The Ultimate Guide to Losing Weight Safely (without crash dieting or starving yourself)

Aug 06, 2019

The Hard Truth

Losing weight is hard.  No one is denying that. It can be emotional, frustrating and infuriating.  You may feel like you have tried everything to no avail. You may resent your best friend who is naturally lean and appears to be able to eat whatever she wants.  But remember that we are not all the same and the weight loss strategy that works for your friend may not work as well for you. Differing genetic body types, food preferences or varying degrees of unhealthy relationships with food are each factors that may affect what your healthy weight loss plan looks like compared to the next person’s. 

There is no magic pill and no secret workout routine to have a flat tummy or shredded abs.  The only way you’ll be able to lose weight safely and keep it off is to pick a nutrition and exercise strategy, consistently work hard at it and stick with it over a long period of time.  I’m not talking about 6-12 weeks. No, I mean that you will have to stick with it for years. You’ll need to change the way you think about dieting. You’ll need to re-learn all of those misconceptions you’ve had for years about weight loss and educate yourself to see beyond the phony companies trying to sell you crash diet scams and supplements that promise you the world.

Here are some factors to consider about how to lose weight safely and keep it off without resorting to anything drastic.

Your excuses for not getting healthy

The first and biggest hurdle towards your weight loss success guessed it...your own self. 

Deep down you know you aren’t your healthiest. You don’t feel great and you really do want to start eating better or exercising more.  I think we all instinctively know deep down whether or not we are what’s considered “healthy.”  But our inner critic wins out again and again when we imagine ourselves starting a healthy routine. 

  • What if I fail and end up right back where I started?  
  • What will I need to sacrifice in order to succeed?  
  • The gym intimidates me and exercising is hard.  
  • It seems like such a long and arduous road to lose weight and get healthier and I'm not sure where to start and what to do.

Have you ever finished a really great workout or gone for a great jog in the woods and felt on top of the world afterwards?  Remember thinking that if you could bottle that post-exercise high you would never skip a workout ever again? Why isn’t feeling good enough of a reason to keep us motivated?  Why is it so hard to show up to the gym even if we know how much good it does for our bodies and minds?  Do we, as humans, just have the worst short-term memories?

The answer is complicated when you consider the psychology, but it’s also extremely simple.  Going after something meaningful is hard. Getting out of your comfort zone is hard. The fear of failure and of the unknown is enough to freeze us in our tracks, but with each step forward the process will become easier. Read more about the excuses you make to yourself.

How Fast Can You Lose Weight Safely?

You've seen the magazines in the checkout aisle about losing 20lbs in a month, but is that too good to be true? Well, it depends.  How fast is too fast to be dropping pounds?

It depends on your current body weight.  Nutrition professionals recommend losing no more than 1% of your body weight per week.  So if you weigh 175lbs, you’re looking at a maximum safe weight loss of about 1.5lbs each week. 

Keep in mind that the first couple of weeks you start a new nutrition program or exercise routine, you may see a loss of what’s often called “water weight.”  This is due to a flush in water retention in the body’s tissues from on a change in electrolyte balance, better circulation from exercise, reduced inflammation or that you simply have less food volume in your digestive tract.  Make sure to create realistic expectations for yourself. Even losing 0.5lbs per week every week for a number of months is a huge success.

I often see new clients disappointed with only losing one pound in a week and this makes me deeply sad.  Any weight loss is positive progress and my answer to them is this - “yes, but what if you can do this for 52 weeks straight?  You’ll have lost 50lbs!” And that makes them stop and think about the dedication that will be involved in their weight loss transformation.  Losing 50 pounds in a year and cultivating new healthy habits to keep that weight off would be incredible. Losing 50 pounds in four months and then gaining it all back because you crash dieted and then got derailed during the holidays is way less impressive.  Which camp do you want to be in?

