This question seems like it should be a pretty simple one. If you are overweight you should lose, if you are underweight then gain. A lot of people I talk with add a lot of difficulty to this topic though.
I hear things like,
"I want to lose body fat but gain muscle."
I wanted to take a few minutes and share with you how I would approach changing your body composition depending on where you starting. Before we jump into that let's talk about a few definitions that I think will help you better understand the topic and what really matters.
The main thing here is understanding the components that make up our total body weight. Differentiating what kind of weight you want to lose is important and understanding how the numbers move is important too. Saying I want to "lose weight" is vague. It would be like saying I want to increase my net worth. Well do you want more cash in the bank, more $ invested, own more stuff, etc. Let's breakdown where your body weight comes from;
The two main groups that you may hear people talk about is Fat Mass (FM) or Fat Free Mass (FFM). These are broad groups of our body composition. Fat Mass could potentially be broken down further but for purposes of body fat analysis they are usually left as one total.
Body Fat Types
Fat Free Mass is the area that you will see broken down more frequently and where the nuance of weight loss comes into play more so. FFM is also sometimes referred to as Lean Body Mass or LBM.
Fat Free Mass or Lean Body Mass Types
Your overall body fat % keeps things very simple with the following equation.
Body Fat % = Fat Mass / Total Body Weight
Most people that I have conversations with have a total body weight goal. When I dig deeper with this individuals the number usually isn't as important as a look is to them. Most are wanting to eliminate a little "fluff" and have more muscle definition. To accomplish that the main number you are trying to move is your body fat %. Below is a graphic that shows a range of body fat %'s. For most men and women they will need to get into the low end of the "Fitness" range or into the "Athlete" range to start seeing muscle definition and potentially abs. To understand how to measure body fat you can check out this post where I talk about the rate at which you should lose body fat. If you don't have access to any of those methods, the next best thing would be to just do a google "pictures of (fe)male body fat percentage" and click on images then compare to what you look like.
Now that we know where are body weight comes from and what range you need to get to in order to reach your goals we can talk about what to focus on.
To start let's just layout an hypothetical person and what their body weight and body fat % would be so you can understand things as numbers begin to move. There is going to be a little math coming up but bear with me I'll keep it as simple as possible. For this example we are going to break things down into 3 categories, Fat Mass, Muscle Mass, Lean Body Mass. Usually LBM includes muscle mass but in this instance it is just going to be bone, organ and water.
180 Pound Female with 30% Body Fat
If this woman wants to get to point of being more defined and potentially see some abs she would need to get down to that 20% range to get those results. Here is where the math comes into play! Realistically this person is likely going to lose a little bit of muscle mass as she loses weight, and she will also lose some LBM mostly from water. A reasonable assumption here would be to drop muscle mass to roughly 50 pounds and lean mass to somewhere around 65 pounds. So total LBM including Muscle Mass would be 115 pounds. If 115 pounds would then make up 80% body weight, since her goal is 20% body fat, her total body weight would be 144 pounds.
Same Female with 20% Body Fat
Looking at the example above you will see that she lost a majority of her weight from fat (25 pounds), LBM (7 pounds), and a little bit of muscle (4 pounds). This person would likely have accomplished this by eating a in a moderate calorie deficit for probably 6-8 months and doing a decent amount of strength training with a little cardio.
Who Should Focus On Losing Weight?
Now that you've seen some numbers we can dive into what strategy would work best for different groups of people. The people that I believe should put a emphasis on losing overall weight, yeah some that will be from muscle but most from body fat, would be the following;
What kind of training and nutrition protocols work best for this group?
Nutrition is going to be the biggest driver for this group. People in this group should be eating 20-25% under their maintenance level of calories with adequate protein intake, .7g-1g/pound of bodyweight. Studies have shown that a focus on resistance training will help this group lose weight while maintaining as much muscle mass as possible. Too much steady state cardio may encourage weight loss but will lead to a higher % of that weight coming from muscle mass then a resistance trained individual. Go easy on the cardio and lift some weights.
