'6 Principles for Fat Loss' by Paul Stevenson

When it comes to health and fitness, there simply is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach that everyone can adopt. There are, however, some underlying principles that can be applied across the board. Here I want to share six dieting principles with you and offer some practical advice to ensure your weight loss journey is a success.

*Please note: The terms ‘weight loss’ and ‘fat loss’ interchangeably here.


Principle 1: Obey the First Law of Thermodynamics: 

“Obesity is a problem of imbalance between energy intake and expenditure” (Speakman, 2004)

Human Physiology complies with the first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy can be transformed from one form to another but cannot be created or destroyed (Hall et al, 2012). Energy used by the body is derived from the macronutrients found in food (protein, carbohydrates, fat, and alcohol). Absorbed carbohydrates, proteins and fats are transformed in the body into substrates that can be used immediately for energy or they may be stored as mainly as adipose (fat) tissue. The body is continually going through a process of storing and releasing energy. The amount of storage and the amount released will vary throughout the day (e.g. storing fat after eating a meal, burning fat when asleep at night).

Put more simply: you must pay attention to the QUANTITY of food you are eating on a daily and weekly basis. Does this mean everyone should rush out and buy a set of food scales so they can ensure they get precisely 38g of nuts in their afternoon snack? Definitely not. Does this mean that it would be prudent, at least for a short period of time, to monitor and track food intake? Most definitely. Why would this be a good idea: -

  1. You can gauge what your current intake is, and how this affects your weight and other measurements.
  2. You can spot patterns in your eating behaviours
  3. You get an understanding of how many calories are in certain foods you regularly eat
  4. You get an understanding how large your portion sizes should be, given a set caloric goal for the day.

Principle 2: Pay Attention to QUALITY As Well As Quantity

So, from Principle 1 it should be clear that food quantity matters. A lot. The amount of food you consume every day has a major bearing on your body composition. However, sometimes the nature of the food you consume is over-looked.

So what do I mean by food quality? Here I take it to mean food that is as minimally processed and as nutrient dense as possible. That means that without exception, the bulk of your food should be comprised of the following: -

  • Fresh meat and fish (organic, grass-fed meat wherever possible) - include organ meats in your diet from time to time - cuts like liver are some of the most nutritious food you can eat. Obviously not applicable to vegetarians - vegetarians should focus on seeds, nuts, legumes and dairy to get the majority of their protein sources.
  • Fresh vegetables and fruit - I cannot overstate how important it is to try and get at least 1 portion of fruit and/or veg with EVERY meal you consume. Why are they so important? Well, for one, they are highly nutritious, containing a large amount of vitamins and minerals. Secondly, they are high in dietary fibre, which is extremely important for gut health. Thirdly, they are extremely satiating. They will leave you feeling full after a meal, reducing the likelihood of snacking on non-optimal food in between scheduled meals.
  • Fats - Particularly mono-unsaturated forms of fats that come from nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil etc

Food quality also matters because minimally processed, nutrient dense, whole foods will have a higher thermic effect than processed foods. The thermic effect of food (TEF) is the amount of energy required by your body to break down, digest and absorb a particular food. On average, the TEF accounts for around 10-25% of overall daily expenditure. So, for an individual consuming 2,000 kcal per day, this accounts for between 200-500 kcal daily. The TEF of mixed meals consisting of processed foods is lower than that of whole foods. Whole-grain bread with cheddar cheese has a TEF of 19.9%, whereas white bread with more processed cheese (you know, the rubbery kind) only has a TEF of 10.7%: a nearly 2-fold difference in energy expenditure for meals with the same macronutrients. Processed foods make it far easier for the body to harvest energy from food. So, from that example you can see how focusing on minimally processed foods has an effect on the body, not only from the amount of nutrients you will receive from the food, but also from the amount of calories needed to break that food down. This is also another reason why I dislike people drinking too many of their calories. Relying on shakes and smoothies minimises the TEF as the body doesn't have to do a great deal to break down and digest food in this form.

