Nutrition

Where to Start for Weight Loss: Quantity or Quality?

When you first embark on a weight loss journey, you’re instantly faced with a choice.

Do you dedicate your efforts to improving the quality of the foods you eat or do you focus on controlling the quantity?

There are solid arguments for both approaches.

On one side, you have extreme followers of IIFYM who say that nothing matters about your diet except hitting a specific set of macros.

And on the other, you’ll find health food zealots advocating the switch to consuming only “clean” food, which will inevitably limit your intake anyway.

My advice?

If you’re new to the weight loss game, I’m an advocate of tracking your macros as a jumping point.

Here’s why.

We don’t live in a perfect world

Sure, the ultimate goal is to have a very high quality, healthy diet that also gives you just enough calories to meet your physique goals.

Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could just flip a switch and start consuming a healthy whole food diet on a consistent basis?

Every meal would consist of a portion of wild caught or pasture raised meat, whole grains, vegetables, and perhaps a piece of fruit for dessert.

Nothing would be contaminated with pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, and everything would’ve been produced in an ethical way.

Although ideal, there are several major hurdles preventing this from happening.

1. People don’t know what “good food” is

This is my biggest issue with advocating quality over quantity to new dieters.

If you sent the average American to the grocery store with nothing more than a credit card and instructions to “buy healthy food,” the results would be seriously underwhelming.

More than likely, they’d return with 100-calorie snack packs, fat free (but still sugar laden) yogurt, turkey bacon, and refined breakfast cereal with health claims plastered across the box.

Although well intentioned, it doesn’t resemble anything close to a quality diet.

The reality is that it simply takes time to truly learn what makes up a healthy diet.

But most guys want results now!

2. They don’t know how bad the “bad food” is

Even if some people do have a vague idea of what healthy food is, they don’t actually realize just how bad junk food is for them.

Junk food is so prevalent and ingrained in our lives that it’s difficult to demonize the things we all grew up on.

Grandma’s a wonderfully sweet woman and she wouldn’t serve you anything that wasn’t healthy, right?

Refusing to eat the pie at dinner is the same as slapping your grandmother in the face (in the eyes of your family, at least).

I talk to plenty of normal people about nutrition and most are completely clueless about how bad the food they eat is.

Hell, every day I see children drinking Mountain Dew, munching on chips, and screaming for candy.

If parents don’t even realize what a bad start this is for their kids, I understand why they don’t regulate their own diets.

3. Temptation is everywhere

Even the most dedicated dieter is going to slip occasionally.

We’re all busy with work, school, kids, side projects, and of course, the gym.

Couple all of that running around with elevated hunger hormones from dieting and a drive-thru cheeseburger starts to look really attractive.

I’ve been conscious of everything I’ve eaten for more than a decade and do my best to maintain a healthy diet, but I’m not immune to modern life and the onslaught of advertisement.

I live near an artisan donut shop and when I walk out my door to head to the gym at 6 am, I can smell those bastards frying!

I have my headphones on, my mind fixated on building muscle and torching body fat, then that amazing smell smacks me in the face.

It instantly triggers my appetite and I have to actually put forth effort to shake the feeling and remember why I’m doing all of this.

It’s easy to fight these temptations when you know how bad the food is, but for the uninformed, it’s much easier to cave.

4. Learning to enjoy healthy food takes time

New dieters who do a complete 180 and switch to strictly health food typically eat amazingly for a couple days.

Then they start to miss their old favorites – going totally off the rails and binging on the worst foods imaginable.

When you’ve spent the majority of your life eating donuts for breakfast, cheeseburgers and fries for lunch, and pizza for dinner, consuming nothing but healthy food is going to taste like shit!

Seriously, junk food is designed in a lab, tested on focus groups, and aggressively marketed, so there’s no way natural food is going to compare unless you’re motivated and learn to enjoy it.

Since this abrupt switch causes most people to lose it, why not take a more sustainable approach from the beginning?

But there’s a solution!

Rather than taking on all of these challenges at the onset when you have absolutely no momentum, try your hand at tracking your food and experience some amazing benefits from the get-go.

Tracking food provides immediate results

This is probably the major selling point of controlling quantity first.

Unlike learning about food quality, managing quantity produces results almost instantaneously!

Making simple quality improvements like swapping your regular candy bar for an apple with peanut butter is great for your health, but with calories being comparable, you won’t see any weight loss.

If you start eating a bunch of healthy food that you really aren’t crazy about and don’t see the scale moving, you can quickly become discouraged.

It’s the immediate feedback from cutting calories that can keep you going and give you the desire to push harder and harder.

If you could only make one change to your diet to produce safe and immediate weight loss, the best choice would be to cut 500 calories from your daily intake and stick to it.

