Are you confused about why your clients aren't getting fat loss results?
Maybe you can't even get yourself lean, let alone a client.
I've been there in the past - both with myself and my clients. Which is exactly why I'm writing you this blog now.
Nothing is more disempowering than feeling unable to control your own body composition, or help your clients achieve the results they want.
This blog is designed to clear up your confusion, and teach you exactly what to focus on within nutrition to help your clients achieve their best body composition ever.
The Fat Loss Blueprint
So, to make the science as simple as possible, it's extremely helpful to break this down into a hierarchy of importance.
The closer to the bottom of the hierarchy something is, the less important it is to achieving your best body composition.
Similarly, if focusing on something lower in the hierarchy (e.g. nutrient timing) is causing you to disregard something higher on the hierarchy (e.g. energy balance), you won't get results.
You can look at this as your fat loss order of operations. Make sure you consistently have the level above mastered, before moving on to the next level above.
1. Sustainability & Adherence
When a new client starts online coaching with me, the process begins with a strategy call.
The premise of this call?
We want to figure out what you can realistically sustain long-term.
The reality is, we as coaches could give most of our clients 1,000 calorie chicken and broccoli meal plans... and if they stuck to the plan for a few months, they'd be able to give us a great progress picture.
The problem is, we're not really doing anything to teach or educate them by taking this approach.
In 3-4 months, when that client no longer works with us and (inevitably) gets sick of eating chicken and broccoli, they'll have no idea how to maintain their results.
Weight will rebound, they'll hire another coach or start another meal plan, and the cycle continues.
On this initial call, I always tell new clients...
"I want to be the last coach you ever need to hire."
Because really, when we educate clients on the principles of nutrition, and guide them down a sustainable path, we empower them to maintain leaner, stronger, more confident versions of themselves without us here.
This is exactly why we spend so much time initially talking about your lifestyle, and what diet structure will work best for you as an individual. That's how we build the diet structure easiest for you to adhere to, and teach you a style of eating you can maintain long-term.
This is why so many diets work for people in the short-term (e.g. keto), but inevitably lead to weight rebounds... people get too caught up in what will yield the quickest results, instead of the best strategy for lasting results.
This is the beauty of individualized online coaching, it allows us to customize every aspect of your nutrition strategy to be the absolute best fit for you.
2. Calorie Intake
What is required to lose fat has been made super confusing by people marketing tons of different diets. You'll often here questions from clients like...
"What macro split do I need to be following for fat loss?"
"What supplements will make me burn fat?"
"Do I need to be intermittent fasting in order to lose fat?"
In reality, we only need to check one box in order to lose fat.
✔ You must be eating fewer calories than you're burning.
So while calories aren't the only thing that matter... if you're eating more calories than you burn in a day, you won't be able to lose fat.
The biggest mistake most people who can't get lean are making?
Focusing on eating all of "the right foods" associated with a specific diet, supplements, and meal-timing... but forgetting to account for how many calories they're eating.
Because I want to make sure this is hyper clear for you and your clients...
Calories are energy.
→ When you burn more energy (calories) than you take in, you lose weight. This is called a negative energy balance, or a calorie deficit.
→ When you take in more energy (calories) than you burn, you gain weight. This is positive energy balance, or a calorie surplus.
→ When you’re taking in the same amount of energy as you're burning daily, you maintain your weight. You’re eating at your maintenance calories.
To lose or gain weight, you must manipulate energy balance by:
✔ Increasing/decreasing the calories you eat
✔ Increasing/decreasing the calories you burn
How to manipulate calories out:
→ Exercise - Lifting weights, cardio, etc. Contrary to popular belief, exercise doesn't burn many calories. You could burn 500 calories with an hour on the stairmill, and then drink a 500 calorie margarita in five minutes.
This is why trying to "burn it off" doesn't go well for most.
→ Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (N.E.A.T.) - All the calories you burn in your everyday life outside the gym. N.E.A.T. is the most controllable variable of calories out. Adding in a bit of daily movement adds up to thousands of extra calories burned over a month.
This is why all of my online clients with fat loss goals also have a step goal.
→ Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) - Calories burned during digestion. It takes energy to turn the food you consume into energy. This is TEF.
→ Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) - Your BMR is the number of calories your body burns just to stay alive. Generally, the heavier you are, the higher your BMR.
These are the four components of metabolism, A.K.A. the processes that can increase calories out.
How to manipulate calories in:
→ Control Calories - Here, your only option is manipulating your calorie intake.
So, to be sure you didn't miss it...
→ Calories In > Calories Out = Weight Gain
→ Calories In = Calories Out = Weight Maintenance
→ Calories In < Calories Out = Weight Loss
This means you don't have to follow ANY specific diet. As long as you create a negative energy balance, you'll lose weight. This is a very empowering realization for most, and allows us to create a nutrition strategy that is 100% individualized to you when you start online coaching with me.
Professor Mark Haub illustrated this point with his now infamous Twinkie Diet. He lost 27 lbs in 10 weeks, eating a diet of Twinkies, powdered donuts, nutty bars and the like instead of normal meals.
Despite eating a diet of almost entirely processed, sugar laden foods, he still lost weight by creating negative energy balance.
So Are Calories All That Matter?
From the above, it would be easy to draw the conclusion...
"Calories are all that matter! I can just eat whatever I want, as long as I fit it into my calorie goal."
The thing is, while calorie intake is the MOST important factor for weight loss or weight gain... it gets a bit more complex than that.
So while controlling calories is the most important factor for fat loss (and the only part of the hierarchy that 100% must be in place to successfully get leaner), they're not the only thing you should focus on in order to achieve your best body composition ever.
So while your (or your client's) overall calorie intake is the MOST important factor for fat loss, what those calories consist of also has a big impact on how your body changes.
Looking at macros instead of just calories helps you optimize your food intake to your goals.
All the foods you eat are made up of some combination of the following macronutrients (macros):
→ Protein - 1 gram of protein contains ~4 calories
→ Carbohydrates - 1 gram of carbohydrate contains ~4 calories
→ Fat - 1 gram of fat contains ~9 calories
→ Alcohol - 1 gram of alcohol contains ~7 calories
Each macro has some unique benefits worth weighing when determining your goals.
Keeping protein high is crucial to building a great body.
→ Adequate protein is a MUST for building lean muscle - through a process called muscle protein synthesis, your body turns the protein you eat into muscle protein (your muscles are essentially made of your dietary protein). When your protein intake is inadequate, you can't fully recover and grow from you training.
→ On a similar note, adequate protein is necessary to maintaining muscle mass as you diet.
→ Protein is the most satiating macronutrient (it keeps you full longest). The hardest thing about diets? You’re hungry. More protein helps.
→ Protein also has the highest thermic effect (TEF) of all the macros. It takes energy to turn the food you consume into energy. When you eat more protein, you're actually increasing the calories out side of the energy balance equation, since you're burning more calories via TEF.
- Protein - 20-30% of calories consumed are burned via TEF
- Carbs - 5-10% of calories consumed are burned via TEF
- Fat - 0-3% of calories consumed are burned via TEF
Outside of controlling calories, increasing protein intake to .8-1.2 grams/lb of body weight daily is the most impactful thing you can do nutritionally to improve body composition.
This is why all of my online clients track at least calorie & protein intake. When we account for these two factors, we can create some amazing body composition changes.
→ Fat plays an important role in hormone production, so adequate fat intake is necessary - the lowest you want to set fat intake is .3-.4g/lb. Much lower than this, and you start running the risk of EPA (Omega-3 fats) deficiencies. Your fat intake is also a building block for many hormones in your body.
→ Protein and fat are "essential" (you'll feel awful/potentially die if you go too long without eating them).
Carbs are "non-essential". You'll survive just fine without 'em, so there's not a "floor" for how low you can take carbs. But...
→ Your body’s preferred energy source is glucose. Glucose comes primarily from carbohydrates. When you stop eating carbs, your body depletes its glycogen (the stored form of glucose) stores fairly quickly.
→ When we don’t have enough carbs coming in to fuel our body with glucose, the body eventually starts breaking down fats for energy instead. These fatty acids are converted to ketones by the liver. Ketones replace glucose as the body and brain’s primary fuel source. With ketones as the primary fuel source, some things change. A big one - your ability to exercise intensely decreases. This makes building a lean, strong physique much harder.
