Some of the most frustrating conversation I’ve had in my career have been with people who want to see the numbers on the scales go down, but without having any concern whatsoever for their body composition or health.
Lately I’ve been hearing this from a lot; “I’ve been eating 1200 calories for months, I saw a good bit of weight loss at the start, but I’ve hit a plateua and my weight won’t budge :(“
The aim here is to explain exactly what is happening with your body when you restrict calories, and how to make a start on getting Fat Loss moving again. There is an explanation, and you’re not broken. Your metabolism isn’t damaged, and I guarantee there is a way to fix it.
(Edit: After reading back through this post, I realised the tone is very blunt. Just a heads up. #sorryImnotsorry)
The Most Important Factor in Weight Loss
When it comes to Fat Loss, or Weight Loss; the most important factor to consider is Energy Balance. This is the Energy coming in to your body, versus the energy going back out again.
I’m going to be talking a lot about calories and energy here, just to explain how it can affect Fat Loss. But please do remember that food does a whole lot more for us than just provide energy. We may want to achieve Weight Loss through dieting, but we also eat for a whole bunch of other reasons too.
In order to cause a Fat Loss effect, we need to create an energy deficit (i.e. we need to expend more energy than we consume). Regardless of what nutritional strategy/diet you use, this is the sole reason that you will lose weight. It wasn’t the magic pills, the super-expensive weight loss shakes, or the juice-detox; all of these things simply created a calorie deficit.
(On the other side; if you consume more energy than you expend, you gain weight. So when you go back to eating like a sane person, the weight is easily gained back)
Energy coming in to your body comes from three sources; Food, Fluid, Supplements (FFS). It’s technically possible to have energy provided through a feed too, but most people don’t spend their lives on a drip.
If we wanted to reduce the energy coming in, we would need to A)Reduce the total amount of FFS coming in, or B) Choose lower calories options. There are loads of benefits to option B, which we’ll come back to.
But option A (eating less), seems to be the most common strategy that we see.
The Energy Going out of your body is a little more complicated. In a nutshell, it’s summed up by BMR, NEA, Exercise & TEF.
- BMR: Your Basal Metabolic Rate is the minimum amount of energy your body needs to expend to maintain vital functions. For the average person, even if we stayed in bed all day, with zero activity; we would still need 1400+ calories to survive. BMR can make up about 70-80% of our total daily energy expenditure.
- NEA: Non-Exercise Activity is just about any kind of activity that isn’t lying down, or exercising. This would include walking to the shops, using the stairs, cooking, cleaning, showering, making the bed etc. This is also one of the most underrated aspects of weight loss; you don’t need to exercise 24/7 to lose fat. Moving more is an option too.
- Exercise: I think this one explains itself, this is pretty much any deliberate effort at vigorous activity. So time spent in an exercise class, gym workouts, bootcamps, running etc.
- TEF: The Thermic Effect of Food is the energy required to actually digest the food we’re eating. When we consume a food we need to invest energy, to get energy back out again. This is also very easy to manipulate, depending on the nutrients, and the quality of the food you’re eating.
Increasing any one of these without changing our Food intake at all, could technically create a Fat Loss effect (through increasing the energy going out).
As far as BMR goes, it’s fairly set. We see small changes as our muscle mass goes up/down, and even smaller changes again when we lose/gain Fat. But for the most part, we can’t rely on these tiny changes to lose weight.
NEA & Exercise are highly changeable; we move more, we use more energy. The more vigorous the activity is, the more energy we use again.
TEF can also be manipulated through our Diet. Remember how I mentioned eating lower calorie food sources is a better option than eating less food altogether? That’s partly because it helps us maintain a higher TEF; when you eat more, you use more energy to digest food. Plus, certain nutrients require more energy to digest. Protein creates a far greater Thermic Effect than Carb or Fat, so someone eating a high protein diet (Vs a Low Protein diet), stands to expend far more energy.
So far, in order to create a weight loss effect, we have these options;
- Eating less Food
- Eat Lower Calorie Food Options
- Move More
In a nutshell, that should do the trick in most people.
It Could be Water Weight
Just to bring us back to the initial problem, this is what I hear a lot “I’ve been eating 1200 calories for months, I’ve put on 5Kg after my holiday, and I can’t lose it! Am I broken?”
Carbohydrate, Water & Roughage manipulation can account for up to 4Kg of weight gained over 24 hours, so it’s very important to realise that one off refeeds couldn’t possible lead to 5Kg of Fat Mass gained (remember, changing the scales does not always mean you’ve changed your body). It may just be a lot of water content (really).
