The Calorie Model is really very simple — eat less and lose fat. People constantly nod their heads in total agreement when they hear about this concept. But when I look at people around, I find most of them doing fat loss wrong. It’s sometimes really funny to see people turn a blind eye to the Calorie Model in colloquial discussions of fat loss (and fitness, in general). To me it seems like, somehow, people are never satisfied with simple stuff that have huge implications. Let’s address a few of the commonly seen misconceptions/mistakes around fat loss.
AVOIDING SWEET STUFF
Very often, when it is time for someone to defend why they carry that little extra fat OR why they have never tried to lose weight we hear him/her say:
“Oh man, I have a sweet tooth. When I see sweets in front of me, I just can’t control the urge… so dieting to lose fat is out of question.”
It is taken almost for granted that sugar WILL make you fat. But if you go back and have a look at Part 1, you will see that sugar is mentioned nowhere in the model. First, let me explain why the “sugar discussion” was omitted there. Later, we’ll look at why people talk a lot about sugar and also why it may NOT be as big of a deal for someone who is a little judicious.
Sugar (or Sucrose) is a simple carbohydrate — meaning, it’s very easy to digest and will almost readily be available as energy the moment you consume it. Still, the energy in 1 gram of carbs from sugar has the same potential to make you fat as does 1 gram of carbs from whole wheat. So, there seems to be no need to talk specifically about sugar in the Calorie Model while we are talking about carbs anyway.
There is an “advanced myth” floating around sugar. People say:
“Because sugar is quickly digested, the chance that it will get converted to body-fat will also be higher”
This logic is extended to so many other concepts. Many newspaper articles suggest that middle aged women who are beginning to gain weight should stop eating rice at night because, apparently:
“Rice is very quickly digested
+ Rice has a high Glycemic index*
+ lack of activity at night => fat storage is GUARANTEED”
*just a fancy way of saying blood glucose rises quickly because the carbohydrate is quickly digested and absorbed.
Yet, no study has been able to refute the following claim:
In Calorie controlled diets i.e. when the net Calories consumed are equal, simple carbs, when compared with complex carbs, do not contribute more to fat gain OR slow down fat loss.
Think of it this way, if you are capable of adding simple carbohydrates into your diet without disrupting the daily planned Calories, there’s not much of a reason you should be avoiding them. But remember, the more carbs you eat, the lesser will be your fat and protein intake. You can eat whatever sweet stuff you want as long as you meet the following constraints (calculator here):
- Total Calories are as planned
- Minimum protein needs are met (explained later)
- Minimum fat needs are met (explained later)
You will very often see that reducing carbs (especially simple carbs) is a convenient choice that you’ll make when you are trying to stay on a Deficit.
For someone who has truly understood the Calorie Model, the discussion above would seem pretty obvious. People often look shocked when I say that I regularly have ice cream even when the plan is to lose body fat. TRACKING IS KEY!
The majority of the so-called “fitness community” shuns simple carbohydrates like sugar, white rice, maida, etc. For them, the more complex the carbohydrate, the “healthier” it is. WHY?
- Simple carbs are easy to digest — if you eat 100 Cal worth of sugar vs 100 Cal worth of brown rice, the rice will probably keep you fuller for a longer time. This means, your tendency to overshoot your daily target of input Calories will be higher if you eat sugar (compared to brown rice) because your tummy will be quickly ready for another meal sooner. For someone who does not track Calories or doesn’t know anything about Maintenance Calories, it’s pretty tricky to know when to stop eating.
- Secondly, these complex carbs generally come with a little bit of micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) which might be necessary especially when you are on a Deficit phase and eat less total food in general (brown bread vs white bread debate).
On the opposite side of carbs-evaders we have fat-evaders. There is huge group of people who believe that it is their fat (oil, butter, nuts) consumption that’s making them fat — because it makes sense right? Eat fat, get fat. Also, when you look at the Calorie Model, you see that 1 g of carbs has only 4 Cal whereas 1 g of fat contains 9 Cal!
Before proceeding, let’s just clarify one thing — Dietary fat is not Body fat. It’s not like the spoon of butter you are eating is directly adding itself to that lump on your belly!
Satiety, i.e. satisfaction from the feeling of fullness in the stomach, is more of a chemical phenomenon than something related to the volume or the weight of the food eaten. We have elaborate systems inside us to detect “what” we have eaten. The problem with carbs, when compared to fat, is that they do not satiate you in proportion to the energy that they provide. When you take 2.25 g of carbs vs 1 g of fat, they contain the same amount of energy (9 Cal) but the fat will most likely* fill you more.
*of course, will depend on the actual sources.
If someone tells you that he is fat because he ate too much fatty food in his childhood, you can be sure it is not “too much fat” that is the problem: it is the “too much food” part.
Avoiding fat intake has its own consequences. As you might have noticed in the first part — fat, is not just a macro nutrient. Fat is also a micro-nutrient that is essential for several hormonal functions of the body. Commonly seen issues of extreme low fat diets are — erectile dysfunction in men, missing monthly cycles in women. Even simply being very lean could cause these problems and (extreme leanness has caused even death). As a thumb rule, you MUST make sure you eat at least 40 g of fat everyday (very easy to achieve).
Wait a second…
Protein is required as raw material so let’s not mess with that. Carbs serve only ONE purpose — providing us energy (unlike fat which has other roles). Can’t we get rid of carbs altogether and eat just fat and protein to hit all our numbers? YES! This style of eating actually has a name and is called Ketogenic Diet. Keto diet has extremely low intake of carbs (<20 g) and fat becomes the primary energy source in such cases. Keto diet has gained a lot of popularity, especially among athletes/bodybuilders, in the recent years.
