So…you think you’re ready to start a diet? Great! You’ve come to the right place, because between all of the people on our team, we’ve probably done about a thousand.
The word ‘diet’ has become a four-letter word lately, but you know how I feel about those. Fucking fantastic. Some people might be afraid of them. Others overuse them. But when implemented appropriately, at the right time, they’re highly effective ?
Some of the information that we’re going to cover here may seem like the basics, so if you’ve worked with us or another coach before, consider it a refresher course. Even the most seasoned bodybuilders are going to (or should) ask themselves these questions before they start a diet, so it’s really relevant for everyone.
There are a few terms you want to get familiar with to understand the fundamentals of dieting. Everything we eat and drink has calories, which are basically just a measurement of energy.
Losing weight occurs when the calories consumed is lower than the calories burned, which is also called a caloric deficit. People talk about “calories in vs calories out,” and while it’s a lot more complicated than that, that equation is going to tell you when you’re in a caloric deficit, caloric maintenance, or caloric surplus.
A couple of other words can be used interchangeably with diet. Caloric deficit…cut…it all means the same thing: taking in fewer calories than your body is using. When that happens, your body is going to burn the mass that it has stored up in order to make up the energy difference it needs to function.
But just jumping into a calorie deficit isn’t necessarily right for your body, and it might not get you the results you’re looking for. So before you do, I want you to ask yourself these six questions first.
1. Am I mentally prepared?
A deficit is a deficit, both mentally and calorically. When we take fitness clients into our program, we always ask if they’ve got anything major coming up in the next six months, because that can have a real impact on your mentality when it comes to sticking to a diet.
If it’s the beginning of July and you’ve got a trip to Italy in August, it’s probably not the best time to go into a deficit. Because…wine. Pasta. Gelato. More wine.
Whether it’s a trip to Italy or your best friend’s wedding, with six different showers and parties between now and the big day, it’s important to enjoy life experiences without having to think about tracking—and that’s okay!
Save the diet for when there’s not a major event that’s going to get in the way. As it is, you’re going to need to learn how to say ‘no’ when you’re in a diet phase and you’re going out to eat with friends. You’ll have to usually turn down the pasta. And the gelato. Maybe not the wine, because…wine.
My point is: you need to be in a good place mentally. We’ll get into metabolic adaptation a little further on, but the way your body handles a deficit is going to create emotional and mental challenges that you need to be prepared for.
Your hormones might change and affect your sex drive. You might not be able to think as clearly. Your body doesn’t really care if you can’t make it through the eight-hour workday. So maybe by 2 PM, you start feeling a little foggy and tired. Do you have a plan in place to deal with that? Or is a little fog brain going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to other stressors in life?
The good thing is that dieting has some benefits, mentally, even though it’s going to be a challenge mentally, too. Being disciplined enough to stick to a certain macro count, even if your roommate or spouse is downing an entire pizza, is going to bleed into other areas of your life. You’re going to learn firsthand that instant gratification really isn’t how you find happiness. Reach goals.
It takes discipline. Dedication. Focus. Accountability.
One of the reasons people hire a fitness coach is because they need help with accountability. We don’t just give people a set of macros and set them free. Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, having someone there to make sure you’re sticking to your goals can be priceless.
If hiring a trainer isn’t in the cards right now, consider just posting about your diet goals on social media. That way, your friends and family have an idea of what’s going on without you having to discuss it with them directly. You’ll feel more accountable because others know about it.
If mindset isn’t an issue, it’s time to consider physical readiness.
2. Am I physically prepared?
Just like you need to make sure that you’re mentally prepared for a diet, you also need to make sure that you’re physically prepared. That you’re currently eating enough that lowering your calorie intake from there is going to have an impact and not leave you just eating lettuce and ice cubes.
A lot of people think that if they just exercise for 10 hours a day, they’ll lose weight. But it’s SO MUCH MORE COMPLICATED than that.
This might get a little bit technical, but I promise you can get through it, and you really need to if you have fitness goals to reach.
The amount of energy (calories) that your body burns in a day is called your total daily energy expenditure, or TDEE. The amount of calories you burn through physical activity goes into that, but it’s just one part of the pie.
The percentages above are approximate, but you can see that most of your calorie expenditure comes down to your BMR (basal metabolic rate), or how many calories your body burns by just existing. Even if you’re just vegging on the couch and binging Netflix, your body needs a certain amount of energy for the basics. Like breathing and all that other good shit. And BMR has a lot of factors that go into it, like your age, gender, and genetic makeup. BMR is also affected by muscle mass.
Muscle is more metabolically active than fat. If you were to take two people with the exact same age/gender/genetics, but one has more muscle than the other, the one with more muscle is going to have a higher BMR because it takes more energy to keep their body running. Having more muscle means you’re burning more calories throughout the day without even trying.
This is why it’s better, long term, to spend time doing both weight training and cardio, instead of spending all your time “burning calories” on the treadmill. (And by the way…stop paying attention to those machine calorie counters at the gym, because they’re just not accurate.)
