By Leo Babauta
I’ve gone from obese to overweight to normal weight to pretty fit, in the last decade, and I’m sometimes asked what someone should eat if they want to lose fat.
I’ve tried many diets: Atkins, Mediterranean, South Beach, Paleo, Vegan, and a handful of others. I’ve created my own meal plans, I’ve tracked calories, I’ve done intermittent fasting.
And I’ve come to the conclusion that while calories do matter for fat loss, the easiest thing to do is to focus on a handful of high-quality foods, especially vegetables, and to avoid eating too much of other kinds of foods.
I should note that this is what works for me — what works for your body might be different. I can eat soy and gluten and nuts without problems, and avoid meat for reasons of compassion, but I don’t expect that everyone is the same as me. Experiment to find what works for you.
Here are the high-quality foods that have helped me lose fat:
- Non-starchy veggies: These are the king, and I can eat an unlimited amount of these and only get healthier. Green vegetables are best, but red and orange and yellows are great too.
- Protein: I opt for vegan protein like tempeh, seitan, tofu and beans (mostly for reasons of compassion), but of course if you don’t care about the compassion reasoning, fish and poultry and smaller amounts of red meat will work too.
- Fruits: I eat these as snacks. Carrots work well too. I love berries, apples, stone fruit (peaches, plums, etc.), tropical fruit.
- Beans: This is actually under the protein category, but beans of all kinds are so good for you.
- Fats: I enjoy modest amounts of olive and canola oil, coconut milk, avocados, ground flaxseed.
I also eat lesser amounts of whole grains (not flour, just the whole grain) and nuts (which are great for you but dense in calories) and starchy veggies. And a glass of red wine at night.
The lower-quality foods to eat less of — more as treats than everyday items:
- Flour-based stuff: Breads, pastries, cereals, pastas. These are not bad for you (in moderation) but don’t have lots of nutrition nor do they help the fat loss.
- Sugar: It’s in everything. Sodas, coffee drinks, sweets, cereals, sauces. I’m not afraid of sugar, but it’s definitely something to do in moderation, as an occasional treat, not an everyday staple.
- Beer: I love beer, especially craft beer. But it definitely doesn’t help the belly. So I drink it on social occasions, about once or twice a month.
- Fried foods: While I’m not afraid of fried stuff, I know it’s not helpful for fat loss. So I do stir-fried dishes mostly, but also things like chili, baked stuff, fresh food.
- Other starchy stuff: White rice, white potatoes — not bad for you, but not full of nutrition.
- Processed meats: I don’t eat them all, as a vegan, but I’d stay away from them even if I weren’t. Full of fats and salts and nitrates.
- Prepared foods: Not evil, but definitely more expensive and full of fat and salt and sugar, without lots of nutrition. Think of things in the frozen foods section (other than frozen veggies) or that come in cans or boxes.
You’ll notice that these things make up the majority of most people’s diet. This is why people have a hard time losing fat.
What a High-Quality Diet Looks Like
How do we put all this together into a daily diet? There are lots of ways, but here are some examples:
- Example 1: Breakfast of scrambled tofu with veggies, lunch of tempeh & veggie stir-fry (with or without a bit of brown rice), snack of some fruit or carrots, maybe a protein smoothie if you work out, dinner of the stir-fry again, a glass of red wine in the evening.
- Example 2: Breakfast of steel-cut oats with berries & nuts, lunch of veggie chili, snack of apples and almond butter, a cup of green tea in the afternoon, dinner of chili again, glass of red wine.
- Example 3: Have some fruits and nuts for a light breakfast, workout and have a protein shake, have a seitan with kale, mushroom, spinach stir-fry for lunch, another protein shake with fruit in the afternoon, cup of green tea, the seitan & veggies for dinner, glass of red wine.
- Example 4: Oats, nuts, berries in soymilk for breakfast, then lentil curry for lunch and dinner, with carrots and hummus for a snack. Oolong tea after dinner.
I have more recipes at 7-Day Vegan if you come up short, but basically there are an incredible amount of recipes online, and finding and trying them is most of the fun!
I tend to cook a big batch of food (the seitan or tempeh stir-fry with lots of greens is my go-to meal at the moment) and eat it for 3-4 days for lunch and dinner. This saves on cooking time.
Does this mean you can never have sweets or breads or French fries? No. I don’t believe in demonizing foods or being afraid of them … but I also believe that too much of those foods will stall any fat loss. So treat them as treats, to be enjoyed once in awhile but not necessarily daily. You can find enjoyment of life out of healthy foods and other activities, not junk foods.
Workouts for Fat Loss
The diet has been the most important factor for fat loss for me, but I combine it with exercise to get super healthy.
Here’s what works for me:
- Strength training: Doing strength training helps you lose fat without losing muscle, and maybe even gain a bit of muscle, and it gets you strong and feeling empowered and confident. This is important for both men and women. I recommend starting with bodyweight exercises like pushups, bodyweight squats, lunges, and pullups. When you get good at those, add some weights. Barbell training is my favorite (especially squats and deadlifts).
- Cardio: People who are into strength training often seem to hate cardio, but I think it’s a great combo with strength training. It gets your heart healthy, you burn some extra calories (don’t make up for it by eating more), and you get in better shape generally. I love running and hiking, but if you like to swim or bike, do that.
- Sports: Do something you enjoy, like basketball, soccer, rugby, rock climbing, mountain biking, skiing, surfing.
A combo of these three, combined with a diet that’s mostly protein, veggies, fruits, with some whole grains and healthy fats, with some tea and a glass of wine … it has worked miracles for me. I hope it does for you.