You can eat anything to lose weight. It all depends on context.
The basics of weight loss
At the surface, the physics of weight loss is incredibly simple. For most of you, what I'm about to explain is something you already know, so consider this a refresher.
Before talking about weight loss, it's important to know the basics of calories.
Simply put, a calorie is a unit of energy. All foods contain calories and all of our daily activities--exercising, walking to work, breathing--burn calories. In fact, unless you're a laborer or professional athlete, most of your daily calories will be used by the bodily processes just required to stay alive.
At a high level, the basics of weight loss and weight gain are straightforward. When you eat more calories than you use (in which case, you're in what's known as a "caloric surplus") you gain weight. Conversely, when you use more calories than you eat (in which case, you're in a "caloric deficit") you lose weight.
(Note: some will argue that weight loss is not just a matter of calories, and to an extent they are correct. After all, if it were that simple, we wouldn't have an obesity epidemic. That being said, this does not change the physics of calories and weight loss. You can read more about that here.)
Why can't I just cut calories?
Everything that I mentioned above deals with the "physics" of calories and weight loss. Unfortunately, human beings are not a static equation.
Remember what I said about "eat less, move more"? If people could simply cut calories until their desired weight, the world would be skinny. (Recall what I said about the hormone leptin earlier.)
While at the surface, weight loss just seems to be the creation of a caloric deficit, there is an infinite amount of complexity around psychology, environment, and physiology at play.
Let's look at the example of Jane, a New York entrepreneur who is currently traveling to the West Coast in order to fundraise for her company's Series A.
Jane is on a diet and using simple caloric restriction. She's hungry (she only had a salad all day), stressed, and finds herself sitting at a restaurant. Luckily, the restaurant's menu has all of the caloric information available, and Jane has been tracking calories today. She knows that she needs 400 more calories in order to hit her target of 1600 calories.
She spots a delicious, decadent piece of "Molten Chocolate Cake" on the menu, worth a total of 1,000 calories.
Jane knows how many calories she needs to hit her day's target. She knows how many calories is in that cake--it's 600 over. She has all of the information at her disposal. Do you really think that it will be easy for her to turn it down? She could, of course, but she also ends up utilizing into her "willpower" bank as a result.
Do you see why weight loss is infinitely more complex than simply creating a caloric deficit? No amount of data, insight, or invention of quantified self, can help Jane with this problem.
This is not an arithmetic problem or a technology problem. This is a human problem.
What we'll do instead
At the end of this section, you'll be presented with two options for dieting--"Track Mode" or "Rules Mode." I'll help you pick which option suits your goals and lifestyle best.
In the meantime, we'll talk about the science-based strategies that both of these options have in common.
Focusing on macronutrients, rather than calories
There are ways to create a caloric deficit while simultaneously decreasing hunger, increasing metabolism, and giving you more flexibility as a busy professional.
In order to do this, we will focus on macronutrients, not calories. Macronutrients are the nutrients by which all calorie-containing foods are comprised of: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. (Alcohol is also one. Sort of. We'll get to that.)
Manipulating the amounts and timing of these macronutrients can have profound effects, and following a few rules can make dieting relatively painless compared to what you've done before.
For example, the macronutrient protein leads to higher degrees of fullness despite containing relatively few calories. A nutrition researcher, Dr. Heather Leidy, actually found that when protein intake was increased in an ad libitum diet, (that is, the subjects could eat as much as they wanted) subjects spontaneously decreased their consumption from other food sources and consumed less calories.
For that reason, one of our cardinal rules will be to keep protein intake high--at least 1g per goal lb of bodyweight. (Don't worry, I'll show you how to count protein even when you're out and about.)
Knowing how to manipulate carbohydrates also has a useful effect. Remember the hormone leptin? The total amount that you secrete decreases when you start to lose fat, and your brain increases your hunger and lowers your metabolism to compensate.
As it turns out, an influx of carbohydrates also leads to a short-term increase in leptin, thus allowing you to remain full. If you consume carbohydrates after a workout, you get the additional benefit of an anabolic response (i.e. building muscle).
