How much do I need to eat to lose body-fat?
What you'll learn in this blog post:
How to determine your carb, protein and fat balance based on body type
Making nutritional adjustments
Building meals off of simple measuring guidelines
Simple portion control vs counting macronutrients and calories
Ahh, the slipperiest slope of questions! Especially in a casual setting, it can either be too simple or too complex an answer for most people. The reason clients work with coaches is because a coach doesn’t always have to EXPLAIN everything, so their knowledge is distilled down to simply coaching cues – despite having complex or deeper reasoning. Now, a coach should be able and willing to explain as needed but only up to the point of the client’s needs. A client may simply be told to reduce carbs, while a coaches reasoning may be deeper and that is just fine.
This is the exact reason so many coaches just say “you need to eat less”. For some, this is patronizing as they know they need to eat less but simply aren’t sure how to structure their meals. Surprisingly, less can be a concept others completely miss but not for the reasons you think.
For the latter group, when you increase their protein and veggie intake while eliminating simple carbs and excess fats while increase water intake, they feel more full. Since it doesn’t feel like less, they assume it must not be and then go back to skipping meals, eating high fat and sugar snacks and bingeing at the end of the day. Calories are actually higher with their original approach, but the periods of skipping meals combined with selective “forgetfulness” of all the exceptions, as a whole, feels like less food.
You can already see how deep the rabbit hole can get when dealing with an individual’s mindset, emotions, dieting history and perception of fullness and hunger.
It’s also apparent why SO MANY PEOPLE give up on their nutrition when just “eating less” doesn’t work. I’ve written before how people sometimes self-select a good approach randomly and everything works out. If they eat less, they might just focus on protein and veggies and some fibrous carbs because it feels healthy to them. But plenty of people eat less protein, almost zero veggies and rely heavily on carbs when reducing calorie intake. You can actually lose fat this way, but you’ll probably lose muscle too and not only will you stall much faster but you risk crashing and burning, metaphorically of course.
How I categorize clients
I generally categorize clients into three categories:
Moderate protein, low fat and high carb
Moderate protein, moderate fat and moderate carb
High protein, moderate fat and low carb
It’s simple and even OVER simple but you have to start somewhere and this is how a smart coach builds a client’s profile. You need to ask some questions and make some generalizations and then fine tune from there. Here are some questions I ask myself:
1. What’s their body type? Tall and thin, thick and heavily muscled, athletic?
2. What’s their activity level? Weightlifting, running, interval-based, playing a sport?
3. How long have they been at this weight, level of muscle, level of body fat etc.?
4. What are their current dietary habits? How long have these habits been practiced?
We’ll cover the three body types and how I might begin to assess them. Even though not every person fits 100% into one body type category it helps to find the general plan that would work for them. Then it’s about fine tuning and tweaking based on their results and feedback.
Here are the three basic body types for visual reference. Below we’ll discuss their typical nutrition needs:
-Naturally tall and thin. This client has a tendency to be lean and lightly muscled with low body fat. Naturally (but not necessarily) inclined to aerobic activity or strength training.
The ectomorph client falls into the moderate protein, low fat and high carbohydrate category in many cases. Due to a higher resting metabolic rate and increased thyroid activity, these clients need more calories than the average person and tend to burn a greater majority of carbohydrates for energy.
Because this client tends to have good insulin sensitivity and burn a predominance of carbohydrates at rest and during exercise, carbohydrates should make up a large part of their diet. Since carbohydrates are higher, fat needs are much lower. A high carbohydrate diet also reduces the need for high protein levels as carbohydrates have a “protein sparing effect” meaning they reduce the amount of protein burned for energy.
A common misconception is that protein needs to be sky high for everyone. In a low carb client like the endomorph, fat and protein are used more as fuels, so daily needs for those go up. In a client burning more carbohydrates, fat and protein needs are lower. This is because carbohydrates take up most of the fuel being used so protein is really only needed for recovery.
Since many ectomorphs feel good eating more carbs, they often do so at the expense of eating protein. So even though protein needs are not very high, these clients need to be reminded to eat an adequate amount. Many times ectomorph clients do not have huge appetites, and carbohydrates go down easy so they continue to reach for them – it’s important they include moderate protein at each meal and focus on high fiber carbohydrates.
-Naturally athletic, lean and muscular. Can adapt to many activities and dietary changes.
This client falls into the moderate protein, moderate fat and moderate carbohydrate category. They are often the easiest to make changes with because they have high insulin sensitivity like the ectomorph and the ability to put on muscle like the endomorph. Because of this they tend to do well with an even mix of protein, carbs and fats across the board.
