The Hierarchy of Fat Loss

There's a ton that can affect Fat Loss, but what affects fat loss the most?

Author’s Note: I’m going to open up right away and say that this article was difficult to write while remaining intellectually honest. It’s always my mission to tease things out and make everything as simple and actionable as possible which I believe I’ve done here. However, the reality is this article is going to go into details about Fat Loss and metabolic function.

Metabolism is a complex clusterfuck of interconnected variables. I’m going to talk about various factors as individuals, but they all kind of affect each other and will change each other variable’s total effect. Therefore, when I give an estimation of something’s effect on your total metabolism, know that it’s an estimation and there is definitely room for some pedantic asshole to argue for fine points and exceptions. I’m going to try to give estimations that are most accurate for most people.

Another struggle I fought with during this article is practicality. There will be something that is surprisingly ineffective for fat loss, but I think it’s absolutely crucial to start there for other reasons. After all, fat loss is only ONE variable in the realm of total health and wellness.

First I’ll layout what effects everything has on fatloss, then I’ll layout the practical guide of what to focus on and when. Ultimately what I’m presenting here is a hierarchy and ordering of what will have the biggest effect on Fat Loss so you can identify what may be holding you back. 

People want to lose fat, but a lot of times it can be a confusing struggle for people because we tend to overplay factors that have a small contribution while ignoring the boring things that have the biggest impact. 

I compare this to hiking/climbing Mt. Si outside Seattle, Washington. Mt. Si is a very popular hike that is about 3100 feet to the top, but there’s another rock formation at the top people refer to as “The Haystack.” To get to the top of The Haystack, another 50 feet, you have to scramble (a low grade rock climbing technique that’s more akin to crawling up a “wall” than actually rock climbing). 

Beautiful Mount Si (photo courtesy WikiCommons)

When you ask someone who got to the top of the Haystack what you need to do to get to the top of Mt. Si, the first thing they will talk about is the scrambling portion. That’s only 50 feet and ignores the rest of the MOUNTAIN you had to climb. The haystack is only 1.5% of the total hike!

People always focus on that sexy 1-3% of the process, while ignoring the mountain of work that ACTUALLY gets you to the top. This is true with fitness and fat loss as well.

People ignore that whole mountain to talk about the little rock on top.

This can make what is ultimately a simple process turn into an impossible nightmare. What I want to do is highlight the metabolic factors that affect fat loss, rank them based on total individual impact, and then lay out a plan on what to focus on and when. 

Fat Loss is going to be determined by one’s metabolism. There are a lot of different factors that play into one’s metabolism. I’m going to list these out, but I fully plan on losing you along the way. Stick with me though, I’ll resimplify after. 

Quantitative effects of metabolism are going to be determined purely through Calories in and Calories Out (CICO). Think of this as calories you consume versus calories that you burn. This is most often viewed as a strict measure of weight. Then there are Qualitative effects of metabolism that are determined by various factors that can change what kind of calories your body’s metabolism decides to burn (are you burning fat or are you burning muscle tissue?).

“Calories In” factors will include planned food, planned drinks, and BLT’s (not the sandwich). “Calories Out” factors will include Resting Energy Expenditure (REE), Exercise, Thermic Effect of Feeding (TEF), NEAT, Hydration ,and biochemistry. The various factors, “Other,” that affect your Qualitative Effects of Metabolism will include Sleep, Stress, and Biochemistry again.  

Oh lordy, that looks complicated. I’ll make it easier, though

Look at that! That is A LOT of different variables to manage. Trying to attack 10 different things at once is simply overwhelming and will set you up for failure. Instead, what I want to do is look at the effects each variable has so when we need to increase fat loss efforts, you can put all your focus on what has the biggest impacts. 

FOOD

What is it?

This is.. Umm… you know… food that you eat. That’s incredibly easy to define and really easy to measure as well. 

Most diets that are shaped for fat loss recommend between 1400-2100 calories depending on your body size and gender. However, most people eat closer to 2500-3200 each day which gives us a surplus of 400-1,600 calories each day. Changing the food you eat can have a big effect. 

EFFECT:

Often 400-1,600 calories surplus/day

Often 2,800-11,200 calories surplus/week

DRINKS

What is it?

