Are you overwhelmed with meal planning, calorie and macro number-crunching, or putting together a fat loss plan for the first time? Or, have you been working at it for a while, but you’re having a tough time sticking with a nutrition program that has a lot of details to remember? If so, there is an alternative way you can approach this whole fat loss endeavor – the simple way…
Sometimes, the best approach is to shift gears completely, to let go of the numbers (except simple ones), forget about the details (for the moment at least), and simplify, simplify, simplify – all the way to the most basic level – focusing on daily habits.
Some people thrive on details, some people die in the details
I know a lot of engineers, accountants and other analytical personality types who thrive on crunching all the numbers, doing all the tracking, seeing all the data and understanding the mechanisms behind why everything works. They have the most amazing nutrition, training and progress tracking spreadsheets and charts you’ve ever seen!
For most everyone else, creating and following a fat loss program – especially meal planning – is a real challenge, at least in the beginning. It feels like there are so many details to remember. Even calorie calculating and tracking alone can be frustrating.
If this causes you stress and overwhelm, especially if you feel stuck at the planning stage, a habit-based approach may be the best way to get started or the best approach to fall back on for a while. For some people, it’s the best long-term plan as well.
When you simplify, it doesn’t mean there won’t be any work, or that it will always be easy, or that details don’t matter, but the stress and overwhelm over the planning part of the process will all go away (if you let go and trust this process).
The best news is that a small handful of action steps, when practiced daily until they become habits, can produce spectacular results in the long term, disproportionate to how simple they may first appear.
These habits are so simple, in fact, that you have to be careful not dismiss them as too rudimentary or say, “I know that.” It’s not about whether you know it, it’s about whether you practice it every day, until it becomes auto-pilot, virtually effortless behavior.
Even more good news is that practicing these habits gives you the majority of your results. A few simple disciplines, practiced every day, get you 80% of the way there. Later, if you want to capture the remaining 20%, that’s when you get more sophisticated and fine tune the details. Worrying about minutia before mastering the basics is where most of the stress and overwhelm problems occur.
How should the fat burning habits be chosen?
There are many potential candidates for what fat-burning habits could be included on a list like this, but the habits on our list were selected for specific reasons:
1. These habits are specific action steps, not vague ideas or general concepts. They are actionable – not something to know, but something to do.
2. These habits are single steps, which makes them simple. There are no habits on this list that require multiple steps or calculations. There’s only one thing to do.
3. These habits are actions you can take every day (or at least multiple days per week in the case like lifting weights, which doesn’t have to be done every day). The key to habit formation and long-term results is action repeated daily.
4. These habits are based on real world observation of what successful people do.
5. These habits are backed by research in the fields of psychology, nutrition and exercise science.
How to use this list of fat-burning habits 
The whole idea of using a daily habit-based approach to fat loss is to start small and keep it simple. If you look at this entire list and think about doing all these things together starting on day one, you risk falling right back into the overwhelm and stress trap.
As we’ve learned from psychology research, the ideal way to establish new habits is one at a time. Maybe you can tackle two (especially in different areas, like one for nutrition, one for training). Maybe you can handle more. But don’t try to tackle the whole list at once.
Where do you start? That depends. On one hand, it doesn’t matter, the important thing is to start somewhere – today (not tomorrow, not Monday, not January 1st – today).
You may find that one particular habit leaps out at you because you know you’re not doing it, and you know it has perhaps, been your Achilles heel. Or you may you recognize you’ve been doing the opposite of the fat burning habit, and that’s the one thing holding you back. If one habit on the list leaps out at you like that, start there.
There are also habits that will give you more bang for the buck. For example, a establishing a weight lifting habit, or a portion control habit that will automatically keep your calories in check may translate into more dramatic improvements. On the other hand, if you’ve really been struggling and frustrated, pick the easiest thing on the list that you know you can do.
It’s important to be patient because habits aren’t developed overnight. For years, “21-days to form a new habit” was the rule quoted everywhere. Recent psychology research has revealed that only the simplest of habits are developed that quickly. In one study, the average habit formation time was just over two months. In some cases, it took even longer.
The 11 Habits
Below, you’ll see the 11 habits that made our list. You will ultimately master these habits and then, based on your results and your goals, you can move on to other habits if you wish. This is simply a great place to start.
1. Eat only until you are 80% full.
The Okinawans, a culture known for their health and longevity, have a tradition they call “Hari Hachi Bu,” which means eat only until you are 80% full. This is a striking contrast to the Western tradition of cleaning off your plate, not wasting food and eating everything that you’re served or the full amount in any food container (large container alert!)
