In our experience, the number one health and fitness goal for persons seeking a trainer, nutritionist, or another health and fitness professional is weight loss. The thing is, the key to weight loss is simple—control your calories. That said, this idea has been lost or misconstrued through the "you don't need to count calories, you just need to do this..." adverts and social media gurus. However, regardless of the approach used, a person must control calories. Calorie control is key for general weight loss When we say calorie control is the key to weight loss, we mean general weight loss. General weight loss is defined as weight loss from any mass of the body, meaning it could be fat mass or lean mass. For persons not worried about body composition, performance, or some other goal, calorie control is the only thing he or she needs to worry about. Now, this is not to say a person should not focus on body comp, fitness, health, etc., but instead a relation of a simple fact—for general weight loss, a person needs to control calories, or more specifically, reduce calories below their daily need. For example, if a person burns 2000 calories per day, then that person needs to drop their calorie intake to below 2000. We'll get into that more later. Before we do, we want to touch on the idea that you do not need to count calories. You do need to count/control calories in some way. This can mean counting macronutrients, controlling portion sizes, or some other approach. Regardless, at the end of the day, you're still controlling calories. For example, when you count macros, you count calories, since macros equal calories. That is, one gram of protein or carbohydrate equals four calories, while one gram of fat equal nine calories. The same idea applies to other methods. When a person uses portion control, that person controls calories, as they are minimizing how much food they eat, which minimizes how many calories they consume. Even popular fitness approaches such as the 21-day fix, which uses color-coded containers, ultimately count calories as the containers control portions. You cannot get around it—to control weight, you must control calories. This applies not only to weight loss, but to weight gain and weight maintenance. Again, calorie control is key for general weight loss. If you don't understand this, then you do not understand how the body works. Calorie and macro control plus resistance training is essential for body composition changes Body composition changes require a different approach. The general weight loss approach of only focusing on calories—whether that is through calories counting, portion control, or some other method—does not do a good job of staving off lean muscle loss. To maintain lean mass, a person must engage in resistance training and macro control. Why resistance training is needed Resistance training provides stimuli to the body that encourages the body to maintain lean mass and select something else to burn, which is generally fat. Resistance training of any kind is acceptable, as long as it is sufficient to maintain your lean mass. Calisthenics, isolation training, powerlifting, CrossFit, and many other approaches will work. Understanding the operative processes of the body is beyond what we can share in a newsletter or blog post, but we can offer a rough idea. The body adapts to stimuli or a lack there of. Think of it as the "use or lose it" idea. If you engage in resistance training, the muscles (as well as other parts and systems od the body) are stimulated. The body response favorably by telling itself you need the muscle and it must be maintained, by building more muscle, by increasing strength, or by increasing performance in another way, such as improved muscle endurance. Indeed, all of these things can occur. On the other hand, if you stop resistance training, then all of these positive benefits can be reversed. The body can lose muscle, lose strength, lose performance, etc. This ties into weight loss, since if the body reads that it does not need something, such as muscle mass, it may be inclined to lose that thing. Why macronutrient control is needed To maintain health, the body needs various nutrients. The macronutrients are a big part of this. Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for the body, proteins are the building blocks of mass, and fat is a long-term energy source as well as a nutrient essential to processes in the body. Overly restricting or eliminating any one of these nutrients can cause health problems. At the same time, these nutrients fuel physical as well as mental activity and provide the body with the materials it needs to maintain lean mass. For example, during sprints or short duration resistance workout, the primary energy source comes from carbs. For muscle, connective tissue, and other soft tissues of the body to be built, repaired, or maintained, a person needs the amino acids present in the protein. The way this ties into weight loss is you need to macros to support the resistance training in that the nutrients provide the energy needed for workouts while also providing the building blocks that will allow you to maintain current lean mass or possibly build new lean mass. Cardio is not essential to weight loss, though it can help The idea that someone needs to complete cardio to lose weight is a false one and one of the stupidest statements we hear people make. It is akin to people saying, "I don't need to work on nutrition; I just need to work out more to lose weight." People who make these statements have no idea what they are talking about, no idea how the body works, and no idea about proper training and nutrition methods. Cardio does not in itself make you lose weight. If you complete cardio but still eat more than you burn, then you will not lose weight. It is that simple. For example, we work with competitive running clients. Many of these people run 20-40+ miles per week. However, most of them are not losing weight. Why? Because they do not focus on cutting calories to lose weight; they focus on eating enough calories to perform. In that same vein, Nathan runs 30-40 miles per week and is not losing weight. He eats enough to maintain his weight or even put a little on. Cardio can help a person lose weight if used in conjunction with proper nutrition. Cardio can make it easier to create a calories deficit—that is, cardio can make it for you to burn more calories than you consume—but the same can be said for any type of exercise. Again, the idea that someone needs to complete cardio to lose weight is a false one and one of the stupidest statements we hear people make. Cardio can help a person lose weight if used in conjunction with proper nutrition. However, if a person does not focus on nutrition, they may never lose weight. Safe weight loss or body composition changes Earlier in this post, we noted "if a person burns 2000 calories per day, then that person needs to drop their calorie intake to below 2000. We'll get into that more later. Before we do, we want to touch on the idea that you do not need to count calories." The idea here is a person reducing calories must do so in a safe manner. Continuing with the 2000 calorie example, if a person wants to lose weight, he or she should drop calories below 2000. That said, this does not mean a person should immediately drop a large amount. For example, the first drop might be to 1900 calories, but should not be 500. The larger drop does not necessarily mean quicker weight loss, and even if it does equal greater weight loss, this loss might be more from lean mass than fat mass, depending on the rate of loss. For example, if a person cuts 500 calories and drop 10 pounds in two weeks, it is unlikely he or she will be able to engage in enough resistance training to stave off muscles and that the body will take calories from any mass necessary, including fat mass and lean mass. Also, other negatives, such as declines in physical as well as mental performance may occur, the chances of lightheadedness or other repercussions of extreme calories restriction may occur. Finally, extreme measures cannot be maintained and do not lead to the formation of healthy, sustainable habits. For a person to have long-term success with weight loss, that person must form habits that they can continue long-term.
Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, and the International Sports Sciences Association. Nathan has 17 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA.