience that one of the main reasons that a diet will fail someone is that the diet is structured around the wrong hierarchy of aspects surrounding losing weight. What I mean by this is, the person or diet will place too much emphasis around some things that do not matter much in the long run and too little importance around things that do end up mattering quite substantially.
Actually, sometimes the diet is set up to intentionally mislead the dieter. Sometimes the diet is structured around eating only certain kinds of food and a certain amount of those foods so that the dieter ends up eating less overall whether they really realize it or not. This does not always work though. Sometimes that dieter will continue to eat massive amounts of food, but they just switched over to eating the food that the diet they are on says is okay. Inevitably, this will cause the diet to “fail” the dieter.
I support a wide variety of diets and dieting strategies, and anyone who tries to lead you to thinking that there is only one way to diet that is effective is either trying to sell you something or is poorly informed. However, regardless that there are numerous diets that are effective, they all must follow the following hierarchy of importance in order to turn out to be effective. Note that I am not suggesting that a diet that does not follow the following guidelines has no possibility of showing positive results, but it will be improbable and an exception, while also it being inexorably inferior to other options.
The following is a list of aspects that have the most significant impact on the success of a diet, in order from most important to least important. It is necessary to understand that a diet may still be effective if a more important aspect is ignored in effort to focus more on a less important aspect, as long as the more important aspect is not significantly opposed or progressed in a direction opposite of what is suggested for fat loss.
A Hierarchy of Importance for Dieting:
1. Total Daily/Weekly Calories
As I talked about in my last post, no diet can ignore this aspect and reasonably expect to succeed. Ignoring total calories for each day, or total at the end of each week, is like flipping a coin – there is no way to tell if you are going to lose weight or not. Sure, you can guess at your caloric intake each day, and that might work for some of you, but you would be surprised at just how poor we are at estimating our calories if we have not spent at least a few months practicing counting calories and have gotten good at estimating.
As I’ve said before, if your total calories are under your maintenance level (the amount of calories burned through metabolism and movement/exercise), then you will lose weight. If your calories are over your maintenance level, then you will gain weight. Any diet that tries to move away from this fact is, most likely, somehow “tricking” you into eating less calories anyway. For example, ‘you can eat as much as you want, as long as long as it is only non-starchy vegetables and chicken’. Naturally, it is very hard to overeat on pure vegetables and chicken, so you would tend to eat less total calories following this instruction, causing weight loss.
Furthermore, this aspect does not include timing of calories. At this level, it does not matter whether your calories are all bunched together or spread apart in many meals. This is why I added “weekly” calories. In the end, it does not matter how you allocate your calories throughout the week, as long as the total calories at the end of the week is less than your daily maintenance multiplied by 7, to account for each day of the week. For example, eating 3000-4000 calories under maintenance for the week will cause you to lose somewhere around a pound a week (this decrease in calorie consumption includes any exercise).
The take-home point here is, you must eat less to lose weight. This supersedes everything else.
2. Total Daily Protein
To be honest, I had a hard time deciding whether to make this the second most important or third. I chose to make it second because not everyone on a diet really cares a great deal about keeping all of their muscle mass, which the third point, Exercise/Lifting, is largely meant for.
Study after study after study shows that the group of people who had more protein in their diet comes out of the study with better results – with less fat and more muscle. Actually, this little habit of protein can confuse some researchers into making the wrong conclusion about their study. There have been a few times when some study compared a low-carb diet to a high-carb diet, but did not keep the protein the same in each group. Almost invariably, the group that had more protein in their diet comes out with a better body composition, but instead of attributing this to the protein, the researches inaccurately attribute it to the low-carb or high-carb aspect. As a side note, the studies that have been aware of this and compared low-carb to high-carb come out with mixed results, but in the end the research at this point shows that it does not really matter all that much in the long term, as long as you do not go super extreme on one end or the other.
Back to protein. Eat it, and eat a lot of it. I really cannot stress how important protein is on a diet. After total daily calories, how much protein you eat will partly determine the body composition you will have attained after the diet. While dieting, you will (hopefully) be eating under maintenance level. This means that you are not taking in enough energy for the day that you need, so your body will have to go to its internal reserves. Being the efficient machine that your body is, it will recognize if you do not need all of that muscle you are lugging around with you everywhere and happily metabolize that muscle. Moreover, this detriment will be accelerated significantly if you are on a low-carb diet with insufficient protein intake. The low-carb aspect of the diet will leave your body searching for glucose for energy, especially for your brain and liver. If it cannot find that glucose, then it will just have to make some more on its own! Guess what it uses to make glucose? A little bit of fat and protein – your muscle. The lower your carbs are, please make up for it with more dietary protein instead of your hard-earned muscle.
