Successful fat loss – a numbers (macros) game

Contributed by Yongdan Tang, PhD.

Physique improvement at any given moment can simply be classified as either fat loss or muscle gain. Simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain can happen, but under very specific situations which are hard to set as a goal for recreational lifters. Weight loss is the buzz word in many commercials, especially the ones targeted at women. In fact, the actual result that most people desire in the mirror is fat loss.

If you can’t decide between fat loss and muscle gain, renown nutrition coach Andy Morgan has an excellent series to help you determine where you are, and how to set your strategy.

Some of the benefits of fat loss include:

Fitness level up
This is obvious. As the Body Fat (BF) % goes down with minimum muscle loss, the body carries less burden when executing various movements and exercises. Hence, overall strength, power and stamina improves.

Favorable composition for greater muscle mass gain
This is based on a principle known as nutrition partitioning – as your BF% becomes lower, a higher percentage of your subsequent weight gain will go to muscle instead of fat. Favorable BF% are below 15% for men, and below 25% for women.

Getting ripped or toned is the ‘plastic surgery’ virtually anyone can afford, and should actually get into. And it doesn’t just reflect in your abs or midsection; even your jawline and cheekbones become visibly more chiseled!

So how should we eat to achieve healthy fat loss? Refer to the nutritional pyramid from our previous blog, and this list:

Establish a controlled caloric deficit
The correct way is to sustain a slight caloric deficit against TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure), thereby utilizing fat as an energy source. Aggressive weight loss diet plans cost precious muscle mass and strength as our body’s survival instinct triggers a surge in catabolic hormones to decrease metabolic expenditure in response to a huge caloric deficit. The result of such a weight loss plan is often a skinny, bony and weak look.

Emphasis on certain foods or eating patterns without the context of caloric intake is almost always bound to fail. For example, two of the most popular fat-loss diets currently trending are the ketogenic diet and the Paleo diet. Both promote an almost carbohydrate-free approach. Yet the calories in a tablespoon of coconut oil – practically a ‘magic elixir’ in these trendy diets – is almost equivalent to that of a small bowl of rice (100g); nuts, the other commonly advocated ‘superfood’, are also very calorie-dense. Eating more of these may be ‘healthy’, but it doesn’t always result in fat loss if you’re ultimately not caloric deficient. Being mindful of your total caloric intake is essential to achieving a successful ‘cut’.

Maintain or even increase muscle mass
Another priority is to maximize muscle mass retention as weight loss comes in a combination of fat, water and muscle loss. During the initial phase of cutting when BF% is high, muscle gain sometimes happens alongside fat loss because fat loss can be used to fuel total activities and anabolism. As protein repairs and builds muscles, eating sufficient protein (1 – 1.4g / lbs bodyweight) is critical. Moreover, protein has the highest TEF (Thermic Effect of Food) – basically it means your body effectively burns a greater number of calories per day when you consume more protein. So high protein diets have proven effectiveness during fat loss in the bodybuilding community. As for carbs or fat, different genetic dispositions may have variations in the utilization efficiency during a cut. meal frequency and food choice can help.

Meal frequency and timing
While meal frequency and timing are not the determining factors for fat loss, they can be effective tools. The Lean Gain advocate, nutritional consultant and fitness model Martin Berkhan advises a 16hr Fasting / 8hr Feeding type of intermittent fasting(IF) which does help to simplify lifestyle and increase diet compliance by saving more calories to the time of the day when you feel most hungry hence, increase satisfaction from overall less calories. IF is also said to have other health benefits including better mental focus, more stable energy levels and more favorable hormonal environment to burn stubborn fat, although long term assessment on IF is still sparse.

Food choices
Smart food choices also reduce hunger during a cut. Using whole foods like fiberous complex carbs help to volumize the food, making them more satisfying. A good example is whole kernel oatmeal: when slow cooked, it can swell into a much larger volume of porridge. Fiber within the oats not only takes longer to digest, but is crucial for gastrointestinal track health. Lastly, chewing instead of drinking the macronutrients also makes them last longer in your stomach. A protein shake and a portion of chicken may have the same amount of protein, but the latter will help to last longer through the day.

So if you wish to get ripped or toned, getting the maths right is the rule of the game!

Contributed by Yongdan Tang.

Yongdan holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, and built a career in the healthcare and medical industries. He began weight lifting 15 years ago, and has successfully set up diets and training plans.


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