When you look at the physical activity portion of your TDEE, keep in mind that a lot of it isn’t the time you spend at the gym. The intentional exercise portion sits at just about 10%, so don’t think that an extra hour at the gym “makes up for” an inactive lifestyle.
Are you sitting at a desk 8 hours a day and only getting up and down for trips to the fridge, or is your day spent in an active job where you get 10,000 steps without even trying? Do you fidget a lot? Work a mentally demanding job? All of that falls into the NEAT category, which is non-exercise activity thermogenesis. The movement done outside of the gym. Just getting your steps in makes a huge difference, so don’t forget to take ALL of your daily activity into account. Park far away from the store. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Enjoy a nice post-dinner walk with your dogs. Be intentional with your movement throughout the day.
The last thing I want to touch on real quick is the TEF, which is the calories burned through digestion. Different types of food require different amounts of energy to break down, with protein being the most calorically expensive. Eating a protein-rich diet and foods high in zinc and iron are going to increase your metabolism because of how much energy your body extends in digesting and absorbing the nutrients from those foods. On the other hand, fat is very easy for the body to process, so in addition to having more calories gram per gram, it’s going to be lower in TEF and burn fewer calories in the process.
Understanding these terms is going to navigate a diet whether you work with a trainer or go it alone. The main takeaway is that you have to be eating enough now to go into a deficit later. And even if you are getting in the right calories for your TDEE today, have you been doing it consistently for long enough? That brings us to question three.
3. Has it been long enough since my last cut?
Losing weight is more complicated than just calories in vs. calories out because of a little thing called metabolic adaptation.
Your body wants to stay in homeostasis. It wants life to be as easy as possible (don’t we all…). So when you go switching it up, your body it going to react by changing the way that it functions to make sure that the most important stuff still gets done. In a caloric deficit, you’re giving the body less fuel than what it’s used to. It’s going to see that and make some adjustments. It’s not going to function the way that you’re used to, because you’re asking it to do the same tasks—and usually more if you’re upping your workout routine—with less fuel.
Think of your body as a car. If all of the stuff under the hood is in good condition (hormones, etc.), and you’re driving at a moderate speed without accelerating too quickly (moderate physical activity), then a full tank of gas (maintenance calories) will get you, say, 500 miles.
On the other hand, if your filters and oxygen sensors are clogged (hormonal imbalance) and you’re driving like an asshole (working out too much), a full tank of gas might get only you 350 miles.
Lowering the gas level further (caloric deficit) means even fewer miles. Maybe you only get 250 before you’re broken down on the side of the road.
And big surprise: your body is not a car. Instead of just cutting you off midday when you’re out of gas, it’s going to regulate the functioning of every system in your body to account for the fact that you’ve got less fuel. Try to run on low fuel for long enough, and your body will think that’s the new norm. That, my friends, is metabolic adaptation.
You’ve consumed 1200 calories a day for three months, so your body learns to run on 1200, regardless of how that makes you feel. It adjusts. Then, when you decide to go back to what would be a caloric maintenance, your body thinks it’s a surplus and goes to store all of the extra calories that it can.
The result? Weight gain.
That’s why it’s so important to take into account the last time you dieted. If it was three months ago or less, then your body is probably still in that place where your past cut is the norm. Cutting it back likely won’t have an impact, so you’re best sticking to your TDEE until your system re-regulates.
If your last diet was within the past six months, then you need to consider your biofeedback, which I’ll get into a little further on.
If you haven’t dieted within the past year, then you’re likely good to go from a metabolic standpoint, so next, I want you to consider your current body composition and future goals.
4. Do I have any muscle under there?
The point of a diet is to lose weight, and if it’s done right, that’ll happen. Unfortunately, you can’t decide how much of that is fat and how much is muscle, and you DEFINITELY can’t decide where it comes from. Burning calories means losing some of both muscle and fat.
Hard truths, but it is what it is.
Now I’m really not trying to sound like a dick here, but if your goal is to look ‘toned,’ then you’ve got to have some muscle underneath the fat you want to lose. That’s what will be what shows up as the fat is burned in the deficit. If you don’t, then it’s better to go into caloric maintenance or a caloric surplus for a bit to gain the muscle that will show through later.
I know it’s not exactly what you want to hear if you’re in the mindset to lose weight. And for some clients, we will put them into a caloric deficit for a little while, even if they don’t have the muscle mass that we’d like to see going into it. For some, it’s more about seeing immediate results and just looking smaller.
So you have to ask yourself: What is my goal?
If you’re only going to put work in if it means seeing a lower number on the scale, then okay—let’s do a diet for a while and then evaluate where to go from there.
If you’re what they refer to as ‘skinny fat,’ then a diet is just going to make you look even skinnier fat. If you’re on the smaller side to begin with, you might even look unhealthy skinny, even if you still weigh more than you want to.
In that case, gaining muscle through a caloric surplus first is going to have some huge benefits. Besides having muscle there to see once you enter the diet phase, there’s also the fact that, like I mentioned above, muscle burns more calories than fat. Adding to your muscle mass is going to raise your BMR, which means you’ll burn more calories when you’re at rest.
Using that caloric surplus to add protein into your diet is going to raise your TEF, which means you’ll burn more calories through digestion. See how it’s all coming together??
It’s a balancing act, and one that is much easier to navigate with someone guiding you through the process. But if you know you’ve got some muscle underneath it all, I want you to consider question number five.
5. Is my biofeedback on point?
What we teach our clients in T4E is that biofeedback is just as important—actually, more important—than the number on the scale. If you’ve ever had a fitness coach who just gives you a workout plan and some macros to stay within, and never asks you about how you’re sleeping or where your stress levels are at, I hope they weren’t your fitness coach for too long.
Stress is stress.
For your body, there’s not really a difference between stress you enjoy or stress that’s stressing you the fuck out. Even if you’re going to the gym for an hour a day because it’s your ✨happy place✨ where you can forget the rest of the shit going on around you, it’s still stress. And too much stress is going to affect you negatively, one way or the other.
Maybe it shows up as difficulty getting to sleep, or staying asleep, and you only get five hours a night.
Maybe digestion is out of whack, and bathroom trips or infrequent or…hard to handle.
Maybe it shows up with a variable heart rate. You wake up every morning with your heart racing.
Maybe it shows up in your menstrual cycle, which becomes unpredictable or unusually heavy.
These are all biofeedback markers that we really need to consider when we’re looking at the calories we consume. For the most part, eating less is not going to make anything listed above better. If your biofeedback is shitty, going into a deficit is the wrong choice. Even if you do see some external results, you’re going to be killing yourself internally to get there.
If you’re sleeping well, going to the bathroom regularly, and on an even emotional keel, then your biofeedback is good and can handle the stress of a caloric deficit.
6. Can I see the forest AND the trees?
We consider this a bonus question, because if you’ve answered ‘Yes’ to the other five, then you’re likely ready to start a diet. But this final question is…do you really need to?
It’s common for those with fitness goals to get bogged down in the details like hitting their macros exactly to the gram. It’s also common for others to become so obsessed with the end result—the number on the scale—that they forget about the tried and true, science-backed basics to get there.
If you want to make your diet work, then you have to be able to look at both the macro and the micro, and see your unique situation from an objective perspective.
Sometimes people who think they need to be cutting calories actually just need to be tracking them accurately.
Let’s say you should be at maintenance at 1600 calories. You think you’ve been eating 1600, but you’re forgetting to add in the iced mocha latte every morning and those few bites you steal from your toddler’s leftover lunch. If that’s the case, then maybe it just comes down to accurately tracking what you’re eating and sticking to your maintenance calories, instead of jumping right into a cut.
And then there’s the flip side of that, too. Are you focusing so much on your diet that you’re neglecting other areas of your life? Is your day just straight-up ruined if you step on the scale and it’s a little higher than where you expected to be?
If you find yourself lacking in other areas of life, then you should probably work on making mindset changes that can help you re-frame your end goal.
Obviously, we all want to look amazing in a bathing suit. But there needs to be more than that. Think about how reaching your fitness goals is going to improve your quality of life. Maybe you want to lose weight so that it’s easier to play with your kids. Maybe you want to feel sexier for your spouse. Maybe you just want to be the best version of yourself that you can be.
Whatever it is, all of those goals are so much bigger than just a number on a scale. More meaningful than the calories on your plate.
So take a step back to see yourself from an outsider’s perspective. Be honest with yourself. Focus on the basics and the why behind your fitness goals.
Can you commit to accurate tracking? Can you stick with a plan even if there are no visible changes in two weeks?
If you can’t answer ‘Yes’ to those and every single one of the questions above, then it’s time to dig deep into figuring out what you need to do before starting a cut.
Maybe it’s better for your long-term goals to get in a solid, well-tracked maintenance phase for a while so that your body systems can get back into alignment. That way, they’ll be ready to respond when you do decide that it’s time for a cut. If you don’t have any muscle mass right now, then it’s better to start with a growth phase and work on lifting heavy.
If you are really ready to start, then buckle down and get a plan that’s right for you.
In case I didn’t make it clear enough before, we’re always here to help you determine which route is the best for you. Everybody is different, and every body is different, and working with a qualified trainer is going to give you the personalized plan that you’ll never be able to find just by Googling. It doesn’t matter if you’ve done it ten times with ten different coaches or if you have no idea what a macro is. Our team is filled with people with decades of combined experience to guide you in the right direction. To celebrate the wins and help you through the hard times. To keep you accountable and most importantly, to teach you the right way to diet so that you have those skills in your back pocket for the rest of your life.
For more helpful info on dieting, follow us over on Instagram @T4Esystems. If you’re ready to start a diet and want to bring us along for the ride, shoot us a DM and we can set up a consultation call.
Dieting is just one of many things we talk about on our podcast, Flow State of Mind, so check out some of our other recent episodes below:
♦ Flow Favorites – Why Less Food May NOT Be the Answer | with Alex and Sue Bush
♦ The Last Episode You’ll Ever Need on Limiting Beliefs + Failures
♦ How to Make More Money in Your Business Through Copywriting