The amount of protein I would recommend is at least 1g per pound of body weight a day up to about 1.5g per pound of body weight a day. Yes, this is a lot, but it can easily be accomplished. You can buy protein powder, chicken, turkey, fish, low-fat dairy (for less calories), etc. One of my favorite snacks is non-fat Greek yogurt with 2 protein scoops of cookies and cream protein, a very tasty 75g of protein.
Besides helping your body composition, protein is also the most filling macronutrient. You can keep eat chips for a very, very long time (carbs and fat), but try doing the same with a lump of chicken breast. Not so easy, is it? This makes dieting a lot easier, since you can get filled up easily with chicken, vegetables, and yogurt, for example. Protein makes dieting easy, though protein powders do not really have the same effect since its not really “bulky” like many other forms of protein, thus you would need to wait a longer period of time in order to feel the hunger-blunting effect and your stomach would not be full, so it would be my advice to eat as much protein from normal food as possible for this reason alone.
You would be surprised how much easier dieting would become if you incorporated a lot whole food protein into your daily meals.
Note: I focused almost exclusively at protein in this section, essentially ignoring carbohydrate and fat intake. This is because if you set your calories lower than maintenance level and have sufficient protein intake, then you will be, by default, lowering your fat and carb intake. At the very least, you will not be able to set them above a certain level or you will go over your total calories for the day.
Should you allocate more calories for fat or carbs? That really depends on a lot of different variables and if fluctuates on an individual basis. However, the title of this section was total daily protein for a reason. The the grand scheme of things, whether you do high-carb/low-fat or low-carb/high-fat does not really matter all that much, as long as you do not go to the extreme on either side. A good rule of thumb is to put your carbs a bit higher and fat lower on lifting days and fat a bit higher and carbs lower on rest/cardio days. Or, at least one study showed that very overweight individuals did better with lower carbs and leaner individuals did better (came out with a better body composition) with higher carbs and lower fat. Either way, again, it doesn’t matter all that much – whichever you like better I would accept (except for some rare cases and exceptions, but I digress).
Like I said in the previous section, I was hard-pressed whether to put exercise/lifting before or after daily protein since both are so important during a diet. However, I settled with third since many people are just not vary interested in keeping their muscle during a diet; to them, all they want is for the scale to show a smaller number. In that case, exercise goes down in terms of importance and protein goes up, since protein is so filling and enhances dieting in many ways, as stated above. However, if you are interested in keeping your muscle mass during a diet, then exercise/lifting becomes much more important, especially lifting. Furthermore, by keeping the muscle you have during a diet, you will lose mostly fat and will come out of the diet with a better body composition.
Lifting or resistance training will enhance the diet a lot more than cardio will. I would diet while lifting and ignoring cardio wayyyyyy before I would ever diet while doing cardio but no lifting. Lifting provides the stimulus for your body to keep the muscle it has. Besides ingesting the amino acid leucine, resistance training is one of the only ways to increase protein synthesis (simply, the process that adds onto your muscle) and resistance training increases the rate of protein synthesis much more than anything else (outside of coupling with steroids).
Some people, notably females, are hesitant of incorporating resistance training into their dieting program because they are afraid of become “bulky”. However, this fear is largely unfounded. Much of the time, this fear comes from the mistaken belief that lifting weights somehow causes weight gain that is completely outside of dieting and nutrition. That is, by lifting during their diet, they would lose fat slower and might even gain weight because they would gain muscle mass. However, this is not what lifting does. While lifting does increase protein synthesis, even during a diet, the fact that you will be under-consuming calories on average will increase protein breakdown, making it very hard to add muscle mass during a diet. If you have never lifted before or just started, then it is possible to add some muscle, but otherwise you would have to have a nearly perfect diet and routine, especially if you are advanced.
The point is, lifting does not add or take away weight (besides some calorie burn while lifting, but the focus of lifting should not be to burn calories – it should be to preserve muscle mass). The amount signiof weight that one gains or loses on a diet is an interaction between calorie intake and expenditure and hormonal influences. Resistance training just essentially skews that weight that does come off to be more fat and less muscle, thus helping the dieter come out of the diet with a better body composition.
As a side note, one should not decrease the weight and increase the reps during a diet, like some are commonly advised to do. The reasoning behind this strategy was that by decreasing the weight, one can do a lot more repetitions, thus doing more total “work” during the work out and burn more calories. However, this line of thinking is coming from the wrong place. As I said before, lifting should not be about burning calories, and lifting is pretty inefficient at it anyway compared to cardio. Lifting should be about retaining muscle mass, and decrease the weight on the bar will not do that during a diet. You are telling your body that you do not need to be as strong as you were before and your body will easily give up some of your muscle mass to accommodate the new lower stimulus that it is receiving. During a diet, you want to either keep the weight the same as before or perhaps even increase it slightly with lower reps. This will ensure that you will keep as much strength as possible during your diet which, in turn, will have you keep the most amount of muscle as well.