Understand your Macronutrient Ratios

Don’t underestimate the importance of educating yourself on how the human body metabolizes food.  If you want to set a good foundation for yourself on proper nutrition, you need to understand the basics about macronutrients and their function in the body

The macronutrients or “macros” are Carbohydrates, Fat and Protein:

  • Protein is used in the body as building blocks for tissues like muscle, cartilage, tendons and bone.  The base form of protein is amino acids and these are also used for things like creating enzymes for digestion and antibodies to fight off infection.  Think of it like this - protein is used to build things and is not a primary source of energy like carbs and fats.  That’s why drinking a protein shake on its own isn’t going to give you a boost of energy for a workout, but orange juice or dried fruit will.  
  • Carbohydrates, whether sweet potatoes or donuts, are broken down into glucose which circulates in the bloodstream and is known as “blood sugar.”  Once the bloodstream is full, glucose is stored in the liver, the muscle tissues and, in excess, as body fat. When the body needs energy, glucose will be used first.  
  • Fats are broken down into fatty acids, though much more slowly than carbs are broken down which means that eating fat will keep you feeling full much longer.  Humans cannot live without a sufficient amount of fat in their diet, even though there are mechanisms to allow us to exist without carbohydrates (i.e. Ketosis).

When coaching someone on nutrition, I find it is helpful to their process that I can explain the why of something I am recommending to them.  I will make sure that instead of telling them to eat XX grams of protein in a day, I educate them on what that protein is doing to rebuild their damaged tissues after a hard lifting session and why it will help them feel less sore.  When I make it real and applicable to their life, that’s when they pay attention and maintain the motivation to follow through. 

Losing Weight without Counting Calories

Do calories matter for weight loss?  Absolutely. Do you need to obsess over counting calories if you want to see weight loss progress?  No. 

In the fitness and health community I get really sick of people touting “a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.”  While your body may treat most calories the same in terms of utilizing them for energy, there are many sensitive factors at play that can affect your weight loss that don’t have to do with calories like your age, sex, insulin sensitivity, hormone production, baseline activity level, training intensity, etc.  You do need to be in a caloric deficit to lose fat, but fewer calories does not always equate to more pounds lost due to factors like stress hormones, training intensity and more.

While tracking calories is a useful tool to learn about your food intake and create awareness of what you are putting in your mouth, I have witnessed a few primary reasons why obsessing over calorie counting can start to work against you:

  • Calorie tracking apps are inherently inaccurate.  Again, these apps are a tool and can give you a good general picture of the macro and calorie content of food.  However, one apple’s calorie content may differ greatly from the next apple. 
    • Similarly, if you input a generic “Lo Mein noodle dish” or a “Cheeseburger with Bun,” the caloric values of these items between restaurants or even within the same restaurant can be wildly different.  You may think you are tracking accurately but could be off by hundreds of calories. This is why it is so much more valuable to be able to fall back on basic nutrition principles like listening to your body’s natural hunger/fullness and building balanced meals on your own.
  • If you are weighing your food very carefully, you will at least be tracking consistently from day to day, however I find that most of my clients don’t want to live their life this way and the idea of weighing and measuring everything can be so daunting that it deters them from even taking the first step.  
    • If you are still learning that egg is a protein and a carrot is a carbohydrate, tracking can help you begin to learn these things, however tracking everything that goes into your mouth will seem an impossible task.  In my experience as a nutrition coach, people will often shut out what intimidates them or what they don’t understand and they are more likely to do nothing than something. 
  • Those people that are rigid and disciplined with their tracking can often become neurotic about weighing carrots and tracking one jelly bean rather than learning an intuitive eating approach and listening to what their body needs.  I find that the more attached one becomes to the data, the less in touch they are with how they feel, how they are performing in training, how hungry or not hungry they are.

So how can I lose weight without counting calories?

  1. Increase your activity level: Fat loss happens when you use more calories than you take in.  Simply by increasing how long or frequently you exercise, or even taking the stairs instead of the elevator can go a long way toward creating that calorie deficit.
  2. Don’t eat unless you are hungry: Today’s culture dictates that food is always readily available.  Billboards and radio advertisements are telling you what to eat and drink. The subtle suggestion of french fries or a Frappuccino can often be enough to make us grab the keys and head out to the nearest drive thru.  How often are you eating because you are honest-to-god hungry and not because the clock or TV said it was time to eat?  

Your body is highly intelligent.  It produces hormones that tell you that you’re hungry, or that you are satiated.  If your energy tanks are low, you won’t be able to think straight through that afternoon meeting or your squats won’t feel strong that evening in the gym.  Learning to listen to those cues will begin to open you up to how much food you truly need to function at an optimal level throughout the day.

