Fat Loss - Is It Really All About Calories?

The following are my responses to some questions I was recently asked about fat loss....

Question 1. Can you explain why fat loss isn't just as simple as just cutting calorie intake (or is it?)? My assumption was that as long as your burning/using more than you are taking in, you should lose fat.

The quick answer to this question is that, for the majority of people, most of the time, fat loss is simply a case of creating a sustainable calorie deficit to induce fat loss. However, it isn’t always just this simple. Here are some other factors to consider: -

-Stress Levels

  • Stress can increase visceral fat storage (belly fat) via glucocorticoid receptors.
  • Chronic stress can increase appetite and the impetus to seek out comfort foods
  • Several studies suggest higher levels of stress increase the likelihood of weight gain, with a greater effect seen in men as compared to women.
  • Chronic stress leads to an elevation in the hormone cortisol. If cortisol is constantly elevated this means testosterone is constantly suppressed. This has a raft of negative impacts including poorer recovery between training sessions, increased risk of injury, decreased nutrient partitioning, decreased thermic effect of food, and increased insulin secretion.
  • Chronic stress increases appetite - which results on people ‘self medicating’ on comfort foods.

-Sleep - 

  • Sleep deprivation results in increased energy intake (sleep 6 hours a day for just 4 days increased ad libitum energy intake by 20%), reduces testosterone, increases cortisol production, increases insulin resistance, decreases well being and cognitive function as well as unfavourably altering nutrient partitioning.

-Adaptive Thermogenesis: 

Your metabolism is adaptive. When putting the body in an energy deficit, your body can only react to the internal stimulus, which is essentially that there isn’t enough energy available and so it will have to rely on stored energy (body fat). As a result the body will make a number of adaptations to halt this process, including: -

  • Reducing basal metabolic rate (energy required to keep the body functioning)
  • Reducing the Thermic Effect of Food (the amount of energy required to digest and absorb food)
  • Reducing Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) - all movement that is not structured activity
  • Increases appetite

There is large inter-individual variability in adaptive thermogenesis. What does this mean? It means that some people will require a larger calorie deficit in order to lose weight because their metabolism adapts so fast.

Hypo-caloric dieting (eating in a calorie deficit) results in increased hunger, reduced metabolic rate, and threatens the maintenance of lean muscle mass. Low energy intake and minimal body fat are perceived as indicators of energy unavailability.

However, a good resistance training program and adequate protein intake usually attenuate any losses in LBM. THIS IS WHY STRENGTH TRAINING IS SO IMPORTANT WHILST DIETING.

Resistance training is extremely important whilst dieting for fat loss to try and attenuate any losses in lean body mass.   

Resistance training is extremely important whilst dieting for fat loss to try and attenuate any losses in lean body mass.


Question 2: I am often told I'm not taking in enough calories and therefore need to eat more to achieve the weight/composition I want? 

It is very unlikely you are under-eating. One of the following scenarios is usually what is happening: -

  1. Inaccuracies tracking calories
  2. Have calories and macros nailed Monday-Friday but you eat your way out of a deficit on a weekend
  3. Have a stall due to water retention masking fat loss (i.e. scale weight isn't changing but body fat is going down)

Question 3: It’s also hard to know how many calories I am  burning during my resistance training sessions. Is there any way of calculating this?

As a general rule of thumb you could calculate your (very rough) calorie expenditure with the following: -

1 Calorie for every rep on a compound lift (such as a Squat, Deadlift, Pull Up etc)

1/2 Calorie for every rep of an isolation lift

These guidelines were borrowed from James Krieger on the following podcast: https://rippedbody.com/individual-differences/

These guidelines only apply to tough reps (i.e. not warm-up sets). That should give you a very rough idea of what your calorie burn in a strength class is.

Note: I recommend you focus on building/preserving lean body mass in class & use your diet and overall calorie intake as your means to burn body fat.

Question 4: Also is it actually true that different foods/food groups assist more in fat burning?

No - there are no ‘magical’ foods. However, when dieting for fat loss here are my recommendations: -

  • Increase protein intake to ensure you are eating at least 1.8g of protein per kg of body weight per day. Try to spread this intake relatively evenly across your meals. Protein is the most satiating (keeps you feeling full) of all 3 macronutrients - so keeping protein high will result in you being less hungry in general. This is vital as hunger is the enemy when it comes to dieting.
  • Focus on eating whole foods (minimise your intake of processed foods)
  • Keep fibre intake as high by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Stay well hydrated (drink such that your urine is clear)
  • Try to stick to similar meal times each day
  • Recognise the need for consistency above perfection

Question 5: And anything around eating at certain times helping with fat loss/avoidance of weight gain would be good too (eg. Don't eat at night, or don't eat certain foods before bed etc). 

