The best diet for weight loss isn’t complicated, expensive, or even all that difficult.
It does require a bit of planning, commitment, and attention to detail, but it also guarantees results.
There are just four steps:
- Determine how many calories you should eat every day.
- Determine how much protein, carbohydrate, and fat you should eat every day.
- Create a meal plan based on these numbers.
- Adjust based on how your body responds.
With just those four steps, you’ll lose weight like clockwork and build a body you can be proud of.
Let’s start at step one.
Table of Contents
The first step in calculating how many calories you should eat every day to lose weight is to estimate how many calories you expend (burn) every day. This is known as your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
To estimate your TDEE, open up the Legion Macronutrient Calculator, enter your gender, weight, height, age, and activity level, and note the answer (you’ll need this later).
In case you’re wondering how this works, it uses the Mifflin-St Jeor equation, which produces very accurate results on par with other equations, but doesn’t require much math or estimating your body fat percentage (which many people struggle with).
To lose weight quickly, you want to maintain an aggressive but not reckless calorie deficit. That means eating about 75% of the calories you burn every day, which is calculated by multiplying your TDEE by 0.75.
For example, I’m 6’1, 36 years old, and I weigh 195 pounds and am around 10% body fat, and I exercise about 5 hours per week.
The Legion Macronutrient Calculator pins my TDEE at about 2,800 calories, so to figure out my cutting calories, I would do the following:
2,800 x 0.75 = 2,100.
Therefore, I’d want to eat about 2,100 calories per day to lose weight rapidly.
The next step is to work out how this translates into macros—grams of protein, carbohydrate, and dietary fat.
(And if you’d like even more specific advice about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz.)
In fitness circles, you’ll often hear protein, carbohydrate, and dietary fat referred to as “macros,” which is short for “macronutrients.”
A macronutrient is any of the nutritional components of the diet that are required in relatively large amounts:
- Minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, and phosphorous
But when people talk about macros, they’re just referring to the first three.
Macros are important because how your calories break down into protein, carbs, and fat heavily influences your body composition, workout performance, and overall health and well-being.
Here’s how to get it right:
- Set your protein intake to 40% of your total daily calories.
- Set your carbohydrate intake to 40% of your total daily calories.
- Set your fat intake to 20% of your total daily calories.
You’ll notice that the Legion Macronutrient Calculator does all of this for you automatically.
This style of dieting—setting your calorie “budget” and then breaking that into macronutrient targets—is known as flexible dieting, and it’s a highly effective strategy for losing weight quickly.
If you prefer a slightly different mix of macros, feel free to tinker with them, but try to keep your intake fairly close to these ranges until you have more experience with proper meal planning under your belt.
And again, if you feel confused about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your fitness goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz to learn exactly what diet is right for you.
Okay, so now that you have your macros taped, let’s move on to the next step: meal planning.
The absolute easiest way to lose weight quickly is following a meal plan.
While you don’t need to count or track calories to lose weight, if you do, you’re much less likely to accidentally overeat (which is the number one reason most people “mysteriously” can’t lose weight).
There are many ways to meal plan, but here’s the one I’ve found most effective:
- Create a single day of eating that meets your calorie and macro targets, and follow that plan every day.
- When you get tired of eating something in your plan—whether a simple snack or multifaceted meal like dinner—swap it for something else with the same amount of calories and macros.
This way you can have as much or little variety as you’d like (tip: reducing variety makes for an easier dieting experience), while also tightly regulating your food intake.
Don’t worry, either—this process isn’t difficult or time consuming. You get to eat foods you actually like, so you don’t feel restricted, and it only takes 10 or 15 minutes.
Effective weight loss meal plans should generally:
- Be within 50 calories of your daily calorie target
- Spread out protein intake fairly evenly throughout the day
- Specify exactly how much to eat of each food in each meal
- Specify the calories and macros of each food, which makes it easy to make substitutions
- Provide an abundance of whole, minimally processed, nutritious foods
Here’s how to create a meal plan that checks all of these boxes . . .
The easiest way to create a meal plan spreadsheet is to download the free Legion Meal Plan Tool, which you can do by entering your email address in this form:
Not only will this make it easy to plan your meals, it also automatically calculates your calories, macros, and even micros and turns them into a 100% custom meal plan for losing weight.
If you’d prefer to build a meal plan from scratch, though, you’ll need to open up a spreadsheet (here’s a template you can use) and create columns for . . .
