How To Build A Fat Loss Meal Plan: A Step-by-Step Guide

How To Build A Fat Loss Meal Plan: A Step-by-Step Guide
Take the guess work out of dieting for fat loss. Listen to expert Christine Hronec as she gives you the step by step for building a fat loss diet.

If you have recently made the decision to drop body fat, you have been thinking about this for a long time and want results ASAP.

Now that you are mentally ready, you have an expectation of consistent calculated results that you can track on a weekly basis.

The reality is that fat loss is not the same as weight loss, which may be a loss of water, glycogen, muscle, or fat.

There are far too many meal plans floating around online that advise dangerously low caloric deficits, compromise muscle mass, and risk long-term metabolic damage.

In order to ensure you will be dropping fat and maintaining lean muscle mass, it is crucial to build a meal plan based on sound scientific principles.

The purpose of this article is to provide a simple, step-by-step approach to teach you how to build a meal plan for fat loss.

Step 1 - Set a Realistic Goal

Before you take one step down the road of “fat loss”, set the expectation that fat loss and weight loss are NOT the same thing. The scale alone will not reveal what is really happening. Weighing “less” does NOT mean you lost actual body fat. Putting an excessive emphasis on your weight is counterproductive when it comes to fat loss goals.

People tend to lose fat way too fast on traditional fat loss plans in the bodybuilding community with fat loss protocols calculating results in 4, 8, or 12 weeks. Fat loss meal plans that I carry out with my clients seeking to drop more than 5-10% in body fat often take 12, 16, or even 20 or more weeks.

When reducing body fat, the goal is to cut fat without compromising hard earned muscle mass. Before moving forward, one should consider how lean they wish to be. Extremely lean (“ripped”) body fat percentages are around 4-8% for men and 8-12% for women.

Related: Which Diet is the Best for Fat Loss? There May Be More Than One

Most people would be completely satisfied with a somewhat less defined body that still looks great at the beach (roughly between 10-12% for men and 18-22% for women). The rate at which this can be accomplished will vary person to person, however the maximum rate at which the body can lose fat is about 1 percent of body mass a week.

This rate is best achieved with 100% focus on proper nutrition, weight training, and cardio with no slip-ups. One can reasonably expect to lose somewhere between 0.5 and 1.0% body fat per week while remaining sane.

Step 2 - Determine your BMR

The number of calories you need just for your body to function is called your basal metabolic rate, or BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate). If you know your BMR, you can determine how to reduce your caloric intake to support fat loss. Your BMR is an estimate of how many calories you’d burn if you were theoretically at rest for 24 hours.

This value represents the minimum amount of energy needed to keep your body functioning, including breathing and maintaining blood flow through the heart. This value does not include the calories burned from daily activity or exercise.  Knowing your BMR is useful in determining how many calories you need to burn for fat loss.

Your resting metabolic rate (or RMR) can be measured by handheld indirect calorimetric devices commonly available at doctors offices or weight loss clinics for a nominal fee in the $50-100 range. These devices measure oxygen consumption (VO2) and use this data to calculate your BMR from software hooked up to this type of instrument.

The BMR formula is a mathematical model that accounts for height, weight, age, and gender. Two of the most common models are the Harris-Benedict equation as well as the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation.

Step 3 - Determine your activity level

Once you have your BMR, you can proceed to figure out how many calories your body needs to maintain your energy expenditure by applying an activity factor. At this stage you need to be completely honest with yourself and realistic about how “active” you are when determining how you rank your current level of activity. The multipliers reflect varying levels of activity throughout a one-week period.

  • If you are sedentary and do not exercise, multiply your BMR by 1.2.
  • If you exercise lightly one to three times per week, multiply by 1.375.
  • If you exercise three to five days per week, multiply by 1.55.
  • For exercise six or seven days per week, multiply by 1.725
  • If you exercise seven days a week and also have a physically demanding job, multiply by 1.9.

For example, a 30-year-old male at 6’2”/ 230lbs that trains 3-5 times a week would calculate their caloric needs as follows:

  • BMR (as calculated from the Harris Benedict equation) = 2239 kCal
  • BMR (2239kCal) x 1.55 (Activity Factor) = 3470.45 kCal/Day*

*This means that this person needs to consume ~3470 kCal per day to maintain their current body mass given their current physique and training frequency. In order to build a fat loss meal plan, the next step is to apply a caloric deficit to this value.