The mesomorph generally can put on muscle simply eating a little more and lose fat by eating a little less. Since they have the best mix of nutrient sensitivity, they respond well to dietary changes and can adapt to low carb, high carb, low fat, high fat etc. and still do well. With these clients I often make sure carbs are moderate to high if they are very active and then adjust fat intake based on their needs.
One thing to keep in mind is these clients many times have been lean and muscular their entire lives so they actually may not have good dietary habits. This is not always true but many times if a client can look good eating salads and chicken or burgers and fries, they will choose the burger and fries. It’s important for these clients to recognize that food quality matters, as does exercise performance, not just looks.
The mesomorph needs to focus on making most meals an even mix of protein, carbs, fats and vegetables and then adjusting total food from there. With these clients, instead of just adjusting one food group, they might respond very well simply increasing or decreasing everything across the board.
– Naturally thick, heavily muscled, carries some excess body fat, possibly shorter. Naturally good at strength activities.
The endomorph client falls into the high protein, moderate fat and low carb category in many cases. This is because people who naturally carry more body fat and muscle most likely have lower levels of thyroid, reduced insulin sensitivity and don’t put out much excess nervous energy like their tall and thin counterparts.
Clients who out on muscle very easily usually have slightly slower metabolisms, they don’t have to ingest a mountains worth of calories to add muscle (or fat) and also tend to put on muscle very easily, whether it’s high volume, low volume etc. These clients generally do better with fewer carbohydrates as their natural inclination to burn them combined with a reduced natural carbohydrate tolerance means excess carbs simply aren’t NECESSARY.
These also might be the clients who feel like they have to do a ton of extra cardio or circuit based training to lean out. Sometimes this becomes a vicious cycle as the extra exercise drives their desire for carbohydrates which may be holding them back.
This person needs to focus on diet first and foremost for fat loss before adding tons of exercise. Because these clients tend to put on muscle and fat easily and have lower nervous energy levels, they often present as having larger appetites and an ability to really put the food away. This is not a criticism! Just an observation.
Because of this, focusing on high-satiety foods like protein and quality fats is paramount. This client also reduced carbohydrates, protein must come up, fat intake needs to be quality sources and carbohydrates should come mostly from vegetables. I might look into a post-workout carbohydrate meal but not every client needs that – remember that point! If someone has energy, good cognition and excellent recovery from protein, fats vegetables and limited carbohydrates, the only reason to introduce more carbs is when a client needs a mental break from a low carb approach.
You can see that these categories help give you a starting point. It also reinforces that you are making good decisions and not just dropping carbs or fat without eating enough protein or vegetables.
Many times clients experience positive body composition changes when they just switch to an approach that fits their physiology – all without stressing about calories! Then if someone is still not seeing the changes they desire, we can look into reducing calories.
But…….how much do I need to eat to lose fat?
I know from experience that many times having clients eat according to their type puts them in a good calorie window that helps them lean out without too much micromanaging.
I basically have two approaches to this. The first is what I recommend to people working on their own without a coach.
-Assign portion amounts to each meal, adjust based on results.
I assign some basic guidelines for each meal and once the client follows this for a week or two, we can assess if they need to eat less or adjust portions. I like to give a little freedom because every single person has slightly different needs and tastes and as a coach, you have to give people something they can sustain. So if I set a baseline and know that they are about 90% within the ballpark, they will see results.
Protein: Women 4-6 oz. per meal, Men 6-8oz (uncooked)
Carbohydrates: Women ½ cup per meal, Men 1 cup per meal (cooked)
Fats: Women ½ - 1 thumb per meal, Men 1-2 thumbs per meal
Veggies: Women 1 cup per meal, Men 1-2 cups per meal.
Adjusting for body type, if needed:
Ectomorph: Reduce fats, increase carbs
Mesomorph: Reduce fat and carbs evenly
Endomorph: Reduce carbs, increase fat
Normally I will just decrease or increase a half a portion at a time. So the ectomorph might drop half a thumb of fat and add half a cup of carbs. The endomorph would drop ¼ to ½ cup carbs and increase ½ thumb of fat.
It’s really that simple and it’s about aligning their nutrition to their natural physiology. In almost all cases, if someone wants to lose fat, I will increase veggies across the board so they stay full and satisfied and get adequate fiber and nutrients.
Once adjusting to their body type stops working, we know we just need to decrease overall calories. In this case, protein and vegetable stay the same and I recommend reducing their carbs or fats by a coupe bites per meal. It’s stupid-simple calorie control and works really well.
