How to Diet

The rules of dieting are simple and easy to follow once you get an accurate idea of food and your body. This is a general guide to dieting, aimed at inexperienced or struggling dieters.

Measure your food

When I was dieting seriously for the first time, I realized how wrong I was about estimating food. After I weighed some of my meals and made rough calculations of how many calories I was eating each day, it was obvious why I was overweight. Due to this lifetime misperception, the initial diet meals seemed tiny, but over time your perception will adjust to the new portion size.

Use Google or myfitnesspal to look up the calories and macronutrients for your food. Ideally, you are eating whole foods (i.e. not prepackaged meals), which are harder to estimate the calories of, but try to measure it anyway. It helps to choose foods that have only one, easily measured macronutrient. For example, choosing lean meat instead of fatty meat, allows you to measure the protein content more accurately.

Measure your progress

Weigh yourself each morning after using the bathroom and before eating or drinking. This will give you a stable weight to track. Your weight can fluctuate by several pounds within the same day due to changes in water weight.

Keep a record of your weight somewhere, like an Excel spreadsheet or an app. It is helpful to be able to graph your progress to see it. You can also add notes as you experiment to find what works for you.

Morning Body weight Sample Graph

Don't worry about daily fluctuations in weight. Focus on the change over weeks and months.

Types of diets

Every diet is defined by the average daily calorie intake and the ratio of protein, fats and carbs in the diet.

There are three general types of diets, depending on the ratio of carbs to fats. Protein is determined by the dieter's body weight and is the same for all diets.

Low-carb diet

The low-carb diet has a low carbs-to-fat ratio, but the carbohydrate intake is not so low that it becomes the keto diet.

Low-fat diet

The low-fat diet has a high carbs-to-fat ratio, where the fat intake is at or around the necessary minimum.

Hybrid diet

The hybrid diet has a relatively even balance of carbs and fat, measured in calories (not weight).

Keto diet

In the keto diet, the carbohydrate intake is below some threshold, commonly 20g, but varying per person. Below this threshold, the body's metabolic processes change. The keto diet can be very effective but is stricter and has different adherence protocols than the others.

Which diet to choose?

All of them can work as long as they are adhered to. None of them are universally more effective than the others, so try one, and if it isn't working for you, then try a different one. Try for at least a few weeks before giving up if you can: the long term is different from the short term.

Estimating your calorie needs

To know how many calories to eat, you need to have an idea of your average daily calorie requirements, also known as your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure).

There are TDEE calculators that can give you a rough estimate of how many calories per day you need to maintain your body weight. For most people, these are reasonably accurate (+/- 5%), but make sure not to overestimate the amount of exercise you do. If you are someone that gains weight easily, your TDEE is probably lower than reported by the calculator; you may reduce it by 100-200 calories as you measure your weight loss.

How fast can you lose weight?

If you have 40 pounds to lose, this could take anywhere from 5 months to 2 years, depending on your body and your adherence to the diet. A sustained, one pound per week loss would be commendable. That's 40 weeks if you nail the diet. Don't worry about how long it will take - one or two years isn't that long of a time. If you can't imagine tolerating a diet that long, you can always pause it, and focus on maintaining your new body weight.

Two pounds per week is considered the maximum safe rate, but most people will find this miserable even for a few weeks, let alone 20. However, if you're very overweight you can hit 2 pounds per week relatively easily in the beginning.

How fast you can lose weight depends on your current weight, how much of that weight is fat, your ability to maintain a particular diet (which is only partly under your control - diets can stop working), and your metabolism. Use 2 lbs/week as an absolute maximum, but 1 lb/week or less as realistic.

Keep in mind that you may lose 5-10 lbs in the first two weeks of dieting, but this is water weight. Any weight easily lost will return when the diet is over, but don't worry about it.

Calculating your diet calories

Calculate your diet over a one-week timeframe rather than daily. This allows for daily fluctuations, such as a Sunday dinner or workout shakes.

