Throw your eyes back to that title. It’s important and I want to clarify why.
First, you’ll notice the word “simple”. Dieting should NOT be complex, complicated or need insane amounts of willpower. In fact, one way to guarantee you fail is to base your plan solely on willpower.
Second, notice the word “sustainable”. In a world where rapid, extreme, insane, or super-speed-mega-hyper results are revered, sustainable approaches are often rejected by dieters. They aren’t sexy enough. They don’t get amazing results in even more amazing time frames.
This is a critical distinction between what I advise people on as opposed to the usual “rapid fat loss” diet protocols you’ve undoubtedly seen. You see, losing fat is actually amazingly easy. You or any “failed dieter” out there does not have a fat loss problem. You have a problem for sustaining that for any length of time. Virtually every dieter loses weight. The problem is, close to all of them will re-gain it, often surpassing their starting point in the process.
So how do you avoid this?
How do you lose fat AND keep it off?
There is no one single approach. No one diet. No single “right way”.
But there are a set of rules that EVERY successful approach must have.
There are other pieces to this picture like sleep, stress, exercise and most importantly the relationships you share with other human beings. But for the sake of this post, I’ll just look at nutrition. So go nail these 6 aspects. If you get these down, success is close to guaranteed.
1) Create a caloric deficit
This is listed as number one because it’s simply unavoidable. No matter what you do, it is an impossibility to lose fat if you are not in a calorie/energy deficit. In other words, your body must be using more energy than you expend.
So how do you work out what your calorie requirements are? There are endless places online to calculate an estimate of your required calorie intake. I go through all this calculation in the Sigma System (link). But feel free to use whatever calculator you want.
A better method may be to track your calorie intake and bodyweight for 7 days. Average out the figures. If you are roughly around the same bodyweight then your average calorie intake (barring some crazy outliers messing up the average) over that week is equal to your mainenance calorie intake. In other words, on this average figure is how much you need to eat to stay the same weight. Once you know this figure then reduce it by 10-20% depending on how aggresive of a cut you want. 15% is as high as I usually go with clients initially, unless they are in an extreme scenario.
So, now some of you may be thinking “so low-calorie foods are good and high-calorie foods are bad”. Well… while calories DO matter, a good dieting program is not ONLY about calories. Food quality matters too.
2) Base a majority of your diet on minimally-processed, real foods.
To clarify, I class “real food” as things like: meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes (beans, peas, lentils), dairy products and whole grains (oats, buckwheat, amaranth, wheat, etc.). There is a lot to this that I won’t get into but what I will say is that when you focus more on whole real foods, not only does the nutrient-density of your diet go up but it also helps with your natural ability to regulate your intake.
We have all these internal mechanisms in our body via the gut-brain axis, HPA system and the communication between our brain and our fat cells (e.g. leptin circulation) that can prevent us from over-consuming and gaining fat.
However, when we find ways to override these mechanisms it becomes extremely difficult to naturally regulate our own intake. Without going into this complex area, one way we can bypass much of our own regulation is via high consumption of extremely palatable foods. Think of highly processed foods that combine low-protein, low-fibre, high-sugar, high-fat, salt, starch, smell, texture and crunch. They trigger off an amazing response in the brain without increasing satiety or satiation to the point where we can stop after a reasonable intake.
An unfair, yet simple, example would be to ask what is it easier to over-consume calories on: sitting down with a tube of Pringles or sitting down with an equivalent number of calories from chicken and potatoes. Which one are you likely to not want to finish?
3) Hit adequate protein intake
Whilst different macronutrient breakdowns will be required depending on a whole host of factors related to the individual case, the most important thing to get right is protein. In fact, I could make the argument that more a decent majority of the general public, if they hit adequate calorie and protein numbers then they could just let carbs and fat intake fall into place naturally. And before anyone goes crazy, that is just a general broad brush stroke comment.
So what’s adequate protein?
Most research looking at training individuals will point to a level of somewhere between 1.4-2.5 g PRO per kg of bodyweight. I won’t go too deep into it in this post but I usually see the sweetspot as 1.8-2.4 g /kg. With 2 g/kg BW being perfect for most people. I’ll then push more towards 2.5 g/kg BW in individuals who are dieting, already relatively lean and/or doing high volumes of training.
4) Don’t restrict your favourite foods
So while “real food” wins it should not mean that we can never have our favourite foods. Complete elimination of something you truly love is both unnecessary and likely to cause you to breakdown and binge at some point.
So how do you solve the conundrum? Get 80-90% of your calories from real food and factor in your absolute favourite foods so that you can still hit your calorie goal.
If you don’t track calories, one simple way to think about it is as follows:
Eat 4 times per day. That’s 28 meals per week. Make 24 of them be based on good quality, nutrient-dense whole foods. The other 4 can be your favourites. But plan ahead. Keep them for a meal with friends, a cinema date or a few drinks of a Saturday night. Don’t waste your 10-20% allotment on mindless snacking.
5) Include foods of high satiety and high satiation value
If you’re in a calorie deficit because you are trying to lose body fat, your biggest obstacle is going to be mental. Being hungry sucks. So how do you eat less without feeling super deprived? Load up on foods that are high in satiety and satiation.
Make sure each meal has a decent whack of protein (meat/eggs/whey protein/etc.). Include high fibre foods like pinto beans or chickpeas. Potatoes are also great for satiation. And load your plate up with as much vegetable matter as possible.
Vegetables are awesome because they tick so many boxes: they are packed with micro-nutrients, they are low in calories and if you eat lots of them you can fill your stomach, get stretch-receptors in your stomach working and kick off a high satiation response. Result? You don’t feel hungry.
6) Be Consistent
The “Best Diet” is the one you stick to. Simple as.
This has been my biggest downfall in the past. I used to get caught up in the minutiae of unimportant details as opposed to being consistent with the things that matter, namely the previous four points in this post. Thankfully I’m much better these days. So what did I find was the “best” approach?
Pick an approach/philosophy you can see yourself following for a LONG time. Years. Ideally for life.
A perfect diet for 4 weeks before your holiday followed by a return to “normal” eating is a recipe for disaster.
You’ve got to play the long game. Make your journey a marathon and you’ll cross the line a champ. Make it a sprint and you’re going straight off the edge of a cliff.
Eat mostly good food, hit a suitable intake of calories and protein, sleep 7-9 hours a night, do some form of exercise and don’t stress over unimportant things. Do that and repeat each day.
One take-away message I always try to leave people with is this:
Never forget that.