Lastly, dietary fat is also useful in that it creates long term satiety, long after your meal is finished. Another one of these myths is that saturated fat is one of the factors that leads to heart disease. A meta-analysis in 2010 by Siri-Tarino et al. officially vindicates saturated fat, as there was was found to be no causation between saturated fat and heart disease.
By the way, if you're interested in how these myths get started and how ridiculously biased society's knowledge of nutrition is, check out this video by Dr. Miller on saturated fats, why they're good for you, and the absurdity of how these myths started in the first place.
Both nutritional options will center around macronutrients, not calories, at the very core.
Intermittent Fasting (IF) is a protocol made popular by Swedish nutritionist Martin Berkhan. IF will free you from many of the shackles of traditional dieting, such as hunger. Instead, it will keep you fuller, leaner, and may carry a myriad of potential health benefits. Some of these benefits include improved cholesterol, possible prevention of chronic disease, reduced risk of diabetes, and better blood glucose levels.
In fact, you may have already heard of IF. In recent days, the mainstream media has recently caught wind of the potential health benefits.
How does it work? You pick a certain time window to consume all of your food for the day. The length of that time window should be 8 hours for men and 10 hours for women. You achieve this shortened window by doing something very simple--postponing breakfast.
"But breakfast is the most important meal of the day!" is probably what you're thinking.
This may shock some people, but that statement is probably the most widely propagated, non-scientifically based statement in all of nutrition.
Breakfast is not "bad," nor is it "good." It's just unnecessary and low ROI on your time.
All studies "supporting" breakfast have been correlational in nature--studies showing that children who eat breakfast tend to do better in school neglect the fact that breakfast-eating children also come from higher income families. Well-designed, controlled experiments show that fasting does not impact mood and cognitive performance.
As far as physical performance, we can look to Muslim athletes during Ramadan. Fasting during Ramadan shows no negative effects on performance, so long as food intake, sleep, and training load are maintained.
Similarly, studies claiming that breakfast eaters are "leaner" are also faulty. People who are more health conscious skew towards eating breakfast because they've bought into the myth. Martin does an excellent job of breaking down the myth in his blog.
Again, that's not to say that breakfast is bad. (I take that back. A sugar crash from Frosted Flakes is not a good way to start your day.) If it's not bad, why skip it?
Aside from the numerous health benefits of Intermittent Fasting, you will actually have more energy in the mornings. That's right. If you are a busy professional who strives to be productive, skipping breakfast is the single best thing that you can do for your return on time. Many people actually feel additional focus during the morning fasting period.
Intermittent Fasting allows you to free yourself from being a slave to meals and to eat on your own terms. This is invaluable for busy people like us.
Finally, Intermittent Fasting allows us to occasionally get away with foods that would normally have negative consequences with regards to gaining fat.
Because we're no longer eating breakfast, we are burning more fat throughout the morning. That gives us a buffer throughout the day to eat larger, more enjoyable meals. Intermittent Fasting also increases your insulin sensitivity. In short, that means that your body does a better job of partitioning the nutrients you eat towards muscle gain and less towards fat storage.
Your diet setup has three parts:
1. Constructing your feeding window--Picking the times of day that you'll be eating. When your program starts, I will ask you to commit to a feeding window.
2. Picking between "Rules Mode" or "Track Mode". I'll explain the benefits and drawbacks of both and ask you to pick between one before your program starts.
3. Constructing your meals--Figuring out the contents of your meals for different days.
1. Constructing your feeding window
The first thing that we're going to do is construct your feeding window. As a refresher, your feeding window is the 8-hour (men) or 10-hour (women) time slot where you are allowed to consume anything with calories.
Outside of the window, you may only consume foods and beverages that are negligible in calories (e.g. diet sodas, sugar free gum). An ideal time to set the start of your feeding window is at least 4 hours after you awaken. It's a good idea to time your feeding window around your lifestyle.
For example, if you frequently have lunch meetings at noon, set your feeding window from 12 noon to 8 p.m. (men) or 12 noon to 10 p.m. (women).
