A detailed guide to fat loss and how to get started on your weight loss journey.

Posted by Shaun LaFleur on



Many put off starting a weight loss journey because of the sheer amount of conflicting information found online about the best methods to lose weight. Countless articles swear they hold the “best fat loss diet” or “best exercise for fat loss.” I’m here to tell you that the truth is much more straightforward than many of these other websites or articles claim. You don’t need some fancy diet, supplement, or exercise program to elicit optimal fat loss. All you need is a little bit of foundational knowledge of how fat loss occurs and consistency. Once you understand how fat loss occurs, you'll be amazed at how straightforward it truly is. 

Once you finish this article, you will have a clear understanding of what needs to be done to reach your fat loss goals and will thank yourself for sticking through till the end. What follows is a step by step process of learning and applying the concepts involved in losing body fat.


Understanding how weight loss occurs

The first step to tackling a weight loss journey is understanding what causes weight loss. Weight loss occurs when you are in a negative energy balance. A negative energy balance is when your body burns off more calories than it takes in. There are no other methods that cause weight loss, you must create a negative energy balance to lose weight. When your body runs out of energy from food, it turns to itself for the remainder of its energy needs. This is what causes weight loss. It's not the types of foods you eat, it's not the type of exercise you do and it's not some secret supplement - it's simply consuming fewer calories than your body burns every day. 


CICO (Calories In Versus Calories Out)

Calories in refers to calories consumed, while calories out refers to how many calories your body burns. A negative energy balance can be created by either eating less, burning more calories, or a combination of the two. Weight loss will not occur if you are not in a negative energy balance, regardless of how much exercise you're performing or how healthy your diet is. It also does not matter what types of food you eat (whether those foods are healthy or unhealthy, "clean" or "dirty", keto or low carb, etc). If you are not in a negative energy balance, you will not lose weight [1][2][3].


Finding your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure)

The first step to creating a negative energy balance is to find how many calories your body burns on average every day. This is often called your Total Daily Energy Expenditure or TDEE for short. Calculating your TDEE is considered the most effective way to determine daily calorie needs [4][5][6]. If you were to eat this amount of calories daily, you would maintain the same body weight. Knowing your TDEE gives you a starting point so that you know how many calories you should consume for weight loss, because weight loss, as mentioned, is simply a product of consuming fewer calories than your body burns (there are NO other mechanisms to weight loss, it's all a numbers game).

To calculate your TDEE, click [here] to use our TDEE calculator. Once you do this calculation, you should have an estimate of your TDEE. Though this is likely not your true TDEE, because energy expenditure varies from person to person and your daily activity may fluctuate. If you want a more accurate TDEE, I suggest testing it in the following way:

  1. Get your estimated TDEE from the above formula.
  2. Eat exactly that many calories for 2-3 weeks.
  3. Weigh yourself once a week under the same conditions and note any changes.
  4. Considering that a pound of fat consists of roughly 3500 calories, we can do simple math to figure out your actual TDEE. If your estimated TDEE is 2500 calories and you lose one pound a week when eating this amount daily, then we know your true TDEE is 3000 because you must have been eating in a weekly deficit of 3500 calories (or 500 below your true TDEE every day) to lose one pound.


If possible, start tracking your daily steps.

Before starting your weight loss journey, it's a good idea to start tracking and logging your daily steps. This can be done from most smartphones or smartwatches. Tracking steps will give you a better idea of your daily activity and how much it fluctuates from day to day. This can give you very useful data to look back on if you ever hit a weight loss plateau.


Start with flexible dieting.

Since we know CICO is what matters for weight loss and not the type of foods you eat, we know that restrictive diets such as Keto or Low Carb are unnecessary. When comparing a keto diet to a traditional low-calorie diet and controlling for calorie intake, both diets will elicit the same amount of weight loss [7]. Since a more flexible diet is typically easier to adhere to and is just as effective, it's the best way to start a weight loss journey.

I go into the details of flexible dieting in my article [An Introduction To Flexible Dieting], but the gist is that flexible dieting is a dieting strategy where no specific foods or food categories are off-limits. You are allowed to eat anything as long as you track total calorie intake. Simply estimate your TDEE using the method above and then determine your calorie goals, then eat any foods you enjoy while adhering to those calorie goals. You don't need to worry about avoiding certain foods, food categories, or macronutrients; eat to your heart's content, within calorie limits.


Only use special diets such as keto if they help you adhere to a negative energy balance

Even though diets such as keto and low carb aren't more effective than a traditional low-calorie diet, that doesn't mean they have no utility at all. They can be great approaches for those who have trouble controlling their calorie intake when they allow themselves to eat whatever foods they desire. For those types of dieters, sticking to a more restrictive diet that forces them to avoid certain foods may allow them to stay in a negative energy balance much more easily, which is the most important factor in terms of weight loss.

If you find yourself having trouble sticking to your calorie goals because of specific food choices, then following something like the keto diet or taking a low-carb approach can be good a method of dealing with this problem. For some, a flexible diet is simply too flexible and results in higher calorie consumption.