Who Should Focus On Maintaining Weight
Weight maintenance can be a fun place to hang out especially if you are coming off of and extended period of eating in a deficit. With maintenance comes more food and who doesn't enjoy eating more food! People trying to accomplish what is called Body Recompostion would fall into this category too. Body Recomposition is when you are simultaneously losing body fat while increasing muscle mass. It's the 4 leaf clover of dieting. Doing this is tricky to down right impossible for some. I share my thoughts about this in a video I did in my Facebook Group.
The people that should be in this group can be pretty varied but I'll mention a few;
What kind of training and nutrition protocols work best for this group?
It's going to very a little bit based on which group you fall into but for the most part this group should focus their exercise around resistance based training. A person will need to eat at a maintenance level of calories on average. Those trying to recomp will likely need to add in some variability to calorie intake daily but when looking at weekly average still fall around maintenance. That's why this strategy is tricky, there are a lot of moving parts. Protein intake will be slightly higher then the person solely trying to lose weight.
Who Should Focus On Gaining Weight?
In population where nearly 60% of the population is overweight, gaining weight, is a foreign concept to even think about as a goal. The following groups would likely benefit from gaining weight;
What kind of training and nutrition protocols work best for this group?
Like everything there is some variability with this depending on individual circumstances. The main thing is you will need to eat in a calorie surplus. Typically this level of calories is going to be anywhere from 17-20 times a person's bodyweight in pounds depending on their training and activity. You will want to be consuming roughly 1g-1.5g of protein per pound of bodyweight if your main goal is increase muscle mass. Carbohydrates tend to be more anabolic then fat so a majority of calories should likely come from that group.
In terms of training if goals are to increase muscle mass, then your training will almost solely focus on resistance style training with minimal cardio. If all you are looking to do is increase body weight then minimal training would be fine ensuring it is easier to eat in a surplus.
Hopefully this has you understand weight loss. If you have questions about what strategy you should pick drop a comment below. If you have been at it for awhile and still not seeing progress towards your goals I would love to chat with you about your process and what might need to change!
Let me throw something at you???
What if there is no good food or bad food?
Wait but broccoli is good right??? Did broccoli win a Nobel Peace Prize? Did it rescue a puppy from a burning building?
Well Soda is definitely bad! Did soda kick your dog? Did it rob a bank?
Food doesn’t have a personality, it doesn’t “do” good or bad things it just is!
The question you have to ask yourself when choosing foods is...
“Are these foods moving me closer to my goals?”
“Are these foods keeping me sane?”
“Are these foods providing enjoyment? Whether that is through taste, health benefits, performance, or changing your body composition.”
Depending on how you answer these questions is going to dictate what kinds of foods you eat. One of the greatest breakthroughs that I’ve made in my own health journey is realizing that food is neither good or bad. For me foods are either BETTER or WORSE for me reaching my goals!
Sometimes a cookie or ice cream is a good food because it keeps me in a good spot mentally and tastes delicious! Sometimes fried chicken means a dinner out with friends which equals happiness! A salad for lunch is a good food choice to help me stay lean and healthy. Broccoli might be a bad food if the only reason you are eating it is to lose weight in order to look good for someone else!
You see where all of this is going? What’s your relationship with food? Does food cause you worry and stress? Or is a source of enjoyment and happiness?
“What’s the most important number to hit?”
I get that question a lot.
The truth is all of them but if you were holding a gun to my head here’s the order I would rank them if you only hit one or a couple.
#1 - Calories
#2 - Protein
#3 - Fiber
#4 - Water
#5 - Carbs/Fats
Calories are going to be the biggest effect on your body weight. Typically a person is at healthy body weight they have a better chance of being healthy overall. By keeping those in check you likely aren’t eating a lot of unhealthy foods too! It's really hard to stay at your calorie levels if you are just eating burgers and fries all the time.
Protein is going to not only keep you full it is going to ensure you maintain your lean mass as you lose weight. Protein will also help you feel satiated so that you don't have struggles with cravings.
Fiber is going to keep you full like protein and it is also likely going to come from nutrient dense foods like fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds and legumes. By hitting this number you will most likely ensure your micronutrient needs are met.
