by Jim Cordova

It is for good reason that the first three letters in ‘diet’ are ‘die!’ As if the actual dieting process wasn’t difficult enough, many people have exhausted themselves simply sorting through the loads of dieting hype on the market in an effort to find one that will help them shed those unwanted pounds. For decades, to the dismay of the many true fitness professionals, people from all walks of life have been taken in by countless scam-diets, inevitably failing to meet their goals for one simple reason: there is no magic diet! I can promise you that the only diet strategy that truly delivers is the one that has been around from the beginning of time. In this article, I am going to lay down the essentials of a tried and true dieting strategy that is guaranteed to work better than anything out there.

One of the first things to understand about dieting is this: On average, you burn a certain number of calories each day. When you eat less calories than you burn, you will lose weight. Eat more than you burn in a day and you will gain weight. The degree to which you eat above or below your metabolic rate will determine how fast you gain or lose. It makes no difference how “clean” you eat. It seems that quite a few people have a tough time accepting this, becoming very frustrated because they are eating what are essentially healthy foods and yet do not lose weight.

To clarify, you could very easily eat nothing but candy bars dipped in lard and lose weight. Likewise, you could gain weight even if your diet consisted of nothing more than boiled chicken breasts, celery, and carrot sticks! The number one principle to grasp is as follows: if you eat more calories than you burn in a day you gain weight and vice-versa.

In practice, losing weight is easy. However, you need to question what weight loss is to you. Will you be satisfied with your appearance once you get there? My experience as a fitness professional for over a decade has taught me that the answer is ‘no’ most of the time. Upon reaching your set weight loss goal, you will look in the mirror and feel that you need to enhance your level of muscle tone. Your waist will still be larger than you want it to be and you will not be content with the overall shape of your body (especially with less clothing).

During the quest to lose weight, very few people reflect on the importance of maintaining skeletal muscle. The more muscle you burn, the slower your metabolism becomes for one, since calories are burnt through activation of muscle tissue. The more muscle you have firing, the more overall calories you will burn; the faster your metabolism will be.

Keeping your muscle while dieting will also make a huge difference as to how you look when you achieve your weight loss goal. Most people don’t realize this, instead getting caught up with their goal of losing a set number of "pounds." If you are one of these people, here is something to consider:

One pound of FAT = 3500 calories

One pound of LEAN MUSCLE = roughly 600-800 calories (varies due to hydration).

See? Just because you lose a pound, doesn’t mean you have done yourself justice. Theoretically, you could burn 600 calories and lose a "pound" (but, of muscle), or you could burn 3500 calories to lose a "pound" (of fat). Most people end up burning both muscle and fat in differing proportions, meaning they could burn anywhere in the range of 600-3500 calories and lose a "pound."

After you have carefully considered these concepts, it is time to delve into the actual strategy. Bear with it if it becomes confusing and be comforted in the fact that simple directions follow even if you do not understand some of what you read immediately below.

A safe place to start is to first determine the amount of calories that you currently burn. The first step is to use a chart that specifies a healthy weight based on your height and body type or you can refer to a caloric calculator on a website (search for "calorie counter" on Google). That will give you a very rough estimate. Next, subtract 500 calories from that to put yourself on pace to lose one pound of fat per week (-500 calories times 7 days equals -3500 calories per week, equals one pound of fat loss.)

When setting macronutrient ratios, you will first want to establish your protein intake. Surely you want to burn fat and hold onto as much muscle as you can and the best defense to ensure this, generally speaking, is to eat protein with every meal. There are various sound reasons as to why protein plays such a strong role toward retaining muscle tissue. When you exercise, your muscles require amino acids to heal (muscle is made up of protein and protein is made up of amino acids) and if you give it to them they will not draw it from other muscles. Further, if your body needs protein for basic energy, it will be much more prone to eat the protein that you feed it rather than breaking down your muscles. Ultimately, you stand a better chance of maintaining your muscle and acquiring a toned appearance by making protein a staple in your diet. In addition to these benefits, protein digests slowly and makes you feel fuller.

What is commonly referred to as “lean body mass” generally refers to your weight without the bodyfat. Most healthy individuals on a calorie restricted diet should eat roughly .5 - 1 gram per pound of lean body mass to maximize muscle retention. It isn’t uncommon for a physique athlete, such as a bodybuilder, to eat up to 1.5 to 2 grams, however. The level of exercise intensity, specifically in the form of resistance training, is a key factor when establishing this number.

Lean body mass can be established simply by taking your overall weight and multiplying it times your bodyfat percentage. Next, take that number and subtract it from your overall weight. Here is an example using a 180 lb individual at 15% BF:

Bodyweight: 180lbs.

Body fat: 15% (This means that 27lbs of overall weight is fat: 180 X .15 = 27lbs.)

Lean Bodyweight: 153lbs. (180lbs – 27lbs = 153lbs)

Assuming 1 gram per pound of lean bodyweight, this 180lb individual would need to eat roughly 150 grams of protein per day, which would amount to 600 calories (150 grams of protein X 4 calories per gram of protein).

The second step is to establish your fat intake. Generally speaking, you should limit fat intake to roughly 20%, and up to 30%, of all calories consumed when on a calorie restricted diet. So, if you find that you should eat 2000 calories per day to realize your goal, 20% of this would equate to 400 calories from fat or roughly 45 grams of fat per day (400 calories / 9 calories per gram of fat = 44.4 grams of fat).

Still with me? Don't worry, I will make it simple in a second and you will have all you need here to figure it out, assuming that you really want to lose weight the right way.

The final step is to establish the amount of carbohydrates that you are to eat in a day. To do that, you simply take the number of calories that you have not filled in with protein and fat and divide. Referring to the examples above, if protein consumed 600 calories and fat consumed 400, there will be 1000 calories left in the 2000 calorie allotment. The final step would be to take the 1000 calories left and divide by 4 (each gram of carbohydrate contains four calories). Carbohydrates would be set at 250 grams per day.

1) Go to the calculator (Google Calorie Counter).

2) Subtract 500 calories from the number it gives you.

3) Establish protein using the Lean Body Weight method above.

4) Set fats at 20%

5) Fill in the rest with carbs.

This will provide a very basic starting point for a generally healthy individual seeking to lose bodyfat. I must stress the fact that medical conditions will have to be taken into account, as will the specific level of conditioning one seeks to attain, when structuring the ideal starting point. Moreover, the numbers will have to be adjusted relative to the level of progression, and of course, this is where a good coach comes into play!

If you are going at it alone, you should know that counting may become tedious at first, but can become so simple that eventually you will be able to eye food portions and provide yourself with a sound estimate to maintain a proper pace. When dividing up your meals, you should think along the lines of the body utilizing the macronutrients from each meal within three to four hours. This is why many professionals commonly recommend five or six meals. Your body will become less susceptible to storing fat since it becomes trained to rely on the energy it receives from each meal.

You can take it one step further to ensure that you are burning fat and maximizing muscle retention by exercising. The body is adaptive and geared around survival, meaning that you have to give your body a reason to hold onto skeletal muscle when on a calorie restricted nutrition plan. If you work the muscles, your body basically says, "I have to hold onto the muscle to do all of this work, so I can't burn it for energy. I'll have to use the fat, as it is less important to my survival."

Trust me! In most cases the end result of "losing weight" doesn't look good. You can disguise it in clothes and people may say that you look "great," but nothing beats a fit body. It doesn't have to be an extreme physique, like in the magazines, but a little exercise goes a long way with proper dieting. And you will realize countless other benefits from exercising regularly, in addition to enhanced good looks!