The Hierarchy Of Fat Loss

TL; DRWhile calories in vs calories out will determine weight loss, and the only thing that’s truly needed to lose weight is a caloric deficit (a diet), there is more that needs to be considered for optimal results. You can create the calorie deficit in a number of ways, but the combination of a reduction in overall calories, keeping protein intake high, utilizing resistance exercise, and doing all of that in an enjoyable way are the factors that will create lasting success.



1) Adherence

The single most important part about any diet is adherence. Not having sustainability in your diet is the downfall of many dieters. Some people are really good at dieting during the busy workweek with a structured schedule and lots of distractions…but then the weekend comes and they YOLO it up. They’ve been restricted all weekend and might feel they need to reward themselves with treats they’ve been denied (that one donut is extra tempting when you haven’t had anything but chicken & brown rice all week). This can easily turn into a weekend erasing the entire deficit created during the week or can even push you to a surplus for the week. If your diet doesn’t match your life, is something you’re embarrassed to tell your friends about, or if your diet is removes or demonizes complete food groups/macronutrients – it probably isn’t sustainable in the long run. Your life shouldn’t revolve around dieting—dieting should fit into your life.

2) Total Calories consumed

You’d think in this day and age that Calories In – Calories Out (CICO) would be common sense, but alas, it’s not. While I’m not going to get to into too much detail to make the argument for something that’s been proven repeatedly, I am going to go into a little detail to simplify the CICO explanation. The CICO equation is actually fairly complex:

CICO Equation

[9] – Special thanks to Keith Dignan for putting this formula together!

So as you can see that’s a lot of information and makes me want to cry. Let’s quickly break that down into some more user friendly terms:

Things that influence calories in (CI)= Environmental (access to food, location, season) + Psychological (family, social activities, stress) + Hormonal (pregnant, diabetic, low testosterone, etc) + Gender + Age

Things that influence calories out (CO) = BMR + NEAT + Exercise + TEF

But we can simplify this even further into Caloric Balance = Calories In – Calories Out or CICO.

Being in a caloric surplus will cause you to gain weight. Being in a caloric deficit will cause you to lose weight. We can see from all of the above, there are many ways achieve the caloric deficit. We can modify factors in CI, can modify factors in CO, or we could modify factors in both CI & CO. The important part is determining which is correct for you.

2a) Protein

While overall calorie balance will determine weight loss or gain, we should give a lot of attention to the quality of that weight loss. What is actually being lost? Is it just fat, or is it muscle too?  Protein is the most important macronutrient when it comes to optimizing body composition (muscle vs fat). Consuming an adequate amount of protein will help you to build and maintain muscle mass that would otherwise be lost during a diet. When you’re dieting, your body starts using stored fat for energy that it needs. Your body will also start to break down muscle also for energy, but more so to build new muscle & repair damaged muscle. Having a high protein diet will help prevent/minimize muscle loss & may even help build a small amount of muscle while dieting.

2b) Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source for fuel. Carbs literally provide the fuel your muscles use to move and perform work. When dieting is combined with resistance training and a high protein diet, our goal is to prevent the loss of, or even build, muscle. When you’re dieting, your energy intake is limited by default since you are taking in less than it needs on purpose (the definition of a diet). Having enough carbs to fuel your performance in the gym is essential for maximum performance. If you don’t perform well you 1) may decrease your energy output (low activity level), making the size of your calorie deficit smaller (which would mean less weight loss per week) and/or 2) may lose muscle mass from not stimulating muscles to the degree needed for retention.

2c) Fats

Fats are the only macronutrient that is essential – meaning we can’t make fats ourselves and so there is a minimum amount that we must consume from food. While there is no scientifically agreed-upon lower limit of dietary fat consumption, eating a very low-fat diet for an extended period of time is not a good idea. Dietary fats drive many of our hormone levels, help with body temperature regulation, & aid in nutrient absorption (think fat soluble vitamins like vitamin D).