If you prefer to have dinner with your spouse, but dinner isn't typically until 10 p.m., then set your window from 2:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. (men) or 12:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. (women).
You may need to eat outside of your feeding window on occasion if life gets in the way, but keep your set times the same every single day. This is important in order to regulate the secretion of hormones that control hunger.
If you are used to eating breakfast, you may get hungry for the first few days. That's because your body's hunger hormone, ghrelin, has adapted to your previous meal timing. You'll get used to your new meal times, and the hunger will go away within a week.
Think of it as freeing yourself from the chains of having to eat breakfast in order to function properly.
2. Picking your plan
You'll need to pick between "Rules Mode" and "Track Mode".
What's the difference?
On the tracking option, I will give you a range of calories to hit every day. For example, I might ask you to hit 170 grams of protein, 200 grams of carbohydrates, and 50 grams of fat in one day.
If that sounds daunting, don't worry--I'll help you find meals that "fit your macros" at common places like Chipotle (most chain restaurants have their nutritional information online) or give you recipes that you can prep in your office, assuming you have a microwave.
Furthermore, apps like MyFitnessPal make it super easy to hit your target macronutrients from whatever foods you want.
The tracking option is great for someone who wants to get extremely lean (a 6-pack for guys or a flat stomach for girls), is relatively close to their goals, or is "Type A" with their diet and "likes to know the plumbing."
Furthermore, as a coach, I can have more impact in your fitness if you select "Track Mode" and help you if you get stuck.
"Track Mode" does have some drawbacks, however. Adherence will not be easy if there is a lot of variability around where or what you will be eating. This will happen if you are constantly traveling, eating out, or cooking diverse family dinners.
On the rules option, I will give you a set of rules and heuristics that will allow you to progress towards your goals without the need to track.
For example, on rest days (days where you do not work out) I will ask you to consume foods only consisting of fat and protein. That means if you find yourself at a restaurant with a nice steak option, I'll encourage you to pick that. I'll even help you pick items from a menu in real time.
I will ask you to be mindful about your hunger, satiety, and how you react to certain foods. For example, I will ask you to eat to a 7 out of 10 in fullness over the course of 30 minutes.
For that reason, if you are the type of person who tends to be incredibly emotionally attached to food, you may not be the best judge of fullness and may do better using the tracking option.
There's also a lot more variability in using rules instead of exact numbers, and for that reason, many times it will not work if you are close to your goals or want to get extremely lean.
As a coach, I prefer that beginners pick the tracking option and fallback to the rules option on days that they travel and/or have unexpected events.
However, the best plan (and diet for that matter) is always the one that you can stick to; if you cannot realistically prepare your food realistically or eat at the same place consistently, you should pick the rules option.
3. Constructing your meals
Option 1. "Track Mode"
Feel free to skip this section if you select "Rules Mode"
Figure out your macros by signing up for the macro calculator that I personally created. (I'll eventually port this over to MVF.)
Depending on your level, you might get a different set of macros for training days and rest days, a straight set of macros, or simplified macros.
Here's an example from an actual client, a male who weighs 180 lbs, and has a different set for training and workout days.
(Note: Fat is +/- 5g for daily totals. Carbohydrates and protein are +/- 10g)
It will be your job to hit those macronutrients across two meals (preferably evenly across each meal), one at the start of your feeding window and one at the end of your feeding window.
In addition, we will use a few rules to make everything easier.
Simplified counting rules
1. Don't count carbohydrates from fibrous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, green beans, okra, etc. You should eat a serving or two (or three) at every meal.
2. Only count the "dominant macronutrient" from foods. That means that you won't need to worry about counting the protein or fat in brown rice or the carbohydrate content in eggs.
3. On training days, you won't need to count fat at all as long as you use a lean source of meat. (chicken breast, turkey breast, top round steak, tuna, etc.)