  1. Take your estimated TDEE and multiply 7 to get your total weekly TDEE.
  2. Use your chosen weekly weight loss rate to calculate how much of a weekly calorie deficit to aim for. One pound of fat is 3500 calories.
  3. Subtract your deficit calories from your weekly TDEE.
  4. If you have extra food regularly, like a workout shake, count the calories in these, add them up and subtract from the weekly total.
  5. Divide the previous number by 7 to get your daily average calories to lose that much weight per week.

Example:

  1. 2300 TDEE (daily calories) * 7 days = 16100 weekly calories
  2. 1 pound/week desired weight loss = 3500 calories per week
  3. 16100 - 3500 = 12600 weekly calories to lose 1 pound/week
  4. No extra food in this example
  5. 12600 / 7 days = 1800 calories per day

Example with extra food (e.g. workout shakes):

  1. 2300 TDEE (daily calories) * 7 days = 16100 weekly calories
  2. 1 pound/week desired weight loss = 3500 calories per week
  3. 16100 - 3500 = 12600 weekly calories to lose 1 pound/week
  4. 3 workout shakes per week, 400 calories each = 1200; 12600 - 1200 = 11400 calories
  5. 11400 / 7 days = 1629 calories per day (excluding the workout shakes)

Since your TDEE was an estimate, this calorie target is also an estimate. You may have to adjust calories up or down as you continue in your diet, but it takes a few weeks of measurements to know that.

Designing your meals

Once you know your daily calorie target, you can design your meals.

The number of meals you eat per day doesn't matter, do whatever works for you. I like 2 meals per day.

Measuring food accurately is difficult. First, buy a kitchen scale that measures weight in grams.

A common strategy is to use ingredients that are easily measured individually, then building a meal from that. These ingredients are lean meat for protein, a grain like rice or a wrap for carbs, animal fats, cooking oil or avocados for fat and vegetables for nutrition and filler.

Lean meat like boneless chicken breast is often used for dieting because you can assume the meat's calories are all protein and none from fat. Other lean meats include some cuts of steak like tenderloin, or harder-to-obtain meats like venison. Semi-lean meats include pork tenderloin and flank steak.

Measure the amount of cooking oil you use. This ends up in the food. Prefer to use ghee, coconut or avocado oil for cooking.

Green vegetables can be generally eaten as much as you want. They have very few calories besides the oil they are often cooked in, so measure that oil.

Prepackaged food comes with calories labeled, but they only need to be +/-20% accurate by FDA rules, so aren't necessarily more accurate or easier to measure than your meal ingredients. This food is often unhealthy and should be avoided. Read the ingredient labels. Frozen vegetables are fine but TV dinners are better off left at the supermarket.

Listen to your body and observe your measurements after you eat certain foods, for that day and the day after. You may notice certain foods make you feel worse, or bloated, or puffy. Avoid these foods in the future.

Macronutrient minimums

Your diet plan will be designed starting with macronutrients. Macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, fat, water and fiber. Water and fiber are discussed further down since they aren't part of the calorie calculations. Protein and carbs have 4 calories per gram, fat has 9 calories per gram.

Every diet needs a minimum amount of protein and fat. The remaining food is a mix of carbs and fat, depending on the diet type.

For protein, aim for 1g per pound of body weight. The optimal amount depends on who you ask; this is a good guideline for most people.

For fat, aim for a minimum of 15% of calories from fat, and don't go below 10%.

Using our previous calorie calculations of 1800 calories per day, 15% of 1800 is 270 calories, 270 calories divided by 9g calories per gram of fat gives us 30g of fat per day minimum.

Our example dieter is 180lbs. So they have 180g protein, and 30g of fat, which is 180*4 + 30*9 = 990 calories so far. 810 calories remain.

Allocating the remaining calories

Low-carb diet

The amount of carbs that is considered “low” depends on the person, but if you're relatively inactive and typically overweight, then suppose 50-100g per day, which is 200-400 calories, leaving 410-610 calories budget, which leaves and additional 45-68g fat per day.

Example daily intake:

  • Calories: 1800cal
  • Protein: 180g (40%)
  • Fat: 75-98g (38%-49%)
  • Carbs: 50-100g (12-21%)

Low-fat diets

A low-fat diet would have the minimum amount of fat, or not more than say 20% of calories from fat. The rest would be carbs, after meeting protein. All remaining 810 calories would equal 203g carbs.

