Late-night infomercials have you thinking that losing fat is either supereasy or way too hard. One guru says you can tighten your abs in just minutes a day, while another orders you to run till you puke. Here’s the truth: It’s not easy, but it also isn’t torture. Dieting can’t be misery—when it is, people don’t stick with it, and then they fail. You don’t need the resolve of a Shaolin monk to see your abs, nor do you need to deprive yourself to keep them. The plan we unfold here is a practical approach to weight loss that’s simple but not easy, and challenging but not agonizing. Learn it—and get lean with it—now, and you’ll stay in shape for the rest of your life.

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HOW TO EAT

First, let’s settle the calorie debate once and for all. It’s true that if you eat fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight over time—even if those calories come from chocolate cake and ice cream. But you don’t need a degree in nutrition to see the flaw here. Foods that have low nutritional value don’t support healthy body composition, so while you may be able to diet yourself down to a lower number on the scale, your body will lose muscle, resulting in a smaller but flabbier you. Being aware of your caloric intake is helpful, but your choice of foods takes precedence. Base your diet on natural, unprocessed foods. Your new shopping list should comprise lean cuts of meat, seafood, fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts (in moderation), and natural starches such as rice, potatoes, and whole grains. Bread, baked goods, pasta, cereal, regular soda, booze, and desserts must be cut out entirely until further notice.

HOW MUCH TO EAT

When you eat healthy foods, you don’t have to worry much about calories. In fact, in the early stages of your diet, we suggest you don’t focus on calories at all—it will only make you hate the process. Still, you need some measure of what you’re taking in so you don’t overeat—or undereat, which can slow your metabolism. You must estimate your portion sizes, which you can do with a wave of your hand. A three ounce serving of lean meat (your main source of protein on this plan) is about the size of your palm. A cup of starchy carbs, such as from potatoes or rice, is the size of your clenched fist, while a serving of fruit is one whole piece or one cup. A tablespoon of healthy fats from oils like olive or coconut is roughly the area of your thumbnail, and a serving of nuts or seeds amounts to a handful. Aim for about 10 total servings of protein.

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TIMING

You should eat a balanced meal about every three hours. Nutritionists used to advise this as a way to speed the metabolism, but research hasn’t shown that to be true. It is, however, a simple way to manage hunger and keep blood sugar from dipping too low, so your energy will be steady all day. Having long gaps between meals can leave you ravenous—which, in turn, leads to poor food choices when you do get to eat. In general, five meals per day ought to do it. Another consideration regarding when you eat is whether or not you’re strength training that day, and if you are, when the workout occurs.

Along with many other benefits, exercise also primes your body to better process nutrients (especially carbohydrates) from your food in the hours right after a workout. A 1998 study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine showed that the body’s glycogen (stored carbohydrate) reserves became “supercompensated” when carbs were consumed immediately post-exercise, and that delaying feeding by just two hours attenuated muscle glycogen storage by up to 50%. So, all things being equal, if you eat your carbs (fruit, rice, potatoes, whole grains) shortly after exercising, you’ll store more energy in your muscle cells and less in your fat cells than if you ate those foods at other times of the day. That means bigger arms and rounder pecs, and smaller love handles. (Note, however, that this applies to strength training only. Running a few miles doesn’t achieve the same effect.) For this reason, most of your carbs, and all of your starches, will be eaten after workouts. Below are examples of what you can eat most of the time, and what you should eat shortly after weight training. 

REGULAR MEAL

Two servings protein (chicken, fish, lean beef, etc.); one serving fats (handful nuts, one tablespoon olive oil, fish oil supplement, etc.); unlimited vegetables; optional: piece of fresh fruit or cup of berries. 

POSTWORKOUT MEAL

Two servings protein; two servings starchy carbohydrates (rice, potatoes, oats, quinoa, etc.) and/or one serving fruit; two servings vegetables.

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The hard science on nutrient timing is still in flux, but a good guideline is to enjoy your carbs within a three-hour window after workouts. The amount you need to take in is highly dependent on your current size, muscle mass, and exercise habits. To keep it simple, think along these lines: If you’re a muscular, athletic guy who lifts weights and performs other activities (cardio, sports) regularly, after training you can double your carbohydrate intake temporarily—that is, take in as many as four servings in the first meal after your workout. If you’re relatively new to exercise or you have a lot of weight to lose, stick to only two servings. 

At the same time, you can’t forget about protein, either. A 2010 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology showed that 15 grams of carbs plus 15 grams of essential amino acids (which make up protein) consumed post-workout increased muscle mass and strength more than 30 grams of carbs alone. Here’s another tip: Keep the fat in your postworkout meal low. Fat slows the digestion of both protein and carbohydrate, so it can reduce your body’s ability to make the most of these nutrients in your muscles after lifting. You don’t need to avoid the fat that occurs naturally in your protein sources (for example, the fat in chicken and eggs), but save the nuts and oils for your other meals. In the  early days of your diet, strive to stick within these parameters 90% of the time. When you find you’re able to eat like this on a weekly basis and it feels normal, you can gradually begin to reduce the amount of carbs (including fruit, but not veggies) that you consume while increasing your aerobic exercise.

SAMPLE MENU

A typical meal plan for a 180-pound man who trains in the evening.

BREAKFAST

Omelet made with:
3 eggs
3 oz diced chicken
1/2 cup green onions
1/2 cup mushrooms
1 tbsp reduced-fat cheese

Plus: 
1/2 cup mixed berries
Fish oil supplement

SNACK

Smoothie made with:
2 scoops protein powder
1/2 cup almond milk

Plus:
Handful mixed nuts

LUNCH

Chicken Apple Salad

Or:
3 oz deli-roast turkey
Clean Coleslaw

WORKOUT + 20 minutes of cardio

POST-WORKOUT

2 cups pineapple

Or:
2 bananas
2 scoops proein powder mixed with 16 oz water

DINNER

Tuna Burgers

Or:
3 oz broiled fish
1 large sweet potato (i.e. about 2 servings carbs) with broccoli and carrots

BEDTIME SNACK

1 cup reduced-fat Greek yogurt
1 scoop protein powder
1/2 cup blueberries
Handful shaved almonds

AFTER THE DIET 

When you’ve slimmed down to where you want to be, you can switch to maintenance mode. You’ll continue to follow the principles of our diet, but you can loosen up a bit, which will no doubt enhance your social life. You can amend the aforementioned guidelines as follows: Increase the amount of fruit you eat daily to two to four pieces, and increase the size of one of your meals—preferably your first postworkout meal. This doesn’t mean pig out on junk, but you can add more servings of starches. Include cheat meals. Once a week, allow yourself to break your diet and eat whatever you like in a single meal (again, that’s meal, not day). If you find you can do this without gaining any weight, you can experiment with two cheat meals a week, spaced at least three days apart. So if you cheat on Sunday, your next cheat meal shouldn’t come before Wednesday. And you can add a small amount of alcohol back in. One glass of wine or bottle of beer, two or three nights a week, is OK. These drinks don’t need to be part of your cheat meals, although they could be.

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