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As far as finding the magic formula for weight loss goes, it can be easy to get swept away in the latest trendy diet or exercise program only to find yourself back at square one again when all is said and done.
That’s because while most people may start out with ample amounts of enthusiasm, many ultimately don’t understand what’s really necessary and what’s not when it comes to achieving real, long-term weight loss results.
From learning how different diets actually work to figuring out what’s really necessary for weight loss, here’s everything you need to know in order to lose weight and keeping it off for good.
Key #1: Understanding Energy Balance
When it comes to getting a better grasp on how to actually lose weight, understanding how the concept of energy balance works can help. Your body takes in energy in the form of food and then continues burning that energy 24 hours a day. The more you physically and mentally do, the more energy you burn.
We measure the energy taken in and the energy burned as calories. Experiments consistently show in both animals and humans, that when the energy taken in equals the amount of energy burned, there is no gain or loss of body fat — i.e. your weight will remain the same.
However, when more energy (calories) is consumed than burned, the excess energy is ultimately stored as fatty acids in your body’s fat cells. As the fatty acid content of the fat cells increases, so too does the overall size of the cells. When the size limit of the individual fat cell is exceeded, the body will grow new fat cells, leading to increases in weight over time.
On the other hand, when your body burns up more calories than you consume, stored fat ultimately gets used up as energy. The fat cells release fatty acids into the bloodstream to be carried to the rest of the body to be used as energy. Thus the fat cells shrink in size, leading to significant reductions in body weight over time.
Therefore, in order to lose weight, no matter what kind of diet you’re on, you have to be burning up more energy than you’re taking in each day. In other words, you have to be taking in fewer calories than your body burns off in order to start targeting and burning up excess body fat. We’ll talk more about how to actually do that below.
Key #2: Understanding How Weight Loss Diets Work
There are numerous different strategies and diets designed to help you lose weight. Most of these diets you see advertised are the result of personal experience or reports published in books and magazines rather than being based on controlled clinical studies.
In this section, we will explore what the science has to say about several popular diets and their effects on weight loss. First, let me emphasize that no one loses weight simply by “eating well”, “eating healthy” or “watching what they eat”.
You lose weight by modifying your calorie and/or macronutrient intakes (protein, carbohydrate, and fat) in such a way that your body needs to release free fatty acids from fat cells for its energy needs.
Unfortunately, there is no one specific diet that effectively and consistently leads to weight loss in everyone. Fat gain and fat loss are very complex processes affected by numerous environmental and genetic factors.
Scientists may know a lot, but they don’t know everything; even though certain recommendations can help, many times it takes some experimentation to find just the right formula for the individual.
Diets that have been popularized usually recommend consuming more of one type of macronutrient while reducing others. Historically, the popularity of these kinds of diets fades over time as scientific evidence demonstrating a lack of efficacy emerges.
In general, diets can typically be categorized into 3 groups: 1. macronutrient altering (ie increased protein decreased carbohydrates), 2. elimination or restriction of certain food types (vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free), or 3. food timing such as fasting protocols.
1. Macronutrient Altering Diets
There is a variety of macronutrient altering diets including high protein – low carbohydrate (Adkins, Zone), high fat – low carbohydrate (keto), as well as, plenty of low-fat diets. Lowering the carbohydrate intake makes sense because carbohydrates stimulate insulin release and insulin promotes fat storage.
Unfortunately, the results of all these diets are mixed and seem to work better for a short-term quick start, rather than a long-term approach. There is a significant variance in the effectiveness for different people.
In addition, there are negative health effects that have been observed including increased mortality with long term low-carbohydrate diets and long term high-carbohydrate diets. Further, animal-based high-protein and high-fat diets are also associated with increased mortality risk.
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2. Food Restrictive Diets
It’s well recognized that most weight loss diet types can predispose individuals to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. However, certain food restrictive diets can further exacerbate these deficiencies. With that being said, there are some diets of this type that may potentially be effective for weight loss, at least in the short term.
It’s true that vegetarian and vegan diets can be beneficial for weight loss. In fact, compared to those on animal-based diets, individuals on vegetable-based diets tend to have lower BMIs and less body fat despite eating similar amounts of calories. However, vegetable-based diets do tend to be deficient in protein, iron, zinc calcium, vitamin D, and B12.
The paleo diet restricts the individual to eating meat, nuts, eggs, certain oils, fruit, and vegetables. What’s notably absent are grains (breads and pasta), legumes, dairy, and processed foods as well as salt. The diet is high in antioxidants and phytonutrients that are beneficial for health and it promotes improved insulin sensitivity, decreased metabolic syndrome, and helps the microbiome of the gut.