Then let the results drive you to make better food choices.

Tracking food is the best education

It’s really easy to blame the obesity epidemic on poor quality and degree of processing of modern foods, but that’s overcomplicating things a bit.

In reality, delicious processed foods are very calorie dense and incredibly easy to overeat!

With modern food being so calorie dense, you can’t visually judge the real “amount” you’re eating.

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 10.14.04 AM

Source: Consumers’ estimation of calorie content at fast food restaurants: cross sectional observational study

In a recent observational study, researchers surveyed thousands of fast food customers across 89 different locations, asking them to estimate the total number of calories in their meals.

On average, the participants underestimated the calorie content of their meals by 175 to 259 calories.

And the gap between estimated and actual calories only grew as the size of the meal got larger (see graph above).

That may not seem like a huge number, but think about the cumulative effect.

Multiply that underestimation by 3 meals and 7 days and you’re eating about 3,500 extra calories per week without having a clue (i.e., enough excess calories to pack on 1 lb of body fat – in a single week!).

It’s easy to see why so many people are overweight!

But by tracking your food intake with a free app like My Fitness Pal, you’ll start to see how your eating habits add up.

If you log 2 slices of pizza for lunch and see that it’s taken a whopping 50% of your calories for the day (and has done very little to contribute to your protein total), you may just feel compelled to reach for a chicken sandwich instead.

You’ll also learn that soda, candy, and other sweets do nothing to satisfy hunger but contribute greatly to man boobs and love handles.

By tracking your food and focusing on quantity, you’ll start dropping body fat right away while simultaneously learning valuable lessons in food quality.

Yes, quality is important

Unlike extreme flexible dieters, I would never argue that food quality is insignificant.

I know from personal experience how great an impact food quality has on my overall sense of well being and its effects on how my body looks.

So I only advocate quantity over quality as Step One.

Once you have the experience to identify and appreciate healthy foods, you can begin to consistently incorporate them into your diet.

And it’s that second step of pushing quality after you understand quantity that will deliver another wave of weight loss.

Are you ready to start tracking your food and getting results?

All the best,

Nate

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21 Comments

  • Reply
    Dezmond
    April 8, 2016 at 10:50 am

    I love this so much. I’m on the skinny fat train and I’ve been trying Paleo and Whole 30 as a start off point. The cravings just get to me. Which is no excuse but I think this would be a better consistent Step One for me. Thank you for another high quality article!

    • Reply
      Nate
      April 8, 2016 at 2:15 pm

      Paleo isn’t necessarily a bad place to start, but it doesn’t negate the need to control quantity. I would suggest that you back off just slightly on trying to eat perfect, then when you have a handle on eating just enough, you can dive into the benefits of eating better foods.

  • Reply
    Jacob
    April 8, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    Excellent article, Nate. I’ve really knuckled down on my diet this week and done a bit of both of reducing calories AND trying to eat healthier foods. Been eating keto with a focus on whole fats (avocados, nuts, eggs, meats). Lost about 7-8 pounds and feeling much slimmer. I will probably gain a lot of water weight back when I break the diet this weekend. Hoping just to have a net loss from the beginning of this week and the beginning of next week.

    • Reply
      Nate
      April 8, 2016 at 2:00 pm

      Awesome work! Keto dieting is definitely a great approach to weight loss. Are you planning weekends off or is it just this particular weekend?

      • Reply
        Jacob
        April 8, 2016 at 2:09 pm

        I’m planning weekends off just to keep my sanity. I’ve been averaging 17-20grams of carbs every day and it’s been pretty rough. I figure I’ll be burning through a lot of the carbs during the weekends anyways since I’m now in a flag football league at my church; 3-4 hours of sprinting up and down the field every weekend. Might have to bump the carbs up closer to the 50 threshold next weekend so it’s not so brutal on my psyche.

        • Reply
          Nate
          April 8, 2016 at 2:38 pm

          That sounds like a solid plan. I wouldn’t want to play flag football completely depleted. You would get used to it after a while, though. I used to do hill sprints on sand dunes against a lifelong runner and I had been eating less than 50 g of carbs per day with no re-feeds for over 6 months. I felt surprisingly fine while doing it. I miss that diet so bad I’m playing around with low carb days a few times per week now, haha.

          • AJ
            April 8, 2016 at 4:10 pm

            I would agree with Nate on this one. If truly going Keto, don’t take a cheat weekend because your body takes about 3-4 days to deplete glycogen and adapt to fat burning and ketosis. By doing a carb cheat, all you’re achieving is just about getting into keto mode through the week (say about wednesday or thursday), then going right back to being carb dependent from friday through sunday. So you may get results from just having reduced your calories overall (which is great), but you’re not really in ketogenic mode. Also, your body takes 6-12 weeks to fully adapt to working out on a ketogenic diet (ie burning fat reserves during active exercise), so feeling depleted is par for the course, first few months.

