The 5 Key Elements for Successful Fat Loss

Bathroom Scale by Mason Masteka

We talk a lot about efficiency here – not necessarily because we feel everything has to be optimized and made super-efficient, but rather because a lot of things in life get severely over-complicated. As a result people struggle with things not because they can’t do them or they’re too difficult, but instead because they get too caught up in minutiae to make any real progress.

Fat loss is an excellent example of that process in action.

There’s so much information on fat loss out there that it can be staggering. Should you or shouldn’t you eat breakfast? Is meal timing important? Should I go paleo, eat vegan, use a detox program, do a juice cleanse? Should I sprint, run a 5k everyday, lift heavy, not lift at all?

It goes on and on.

Time and time again with my coaching clients I find people have gotten so wrapped up in all these little things that they completely miss the big important variables that are going to have the biggest effect.

Fat Loss the 80/20 Way

we’ve already gone over the 80/20 approach to nutrition. Most of that will carry over here, just because nutrition is a large part of the fat loss equation, but this will be a bit broader of a look at things.

You’ll find – like most cases where you break things down to find the highest return variables – that these aren’t the big, flashy, cool, sexy, technical sounding things. Sure, it sounds cool when you can sit around and spend twenty minutes explaining the intricacies of carb cycling and gluconeogenesis to somebody, but if you don’t have the boring stuff taken care of it’s not going to get you far.

So what are the five high return variables you should be worrying about first in fat loss?

1. Maintain an Overall Long Term Calorie Deficit

If you want to lose fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit overall. The best way to achieve this for most people in my experience is through creating a small weekly calorie deficit in their diet.

There have been a lot of arguments lately over the whole ‘Is a Calorie a Calorie’ thing. Don’t worry about any of that for right now. If you’re overweight, treating all calories equal and ensuring you’re in a deficit on a weekly basis will get you substantially further than stressing out over whether you’re getting fat calories, protein calories, or carb calories.

In order to figure out a caloric deficit, you first have to know how many calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight so you can subtract from it. You can use the Harris-Benedict equation, the Katch-McArdle equation, or the old 12 x bodyweight in pounds equation, though all of these have fairly high margins of error.

The best way is to keep a completely accurate food log for one week and compare it to changes in your weight over that week. If you stayed the same that’s likely roughly your maintenance range. Once you’ve gotten that rough estimate introduce a deficit by cutting it down a bit and continue to monitor things. Don’t assume you’ll get one calorie number to stick to and that’ll be it – expect to constantly be rechecking and updating your deficit as you see what changes your body is going through.

2. Focus on Whole, Nutritious, Unprocessed Foods

Going back to the ‘Is a Calorie a Calorie’ thing, you find in some cases the extreme If It Fits Your Macros adherents. They insist that you can consume nothing but pizza, beer, and ice cream and still lose fat.

Technically, they’re right.

As long as you kept yourself in that caloric deficit we talked about above you could lose fat that way. The problem is for most people it presents a lot of problems. The most obvious problem is, in general those things tend to be less nutritious in a holistic sense.

I don’t mean holistic in the way someone might apply it to a crystal healer, I mean holistic in the sense of having all the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and other things that come along with eating your fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed meats. While they aren’t something you should stress out over too much in relation to more important things like macronutrients and calories, being deficient in them because all you eat is junk food is not going to do you any favors.

Additionally, due to the high caloric density of most of those types of foods, it’s hard to only eat enough that you stay under your necessary caloric deficit. Even if you manage to avoid the temptation of having just one more slice of cake, or a couple more beers, you are likely to find yourself going to bed hungry. Going to bed hungry is a surefire way to ensure you’re going to decide to give up on your eating plan.

Can you still have some junk food? Of course. As long as it doesn’t put you over your calories – but I strongly recommend keeping it at or below 20% of your total calorie intake. Fill the rest with vegetables, meats, and other whole foods and you’ll find it much easier to stick to your deficit.