Cardio and other forms of exercising can also be important during a diet, but these forms of exercising should never come before resistance training, for the reasons stated above. The utility of cardio for the most part is to burn extra calories so that you do not have to lower your calorie intake as low as you would have to without cardio. Instead of lowing your calories by 500 today, for example, you can lower to by 200 calories and jog 300 calories to expect similar results. Cardio becomes much more important if you do not have a lot of body weight to begin with, as in a shorter female, because lowering your calories to a significant amount can bring in an insufficient amount of nutrients on a daily basis, especially if the foods you choose to eat are not all nutritionally dense with vitamins, minerals, etc. In this case, adding cardio to the diet can allow the individual to intake more food and meet his or her nutrient requirements easier.
Just remember that going on a diet or losing fat never means that you should perform your workouts with any less intensity. Keep the intensity (simply, how far you are pushing yourself during each set) as high as ever to make sure that you keep your strength and muscle, but lower the total volume (sets and/or reps) and frequency (the time between training the same muscle groups) when necessary. Resistance training and cardio can enhance and speed up a diet to an almost indispensable degree.
As a last note on lifting while dieting: If you are significantly overweight, as in have more than 40 or so pounds to lose, then resistance training and cardio can become a bit less important while total calorie intake becomes more important. This is due to the fact that since you have so much fat to use as fuel, your body doesn’t mind using it as much as it would mind in a lean individual. Thus, the focus of your diet should mainly revolve around calorie intake and expenditure (including cardio, if you so choose) at this point. The first section of this article become even more important to you, while the other sections drop off in importance.
4. Nutrient Timing
OK, I am aware that I will get some backlash from the title of this section from people who know what they are talking about, but let me explain before you criticize. I am not going to tell you to eat 5-6 meals a day to “stoke the metabolic fire”, nor will I tell you that you must eat breakfast to “start your metabolism”. In fact, the type of nutrient timing I am talking about more relates to eating before/after lifting and such.
In the large sense, nutrient timing really isn’t that important anyway, hence why it is number 4, but there are a few things you should be aware of to help you along with your diet. Before I get into that though, let me explain what is not important regarding nutrient timing (I already alluded to it in the preceding paragraph).
How many meals you eat a day does not matter. Plain and simple. You do not have to eat protein ever three hours – your muscles will not fall off. Even a very fast digesting protein like whey will take 4-6 hours to digest, and the more you eat the longer it will take to digest. This is why TOTAL daily protein was number 2 and not protein every three hours. Furthermore, there are some very effective diets out there in which the person does not eat anything at all for 16-24 hours at a time, such as itermittent fasting from LeanGains.com or EatStopEat.com. Actually, I jumped on the itermittent fasting bandwagon about a year ago. I have gone on and off it a few times, but I do like it. Futhermore, while I am aware of Alan Aragon’s objective review of itermittent fasting, I do think that Alan places too much importance on some of the correlational research that he cites, and I do think that it can be somewhat more effective than evenly spaced meals for very lean individuals. Furthermore, that review is quite dated by now and Alan even doesn’t think that it is fair to use those studies to compare to Martin’s (from LeanGains.com) approach. Nevertheless, the BIGGEST advantage to intermittent fasting is behavioral/psychological in my opinion.
Anywho… don’t worry about when you eat. It is not important in the large sense.
The only time I would tell you to really pay attention to your timing is around the time you are lifting. Many studies show that eating before and after lifting opposed to times far away from when you lifted leaves you with a better body in the long-run. My recommendation would be to get 30-50g of whey protein in along with at least 30g of simple carbs (or something close) 30-45 minutes before you lift. How many carbs you want to consume before you lift is more flexible than the protein, although I would suggest at least some carbs, even on a low-carb diet. This is due to the fact that carbs are highly anticatabolic – they stop your muscle tissue from being broken down during the lift, which is a very good thing as any gain in muscle mass from the lift would have to first compensate for what was lost during the lift.
The reason for the 30-50g of whey protein is due to two factors: Leucine and speed. Whey is a very fast digesting protein so that you will be able to reap the protein’s benefits during the lift. Also 30-50g of whey contains the maximum amount of the amino acid leucine that you body will actually use, the main amino acid responsible for increasing protein synthesis. Yes, this means that I would recommend you to buy whey protein powder for before you lift. If you do not want to buy it or take a protein bar (which is typically much more expensive), then just have chicken or milk or some other high quality protein source.