So wherever possible, try to eat real food, that is minimally processed as often as you can. 

Principle 3: Prioritise and Execute

When it comes to dieting, everyone has different areas of weakness. Some people struggle with portion control. Some people struggle with consistency. Some people struggle with eating at weekends or holidays. Some people struggle with organisation and food preparation. The important point here is not that you have something you struggle with, it’s that you identify the weakest link and try to solve that problem FIRST. You identify your priority and try to execute the problem.

The term ‘prioritise and execute’ is borrowed here from Jocko Willick, where it is used in the context of the military. However, this principle can be utilised across all aspects of life. Tackle the one problem that in doing so will automatically make many other problems disappear.

Principle 4: the ‘Food Radius’: 

“It is easier to change your eating environment than to change your mind”  (Wansink, 2007)

Brian Wansink, a Professor best known for his work in the fields of Consumer Behaviour and Nutritional Science, wrote the book “Mindless Eating” in 2007. Here I share with you some of the key tenets from the book which delves into our ‘food radius’ (the area in which you buy and eat the majority of your food). For example, the typical American buys or eats 80% of their food within a 5 mile radius of where they live. Here are some key ideas: -

  1. The more time you spend at home, the more important it is to keep food out of sight: Throw out any foods that you crave, binge/overeat on. If you do keep these foods in your home, try making them invisible and inconvenient: When food is out of sight, it is out of mind. Studies have shown over and over that the most visible foods are the one’s you eat first and eat most. For example, you’re three times more likely to eat the first food you see in the cupboard than the fifth one. So re-arrange your cupboards and fridge so that the first foods you see are the one’s that are best for you. A radical recommendation is to move your pantry to a different room in the house, ideally somewhere that is inconvenient to get to. This makes it less browsable for a snack. It makes you think twice before grabbing food off the shelf. It also makes you walk a few more steps to reach the food.
  2. Try making your kitchen less ‘lounge-able’: The more you hang-out in your kitchen, the more you’ll eat. take out comfy chairs, televisions, iPads etc.
  3. Try to avoid distractions when eating: For example, watching TV makes us over-eat for the following reasons: - 
  • We pace ourselves with the show
  • We often eat out of habit, not hunger. For example, we also sit down and eat when the show is on, so we associate food with that particular television show.
  • We don't pay attention to how much we are eating
  1. When going grocery shopping, try not to go on an empty stomach: If we shop when we are hungry, we don’t necessarily buy more, but we buy worse. When we’re hungry, we buy foods that are convenient enough to eat right away and will stop our cravings. We want packages we can open and eat with our left hand while we drive home.
  2. Don’t keep food at your desk: The average office worker has 476 calories’ worth of food in their desk within arms reach. People who had candy in or on their desk reported weighing 15.4 pounds (7kgs) more than those who didn’t.

Principle 5: Set up your Diet to Avoid Hunger

Hunger is the enemy when it comes to dieting. Research has found that not being hungry is the most important predictor of successful weight loss. Without hunger, dieting would be as easy as just consciously deciding to eat less. Unfortunately, weight re-gain is common amongst dieters: -

“despite overweight people’s investments of effort, time and money in losing weight, virtually all non-medical approaches to weight loss are characterised by eventual weight regain, usually within several years” (Lowe, 2012)

So, with this in mind, here are some of the top tips I give my clients to prevent over-eating and control appetite: -