Your body essentially views alcohol as a poison. Priority #1 for your body is getting alcohol out of your system ASAP.
To be more efficient at this, the body shuts down other processes to clear the system faster. Stuff like - oxidation of fat, hormone production, muscle tissue repair, etc.
Basically, when you drink, your progress (losing body fat, building lean muscle) stop until your body clears the alcohol.
That said, fat loss still comes down to creating a calorie deficit.
Drinking only causes you to gain body fat if it's kicking you out of a calorie deficit (unless you're taking it to the extreme/alcoholism levels).
So, the key things you & your clients need to take from this:
→ Getting in adequate protein (.8-1.2g/lb body weight) is essential to building a great body. Put your focus on getting adequate protein in before worrying about carbs & fat.
→ It's important for your health that you don't under-eat fats.
→ Carbs are non-essential, but In most cases really help when it comes to building a lean, strong body.
4. Food Quality
You've probably heard the term nutrient-dense foods. Nutrient-dense foods are simply foods that are packed with vitamins and minerals. These nutrients are key to overall health, gym performance, and even your mental state.
Typically, whole foods are much more nutrient-dense - (Think: anything that comes from the earth or lived on the earth at one point). Meats, veggies, fruit, etc.
On the other hand, highly-processed foods typically contain very few nutrients.
So here's the thing - You now know that you can literally lose weight by eating whatever you want, as long as you control calories. Eating clean isn't a must for fat loss.
But, is ignoring food quality a good idea?
→ Your health will be awful. You need adequate intake of the nutrients whole foods provide to feel good, perform in the gym, and function properly.
→ Plus, while dieting, you have to deal with being hungry often. Highly-processed foods are literally engineeder to make you want to eat more. They're "hyper-palatable". Not ideal when the goal is eat less.
Eating mostly unprocessed, whole foods will keep you full longer. Whole foods typically have more volume per calorie (you get more "bang for your buck" as far as satiety per calorie goes). They also generally contain more fiber, which also increases fullness.
Really, it mostly quality foods is important, and ties back to your ability to manage hunger and control your overall calorie intake. So while not a "must" for fat loss, your food choices can make or break your ability to stick to the diet.
So your diet doesn't need to be strictly salmon and spinach... but making 80-90%of your diet whole foods will make the process much easier, and you'll feel better throughout.
From there, you're free to enjoy the other 10-20% of your calorie intake from whatever your heart desires (as long as you work it into your food intake goals) without any negative effects on your results or your health.
After years of online coaching, I've molded this way of thinking into a nutrition philosophy I call The Lifestyle Diet. Highly recommend you check out the free ebook - it teaches you many of the same nutrition rituals I teach my online clients.
Now, I get it... talking about food quality is far from the most exciting thing for our clients. So I want to keep this section brief. But you do need to be aware that food quality is also important for preventing micronutrient deficiencies, which can be detrimental to client's health.
The five most common micronutrient deficiencies:
→ Vitamin D
Ideally, a diet with a good variety of whole foods will cover all your bases here, with you consuming dairy, red meat, and getting regular sun exposure, along with eating one serving of fruits and veggies for every 500 calories you consume.
That said, since this ideal world often isn't reality for our clients, it's important to understand where deficiencies could come up.
5. Nutrient Timing
On paper, nutrient timing/meal timing isn't nearly as important as your overall calories, your macros, or eating quality foods.
So if focusing on nutrient timing is something that is stressing your clients out, and causing them to miss on overall calories, macros, or food quality - you're really missing the forest for the trees.
That said, within individualized coaching, we'll often find that nutrient timing loops back to the client's ability to control calories and stick to the diet.
A great example of this is my online client Colin.
Colin is a busy professional, who works at a desk all day. So naturally, he doesn’t burn a lot of calories via movement. He is also focusing on getting leaner.
All of this means that his calorie intake must be relatively low in order to lose fat.
Colin is also a family man, and an awesome Dad. His family goes out to dinner multiple times per week - these meals (which are generally higher-calorie) are very important to Colin.
If I told Colin “Stop eating out with your family”, his ability to stick to the diet would likely plummet. We’re taking away a very important part of his life.
