I am a member of several well known health and fitness groups, and while they offer good resources to help people, one common theme that irks me at times is when adherence or compliance to the plan comes up and how this is approached by many people in the community. Before I dive into it, let’s take a step back and see if we can come up with why this topic is a favorite whipping boy in groups like that.
If you are a trainer, getting clients results is a pretty big part of what you do and how you do it. A large part of your job is results oriented. If you have 60 clients, all of them have something going on that differs from the rest, yet oftentimes WEIGHT becomes a much bigger priority than just health.
Which leads me to my main point, which I want to paint with a common scenario that comes up a lot and how it needs to be handled.
Client A is 215 pounds and indicates they eat 1,050 calories a day and can’t lose weight.
This scenario was brought up in a training group and I was very surprised by the answers. They were all some iteration of, “You aren’t eating 1,050 calories, you just don’t know how to measure peanut butter”.
When I saw this response from the vast majority of people I was a bit surprised… 3 years ago I probably would not have been, but today I am. Why was I surprised? You have to understand that the good majority of trainers don’t have the data I have, they don’t see what I see daily. In fact, it is probably safe to say that no one else in the world is sitting on the data I am sitting on and see every single day.
When you don’t see this type of data, the response of “You just aren’t tracking your food close enough” should be the answer most people have. It is the easiest logical conclusion, but I don’t think it is the right answer, and might be the worst answer. Let me explain why, but prepare yourself for a little cognitive dissonance and let it sink in before you craft your own mental retort.
DIETING is not the answer, it’s actually the PROBLEM for a person in this situation.
Now let us deep dive that a bit. A person in this situation has probably already dieted a lot, they may have dieted to get to that point or unconsciously dieted by eating intuitively but very low (calories). This is where the adherence argument gets brought up because no matter who you are, some small detail is off and that’s when the client gets blamed. “Clearly they are measuring their peanut butter wrong”, the sad part about this argument is that it always has some basis in truth that the client then looks at and uses as a justification “yup, I will re-evaluate my peanut butter intake” and then once they do that, maybe they get a small benefit but not quite the pounds lost they want or need. Meaning, they correct this small tracking mistake and they get a few more pounds and then stall around 2-3 pounds lower.
The scientific reason this happens is referred to as homeostasis, what homeostasis basically means is that your body is always looking for balance. The example above is something I have seen over and over even when you control for the peanut butter scenario. The client is indeed not lying, they can’t lose weight eating like that, their body has adjusted to what it’s been given. Now, this doesn’t mean I am invoking the mysterious “metabolic damage”, I am just simply stating that their body adjusts to the current amount of food they are actually eating (regardless of an error in measuring their peanut butter).
This is why it’s important to know more details, especially when you are talking to a client like this. The 1,050 (or whatever the exact, perfectly tracked number is) did work at one point (also common) because when they started at 265 pounds they lost a lot of weight, they landed at 1,050 after 6 months of restriction. Here are the things you need to look at when you are in this situation:
1. Stop viewing dieting as the answer, it’s actually the problem, your body is not meant to exist on that amount of food so any diet that doesn’t strategically take you out of the diet cycle isn’t just a bad diet, it’s trying to defy nature. It’s also usually the business model of that company and it’s a hard thing to shake if you are the client. “When I do X I look and feel great” the problem is that X is severely restrictive and not only can’t you live like that it’s not a true path to get to where you want to go in the end. We view food as an ally in this struggle not because it’s a cute tagline but because it’s a scientific fact. Dieting is a small part of the bigger picture. It is a scalpel, yet the industry has used it like a cudgel for 70 years.
2. Movement isn’t optional, this is the part that slays me honestly. If you are a personal trainer one of your most important jobs is to keep your client and point them in a direction that is more “health full”. Having fat doesn’t mean that you are fat and I have 250 pound women that can walk into a doctors office right now with low triglycerides and blow the doctor away with phenomenal numbers. In fact, this is very common for women because women hold their weight better than men do in places away from their heart. When you drastically under eat all of the time your movement and what you can do is compromised. So strategically having performance focused phases that allow you to build muscle and build work capacity is like putting money in the metabolic bank. Exercise and movement drives a lot of positive adaptation… those build robustness. Dieting does not build robustness. Movement is notoptional, it’s literally the only way it can be done in a health full way.