          • Nate
            April 9, 2016 at 6:39 am

            You’re spot on, AJ. After going keto for 6-12 weeks straight you return to the exact same “energy” levels as if you were eating massive amounts of carbs. It’s just that adaptation period when you can feel run down, especially while exercising.

  • Reply
    Rick Flagg
    April 8, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    Is this artisan donut shop in Chicago? If so, I would like to know the name. Got a photoshoot in 2 weeks and plan to grab some donuts for my celebration meal lol.

  • Reply
    Tim
    April 8, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    Interesting timing for this article, as I just started (seriously) tracking what I eat for the first time ever. 6′ ~205lbs 16% bodyfat, I first assumed my maintenance may be as high as 3200 kcals a day (bw x 16), but after consuming 3000 a day for the week (while trying to 200g protein a day) I started to realize my sedentary lifestyle may be having me use just a little bit less then I thought. Also made me realize how intermittent my protein eating was, sometimes eating plenty and other times barely any. Since I’m wanting to increase strength a lot right now while dieting down a little bit (want to get to ~190lbs) I realized eating that way wouldn’t serve me.

    My plan is to keep lowering my calories each week (considering trying either 2800 or 2500 a day) as I keep putting more weight on the bar, keeping my reps at 5 a set (all compound oldschool movements). Now that I’m tracking everything, I can see how far I can push gaining strength while losing fat, and when one starts to stall I can quantify what I need to change.

    Now a question for you, in your experience how significantly does dieting down from approximately 16% to 10% effect someone’s ability to gain strength? I am referring specifically to the ability to lift a greater load, and specifically to muscle mass which I know has the potential to decrease while dieting. I am rebuilding old levels of strength from before I injured myself on a deadlift. To put it in perspective, after my injury I managed to fight through the pain of lifting until I PR’ed at 315lb and realized something was wrong. Today I just lifted 240lbs x5 and am working back up to 315lbs x5 as my goal over the next 12 weeks of dieting and strength training. Thoughts?

    • Reply
      Nate
      April 9, 2016 at 6:46 am

      Your experience is illustrating my point perfectly, thanks! It’s not enough to “think” you’re eating x or y, you have to Know exactly what you’re eating if you ever hope to make intelligent adjustments.

      Your target calories sound good. I would start at 2,800 considering you’re trying to gain strength, you can always cut more if you aren’t leaning out fast enough. Since you’re regaining strength, you shouldn’t run into any plateaus for quite a while. Just keep protein to at least 1g per pound and strive for small, consistent gains.

      • Reply
        Tim
        April 12, 2016 at 12:09 pm

        Since I’m still earlier in regaining strength, I’m trying 2500 cals a day to get some more aggressive fat loss earlier, and then I’ll adjust as I need more to progress. I’ve never really gone this in depth before, so let’s see what happens! Also forgot to mention, I’m using Anafuse and Ostra-shred, along with aggressive dietary supplementation, so I should be able to handle more restrictive calories and maintaining strength better.

        And speaking of small, consistent gains; micro plates are a gift from above.

  • Reply
    Tony
    April 8, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    I’m sorry if you have answered this before but where do you go to calculate your macros? I know there is a lot of IIFYM calculators out there but just wondering which one do you happen to use? Thanks in advance

  • Reply
    Nick
    April 19, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    Very helpful advice. I’ve changed my diet and been consistent with it for several weeks now while getting back into the gym regularly (no more pizzas, fries, burgers, kebabs, ice cream, chips etc.). Adjusting what I ate was actually not bad besides the first few days of feeling a bit empty even after meals. Probably the biggest challenge for me is dealing with social situations like you mentioned.

    When family or friends invite you over it’s hard to resist desserts when you don’t want to offend them. As a compromise I don’t keep consistent cheat days but just account for the fact that at least once every few weeks I’ll be in situations with lots of junk food being served or alcohol with friends, and since I’m not a pro bodybuilder or anything I don’t need to be an ass about what I consume.

    • Reply
      Nate
      April 19, 2016 at 7:04 pm

      Saving your cheat days for infrequent social events is a great idea, Nick! If you’re anything like me when I switched over to a mostly healthy diet you’ll find that you plan and fantasize over some epic cheat meal, but when the time comes you won’t be that into the idea anymore. It’s a great feeling to not crave junk!

  • Reply
    Benjamin Strusnik
    May 2, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    Just wanted to say thank you for writing this post, helped me out a bunch. Your blog is amazing, keep it up. :)

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