- Meal times
- Meal and workout names
- Food names
Here’s how I like to do it:
Next, add a row at the bottom of your meal plan and label it as “Totals,” and another row beneath that labeled “Targets.”
You’re going to use the “Totals” row to show the total calories, protein, carbs, and fat in your meal plan, and the “Targets” row for showing your target calories, protein, carbs, and fat.
The Targets row is simple: just enter your daily targets for calories, protein, fat, and carbohydrate that you figured out earlier, like this:
To set up the Totals column, you’re going to create a formula that adds up the total calories, protein, carbs, and fat for all of your meals.
To do this, click the cell for your total calories, and use the SUM function to add up everything that will go into the Calories column for your individual meals. Since you haven’t added any foods yet, it will display 0. Then do the same for protein, carbs, and fat.
Generally speaking, when you eat your food doesn’t matter.
So long as you’re managing your energy and macronutrient balances properly and getting the majority of your calories from nutritious foods, meal timing and frequency aren’t going to help or hinder your results.
That said, if you want to make weight loss as productive and enjoyable as possible, you should . . .
- Eat about 20 to 40 grams of protein and carbs within an hour or two before and after strength training, because it can help you retain and gain muscle and strength better.
- Eat 3 to 5 servings of protein per day, because it’s better for maintaining and gaining muscle than fewer servings.
So with those points in mind, here’s what I recommend for meal timing and what’s worked well for the thousands of people who’ve followed my Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger programs:
- Eat 3 to 5 meals per day with at least 20 to 40 grams of protein per meal.
- Eat one of these meals 1 to 2 hours before your workout and another meal 1 to 2 hours after your workout.
- Include 20 to 40 grams of carbohydrate in your pre- and post-workout meals.
The easiest way to set this up in your meal plan is to start by entering your pre- and post-workout meals, and then schedule the rest of your meals as desired.
For example, let’s say you work out first thing in the morning. Here’s how your plan might look:
6 a.m.: Pre-Workout Meal
7 a.m.: Lift Weights
8:30 a.m.: Post-Workout Meal
12 p.m.: Lunch
4 p.m.: Snack
7 p.m.: Dinner
And here’s how it might look if you were to work out in the evening:
8 a.m.: Breakfast
12 p.m.: Lunch
4 p.m.: Pre-Workout Snack
6 p.m.: Lift Weights
8 p.m.: Post-Workout Dinner
Now that you have all of your meals scheduled, it’s time to decide what foods you’re going to eat at each meal.
Now it’s time to take your placeholders and turn them into proper meals.
The first thing you should know here is the importance of mostly eating unprocessed, nutritious foods like lean protein, fruits, and vegetables when trying to lose weight.
For instance, my go-tos when cutting are foods like . . .
- Lean red meat
- Lean seafood like tilapia, shrimp, and tuna
- Veggies and fruits, especially fibrous ones
- Low-fat dairy like cottage cheese, skyr, and Greek yogurt
- Oils such as olive or coconut oil
- Grains like rice, oats, and quinoa
The reason for this is relatively unprocessed, nutritious foods like lean protein, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains are extremely filling and contain significantly fewer calories and more nutrition than sugary, processed, “junk foods.”
By mostly eating these types of foods, you can enjoy more fullness on fewer calories, better stave off hunger and cravings, and avoid nutritional deficiencies that are bad for your health and well-being.
That said, eating nothing but “clean” foods like these every day can get boring, so feel free to include treats in your meal plan. Specifically, you can allot up to 20% of your total daily calories to sugary, processed, or otherwise “unhealthy” delights if you so desire.
I personally love dark chocolate (not exactly a “junk food,” I know), so I usually eat ~150 calories of it per day.
From here, the idea is to piece together your meals food by food, entering their calories, protein, carbs, and fat as you go.
(Or, you can save yourself the hassle of looking up and entering foods by downloading the Legion Meal Plan Tool instead, which includes a database of hundreds of macro-friendly foods and recipes that you can add to your meal plan with the click of a button.)
Personally, I like to start by entering foods that I know I’ll want to include in my plan, and then do the following:
- Put 20 to 40 grams of protein in my pre- and post-workout meals.
- Put 30 to 50 grams of carbs in the pre- and post-workout meals.
- Add 20 to 40 grams of protein into my remaining meals, until I’m within 10% of my daily protein target.
- Add in at least 2 to 3 servings of both fruit and vegetables.
- Add in my “discretionary” calories (treats).
- Add in healthy fats as needed to hit my daily fat target.
