Ready to drop a few pounds? This article contains a 7 step process that will help set up an eating plan and cardio approach to maximize fat loss and body composition.

Before we get started I want to make something clear: this article is not aimed at the hardcore bodybuilder types who already know how to get shredded.

My goal in writing this article is to help those of you who are slightly overweight to lose an extra 20 to 50 pounds of unwanted fat. More than this, I not only want you to lose weight, but also to look good when you're done.

There is a difference between weight loss and fat loss. Weight loss is usually imprecise. While the scale might be moving in the right direction, there is no guarantee that you will hold onto valuable muscle tissue as you lose fat.

In fact, most diet plans are both fat loss and muscle loss programs. They really aren't "plans" at all, but rather guesses.

On the other hand, fat loss programs are very precise. They are structured based on specific data, and adjusted based on current results. There is no guessing involved.

This article will show you how to structure a fat loss eating plan. You will learn where to start, and how to make adjustments based on current results. This process will help you maximize fat loss while minimizing the loss of muscle tissue.

The goal: not only lose weight, but look your best after the weight loss process is done.

The magic fat loss question

"I am not seeing results. What's going on?" This is the magic fat loss question.

Ninety-five percent of the time the answer is the same: these individuals can't lose weight because they are only guessing. They think they are eating healthier, and have added weekly cardio, but when asked the following questions they typically can't provide concrete answers.

  • How many calories are you eating per day? Um, er, idea really I am eating healthy! Not really counting calories, but I am eating a salad for lunch and using low-fat cream in my grande cappuccino.
  • How many grams of protein are you eating per day? mean like protein protein? Well I have yogurt for breakfast, some egg in my salad and then half a chicken breast at night. Is that good?
  • How often do you stray from your diet? Well I don't really do that bad. On Monday I had an entire carry out pizza with a large 48 ounce Coke, and on Thursday we went out for the Chinese buffet. Other than these 2 days I stuck to my diet.

The more precise the diet plan, the more precise your results will be. To lose weight and look your best when it's over you need to stop guessing and start analyzing.

The following steps will help you get started.

Stop Guessing - Start Losing Fat

Step #1 - Detail Everything You Eat And Drink For One Week

Eat normally during this week. Don't hold back or pull any punches. Detail everything you eat and drink during this week, along with the time you eat/drink it. Everything. No exceptions. 

You want to list sizes as well. If you are not sure how many ounces something is, then you can list it in the following manner:

  • Fist size portion of mashed potatoes with a thumb-sized pat of butter.
  • Full plate of Hamburger Helper.


At the end of the week it's tally time. Head over to one of the (endless) calorie calculation sites on the Internet and figure out what your weekly calorie and protein intake are per day. It will also be helpful to understand what percentage of your diet is coming from carbs and fats.

Once you have these totals, move on to step 2.

Step 2 - Calculate Daily Averages

Using your weekly protein and calorie intake levels, divide by seven to calculate daily averages. These averages will be used as a baseline, or starting point.

So if you took in 25,000 calories last week and 700 grams of protein, your daily averages would be:

  • Calories - 25,000 divided by 7 = 3,571 calories per day
  • Protein - 700 divided by 7 = 100 grams of protein per day

Treadmill Cardio

Step 3 - Map Out Your Eating Tendencies

This might seem like a tedious and pointless step, but it's very necessary. You need to understand when and how you typically eat. Armed with this knowledge you can set up a diet plan that matches these tendencies.

From your weekly data, add up the total number of calories and grams of protein you eat within every given hour of the day. It will look something like this:

  • 7am to 8am - 1000 calories and 50 grams of protein eating within this period during the week.
  • 8am to 9am - 500 calories and 20 grams of protein eating within this period during the week.
  • 9am to 10am - 2000 calories and 50 grams of protein eating within this period during the week.
  • 10am to 11am - 250 calories and 15 grams of protein eating within this period during the week.
  • 11am to Noon - 7000 calories and 150 grams of protein eating within this period during the week.

From this "eating map" you can now determine when you need to structure your snacks and biggest meals during the day when cutting. It is far better to work with your current eating tendencies then to adopt someone else's eating plan and try to survive it.

Step 4 - Set Your Starting Points

Calories. Take the number of calories you are eating per day and drop it by 300. This is your diet plan starting point. 

Hop on the scale first thing in the morning (after urination). Weigh yourself each day for the entire week. Ignore daily fluctuations. Instead look for any weight loss during this 7 day period.

If you aren't losing weight, drop calories by another 200 calories per day and watch the scale for an additional week. If you find that you have lost weight, consider this your diet starting point. If not, continue to drop your calories by only 200 per day, per week, until you start to see some weight loss.

Protein. You will want to set daily minimum protein intake levels. Eating a sufficient amount of protein will help you to maximize muscle retention while cutting fat. Here are my minimum suggestions:

  • Men - Eat at least 170 to 180 grams of protein per day
  • Women - Eat at least 100 grams of protein per day

Fill in the rest of your calories with a reasonable amount of healthy carbs and fats. For most people there is no reason to micromanage either. Eat mostly healthy foods, and don't fear healthy fat intake. You want a balanced amount of healthy fats and carbs.

