There are a lot of opinions out there about which are the best “weight loss foods” and which “make you fat.”
Some people claim that eating certain foods, like certain vegetables, nuts, and plant proteins, accelerates weight loss whereas eating others, like dairy, wheat, and other types of carbohydrate, slows the process down. In fact, some “experts” go so far as saying that losing weight and keeping it off is all about what, and not how much, you eat.
Well, I have good news for you: the “best” foods for losing weight include just about everything you could want to eat…if you know what you’re doing. (Click here to tweet this!)
Let’s find out why.
Claiming that one food is “better” than another for losing weight is misleading because it misses the forest for the trees.
You see, foods don’t have any special properties that make them better or worse for weight loss. What they do have, however, are varying amounts of potential energy as measured in calories, and varying types of macronutrient profiles.
These two factors–the calories contained in foods and how those calories break down into protein, carbohydrate, and fat–are what make certain foods more suitable for losing weight than others.
Notice I said more suitable, and not “best.” And that’s because if you know how to regulate and balance your food intake properly, you can eat just about anything and lose weight.
Don’t believe me?
Well, Professor Mark Haub lost 27 pounds on a diet of protein shakes, Twinkies, Doritos, Oreos, and Little Debbie snacks, and you could do exactly the same if you wanted to (not that you should though–more on this in a second).
In case you’re not familiar with energy balance, think of it like your body’s energy checking account. A negative balance is a situation where your body is burning more energy than you’re feeding it (it’s in the red as far as energy goes). A positive balance, on the other hand, is a situation where your body is burning less energy than you’re feeding it (it’s in the black).
A negative energy balance results in a reduction of total fat mass because your body has to get the additional energy it needs from somewhere, and body fat is one of the primary sources of this energy. A positive energy balance results in an increase in total fat mass as your body is programmed to store a portion of the excess energy you feed it as body fat.
Talk of calories and energy balance is unpopular these days as people don’t want to bother with counting calories to lose weight, but a century of metabolic research shows us that these are the facts, whether we like them or not.
If you consistently feed your body less energy than it burns, you’ll lose weight. If you do the opposite–consistently feed it more–you’ll gain weight.
Weight loss does NOT require you to only eat certain types of food, avoid other types, combine types in various ways, or any other quackery. It only requires that you regularly feed your body less energy than it burns.
Now that we’ve properly framed weight loss as an issue of how much, and not what, we eat, we can look at the issue of “weight loss foods” in the right light.
The reason why some foods are “better” for weight loss than others boils down to the amount of calories they contain and how those calories break down into protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
Going back to the financial analogy, look at this way: when setting up a meal plan for losing weight, you only have so many calories you can “spend” every day. Overspend (overeat) too frequently or by too much and you’ll fail to lose weight as desired.
If you did what Professor Haub did, and stuck to your calorie budget perfectly, never overspending, you would lose weight regardless of what you “bought” with your calories. Nutritive value has no effect in this regard.
If you want to lose fat and not muscle while dieting, however, you have to spend your calories more wisely than Professor Haub’s experiment. You must not only maintain a negative energy balance, but you must do so with a proper balance of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fat).
You see, when the goal isn’t to merely weigh less but to have a lower body fat percentage with all the muscle you currently have (or more), getting the majority of your calories from junk carbs and fats will no longer cut it. In this way, a calorie isn’t a calorie because some types of calories are now much more important than others. (Click here to tweet this!)
Let’s see how this works.
Protein is the most important macronutrient to get right when you’re dieting for fat loss and is a primary factor in optimizing your body composition, not just “losing weight.”
The research is crystal clear: an energy-restricted high-protein diet…
- Is more effective at reducing body fat, including abdominal fat in particular
- Helps preserve lean mass
- Increase satiety, helping you avoid hunger pangs and cravings
A high-protein diet is even more important if you’re exercising regularly, as this further increases your body’s demand for amino acids.
How much protein should you be eating exactly? Well, if you want the long answer, you can check out the article I wrote on how much protein you need to build muscle, but a short answer can be found in recent research conducted by scientists at AUT University…
“Protein needs for energy-restricted resistance-trained athletes are likely 2.3-3.1g/kg of FFM [1 – 1.4 grams per pound of fat free mass] scaled upwards with severity of caloric restriction and leanness.”
I’ve found this to be very true, not only with my body, but with the thousands of people I’ve worked with.
As you get leaner, keeping your protein intake high becomes very important. If it drops too low (below 1 gram per pound of body weight, in my experience), strength and muscle loss is accelerated.
Carbohydrates aren’t the enemy. They don’t make you fat or unhealthy.
