Fat Loss Nutrition - The Numbers Game

This article is all about numbers, because for the most part, fat loss is a numbers game, and we need to have some base numbers to work with to ensure that we are getting enough of the right kinds of foods to support your body in a healthy, sustainable way.  It’s also worth noting that this article doesn’t talk about quality or types of foods (which you really should be focusing on instead of macronutrient ratios – remember, foods NOT nutrients!), what the numbers in grams or calories actually equate to in terms of volume of food, or anything like that.  This article is more for the science-y folks out there who “just want to know” the macro numbers we use, or other trainers/coaches looking for some hard numbers to base their recommendations off of.

The Numbers Can Lie!

Understand also that, with real, healthy, whole foods, the actual macronutrient content vs. the weight of the food itself can vary A LOT, so any nutrition info you may find on the packaging or on the web and use to determine how much food to eat based on the numbers in this article will really just be a “ballpark” kind of thing, not anywhere near as precise as you might hope.  The numbers may not really be what you think they are, so be forewarned!

These numbers are how we start nearly everyone off when they participate in nutrition coaching with us.  That said, we try to encourage our nutrition/training clients away from the numbers game once we have established a good baseline understanding of how much, visually, they should be eating, while emphasizing a wide variety of healthy, whole foods.  Why?  Because always measuring things, looking up nutrition info, and otherwise worrying about what you are eating in such detail is a pain in the ass, and really is a form of disordered eating and/or obsessive-compulsive behaviour.

If you are already someone who tends toward that kind of behaviour, forget about the numbers, and just focus on eating a wide variety of healthy, whole foods to where you don’t feel full all the time, but don’t feel hungry all the time either.

Ready for the numbers?  Here we go…

Target Bodyweight

First off, I don’t believe that a scale weight (or more specifically, a scale weight alone) is the best metric to use as a goal.  To be as accurate as possible, a reliable, repeatable body composition test (E.G. DXA scan or hydrostatic weighing) to determine lean body mass is ideal, because it would give you a body composition target AT a target bodyweight, but for many people, it just isn’t practical, convenient or affordable.  Various formulae for “ideal” bodyweights are available on the web, and all are somewhat arbitrary due to huge individual variations in build, etc. from person to person.  That said, we have to start somewhere!

With that in mind, I have used a couple of different calculations to come up with an “ideal” weight for people.  Rather than present the particular formulae I use, I’ll provide you with this link (http://www.halls.md/ideal-weight/body.htm) that actually shows the results of all of the more common “ideal” weight calculations in use, of which mine is a hybrid.  It’s just simpler for you to use the calculator, instead of working out the math on paper, and if you go for a target somewhere between the “People’s Choice” numbers and the medically-recommended numbers on the site, you’ll probably have a pretty good ballpark number to work with.

If the client has another target weight in mind, we might use that instead, either as an interim target (if it is significantly higher than the “ideal” calculation), or their final goal if it isn’t significantly off the calculation – sometimes people just have “their number” that they are fixated on, and that’s sometimes OK.

If a client has a target in mind that is significantly lower than the “ideal” calculation comes up with, I usually tell them “let’s aim for this first, and then see how you feel,” rather than just dismissing their target out of hand, or using a potentially too-low target for our numbers.

Example 1:  Male, 5’7” tall, 195 pounds starting weight

Wrist measurement determined a medium frame type, so target bodyweight based on the calculations we use should be around 155 pounds.

This is a perfect example of where calculations don’t quite match with reality – in this particular instance, this person had a non-fat mass of nearly 150 pounds on a recent DXA scan.  According to the formula, he would have to lose about 15 pounds of muscle in addition to 25 pounds of fat to get to the target – without losing a significant amount of muscle, he would be at an unhealthy, unsustainable, 3% body fat level!  At a more reasonable, healthy target of 15% body fat without losing muscle mass, his target weight would be around 176 pounds instead.  Interesting to note that this is nearly the same number you’d get by going up to a large frame type with our calculator.

Example 2:  Female, 5’8” tall, 180 pounds starting weight

Wrist measurement determined a medium frame type as well, so target bodyweight should be around 147 pounds.  For this subject, we have no other numbers to go off of, so intake will be based off of this formula result.

Target Body Fat Percentage / Non-Fat Mass

With that target weight established, I then calculate out what their lean mass should be at that weight, based on the body fat percentages of a range of clients I have had DXA scanned, whose builds and leanness levels others have said were what they wanted.  For the record, that is 14% for men and 24% for women – lean enough to look very fit, without usually looking emaciated or fitness-model-photo-shoot shredded.  For a good visual of what various body fat percentages look like for men and women, refer to the pictures in this excellent article on www.builtlean.com.

Example 1 (male subject):

We already know that this subject’s non-fat mass is at 150 pounds, and that is what we used to set the target bodyweight at 176 pounds, but let’s work backwards anyways.