This is… umm… you know… stuff you drink. This is incredibly easy to define and easy to measure as well. (I promise not every section will start with those two sentences.)

Really, you don’t need to consume any calories through drinks. However, many people choose to have a caloric beverage with most meals and maybe throughout the day as well. Think coffee, soda, milk, energy drinks, alcohol, etc. Few are nutritious (even fruit juice, especially sugar filled store-bought juices), but they all add extra calories to your day. 

Some examples: Black coffee, at its most boring, is 2.4 calories per 8oz. However, when you add creamers or flavorings, the calories explode in a hurry. A Starbucks Vanilla Frappuccino is 290 calories per 13oz bottle. (Just googling “Starbucks calories” comes up with a list of drinks that are 140-550+ calories depending on size. Let’s be honest, nobody regularly orders the smallest coffee…) Likewise, your average soda drink is 150-230 calories per 12 oz can/bottle. An energy drink will also tack on over 110 calories for the smallest 8oz cans (though most energy drinks like Monster or Rockstar come in 220 calorie 16oz cans). 

I tried to add the meme of Buzz holding Woody and saying “Calories, Calories EVERYWHERE” but apparently you can’t insert an image as a caption to an image…

So being conservative, assuming one average starbucks coffee in the morning and 2 sodas throughout the day, people can easily consume around 600 extra calories per day. That’s before unwinding with a couple beers or two glasses of wine after work which can add about 150 calories per serving on average. So if you drink coffee, enjoy some soda, and unwind with a drink or two, you can be looking at 600-1200 calories a day. And remember, like I mentioned earlier, none of these calories are necessary whereas food is pretty crucial to living functions. 

EFFECT

0-1,200 calories/day

0-8,400 calories/week 

BLT’s

What is it?

It’s a delicious sandwich! Well… no… When we talk about Fat Loss, BLTs are going to be bites, licks, and tastes. I ALREADY WROTE AN ARTICLE ABOUT BLTs HERE. These are all the little things we eat and drink that aren’t on our plan. Oftentimes, we don’t even consider this in our calorie balance, but I believe this is one of the biggest factors that can confound people’s efforts. 

As I highlighted in the article, mindless snacking throughout a day can very quickly add up, especially with how calorie dense our innocent snacking can be. I estimated that BLT’s can add an extra 10-33% of your daily calories on top of what you’re already eating. For more details, be sure to check that article out. But I estimate BLTs accounting for…

EFFECT:

230-550 calories/day

1,610-3,850 calories/week

RESTING ENERGY EXPENDITURE

What is it?

Resting Energy Expenditure, also known as Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), is simply how much energy you burn by being alive. You burn calories by breathing, having your heart beat, even thinking takes some energy. When people say they are trying to do things to “increase metabolic rate,” this is what they’re talking about most often.

Resting Energy Expenditure is pretty fixed. There’s not much you can change about resting before it becomes Active Energy Expenditure (Exercise or NEAT). The only real way you can change your resting energy expenditure is by changing your body composition (ratio of muscle versus fat), and you’re not going to like the results that actually gives.

Get ready to be disappointed about your Metabolism…

A portion of your resting energy expenditure is maintaining tissue that you already have. To simplify, let’s just talk muscle tissue and fat tissue. There’s a common saying in fitness circles that muscle burns more calories than fat. And this is slightly true (overplayed though). To maintain a pound of muscle mass, your body will need to consume a little more calories than it would need to in order to maintain a pound of fat. Muscle is generally more active tissue (it flexes and moves your body. Fat doesn’t really do anything except store energy, insulate organs, and signal hormones; none of which are energy taxing).

So as you gain muscle, your Resting Energy Expenditure increases. Youve probably already heard that a DOZEN times this year alone.

However, as you lose fat, your energy expenditure also decreases for two reasons. You don’t need to maintain tissue that’s not there, and it’s easier to function when you have less fat burdening your body. 

In reality, as people lose fat and gain muscle, the REE effect from losing fat outpaces the REE increase from gaining muscle. As you progress, your REE will actually decrease! 

Ultimately, there’s not much positive change we can inspire in resting energy expenditure except for one thing well get to soon). The biggest positive changes we can passively make are really minimal, and they actually work against our fat loss efforts. 

