Weight loss majors vs minorsNutrition
A lot of factors contribute to weight loss - and with the abundance of information online, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds.
- Should I eat low-fat or low-carb?
- What workout split should I follow?
- Will eating at night ruin my diet?
- What about supplements?
These concerns can actually hinder your weight loss goals, distracting you from the diet and behavioral changes that really matter.
Fortunately, following a few major principles will get you much farther than fixating on these minor details. And only after you’ve tackled the big rocks will the minutia make a difference.
The Weight Loss Majors
The weight loss majors might not seem glamorous, but they’ll move the scale the most. The true secret sauce for weight loss is fairly simple:
- Create a calorie deficit
- Track macros and fiber
- Engage in regular physical activity
- Stay consistent with healthy habits
Create a calorie deficit
To lose weight, you must create a calorie deficit; and if you create a calorie deficit, you will lose weight. Any diet can elicit weight loss if it causes you to consume fewer calories than you’re burning - it’s a scientific fact (more on this here). When you eat fewer calories than you burn, your body will break down body fat for energy, resulting in fat loss.
Indeed, studies have found that individuals in a calorie deficit lose weight, regardless of the type of diet they follow(1).
Nonetheless, some diets are easier to follow than others, and you’re more apt to adhere to a diet if…
- It’s flexible, as restrictive eating can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and to disordered eating behaviors like binging(2, 3).
- It includes foods you enjoy, since pleasure strongly influences food choices(4).
- It focuses on whole foods and veggies, which are more nutritious and less calorie-dense, to keep you satiated(5).
Additionally, small tweaks to your current diet can help reduce calories with minimal effort. For example, you can…
- Avoid drinking your calories, or swap sodas and juices for low-calorie alternatives (i.e. diet soda, seltzer).
- Opt for low-fat over full-fat products to save calories.
- Use a cooking spray to grease your pans instead of a full tablespoon of oil.
- Try lower-calorie versions of sauces or experiment with spices to flavor dishes.
- Sweeten foods and beverages with low-calorie sugar substitutes in lieu of sugar.
When it comes to losing weight, however, a larger calorie deficit is not always better. While a larger calorie deficit will certainly help you drop pounds faster, it tends to yield unsustainable results and greater muscle loss. Consequently, consider maintaining a calorie deficit that facilitates a slower rate of weight loss (0.5 to 2 lb/week).
Conveniently, the Carbon app recommends a calorie deficit that supports a steady, more sustainable rate of weight loss - and adapts dynamically with overall trends in your weight fluctuations.
Track macros and fiber
Whereas a calorie deficit drives weight loss, your macronutrient intake influences the composition of weight lost - that is, the amount of fat versus muscle lost. As a result, understanding macronutrients and tracking them supports successful fat loss.
People are notorious for underestimating their calorie intake, a tendency well-documented in the scientific literature(6). Even dietitians are prone to inaccurate food estimates, albeit slightly less inaccurate than the average eater(7). Macro tracking helps overcome this obstacle to weight loss by keeping you conscious of your energy intake and reducing the likelihood of overeating.
Of all the macronutrients, protein plays the biggest role in fat loss and body composition. Following a high-protein diet during a weight loss phase confers a variety of benefits, including…
- Muscle preservation.
- Higher satiety, which prevents overeating.
- A slight metabolism boost due to its high thermic effect (i.e. the body expends more energy to break it down compared to carbs and fats).
In addition to tracking your macros, you should also track your fiber intake to ensure you get at least 15 grams per 1000 calories. Fiber not only supports longevity and overall health, but also helps stave off hunger during a calorie deficit, which can reduce calorie intake and foster dietary adherence in the long run(8).
To increase your fiber intake, eat more foods like…
- Fruits (especially the skin)
- Whole grains
- Beans and legumes
- Nuts and seeds
If you still struggle to hit your fiber target, research suggests that fiber supplementation can have similar effects on decreasing calorie intake(9).
However, be sure to count your calories from fiber, since fiber does, in fact, contain calories. Although fiber isn’t digested like a typical carb, many sources of dietary fiber (specifically, soluble fiber) are fermented by gut bacteria and contribute ~2 calories per gram - which is half the calories of other carbs but still worth tracking.