So instead, here’s the nutritional strategy that Colin uses:
→ Waking - 11:30am: Fasting
→ 11:30am: Pre-workout protein shake
→ 1pm: Post-workout meal (first “real” meal of the day)
→ 3-4pm: High protein snack
→ 6-8pm: Dinner with family
Using this strategy, Colin always has ~1,000 calories to work with for family dinners. This has allowed him to enjoy his family, AND build a leaner, stronger body in the process (he’s lost 30+lbs, and built LOTS of lean muscle & strength).
So while nutrient-timing in & of itself isn't often the most important thing for clients (as you can see from the hierarchy), it can occasionally tie back into a clients overall ability to stick to the diet (as seen in the example above).
Occasionally implementing things like fasting, or putting a high-volume salad ~1 hour before clients have been noticing cravings can really improve overall adherence.
From a habit formation perspective - when you eat at the same times every day, you train your body to release hunger signals at those specific times daily, and NOT the rest of the day. Basically, by eating at consistent times, you're reducing your urges to snack.
Now, for those with clients with calories, macros, and food quality on lock, (and who are actually interested in putting in the extra time to optimize nutrient-timing), here are my recommendations:
→ Protein Timing Across The Day - It's true that calories are the primary driver of weight loss or weight gain. But for optimal lean muscle growth, you need to consider muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Muscle protein synthesis is basically the process of your body turning dietary protein into actual lean muscle.
Consuming protein (with the most optimal amount being 25-50g) increases muscle protein synthesis for ~3-6 hours.
So, to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis through your day, it's most optimal to spread your protein (and meals) across 4-6 meals, with 25-50g protein at each.
→ Pre-Workout Meal - What you eat pre-workout is key for kick-starting the recovery process, and helps fuel your body through intense training.
To prevent as much muscle protein breakdown (the opposite process of muscle protein synthesis - muscle protein is being broken down) as possible, and create optimal circumstances for recovery/growth, you should consume ~25-50g of protein in this meal. If you really don't have the option to eat a pre-workout meal (e.g. you workout super early), I'd recommend at least drinking a protein shake before hand. This will digest very quickly, and shouldn't give you issues.
If you have time to allow the meal to digest pre-workout (>1 hour), adding ~25-50 grams carbs to the mix is smart. A mix of carbs from starch and fruit gives you a combo of faster and slower releasing carbs to fuel you through the workout.
We want to avoid too much fat in this meal, because it will slow digestion, and have you feeling sluggish during your training.
A solid pre-workout meal could look something like:
- Greek yogurt (slow digesting protein)
- Whey protein (fast digesting protein)
- Oatmeal (starchy carb)
- Berries (carb from fruit)
Typically, you'll feel best eating this 1-2 hours before you workout. I like to split the difference here and go with 1.5 hours pre-workout. Eating this meal too close to your workout will have you lifting with food still digesting in your belly, making you feel sluggish.
→ Post-Workout Meal - As far as protein, aim to eat another ~25-50g of protein within an hour post-workout (as it will have been about 3 hours from your previous bolus of protein at this point).
With carbs, insulin sensitivity is highest post-workout. (Basically, your body will most efficiently use carbs for muscle-building purposes at this time.) So it makes sense to time lots of fast-digesting carbs post workout (e.g. white rice, spotted bananas). This is the most important time to consume carbs, as far as timing goes - so if your carbs are limited on a diet, putting most of them here is smart.
On a similar note, an intense training session will trigger a stress response. Basically, when you experience stress, cortisol (the stress hormone) rises and your nervous system enters a sympathetic state or “fight-or-flight mode”. In this state, your brain perceives an imminent threat, and slows or stops all bodily processes but the most vital to either “fighting or fleeing”. This means processes crucial to your recovery - food digestion, hormone production, and muscle growth itself - are slowed or essentially stopped.
So obviously, to optimize recovery, you want to get out of a sympathetic state as fast as possible post-workout, and get into the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” state. Here, your body focuses on nutrient absorption, repairing damaged tissues, etc.
The beauty of timing your carbs intra/post-workout like this is, carbs help decrease cortisol levels. So consuming carbs post workout will help you create a better environment for building lean muscle.