A sensible moderate reduction of calories (deficit) for fat loss is typically around 20% below maintenance, so this simple, intuitive principle is a good approximation of that healthy calorie deficit. It’s a way of tracking your calories without tracking calories. This simply means eating until you are satisfied, but not full.
Calories are a nutrition number that is non-negotiable: Whether you track calories or use an intuitive method, either way, you must be in a calorie deficit consistently to burn fat. So after establishing this habit, if your fat loss has still been stuck for weeks, then you may need to start (or go back to) tracking calories.
However, modeling the Okinawans and using nothing but this simple 80% rule, many people are able to successfully lose fat and manage their weight long term.
2. Eat a serving of protein with every meal.
Protein is the most satiating and appetite-suppressing macronutrient, it has the highest thermic effect, it helps maintain muscle when your calories are reduced, and it’s the least likely food type to be overeaten and stored as body fat. That’s why this might be one of the most important habits of all for fat loss and better body composition. If you adopt only this one simple habit, it has the potential to make a massive impact on your results.
What are the protein foods? They include eggs, low or nonfat dairy products (milk, cheese, cottage cheese and yogurt), lean beef, game meats, chicken, turkey, lean pork (tenderloin), fish, shellfish and protein powders (whey, casein, milk or egg). Vegetarians should follow this rule as well, they will simply be using higher-protein plant based foods (or supplements) with every meal.
How many grams of protein should you eat for the day and at each meal? While this is an important number, forget about it for now. If you don’t even have this habit of eating a protein food at every meal yet, worrying about the optimal number of grams is moot. Remember, with the habit-based approach, start simple.
Once eating protein at every meal is a habit, one of two things will happen: One is that combined with other positive changes you’ve made, it works and you’ve gotten lean and you’re staying lean. Then there’s no need to start counting. Two, if you haven’t gotten leaner, or if you’ve gotten some results but you think you could be doing better, then circle back around to the numbers approach, and set a goal for daily protein grams, using science-based guidelines.
One thing that will help assure you get enough protein is to have at least three primary meals a day (breakfast, lunch and dinner), so you have at least three opportunities for protein intake. One of the reasons bodybuilders eat more often (usually at least four times a day, sometimes more) is to make it even more of a no-brainer that they’ll automatically hit an optimal protein goal.
3. Eat a fruit or vegetable with every meal.
Eating more fruits and vegetables is a recommendation everyone has heard, and it makes people roll their eyes at the obviousness or say, “I know that.” Ironically, according to the latest statistics from the center for disease control, only 10% of Americans (or people with modern Western eating habits) get even the minimum daily fruit and vegetable intake for basic health.
From a fat loss perspective, eating a fruit or vegetable at every meal is a powerful habit because fruits and vegetables are low calorie density foods that are difficult to overeat.
From a meal planning perspective, this is an important habit because with a protein and a vegetable or fruit, you already have the foundation of a meal. If you’re eating a standard balanced-macro diet, you’ll probably also have a third food type – a whole grain or natural starchy carb source – with each meal as well.
Once you’ve got these two habits established – eat a protein with every meal and eat a fruit and vegetable with each meal – then if you want to take the next step and start tracking your macros in grams, you can. But if you’re not practicing the simple habit of having a fruit or vegetable at every meal yet, you’ll probably have even more difficulty creating and following a meal plan that is based on macronutrient grams. Start simple and build from there.
4. Get 80% to 90% of your calories from mostly-unprocessed (nutritious) foods that you enjoy.
Processed food is hyper-palatable because it often contains sugar, salt and fat as well as artificial flavorings. If you get 80-90% of your calories from minimally processed or unprocessed foods, the odds of overeating are much lower and the odds of eating the right amount of calories for fat loss – automatically, without even counting – are higher.
By making this simple guideline a daily habit, you also ensure good health, because unprocessed foods are by definition, the most nutrient-rich foods.
A bonus is that if you choose mostly unprocessed foods that you like and enjoy eating, then your meal plan is customized. You’re far more likely to stick with a plan based on foods you chose yourself than one that was dictated by someone else’s preferences, rules or allowed food lists.
If you want to look up our recommended food lists, because you’re at a loss for ideas, you can, but trust your common sense – you already know what “mostly unprocessed foods” are. Most of them are one ingredient, they were not manufactured, and they don’t come in packages or wrappers.
5. When eating the 10% to 20% foods, be extra mindful of portion sizes.
If you eat 80-90% of your calories from mostly unprocessed foods, that means you have 10% to 20% of your calories remaining to “spend” any way you want. This gives you flexibility for random treat foods, holiday foods, birthday foods, social event foods and so on.