- Finish with carb-rich foods like grains, legumes, and the like.
- Finally, tweak meals and food portions until I’m within 50 calories of my daily target.
That’s all there is to it.
The litmus test of any type of diet or exercise routine is twofold:
- Does it work for you?
- Is it sustainable?
The first point is obvious.
No matter how good a diet or exercise program sounds, how famous its creator is, or how many books it has sold, if it doesn’t work for you—if it doesn’t deliver the type of results you’re looking for—you need to move on.
The second point is less obvious but equally important.
If a program gets results but can’t be sustained over the long term, whether due to complexity, difficulty, or anything else, it too should be abandoned . . . because it won’t keep giving you results.
Sure, you can lose a lot of weight with a crash or starvation diet (like water fasting), but what happens next? For many people, they gain all the weight (or more!) right back. The same goes for grueling exercise routines (like German Volume Training). They can supercharge your fat loss and muscle gain, but they can also burn you out.
That’s why we want to go for the sweet spot: consistent, encouraging results without any of the pain or suffering that most people go through when trying to get fit.
For weight loss, the sweet spot is losing 0.5 to 1% of your body weight per week, which is 0.5 to 2 pounds per week for most people.
If you have a lot of weight to lose then you should shoot for the upper end of that range. If you’re at a normal body fat percentage and are looking to get lean, you should be in the middle (around 1 pound of weight loss per week). And if you’re lean looking to get really lean, you want to be at the lowest end of the range (around 0.5 pounds lost per week).
So long as things are progressing according to those guidelines, then just keep going. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broken and all that.
If, however, you’re not losing enough weight or losing it too quickly, you may need to adjust your diet.
Many people say that if you aren’t losing weight fast enough, you’re just eating too much or not moving enough. While this is usually technically correct—weight loss does come down to calories in versus calories out—it’s not always true and doesn’t necessarily help you solve the actual problem.
First, it’s possible that you are actually losing fat, but holding onto water or gaining muscle, which is masking your weight loss.
If this is the case, you’ll probably find that your weight stagnates for a week or two, after which you drop several pounds (what dieters sometimes refer to as “the woosh effect.”)
Second, it’s possible you’re gaining muscle almost as fast as you’re losing fat, a process referred to as body recomposition. If this is the case, you’ll probably notice that your clothes are becoming looser and your muscles are becoming more defined, even though your scale weight hasn’t changed much.
If you don’t experience either of these two things, the home truth is that the reason you’re not losing weight is because you’re eating too many calories and not burning enough. Revisit your meal plan, make sure you’re weighing everything you’re eating, look for ways to sneak more physical activity into your day, or consider adding some cardio to your exercise routine.
If you’re losing weight too quickly, double-check your calorie intake and expenditure.
No matter how lean you are when you start cutting, you can expect rapid weight loss in the first week or two as your body sheds water and glycogen. After that, though, things should slow down.
If they don’t—if you continue to lose weight significantly faster than discussed above—then chances are you’re eating less or burning more energy than you realize.
A common newbie mistake here is overestimating calorie intake due to eyeballing foods and portions instead of weighing them. Some people also assume they’re burning fewer calories than they actually are, usually due to a physically active job (walking, for instance, burns about 300 calories per hour).
So, when you’re losing weight too quickly, double-check your estimated energy intake and expenditure and ensure they’re accurate and you’re not accidentally running a much larger calorie deficit than you intended.
If you get hung up on any aspect of everything we’ve covered so far and would like some professional help (and guaranteed results), click here to learn about my diet coaching service.
The bottom line is that losing weight fast doesn’t have to be a perplexing grind.
In fact, once you know how to create proper weight loss meal plans, it can even feel like a game. Your goal is simply to follow the plan, and if you do—you’ll be rewarded with a body you can be proud of.
What’s your take on meal planning? Have you tried it before? Do you have any other questions about how to lose weight? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., & Fitschen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: Nutrition and supplementation. In Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (Vol. 11, Issue 1). BioMed Central Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-20
- Dulloo, A. G., Jacquet, J., & Girardier, L. (1997). Poststarvation hyperphagia and body fat overshooting in humans: A role for feedback signals from lean and fat tissues. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 65(3), 717–723. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/65.3.717
- Schoenfeld, B. J., & Aragon, A. A. (2018). How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. In Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (Vol. 15, Issue 1). BioMed Central Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1
- Aragon, A. A., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2013). Nutrient timing revisited: Is there a post-exercise anabolic window? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10, 5. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-10-5