Related: Meal Prep - The Ultimate Guide & Recipes

Step 4 - Determine Your Caloric Deficit

When a caloric deficit is present, your body is forced to find an alternative source of fuel. A caloric deficit is really an energy deficit, and while this is fantastic (and required) for losing any amount of body fat, it can compromise training related attributes such as recovery, work capacity, volume tolerance, performance, etc.

It should be noted that any fat loss meal plan should also come with appropriate adjustments to ones weight training program such as reducing training volume (the total amount of sets, reps, and/or exercises being done), reducing training frequency (the total amount of exercises per muscle group), or a combination of both.

In order to allow stored body fat to be used as the primary fuel source, you will need to reduce your caloric intake below maintenance level. The thing is, that deficit can be classified as small, moderate, or large based on how far below maintenance you go and how much you reduce your daily calorie intake by. 

Ideally this would come from your body fat, but this can come from muscle if your nutrition is not dialed in. One pound of fat loss per week requires a caloric deficit of -3500 kCal or -500 kCal per day. This is a safe and reasonable rate of fat loss that will reveal changes to ones physique with time without compromising lean muscle mass.

As a rule of thumb, we will use a daily caloric deficit of -500 kCal per day or 4 pounds of fat loss per month.

Step 5 - Determine your Macros

Now that we know how many calories one needs to consume for maintenance, and how many calories one needs to reduce to be in a caloric deficit, the next step is to subtract these two values and determine the daily caloric requirement. From there these calories are broken down into the 3 macronutrients: protein, carbs, and fat. 

In our example, the 30 year old male at 6’2”/230lbs seeking to drop body fat needs 3470 calories/day to maintain their current physique. In order to drop body fat at the rate of one pound per week (without losing lean muscle), this person needs to consume 2970 calories per day (3470 cal- 500 cal energy deficit).

The breakdown and distribution of these calories into the appropriate amount of protein, carbs, and fat makes a huge difference in ones energy levels and overall results.

Regarding the first law of thermodynamics, a calorie is calorie. Regardless of what source that nutritional energy came from, one calorie is the energy required to increase the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It can only be transformed.

Rubner and Atwater used a bomb calorimeter to measure the amount of energy given off by each macronutrient by measuring the heat of combustion for each macro to break down into carbon dioxide, water, and heat1. The energy density of each macro was measured as follows:

  • Dietary Protein: 4.1 calories/gram
  • Carbohydrates: 4.1 calories/gram
  • Fat: 9.3 calories/gram

By approximation, it is 4 calories/gram of protein, 4 calories/grams of carbs, and 9 calories/gram of fat that we currently use (and why many panic when they see fat is more than double in energy density).

Protein-

Recommended Range: 0.8 to 1.5 grams per pound bodyweight per day for fat loss.

Nutritionally speaking, losing fat without losing muscle is all about eating enough protein every day.  Protein is the only macronutrient containing nitrogen. The body requires a positive nitrogen balance to switch over to lipolysis, which is the biological process that utilizes fat for fuel2.

The FDA states you need 50 grams of protein per day (2000 calories), based on a 2,000 calorie diet, or 10 percent of your calories from protein. The FDA bases its guidelines on only one aspect of protein need, nitrogen balance.  Nitrogen, found only in protein, is a fundamental molecule required for building body structure and DNA synthesis. 

This nitrogen balance criteria for protein intake does not account for protein’s role as a signaling molecule to support your metabolism, as well as the amount of protein needed to preserve muscle during weight loss to facilitate fat loss.

In fact, the FDA gives no guidelines to explain how much quality protein you need for exercise, stress, blood sugar support3, or to help stabilize muscle and blood sugar as you age4.

To properly support fat loss while maintaining lean muscle mass, a general rule of thumb is 1 gram of protein per pound body weight per day. While this is a good starting point, the ideal amount for your specific needs may range anywhere from 0.8 to 1.5g per pound of body weight.

