The Caloric Deficit Cheat Sheet
Hunger is the enemy.
I’ve lost weight. I’ve kept it off. I’ve written lots of articles about losing weight and keeping it off. I’ve sourced the shit out of those articles with journal references and expert interviews. I’m not doing that for this one (although I’ll link to some of my articles where appropriate). These are the basic facts of what I’ve learned over the years of how to lose weight and keep it off.
How to lose weight: Sustain a caloric deficit.
How to keep it off: Sustain caloric balance.
Class not dismissed.
Certain brainless invertebrates in the low-carb community will dispute the law of caloric balance. Screw them. You want to believe that manipulating macronutrients magically opens a rift in the space-time-insulin continuum that miraculously transports your belly fat to the fifth dimension? Fine, go do it somewhere else. On this website we deal with reality.
Calories are all that matter to weight loss, but that doesn’t mean eat whatever dafuq you want, because quality affects quantity. A low quality diet is often one that is higher in calories, and vice versa. ANY diet will lead to weight loss if you’re in a caloric deficit, even one that is based on Twinkies, Doritos and Oreos. There is a role to be played by physical activity as well.
Many of these things involve self-experimentation to find out what work for you both on the caloric intake side and the burn side, but this is the wisdom I’ve gained on how to manage calories for weight loss and weight maintenance.
NOTE: These tactics should be employed with caution in the interest of maintaining a healthy relationship with food. The advice in this list is not necessarily recommended for people with a history of disordered eating behavior.
Don’t crash diet
I’ve written about this before and how it causes “post-starvation hyperphagia,” which is scientist speak for runaway piehole shovelling. When you create massive caloric deficits there can be issues with metabolic slowdown, but even worse is the hormonal response that causes appetite to run amok and you end up gaining back all the weight you lost, and then some.
During the weight loss phase, keep your caloric deficits reasonable.
Avoid added sugar, fat and salt
They add calories, and they add extra yummy taste that makes the food more compelling so that the reward centers in your brain go apeshit and it’s difficult not to over consume.
Limit the liquid Lucifer
High liquid calorie intake is directly associated with body weight. This includes soda, juice, high-calorie coffee drinks (especially that Bulletproof bullshit), energy drinks, “recovery” drinks and alcohol. Added problems with alcohol are that its consumption leads to poorer food choices, it’s hard to exercise when hungover, and can lead to muscle wasting as well.
Protein matters, but it’s not a miracle macronutrient
Yes, protein is shown to help with satiety, but expert sources have told me that the claims in this regard are overblown. Eat it, but don’t worship it. (Read my article about the problem with protein. It’s not what you think.)
Caloric density should be considered
One Oreo cookie contains the same number of calories as 11 ounces of fresh spinach. How many Oreos can you eat vs. how many ounces of spinach? Which contains more nutrition? Which fuels athletic performance better?
It’s hard to go wrong with vegetables
Eat a lot of them, but not ones that are cooked in copious amounts of oil or covered in cheese or rich dressings.
Eat food that tastes “good” rather than “amazing”
Perfectly ripe mangoes contain about 130 calories and taste really good, but after one, you probably won’t want a second. Potato chips and ice cream and cookies and chocolate cake are all designed to taste amazing and override the satiety signals in your brain so that you can take in well over a thousand calories of such treat foods in a single sitting.
Get most of your calories from the grocery store
Eating out (or ordering in) means high calorie food that is super yummy along with large portions, and it ends up being a mega caloric wallop. Eating out should be a rare treat.
Establish a regular meal pattern
Establishing a routine is good. That whole six small meals a day bullshit has been debunked. Three decent sized meals each day offers a lot more satiety, requires less planning, and helps you avoid snacking.
Speaking of which …
There is nothing wrong with snacking, per se. The problem is what we have a tendency to eat when we snack. When you establish a rule that you are a person who rarely snacks, it becomes a lot easier to enforce your eating behavior around the myriad treat foods that call to us many times every day. At the office there is always such foods available. You will pass numerous convenience stores and drive-through windows on your daily commute. Social gatherings will often be a temptation of high calorie snacks.