176 x 0.15 = 26.4 pounds of body fat

176 – 26.4 = 149.6 pounds of non-fat mass (round up to 150)

Example 2 (female subject):

At her target bodyweight of 147 pounds, and target body fat percentage of 25%, here are the numbers for our female subject:

147 x 0.25 = 36.75 pounds of body fat

147 – 36.75 = 110.25 pounds of non-fat mass (round down to 110)

Target Protein and Fat Intakes

As mentioned above, we base our target protein and fat intakes on the non-fat mass of the individual.  The reason for this is that, aside from the energy these macronutrients provide in terms of calories, they also provide certain other building blocks or components for our body’s tissues, hormones, and other metabolic processes, and how much of those things are needed is based on the amount of muscle and bone our bodies are carrying, and don’t vary much (if at all) with the amount of body fat we are carrying.

Target Protein Intake

I look at protein intake targets as DAILY MUST DO’s – I.E. you should aim to hit these every day, without fail.  These are based on what is necessary to support the normal functioning and maintenance of your body at the target lean mass number, so if you don’t hit these consistently, you might risk losing muscle mass, among other things.  For protein, we set daily intake at 1.1 grams per pound of non-fat mass at the target bodyweight (or 2 grams per kilo).

Example 1 (male subject):

150 x 1.1 = 165 g of protein daily

Example 2 (female subject):

110 x 1.1 = 121 g of protein daily


Target Fat Intake

Again, I look at fat intake targets as DAILY MUST DO’s.  Dietary fat intake supports many different functions in your body, and may help signal your body that it is not necessary to store as much fat for energy reserves because fat is plentiful in the diet on a regular basis.  For fat, we set daily intake at 1 gram for every 2 pounds of non-fat mass at the target bodyweight.

Example 1 (male subject):

150 / 2 = 75 g of fat daily

Example 2 (female subject):

110 / 2 = 55 g of fat daily

With most of our nutrition/training clients, we stop here in terms of giving hard numbers/targets of what to eat.  Once we have them eating sufficient protein and fat to support their target non-fat mass, we simply encourage them to eat a wide variety and large amount of vegetables and fruits, and a small amount (about a half-cup or a palm full) of legumes or other high-fibre starches with each meal.  We then adjust those amounts based on how they feel in terms of energy levels, how they perform in and recover from their workouts, and whether they continue to lose weight at a sustainable rate of 1-2 pounds or 1-2% of bodyweight per week or not.

But…this article is about the numbers, and what those amounts are based on is the total daily calorie requirements less the calories from protein and fat, so here you go…

Total Daily Calorie Requirements

Your total daily calorie requirements for fat loss are essentially what you would need to maintain your current bodyweight, less a small (5-10%) deficit.  Again, there are a number of different formulae on the internet to give you these numbers, but what you actually need vs. what the formula tells you can vary A LOT based on your metabolism and the amount of physical activity you do from day to day.

While the idea of a caloric deficit being required for weight loss is an objective scientific fact, determining exactly how much food that equates to for you is a lot more of an experimental process.  I was going to say “an art”, but that suggests that a lot of skill is required, when it really isn’t – it’s a matter of making small adjustments and looking at results.

Base Maintenance Calories

For maintenance calories, not including activity, we multiply the subject’s current bodyweight by 10 if they’re male, or 9 if they’re female.

Example 1 (male subject, bodyweight 195 pounds):

195 x 10 = 1,950 calories for maintenance

Example 2 (female subject, bodyweight 180 pounds):

180 x 9 = 1,620 calories for maintenance

Caloric Deficit for Fat Loss

Once we know the maintenance calories at their current weight, we can determine how many calories they would need to remove for a 10% deficit:

Example 1 (male subject):

1950 x 0.1 = cut 195 calories for 10% deficit

Example 2 (female subject):

1620 x 0.1 = cut 162 calories for 10% deficit

Caloric Addition for Activity

We then need to modify for activity levels, which we do by adding 10% to the maintenance calories for each hour of moderate to hard physical activity they are doing in a week.  For the sake of our examples, we’ll assume they’re each doing about four hours of such activity each week.

NOTE:  I honestly can’t remember where or when I derived the formula I use for this, but I’m pretty sure it was from some of Alan Aragon’s work.

Example 1 (male subject, 4 hours of activity):

1950 x 0.4 = add 780 calories for activity

Example 2 (female subject, 4 hours of activity):

1620 x 0.4 = add 648 calories for activity

Daily Caloric Intake Target

We now put all those numbers together to come up with a ballpark daily caloric intake number for each of our example subjects:

Example 1 (male subject, 195 pounds bodyweight, 4 hours activity):

1950 – 195 + 780 = 2,535 calories daily

Example 2 (female subject, 180 pounds bodyweight, 4 hours activity):

1620 – 162 + 648 = 2,106 calories daily

As the subjects lose weight, those numbers will need to be recalculated to account for their new baseline.  This should be about every 10-12 weeks or so, as the weight lost catches up with the caloric deficit.  I prefer to actually LET the weight loss plateau for a week or two so that your body has a chance to adjust to the new baseline, then adjust calories down, and repeat until we eventually reach the target weight and the appropriate intakes for maintenance at that target.

Target Carbohydrate Intake

Once we have those ballpark numbers, we can subtract out the calories from protein and fat to get the target calories required from carbohydrate for each subject.  Yes, this does mean that the only thing we usually vary based on activity is the amount of carbohydrate intake, and yes, that can equate to a significant amount of calories from carbs if you exercise a lot.  Relax, carbo-phobic masses – you will not balloon up into the Michelin man overnight just because you eat more carbs.