Studies show that flexible dieters have higher long-term success rates than rigid dieters. Do not follow restrictive diets that mandate you to cut out entire food groups. Granted, some people need to avoid certain foods due to allergy or intolerance, but outside of those exceptions, no foods should be considered “bad” or “forbidden” from a fat loss perspective.
Ice cream, pizza, and cookies don’t make you fat. Excess calories make you fat. You can enjoy any food you want, as long as you don’t exceed your calorie limits. The main challenge is, processed foods make it easy to overeat and not even realize it.
If you’re not counting or tracking calories, then you must make it a habit to be extra mindful when you eat those 10-20% flexible foods. Put yourself on high alert when eating the flexible 10-20% foods and always serve yourself an appropriate and responsible portion size.
6. When you eat, do nothing but eat (practice mindful eating).
You can’t stop eating when you’re 80% full or eat the right portion sizes if you’re not even paying attention to what you’re eating because you’re doing something else.
Practicing mindful eating means consciously tasting your food, chewing slowly and noticing the sensations in your body, especially your feeling of fullness or satisfaction. Do not eat while you’re watching TV. Do not eat while you are reading a magazine. Do not eat while you’re surfing the internet. Do not eat while you’re texting or scrolling through facebook on your cell phone.
When you eat, just eat. Nothing could be simpler than to “just eat,” but because doing this requires overriding old habits (multi-tasking), it may not be easy.
Mindful eating also means eating your food from a plate or small bowl, sitting at a table or your kitchen counter (a place designated for eating). Eating from a small plate and not from a food package or large bowl makes you more conscious of serving sizes and encourages portion control.
7. Choose Your Own Daily Meal Plan Schedule And Stick To It (Eat At Same Time Of Day, Most Of The Time).
For most people, a standard meal plan will be breakfast, lunch and dinner. Men and women who prefer bodybuilding-style meal plans may prefer four, five or even six smaller feedings.
Three primary meals and two or three snacks is another popular meal schedule. If you do snack, build them into your plan and avoid eating snacks at random.
Whether you follow a bodybuilder’s meal schedule with four to six smaller meals a day, three traditional meals, or three meals with snacks, guess what? It doesn’t matter that much. For fat loss, the number of meals and time of eating is less important than other nutrition habits.
Here’s what does matter: One, you should choose your own daily meal plan schedule – don’t follow someone else’s. Two, stick with the eating schedule you chose. Research shows that it’s healthier and more likely to improve fat loss if you stick with the same schedule every day. Eat at the same times and it will soon become habitual, and the time of day will cue you to eat a healthy meal.
8. Drink an 8 oz (250 ml) glass of water first thing in the morning right after you wake up.
Why just drink a glass of water in the morning? Well, we’re not saying that’s the only water you should drink all day. What we’re are doing is including some habits on this list that allow you to start small. This is a way to start the day with an incredibly simple action that anyone can do and turn into a habit quickly and begin feeling some success.
This also introduces you to a simple habit-formation trick and that is to name the time and place that a behavior will take place, which serve as cues to trigger the behavior. If you leave the glass or bottle out where you are certain to see it in the morning, that’s even better. Creating visual cues in your environment is another habit-building trick that’s proven to work.
An added bonus is that drinking a glass of water in the morning can also be a reminder to avoid calorie-containing drinks and to continue drinking mostly water throughout the day and with meals. (Consuming calories in liquid form is one of the biggest contributors to obesity today).
Want to make it 16 oz/500 ml? Knock yourself out. Just remember to be specific. “Drink more water” is not a good goal or habit builder because it is vague and is not connected with a specific amount, a time or a place to cue up the behavior.
Once you’ve got this simple habit checked off, if you choose, you can build on that success and move on to another habit that in addition, specifies how many liters or ounces you’ll drink for the whole day.
9. Schedule at least 3 weight training workouts per week.
Resistance training is the most important type of formal exercise that you can do to transform your body composition.
This surprises many people if their number one goal is fat loss because they associate weight lifting with building muscle and cardio training with burning fat. But consider that resistance training helps you maintain your lean body mass when dieting, it increases your strength, it’s the only type of exercise that can reshape and sculpt your body, and yes, it can burn a lot of calories too, just like cardio can.
Studies also show that training helps you stick with your nutrition better because of the commitment and consistency phenomenon. After you train, you’ll tend to want to eat better so you don’t undo all the hard work you did in the gym. This is true in the bigger picture as well as on a daily basis – which is one reason why people who train in the morning usually do better with their nutrition through the day. You can train whenever you want to, just be sure to schedule it.
Countless people start training, but most people don’t keep it up for life. They either drop out due to distraction or interruption, they complete a time-bound (ie, 12 weeks) program and they think they’re done, or they fail to think ahead to the next training goal and they lose focus and motivation. In any case, they don’t repeat the training behavior long enough to make it stick.
