What really matters when it comes to achieving your weight loss goals?
When you have a goal, it’s best to identify the steps that will get you the most bang for your buck first, and worry about the minor details later. Need to build a house? Laying the foundation, framing the walls, putting a roof on it are all big steps towards accomplishing your goal. And they should happen in that order: foundation first, then let’s start framing the walls, next we can focus on the roof. There are also smaller details when it comes to building a house, like picking the perfect paint color for your bedroom. These details don’t need to be addressed until the big tasks are already taken care of. Even if you never painted that bedroom, if you took care of the major components you would still have a house!
Reaching our ideal body-weight and composition is a lot like building that house. We need to take care of the foundation, walls, and roof before we worry about paint colors. This can take time, but laying a foundation pays off. Picking paint colors can be quick and easy, but ultimately worthless if you don’t have a house to paint. For weight loss, we’ve created The Weight Loss Hierarchy Infographic as an easy way to visualize what steps will give you the most progress towards your goal. Focus on the “big blocks” first (think foundation, walls, roof). The steps to consider later are shown as “small blocks” (think choosing paint colors).
A hierarchy isn’t a new way to think about this stuff. Most recently, Eric Helms and his team have created the awesome Muscle and Strength Pyramids that lay out nutrition and training information in this way. What we love most about looking at weight loss through this lens is that is helps you think critically about any nutrition strategy. We don’t want to tell people not to buy supplements yet, or that stressing about meal timing is useless. We’d rather acknowledge where these strategies fit in the bigger picture of achieving their goals. A hierarchy acknowledges everything you can do to make changes, while highlighting where you should be directing the majority of your efforts.
Our version is geared to those who want a holistic approach to improving their lives through nutrition, while leveraging general stress and wellness approaches to increase the effectiveness of the path to their goals. In this article we are going to lay out what this hierarchy looks like, and give some general descriptions of what each component is and where it should fit into your plan. In separate articles, we’ll dive deeper into the details and what this could look like in practice.
The first and biggest block of our hierarchy, the one with the largest effect on your results, is Calorie Balance. Calories in versus calories out. We know; this isn’t sexy. Please don’t stop reading this article yet! It isn’t sexy, but consuming, burning, and adjusting calories in the way suited towards your goal is going to be critical for your success. You cannot lose body fat if you are eating way more calories than you are burning. Period. Now, there are some interesting nuances with energy balance that we will explore, but for now, know that anytime you have had success on a diet or wondered why a certain eating style works for people (at least in the short term), it’s because on some level, in some way, even if it doesn’t involve counting calories, that diet is controlling calorie balance.
Next block up is Macronutrients: the Proteins, Fats, and Carbohydrates (including fiber) that make up the foods we eat. You could lose weight if you ate a diet of potatoes that controlled for calories (yes, people have done it!), but let’s be real: 1) this sounds exactly zero percent enjoyable, and 2) you wouldn’t be getting the best results or body composition achievable. If you read our article about protein, we dug into how it is powerful in building lean muscle mass and keeping you full while on a diet. Fat is critical for your hormones and certain fats provide some great health benefits. More importantly, it is a critical ingredient for a great salad dressing. Ok, maybe those priorities are backwards, but this website is called Devour Nutrition after all. Carbohydrates, despite often taking a beating in the fitness world and mainstream media, are our bodies’ preferred source of energy, and your best tool for kicking ass in your workouts, or whatever you love doing.
This next block is interesting: Food Quality and Variety. You often hear that when it comes to nutrition, it’s about quality, not quantity. So why is food quality here after calories and macronutrition? Well, again, go back to our potato diet. At the end of the day, you could lose weight eating only potatoes (calorie balance). Replace a few of them with better protein sources, and now you are losing weight and holding on to some muscle. So without even thinking about food quality, you’re on your way to changing your body. But if you only considered food quality and not quantity, you could easily gain weight consuming nothing but the freshest organic produce and quality meat. Yes, you can overeat and gain weight on fruit and veggies if you ate enough! When the previous blocks are in place, food quality, that is, eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods, and eating a variety of foods, gets vital nutrients into your body to help you function and perform better. This is obviously very important for long term health. Getting to your goal body weight is awesome, but being healthy is too. As an added bonus, whole foods will keep you fuller and help you gain awareness of your appetite cues over processed foods.
Those first three blocks of the hierarchy should be your bread and butter, go-to, home base areas to focus on during your body transformation. These are your big blocks, your foundation, walls, and roof. There are a few other components that can help, but we are talking a small percentage of what you can achieve compared with these first three blocks. Don’t even worry about these next small blocks until the big ones are in place.
Meal Timing is a hot topic in some circles, and has swung back and forth in its (perceived) importance over the years. We are talking about when you eat, how often you eat, how many meals you eat, and how to time and spread out consumption of individual macronutrients. No, eating more frequently does not stoke the metabolic fire, but spreading protein throughout the day might be a good idea. Getting in more carbs on workout days will help gym performance. And eating breakfast is not at all something that has to happen if you are trying to lose weight.
The smallest block of the hierarchy is Supplements. Not much to say here—multivitamins if you are deficient, fish oil if you don’t eat fish, protein powder if you are having trouble getting it through food, and creatine if you are looking to get another few percentage points out of your fitness. These supplements won’t fast track your success, but if everything else is dialed in, and you are still looking to eek out the tiniest bit of progress or fill every last gap in your nutrition, supplements can help. Just don’t expect miracles. They’re called supplements for a reason.
Now, the last bit you might notice in our infographic are the things that surround the components of the hierarchy. Sleep, Recovery, Stress Management, and Adherence make everything you are doing work better (think building your house using trained workers under the supervision of a project manager compared to trying to build it using a group of office workers who have never used a hammer before). Getting adequate sleep every night helps your metabolism. It also improves your ability to process the different macronutrients. Stress management gives your body the message to use its resources for building muscle and burning fat. Adherence is important to make progress. You don’t need to strive for perfection, just make sure that you’re addressing the big blocks more often than not, and try to get a little better over time. Again, the reason that these surround the rest of the hierarchy is that they are critical for success no matter where you are at.
So there you go. This is how we rank different aspects of nutrition and fitness in terms of where you get the most bang for your buck. We plan on digging into each of these a little more, and also offering some practical advice about how to build consistency in these areas for you. Until then, with all the confusing information out there, don’t get lost in the weeds. Refer back here when you get advice, and find out where it fits—or just reach out and ask us, we are happy to help.