  1. Stop eating before you are full: Listening to those cues, you can also recognize when you are approaching fullness.  Now, I know we are all familiar with that feeling of sitting back after a Thanksgiving feast and un-doing that top bottom of our jeans.  We have all, at one point or another, eaten way past fullness, ignoring the fact that our body was screaming “stop shoving food in me!”  

I’m not saying you can’t indulge in the occasional holiday, but if your goal is weight loss, learning to eat to about 80% full and no more is one of the most effective ways to decrease your calorie intake without actually counting those calories.

  1. Eat slower: As you chew more slowly, you become very in tune with the quality of food you are eating and how it is fueling you with energy.  Again, our modern culture has us eating meals on the go, in our cars, in between meetings or while we warm-up at the gym. Eating slower and staying focused on your task of eating lets you listen to your satiety cues to develop a keener sense of your body’s needs.  Without distraction, you will easily be able to hear when your body says “stop eating, we’re good,” or “feed me a little more please.”
  2. Minimize empty calories like soda and candy and aim for more protein or satiating foods instead
  3. Don’t snack after dinner since this is when you are most tired and inclined towards mindless munching.
  4. Ask yourself to HALT:  When you reach for a snack, ask yourself if you want to eat because you are actually Hungry? Anxious? Lonely? Or Tired?  If you aren’t truly hungry, find a different activity that will satisfy your needs.
  5. Drink more water: Thirst is often misinterpreted as hunger.  Try drinking a large glass of water if you feel the need to snack.  Sit with this for ten minutes and see if you still feel hunger.
  6. Reorganize your kitchen and put tempting foods out of eyesight: We are easily influenced beings.  If a tasty treat is directly in your line of sight, you are more likely to want to eat it. If you never even saw it, you may not even miss it.
  7. Go for quality over quantity: Eating a little meal that is truly delicious may be more satisfying the you than a cheap buffet full of sub-par food.  Try savoring your food. If it’s not great, then you don’t have to finish it just because it’s on your plate.

How to Lose Weight Without Exercising

I love this topic because it really appeals to the lazy couch potato in all of us.  Impossible, you say! 

Well, let’s redefine the way we think of exercise.  Walking your dog around the block, fidgeting in your chair, walking from the parking lot to the store, taking the stairs up to your office or pushing a baby stroller around the mall.  Would you consider these activities exercise? Not likely, but they contribute just as much to achieve a calorie deficit as walking on a treadmill or pedaling your exercise bike that stares at you from the corner of your office, gathering dust and judging you for not exercising more often. 

All of these little daily activities are classified as NEAT - Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.  In essence, your body is heating up and burning energy doing these activities and can’t tell the difference between you calling it “exercise” or calling it “living your daily life.”

Coincidentally, when you diet hard and are deep in a caloric deficit, these little habits tend to drop off.  If you are extremely hungry and depleted of energy, you won’t be fidgeting in your chair, you won’t feel like walking your dog or parking in the back of the lot.  I have seen this happen before where clients ask, beating their fists against the ground, “why has my weight loss stalled?” Oftentimes, the answer is that they have cut calories more and more until their bodies go into energy conservation mode and they lose the however-many-calories they burn on a typical day simply by living life.

Whether you are at the very beginning of your weight loss journey or you are a high level Powerlifting athlete, if you want to shed a few pounds, increasing your NEAT will not lead you astray.

Workout to Gain Muscle, Not Just Lose Weight

This is a difficult concept to introduce to someone who is ultra-focused on weight loss.  They probably have in their head one of the following misconceptions:

  1. To lose weight you need to do a ton of cardio.
  2. Lifting weights will make you bulky.

I am so happy to report that neither of those statements is true and the sooner you come to terms with that, the sooner you will find joy in your fitness endeavors.  Doing resistance training is ideal for a few reasons: 

  • It will increase your bone density which is especially important as you age
  • It can naturally improve your body’s hormone production
  • Muscle tissue is more metabolically active and will burn more fat even while you are resting
  • A stronger physique will keep your joints healthy and help support your everyday activities

Doing lots of cardio will certainly help you lose fat, but if you reach a fat loss plateau or want to lose even more weight, you will have to do even more cardio.  Whereas with weight training, there are infinite variations for how you can progress your fitness and keep your workouts interesting. Additionally, the more muscle you develop, the leaner you can stay without trying any harder.

