Absolutely the best way to start losing your fat is a combination of regular exercise and a healthy diet. But there’s a catch. When you start exercising, your appetite goes up. With regular exercise, the consumption of nutrition goes up, so your body wants a higher intake.
While that doesn’t mean you should stop exercising, it absolutely means that the diet is an extremely important variable in becoming slimmer. Actually, there is a saying in the fitness community that you can never out-train a bad diet.
I tested that saying myself and it’s 100 % true. When you exercise, you have to pay even more attention to your diet and the number of calories you eat. You mainly lose fat in the kitchen. The gym, on the other hand, helps you feel better and preserve muscles. Losing fat is done 80% in the kitchen and 20% in the gym.
By the way, I'm trying to avoid the expression “losing weight”, because you want to lose fat and preserve muscles. Muscles are heavier than fat. That’s why you don’t want to necessarily lose the weight that your scale shows. You might weigh more and look better in the mirror if you manage to lower your body fat percentage and increase the volume of your muscles.
Calories – the quantity of the food you eat
No matter which diet you follow, there are some universal rules for losing fat. If you want to lose fat, you have to be in a caloric deficit. The quality of the food you eat absolutely matters, but you can get fat even by overeating the healthiest food there is.
I tried many different diets and eating patterns, and I always got the same result. When I ate too much food, my fat percentage went up. When I was in a caloric deficit, the percentage went down. I tried vegetarian, vegan, macrobiotic, paleo, keto and even the fruitarian diet. The same rule always applied. Too much calories, hello fat. Caloric deficit, goodbye fat.
Thus, no matter what, remember these rules: If you want to lose fat, make sure you are in a daily caloric deficit. Your deficit should be somewhere around 20 – 30 % of your overall caloric intake (that should count to a deficit of around 300 – 600 calories).
The calculation depends on your age, weight, height, body fat and the frequency, duration and intensity of your workouts. You can calculate your recommended caloric intake here (called TDEE).
The bottom line is that such a deficit should give you a result of losing approximately 2 kg per month (7,700 kcal is approximately 1 kg of fat, 500 kcal * 30 days = 15,000 kcal). That’s also the healthy upper limit.
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When you are on a diet, make sure you exercise regularly; otherwise you will not only lose fat, but also your muscles. Unfortunately, body first attacks muscles and then fat. Once, I was only on a very aggressive diet (1,000 kcal daily) without doing any exercise, and my body became flabby, my posture got worse and I absolutely didn’t feel well.
Nevertheless, expect that training hard will demand greater discipline from you when it comes to your diet.
As an experiment, log your calorie intake for a day
A very fun and educational exercise is to count your calories for a week. Before you put anything into your mouth, log it in one of the calorie trackers. I do that in Excel every year for a few weeks, just to get a feeling about the caloric values of different new dishes I eat.
You will be surprised at how much calories there are in a chocolate bar, pizza, snack or even a can of tuna. A lot. It’s so easy to get into a caloric surplus. One spoon of peanut butter too much and your calories are way through the roof.
That’s why there are many ways to trick yourself into eating less that should help you stay within your caloric limits –skipping a meal, eating slowly, downsizing your portions for 20 %, and so on.
I follow intermittent fasting to eat less food during the day and it gives me great results. But I still manage to gain fat even while fasting for 16 hours, if I only eat too much food; and I eat extremely clean diet.
As an interesting fact, if you want your muscles to grow, you have to be in a caloric surplus. But you also need a high enough protein intake (2 – 2.5 grams per lean body mass) and regular anaerobic exercise (lifting weights).
By developing muscles, you also gain some fat because you are in a caloric surplus. That’s why bodybuilders mix bulking (caloric surplus) and cutting phases (caloric deficit).
Diet cleanliness – the quality of the food you eat
As important as the quantity of the food you consume is, so is the quality as well. In my experience (your body might respond differently), you can eat a very shitty diet, but still be slim if you don’t overeat. But you will probably feel completely shitty and without energy. That’s why many people are slim, but not fit and even less so healthy.
I experimented a little bit. I can lose or gain weight from eating only gummy bears. And I can lose or gain weight from eating veggies, fruit and clean protein.
It all depends on how many calories I eat. But I feel a lot differently when eating gummy bears or broccoli. Obviously, broccoli makes you feel full of energy and life, while gummy bears lead to a big sugar crash.
The point I am trying to make is this. The golden rule of losing weight, even when it comes to the cleanliness of your diet is: stay in a caloric deficit (while regularly exercising). Period.
But absolutely also mind the quality of your diet. Some people will tell you calories don’t matter rather what you eat, others that they are the only thing that matters. For your perfect health, they both matter.
There is no question whether quantity or quality matters more. Mind both of them.
There is another big reason why the quality of food matters so much. Not only will you be and feel much fitter, it’s much easier to stay in a caloric deficit when you eat a clean diet. It’s almost impossible to overeat broccoli.
It’s very easy to overeat cakes, pastas, bread and other simple carbs and sugars. Eating a clean diet will absolutely help you respect your caloric limits and, even more importantly, preserve your health.
Proteins, healthy fats, complex carbs, veggies and fruits – that’s all you need
On top of everything that we’ve talked about, you want your muscles to grow, not only for your fat to go. For that, you need enough protein intake. High-protein foods are in most cases clean foods (lean meat, fish, eggs, Greek yogurt, lentils etc.).
You also need enough healthy fats. Again, a very clean type of food (nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocados etc.). You need something to eat proteins and fats with. Veggies are absolutely the healthiest low caloric food that you should eat with every meal, especially green veggies.
Finally, we have complex carbs (oats, quinoa, sweet potato, brown rice etc.) and fruits, which will give you enough energy to go through the day and for exercise (if you are not on the keto diet). You should be careful not to overeat carbs and fruits, since they are so delicious. Still, these are all clean foods that your body craves.
And then we have a long list of not-so-clean foods, the foods you should avoid whenever possible. They might taste good, but many of them make you even hungrier, they mess with your sugar levels, they are addictive and have many empty calories.
From white flour foods to jelly, sodas, canned foods, cakes and other sweets, salty snacks, fast food and the list goes on and on. These are the foods that will destroy your gym efforts in only a few bites. And they make you constantly being hungry. Mind the calories you eat, but also eat clean.
It’s so hard to burn 500 calories with exercise
If you own a heart rate monitor or if you’ve ever been on a treadmill or any other cardio trainer, you know how hard it is to burn calories. It’s so hard to burn 500 calories and so easy to eat them.
You need to cycle or run for approximately an hour to burn 500 calories. You consume approximately 500 calories with two slices of pizza or one Big Mac. Yes, life is completely unfair.
Let’s get back to the trap I mentioned in the beginning. You start to exercise, and then your appetite goes up. You aren’t careful about how many calories you eat and consequently you don’t see the results you were expecting. And then your motivation goes down fast. It’s a lousy trap.
One potential solution is to exercise more. When you exercise more, you burn more calories. But exercising too much leads to injuries, burnouts and fatigue. Especially if you have a demanding daily job. I’ve been there.
And you need to exercise for an additional hour if you want to burn those two slices of pizza. It’s impossible to out-train your diet. It takes you 1 minute to eat a slice of pizza and 30 minutes to burn it.
No way can you out-train your diet, the math doesn’t work out. I tried, and all I got were injuries, stress, unhappiness and feeling like a hamster in a wheel, getting nowhere.
The solution lies elsewhere – exercising in combination with portion control plus eating clean foods that make you feel full. Absolutely exercise regularly, but don’t overdo it. A few times per week for an hour is more than enough, if you aren’t a professional athlete.
And eat clean foods that make you feel more full, like protein-rich foods and green veggies. And the mother of all weight loss rules – portion control, portion control.
You can never out-train a bad diet – summary
Every body is different. You have to find which diet and type of exercise works best for you. By using the search mode principles and with a little bit of experimenting, you can find the optimal solution for you as an individual.
Nevertheless, there are some major rules that apply to most of us (there are always exceptions, people with an extreme metabolism and genes):
- When you start to exercise, your appetite will go up, expect that.
- Don't only go on an aggressive diet without exercising, because your body will start to wither.
- If you want to lose fat, you have to be in a caloric deficit (approx. 500 kcal daily).
- The quality of the food does matter to be fit, but calories matter more for losing fat.
- If you train longer than 45 – 60 minutes in one session, you risk injuries and burnout.
- It's so easy to eat 500 calories and so hard to burn 500 calories.
- Eat protein-rich foods and green veggies that will leave your belly full for longer. You will also feel much healthier and your muscles will start to grow.
- Don't try to out-train your diet. It's easier to skip that one slice of pizza than go on a treadmill for additional 30 minutes.