2d) Nutrient Timing

The concept of nutrient timing refers to eating meals or certain nutrients at specific intervals, or eating (or NOT eating) at certain times of the day. Nutrient timing in regards to fat loss is actually pretty irrelevant. There is no magic way to “stoke your metabolism” to burn at full throttle. There is no benefit (besides appetite control/personal preference) to fasting for 18 hours. Eat when you want, how you want. Studies show very little difference in eating 3 meals per day or 6 meals per day [1]. However, there is some benefit to having ~20g (0.4k/kg) of protein every 3-4 hours for muscle building/maintaining purposes [2,3,4] but not in regards to fat loss. Long story really short: Eat when you want, how you want. Some people like 5 smaller meals a day, while others like eating 3 big meals a day. Some people like 1 giant ass meal a day. Eat how you want.

2e) Quality/Source

I can get fat on 10,000 calories of broccoli or lose on 1000 calories of Twinkies. Remember, we’re talking weight loss only with those statements. There are clear differences between what is an optimal diet for health, weight loss, & performance. While they are all intertwined, they have distinct differences. With that being said, in regards to weight loss, your food sources matter very little. There is no evidence that organic, non-GMO, sugar free, low fat, etc foods improve body composition over other foods. They still contain calories, and calories are what matter when it comes to weight loss. Now I’m not saying that jelly beans are more nutritious than sweet potatoes, they aren’t. Again remember, health & body composition are two very different things. Typically, a healthy body weight correlates to better health. I’d bet my money every time on the health of someone at a healthy body weight eating junk food vs the person 60 pounds overweight eating “clean”.

3) Spontaneous physical activity (NEAT)

Basic Metabolic Rate (BMR) accounts for ~60% of our total energy use in a day [5]. Your BMR includes energy used for everything your body does to stay alive, like breathing, sleeping, cognitive functions, etc. Outside of BMR, the largest calorie consuming part of the calorie out equation is Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT). NEAT accounts for 15-50% of your total daily energy usage [5]. NEAT is all movement you engage in throughout the day other than intentional exercise. Tapping your foot, fidgeting, standing in line, strenuous job duties (e.g. construction), are all examples. NEAT has been shown to vary by as much as 2,000 calories from one person to the next [5]. Many people who are dieting will increase their NEAT to increase their activity level, such as getting a standing desk, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking the dog instead of letting them run in the yard, parking far away from buildings, etc. Higher activity levels mean you can diet down on more calories.

4) Exercise Related Physical Activity

There are only two things we can control when it comes to the “Energy Out” side of the equation: NEAT, explained above, and exercise activity. Exercise activity is the area that most dieters try to control the most, but it actually only accounts for 15-30% of our daily energy expenditure (while also being very time consuming). [5]

4a) Cardio

30 minutes on a treadmill (at a moderate intensity) only expends ~280 Calories [6], regardless of what your calorie tracker is telling you. Also, there is then the common debate over which is better, steady state or HIIT. As far as fat loss is concerned, there are two things that matter – do whichever you enjoy & whichever is specific to your goals, if that’s applicable. Studies looking at fat oxidation over a 24 hour period have found no difference between steady state & HIIT [7].

4b) Resistance training

30 minutes of weight lifting will only use ~265 Calories [6] …Not a whole lot either. The purpose of resistance training during dieting is to preserve and possibly build muscle. As discussed earlier, you’re going to lose some muscle mass when dieting. The goal is not to lose too much and in some circumstances, even gain a little. Muscle is what gives a person their shape and build – sometimes what some refer to as “looking toned”. Added muscle helps improve strength & quality of life, not just for athletic performance but for everyday activities – from things like bringing in the groceries to playing with kids.

5) Sleep

Sleep is, in my opinion, the most overlooked component of weight loss success. People who sleep 8.5 hours per night vs 5.5 hours per night use approximately 400 Calories more [8]! That means you could eat 2,800 MORE calories when dieting vs someone who wasn’t sleeping enough. When you are lacking in sleep, your metabolic rate is down-regulated to preserve energy for later use. When you’re tired, things like your NEAT will slow down. You won’t fidget or want to go for that longer walk. Cognitive function also slows. All of these things cause people to lose LESS weight when they are sleep deprived. Sleep also allows you to recover & (obviously) be rested. Well rested & recovered people can perform better in the gym, increasing their energy output. Well rested people are more active. (Example: You’re more likely to take the elevator if you’re tired, which will decrease your NEAT.)

To review, the hierarchy of fat loss is:

  1. Diet Adherence
  2. Total Caloric Balance
  3. Non-exercise Activity (NEAT)
  4. Exercise Activity
  5. Sleep