Water is just critical for your health... drink water!
Carbs and fats I lumped together because if you hit your protein and one of these the other one will automatically fall into place. These are less critical to your overall health, performance and body composition if the things listed above are met. As long as you getting minimum needed amounts you should be good. One caveat would be if your main goal is sports performance I might be inclined to move carbs up to #3 on this list.
These recommendations are for the population in general. There are certainly situations with individuals where certain areas will be more or less important. If you are new to tracking I would start with the order listed above when it comes to which numbers to focus on hitting early on.
Here’s the deal friends!
There’s a lot of talk out there about low carb or keto type diets right now. I wanted to share the top 4.5 reasons, I’ll get to that .5 later, why people lose weight on low carb to very low diets. Let me just start by saying there is nothing magical about eliminating carbs for a large majority of the population that will lead to increased fat loss. I say fat loss for a reason because low carb diets can lead to some initial weight loss but not necessarily fat loss. For more on that, check out my post on How Fast You Should Lose Weight.
So here are the 4 reasons you might lose weight when you switch to a lower carb diet.
1) Water Weight; Our bodies store a substance called glycogen in our muscles and liver. Glycogen needs to be accompanied by water. Glycogen is made from glucose aka carbs so when you cut carbs your body will also lose some of that water that it was storing due to the reduced levels of glycogen in your body.
2) You Pay Attention To What You Are Eating; Rather than a free for all and eat whatever is in front of you, you start making conscious decisions about what you are going eat. That usually leads to better decisions.
3) You've Just Eliminated a Whole Food Group; This could mean anywhere from 400-1,000+ calories out of your daily diet. Chances are you aren’t replacing all of those calories with bacon, cheese and chicken breast. You therefore have created a calorie deficit!
4) You Upgrade Your Food Choices; If you do replace carbs with something it is likely going to be something more filling like protein rich foods or fibrous dense foods. These foods fill you up more which means you consume less most likely. On top of that they take more energy to digest which means bigger calorie deficit.
4.5) Hormones; Why the half??? Well because I think people run to this one first and discount the first 4 reasons. Lowering carbs in some people can help with hormonal regulation, mainly insulin and leptin. If those are out of whack the way you consume food and process can get a little wonky. By reducing carbohydrates in a person that has issues with these, their appetite and energy processing could improve. Even if you do have issues with this things eating a balanced diet with moderate carbohydrate can improve your situation and is likely the more sustainable approach.
Here’s the takeaway! You need to pay attention to what you are eating if you want to lose weight. There is nothing magical about cutting carbs that will help you lose weight if you are still consuming too much food. If you enjoy bread, pasta and rice then eat them just watch your portions and make sure you are getting plenty of protein and veggies with your meals.
If you are curious how many carbs you should be consuming checkout my calorie calculator and submit your results to get a free macro plan with your protein, fat and carb needs.
What is an acceptable rate to lose weight? Or I guess I should clarify that, how fast should a person lose fat?
Why the distinction between weight loss and fat loss?
I like to talk about weight loss in terms of fat loss. When you boil it down that's really what people want and usually need to lose. I've yet to work with anyone I've been coaching that told me that their muscles were just too big they wish they were smaller. This distinction ties in perfectly to the topic of this post too, so let's talk about fat loss and weight loss and some other fun stuff. Ready?
Do you have the view that when it comes to weight loss, more is better??? The faster it comes off the better. I wanted to write this post because so many people I have coached have unrealistic expectations when it comes to how fast they feel the weight(fat) should come off. I think magazine covers, the media, and our social media feeds are to blame for these unrealistic goals. Just take a look the collection of magazine covers that I found after a quick google search.
Everything happens FAST and NOW!!! The media and crappy trainers out there somehow fell in love with the idea that a pound lost per day is great marketing headline! 10 Pounds Down in 10 Days... Lose 5 Pounds in 5 Days... It's like some weird OCD thing where the numbers need match up in order to work on a magazine cover.