4. A medium-sized fruit is worth 25g carbs.
5. A serving of cooked meat the size of a deck of cards is worth 25g protein.
Training day example
Let's say it's a training day. What can we eat? Well, using the target macros above (180g protein, 200g carbs, <=50g fat), I would need to eat two meals, each containing 90g protein from lean meat and 100g of starchy carbohydrates.
I'm in the office at lunch, so I pick up a pack of cooked chicken breast from Trader Joe's with 90g of protein. I'll heat up a cup of dry couscous with water and some seasonings to go with that.
For dinner, I'll order a chicken breast platter from a restaurant on seamless. I measured once before, and that comes out to 90g protein, so I'll assume it's the same each time. It comes with a small baked potato, worth 50g of carbohydrates. I have another 50g left, so I'll get that amount's worth from Pinkberry afterwards.
Alternatively, let's say I wanted to each chipotle twice today. A burrito with double chicken, beans, rice, and peppers comes out to 65g protein, 100g carbohydrates, and 25g fat. I can have two meals of that, each supplemented with a scoop of whey protein (25g protein/scoop) to hit my 90g protein/meal requirements.
Rest day example
I need to eat two meals containing 90g protein, 35g fat, 25g of carbohydrates from starch, sugar, fruit, etc.
A salad at chipotle with double chicken, guacamole, and cheese comes out to 75g protein, 35g fat. I can add a little more than half a scoop of whey and an apple to get to my total.
For dinner, I feel like eating wings. I know that I have 35g fat for this meal, so I see how many wings from Dominos that will get me. That will allow me to eat 14 wings and get me to 33g fat and 66g of protein. Another scoop of whey will round it out. The wings also have 15g of carbohydrates, which taste like they're coming from sugar, which means I should count them.
I'm 10g of carbohydrates short, but my daily totals allow for a variance of +/- 10g carbohydrates anyway. Yes! I've hit my macros.
These are only examples. The group will contain a continuously growing list of recipes, as well as the answers to questions specific to your macronutrients.
Option 2. "Rules Mode"
Note: Feel free to skip this section if you select the tracking option. This section is a bit lengthy.
Your meals will be timed according to your feeding window. Within your feeding window, you are going to eat one large meal at the beginning and one large meal at the end. The portions of these meals should be large and satisfying.
How much to eat--The MVF Fullness Rating (FR)
We're going to use a little invention of mine called the MVF Fullness Rating (FR) which is a scale from 0 to 10. The chart below contains the definitions of some critical points on the FR scale.
It often takes some time for your brain to "catch up" and tell your body that you are full. For that reason, you must eat at a casual, relaxed pace in order to rate your FR during a meal.
The speed which you would eat is if you were at dinner, conversing with your significant other's parents for the first time and trying to make a good impression.
Absolutely famished. Think of the hungriest that you've ever been in your entire life.
Hungry, but tolerable. This is about how hungry you are right before your first meal (if you've been losing weight and have already adjusted to Intermittent Fasting)
Neither hungry nor full. Might eat out of boredom, but otherwise there is no real desire.
Satiated with no actual physical desire to eat more. You could probably eat more and possibly enjoy it if you really wanted.
Full, often with bloating, but no actual discomfort from overeating. "Happy full."
Extremely full with moderate discomfort. Wish you had eaten slightly less.
Absolutely stuffed to the point of extreme discomfort. Could not take another bite.
The amount that you will eat depends on whether you are following rest day (days that you don't work out) rules or training day (days that you do work out) rules.
The importance of Protein
On this option, we will not be counting calories. Instead, we will take advantage of macronutrient properties in order to further our fitness goals.
There is one rule for both rest days and training days, and that is you should be keeping your protein intake high. This is for two reasons.
The first reason is one that I mentioned earlier. When you are eating "ad libitum" (i.e., not counting calories) increasing your protein intake spontaneously decreases intake of other macronutrients, leading to less calories.
Secondly, when your body taps into its own nutrients for fuel, it is at risk of catabolizing its own sources of protein (i.e. muscle). Conversely, an adequate amount of protein will allow you to build muscle and increase your resting metabolism.