Example daily intake:

  • Calories: 1800cal
  • Protein: 180g (40%)
  • Fat: 30g (15%)
  • Carbs: 203g (45%)

Hybrid diets

A hybrid diet is anywhere in between the two extremes. We'll split the calories evenly between fat and carbs for this example.

Example daily intake:

  • Calories: 1800cal
  • Protein: 180g (40%)
  • Fat: 60g (30%)
  • Carbs: 135g (30%)

Keto diet

A keto diet has carbs below some threshold, commonly 20g. Once protein is met, the remainder goes to fat.

Example daily intake:

  • Calories: 1800cal
  • Protein: 180g (40%)
  • Fat: 111g (56%)
  • Carbs: 20g (4%)

Calories in, calories out?

For the most part, “calories in, calories out” is true. Meaning, you'll lose weight if your body uses more calories than it takes in.

In practice, the particular foods you eat will affect your success in dieting, even if the calories are the same. The food could be polluted with pesticides and herbicides, or BPA and phthalates (fast food) which are known obesogens.

Where possible, avoid low-quality sources of food such as fried foods, over-processed food, high fructose corn syrup, and food coloring.

Listen to your body

As you diet, try to think about how your body feels after eating certain foods and meals over the next day or two. What you eat today can affect you for several days ago. Over time, you will get a sense of what works for your body. For example, you may notice that a higher carb diet makes you hungry more often, or a lower carb diet makes you feel weak.

A successful diet is a diet you can adhere to

Not regaining fat is as important as losing it. We regain fat by overeating. Try to avoid overeating as much as possible. When not dieting, don't do the opposite and eat too much. If you have an event like a party or a vacation, don't worry so much about the diet but at least focus on not overeating. After the event passes, get back onto your diet routine.

Calorie restriction can be difficult to maintain for more than a few weeks. You can switch between a period of dieting and a period of eating at maintenance until you reach your goal. It might take longer but the important part is that you make progress.

Not everyone responds the same to each diet style (low carb, low fat, hybrid, keto); if one is not working for you, try another. You'll likely lose weight on any of them, but the mental and physical difficulty of a given diet style can be too much.

Long-term maintenance

After you've reached a body weight you're satisfied with, you must not return to old habits that caused you to be overweight in the first place. During your diet, educate yourself on healthier eating habits and work on your self-control around food. If you struggle with self-control, you can try removing yourself from food that you should not eat. Refuse the offer, move to a different part of the room, or throw it out if you need to.

By this point, you should have a decent estimate of your TDEE. Try to eat around this amount of calories on average. If you overeat for a few days, then diet for a few. Keep the food in balance over time.

Meal times

Despite the popularity of intermittent fasting, in my experience the meal timing does not matter. If following intermittent fasting doesn't work for you, there's no need to force it.

Water

Anecdotally, high water intake helps with sustaining the diet and feeling better. If you are doing the keto diet, it is essential. Aim for 1 gallon of water per day.

Fiber

Fiber adds bulk to the meals and will make you feel more full, at least for a short duration after the meal. It'll also help mitigate some of the hunger feelings later on, but it won't eliminate them. What I never see mentioned is that fiber is an essential part of cholesterol metabolism; this is why they can put the “heart-healthy” label on Cheerios (note: Cheerios aren't healthy). Soluble fiber inhibit cholesterol reabsorption by the body; if you don't have it, more cholesterol will recirculate in your bloodstream, raising cholesterol levels. When you're losing weight, cholesterol is released from the fat cells into the bloodstream and you need to block its reabsorption and let it leave the body.

The Google-recommended amount for fiber is 25g per day, although I don't know on what basis this number is recommended but is probably a decent minimum.

One problem with weight loss is gallstones due to the shift in cholesterol elimination. Soluble fiber might help with this. Unfortunately, the only medically confirmed solution is a medicine called UDCA which is only available by prescription (in the US). As an alternative, TUDCA should work, which can be found on some supplement websites but is not widely available.

Exercise

Exercise can be helpful to dieting but it is not required. Don't worry about it if you have difficulty with exercising. Focus on maintaining a good diet.