We have an ectomorph woman eating 5oz protein, ½ cup carbs, 1 thumb of fat and 1 cup veggies per meal. Noticing she isn’t that satisfied and showed a dip in energy and exercise performance I know she might simply need carbs as a greater portion of her calories, EVEN IN A FAT LOSS PHASE. So I adjust her to 5oz protein, ¾ cup carbs, ½ thumb of fat and 1 cup veggies per meal and see how she feels. If she feels good and has adequate energy and exercise recovery, then we know that ratio works for her. If she continues to lean out; awesome! If not, then my first move might be having her cut out some calories from snacks or choosing a meal or two where she adds no additional fat, to keep her carbs as high as possible for as long as possible, knowing she will do well with them.
We have an endomorph man currently eating for his type at 8oz protein, 2 thumbs of fat, 1 cup of carbs and 1 cup veggies per meal. Because he enjoys protein and fat he is leaning towards them for energy. But we know from the above chart that his fat is on the high side, his carbs could come down and veggies are low. So we might start by simply doubling his veggie intake and cutting carbs in half. If that works, then again; awesome! But if he stalls or doesn’t respond I would look to reducing fat next. Even though he does well with fat, it is still a calorie dense food and we need to make sure he doesn’t over-eat it.
Why it works
I feel like this approach doesn’t take a low of nutrition know-how or mental energy. Because of this it works very well for most people and is something clients can sustain and feel in control of. You can easily use this approach at restaurants, barbecues or any situation where counting calories or grams won’t work, you just apply the visual approach we have been discussing without the hassle of micromanaging.
Building meals becomes a snap! If I sit down with a client, we can build some meals out of foods that they enjoy and give some sample portions. Once most people have practical examples, they can visualize what their meals should look like and it becomes second nature.
If an endomorphic woman is generally following high protein, moderate fat and low carbs, they know that as long as their plate has a bunch of lean protein, veggies and a small dab of added fat, they’re all set. No need to micromanage which veggies are higher or lower carb (in most cases) or fret over whether they’re eating 5 vs 6oz of protein. In the end things tend to balance out and the details aren’t as necessary.
This is where I believe many people get confused. They try to major in the minor and lose sight of what really matters. The metabolism is amazingly adaptive and it’s so hard, if not impossible, to be 100% accurate with measuring that minor fluctuations from meal to meal aren’t the end of the world! No one gets in trouble, no one goes to jail for accidentally fluctuating up and down 1oz protein per meal – that’s totally OK! If the macro police come to lock you up, I promise I’ll bail you out.
-We have the client calorie count and track macros.
This is one approach I DO use with clients but I often see become a complete mess when people attempt it on their own. This is because you have to account for body type, activity level, lean body mass and fat mass and personal client preference. It quickly becomes more than just plugging in some numbers to a calculator.
I do not recommend most people give themselves macros to follow as the likelihood of factoring in all the necessary criteria for their specific goals and body is low. Below I’ll outline step by step how I would initially set a baseline but REMEMBER: there is a lot of variability and adjusting needed which is why a coach is often necessary.
Step 1: Set Protein
Women: .75g protein per pound (women have less lean body mass than men, often needed less total protein)
Men: 1g protein per pound
Step 2: Set Calories
Fat Loss: 10-12 calories per pound
Maintenance: 12-15 calories per pound
Muscle Gain: 15-20 calories per pound
For ectomorphs, fat loss might be what maintenance calories are for someone else. So an ectomorph might be leaning out on 13-14 calories per pound whereas an endomorph might need closer to 11.
All clients should know where they are starting, because if fat loss calories are HIGHER than your current intake, you likely need to spend some time eating according to your type to adjust. I recommend people always start on the higher end so they have room to move down.
Step 3: Subtract protein calories from total calories
EX: If a 150lb woman looking for fat loss wanted to subtract protein calories to find her remaining calories, we would do the following:
Set Protein: 150lbs x .75 = 112grams
Set Calories: 150lbs x 12 calories per pound = 1,800 calories
112g protein x 4 calories per gram = 448 calories
1,800 total calories – 448 protein calories = 1,352 remain calories for protein and fat
NOTE: Protein and carbs have 4 calories per gram. Fat has 9 calories per gram
Step 4: Divide calories from carbs and fat by body type
Ectomorph: 40% carbs and 25% fat
Mesomorph: 35% carbs and 30% fat
Endomorph: 25% carbs and 35% fat
So our ectomorph would multiply:
1,800 total calories x .4 for carbs = 720 calories / 4 calories = 180 grams carbs
1,800 calories x .25 for fat = 450 calories / 9 calories = 50 grams fat
This would leave our ectomorph woman, starting at the high end of calories for fat loss at:
Remember that if she came to me only eating 100g carbs a day and 75g fat, I would not jump her into those macros immediately, we would focus on getting protein in place first, then slowly shifting calories.