See this chart below to gain a better understanding of what range you should be in for your specific health goal:

Criteria Recommended Protein (gms)
Average healthy sedentary adult (male or female) that does NOT work out or have any related goals. This is considered a solid minimum daily protein intake for general health/function. 0.5-0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
Average healthy adult (male or female) that IS doing some form of exercise regularly or IS trying to improve their body (lose fat, build muscle, etc.). This is the minimum recommended range. 0.8-1 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
Average healthy adult FEMALE whose primary goal is building muscle, getting “toned,” maintaining muscle while losing fat, increasing strength, or improving performance. 1-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
Average healthy adult MALE whose primary goal is building muscle, getting “toned,” maintaining muscle while losing fat, increasing strength, or improving performance. 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

Examples of High Protein Foods:
Whey Protein Isolate
❑ Pea Protein
❑ Hemp Protein
❑ Chicken Breast
❑ Collagen Peptides
❑ Egg Whites
❑ Whole Eggs
❑ Tofu
❑ Tempeh
❑ Nutritional Yeast
❑ Ground Beef
❑ Ground Chicken
❑ Ground Turkey
❑ Flank Steak
❑ Filet Mignon
❑ Deli Turkey Breast
❑ Deli Chicken Breast
❑ Bison
❑ Tuna
❑ Beef Jerky
❑ White Fish
❑ Wild Game
❑ Sea Bass
❑ Clams
❑ Halibut
❑ Trout
❑ Sardines
❑ Shrimp
❑ Tilapia
❑ Salmon
❑ Smoked Salmon
❑ Cod
❑ Swai
❑ Swordfish

Fat-

Recommended Range: 0.25-0.45 grams per pound bodyweight per day for fat loss*.

*Note that is not the only approach for fat loss. Fat loss can be approached with substantially higher levels of fat and lower carbs based via ketosis which is the mechanism where the body creates ketones from dietary fat and uses that as an energy source as opposed to glycogen (carbs). Some find this approach helpful while others struggle with the transition process and have trouble with brain function on carbs less than 25g per day.

Dietary fat is essential to support a reduction in subcutaneous body fat. Not only is it the most energy dense nutrient at 9 calories per gram, it is useful in supporting absorption of vitamins and minerals. Fat is necessary to build cell membranes, prevent nerve damage, enable muscle movement, and support blood clotting.

For long-term health, mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are the best sources of dietary fat. However, fat is not a calorie-free food. It's the exact opposite. Despite this rather obvious fact, many people have embraced adding ample fat to their diets with reckless abandon.

While eating more fat—roughly 30 percent of your total calories, or more if you're low-carb dieting—is beneficial, these calories add up quickly, so be careful.

Even if you aren't counting your calories and macros, it's good to have some level of measurement control. Fats and oils should always be measured before using them. Dressing a salad with olive oil can quickly escalate from two teaspoons to two tablespoons, and one eyeballed spoonful of peanut butter can actually be the equivalent of three servings.

Fats are delicious and easy to over-consume so, even if you are making an effort to eat more fat in your diet, make sure your efforts are calculated.

During your fat loss meal plan, be sure to choose heart-healthy, unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats to help reduce your risk for heart disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 recommend limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of your total calorie intake.

Saturated fats are present in high-fat meats, whole milk, cream, lard, butter, cheese, and ice cream. When possible, replace these foods with healthier vegetable oils, fish oil, flaxseed, avocados, hummus, nuts, or seeds.

Criteria Recommended Fat (gms)
This is the lowest range an active MALE or FEMALE should use for fat loss. Dipping below 0.25 grams of fat per pound body weight impedes brain function and will be difficult to sustain in the long term. This range is ideal for contest prep, photo-shoot prep, or other shorter term physique goals 0.25-0.30 grams of fat per pound of body weight.
This range supports steady, moderate results for those looking to shred at a reasonable rate and obtain “contest prep” like results without going as low as competitor diets. 0.30-0.40 grams of fat per pound of body weight.
This range will support fat loss without compromising satiety. While faster results are achievable for shredding, this is the most conservative and realistic approach that will yield sustainable results for those seeking to make a long-term lifestyle change.  It is recommended to start at this level and reduce and tweak as needed for more dramatic results. 0.40-0.45grams of fat per pound of body weight.

Examples of Fat Sources:
❑ Extra Virgin Olive Oil
❑ MCT’s
❑ Chia Seeds
❑ Flax Seeds
❑ Avocado
❑ Almond Oil
❑ Coconut Oil
❑ Sesame Oil
❑ Macadamia Nut Oil
❑ Pumpkin Seed Oil
❑ Fish Oil
❑ Raw Almonds
❑ Pistachios
❑ Cashews
❑ Macadamia Nuts
❑ Hazel Nuts
❑ Pecans
❑ Pine Nuts
❑ Walnuts
❑ Pumpkin Seeds
❑ Sesame Seeds
❑ Sunflower Seeds
❑ Sunflower Oil

Carbs-

Recommended Range for Fat Loss: The balance of the calories remaining after protein and fat are factored will go towards carbohydrates. This is calculated by subtracting the calories from protein (grams of protein * 4cal/gram), the calories from fat (grams of fat * 9cal/gram), from your recommended daily calories. Take this value in calories and divide it by 4 to yield the number of grams of carbohydrates per day.