Putting that aside, it still may not explain how we can gain weight while restricting calories long-term.
Chicken Or the Egg?
Your body is made to survive, and your genetics have learned to adapt over generations. When we are expending more energy than we are consuming, technically we are eating away at ourselves. It may make us look great in a dress; but as far as out body is concerned, something needs to change if we want to survive.
When we do create an energy deficit, the body can respond in two ways; bring Energy Intake up, or bring Energy Output down.
Technically, we can restrict energy, to the point that we’re only consuming 1200 calories; but long-term the body is very capable of adapting so that we’re only expending 1200 calories too. The calorie deficit that once existed, has now been corrected by your body. So technically, you’re back at calorie maintenance again. Weight stops coming off, so as far as your body is concerned, it’s a win!
So how does this happen?
- Energy Intake Comes Back Up
Hormonally, everything is working against us when we try to drop body fat. Within one week of restricting calories, we can see half the amount of Leptin in circulation. Leptin is very important for keeping us satiated (amongst a lot of other things); when we’ve consumed enough, it’s one piece of the puzzle that tells our brain to stop looking for food.
Also, the hunger hormone Ghrelin can rise when we restrict calories. This hormone is needed to make us fell….well…hungry.
The fall & rise in these hormones is our bodies way of screaming, EAT MORE!! But, even with extreme hunger, technically we are still able to create an energy deficit. It feels horrific, but it’s not impossible.
This also partly explains why we naturally become hungrier when we’re more active, we’ve created an energy deficit through increased energy output, rather than restricting energy intake. If there’s one thing your body knows how to do well, it’s adapt.
- Energy Output Goes Down
This is the really interesting part. Have you ever gone on a really harsh diet, and felt like shit? Not just feeling hungry, but feeling like you don’t even have the energy to get out of bed.
You’re naturally just that little bit lazier, you probably spend a little bit more time sitting down, the intensity of your workouts isn’t quite as high, you’re far more likely to take the lift than use the stairs, or drive instead of cycle.
This isn’t because of a lack of available energy, technically your body has the energy stores available to fuel 2 marathons back-to-back. It’s due to a lack of incoming energy. If you only take one point from this article, let it be this; your body knows how to adapt VERY effectively. It’s literally gonna do everything it can to stop you wasting your precious body stores.
We naturally see changes in every one of the factors that make up the energy-out side of the energy balance equation. When we create a deficit;
- BMR; We can see small changes in BMR as we restrict calories, emphasis on small. If you have been restricting energy intake for months or even years, don’t worry, your metabolism isn’t damaged. The changes we see in BMR are small, and even at that, it can rise back up when we increase energy intake back to maintenance.
- Non-Exercise Activity; Remember how I mentioned this was one of the most under-rated aspects of weight loss? It’s equally one of the most under-rated aspects of weight gain. Non-exercise activity has potential to make up far more energy expenditure than deliberate exercise, and your body has a fantastic way of making you do a lot less of it, when we try to diet. The worst part, is that we usually don’t even notice. We can unconsciously become less and less physically active over time, to the point where we could be spending hours extra sitting down, that we used to spend standing or walking.
- Exercise; We need energy coming in to our bodies to maintain intensity in training, and without sufficient calories coming in; our performance suffers. Boo-urns. Our lower calorie intake, has resulted in us burning less calories during the exercise itself.
- ; If we reduce energy coming in, we often do it by eating less. If we’re eating less, we automatically require less energy to digest food, just because there’s nothing there to digest.
So we can see a big of a Chicken or the Egg scenario going on; when we increase energy intake, often our body will increase activity levels to match. The same way, if we increase activity levels, our bodies may naturally feel hungrier, and eat more.
If we reduce energy coming in, our bodies adapt by reducing the energy going out. Stalemate.
This could very easily be interpreted as ‘metabolic damage’. You restrict calories to the point that you’re only eating a handful of rice cakes a day, and you’re not losing an ounce of fat. Worse still, you find that when you stop doing as much exercise, you probably gain weight. Don’t worry, you’re not broken, if anything your body is doing exactly what it’s made to do.
The more food you can stand to eat, the better your chances are at seeing the effects of Fat Loss. Food does far more than just change our weight, and these other functions need to be respected, rather than abused.
If your health & performance are not taken care of, your body will hate you for it. We need to be taking in all essential nutrients to support this (Protein, Fat, Vitamins, Minerals etc).
If you have been experiencing ‘metabolic damage’ (just FYI, you haven’t), the solution really is simple; eat more.
I’ve said this to a lot of people, and the response I get is always the same ‘If I eat more, I’ll gain weight’.