Step 5 - Add In Cardio

Now that you have found your diet starting point, it's time to add in cardio. I suggest 3 to 4 sessions per week of 20 to 30 minutes each.

Resist the urge to rush out and live at the gym, doing cardio. Cardio itself burns very little fat.

Don't do more than your 3-4 sessions per week right now. You may need to add in some extra cardio later if the fat loss process stalls, so wait until then.

What type of cardio should you do? HIIT or steady state? Morning or post-workout? Walking, stairmaster, other? It doesn't really matter to be honest. Pick something you enjoy, and do it during a time of the day when you have the most energy.

Step 6 - Wait 2 Weeks, Then Adjust

With cardio in place, wait 2 weeks. The goal is to lose about 1.5 to 2 pounds per week. This rate is generally considered optimal when trying to maximize your body composition.

Lose weight faster than this and you risk losing muscle tissue. The result: you may end up thin, but still flabby.

If after 2 weeks you are not losing weight, drop your daily calories by 200 and monitor your weight for an additional 2 weeks. If you are still not losing weight, repeat this process.

Once you reach that weekly weight loss sweet spot, ride it for as long as possible. Do not change anything. Continue on with the same eating and cardio plan until a stall occurs.

Step 7 - How to Deal with Plateaus

If you hit a 2 week plateau then it might be time to take action. I suggest trying one of the following 3 options.

  1. Diet Break - Take a week off. Bump your calories up 500 per day, and perform no cardio. Use this as a mental and physical rest week. Return to your normal diet and cardio plan the following week.
  2. Cutting Calories - Cut calories by an additional 100 per day and monitor weight loss for the next 2 weeks.
  3. Add Cardio - Add in an additional 5 minutes of cardio per session. Check the scale in 2 weeks to see if this is making a difference.

When a stall occur, it is imperative that you remain calm and don't panic. Stay the course. Continue making very slight changes over time until your rate of weight loss returns to normal.

Final Thoughts

Body composition is an art form. Though the road map provided above will help you to retain muscle while losing fat, no system is inherently perfect. It often takes bodybuilders years to master the art of cutting fat.

You will likely make mistakes the first time you attempt to get shredded or diced. Fear not. Learn what you can and apply this knowledge the next time around.

It should also be stated that this article did not address the issue of refeeds, or cheat meals. For more information on the subject, please check out: Cheat Meal vs. Planned Refeed: What's The Difference?

Posted on: Sat, 05/10/2014 - 16:56

Hi Steve,
Sometimes happen that people eat not enough calories a day and train to hard or o not train but eat fewer calories especially women. Some of them eat 1000kcal a day and they suffer.
What is your suggestions? add calories first up to maintenance level or even more?

Posted on: Thu, 11/21/2013 - 17:19

Hey, when following step 1, should booze be taken right out of the equation?

Posted on: Fri, 09/27/2013 - 08:45

Very helpful and simple article. I've been at a plateau because I love lifting...... cardio not so much. Not seeing results on the scale I'd like to see but definitely gaining muscle. I really want to lose the fat, but not the muscle. Aiming for a stricter diet, and more cardio.

Vikaas G Sharma
Posted on: Thu, 09/26/2013 - 10:39

Hi steve,
I often read your articles, also adopt in my dailly workout routine.
Getting results.

Posted on: Wed, 09/18/2013 - 09:37

Nice article. A couple suggestions:

1. I'd expand Step 3 and clarify that meal frequency/timing is essentially a personal preference. The way it's written here implies that several meals throughout the day are necessary. Intermittent fasting protocols have been shown to be an effective approach and could be mentioned here as an option.

2. Step 5 should discuss weight training with cardio moved further down the list. I may have missed it but weight training and the impact it has on fat loss isn't even mentioned in the article. It plays a much greater role than cardio and by omitting it the article implies that it's not necessary or important.

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Wed, 09/18/2013 - 10:01

1) I didn't imply frequent feeding was necessary. I merely told individuals to eat according to their current patterns.

I do not recommend someone adopt intermittent fasting when entering a cutting diet for the first time. They need to work with their own eating tendencies.

2) Resistance training is a given and was beyond the scope of this article

Posted on: Fri, 10/25/2013 - 11:57

Im wondering that second part too. I did the whole starve yourself, get thin but still flabby thing and im trying to fix that. I have a good amount of muscle from constant training. I do weight training 3 times a week along with 2 intense 2 hour cardio sessions per week. My weight training includes ab powersets that act as a cardio also. Im just wondering does weight training and a diet optimize fat loss or does it slow it? Im very curious because im starting a diet very very soon

Posted on: Tue, 09/17/2013 - 21:11

there are formulas to calculate daily caloric needs based on weight bf% and goals

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Wed, 09/18/2013 - 09:58

They are guesses. This is a more precise method,