Even though 180g carbohydrates might seem like a lot for fat loss (and it might be) for someone burning primarily carbohydrates, they may be quite successful. I have had some women eating close to 200g carbohydrates a day while leaning out, as long as fat stayed controlled. Eating right for your type is very effective!
I also have no problem with someone eating a bit more protein. Some people simply LOVE chomping down on a good steak and who am I to blame them? So if success is more likely if I allow them another 20g protein per day, I might give them the go ahead and simply subtract those calories from carbs. It’s all about giving the client something they can be successful with.
Most people join My Fitness Pal, enter their weight and set their goal as 1-2lbs a week of fat loss. That’s spinning the nutrition roulette wheel! How do you know it will give you calories and macros appropriate for you? How do you adjust your current eating to meet those new goals?
It’s important to realize that those numbers have to correlate to REAL food – so a big part of the nutrition process is turning those numbers into food choices at the store, home, work, restaurants and more. It also means changing how you cook and shop.
I see the macro game steering people towards MORE processed food because it has calories and macronutrients printed on the label. Sure, it makes counting easier but now you sacrifice food quality and healthy eating habits for meeting some random number goal. I would MUCH rather have a client focus on food quality and some basic eating guidelines so we drive home healthy and sustainable habits for life.
From experience, it becomes apparent that many of the foods you find logged into My Fitness Pal and other apps is entered by people who have NO FRIGGIN’ CLUE what they are doing. I once had a client entering salmon she had found on the app that only had 4g fat per 6oz serving. Uh, say what? That’s more like 20 something grams of fat. So you could unintentionally under or over eat if you did not have the food education to catch those errors.
Sometimes I laugh when I see an item entered with NO CALORIES. Wow, what is this magical, calorie-free food? This person must’ve found a loophole in the system. You can guess the trouble this would get you in.
My final thought? Macro and calorie counting require more education and experience than you think. A qualified coach is highly recommended if this approach is your first choice.
A common issue
One thing I do notice is a lot of people who rely heavily on carbs for food (or fat for that matter) will fight you tooth and nail to avoid eating protein and vegetables. Both of you know that it’s necessary for success but some people have been eating one way forever or have trouble with change. So they might say that they “can’t” eat more than 2oz chicken at a time, even though their food log reveals they are full because they had 3 slices of bread.
If changing your eating habits scares you, remember this. It is a process, it takes time. Taste buds, habits, preferences, shopping, cooking and how you VIEW food need to adjust before you feel comfortable with the new eating habits.
It is not uncommon for a client to report every week that they are having so much trouble eating more protein or veggies. So as a coach, I move to the path of least resistance.
-Replace low fiber and protein carbs with higher fiber and protein carbs
-Sneak in palatable proteins like dairy, jerky, shakes and eggs
-Work in new shopping habits; have the client buy some pre-made protein options so they don’t have to cook
-Have them try ONE new recipe a week
Then give them time to marinate, slow cook, and adjust. Throwing someone off the deep end rarely works. But slowly nudging them in the right direction and utilizing little tactics that work them toward the ultimate goal work great. If you do this and then encourage and give them time, it will happen. Taste buds will change. Shopping habits change. Prepping for meals changes.
If someone hated scary movies, would you start them off with an Eli Roth movie? No. Maybe you start with some funny, campy 80s horror movies first. Choose movies that have actors they like. Watch scary movies in the day time; all little things to make it easier for them to adjust. Then, as they appreciate scary movies and feel comfortable with the tropes, story lines and themes they are more likely to be open to other choices. Changing eating habits works the same way. All-in usually scares people all-out!
Eating for your body type works very well. Anyone can lose weight just eating less. Remember that Twinkie diet? The man lost weight, but as a coach I can guarantee he also lost muscle mass along with fat mass. Who wants that nonsense?
If you align your eating with your physiology, fat loss becomes much easier. We are lead to believe many dogmas and it can be hard to change. Eating carbs for fat loss seems ridiculous until the right person tries it and is amazed at the results. Many heavier and thicker clients “magically” do better eating lots of protein and low carbs.
You’ll know when your eating is working for you. You feel better: improved cognition, energy and fat loss. Once you’re there, continuing fat loss simply comes down to adjusting overall calorie intake down or increasing activity a bit.
Nutrition should not be complex; most people NEVER need to go into complex meal timing, special post-workout nutrition, fasting or other fancy protocols. Give this a try and see how much better you feel.