Similar to the pre-workout meal, we want to keep fat low here. Fat would slow your body's ability to digest the nutrients you just took in.
→ Pre-Bed Meal - Now, sleep is a crucial part of your body actually being able to make build muscle & burn fat. Eating too close to bed will slightly disrupt your sleep quality, but we also want your body to have some protein available throughout the night. ~1 hour before bed, eat 25-50g protein from a slow digesting source (casein powder, greek yogurt, cottage cheese).
So to wrap all of this up simply:
→ The most important thing - finding the meal frequency that is easiest for you to adhere to, and helps you control your overall calorie intake.
→ Once you have calories, macros, and food quality of point, you can focus on making the meals around your workout are high protein, high carb, and low fat. The meal(s) further from your workout are still high protein, but higher fat and lower carb.
The unfortunate reality of supplements is, most of the legal ones do little to nothing. That's why they're way up here, at end of the hierarchy.
You can absolutely build a lean, strong body without ever taking a supplement.
That said, a few supplements can be slightly helpful (just remember their position in the hierarchy).
→ Creatine Monohydrate - Creatine is an extremely well researched supplement, with the most effective form being creatine monohydrate.
Our bodies use creatine phosphate for as a fuel source for the first few seconds of intense or explosive movement/exercise. Think of supplementing with creatine as “topping off the tank”. It allows you to maintain high-intensity exercise for slightly longer.
This means an increase in strength, and overall workload you’re able to handle in the gym, equating to building more muscle.
Now, the effects of creatine are far from “steroid-like”, but it is a proven supplement to aid building muscle and strength.
3-5 grams/day is the general recommended dose.
→ Caffeine - Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. Although considered a psychoactive drug, its use is extremely common and mostly unregulated.
Of all the supplements on this list, caffeine has by far the most noticeable effects. Not only does caffeine boost mood, alertness and mental clarity, it also has some real benefits to your workouts.
Research shows that caffeine decreases perceived effort, increases power output, and improves endurance.
Not that you needed an excuse for more caffeine, but it’s a real performance booster. Just keep your intake reasonable. Ideally less than 400mg per day.
→ Protein Powders - If you’re able to hit your daily protein requirements entirely from whole foods, there’s no need to use a protein powder. Protein powders are lacking many of the micronutrients that quality, whole food protein sources will have.
But, if you’re struggling to meet your daily protein requirements, supplementing with a protein powder can be helpful.
Whey protein and casein proteins have the best amino acid profiles of available protein powders. They're the easiest for your body to absorb and use. It’s debatable which is superior. The body digests whey protein quicker than casein protein.
Whey and casein protein are derivatives of milk. So if animal products are a no-go for you: pea or rice proteins have the best amino acid profiles.
→ Multi-Vitamin - Getting all of your micronutrients from whole foods is ideal.
Ideal, but not always realistic. Taking a multivitamin is a good way to ensure your daily micronutrient needs are met.
→ Vitamin D - We obtain vitamin D naturally through food and sunlight.
The issue? Most of us don’t get enough time in the sun, and the amount of vitamin D is negligible in most foods outside of fatty fish. As a result, vitamin D deficiency is extremely common
Taking a vitamin D or Cod liver oil supplement can be extremely helpful in preventing this deficiency.
The typical recommended dose is 1,000-2,000 IU per day
→ EPA And DHA (Fish Oil) - EPA and DHA are essential fatty acids. Now, if you eat fatty fish 2+ times per week, you're good on these. If not, a fish oil supplement can help.
Typically, 1-2g EPA + DHA per day is advised.
Again, supplements are the LEAST important factor. You'll rarely see any noticeable difference from taking a supplement. So don’t get caught up in the minutiae of things like supplements, and forget to focus on the things that really make a difference when it comes to changing your body.
If you're struggling to get your clients results fat loss results, I hope you found this helpful.
I know having this order of operations for where we put emphasis on within coaching, and looking at this at "master one step/level of the hierarchy before moving on to the next" has helped my online coaching practice tremendously.
If you're ready to learn more from me, and discover how my customized online coaching service can help you achieve the leanest, most confident version of yourself, click here now to apply for coaching.
About The Author
Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the online coaching business Bairfit.