In fact, there are big benefits to keeping carbohydrate intake as high as possible when dieting including:
- Better workout performance
- Improved retention of lean mass
- More satiety
- Better energy levels
Trust me–low-carb dieting sucks and is completely unnecessary for the vast majority of people looking to lose weight.
Personally, I never go below 0.8 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight when I’m dieting to lose weight.
Dietary fats play a vital role in the body. They’re used in processes related to cell maintenance, hormone production, insulin sensitivity, and more.
If fat intake is too low, these functions can become compromised, which is why the Institute of Medicine recommendsthat adults should get 20 to 35% of their daily calories from dietary fat.
That said, those percentages were worked out for the average sedentary person, who often eats quite a bit less than someone that exercises regularly.
For example, I weigh about 190 pounds, and if I were the average, sedentary type, my body would burn about 2,200 calories per day (which is what I would be advised to eat so as to not gain or lose weight). Based on that, the IoM’s research says my body would need 55 to 80 grams of fat per day. That makes sense.
But I exercise 6 days per week and have quite a bit of muscle. My body burns about 3,000 calories per day, and if we were to blindly apply the IoM’s research to that number, my recommended fat intake would skyrocket to 65 to 115 grams per day. But does my body really need that much more dietary fat simply because I’m muscular and exercise regularly?
No, it doesn’t.
The bottom line is your body only needs so many grams of fats per day, and based on the research I’ve seen, if you exercise regularly, dietary fat can comprise 20 – 35% of your basal metabolic rate (measured in calories) and you’ll be fine. Calculating this way, instead of based on your actual calorie intake, is more in line with the IoM’s research.
Figuring Out Your Weight Loss Numbers
Chances are you’re wondering how to determine the proper amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fat for your weight loss needs.
I’ve got you covered. Just head over to my article on meal planning and you’ll get walked through the entire process.
Find the Best Diet for You in Just 60 Seconds
How many calories should you eat? What about "macros?" What foods should you eat? Take our 60-second quiz to get science-based answers to these questions and more.Take the Quiz
Alright, now that we’ve covered all the groundwork, let’s talk actual foods.
Generally speaking, the best foods for weight loss are those that provide an abundance of micronutrients and are filling while also being relatively light in calories and in dietary fat and added sugar in particular. When you focus on eating these types of foods, you’re much less likely to struggle with hunger issues and overeat.
For example, my favorite “weight loss foods” are…
- Low-fat varieties of protein like lean types of meat (chicken, lean beef, fish, and so forth), low-fat dairy products, egg whites, and even grains and vegetables. While protein powder is convenient, it can leave you hungry if you have satiety issues.
- Whole grains like wheat, brown rice, oats, and barley.
- Vegetables like green beans, carrots, broccoli, and artichoke.
- Legumes like green peas and beans.
- Tubers like white potato and sweet potato.
As you can see, a bunch of high-fiber, unprocessed foods that taste great, provide your body with plenty of micronutrients and keep you full.
The foods you want to avoid when dieting to lose weight are those that are very calorie-dense, high in dietary fat and added sugar, but which aren’t all that filling. Highly processed junk food like chips, candy, cookies, and other “goodies” and caloric beverages fit this bill, of course, but there are quite a few healthy foods that do as well.
For instance, I love oils and butter, but have to limit my intake of them while dieting because they pack a ton of calories and dietary fat without doing much of anything to fill me up. The same goes for foods like nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, avocado, and whole-fat dairy–all foods I love, but that I avoid while dieting.
What do you think about “weight loss foods?” Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Helms, E. R., Zinn, C., Rowlands, D. S., & Brown, S. R. (2014). A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: A case for higher intakes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 24(2), 127–138. https://doi.org/10.1123/IJSNEM.2013-0054
- SM, P., & LJ, V. L. (2011). Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29 Suppl 1(SUPPL. 1). https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2011.619204
- TL, H., & FB, H. (2004). The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss: a critical review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 23(5), 373–385. https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2004.10719381
- JW, K., HS, S., MJ, D., & B, L.-H. (2006). Effects of variation in protein and carbohydrate intake on body mass and composition during energy restriction: a meta-regression 1. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 83(2), 260–274. https://doi.org/10.1093/AJCN/83.2.260
- PM, C., K, B., & JB, K. (2009). High protein diets decrease total and abdominal fat and improve CVD risk profile in overweight and obese men and women with elevated triacylglycerol. Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases : NMCD, 19(8), 548–554. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.NUMECD.2008.10.006
- EM, E., MC, M., MP, T., RJ, V., PM, K.-E., & DK, L. (2012). Effects of protein intake and gender on body composition changes: a randomized clinical weight loss trial. Nutrition & Metabolism, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1743-7075-9-55