EFFECT

NEGATIVE 75-150 calories/day as you lose fat

NEGATIVE 525-1,050 calories/week as your lose fat

EXERCISE

What is it?

The most glorious pursuit known to humanity! 

Well, okay, to keep emotion out of this, exercise is strictly the intentional movement of the body to create unusual stress and promote improvements in body composition and fitness.

Intentional being a pretty operative word here. This does not include activities done for work or chores such as gardening, carpentry, or cleaning. This only includes things done intentionally for fitness improvement such as biking, jogging, resistance training, and swimming (amongst many more options). 

Exercise is pretty simple, so we don’t need to define it very much. Easy workouts will burn about 100-200 calories an hour. A moderately vigorous workout will burn approximately 200-300 calories per hour. High Intensity and Vigorous exercise can burn 300-500 calories per hour, but those are far less common.

Just use this as a ball park figure and understand the “calories burned” estimator on the machines at the gym are wild estimations making a load of unsupported or weakly supported assumptions. Unless you’re strapped up to a gas mask that’s precisely measuring your respiration rate and various medical level monitors taped to your chest and arms, we’ll never be able to accurately say how many calories you burn in a workout (sorry fitness tracking watches!) Then we also have to make the general assumption the average person is doing an averagely moderate workout an average of 3 times a week to get our effect. 3 x 250 would be about 750 calories a week. 

In reality, the effect is incredibly dependent on your frequency and intensity, but let’s use that to estimate exercise effect. 

EFFECT

150-300 calories/workout

450-1500 calories/week (3-5x/week)

THERMIC EFFECT OF FEEDING (TEF)

What is it?

It’s the amount of calories it takes your body to process the food you ate. 

You may have heard the myth (And I need to stress that this is a myth) that some foods have negative calories because they cost more calories to eat and process than they actually have in them. Celery is the most common claim in this myth since it’s structure is mostly water and very little calories (the largest celery sticks only have about 10 calories each). 

The reality is that there is no negative calorie food. So thinking of thermic effect of feeding to pick foods to give you negative calorie balance will never work. 

Eh, let’s ruffle more feather

You’ll also hear some diets that have fewer feedings talk about how eating larger quantities at once actually burns more calories to process the bigger meal. Some proponents of Intermittent Fasting will talk about Thermic Effect of Feeding to prove larger meals are better. And there is a very small truth to this. However, it’s minuscule and negligible. You may burn 5-10 more calories having a large meal, but you risk overeating by 300-500 calories to earn those measly 10 calories. 

Something that is worth noting is the difference in thermic effect of feeding between the macronutrients. Fat gets digested very easily, carbs with medium ease, and protein is a little difficult to break down. That means a 2000 calorie diet that is 40% protein, 40% carbs, and 20% fat will store a lower percentage of calories than a 2000 calorie diet that is 40% fat, 40% carbs, and 20% protein. This is often used as another benefit of high protein diets. 

But…. The reality is unless you begin a strict and extreme protein diet that is wildly imbalanced with casein protein, research shows that TEF stays pretty consistent around 8-10% of your calorie expenditure. 2% of your calorie expenditure (based on an average of 2000) is only going to be 40 calories a day.

Unless you have kidney failure or a kidney disease, you should have a high protein diet for a multitude of other reasons, but don’t expect that to give you a significant increase in your Thermic Effect of Feeding all by itself. 

EFFECT:

30-45 calories/day

210-315 calories/week

NEAT

What is it? NEAT is an abbreviation that stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis and it’s a NEAT FACTOR YOU NEED FOR FAT LOSS. (That link goes to an article I wrote about NEAT and its effect on fat loss. It’s also the first article I wrote for this site, so excuse the boring format)

NEAT is the collection of all the activity you do outside of structured workout times. This includes walking, typing, fidgeting, dancing, cleaning, gardening… literally every bit of movement outside of workouts. If you’re not resting (REE), you’re being active. If you’re active and NOT in a workout, then that counts as NEAT.

As highlighted in the above article, small and frequent movement can have a very dramatic effect on your daily calories burned. Standing burns almost twice as many calories per hour versus sitting. Adding walking or fidgeting on top of that, and your calorie expenditure can explode with minimal effort. One study found that NEAT can account for about 700 calories a day. I’ve expanded that to include the more strenuous activities like gardening that weren’t included in studies.