Carbs have been given a bad reputation by mass media sensationalism of low carb dieting. While excess carbohydrates can certainly lead to obesity, many fail to understand the benefit of carbohydrates when it comes to muscle building. Carbohydrates (saccharides) are molecules that consist of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms.

When combined together to form polymers, carbohydrates can function as long-term food storage molecules, as protective membranes for organisms and cells, and as the main structural support for plants and constituents of many cells and their contents.

The main purpose of carbohydrates in the diet is to provide energy. Most carbs get broken down or transformed into glucose, which can be used as energy. Carbs can also be turned into fat (stored energy) for later use.

Fiber is an exception. It does not provide energy directly, but it does feed the friendly bacteria in the digestive system. These bacteria can use the fiber to produce fatty acids that some of our cells can use as energy.

Carbs raise insulin, which is a fat storing hormone, however what most fail to realize is that insulin is also an anabolic muscle-building hormone. There is a tipping point for each person on how many carbs they can take and have it support lean muscle gains before it crosses over to biochemical processes that will ultimately store the added calories as fat.

One’s ideal carb intake depends on age, gender, body composition, activity levels, personal preference, food culture, and current metabolic health. People who are physically active and have more muscle mass can tolerate a lot more carbs than people who are sedentary. This particularly applies for those who do a lot of high intensity, anaerobic work like lifting weights or sprinting.

Related: Should I Take High Molecular Weight Carbs During My Workout?

Metabolic health is also a very important factor. When people get the metabolic syndrome, become obese, or get type II diabetes, the rules change. People who fall into this category can’t tolerate the same amount of carbs as those who are healthy. Some scientists even refer to these problems as “carbohydrate intolerance.”

If you have diabetes, insulin resistance, or metabolic syndrome, you will likely feel better eating a more moderate carbohydrate, higher (healthy) fat and protein diet. Because you feel better you will be more likely to stick with it in the long run. If you feel better eating higher amounts of carbs and are still able to lose body fat (and control blood sugar), then by all means do so.

Below are some very general guidelines for fat loss, but remember that everyone is different and certain “carb-sensitive” people may need to severely limit carbs in order to lose fat. In addition, the amount of protein and fat in your diet will also influence the amount of carbs you should be eating per day.

If your weight is not coming down appropriately (1-2 pounds per week), then begin reducing your carb intake until it does. Again though, if you feel sluggish or tired eating that much (or that little) carbohydrate, then adjust accordingly. Use these as starting points and adjust based on your response:

Criteria Recommended Carbs (gms)
Sedentary individuals with insulin resistance 0.5-0.7 grams of carbs per pound of body weight.
While this range is broad, this range of carbs is ideal for dropping body fat. The main factor is one’s activity level, lean muscle mass, and the rate at which they wish to achieve their goals. 0.7 – 1.5 grams of carbs per pound bodyweight
Active males or females seeking to maintain or gain lean muscle mass. This range is ideal for bulking or for those who are full time athletes, fitness instructors, or others who are physically active all day (i.e construction workers, professional athletes, etc.). 1.5 – 2.0 grams of carbs per pound of body weight.
This range is for endurance athletes (i.e. marathon runners, triathletes, etc). or those seeking to build muscle (aka bulk). 2.0 – 3.0 grams of carbs per pound of body weight.

Examples of Complex Carbs:
❑ Sweet Potatoes
❑ White Rice
❑ Brown Rice
❑ Wild Rice
❑ Quinoa
❑ Red Potatoes
❑ Yams
❑ Oats
❑ Whole Wheat Bread
❑ Multi-Grain Bread
❑ Rye Bread
❑ Whole Wheat Tortillas
❑ Corn Tortillas
❑ Pasta
❑ Couscous

