Nutrition For Fat Loss Part 1: Where do you begin?

By Daine McDonald

Founder | Clean Health Fitness Institute

One of the most popular topics in health and wellness is nutrition. Every week I have personal trainers, strength coaches or the general public ask me… Should I eat paleo, low carb, high carb, carb backloading, isocaloric, keto, carb cycling the list goes on! Whilst the type of nutrition is important for fat loss, there are other factors that are going to influence the results of any nutrition plan such as:

  1. Client goal
  2. Lifestyle stress
  3. Sleep quality
  4. Current total calories consumed
  5. Client BMR
  6. Current TDEE (Total daily energy expenditure)
  7. Current training system
  8. Client compliance

These are the eight areas I like to address before I even look at what nutrition system I am going to initially use with a client, this same philosophy I teach to all of our elite personal trainers in our Sydney CBD and Chatswood gym’s.

So the million-dollar question is where do you begin? Well there are four primary steps to consider first before you even begin to pick what types of food you should eat and when!

Starchy carbs or salads? Well the answer is both, however it depends on several things first...

Starchy carbs or salads? Well the answer is both, however it depends on several things first…

Step 1: Obtain Your Lean Body Mass (LBM)

So what exactly is your lean body mass? It comprises of your liver, brain, skeletal muscle, kidneys, heart and other organs. As the chart shows below contrary to popular belief, muscle mass actually comprises a small overall component of our metabolic thermogenesis.


Now to obtain your LBM, I recommend one of two options:

  1. Get a DEXA scan, from my experience this is the gold standard in body fat and lean body mass assessment
  2. Contact a Charles R Poliquin aka Strength Sensei certified BioPrint coach. You can search a trainer near you locally HERE.

In our iNutrition Pro Certification Program for personal trainers we teach students to use an equation called the Katch-McArdle formula to ascertain their lean body mass. The benefit of using this formula over other standard formulas taught to dietitians such as the Harris Benedict Equation, is that unlike the former, it takes into account a clients lean body mass, which allows you to obtain a very precise estimate of your basal metabolic rate.

Research shows that your lean body mass equates to about 60-70% of your total daily energy expenditure, otherwise known as your TDEE. The formula to calculate your BMR is 370 + (21.6 x LBM). To give you a practical example, we will use a hypothetical person called Katie. Now her data is the following:

  1. Her total body weight is 61.5kg
  2. Her body fat is 14.5%
  3. This leaves her LBM at 52.6kg
  4. So using the formula above, her BMR is 370 + 21.6 x 52.6 = 1506.16 calories per day

With these stats we can now move on to step two!

Step 2: Determine Your Physical Activity Level (PAL)

Your physical activity level, otherwise know as PAL, equates to about 20-30% of your BMR. The thermic effect of food, referred to as TEF, equates for the remaining 10-15%. So in step two we integrate those two factors into calculating your PAL. To determine your PAL the simplest method is the chart below.

FullSizeRender 2

We now have Katie’s total daily energy expenditure on both training and non-training days. This gives us a great baseline of just how much calories she needs to consume to ensure she is healthy and getting positive results with her body composition.

Step 3: Calculate Current Daily Caloric Levels

Now that you have determined how many calories your body should be consuming at a maintenance level, we now need to look at how much you currently are having. This nearly 100% of the time is the part that people are failing in, due to shows like The Biggest Loser and mainstream media telling us for years that to master weight loss, you need to lower your calories.

Nothing could be further from the truth if you are after optimal health and wellness, not just rapid weight loss that can lead to negative health consequences and years of yo-yo dieting. The problems with chronic long term under-feeding are numerous, but if I could give you some key points to remember right now they are:

  1. If you have been chronically under eating for over six months, it can take the exact amount of time to recover from it gradually without putting back on the weight you initially lost.
  2. Lack of calories means lack of micronutrients. Everybody talks about macronutrients (Proteins, carbs and fats) but forgets inside these compounds we have vitamins, minerals, amino acids and much more that all help with vital bodily functions such as detoxing, hormonal synthesis, combating oxidative stress, neurotransmitter formation and much more! Without them we are going to be surviving at a sub-optimal level, which can long term lead to a myriad of health problems.
  3. Your body is smart, when it senses you are starving it, it can hold onto fat – which is our greatest form of stored energy – in the event that it needs to call upon it later on. So rather than losing fat you can actually force your body to store it, maybe not initially but if you abuse your body long enough it can happen.
  4. When rapidly reducing calories in particular that from protein, the weight lost is just that – weight – so a combination of muscle and fat. As the table earlier on showed, muscle accounts for about 18% of our BMR, moreover muscle mass has direct links to positive outcomes in quality of life, immune system function and more. So summary, losing weight is not in your best interest, but losing fat is.