EFFECT

350-1000 calories/day

2,450-7,000 calories/week

HYDRATION

What is it?

It’s the consumption of water to maintain an optimal water balance in the body. And its effects on Fat Loss are surprising actually. 

Is he burning fat now? Maybe

Multiple studies have shown that drinking half a liter (about 1 pint, or 160z)  of water can boost your resting energy expenditure by 10-30% for up to about an hour. 

Drinking water throughout the day theoretically keeps this effect active, so make sure to drink water regularly to get a boost multiple times a day. 

How much water? Well… there’s not a really scientific answer to that since the goal is just to maintain hydration. There are more factors involved with hydration than just drinking water, so an exact intact number isn’t easy to come by. The finer points of this go beyond this article’s scope, but generally speaking you should aim for about 5-6 bathroom trips (every 1½ – 2½ hours)  a day with a fairly light or clear colored urine. Usually this falls between 64 and 100oz for most people. 

EFFECT

90-120 Calories/Day

630-840 Calories/Week

BIO-CHEMISTRY

What is it?

It’s the internal state of your body’s chemistry. It can be affected by medications, sleep states, illness, exercise, certain foods, gender, and a multitude of different factors. 

Your bio-chemistry is incredibly complex. It also regulates and controls every action that occurs within your body including fat metabolism (fat burning), muscle protein synthesis (muscle building), and really so much more. 

Some bio-chemistry states can increase metabolism, decrease metabolism, or even change how metabolism functions (using stored fat as energy vs using stored sugar vs using blood sugar vs using stored muscle). 

There are various medicines that do inhibit fat loss. 

DO NOT ALTER YOUR MEDICATION PRESCRIPTIONS WITHOUT TALKING WITH A DOCTOR! SUDDEN CHANGES TO YOUR MEDICAL PRACTICE CAN HAVE NEGATIVE OUTCOMES FAR GREATER THAN A COUPLE EXTRA POUNDS ON YOUR WAISTLINE!

Medications that may impede your fat loss efforts include some forms of Birth Control, Anti-Depressants, Statins, Anti-Diabetes, Antipsychotics, hormone-replacement, and a long list of others. 

Unfortunately, it’s really hard to actually quantify the effect bio-chemistry has. And most lifestyle habits, when done optimally, can overcome some bio-chemistry disadvantages. Therefore, I usually recommend focusing on this last.

EFFECT

Unquantifiable. 

SLEEP

What is it?

That thing you’re not doing enough of and you know it. 

“oh no, I only need 5 hours of sleep. I’m *yaaawn* I’m fine” Photo: Getty Images

There was a fascinating study that has since duplicated (when results can get duplicated across multiple studies, we tend to believe the effect it pretty true and not a fluke). The study took people and put them on a diet. Every participant was on the same calorie restrictions and, unsurprisingly, lose the same amount of weight. 

But what was interesting was how they lost the weight. 

The study was broken into two groups. A group that had 8½ of sleep opportunity and a group that was restricted to 6 hours of sleep (6 hours of sleep… That might sound familiar to you…). They lost the same amount of weight because of their diet, but the group with more sleep lost about 80% of their weight from fat. The group with only 6 hours of sleep lost about 60% of their weight from Lean Tissue

The groups had the same WEIGHT loss, but being sleep deprived resulted in more lean tissue loss and less fat loss. Lean Tissue improves daily functions and quality of life, whereas excess fat causes poor health outcomes. We want to maintain as much lean tissue as we can while losing excess fat, not the other way around. 

EFFECT

Sleep deprived causes more lean tissue loss instead of more fat loss

STRESS

What is it?

It’s that thing that makes us feel uneasy when our boss is an idiot and kids yell too much. 

Is this a cartoon or real life?

We already know that excess stress can cause havoc on your heart health, but it can also affect your waistline. Stress, especially the negative “Dis-Stress” or “Distress”, can lead to an increase in cortisol which is a fat hoarding hormone and blunts fat loss efforts. 

Cruelly, if some of your lifestyle habits are going well, but chronic-stress related cortisol levels are inhibiting your fat loss, going harder on those lifestyle factors only makes the body’s stress higher and less productive. 