You must think long-term and be consistent with exercise habits because they are often more challenging to form than other lifestyle habits. It can take months to turn any type of serious training into a habit, but there are ways to make it easier.
One of the major keys to behavior change and new habit formation is: Schedule it! “I will lift weights” or even “I will lift 3 times a week” is not good enough. Instead, name the place, the day, the time and keep that calendar in writing. If you have an appointment book, electronic or on paper, put your workouts in there with all your other appointments. Psychology experiments have shown that this simplest of actions can double and sometimes even triple your success rate.
10. Walk briskly for 30 minutes a day. 
Why walking? Why not high intensity interval training? Why not jogging, or elliptical or stairmaster or boot camp or some other more vigorous cardiovascular workout? If you choose, go for it. But again, the idea here is to start simple, start small and build from there.
Almost everyone can walk. You don’t need a gym. You don’t need a treadmill. It’s not hard or intimidating. It’s something you can do seven days a week and you can make this a habit fairly quickly.
To increase your success rate, remember to schedule it. “I walk 30 minutes every evening right after dinner, 7 days a week” sets an intention that you are likely to follow. It doesn’t matter what time of the day you do it, just schedule it, and you’ll multiply your success rate exponentially.
Once you’ve ingrained this habit, you can build on it by setting a goal to do more intense formal cardio training of your choosing, and put that into your schedule as well.
11. Weigh yourself daily, at the same time each day. 
To some people, this habit may appear controversial. That’s because “Throw away your scales” or “The scale lies to you” are sound bytes heard from many trainers and nutrition coaches who believe it will only discourage you. It’s also true that body composition is more important than body weight alone. However, this advice is not as controversial as it might seem.
In the National Weight Control Registry, which is an ongoing study of people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least one year, (the average is 66 pounds for 5.5 years), 75% of the successful maintainers weigh themselves at least once a week. In a more recent study at Drexel University, people who weighed themselves every day for two years saw a drop in body bodyfat, while the group who didn’t weigh in did not. What’s more, the subjects were not told to try to lose weight!
This is not the rare exception either. At least a dozen studies have confirmed that weighing in regularly correlates with better weight loss and weight maintenance. Why does it work? First, the scale is like an early warning system: If you notice weight gain on the scale, you can nip it in the bud and ramp up your training and your nutrition compliance. If you see yourself lose weight, it provides positive feedback that motivates you to continue. The scale is a feedback and accountability tool.
Yes, you have to remember your body weight can fluctuate a lot due to water weight, and sometimes a weigh-in should be taken with a grain of salt, but with daily weigh-ins, you can see the patterns, and see the fluctuations even out over time. Daily weighing may not be for everyone, and body composition should always be in the front of your mind, especially when you’re weight training and you could be gaining lean body weight, but for the majority of people who have struggled with being overweight, daily weigh-ins can be a powerful habit, and it’s an easy habit to establish.
Parting words of wisdom
Is simply following these habits enough to guarantee fat loss? Not necessarily, but you sure put the odds in your favor by practicing them every day.
What holds most people back from embracing this more intuitive, less number-focused approach is that they doubt doing things so simple could be so effective. As a result, they still feel a compulsion that they must have a meal plan, must calculate the calories, must count the macros and must have a food list given to them. “It can’t be this simple.” Actually it can be.
Yes, there is another level and we can argue that doing meal plans by the numbers is ultimate method for achieving nutritional precision and having the highest odds of success. But if we’re thinking about levels, then someone who is struggling should consider this list of habits as fat loss 101 and doing meal plans by the numbers as fat loss 201.
Have you already established all these habits listed above? Are they really habits – entrenched to the point they’re nearly automatic? If not, and if you tried doing meal plans by the numbers only to find yourself overwhelmed, why not start at the simplest level and build from there?
Meal planning and habit-building don’t have to be mutually exclusive – everyone needs to build habits and everyone should keep these 11 habits in mind. But you have options. You can start with simple habits and then graduate to more sophisticated meal planning later, or you can start with meal plans and macros and use that as your path to building habits.
If you’re one of those people I mentioned at the beginning – so overwhelmed and frustrated that you can’t even get out of the gate, then the answer is clear – start at level one, with the simple daily habit approach. The results may surprise you.
– Tom Venuto,
Author of Burn The Fat, Feed the Muscle.
Founder & CEO, Burn The Fat Inner Circle
PS. Want to see another great way to develop fitness habits? Enter the Burn The Fat 28-Day Burn the Fat Fitness Habits Challenge! Click the link for contest details:

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