When you decide it’s time to shift into a fat-loss regimen, you have to get your calories under control because energy balance is crucial for gaining OR losing weight. But what about the makeup of those calories? In particular, what is the best ratio of calories to lose fat — protein-to-carbohydrates-to-fats — for losing fat?
Opinions are all over the place on this topic, and it’s one of the great areas of debate among fitness enthusiasts, but there are some constants that can help guide you.
Let’s start with protein because every diet you build, as a strength athlete, should be centered around it. Protein provides the amino acid building blocks that you need to rebuild tissue after training, and to build or maintain muscle while dieting.
How much do you need?
Again, opinions vary, but a decent rule of thumb that has been well-used for years is to target about one gram of high-quality, complete protein per pound of bodyweight. The goal for a 150-pound man, then, is about 150 grams. Since each gram of protein has 4 calories, that’s 600 calories from protein.
If we figure this same man needs around 2250 calories to maintain weight, then his fat-loss diet may be about 2000 calories per day. That means about 30% of his calories will come from protein.
Carbs v. Fats
With protein in the bag, the real debate can begin — are carbohydrates or fats better for providing energy AND losing fat.
For decades, low-fat diets were the standard because of a heavy media focus on the “evils” of fat. While it’s true that fat supplies more than twice as much energy on a per-gram basis as carbs — 9 calories as compared to 4 — fat also provides other benefits, like more stable blood sugar and help with tissue repair.
What’s more, carbs, and especially sugars, have come under attack as Atkins, Paleo, and other lower-carb diets have risen to prominence in recent years.
So which one is better? Even scientists are divided on this one.
For instance, a 2014 study of nearly 150 subjects concluded that low-carb is superior for losing fat and getting healthier, while a 2015 study funded by the NIH found that low-fat is superior for losing fat.
A 2015 review out of the University of Florida examined 17 previous studies, and found that low-carbohydrate diets may help produce fat loss but that there generally is no significant difference between low-carb and low-fat when it comes to losing weight.
So Which Is Better?
It may be frustrating that there is no definitive answer to which way you should eat for weight loss, but it’s more evidence that extreme diets are usually not the answer to achieving your fitness goals.
Most people would do well do include a healthy carbohydrate component in their diet since carbs are your body’s preferred energy source for muscular contractions.
On the other hand, even low-fat proponents concede that you need fat to stay healthy, recommending around 10% of your calories come from fat. For a 2000-calorie eating plan that works out to just 200 calories, or around 22 grams. That’s not much, and many people will find their blood sugar fluctuating and their skin starting to dry out if they don’t bump that up to 20 or even 30 percent.
The bottom line is, get your protein first, then make sure you’re eating enough healthy fats to cover your essential fatty acid needs and to stay satiated, then get your main energy supply from carbohydrates if you can handle them.
Of course, there will be cases where either carbs or fats should be severely limited, such as for diabetes and coronary disease patients. That’s why seeing your doctor for a complete physical and consultation before you change your diet is vital. Only he and you can determine what’s right and healthy for you when it comes to losing fat while hanging onto your precious muscle stores.