Throw in social media where your one friend is telling you about the cleanse they did that helped them lose 20 pounds in one month! I'm slightly guilty of that myself. I did something like that and did lose 15 pounds in 18 days. But it wasn't the best 15 pounds... take a look at my pics below.
I personally notice a bigger change between pics 2 & 3. My 15 pound weight loss was rapid but it didn't change my body composition all that much. I failed to track my body fat %'s back then but I'm guessing I was in the 20% range and maybe dropped a few points even though 15 pounds came off. What that means is I lost a lot lean mass along with some fat. Lean mass is everything from bone, water, organs, muscle, contents of your GI tract, blood, etc. Pretty sure I didn't lose any bones or organs so the lean mass I did lose likely came from water, muscle and waste. Hence the distinction that I pointed out earlier between weight loss and fat loss. Between pics 2 & 3 I only lost 3 pounds but I probably dropped from 18% body fat down to 10%.
Benefits of Losing Fat
Before I share how fast should lose fat, I want to share why focusing on fat loss is the important thing and not just overall weight loss.
How Fast Should You Lose Fat?
Now that we know why we should lose fat, what is a reasonable rate to do it? I'll try to keep the math simple but laying out a few examples will be the best way I think to help you see what realistic fat loss looks like.
First off, I just want to make the point that progress is progress. So even if you fall onto the slow end of progress give yourself your pat on the back that you are making progress.
Second, since we are talking about losing fat, hopefully it is clear that is our goal, let me layout how we should track that rather than just the number on the scale. A few ways I recommend;
Slow Progress; This rate would be losing less than 0.5% of body fat in 4 weeks. An example of that would be a 180 lb female with 30% body fat which equates to 54 pounds of fat mass and 126 pounds of lean mass. So 0.5% body fat loss would leave her ending the 4 weeks somewhere between 29.6% - 29.9% body fat. This would equate to about 0.5 - 1 pound of total body weight lost.
Average Progress; This rate would be losing 0.5% body fat every 4 weeks. So at the end of 4 weeks she now has a BF% of 29.5%. Using the same female as above that would mean average progress would mean losing roughly a 1.5 pounds of body weight per 4 weeks. By the end of the year this person could expect to be in the low 20's % body fat if they stay at a rate of 0.5% every 4 weeks. Which would equate to somewhere around 20-25 pounds lost in a year.
Excellent Progress; This rate would be losing 0.5% - 1% of body fat every 2-4 weeks. Let's take the fast end of that, 1% every 2 weeks. The same female as mentioned above in the same 4 week period would would now be 28% body fat in the same 4 week period. This would equate to about 5-7 pounds of total body weight loss depending on how much lean mass was lost too, you will lose some no matter how hard you try.
Let's talk about this same female and see what a year of weight loss would like if she was doing everything right.
So if she was doing everything right I would expect that she could maintain an excellent progress rate for 4-6 months to begin her weight loss. At the end of that time period she's likely dropped 25-30 pounds and has a body fat percentage around 20%. Not to shabby for 6 months of work!
Now it is going to start taking a little more work, probably a little more tracking, a few more sacrifices and lot more patience. This is a great article about, The Cost of Getting Lean, and whether or not you want to make the sacrifices tradeoffs to get there. Once a person starts getting into that "Athletic" range of body the rate at which the fat comes off slows. This happens mainly because the calorie deficit needed to create the body fat % to drop that fast isn't sustainable once your body fat % drops.
Staying with the same female example if she were to keep going and want to make those sacrifices to lean out even more she could. Over the next 6 months if she was very diligent with her training and nutrition/diet she could likely expect to drop another 3-5% body fat and another 5-10 pounds.
What does "dieting" for a year and getting results like that look like?
However working with a coach can significantly help you figure things faster and get you back on track. A lot of coaches will strategies to bust through plateaus. They may understand why your body is holding onto weight or see patterns in your eating that are causing progress to slow. If I can help you in this area, I would love to help you out. I offer coaching services not only with macros but in other areas of nutrition that don't require you to track your daily intake. Check out the Services tab on my site for some guidance on where you should begin if you are looking for some help.