 Beans and pulses make excellent carb choices, combined with lots of veggies and fruits.

Beans and pulses make excellent carb choices, combined with lots of veggies and fruits.

The carb target is a DAILY AVERAGE that we aim to meet over the course of the week, and may cycle differently from day to day.  To keep things simple, you could just aim for that target daily, and you should get OK results.  For slightly better results, you could eat a lesser amount of your carbs on non-workout days, and more on workout days (a process known as carb cycling), but still aiming for that same average over the week as a whole.

Here’s the calculation.  Remember that protein and carbs both have about 4 calories per gram and fat has about 9.

Example 1 (male subject, 2535 calories, 165 g protein and 75 g fat as daily targets):

2535 – (4 x 165) – (9 x 75) = 1,200 calories from carbohydrate or about 300 g

Example 2 (female subject, 2106 calories, 122 g protein and 55 g fat as daily targets):

2106 – (4 x 122) – (9 x 55) = 1,123 calories from carbohydrate or about 281 g

To put those numbers in perspective a bit for the carbo-phobic out there – close to 60% of those amounts are accounted for by activity at four hours of activity per week.

Macronutrient Ratios and Energy Flux

So, with all the numbers calculated above, people will often look at what the macronutrient ratios are, or how much protein, fat and carbohydrate this means in terms of percentage of total calories.  As we stated above, the carb portion can vary a lot based on activity levels, so I’ll give you a few ranges for our example subjects, from sedentary, through a reasonable 4 hours per week, up to an almost crazy 10 hours per week, all with the same 10% of base calories as a deficit for weight loss:

Example 1 (male subject):

At 0 hours of activity per week

  • 1,755 calories total
  • 660 from protein (37.6%)
  • 675 from fat (38.4%)
  • 420 from carbs (24%)

At 4 hours of activity per week

  • 2,535 calories total
  • 660 from protein (26%)
  • 675 from fat (26.6%)
  • 1,200 from carbs (47.4%)

At 10 hours of activity per week

  • 3,705 calories total
  • 660 from protein (17.8%)
  • 675 from fat (18.2%)
  • 2,370 from carbs (64%)

Example 2 (female subject):

At 0 hours of activity per week

  • 1458 calories total
  • 488 from protein (33.5%)
  • 495 from fat (34%)
  • 475 from carbs (32.5%)

At 4 hours of activity per week

  • 2106 calories total
  • 488 from protein (23.2%)
  • 495 from fat (23.5%)
  • 1,123 from carbs (53.3%)

At 10 hours of activity per week

  • 3,078 calories total
  • 488 from protein (15.9%)
  • 495 from fat (16.1%)
  • 2,095 from carbs (68%)

Those massive variations in calorie intake with activity levels are known as energy flux – I.E. the higher the amount of daily calorie intake you can account for with activity, the higher your level of energy flux.  Higher energy flux results in more tissue turnover in your body, and in general, the higher your energy flux, the leaner your physique/appearance at a given bodyweight.

Adjust Carb Intake As Needed Based On Results

Usually, following the guidelines above, we see an average of about 1-2 pounds per week of weight loss.  If weight loss stalls, we don’t freak out.

In fact, remember that we want weight loss to plateau out after about a 10% loss (presuming we haven’t changed anything, and were working to a 10% deficit), because that means you have achieved that target, and we need your body to do a “reset” of sorts, and become accustomed to maintaining that weight for a couple of weeks before we follow steps 1-6 above to set new targets.

If weight loss stalls before that 10% mark is achieved, then we still don’t freak out.  We give it a couple of weeks to see if weight loss resumes on its own while keeping our routine and nutrition the same.  Sometimes, people’s bodies just need some time!

If weight loss doesn’t resume on its own, we first try to increase the amount of weekly activity by an hour, if possible, and wait another week.  If that doesn’t work, or if the client just can’t do more time in the gym, we swap more protein for carbs (about 5% of total calories), and wait another week.  If that doesn’t work, we’ll try a 5% reduction in calories, taking out the extra protein and not putting back in the carbs.  Note also that we can swap healthy fats in for the carbohydrate instead, but because of the density of fats (over twice the amount of calories per gram), that can sometimes be less satisfying than protein in terms of volume of food.  If the swap/reduction doesn’t work, then we’ll increase the calories up to maintenance level for the client’s current weight, give it a few weeks, and then try creating a 10% deficit again.

If weight gain occurs, we also don’t freak out.  We keep things the same unless we see weight gain over two weeks in a row, at which point we follow the same steps as above for stalled weight loss.

The key here is not to freak out!  Make one small adjustment at a time to try and kickstart weight loss again, and if all else fails, spend some time in maintenance mode to let your body catch up before resuming your weight loss journey.  This is where it really helps to work with a coach, who can help keep you calm in the face of stalled progress.

That’s All Folks!

So there you have it – the numbers game, as we use it with our nutrition/training clients.

If you have any questions or comments regarding this article, please feel free to Contact Us!