Of course, there are many health benefits to doing regular cardio and my athletes’ programs aren’t complete without some conditioning in their training week.  However, if your goal is fat loss, your time will be better spent doing weight training than cardio alone.

Working out at Home Means No Excuses

If you are the type of person that says “I can’t make it to the gym,” then my guess is you either don’t know any exercises to do without a machine, or you are simply making excuses.  If your goal is fat loss and you truly cannot make it to the gym, then there are infinite varieties of exercises that you can plunk together in a circuit requiring absolutely no equipment.

What You’ll Need

  • Stairs or a chair
  • The floor
  • The Will

(With the stairs/chair being optional)

Even the strongest of athletes and heavy lifters can still get their heart rates up with some body weight exercises done with enough repetitions and short enough rest in between exercises.

Try out this super simple body weight circuit:

Set a timer for 40 seconds of work with 20 seconds of rest.  Spend forty seconds per exercise, performing as many repetitions as you can.  Perform three to five rounds. You can take an extra minute to rest between rounds if you need to.

  • Body weight Squats
  • Push-ups (from the knees or a wall if you need to)
  • Step-ups (or Lunges if you have no steps)
  • Bird Dog (video)
  • Mountain Climbers

Notice as time progresses, you’ll be able to do more reps per set or you won’t be quite as out of breath.  If you have a bad knee, or want to change things up, you can swap these movements out for others to create endless workouts to complete from the comfort of your home. 

If you’re traveling, you can do this in your hotel room. If your baby is taking a nap, you can sneak this in.  You can get up thirty minutes earlier than you normally do to finish this circuit before work. My point is to illustrate that where there is a will to succeed, there is a way.  I promise.

Of course, if your goal is more specific like proficiency at Powerlifting or to be as strong as humanly possible, then you will need equipment and weights.  But if your primary goal is to lose weight in the short term, then body weight exercises can still provide resistance training and aerobic conditioning that will help you reach your goals. (Read "A Weight Loss Workout Plan You Can Enact At Home")

Can You Eat Healthy but still Gain Weight?

A few years back, coconut oil was all the rage as “a healthy fat.”  This idea of “healthy fats” swept the country along with the resurgence of the importance of saturated fats for their fat soluble vitamins and as a substitute for less-desirable, highly processed fats.  Many people seemed to interpret this as “if they are healthy, then I can have a lot and won’t gain weight.”

I really detest when weight loss and health are lumped together as if synonymous.  You can be thin and actually be very unhealthy.  And you can eat healthy food and still be overweightI think some people have this misconception that overweight people must be eating Big Macs and fries and cookies in secret, but I disagree with that wholeheartedly.  However they may have become overweight in the first place, you don’t lose weight overnight simply by eating healthy.  Unfortunately, it requires a bit more effort than that.

Let’s revisit our friend Coconut Oil as an example.  Since coconut oil has now been deemed healthy, our friend, let’s call him Bob, switches out his standard cooking oil for coconut oil to cook his frozen breakfast sausages.  He finds some potato chips at the health food store with are three times the price as Ruffles, but must be healthy since they were baked in coconut oil. He swaps out his Bryers ice cream for coconut milk ice cream (also three times the price, so it must be healthier). Bob also read that putting coconut oil in your coffee can speed up the metabolism in the morning and so he puts a heaping spoonful in his coffee instead of his sweetened creamer.

Now, at the heart of this, Bob is really trying to make some healthy substitutions to his diet based on readily available information and this is great.  Even though he hasn’t lost any weight (in fact, he gained a few pounds probably because those coconut oil potato chips are so damned tasty), there may be some health benefits that we can’t see without a blood test.  For all we know, his blood pressure and triglycerides could be greatly improved. But he hasn’t lost any weight. Why not?

By swapping one serving of processed cooking oil out for one serving of coconut oil, he may be choosing a healthier oil, but his calorie intake remains the same.  This is a trap I have seen many people fall into, and have fallen into myself in the past, and we are so confused when the scale doesn’t budge. Bob may have been consuming hundreds or thousands of calories past his maintenance calorie zone and that didn’t change simply because he made this switch.  He also didn’t add any exercise to his routine and maintained all of his standard habits of eating past fullness at most meals.