Engage in regular physical activity
To create the calorie deficit needed to lose weight, you can also increase your energy expenditure. And although it’s challenging to achieve weight loss through changes in activity alone, increasing physical activity can both enhance weight loss during a diet and enable you to eat slightly more while still losing weight(10, 11).
There are two types of physical activity you can harness to increase your energy expenditure.
- Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)
Many people looking to burn calories turn to cardio, slogging away on treadmills, spin bikes, and stairmasters. Yet, in reality, cardio doesn’t burn as many calories as you’d expect - and people often use it as an excuse to overeat, which can foil their weight loss goals. One hour of moderate-intensity cardio burns only ~300-400 calories, which you can easily eat back in a small snack. Moreover, in a calorie deficit, your body tends to use even less energy during exercise and compensates for increased cardio by reducing non-exercise activity afterwards(12). This isn’t to say that cardio can’t be helpful in creating a calorie deficit, but rather that its contribution is fairly modest.
If you opt to add in cardio, use it sparingly - preferably when you need to expend a little extra energy to surmount a weight loss plateau. And when you do include it, start conservatively with one weekly workout and ramp up as needed.
2. Resistance Training
Though resistance training might not burn as many immediate calories as cardio, it can be equally (if not more) helpful to achieve long-term fat loss. Resistance training promotes muscle preservation during a calorie deficit, so the weight you lose comes primarily from fat rather than muscle. Muscle demands more energy from your body, so you burn more calories even at rest(13); and resistance training alone appears to additionally boost your resting metabolism(14).
Luckily, you don’t have to spend endless hours in the gym to reap these benefits: training each body part twice a week is often sufficient(15), which can easily be done in two full-body workouts.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
NEAT refers to unintentional physical activity that occurs throughout the day, which comprises the most variable component of our daily energy expenditure: activities like fidgeting, cleaning, and walking(16). During a calorie deficit, the body unconsciously reduces NEAT to minimize energy expenditure(17, 18). Accordingly, intentionally upping your NEAT can help create a calorie deficit.
Get yourself to move more by…
- Tracking your daily steps and aiming to increase them.
- Partaking in more physically active hobbies.
- Cleaning and doing yard work.
- Taking your kids outdoors to play.
Stay consistent and develop healthy habits
Ultimately, successful and sustainable weight loss requires consistency and long-term adherence. In order to lose weight, you must, on average, be in a calorie deficit for a period of time: one slip-up won’t derail your diet, as it’s the cumulative effect of your daily food decisions that determines your trajectory.
As a result, building healthy habits is fundamental for long-term weight loss(19), since most of your day-to-day behavior is habitual and automatic. The key to effective habit formation is small steps and repetition: making minor changes that improve your health and simply keeping them up!
It can be as simple as…
- Adding a 10-minute walk every day.
- Eating one more serving of veggies daily.
- Drinking diet coke instead of coke.
- Swapping your nightly candy with a protein bar.
These might initially seem like trivial changes, but over time they add up and compound. And once you form the right habits, healthy choices will become your default, so you can easily maintain the weight you lose.
You can further support the habit formation process through habit stacking, a strategy in which you attach a desired behavior to a pre-existing habit(20). For example, plan to take a walk after lunch every afternoon. By associating walking with a current habit (i.e. having lunch), you’re more likely to perform it consistently until it becomes its own habit.
The Weight Loss Minors
Once you’ve addressed all the weight loss majors, you can start fine-tuning the weight loss minors to further optimize your weight loss journey. In most cases, these minor details are incredibly nuanced and ultimately depend on what works for you.
What’s the best diet?
There’s plenty of debate around the best diet: some swear by keto, others by paleo, and yet others by veganism, low-carb, and low-fat…Overall, there isn’t one best diet for everyone, and food selection is highly individual.
Nevertheless, the best diet generally includes adequate protein and fiber, whole foods, and lots of fruits and veggies.