Establishing part of your eating persona as someone who rarely snacks makes sticking to a healthier and calorie-controlled diet a lot easier.
Eat almost exclusively at the dinner table
This helps a lot with the no (or rare) snacking thing.
When you eat three proper meals each day at the dinner table (or at the lunch table at work, where you pack a lunch at home and brought it with you), you create a psychological environment that lends itself to healthier eating. You don’t have Doritos and doughnuts at the dinner table, do you?
But it goes beyond that. When you eat in the car or while watching TV or at your desk you decrease mindfulness, and can consume more calories than you intended. Even worse, you create associations with eating when in those locations. If you’re often eating in the car, on the couch or at the desk, you will find that while you’re in those places you’ll desire to eat simple because you’ve established a history of doing so. That’s bad.
Focus on satisfied instead of full
There is an old adage that goes, “Eat until you are eight-tenths full.” It’s good advice.
Stuffing yourself doesn’t really help you eat less at the next meal, and instead just adds a bunch of calories. You want to eat until you do that pause and take a breath thing, and say to yourself: Yeah, I’m good. That’s enough.
And don’t let hunger set in. You don’t have to eat breakfast first thing, but people who eat very little during the day have a tendency to eat the entire kitchen in the evening. You need to keep hunger properly at bay during the day.
Try going to bed a little hungry
This is a powerful weight loss tool. Before bed is really the only time it’s okay to be hungry, because your appetite will essentially reset over night.
After dinner, try to keep any additional eating to a minimum. If you wake up hungry in the middle of the night, then that’s going to bed too hungry. Also note that I don’t recommend this every night. Great results can be garnered via using this technique a few nights a week.
Find things to do besides eating
Stretch, brush your teeth, take a walk, play a game, have sex, read a book. Realize that it might be boredom and find a distraction. Hot herbal tea that takes a while to drink can be valuable as well.
Don’t fall for food fear mongering
Don’t create forbidden fruits, or it will lead to longing and dietary relapse. The way to sustain weight loss is via balance and moderation. Fear mongering of food sells a lot of books (just ask the Food Babe), but it’s not a healthy mindset and can lead you down the path to an eating disorder.
Verb. Allow oneself to enjoy the pleasure of.
Have your treats and eat them too, but understand that in order for something to be an actual indulgence, it has to be rare. Something is no longer a treat if you eat it every day. Stop and think and decide if something is really worth it. Ask yourself if you’re going to enjoy the hell out of something or not, and if you want it that bad.
If you decide that it’s going to be awesome, and at that moment you have a strong desire for it, go big, and go guilt free.
It keeps you sane. It keeps your diet sustainable.
Keep treats at a distance
When treat food is mere feet away, it’s hard to resist because you know it’s there. Create enough of a pain in the ass factor so that you have to stop and think. I rarely keep any treat food in my house, so that the only time I eat it my desire has to be strong enough to drive a mile down the road to get it. Works like a charm.
Don’t believe health washing
Just because the package implies that it’s healthy doesn’t mean it is.
Have rescue foods
Two of my favorites:
- I have the peeled and washed carrots in a bowl of water in the fridge at eye level. When they’ve been chilling in water they’re crisp and awesome and have negligible calories. They’re also healthy, and when I open the fridge looking to graze it’s a smack in the face that says “I am a good choice. You should totally eat me.”
- Ask yourself the question: Can I eat an apple? If the answer is no, then you’re not really that hungry, and if it’s yes, then have some in the fridge and go big.
Weights vs. cardio
This article boils down to psychology. Lifters are more concerned about nutrition than runners are. Often, runners will use their activity as an excuse to eat and drink, whereas lifters care more about body composition. As the article shows, that thing about added muscle massively ramping up metabolism is crap, and from a purely physiological perspective aerobic training wins for weight loss, except for the fact that so many runners think running = eating.