It can be so difficult to admit to ourselves that even though we are eating healthy, we are still eating too much.

Success on the Keto Diet

The Keto Diet is often advertised as the magic pill for losing weight.  And while I agree that it can be a very powerful tool for improving health and burning fat, there are some key factors you need to come to terms with if you are deciding whether it’s right for you. (Read Success on the Keto Diet: "8 Tips from a Nutrition Coach")

There seem to be those out there that say they can eat anything they want as long as it’s Keto friendly and lose weight, claiming calories don’t matter at all.  This sounds appealing to those of us who struggle with constant hunger and snack cravings. The truth is, calories still do matter while eating Keto. 

The magic factor in the Keto Diet (in my opinion) is its naturally, hunger-reducing effects which allow you to be satisfied eating much much less.  Dietary fats are extremely satiating even in small amounts, but this won’t matter a bit if you haven’t learned to art of listening to your body’s natural hunger/fullness cues.  If you put a whole stick of butter in your coffee of course you’ll be able to go hours without needing to eat, but will that really help you see the weight loss results you want?

Intermittent fasting (IF) is another term that often goes hand-in-hand when talking about the Keto Diet.  Because you will naturally feel less hungry once adapted to Ketosis, you can take advantage of going long stretches of time without eating.  Intermittent fasting has been shown to improve fat-burning (1) and while in Ketosis, you won’t experience the low energy and brain fog associated with IF when not in Ketosis.

When the Keto Diet fails you, evaluate the following:

  1. Are you exercising?
  2. Are you eating too much fat?
  3. Are you eating enough fat?
  4. Are you eating nutrient dense foods?
  5. Are you consuming too many no-calorie sweeteners and not detaching from sweet cravings?
  6. Are you drinking alcohol too often which can slow fat burning?
  7. Have you tried intermittent fasting?
  8. Are you eating W-H-E-N (When Hunger Ensues Naturally)?

If you answered No to a few of these, then try again - dial in your habits and see if you can’t achieve the results you want.  Keto is not a requirement for weight loss, but if you are going to pursue this way of life, make the most of it and do it right!

Break Weight Loss Plateaus with Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent Fasting (IF) is this massive subject with many differing angles, variations, opinions, what have you.  There is amazing research (1) to support the health and weight loss benefits of decreasing your eating window even to less than 12 hours a day.  Some IF camps take it to the extreme and swear by OMAD, or One Meal A Day.

The results you see will likely depend on:

  • Whether you are a woman or man
  • What your previous eating habits were like
  • What your Intermittent Fasting eating habits are like
  • Any other health conditions you may have

IF and a ketogenic diet go very well together due to the naturally satiating nature of eating low carb/high fat.  When adapted to ketosis, the body will not get as hungry and can go for long periods of time without those pesky hunger hormones triggering you to have a snack.  IF while eating a Standard American Diet can often leave fasters feeling hungry and low energy.

There is also research to suggest that women may do better on more moderate eating windows like 14/10 or 16/8 (16 hours fasted/8 hours fed) rather than OMAD or 20/4, for example.  Due to the sensitive nature of female hormones, some women may not respond as well as men to a more extreme protocol (2).

However, there are very simple ways to benefit from the concept of IF without feeling like it needs to be so very strict and complicated.  Completely stepping aside from the inherent health benefits of IF, you can simply decrease your daily calorie intake by cutting off your eating at a certain time of night to avoid evening snacking. 

Many people I have worked with experience their biggest calorie intake at night when they are tired from work and relaxing in front of the TV.  This is particularly detrimental to weight loss since you will be going to sleep soon and not using this calorie dump. So, recognize this about yourself and choose a time to cut off snacking. 7:00-8:00pm typically works well for most people. By making this simple adjustment, you could be cutting out many hundreds of calories and shortening your eating window by a few hours.

When trying to lose weight, so many people have this misconception that you need to completely overhaul your diet and your lifestyle.  That prospect can be so intimidating that they perpetually put off taking the first step. But it’s really the small changes kept up over time that add up to big progress.

