There’s no way to make dieting easy or fun. If you’re already an Eat to Perform member, you know our philosophy – you should NOT be dieting most of the time. If you aren’t familiar, let me explain why.
Many people come to us from an underfed background with a goal of fat loss. They’ve tried every diet or new fad out there and it’s eventually (even if after initial success) landed them in the same place – with fat to lose, frustrated and looking for answers.
A big part of the solution is establishing an adequate baseline. That baseline will look different for everyone, but years of under eating can lead to damaged metabolic and hormone function. Repairing those functions is a critical first step before considering a fat loss phase. You might be wondering why establishing a baseline is important. There’s a long answer to that, but basically:
- You can delay the metabolic adaptations that occur with dieting if you’re coming from a well-fed state
- Repairing hormone balance and metabolic function allows your body to do lots of things that you may not even think about – growing hair and nails, recovery, immune function, etc
- When your metabolism is healthy it can more effectively and efficiently use carbs and fat for fuel
If you’ve been eating at maintenance (meaning that baseline I talked about) for a while or you are coming from a caloric surplus and are ready to attack a fat loss cycle, here is a guide to understanding what you can expect, why, and how to manage the effects of a fat loss cycle while making it as effective as possible.
First, your body’s goal is to keep you alive and to maintain homeostasis. It’s very smart and adaptive so we are battling physiology here. Think of your weight set point as a temperature in your house. We are trying to lower that temperature by changing the thermostat (by manipulating food and activity) and your body is like ok cool, I’m just going to open all the windows in the house. It’s important to understand what you might experience, or expect from your body during a fat loss cycle and how you can manage it..
We can start with the most obvious. You are eating less food so you are going to be hungry. This is a great time to get in tune with hunger cues and understand the difference between real hunger and boredom. Even as you become better at recognizing hunger signals, that doesn’t mean you need to quickly grab something to eat. Being hungry from time to time isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it’s ok to just be hungry and understand it’s not the end of the world. If you’re coming off of a surplus or maintenance though, those pangs of hunger, and an inability to focus on anything but your next meal, may surprise you.
Why is this happening
As calories get lower, your body starts producing less leptin, which is the hormone that signals fullness, and starts producing more ghrelin, which is the hunger hormone. See, your body is very wise and wants you to eat more to restore homeostasis.
Nerd out on the science: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17212793
What to do
First, let’s circle back to the first point made in this article. We need to establish an adequate baseline and this is a big reason why. If my baseline was 2500 calories and I’m dieting at 2000 calories, that’s going to be pretty manageable. On the other hand, if I came in at 1500 calories and try to diet at 1,000 calories, that’s going to be pretty miserable. Also, these metabolic adaptations happen quicker in the latter scenario. With that said, hunger is still going to be present. Understand that you will be uncomfortable and prepare yourself mentally. Drink a lot of water each day (I like to target at least a gallon per day and usually end up closer to two gallons). You can also add in some black coffee or green tea. Mostly importantly, stick with nutrient-dense, more satiating foods. When calories are low, it becomes difficult to fit in a donut or pop-tart. Filling up on veggies, lean proteins, and quality starches becomes even more important. Another reason why not dieting most of the time is the best approach… I need me some donuts!
If hunger is the most obvious, sleep is probably the most important. If you are averaging 4-6 hours of sleep per night and want to tackle a fat loss cycle, that’s simply not ideal.. We all know the importance of sleep in a healthy lifestyle. It becomes critical while dieting if you want to see good results. You may notice sleep quality suffers as a result of less food.
Why is this happening
It’s pretty simple: well-fed = better sleep. More alarming is the impact that sleep deprivation has on our dieting efforts. In short, we eat more, move less, and hormone balance can get out of whack. Not the best approach for fat loss.
Nerd out on the science: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/94/2/410.full
What to do
If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to set up a sleep routine. Ideally, the same time every night with the plan of 8 hours. Shut off your blue lights at least an hour before bedtime. Read a book instead. Keep your room cool and pitch black. Put as much effort into your sleep routine as you do your deadlift.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis plays a major role in your daily energy expenditure. Basically it’s all the stuff we do outside of the gym, from cooking to walking to fidgeting to cleaning. It varies a lot from person to person but can contribute anywhere from 15-50% of total daily energy expenditure. When you are eating more and feel well fueled, you will naturally feel like moving more. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. You may feel run down and low on energy during your fat loss phase, and that’s expected.
Why is this happening
This is probably the sneakiest way your body tries to fight back against your fat loss efforts. Most of the time, this is happening without you even knowing it. You don’t move as much. You fidget less. You move around your house less. You walk less. And as a result, your energy expenditure drops. It’s easy to erase a 250-500 calorie deficit with a reduction in NEAT that you aren’t even aware of.
Nerd out on the science: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11101470
What to do
Lucky for us we live in the age of technology. Fitness wearables like FitBit, Apple Watch, Garmin, etc make it possible for us to track daily steps and show estimated calorie burns. They won’t give us the complete picture but they can get us most of the way there. Keeping step counts consistent and paying attention to trends in daily burns is a good place to start. Be conscious of your overall activity and movement.
I’m going to lump training into this topic because training is a stress on the body. Restricting calories is also a stress on the body. When we enter into a fat loss cycle we need to balance stress to achieve success. If work life is crazy and home life is crazier, you might want to rethink dieting. Elevated stress can come from a plethora of sources and can wreak havoc on the progress of even the most diligent and consistent dieter.
Why is this happening
There are a lot of hormonal, psychological, and emotional responses that are happening in your body when stress is high. Let’s just link it here…
Nerd out on the science: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4214609/
What to do
You must focus on the areas of your life that you can control and try to let go of the rest. Practice meditation and/or journaling each morning. If you feel like you are in a good head space to diet, let’s talk about balancing the training stress. Knowing that working out is a stress on your body and knowing that restricting calories is also a stress on the body, does it make sense to train 7 days a week while dieting? Absolutely not. In fact, it probably doesn’t make sense to train more than 3 days per week Why? Balancing stress. The goal of a fat loss cycle is to lose fat and maintain the muscle we’ve already built. We can accomplish that by minimizing the frequency of our training and maximizing our training efficiency. Allocate enough food to get the most out of your workouts and dial back the number of sessions per week you hit the gym. Your body will thank you.
I know that’s a lot of information so let’s recap with some take home points.
- You will be hungry, expect it and get used to it.
- Drink a lot of water and eat a generous serving of vegetables with every meal.
- Keep steps and overall activity consistent.
- Balance stress through meditation or other methods.
- Train less frequently.
- Fuel your workouts to maximize intensity.
I’ve painted a gloomy picture about fat loss. But there is upside, and you’re more apt to see it if you keep a positive outlook and remember your end goal. Your perspective on the positives of a fat loss are going to be very individual, but may include things like:
- A renewed sense of drive. If you’ve been eating at maintenance for a while, and change is something you thrive on, then a fat loss cycle may be just the thing to give you that extra push and focus that you likely crave from time to time.
- New strategies. You will want to focus more on pre and post workout nutrition and you are likely to tweak your approach here and may find ways to fuel your workouts that hadn’t occurred to your well-fed self. Meal timing in general will become important and you’ll find yourself considering optimal ways to spread out your macros.
- A focus on higher quality foods. You will want to get as much food on your plate as possible – you’re hungry! Typically that will mean filling up with veggies and other whole foods. You may discover you prefer to eat this way and vow to give up pop-tarts and Life cereal forever!
Combining this informed approach with eyes wide open can help you push through and crush your goal!