Avoid the reward mentality and embrace your more powerful brain
My friend Dr. Yoni Freedhoff says “Because I exercised” are three words that hamper weight loss because people use it as an excuse to eat. This article shows the effect that exercise has on your brain that can enable you to make wiser eating decisions rather than see exercise as entitling you to a reward.
Avoid mental exhaustion from extensive exercise
I gained fat while training to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I have spoken to many a marathoner with a similar tale of adipose woe. The prevailing hypothesis is not that extensive aerobic exercise (or any exercise) causes a massive spike in appetite. Instead, it wipes out all your mental energy so that you have none leftover to make wise food decisions and resist treats. (Read about so-called “ego depletion” here.)
There seems to be an inverted “U” of appetite control performance with physical activity. At the peak, you maximize caloric burn while peaking your ability to control your appetite. Go over the cliff, however, and you more than wipe out the extra calories burned by making a lot more nights filled with pizza and beer, because you’re simply too mentally exhausted from all the training to make wise food choices.
Marathons are a stupid idea for fat loss, but for the average person who is a decent runner, focusing on a fast 10K can be helpful in melting off the pounds while controlling appetite.
Add in some NEAT
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis. AKA burning calories via stuff other than exercise. Read this for more info and tips on how to do it.
The facts about fasted cardio
Technically, running in the morning on an empty stomach causes you to use fat as a source of fuel. However, if you are in caloric surplus for the day, then this doesn’t matter for shit. Caloric balance is the ONLY thing that matters.
But fasted cardio can still be beneficial, because it can allow you to delay breakfast (not skip – delay).
I use it all the time. I get up, work for bit while drinking coffee, and then when I start to feel hungry I run a fast 10K. Within five minutes my body is tapping into fat stores to fuel the run, and hunger disappears (takes some practice, and doesn’t work for everyone). What’s more, after the run hunger is at bay for about another hour (more intense = taking longer for hunger to kick in).
And then I pig out pretty big. I still have breakfast, it’s just very late. And it’s not some crappy little bowl of cereal. It’s three eggs with fresh salsa, two pieces of whole wheat whole grain toast with butter, and a banana for a total of 600 calories. (UPDATE: In a quest for a faster 10K time I have changed my approach. Read this.)
This approach is a key factor in enabling the final item on the cheat sheet:
The reality of the shorter eating window
There is a difference between running a 5K and running a marathon. Short eating windows are more of a marathon level eating strategy, and I am hesitant to recommend it to people who may have a propensity for the development of disordered eating. It is a “getting pretty lean” kind of strategy that both Hugh Jackman and Terry Crews told me they employ. I often use it too.
Eating only eight hours of the day and fasting for 16 is not a metabolic miracle and it doesn’t violate calories in vs. calories out. It does one thing: It can make you feel like you’re eating more, and that’s awesome.
Because I can use fasted cardio to delay breakfast, I often don’t eat until 11am. Then I eat a big breakfast. A mere four hours later I get to eat big again. And only four more hours until I can eat big a third time. It’s three big meals in a short period of time that makes me feel a lot more satisfied. It makes me feel like I’m barely ever hungry.
And hunger is the enemy.
Conclusion: Do you need to count calories?
I lost my first 30 pounds never counting, but before tackling the next 20 I decided to meticulously track for a month (and I was probably still off, because people suck at counting calories). What tracking did was give me some “caloric awareness,” which is a good long-term strategy.
Some people like counting calories, but I think it sucks. I have a vague idea of my total caloric intake each day, and usually know if I’m deficit or not. Caloric deficits are something that take practice by employing the tactics and strategies outlined in this article. It’s something you get better at over time. Yes, it’s good to know how many calories are in that burger or order of French fries so you can make an informed decision if the desire for it is worth the caloric cost, but beyond that, following the advice on this cheat sheet “should” make it unnecessary to count them. (And I think counting macronutrients takes things to a level of detail that the majority of people don’t need and cannot sustain – I’ve never counted them in my life).
The entire point here is to control calorie intake by controlling hunger while also promoting health and performance (and maintaining a good relationship with food).
One more time: Because hunger is the enemy.
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James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com.