I recommend using an app like to track the amount of calories per day you are consuming over a three-day period to give you a guideline as to just how much, or how little you are consuming. I guarantee for most of you reading this, the results will likely shock you!

So just how much of a caloric deficit do we consider unhealthy? This all depends on your goal, which it outlined in the final step.

Step 4: Determine Daily Energy Requirements (DER)

Your daily energy requirements, otherwise known as DER, are the amount of calories your body needs per day dependent on the goal. Based of research and experience, I teach personal trainers and nutritionists from around the world with our Clean Health Education Program the following guidelines when it comes to this topic…

DER For Fat Loss

For fat loss you should use a 10-20% caloric deficit. This can be up to 30-35% if you are over 25% body fat initially due to the rapid initial rate of weight loss and the fact that you are less prone to going catabolic and losing muscle mass. Going any lower than this in in layman’s terms is a form of cellular starvation, which in turn can down regulate thyroid hormone output, digestive enzyme processes and overall ramp down your metabolism significantly.

So if we use Katie as an example, we know that she is quite lean already, trains frequently and was consuming 1800 calories per day when training and 1600 calories per day when not training, that equates to approximately a 30% deficit which isn’t too bad, but far from optimal. In her example I might increase her calories by 10% whilst changing her weight-training regime to include some more volume, which would bring her to a healthier 20% deficit as shown below:

  1. 47/100*80 = 2048.37 calories on a training day.
  2. 62/100*80 = 1686.89 calories on a non-training day.

If you are using a larger caloric deficit than this, it is advised that you bring your calories back up to baseline or above 1-2 times per week. The main thing to remember here is slow and steady wins the race as it can take up to 18 months to reset your bodies caloric utilization back to a baseline level, so don’t expect to drop body fat overnight especially if you have been starving yourself for quite some time. If you bring your calories back up too fast you will put on body fat, which is not preferential!

Insta F5

Here is an example of one of our clients who changed her body dramatically following these principles…

DER For Hypertrophy & Muscle Gain

Now although not the topic of this article ultimately building lean muscle is a goal everybody should be striving to achieve. So for this goal you should use a 10-20% caloric surplus. I do however only recommend you make this a goal if your body fat levels are low enough to do it clean, so by building lean muscle not ‘bulking’. So for males under 14% body fat and females under 18% body fat this would be the goal, as the more insulin sensitive your body is the easier it is too put on quality lean muscle tissue.

So if we use Katie as an example, she has now spent 12 weeks boosting her calories back up and comfortably sits around a baseline level throughout the week whilst maintaining her body fat and muscle mass levels. Her goal now changes and she wants to put on muscle. Initially we might have just started increasing her calories above baseline 1-2 times per week by 5%-10% on ‘re-feed’ days. So for her new goal I might increase her calories by 5% on training days whilst keeping it at a 10% surplus on non-training days, allowing her body to recover adequately. So it would look like this:

  1. 47/100*105 = 2688.50 calories on a training day.
  2. 62/100*110 = 2319.48 calories on a non-training day.

Some key points to remember here are as you build more lean muscle, your lean body mass will go up. So your TDEE will change based of your BMR and PAL levels likely increasing, so you will need to re-do steps 1 and 2 to accurately ascertain your DER for this goal. This is why it is important to change your calorie levels every few weeks when hypertrophy is the goal.

Apart from these key steps you are also going to need to look at the actual training methods you are doing along with compliance and ability to adhere to a structured plan, however that is for the following article in this series!

Editors note: For more information on our nutritional consulting services and the iNutrition Pro software, CONTACT US TODAY!

To visit Daine’s personal website today go to: or you can catch him on instagram @dainemcdonald

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