The more I learned, the more I realized just how much dieting has been blown out of proportion in terms of its complexity.
As a result, most people gravely overcomplicate their diets and sometimes (like I did during my disastrous first cut) even overlook the things that actually matter — calories, protein intake, water intake, and balanced & mostly clean eating.
Choosing the calorie deficit and computing my daily calorie intake target
Research clearly shows that the only way to lose fat is by consuming less than what your body burns or in other words — generating a calorie deficit. Every fancy fat loss diet on the entire planet, be it Paleo, Keto, Atkins, low-carb, etc., achieves fat loss by eventually creating a calorie deficit only.
The biggest mistake I had made the first time I lost weight was using a large calorie deficit (more than 1,500 calories) which greatly accelerated muscle loss. Studies have also found the same to be true.
With the memory of the fiasco still fresh in my mind, I exercised caution while deciding the calorie deficit. But too small of a deficit wasn’t optimal either as this study found. I finally decided to use a moderate calorie deficit of around 20% of my Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) as this has been shown to be around the sweet spot to lose fat optimally without hampering muscle gain.
I then used an online calculator to find my TDEE, which is nothing but an estimate of the number of calories I burned in a day. It came out to be 2,932 calories.
With a calorie deficit of 20% of my TDEE or 586.4 calories, my daily calorie intake target was 2,932 – 586.4 or 2,345.6 calories.
Deciding the protein intake goal
If severe calorie restriction was the biggest mistake, not consuming enough protein was the second biggest one. Research shows that inadequate protein intake can cause accelerated muscle loss.
This time around I realized protein was even more important as I was not only trying to lose body fat but also gain muscle. Based on the research, a protein intake of 1.8g to 2g per kg of bodyweight seemed to be optimal, so I decided to go with the upper limit of 2g of protein per kg of body weight.
Making it enjoyable
During my first cut, I had an almost ascetic diet plan. Some days, unable to restrain myself, I would go nuts, eating everything in sight. This soon turned into a vicious cycle — struggle with the diet → get ultra frustrated and lose control → binge → lament, wallow in guilt, and regret→back to struggling with the diet.
So instead of killing myself dieting and to make the diet sustainable and enjoyable, I decided to include foods that I loved and also incorporate a cheat day once every ten days — a day where I could eat anything I wanted as long as:
- I hit my daily protein goal which is around 150g.
- And not stray more than 200 calories above my decided daily calorie target, so not more than 2,550 calories.
In fact, studies have shown planned cheat days to be beneficial for progress — they can restore leptin or the “hunger hormone”, prevent metabolic damage, and provide psychological relief. With this, the next step was to decide the food sources to not only get adequate protein but also adequate nutrition.
- Protein sources: Since it’s important that you choose quality lean sources of protein, I decided to go with chicken breast, whey protein, eggs, and skimmed milk. For other alternatives, here is an excellent list of good protein sources. Here’s another.
- Fat sources: One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding fat is that consuming it leads to a gain in body fat. Fat is an important micronutrient and good fats are essential for healthy hormone functioning. I decided to go with flaxseeds, whole eggs, and peanut butter. Here is a list of healthy fat sources for you to choose from.
- Carbohydrate sources: As carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for our bodies and as I had a bad experience with the keto diet, I decided to include a good amount of carbohydrates — a mix of both slow and fast carbohydrates for sustained energy throughout the day and fast bursts of energy before my workout respectively. I decided to go with wheat, oats, rice, and lentils. To choose your own sources, here are lists of good fast carbs and slow carbs.
- Vitamins and minerals: Micronutrients are as important as macronutrients, if not more. So I decided to include a good amount of vegetables, mainly greens and fruits — cucumbers, green long beans, carrots, papaya, banana, broccoli, lettuce, and spinach. For a comprehensive list of foods, here is an excellent article.
- Water intake: As someone that had once blacked out during a workout due to dehydration, I am super careful about drinking enough water. Apart from general health, research has shown that drinking enough water is important to prevent muscle loss and that it can also improve fat loss. I used a 2.2-liter water bottle to drink from and made sure to complete it at least twice a day.
Putting together the diet plan
So, with the protein intake target, calorie target, and food sources decided, all that was left to do was to put together a diet plan for which I used MyFitnessPal — with which you can set targets, search for food items, decide portions, see the macronutrient and calorie breakdown, and adjust as necessary.
After some mixing and matching, I made a diet plan which came out to be 2,360 calories but that’s OK as up to 50 calories of disparity is negligible. As to the macros, I decided to up my protein intake a bit higher than what was shown to be enough for muscle growth. This was for three main reasons:
All in all, the macros came out to be 50g fat, 181g protein, and 308g carbohydrates.