Most of us have moved beyond the belief that the only way to lose weight is by eating half an apple and a handful of celery sticks per day. Fad diets are fading and people are (finally) losing hope in "skinny teas". Although these weight loss short-cuts are dying down there are still various mistakes that will stop you from seeing results and relapsing into weight loss shakes.
It's no secret that the best way to learn is by making mistakes. But where possible "learn from the mistakes of others … You can't live long enough to make them all yourself" - Eleanor Roosvelt.
Here are some common mistakes I've seen various clients fall into (you might even find that you're guilty of some of these too.)
Saving for a house is a concept that we are all intuitively familiar with.
Especially in Sydney and Melbourne where owning your own home is met with the same kind of reverence as the promise of salvation in religious circles.
But it also serves as a great metaphor to understand the mechanics of weight loss. Let me explain.
What’s the first thing you would do if you set yourself the goal of saving for a deposit on a home?
You would make a budget! (or at least think about making one haha).
You would try and work out exactly how much money is coming in (your income) and how much money is going out (your expenses). And make sure to spend less than you make.
This exact sample logic applies to losing weight. You need to track how many calories are coming in and how many calories are going out.
In the end, weight loss just comes down to the balance between calories in (what you eat) and calories out (what you burn through normal metabolism and exercise).
It’s that simple.
Burn more calories than you ingest through food and voila - weight loss ‘magically’ occurs (I hope by now you’re realising there’s more to it than just ‘magic’!).
Burn less calories than you ingest through food and voila – you gain weight (not ideal if your goal is to lose weight).
When you understand this simple concept, it will radically change the way you approach losing weight.
But here’s the sick truth. The vast majority of people don’t understand this concept. They don’t treat losing weight like saving for a house. And they suffer because of it.
They start to believe in ‘magic’ foods. I’ve been told by at least a dozen people throughout my career that apple cider vinegar is ‘magic’ for weight loss (I’m sure you probably have too!).
These kinds of people will tell you that they lost 10 kilograms once they started taking apple cider vinegar [or insert other ‘special’ food]. They also conveniently happen to omit the fact that they doubled the amount of exercise they were doing daily (calories out) and started skipping breakfast to reduce their caloric intake (calories in).
Their weight loss had nothing to do with the apple cider vinegar. But it did have everything to do with reducing their caloric intake and increasing their caloric expenditure!
I completely understand the resistance to tracking your calories. It seems obsessive. It connotes eating chicken, rice, and broccoli every meal of the day out of a shitty plastic container (not for me, thanks)!
It definitely doesn’t have to be like that (unless you’re some kind of sick person that just loves eating chicken, rice and broccoli!).
Tracking your calories simply means being accountable for the foods you eat, regardless of what they are (e.g. lean meats, vegetables, nuts, or a handful of jelly snakes at a party).
Considering we’ve just established the similarities between losing weight and saving for a house, it should make a bit more sense why accurately tracking what you are eating (calories in) is so important.
Let’s continue with that metaphor.
Not tracking how many calories you are eating is the dietary equivalent of trying to plan your expenses to save for a house without knowing your income!
Do you make $50,000 per year? $100,000 per year? $250,000 per year? It makes a big difference to how much you can spend, right?
But what if you’re an ‘intuitive eater?’ What if you only eat when you’re feeling hungry? Isn’t that good enough?
Let me give you some frightening statistics.
On average, we tend to underestimate how many calories we consume by at least 20%. So, we might think we’re eating 2,000 calories per day when in reality we’re actually eating closer to 2,400 calories per day.
Doesn’t sound like much? Trust me when I say this.
400 calories per day (compounded over weeks, months, and years) is the difference between you getting into the best shape of your life and not losing a single gram of weight.
Here’s the thing. Obese females tend to be even worse at estimating their caloric intake. They actually underestimate how many calories they eat by a whopping 70%.
Combine this with the fact that we tend to overestimate how many calories we burn through exercise by around 50% and you can see why relying on ‘gut feel’ is a dangerous combination.
Let me speak candidly. Using your ‘intuition’ to estimate calories in and calories out is a recipe for disaster.
Let me be clear. Unless you’re already in terrific shape (I’m talking under 15% body fat), there is absolutely no way you will be able to achieve your dream body in less than 3 months (at an absolute minimum).
Weight loss just doesn’t happen that fast. And if it does, you've probably lost a shit ton of muscle and lean body mass, which isn't healthy or sustainable in the long-term.
What we're trying to do is optimise for fat loss (rather than pure weight loss), so you can lose fat while still holding onto as much muscle as possible.
Here is a simple 5-step process to work out exactly how long it will take to achieve your dream body. To make it less hypothetical, I’ll use a concrete example.
Let’s say you are a 70-kilogram female with 30% body fat. Your goal is to get to 20% body fat.
Step 1 is to work out the difference between your current body fat percentage and your goal body fat percentage.
In this example, 30% – 20% = 10% body fat.
Step 2 is to multiply this difference by 1.3 to work out the number of kilograms of body weight to lose.
Why 1.3? Because around 30% of weight loss comes from lean body mass (muscle, bone, etc) and around 70% comes from fat tissue. So, 10% body fat x 1.3 = 13 kilograms of body weight to lose (i.e. her ideal body weight is 70 – 13 = 57 kilograms).
Step 3 is to determine the preferred amount of weight loss per week, on average.
A realistic target is anywhere between 0.4% (less intense dieting) and 1.0% of body weight per week (more intense dieting). Let’s say a realistic target for our female example is 0.5 kilograms of weight loss per week.
Step 4 is to work out how many weeks of dieting are required to reach your goal.
In this example, we are aiming for 0.5 kilograms of weight loss per week and we have 13 total kilograms of body weight to lose. That leaves us with 26 weeks of dieting.