Won’t my cholesterol go high if I eat too much fat?
As far the studies go, the correlation between high fat intake and high cholesterol is little/disputed. There are two things to keep in mind:
- Most of your cholesterol is internally produced and regulated by your body. Any bad numbers in this department points at a bad lifestyle more than a high fat intake. In fact some recent studies have shown Sugar to be a more probable cause for increase in bad cholesterol levels than fat — The Sugar Conspiracy.
- Stick to good fat sources like nuts, peanut butter, fish and egg yolk rather than oil, ghee and butter..
EXTREMELY HIGH/LOW PROTEIN INTAKE
There is a minimum amount of protein that you must be eating everyday to slow down muscular Atrophy i.e., withering away of Lean Mass. Atrophy is almost sure to happen when you are not training regularly: a fat loss phase only makes this situation worse.
Things to note about Atrophy:
- your tissues undergo damage all the time from normal day to activities (not just while lifting weights). They must be repaired/replaced and the raw material for this is amino acids that we obtain from the digestion of protein — protein deficiency will slow-down/stop this process.
- muscle is costly for your body to hold on to from a metabolic stand point. Your muscles do consume a good fraction of your total energy intake (even when you don’t specifically train them) and when you are on a Deficit, your body will try its level best to get rid of any muscle that’s not crucial for your survival — Use it OR Lose it. (For lifters, Omar Isuf has a great video about this)
Any protein consumed in excess will be used as an energy source.
OK, so I shouldn’t be consuming too low amounts of protein. What about high amounts of protein? I heard that…
No! your kidneys won’t get damaged from high protein diets*.
*if you have existing kidney issues, you must consult your doctor before getting into high protein diets
There is a downside to eating too much protein. Eating too much protein means your carbs + fat would be relatively low. While protein is generally very satiating, it is not very easy to metabolize and be used as an efficient source of energy. This would probably make you feel less energetic throughout the day, during through your workouts.
It is NOT advisable to avoid carbs and fat before and after your workout i.e. when your body needs the most amount of energy.
Very often, we come across people who lose fat very fast with lots of determination only to regain all of it (and more) quickly. Why does this happen?
Losing fat very fast would require huge Deficits. Not only is this unhealthy for one’s immune system but also accelerates loss of Lean Mass (Atrophy) which is actually a greater contributor for your Basal Metabolic Rate.
If your BMR is significantly lower than what you started with at the beginning of the “diet plan”, it means your Maintenance Calories are also going to be lower. The exact same diet which let you maintain your old weight will now make you gain fat. This factor combined the oh-i-wanna-compensate-for-all-the-craving-that-i-controlled-during-the-cut attitude of a person who is relieved that he/she achieved the goal… there should really be no surprise why they gain fat even faster than before.
Mike Israetel, in this video, explains this concept in a very lucid manner:
A smarter approach:
Aim for losing fat with minimum loss of Lean Mass. Thumb rules for this would be:
- Add resistance training to your lifestyle.
- Keep Calorie intake BETWEEN your BMR and your Maintenance Calories.
- Make sure you get enough micro-nutrients.
Lose Fat Mass not Lean Mass:
How do I know if I’m losing too much Lean Mass?
The weighing scale alone will not tell you whether your diet plan is working or not. Keep track of your waist size as well. Qualitatively, if your waist size is going down significantly, you’re probably losing a good amount of fat. For good looks and low risk of cardiac issues, Men should have <49% and Women < 45% of their heights as target waist sizes.
In future, we’ll discuss a more formula based approach to track your “Body Composition” more accurately.
OVER-EMPHASIS ON CARDIOVASCULAR ACTIVITIES
Is cardio necessary for fat loss?
No, it isn’t. No one ever lost fat from cardio alone without diet control. But Calorie control alone without cardio? Hell yes! People do it all the time!
Then, where does cardio fit it in? Why is cardio so popular FOR fat loss?
Here’s the thing: if you have a very well planned Calorie intake going on for you, adding cardio to your routine will definitely speed up the process of fat loss. It could potentially double your rate of fat loss — if you like a particular activity, you could definitely add it and reap extra benefits.
One thing though: Many people look at some of the best marathon runners (who are very lean) and decide that they want to run marathons too (in order to get super lean). They very easily ignore the fact that MAYBE those runners are the best runners BECAUSE they are lean to begin with (and not the other way round). Very often, “marathon running for fat loss” backfires because running for such long distances would mean that you need to eat a lot of Calories (carb-loading phase) for a few days before the actual run. At this point it really becomes a gamble:
Are you going to eat enough so that you can comfortably run the whole marathon? Or are you going to eat a calculated amount so that the marathon will aid your fat loss plan?
A SHORT SUMMARY
The most practical way to go on a fat loss phase is by keeping the minimum Protein and Fat intake in mind while regulating your carb intake to hit the planned Calories for the day and then staying patient throughout the entire duration of the plan. The results will come.
In the end all effective diet plans work on the simple concept of a calculated Caloric Deficit. What differs is the way in which you reduce the psychological stress you go through — whether you choose to do or not to do cardio, whether you choose a high protein diet or a high fat diet — and that HAS to be personalized. Start off with something simple: keep tweaking; you need to choose what works for you and eliminate what doesn’t.