Track Your Progress Without Using the Scale

Weight loss is sold to us by the pound.  We believe that in order to have our goal body, we need to lose XX number of pounds.  But what if you could be your healthiest without losing a single pound? How would you know if you were getting healthier?  A good coach knows that the scale is simply a number and that it is only one piece of the picture that illustrates overall health. 

Other body composition metrics like measurements, how clothes fit or photos can be even more informative of progress than the scale.  If the scale has stalled, but your waist and hip measurements are consistently decreasing, you are most definitely burning fat. Similarly, we look at ourselves so constantly in the mirror, that if you taken periodic photos of yourself and review them objectively, it is often easier to see even the smallest changes to your physique. (Read: "12 Things to Track Besides Your Weight")

My favorite markers of progress are the physical indicators we experience on an everyday basis: how much easier it is to walk up a flight of stairs or carry groceries, how back or other joint pain improves, how much weight you’re lifting in the gym and even your posture.  At the end of the day, you may want to lose weight, but feeling better in your own skin is a huge win.

There are also the less obvious, but equally important, mental and emotional indicators of progress that tell us there are serious physiological changes occurring.  An improved mood and energy, better confidence in yourself, a more positive attitude towards food and sum up, you just feel damned good.

This kind of progress is wonderful because it helps you keep the ball rolling forward.  The better you feel about yourself and about your nutrition and exercise, the more likely you are to stick with the habits that helped you arrive there in the first place.

Maybe You Don’t Need to Lose that Last 20 Pounds

For whatever reason, most of us have in our minds an arbitrary number of pounds we think we should weigh.  I hear from so many clients, even after a lot of progress with weight loss, “I still need to lose twenty pounds.”  That’s a lot. I mean, if you weigh 185lbs, that would be losing almost 11% of your body weight.

First of all, Imagine you could reach your goal body without losing a single pound.  Is that even possible?

Integrating resistance training into your fitness will allow you to build muscle and lose fat at the same time.  The scale may not budge, but you will definitely see major changes to how your clothes fit and how you look in the mirror.

Second of all, when I hear people tell me they want to lose twenty pounds, I’d like to bring out my inner therapist and ask “Why.” 

They might say they want to be skinnier and I would say “but, why?”

They might say they want to see their abs and I would respond “but, why?”

If you are at a healthy body composition, have good muscle tone, can live your daily life fully, etc...then why are you determined to lose twenty more pounds?  I know this may sound harsh, but our weight loss culture has embedded this cognitive distortion so deeply in our minds that we don’t even really know why we want to be leaner.

Is it the pressure of society expecting us to look magazine-cover-ready?  Is it our loved ones shaming us into looking different? Is it only our imagination that the people around us believe we are overweight?  Is it perhaps our inner insecurities that we are trying to mask with a fitter physique? I am going to go out on a limb and say all of the above. 

If you are healthy and you feel comfortable in your own skin, do you really care what that number on the scale is?  I like to tell clients that their intensity with weight loss should match the intensity of their goals. If it is your goal to be a Bikini competitor or fitness model, then by all means, your approach to dieting would be much more rigorous than if you simply want to look and feel great.  If you fall into the latter category, is it more important to you to see your abs, or to be able to feel relaxed at family picnics and holiday parties?

Maybe you have been focusing on weight loss for so long that you’re not even sure what’s next.  Once you achieve this goal of being comfortable in your own skin, why not set new goals that have nothing to do with aesthetics.  Perhaps you want to get good at Powerlifting and sign up for a competition. Maybe you’ve always wanted to do an obstacle run and want to start training specifically for that. 

Find a sport that you are passionate about and start treating yourself like a competitive athlete.  Learn to appreciate your body for its performance in your sport instead of for how it looks in the mirror.  I was a victim of this needing-to-lose-20-pounds mentality for many years. I hated my big thighs and wished I had a flat stomach.  Developing a passion for Powerlifting (and thereafter Strongman), I was able to shift my perspective about my body. No longer were my thighs fat, but muscular and strong.  The extra fat on my midsection was simply the store of power that allowed me to lift heavier than other people. Instead of fighting your nature, try learning to see your qualities as unique strengths that can lead you down unexpected roads.

-Coach Hill
Primal Pillars Strength Coaching





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