Examples of Veggies/Fruit:
❑ Bell Peppers
❑ Spinach
❑ Asparagus
❑ Carrots
❑ Brussels Sprouts
❑ Squash
❑ Green Beans
❑ Snow Peas
❑ Beets
❑ Artichoke
❑ Cucumber
❑ Collard Greens
❑ Eggplant
❑ Blueberries
❑ Strawberries
❑ Cantaloupe
❑ Grapes
❑ Apple
❑ Blackberries
❑ Papaya
❑ Peaches
❑ Plums
❑ Mango
❑ Lychee
❑ Lemon
❑ Watermelon
❑ Lime
❑ Raspberries
❑ Tangerine
❑ Figs
❑ Oranges

Step 6 - Plan Your Menu Overview from your Macros

For a 230lb male seeking to drop body fat at a rate of 1lb of fat loss per week, we determined their total daily caloric requirement to be 2970 calories per day. This is how to calculate the macronutrients from this figure:

  • Protein:  1.5 g protein/lb bodyweight x 230lb = 345g protein (or 1380 calories)
  • Fat: 0.3g fat/lb bodyweight x 230lb = 69g fat (or 621 calories)
  • Carbs: 2970 total calories – calories from protein – calories from fat = 969 calories or ~242g carbs (969/4)
  • 345gP/69gF/242gC or ~46.5% Protein/~20.9% Fat/~32.6% Carbs

Once you have your macronutrient breakdown, determine how many meals you can reasonably fit into one day. To support fat loss, it is suggested to eat a minimum of 5 times a day with one post-workout meal, eating every 2-3 hours.

For this example, we will assume that this 230lb male does fasted cardio at 6AM and does weight training after work around 5PM. This person would time their meals as follows:

Fasted Cardio   6:00am
Meal #1  7:00am
Meal #2  10:00am
Meal #3  1:00pm
Meal #4  4:00pm
Pre-Workout  4:45pm
Weight Training 5:00pm
Post-Workout  6-6:30pm
Meal #5  8:30pm

Once the meal timing is figured out, the portions are calculated from your macros. The first step is to subtract your post-workout supplementation macros and use the balance of the macros to formulate your meals. For example, if we assume this person takes the following post-workout meal:

2 scoops Muscle Gauge Nutrition Whey Protein Isolate in Cake Batter
1 Medium Banana
8oz. Water
Ice (optional)

This meal is 330 calories, 35 grams of carbs, 0 grams of fat, and 51 grams of protein. We will take these values and subtract it from the daily macronutrient requirement. This leaves us with 295g Protein/69g Fat/240g for the remaining 5 meals.

Taking these values and diving them by 5 yields the following macros per meal: 59g Protein, 13.8g Fat, and 48g carbs. The best way to create a meal plan from these numbers is to use the following rules of thumb:

❑ 4oz of Lean Chicken Breast ~ 25g protein
❑ ½ cup Cooked White Rice ~ 25g carbs
❑ 1 tsp Olive Oil ~ 4g fat

Using these rules of thumb, this example scenario would require ~9.44oz Chicken, ~1cup cooked White Rice, and ~3.5tsp Olive oil (or ~one heaping tbsp. of olive oil) per meal. This is a great baseline to give beginner guidance in how to create their own meal plan based on their individual macros.

Related: 43 Best High Protein Recipes That Anyone Can Cook

These items can be swapped out for other protein sources, carb sources, and fat sources. If you want a customized meal plan based on your preferences it is suggested to use an online meal planning service such as Gauge Girl Training.

Step 7 - Monitor Your Progress

Body fat percentage should only be measured once every one to two months, however there are other methods to assess progress in between. Measure your weight once every one to two weeks. You should see an average weight loss of one pound per week.

Another way to assess progress is to take measurements. Using a cloth tape measure, measure around the chest, waist, hip, and thigh once every one to two weeks. Measurements should decrease as you lose fat. Neither of these methods will tell you how much body fat has been lost, but they can show that you are moving in the right direction.

It should be noted that fat loss is not linear. It follows an exponential decay model, where one may experience initial rapid results and will need to makes tweaks to their macros and training for continued progress.

references
  1. Am J Clin Nutr May 2004 vol. 79 no. 5 899S-906S
  2. High Protein as an Effective Tool for Weight Management  Am J Clin Nutr.   Paddon-Jones D, Westman E, Mattes RD, Wolfe RR, Astrup A, Westerterp-Plantenga M.
  3. Protein Helps Blood Sugar Regulation  J Nutr.   Layman DK, Baum JI.
  4. Protein, Leucine, and Aging  J. Nutr.   Satoshi Fujita and Elena Volpi.