  • Eat slowly and mindfully: Turn off the television, close down the lap-top; take time to enjoy your food.
  • Prioritise your sleep: The importance of good sleep is a topic too large to cover here but to emphasise the point here are some adverse effects of sleep deprivation: Increased cortisol production; reduced testosterone production; increased appetite; increased insulin resistance; poorer nutrition partitioning; decreased cognitive functioning and overall decreased well-being. Some quick tips to ensure good sleep: Regular sleep and waking patterns (even at weekends); cool room temperature; very dark room; limited exposure to electronic equipment in the hour or so before sleep.
  • Avoid decision fatigue by limiting the number of decisions you have to make regarding your diet: Prepare food in advance or order pre-made food from the numerous meal-delivery companies that are now in existence. Ensure you shop from a grocery list and never go shopping hungry.
  • Get Into Routine: The body craves routine. Try to eat meals at roughly the same time every day to avoid hunger pangs. A good rule of thumb is all meals to fall within a 2 hour window.
  • Stay well hydrated
  • Avoid Proximity: Keep snacks (especially the ones you find highly palatable) out of reach and don't keep any food in your kitchen that you don't intend on eating.
  • Avoid ‘cheat meals’ and stop viewing food as a reward: If you view Saturday as ‘Pancake Saturday’, you spend the rest of the week thinking about the pancakes you are going to eat on Saturday. Find other ways to reward yourself that don’t involve food. Also, by eating a ‘cheat’ food you make it more salient in your memory and increase cravings for that food. The best way to reduce cravings for a food is to starve it, rather than indulge it.
  • Focus on eating foods that provide a high level of satiety: These foods have a high volume (few calories per 100g - the apposite of calorie density), are high in fibre & water, are high in protein and have a high viscosity (i.e. are more solid than liquid). For example, chicken breast is far more satiating than whey protein. Foods that tend to be highly satiating are Quark, Cottage Cheese, Casein, Pumpkin, dark (green) vegetables, blackberries, peaches, plums, strawberries and grapefruit.

Principle 6: Structure your Diet

It is important to take a long-term approach to weight loss. Whilst aggressive dieting using large calorie deficits are fantastic tools for rapid fat loss, they simply aren't sustainable in the long term. This is why I champion approaches that utilise more aggressive short-term measures, interspersed with periods that are more ‘relaxed’ in their approach. For example: -

  • Utilising Planned ‘Diet Breaks’ every 12-16 weeks: Serves as a psychological release from dieting: “by breaking your dieting efforts up into smaller chunks, while maintaining control over your eating in the long-term, you are less likely to lose control or go off your diet completely” (McDonald, 2005). This approach also provides an opportunity to raise the hormone leptin and recover the metabolism that would have inevitably slowed down during the dieting process.
  • ‘Unplanned’ Diet Breaks: Diet Breaks that are incorporated into holidays or busy periods when sticking to a rigid diet is going to prove extremely difficult.
  • Implementing a Maintenance Diet: A maintenance diet is a diet that will maintain your current bodyweight/body-fat levels within a relatively narrow range. Utilising a maintenance diet can be implemented once a client has reached their desired bodyweight or body fat level. It is at this stage that an ad libitum diet would be good to implement. It should also be noted that regular body-weight/body-fat assessment is necessary to ensure levels are being maintained. If weight starts to creep up then you can immediately take action to rectify this by changing food choices, portion sizes, activity levels etc.

The key take-home message here is that trying to maintain a calorie deficit for prolonged periods of time is extremely difficult, both from a physiological and psychological viewpoint. As a result, try to avoid being in a calorie deficit for longer than 12 weeks at a time without utilising some kind of break as outlined above.

Principle 1: Avoid over-eating by tracking calories and understanding how much food you require.

Principle 2: Pay attention to food quality. Ensure you eat plenty of protein, fibre, fresh fruit and vegetables.

Principle 3: Find out where your priority lies and tackle that first

Principle 4: Be aware of your ‘food environment’ and manipulate it to make the process of dieting easier

Principle 5: Avoid hunger at all costs. Focus on foods that provide a high level of satiety. This means protein from lean meats, lots of fibrous vegetables and fruit, full fat dairy, plenty of water.

Principle 6: Have a structure in place. Avoid being in a calorie deficit for prolonged periods of time.


To read more articles by Paul visit the Physique Wise website here and be sure to peruse his blog Physique Wisdom.