Unfortunately, we can’t quantify stress’s effect on metabolism since stress runs across a spectrum and affects people differently based on perception and stress management strategies. 

EFFECT

Increases fat hoarding, blunting 

The Theoretical Hierarchy Of Fat Loss

Now that we’ve identified the effect each factor has, and as best as possible determined how much effect each has, we can start to rank and create the Hierarchy of Fat Loss. 

This Hierarchy is used to bust through plateaus. If your fat loss efforts are stalled or stagnant, you can look at what has the biggest effect and judge if you’re doing that factor well. This allows you to start with the biggest impact first, and then work your way down to where your greatest weakness may be. 

I’m going to give this to you upfront, but this isn’t actually where you should Start your fat loss process. That will come next.

  1. Food Plan (Weekly Effect 2,800 – 11,200 Calories)
  2. Drinks (Weekly effect of 0 – 8,500 Calories)
  3. B.L.T’s (Weekly effect of 1,650 – 3,850 Calories)
  4. Sleep (Promotes Fat Burning instead of Lean Tissue Loss) 
  5. NEAT (Weekly effect of 2,450 – 7,000 Calories)
  6. Exercise (Weekly effect of 450 – 1500 Calories)
  7. Water Intake (Weekly Effect of 630 – 840 Calories)
  8. Stress Management (Stress hoards fat and blunts fat loss)
  9. Bio-Chem (Unmeasurable effect currently, but if you’re down here talk to a doctor)
  10.  Thermic Effect of Feeding (Weekly effect of 210-315 Calories)
  11.  Resting Metabolism (NEGATIVE weekly effect as you lose fat)

Those are the factors that affect fat loss and how they act as individuals (as best as I can separate them into individuals. 

That being said, life is never an individual process running by itself. Your fat loss journey is going to be a physical and mental journey that loses fat, gains confidence, depends on motivation, builds routine, increases strength, and adds vitality across the board. 

Fat loss will be a complicated interwoven play of different threads. Starting with the most impactful factor for a single factor rarely bodes well for crossing the ocean of experiences you’re sure to go through. 

Because of that, and because of the interplay of so many effects, there’s a different order of events I prefer to work with my Simple Achievers on as we do ONLINE PERSONAL TRAINING together. 

PRACTICAL ORDER OF FAT LOSS EFFORTS

I don’t have people start with diet because it’s the hardest and mentally the biggest drag. There’s an order of events you can go through that will set you up for the greatest success. 

  1. Exercise (builds excitement, feels productive, motivates you to do other habits, improves daily activities which makes you happier seeing and feeling that you’re more fit)
  2. NEAT (makes goal more of a daily practice, potentially 2-4x more productive than exercise)
  3. Sleep (Now that you move a lot, you’ll feel the need for sleep and be motivated to sleep well. Sleep improves fat loss and preserves lean tissue you stimulate from Exercise and NEAT)
  4. Focus on Drinks (reduce calories from flavored beverages. Get more water to support your healthy habits)
  5. BLT’s (reduce extra accidental calories. Easier way to control calories instead of full diet overhaul)
  6. Stress Management (You already take care of yourself physically. It now makes more sense to take care of yourself mentally. Also, stress management may reduce comfort eating which improves Diet)
  7. Diet (At this point, motivation is high. And if you’re doing well with Drinks and BLT’s, there’s probably not as many diet changes that you may need to do. High Motivation with easier diet needs makes this more successful at #6 instead of #1)
  8. Double check above factors. (How well are you doing the things you are doing? THIS is where the Theoretical Hierarchy of Fat Loss comes in)
  9. Talk with Doctor to check bio-chemical factors if needed. 

I hope this helps you fully understand fat loss in a way you’ve never known it before. If you ever get stuck in your fat loss efforts, please refer back here to know where to put your efforts. 

If you ever get stuck going through the practical order of fat loss efforts, then sign up for ONLINE PERSONAL TRAINING and I can support you through each step to reach fat loss goals you’ve struggled with in the past. 

And if you hear anyone blathering on about some new secret or how a small factor is “All you need” just ignore them because you now know what really happens and what really matters. 

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