As for macro ratios, protein takes priority, followed by whatever ratio of fats and carbs you prefer: low-fat and low-carb diets are equally effective at weight loss, assuming dietary adherence(21).
Dietary fat is essential, so avoid restricting your fat intake too severely. But beyond that requirement, experiment with different fat/carb ratios to see what you like.
You may find yourself enjoying a low-carb diet - in which case, strive to get your fat sources primarily from unsaturated fats, which are deemed more heart healthy and provide numerous health benefits (particularly omega-3 fats(22, 23)).
However, simply because carbs aren’t an essential macronutrient doesn’t mean they don’t have their own advantages. Because the body preferentially uses carbs as fuel, following a higher carb diet can support exercise performance and help spare muscle during a calorie deficit.
Does meal timing matter?
The intermittent fasting crowd has popularized the importance of meal timing; and myths continue to circulate claiming that nighttime snacking will make you fat. Fortunately, many of these claims are total nonsense. The best meal schedule is the one that fits your lifestyle. Choose a meal schedule that you enjoy and that keeps you satiated. For some, that may involve smaller, more frequent meals; and others may prefer larger, less frequent feedings. In the end, it’s up to you.
That said, for those looking to maximize muscle protein synthesis, the research recommends evenly distributing your protein intake across the day(24): optimally, eat ~20-40 grams of protein per meal, with 3-4 meals spread throughout the day(25).
What type of exercise should I do?
The resounding theme of individual preference applies to physical activity as well: the best form of exercise is the one you’ll actually do. Don’t force yourself to trot on a treadmill if you hate it and would rather go on a hike. You’ll rarely stick with workouts you dread.
Aside from personal preference, some may find that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) fits their schedule better than low-intensity cardio, as it burns comparable calories in a shorter period of time(26). What’s more, HIIT provides a larger metabolic boost(27) and preserves muscle more than longer low-intensity training(28). Nonetheless, the high intensity nature of HIIT can interfere with recovery and increase the risk of injury when improperly programmed and performed.
In the end, resistance training may actually facilitate fat loss more than cardio - and there are some basic guidelines for decent resistance training programming.
In particular, a good resistance training routine…
- Trains each body part at least twice per week.
- Focuses on big compound lifts, like squats and deadlifts.
- Progressively overloads each muscle by increasing volume (i.e. weight, reps, or sets) over time.
Lastly, walking is perhaps the most highly underrated physical activity: it’s low-impact, low-risk, low-intensity, convenient, and actually boosts recovery by promoting blood flow without excessively taxing your muscles and nervous system. Any physical activity beats no activity - and walking benefits health and longevity more than you’d think!
What supplements are worth it?
While supplements can’t replace a healthy diet and lifestyle, there are some research-backed products that can help you along your weight loss journey…
- Protein powder can help you reach your protein targets if you’re struggling to get sufficient protein from food sources. Recommended dosage: as needed.
- Creatine is one of the most widely studied and useful sports supplements, found to support physical performance and muscle building(29, 30). Recommended daily dosage: 5g.
- Caffeine is a well-known stimulant that can boost energy levels and force output(31).vRecommended dosage: ~3-6mg/kg (approximately 150-400mg)
- Fish oil contains EPA and DHA, omega-3 fatty acids that promote brain and heart health, reduce inflammation, enhance recovery, and improve mood and cognition(32). Recommended daily dosage: ~2g EPA/DHA.
- Vitamin D is essential for many bodily processes and specifically supports bone, cardiovascular, brain, and immune health. Vitamin D deficiency is incredibly common and particularly prevalent among those with obesity(33). Recommended daily dosage: as needed (get bloodwork to check your levels).
Are you majoring in the minors?
Don’t micromanage your weight loss! It’s tempting to waste energy worrying about the weight loss minors while ignoring the fundamental lifestyle changes necessary for successful, sustainable fat loss.
First focus on creating a calorie deficit, monitoring your food intake, staying physically active, and keeping consistent.
Afterwards you can consider the specifics on food and exercise selection, meal timing, and supplementation.
Weight loss doesn’t have to be hard when you focus on the basics. Set the minors aside until you dial in the majors, and you’ll reach your goal much faster.
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