As a side note: for almost all cases, you do not need to buy leucine, BCAAs, or EAA’s separately. Just get in adequate, high quality protein and you will get maximum benefits. More essential amino acids will not help any further and, to date, no study has suggested otherwise unless they were comparing them to insufficient protein. If you don’t know what I am talking about right now, don’t worry about it. =)
Now for the only other time you should worry about nutrient/protein timing: Post-workout. Put very simply, after you lift, your body is ready to take whatever you give it and use it to rebuild lost muscle and build new muscle. Thus, you should take advantage of this period. This effect typically last around 24-36 hours after you lift, but the 4th hour after you lift would be more effective than the 32nd hour, for example. So, normally I try to allocate as many calories as I can for AFTER I lift, giving my body a lot of protein to use and as many carbs as I can afford so that my body know that it can spare the energy required to build new muscle, as it is an energy-intensive process and under most circumstances your body just does not want to do it.
For your post-workout nutrition, you do not need to take whey or any other type of fast digesting protein. You can, but it is not necessary. Since you do not need the protein to be ready in time for a workout, like you did for the pre-workout protein, the type of protein you take after you workout does not need to be fast, but it should still be high quality, such as dairy (whey/casein), meat (red or white), or soy. This first meal after you work out should arguably be the biggest meal of the day. This means that you should allocate much of your carbs for the day for the hours that follow your workout.
As a side note, do not recommend taking a protein shake after you workout only for hunger-related reasons. By “drinking your calories” (or protein), you will not get as filled up as you would by eating whole food sources. Thus, your adherence to the diet will be better if you eat, as opposed to drink, as many calories as possible.
Also, protein takes a lot longer to digest than most people think. Even a fast digesting protein like whey will still be releasing amino acids at least 4 hours after you drink it. A slower protein like casein might still show signs of absorption at much as 9 hours after you drink it. Thus, do not worry about when you split up your meals post-workout. You can eat a huge meal 30 mins after you lift, split the meal in half and eat half 30 mins after you lift and the other half 1.5 hours after you lift, etc. The most important thing is that, again, at the end of the day you have reached your protein requirement and have not gone over your target calories.
The last point I want to make about nutrient timing deals with cheat meals and break days. I am not going to go into much detail here, as it would take a whole article to explain the multiple aspects of re-feeds (and Lyle McDonald has already done a very good job explaining it here). All you really need to know, though, is that being on a calorie deficit over time will cause some hormonal fluctuations; the main one that is mostly talked about is leptin. Leptin is released from fat cells and scales with body-fat. During a prolonged diet, leptin production inevitably falls and causes the rate of fat-loss to slow. To overcome this, one can have some sort of re-feed period, lasting anywhere from 1 meal to 2 weeks, depending on a whole host of factors. In general, the most common practice is to have one “cheat” day a week in order to restore leptin production. This cheat day should raise calories to at least maintenance level and should be high-carb/low-fat, as more dietary fat does not contribute to the restoration of leptin. This cheat day will also affect a few other hormones positively, but I won’t go into that here.
There you have it. The most important things to keep in mind when trying to lose weight are, in order:
1. Total Calorie Intake and Expenditure
2. Total Protein Intake
3. Lifting (along with some cardio)
4. Nutrient Timing (importantly, pre- and post-workout and scheduled re-feed periods)
I could have kept going a little bit and possibly added a 5th category that would have been Type of Foods. Essentially, I would have said to try to eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and other minimally-processed foods. However, since we are starting to get more into health and less into body composition, I decided to stop at 4.
Of course, this article does not cover all of the variables associated with dieting (you will need to wait for my future book for that). However, this articles contains very good guidelines that arm you with knowledge that you can check against other diets to see how effective they might be. There are toooooons of different diets out there, but all of them must contain the elements above in order to be effective. Although, like I said earlier, if a diet strategy has items 1 and 2 down but fails at 3 and 4, it can still show positive results. However, there are probably better strategies.
Here are some concrete action steps to take from this article for a good, basic fat loss plan:
- Lower your calories by about 500 cals a day
- Increase your protein intake to at least your body-weight in grams and up to 1.5g per pound of body-weight
- Add resistance training and some cardio to your daily routine. Lifting each muscle group twice a week is a good frequency, and you can group the muscles together in many different way. Choose the way you like best, but the split I tend to like is Pull (Back, Biceps, Abs), Push (Shoulders, Pecs, Triceps), and Legs/Glutes.
- Try to get most of your calories in AFTER you lift. This allows for the best calorie partitioning. Also, have some type of pre-workout meal with at least 30g of protein.
Since this is such a broad overview of dieting, and in an effort not to make this article any longer than it already is, I will force myself to stop at this point. In future articles, I will go over each subtopic in this article more in depth so that you will have a better idea of how to specifically incorporate each one into your dieting strategy.