There are no negative consequences if you eat food at certain times of day. However, you would do well to adhere to the following principles: -

  • Don’t do a strength training session in a fasted state (try to have either a protein shake or BCAA’s pre-training if eating whole food isn't an option)
  • Try to eat within 2 hours of finishing your training sessions
  • Eating late at night will not lead to more fat gain - all you need to focus on is your energy intake over a 24 hour period
  • Eat as frequently as you like - this is more about personal preference than anything else. If you enjoy less frequent, slightly larger meals, then opt for 3 meals per day. If you enjoy more frequent, smaller meals, eat 4, 5 or even 6 times per day.
  • Eating more frequently DOES NOT speed up your metabolism.


Question 6: Is there a way to still be able to achieve fat loss whilst also being able to drink alcohol....not in excess!!

Alcohol is itself a macronutrient. It contains energy to the value of 7kcal/g. 

The by-product of alcohol metabolism is acetate, which is toxic. So the body will preferentially going to metabolise the calories you ingested through alcohol before burning any fat.

Im not a fan of ‘cutting’ alcohol completely from the diet if you do drink regularly. Cutting something usually causes you to crave it more. And people with an ‘all or nothing’ mindset tend not to stop at 1 drink if they break their no alcohol rule.

‘Moderate’ Alcohol intake relates to 2 drinks per day. Anything more than that can be considered ‘binge drinking’. 

If there are occasions you know you are going to drink a lot, here are some rules to follow: -

  1. Keep your fat intake very low on that day
  2. Ensure you eat your protein target for the day to preserve muscle mass
  3. Try to drink shots, dry red wines, or spirits with zero calorie mixers.
  4. Reduce carb intake a few days before drinking to deplete glycogen stores in the muscle and liver. That way, when you consume carbohydrates on the day you drink, they are less likely to be stored as body fat.
  5. Try to ensure you remain in a calorie deficit - if you achieve this then you won’t store any body fat as a result of alcohol.

Question 7: For those women out there who have stubborn fat on their legs, aside from being in a calorie deficit what else can be done to aid in body fat loss from this region

There are 3 Phases of Fat Loss: 

  1. Mobilisation
  2. Transportation
  3. Oxidation

So in order to lose body fat from an area of your body you will need to: -

MOBILISE with the use of high intensity exercise (strength training). This will increase blood flow to this area of the body, increase temperature and increase hormone delivery.

Once you have mobilised and fatty acids are in transport you will need to OXIDISE the fat. This could be via cardio or some kind of full body resistance training session.

However, for the majority of people it is a case of being patient and persisting with your diet.

Question 8: My question is: if you are consistently in a calorie deficit because you are wanting to lose body fat, your metabolism slows down as a result.. what do you do to kick it back into gear or do you just have to be patient?

As we have established in Question 1, dieting to achieve fat loss requires a calorie deficit. This results in the down-regulation of our metabolism. Calorie deficits are also: -

  • Places additional stress on the body
  • Counting calories can be mentally taxing
  • Eating in a deficit results in an increase in hunger
  • Energy levels can start to drop
  • As a result of all of the above, adherence can start to wane

 The best way to regulate your metabolism is to take regular planned breaks from dieting. These ‘diet breaks’ are 1-2 weeks where you do not track calories, instead eating more intuitively. You aren’t trying to binge, you are simply being more relaxed with your eating, placing fewer restrictions on yourself.

As a general rule of thumb, the leaner you are, the more regularly you should schedule diet breaks.

Guys Under 10%/Females Under 15% - every 4-6 weeks

Guys 10-15%/Females 20-15% - every 6-8 weeks

Guys 15-20%/Females 25-20% - every 10-12 weeks

When on a diet break, try to: -

  • Eat to your hunger - have a break from counting calories and macros
  • Keep your regular meal times
  • Keep training as per usual (you should find you have extra energy to push hard in sessions)

You will experience some weight gain during this period - but a lot of this will be from water (extra stored glycogen from the additional carbohydrates).