Therefore, it is extremely important to consume enough protein as this will greatly prevent that process from happening. How much protein is enough?
We'll use Alan Aragon's rule of thumb: figure out your target body weight in pounds and eat that amount of protein in grams.
If you are a 200 lb male looking to get down to 160 lbs, then you should be eating 160 grams of protein.
In order to count protein, use this rule: a portion of cooked meat the size of a deck of cards is about 25g of protein.
Protein is the only thing that you will need to count in this diet. There's no need to obsessively count--eyeball your food using the "deck of card" rule or look at the nutritional label to make sure you've hit your day's requirements. It is imperative, however, that you meet your protein requirements.
On Rest Days, we will be cutting out all starch and sugar. Instead, we will load up on protein, fat, and fibrous vegetables. You can find a list of these items in the "Food Lists" section at the end of this guide.
Protein should make up the bulk of your diet today, and each of your meals should be loaded up with protein.
Greatly reducing carbohydrates on Rest Days will very quickly help you shed body fat. Your body will be forced to tap into its stored body fat for fuel; when you do consume carbohydrates again (on Training Days), they will actually be extra powerful in helping you build muscle because of increased insulin sensitivity.
Instead, we will use fat--both stored body fat and dietary fat--as a major source of fuel. On rest days, you may add moderate amounts (1-2 servings per meal should be enough for taste) of butter, olive oil, coconut oil, and cheese to your meals. You may also use fattier protein sources, such as top round beef, whole eggs, salmon, and chicken thighs.
Recall the MVF Fullness Rating scale that I mentioned above. On rest days, you will be eating to a FR of 7 for both meals.
Rest Day meal examples
Meal 1 (noon)--Large sirloin steak (8 oz), steamed broccoli, scoop of whey
Meal 2 (8pm)--Salad from Chipotle (no beans) with chicken (ask for double meat), scoop of whey
Total Protein: 180g (remember, we're counting protein)
Meal 1 (noon)--Chicken omelet (6 eggs, tons of sliced turkey deli meat, slice of cheese, vegetables), scoop of whey
Meal 2 (8pm)--Dinner with friends. Grilled salmon with steamed vegetables swapped in for mashed potatoes.
Total Protein: 165g
Eating out on Rest Days
A lot of my clients don't have time to prepare lunch, but they stick to their program just fine. If you're used to eating out during the day, then you can still continue to do so. Just make sure that your meal satisfies all of the rules above with regards to eating only protein and fat, as well as getting your required protein intake.
Develop a "portfolio" of restaurant meals that fit your Rest Day diet. For example, the Chipotle meal above or a double meat salad from Subway with Swiss cheese. Most non-chain restaurants will have a menu item with a meat and a side of starch (e.g. mashed potatoes, rice). Most will let you swap your side for steamed vegetables instead.
Lastly, when you're eating out, don't feel the need to "clean your plate." Once you hit a FR of 7, you are done. Ask your server to take your plate away.
Like Rest Days, we're still aiming for our daily protein target here or 1g per lb of target body weight.
However, unlike Rest Days, Training Days will be full of carbohydrates and low in fat. A large influx of carbohydrates after heavy weight training will create an anabolic environment conducive to muscle growth. An influx of carbohydrates also causes acute leptin secretion (remember leptin?) that staves off many adverse dieting effects.
While this is all great for our fitness goals, there is one important rule on training days--keep dietary fat as low as possible.
The influx of carbohydrates also leads to a spike in insulin. In the presence of insulin, any dietary fat that you consumed during the day will be stored. To avoid storing fat, we will have to keep dietary fat as low as possible on Training Days.
This means that all of our protein sources will need to be lean cuts of meat that are baked, grilled, steamed, or broiled. (You'll find a list of lean meats at the end of this section.) If you use a frying pan, use zero calorie non-stick spray.
The combination of intermittent fasting and some training "hacks" allows us to "get away with" quite a bit on Training Days.
After your training session, you can consume all types of carbohydrates without regret, as long as fat is kept low. We'll take advantage of this opportunity.