3. Prioritize Long Term Adherence

Which brings us to number three. Adherence.

Anyone can follow the most painful, complicated, intricate diet and training program in the world for a day or two. Maybe even for a week. That’s not going to help.

You need to treat this like a marathon, not like a sprint. You need to avoid looking at this like something you’re going to suffer through for a couple months so you can not be embarrassed at the pool or the beach, and instead look at it as something that you are changing about your entire life. These new habits and ways of looking at things are for life.

For life.

This also means you need to not make it completely fucking miserable.

I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had try to convince me to let them eat at some insane deficit like 1,000 calories below their maintenance per day, or want some super hardcore P90-Cross-X-Fit-Whatever workout program for them to do everyday because they feel like they need to drop fat right now.

Approaching it this way is like tackling an Ironman triathlon with the expectation of sprinting through the whole running portion. You are guaranteeing you’ll crash and burn, and then inevitably wind up back where you started.

Adherence is probably the single hardest thing about fat loss, but if you focus on making it a priority you’re setting yourself up to be substantially more successful than everyone else.

4. Exercise

Can you successfully lose fat entirely by diet changes alone with no additional exercise? Absolutely.

But why make it harder on yourself?

Do not try to use exercise as a way to create a substantial calorie deficit or as a way to ‘work off’ the extra stuff you ate that you shouldn’t have or as a way to ‘earn’ that pint of ice cream you want to have. It doesn’t work that way.

You should use exercise for two things – the first is to add and maintain muscle mass for a passive benefit to your metabolism and your overall calorie burn throughout the day, and the second is as a way to subtly help ensure that the deficit you created is in fact a deficit given the potential inaccuracy of those calculations you did.

Note here that when I say exercise, that might mean walking the dog everyday. That might mean playing basketball, soccer, tennis, whatever. Unless you have some specific additional goal to train for or really enjoy a particular form of ‘traditional’ exercise like running or weight lifting don’t worry so much about it. Go find something active that you really like to do and do it as often as you reasonably can. If you have to force yourself to do it, it probably won’t help your adherence.

5. Focus on Processes Instead of Results

Many of the problems I talked about in points above (wanting to go all out too soon, not being able to adhere to changes, doing unpleasant forms of exercise, etc.) are all strongly influenced by having a results focus instead of a process focus.

What that means is, people fixate on something like ‘I want to lose 30 lbs. by the end of next February’. In general, this type of goal isn’t always bad – but when it comes to things like fat loss it can lead to some problematic behaviors.

First and foremost is the tendency of people to start to get discouraged if they don’t see continual improvements. When it comes to fat loss, you’re almost guaranteed your weight is going to do crazy things for no apparent reason to you. You’ll retain water sometimes, gain five pounds over a weekend for no obvious reason, and other strange things. Biology is messy.

Many people have this happen and then panic that they won’t make that 30 pound goal or whatever in time. Then they fall into stress behaviors, or make panicky decisions, and generally just screw things up even worse.

Instead, focus on the process. Make a goal like ‘I’m going to stick to my calories everyday for two weeks’, or ‘I’m going to go run with the dog for 30 minutes twice a week this whole month’.

Those types of goals not only keep you motivated since they’re easy to achieve, i.e., the power to accomplish them is entirely within your control unlike the 30 pounds thing, but that via achieving them you’ll find that you’re more likely to meet that goal of losing 30 lbs. than if you had made that your goal in the first place.

Process focus will always outperform result focus.

Going on from There

Once you’ve got all these big return variables down, you can start worrying about the little things more if you want to. Situationally some of them can have a fairly big effect. They key is to leave them for after you’ve got these other five things down, and to not let focusing on them interfere with any of the more important variables.

Do you have anything you’d like to add to these five? Do you have any tips you’ve found useful for following any of them, or for better ignoring all the little relatively unimportant things? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Mason Masteka

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com