3. If you are over weight you have to understand that the problem wasn’t just weight, it could be many things like habits, lifestyle, or even something more severe like depression (or a combination of all of those things). Food does not need to be enemy number one. Let me repeat that again. Food does not need to be enemy number one. Now, one of the big problems in this regard is focus, let me give you an example of what I mean. Let’s say your great grandmother was 200 pounds, your grandmother was 200 pounds, your mother was 200 pounds and now you are 215 pounds. There is a lot of genetic evidence that your goal shouldn’t be 150 pounds but if you have been dieting since you were 12 years old and you are 215 pounds when someone says to you “a HEALTH FULL approach should include food” it can be easy to lose focus, to give the best example I will go back to the original example where the client started at 265 pounds. At Eat To Perform the fat loss cycles are very defined, we do this for a few reasons and if you are a trainer you might notice them because they are similar to training cycles (once again, no purpose).
One of the biggest things we have done over the past few years is really develop a quantitative idea of what calorie intakes are for people and what they CAN be. For each of our clients we know what calories someone is at and here is something I want people to have a better understanding of: when a person is 215 pounds they can handle a lot of calories (more than 1,050). This is important to grasp, so follow me the whole way through please:
I am going to say 2,500 calories just to not freak people out, but I have a private client that worked up to 3,500, stayed weight stable the whole time and is now doing a fat loss cycle, in the first week she is down 7 pounds after being stalled for years and her calories aren’t really aggressive yet (in the first stage, about 9 days, her calories were 2400 calories). The cycle is only 28 days so the next two stops are roughly 1700 and 1300 before we do a mini reverse that we call adaptation prevention and then we start the second stage which is 21 days. All in all the cycle is about 2 months, as you can see it’s not super restrictive and the client will lose 15-20 pounds based on the data we have seen for similar situations, remember that we aren’t guessing but it’s important to note and highlight the 3500 calorie point in this discussion. One of the biggest points here is that we didn’t spend years searching for her lowest intake where everything falls apart. We found her upper end and used that as a different mental anchoring point.
The other key point about the process above is this: it is repeatable and sustainable. Weight stable at 1,050 calories is not a viable long term solution. A repeatable process where weight stable it 3,500 calories and weight loss lies in the 1,500-2,500 range is.
Fat Loss is like a bank account, you can only withdraw what you have deposited.
Here is the key point for this client, they have to stay focused. Once again, if you have been dieting since you were 12 trying to be something that is physically impossible based on your genetic makeup is distracting. No one gets to 265 without losing a little focus anyway (I know, that was me) and when you throw in life factors it’s easy to cuddle up to a life without meal prep, eating convenience foods and going to the gym full of energy even though you aren’t making significant progress.
So let’s walk through what needs to happen, in the example above the client diets down to 245 the data we see clearly shows that they can still lose weight even as calories are going up, it always comes down to effort but the nice thing if you are a personal trainer is that someone eating can give you more effort. That said, I am going to build in a margin for error of about 5 pounds, so in the example I am going to use the client either loses a little weight or gains back roughly 5 pounds.
Let me stop right here because if you are following along this probably seems tougher than just under eating all of the time. It is, that’s why it works and why just under eating all of the time doesn’t. Movement, sleep, and structuring your life differently become part of the process.
After a 60 day reverse where an individual returns to a level of maintenance (it could be 90 or 120 or whatever), the person needs to dig back in and it’s possible that the calories won’t go as high this time and might need to be a bit more aggressive to get a result that isn’t as good as the first time where calories were higher. That’s just the facts but when you look at the percentage of body weight or body fat lost it would be close. So after the reverse we do another cycle that nets 13-17 pounds. It’s important to note the range here is significant, the closer you are to the bottom end of the range opens up all of the problems we initially spoke about, how accurate are your measurements, are you getting better at exercise in this process?
That’s the gradual creep that happens and like I said, if you have been tapping your willpower without a lot of real information for years the low ends of the range leave you susceptible to minimal progress with less than optimal adherence or compliance.
The end result here is that in roughly 6 months this person would have gone from 265 pounds to 230 pounds and you can easily see a path to whatever goal they want. We have a case study on YouTube showing this process graphically in which a client followed this exact process and lost over 50 pounds in a year with very short periods of dieting.
I will leave you with something my uncle told me when I was 12:
“The average college graduate makes more money than the average high school graduate because of the potential long term outcome. There is technically no difference between the two, in fact, the window of opportunity is better for the high school student because they have anywhere from 4-10 years more income earning potential. So why doesn’t the high school student earn more? That answer is focus. On average the people that are more focused on their specific outcome do better.” Interpreted for weight loss/fat loss, dieting is the high school student wanting something they haven’t worked for, with a HEALTH FULL life the short term loss related to understanding and effort pays big dividends in the end.