If you're like most people, a large influx of carbohydrates will leave you sluggish and lethargic. Because of this, we will shift almost all carbohydrates to your last meal. Your first meal will be lean meat only.
So your meals will be...
Meal 1 (window start) - Large portion of lean protein, vegetables. FR of 5-6.
Meal 2 (window end) - Carbohydrate feast w/ lean protein and optional dessert. FR of 7.5-8.5. (Aim for a lower FR from "real food" if you decide to indulge in a large dessert after.)
Training Day meal examples
Meal 1 (noon) - 8 oz grilled chicken with steamed broccoli, an apple
Meal 2 (8pm) - Grilled chicken, angel hair pasta in marinara sauce, a bagel, low fat ice cream
Total Protein: 160g
Meal 1 (noon) - Turkey sandwich with Ezekiel bread and low fat cheese, 2 scoops whey protein
Meal 2 (8pm) - Family dinner. Low fat chicken alfredo, bowl of Ben and Jerry's low fat yogurt with low fat whipped cream and strawberries.
Total Protein: 160g
Meal 1 (noon) - Broiled tuna and half a cup of brown rice, 2 scoops of whey
Meal 2 (8pm) - Chipotle rice bowl with black beans and extra chicken, 4 slices of low fat Cake Batter Cheesecake from epicureanbb.com
Total Protein: 160g
Eating out on training days
Eating out on Training Days is a breeze. Remember, we're keeping fat low today. Many recipes have low-fat options, which you can thank the widespread misconception that fat should be avoided. Luckily, we can use this to our advantage.
When eating out for your first or second meal, look for entrees with a lean protein, a side of steamed vegetables, and whole grain carbohydrates such as brown rice to complete your meal.
Look for the words "grilled," "steamed," "broiled,"or "baked," since those words typically indicate that the meat is not cooked with additional fat. Again, look for lean cuts like chicken breast or tuna.
Keeping carbohydrates high while keeping fat low may be a bit trickier for your last meal. Remember, you may now consume more refined carbohydrates when you eat out, as long as you accompany them with a lean protein source. White rice, breads, and potatoes are all fair game.
One exception to this is most pasta dishes. Pasta in itself is technically fine but should be avoided on Training Days in most restaurants. That's because they're usually smothered in high fat oils and cheeses, and the large simultaneous influx of fat and carbohydrates is a recipe for fat storage.
For a more comprehensive list, refer to the list of "white" carbohydrates at the end of this guide.
Lean Proteins (Training Days: All meals. Rest Days: All meals.)
97% lean ground turkey
Lean roast beef
Fish / Seafood
Beef / Game
96% lean ground beef
Top round (fat trimmed)
Eye of round beef (fat trimmed)
London broil beef (fat trimmed)
Eggs / Dairy
Fat free cheese
0% fat (or low fat) Greek yogurt
0% fat (or low fat) cottage cheese
Moderately Fatty Protein Sources (Training days: Do not use. Rest days: Use moderately)
Skinless chicken thigh
Skinless chicken drumsticks
<= 93% lean ground turkey
90% lean ground beef
New york strip steak
T-bone strip steak
Eggs / Dairy
Really Fatty Protein Sources (Training Days: Do not use. Rest Days: Use moderately.)
Other ground beef
Other cuts of pork
Other cuts of steak (New York, Porterhouse, etc.)
Chicken wings (good option for eating out)
Additional Fat Sources
(Training Days: Do not use. Rest Days: Use moderately.)
Bacon (It's technically a meat, but we'll consider it as a fat to add taste/flavor because of the high fat content)
(Training Days: Use. Rest Days: Do not use.)
"Whole Grain" Carbs
Whole wheat pasta
All breads (be sure to check the fat content, as some breads will be high in fat)
Almost all cereals
Fibrous Veggies (No need to count. Try to eat with every meal)
Fresh green beans
Almost any vegetable except carrots, peas, and other "starchy" vegetables
Low fat / Fat free ice cream
Low fat / Fat free frozen yogurt
Any low fat / fat free dessert (jello, puddings, meringues, etc.)