Weight loss vs fat loss.

When you lose weight, the weight that comes off can be a mixture of fat and lean tissue. While everyone who wants to reduce their body fat says they want to lose weight, what they really want is to lose fat.  No one (I hope!) has the goal of losing bone and muscle tissue. When you lose weight without resistance training and consuming a high protein diet, a large portion of the bodyweight lost will be lean tissue [8]. Resistance training will help improve your body composition, which is the actual goal in mind when someone wants to lose fat, to begin with - they want to look better.

To maximize fat loss and avoid losses in lean tissue, you need to resistance train. When you train your muscles, you signal to your body that your muscle and bones are important, so when the body turns to itself for energy, it pulls from fat stores instead of lean tissue, resulting in a much higher percentage of total body fat lost. If two identical people lose 20 lbs, but one resistance trains while the other does not, the person who resistance trained will lose much more body fat than the person who did not, despite losing the same amount of weight.


What type of resistance training should you do?

You may be wondering what type of resistance training you should do. Thankfully, the answer is that most resistance training programs you find online will be adequate. Powerlifting programs, bodybuilding programs, and anything in between is acceptable, as long as it falls under the anaerobic category and trains every muscle in your body at minimum 1-2 times a week. This also means you can use things like dumbbells, resistance bands, and even bodyweight exercises. As long as you follow basic resistance training principles and [train hard enough] you can be sure that you're sparing your muscle and helping burn off body fat. You can find our beginner program [here]


Start tracking protein intake to facilitate muscle recovery and fat loss.

Because you're going to be resistance training, you need to consume adequate amounts of protein to facilitate muscle recovery, which helps maintain and grow muscle. Regardless of which diet you're following, you must consume adequate amounts of protein. The recommended protein intake is a general range and as long as you consume protein levels within this range and are progressing in the gym, it's safe to assume you're consuming enough. The recommended protein intake is 1.2-2g per kg of body weight [9].


Stop obsessing over scale weight

If you're losing weight the right weight, you'll be resistance training. When you resistance train, especially if you're a beginner, you'll build muscle in the process, even when you're eating in a negative energy balance. This can sometimes mask fat loss on the scale, because while you're losing weight from fat loss, you're gaining weight from muscle gain.

This means that the scale should be used to track long term weight trends, rather than short term. Just because the scale didn't move, or even went up slightly, does not mean you're not making progress. After all, losing 1 lb of fat while building 1 lb of muscle while have a bigger positive impact on your physique than simply losing 1 lb of fat, despite the former resulting in the scale not budging. Muscle building, however, is rather limited, so your weight should decrease in the long term and the scale will likely represent this if you continue to weigh yourself weekly over longer periods.

While the scale is still an important tool to track long term progress, for short term progress it may be a good idea to take body measurements in different areas and use progress photos to help track progress and alleviate any anxiety around progress.


Introduce cardio to increase TDEE and speed up weight loss.

While resistance training should make the bulk of your exercise for weight loss, cardio can be introduced to increase the number of calories you burn daily and speed up the rate at which you lose weight. Cardio, however, should take a back seat to resistance training. The more intense the cardio, the less often you'll want to perform it because your body is already being put under stress from resistance training. 

Recommendation: Low intensity, steady-state cardio such as walking or light jogging can be done 4-5 times a week for 30-60 minutes at a time. Very high-intensity cardio should be used sparingly and no more than 1-2 times per week for 15-20 minutes.  


Additional tips to make weight loss easier

  • Start weighing your food using a food scale instead of estimating portions.
  • Drink more water during each meal, which will help you feel fuller faster, reducing how much calories you consume.
  • Consider trying Intermittent Fasting. Give yourself an eight-hour window to consume all of your calories and fast for the remaining 16 (includes hours sleeping). This will make it easier to stick to your calorie goals.
  • Increase your non-exercise activity. Walking and/or standing more can help you burn more calories. It may not seem like much, but it adds up over long periods.
  • Don't have foods that cause cravings or make you want to overconsume on in your house. It's easier to avoid these cravings if you don't have easy access to these foods.


Key takeaways

Weight loss is a result of a negative energy balance, which is when your body burns more calories than it takes in. There is no other method that causes weight loss, you must be in a calorie deficit. Weight loss is simply a numbers game; You need to know how many calories your body burns in a day and then consume less than this amount.

There is no special secret to diets like Keto or low carb; all diets elicit weight loss by causing you to be in a negative energy balance. When controlling for total calories, all diets will cause the same amount of weight loss. This means that highly restrictive diets such as Keto are unnecessary.

When you lose weight, your body can burn off both fat mass and lean body mass. In order to avoid lean body mass losses and maximize fat loss, you need to resistance train and force your body to hold onto it's lean tissue, resulting in a higher percentage of fat lost. A person who loses weight while resistance training will make a much larger positive impact on their physique than someone who doesn't, even if they lose the same amount of total weight. This means that the primary exercise you do should be resistance training, with cardio being secondary and used to accelerate weight loss.

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