As a means to losing body fat, the paleo diet has good short-term and long-term effects. However, one must still be within the normal daily caloric range for it to be effective. One of its greatest drawbacks is that it is very expensive and the food tends to be less enjoyable. Deficiencies of vitamin D, calcium, and iodine have been observed.
Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats and it can not be completely digested by humans. For most people, this is not an issue. However, in some, gluten consumption causes an inflammatory reaction in the intestinal tract.
Though gluten is known in animal studies to increase obesity, there are no known human studies that demonstrate that a gluten-free diet will help you lose weight.
The Mediterranean diet is high in plant-based foods such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. It limits the consumption of red meat, dairy, and alcohol and as such, is high in antioxidants, phytonutrients, and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
The diet has been shown to be very healthy across a number of parameters and to promote weight loss both in the short term and long term. However, head to head against other diets, it has not been shown to be better or worse.
3. Timing Restrictive Diets (fasting)
Over the last several years, intermittent fasting has come into vogue as a dietary strategy that can help to improve health, lifespan, and weight loss. The most common programs — there are a lot of varieties — are the 5:2 diet, alternate-day fasting, and time-restricted diets like the 16:8, where your eating window is restricted to 8 hours per day.
Significant health benefits are noted in humans with all fasting protocols including improved insulin sensitivity, hormonal levels, inflammatory markers, blood pressure, lipid levels. Animal studies have shown improved outcomes in cancer, cardiovascular disease, aging, and diabetes.
However, when it comes to weight loss, fasting approaches are mixed. Alternate day fasting where the fasting group consumed 500 calories on the fasting day and alternated with a less than 2000 calorie day, did lose more weight than the control group who ate the same number of reduced calories but distributed evenly over the course of 7 days.
However, other fasting protocols did not see consistent results across all fasting types if the total daily calorie intake was normal (isocaloric).
Key #3: Understanding What’s Really Necessary For Weight Loss
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula that consistently works for everyone and makes losing weight easy.
Patients also look to a magic weight loss pill to assist in their weight loss journey. Weight loss pills can help. They can increase your metabolism, decrease your appetite, inhibit fat storage and increase fat burned. However, they only work if the calories taken in are less than the calories burned.
In order to consistently lose weight, no matter your genetics or body type, you have to be restricting your calorie intake by 20-40% — that means taking in 20 – 40% fewer calories than your body burns off each day.
If you can do that, it doesn’t really matter which diet you’re on, you’re going to lose weight. In fact, a caloric restriction seems to be the common denominator across all different diet types that actually result in fat loss.
So how do you do it?
First, you have to understand that you need to gradually work into your caloric restriction. If you are used to eating 2200 calories a day and you immediately cut this in half, you will be hungry all day, you might develop headaches and symptoms of hypoglycemia, and most importantly, you will likely fail.
No one ever started off training for a marathon by running one. It is very important to ease your way into it. You first have to limit your calorie intake to a normal 1800-2000 calories a day for several days. After that, you are going to slowly and steadily decrease your calorie intake so you are comfortable and successful.
There are 2 basic ways to adjust your calories: one, you can count them, or two, you can use a diet guide that has already calculated it for you.
To count them, we recommend a free calorie counter app like myfitnesspal for your smartphone. The key is that you have to count every single morsel you put in your mouth. If you don’t record it, you will fail to lose weight. I guarantee it. If you record it, you will have success.
Not everyone loses the same amount of weight with the same calorie reduction. For myself, I have to get down to 700 calories a day to be successful. It sucks, but it is what it is. You need to experiment and find your own sweet spot.
The second way is to follow a guide where the portions are all laid out as in our Simple Functional Diet guide. You can get it free when you sign up with your email, or purchase the Fat Loss Essentials bundle. The guide basically tells you exactly what you can eat and when to eat and there are a number of different programs from 1500 calories a day all the way down to 750.
The Cheat Meal
Last but not least is the cheat meal. It is a reward, but it also seems to help in revamping your metabolism. We usually recommend that you reward yourself on a Friday or Saturday night with whatever you want to eat including dessert and alcohol.
This seems to fool your system into thinking it is not starving and maintains your metabolism. It helps keep your losses more consistent from week to week and it is easier for everyone psychologically to have something to work towards.
Losing excess body fat is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your health. It is a relatively slow process though; it usually doesn’t happen like on TV shows, where people lose 5 – 10 pounds a week.
Typically losing 1 – 2 pounds a week consistently, where you are comfortable and enjoying your life, is a great goal. 1 – 2 a week ads up to 6 – 8 a month and 30 pounds in 4 – 5 months — that’s not bad!
Don’t get impatient. Do it the right way and you will reap the rewards. Be consistent and enjoy the extra years of life your efforts will produce.