Step 5 is to add around 25% to that number to give some room for error and also freedom to incorporate diet breaks (more on that later).
So, the total length of the diet for our female example is somewhere between 32-33 weeks of dieting, which works out to be around 8 months.
8 months of structured and sustainable dieting that can be easily incorporated into your normal life. Sounds a whole lot better than 8 weeks of extreme soul-sucking starvation to me. Plus, you’ll actually keep the weight off, rather than just putting it straight back on once the diet is over.
Now that we’ve been able to work out exactly how long you need to diet for to achieve your dream body, we then need to work out exactly how many calories you should be eating daily to achieve your goal.
As soon as I start talking about daily caloric targets, I know that some of you will instinctively switch off and think I’m about to recommend a super restrictive low-calorie meal plan.
F*ck no. We spoke earlier about the necessity of eating less calories than you burn to lose weight. That’s weight loss 101.
But before we jump in and determine your daily caloric targets, we first need to work out exactly how many calories you burn (the expenses part of the saving for a house equation). In fancy scientific language, this is called your total daily energy expenditure.
Now I won’t go into too much depth about how your total daily energy expenditure is calculated because the formulas are quite complex (and admittedly quite boring). All we really care about is the number it spits out.
I would recommend using either the Muller Equation, the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation, or the Harris-Benedict Equation. I like the Muller Equation more than the others, but for reasons that are a bit too nerdy for me to feel comfortable sharing in public.
To simplify things, you can use any of the links on the first page if you just google “total daily energy expenditure calculator”. It’ll ask you to enter some details like age, gender, height, weight, and body fat percentage (can use callipers or estimate based on google images) and spit out a number at the end.
That number is your total daily energy expenditure. Write it down. It is telling you exactly how many calories you burn, on average, every single day.
Let’s say your number is 2,000. That means that you burn, on average, 2,000 calories every single day through a combination of being alive, fidgeting, and exercising.
In order to lose weight, you would need to eat less than 2,000 calories per day. That is called being in a caloric deficit.
The greater the caloric deficit, the faster the rate of weight loss. BUT the harder the diet is to stick to as well.
And the number 1 predictor of weight loss is how well you stick to a diet. Really. It has nothing to do with whether you choose to do intermittent fasting, a ketogenic diet, or only eat meat (yes, people on a carnivore diet actually do that).
I personally recommend starting with a sustainable caloric deficit between 10-20% (this just means you would eat 10-20% less calories than you burn) and adjusting that number over time depending on how much weight you are losing.
I use a pretty simple approach with my clients to track their progress. I get them to weigh themselves every single morning straight out of bed (well, at least after opening up the morning floodgates).
No excuses. Just roll out of bed still half asleep, go to the toilet, and jump straight onto the scales.
You might be thinking that sounds a bit obsessive, right? I would actually take the opposite point of view.
Weighing yourself daily helps overcome the mental hurdle of ‘fearing the scale’ and putting too much emphasis on a single weigh in.
Not to mention that weighing yourself daily also makes it a habit.
Here's another simple reason why I get my clients to weigh themselves daily.
There's just so much variability in body weight that has nothing to do with anything in your control. Like the amount of left-over food sitting unprocessed in your digestive system. Or the amount of water you are storing in your skeletal muscle.
These are all erroneous factors that have no effect on weight loss in the long-term, but can affect your weight by up to a whole kilogram in the short-term.
By weighing daily, we smooth out these ups and downs. And trust me, there will be ups and downs (see the below screenshot of one of my online male clients who lost over 7.5 kilograms in 12 weeks while eating more than ever!).
I use an average body weight for the entire week to judge progress. I compare your average weight this week to your average weight last week and make decisions from that.
There are two ways you can give yourself a break from dieting. Well, I guess there’s a third, but that involves you abandoning the idea of losing weight altogether! Not really the outcome we’re going for.
The first thing you can do is to schedule re-feed days. These are higher calorie days which get incorporated into an overall weekly caloric deficit.
Let’s use some numbers to make things clearer.
Imagine that you’ve worked out a daily caloric target based on what you learned earlier in mistake 4 and are planning to eat 1,500 calories a day to lose weight.
That comes to 10,500 calories a week (1,500 calories × 7 days). Now here’s the thing. You don’t need to eat exactly 1,500 calories a day every single day for the entirety of your diet.
You can distribute that weekly caloric intake however you like!
For the sake of simplicity, you could organise your diet so that you have 1 re-feed day where you eat 2,000 calories (maybe a Saturday or Sunday where you know in advance you have a special event where copious amounts of junk food may or may not be consumed). That leaves you with 8,500 calories for the remaining 6 days of the week.
That means on the remaining 6 days of the week you would be aiming to eat around 1,415 calories per day (8,500 calories / 6 days). It all just comes down to maths.
The second thing you could do is to schedule diet breaks, which is where you eat at your total daily energy expenditure for an entire week.
Here you’re not eating at a caloric deficit, but rather just trying to maintain your body weight for that week.
"What on earth is the point of that!? I thought I was meant to be losing weight!?"
Well, here’s the thing. Weight loss isn’t linear. It never happens by the same amount every week (even though we wish it would!)
And dieting gets boring after a while, so sometimes you just need a mental break to avoid going off the rails (we've all been there...)
Plus, your body starts to adapt to being in a caloric deficit, so we use diet breaks and re-feed days to mitigate this (it’s called metabolic adaptation if you want to sound smart at a dinner party with your mates).
For these reasons, I use a combination of both diet breaks and re-feed days to help my clients lose weight and keep it off for good.
If you got this far, congratulations! You deserve a big pat on the back. You are well on your way to planning out a sustainable diet to get into the best shape of your life. Good luck!