Weight, does NOT determine what you will look like. If you increase your only carb intake from a half a ryvita, to a portion of rice in the evening, with a sandwich in the afternoon; you’re gonna gain weight. That weight is going to be made up of carb storage, water weight & roughage. You’re not gaining Fat, it’s not gonna change how you look, and it’s not gonna change how your jeans fit.
This is a discussion for another day, but if that one small number can turn your day for better or worse; you’ve got an unhealthy interpretation of what your weight actually means.
Eating to support a lifestyle where you perform at your best in training & spend your day moving about (without feeling like the walking dead), will actually help you create it.
Our body responds to calorie restriction by decreasing the energy we expend, but equally it can increase the energy we expend when we bring calories back up. Magic eh?
The solution is to bring your energy intake back up to calorie maintenance, and stay there for 10-14+ days. You’re gonna gain a little weight, I can guarantee that. It’s matter of taking one step back, so you can take 3 steps forward.
Physiologically, there are no drawback to increasing your calories straight back to energy maintenance Vs small weekly increases. That’s assuming you know what your maintenance calorie intake should be.
This is a very big assumption in itself. Unless you were tracking energy intake while you were keeping your weight the exact same, all you have is your best guess. In most cases, we usually only start tracking calories when we want to lose weight.
Psychologically, there are a lot of benefits to slowly increasing calories, especially is you have any concerns around increasing energy intake, and the effect it may have on your weight.
One very important point to consider; you could easily add in an extra few hundred calories, to the point where you’re eating more than you thought was possible, your weight is maintaining, and your feeling like you have more energy. Great news.
BUT, it is still possible that you haven’t quite reached calorie maintenance yet. You’ve just created less of a deficit.
From here, you might think you’re good to go with another dieting phase. You start to restrict calories again, without actually giving your body a chance to fully recover. Aaaaand you end up in the exact same situation you were before. Shit.
This is partly where the benefit of small increases can come in; we can bump up calories, while avoiding big jumps in weight. If you have hesitations or concerns about increasing calorie intake, this will help you adhere to the process for far longer.
But, it comes back to what you prefer. If you can cope with an immediate jump back to calorie maintenance, go for it. If you think a jump on the scales would be too much for you to handle, go for the incremental approach instead
(Although, if a change on the scales does concern you, to the point that it dictates what you eat, that’s another issue in itself.)
The More Plausible Explanation (Read This!!)
The points above are a possible explanation of why you may have stopped losing body fat, but it’s not the only one.
There’s also the VERY likely possibility that you’re simply underestimating the amount of calories you’re consuming, or overestimating the amount of energy you’re expending. People instinctively think they’re great, and in all honestly, they HUGELY over estimate the amount of calories they think they use during a workout. We all need to get over ourselves.
I always find people shy away from this point, I can almost see my words go in one ear and out the other. Regardless of how diligently you have been tracking your Food intake, there’s is always still the chance that the software (or you yourself) is estimating incorrectly. In nutrition, all we ever have is estimates & guesswork, there are no definites. Just FYI, that food tracking app on your phone isn’t nearly as reliable as you think.
The Elephant in the Room
Let’s take a minute to address the Elephant in the room. Food Binges.
For some reason, whether it’s selective amnesia, denial (a river in fucking Food Diaries), or just plain ignorance; a majority of dieters who massively restrict calories seem to fail to acknowledge their food binges.
I don’t care who you think you are, we’re all human, and given the right circumstances we can all break.
Chronically restricting calories will lead to the adaptations mentioned up above, so if you carried on eating the same, your body wouldn’t change. BUT, when you couple this with intermittent weekend nights-out, takeaways, dinners & lunches; you’re bring your calories up and over maintenance, leading to weight gain.
I’m not saying that you can’t have these things (you can), but your nutritional strategy needs to allow you scope to do this. If you’re maintaining at 1000 calories a day, your entire calorie intake could be consumed in one meal with the family. Whereas, if you’re maintaining at 1800-2000 calories; you can literally have your cake and eat it. While creating a fat loss effect with clever choices during the rest of the day.
Next time you experience a binge, face it head on, avoid ignoring it. Write down every scrap of food you ate, and figure out exactly what nutrients you consumed. Spend time reflecting on whether this could genuinely be the cause of any weight gain (or lack of weight loss).
Next, figure out exactly what drove you to the point that you needed to binge. I’d be willing to bet it was the nutritional approach you’re using in the first place (not lack of willpower).
- Is your approach too restrictive?
- Do the times of day that you’re trying to eat suit you?
- Are you enjoying the food you are eating?
- Do you feel like you have too little energy?
All of these questions should be considered, and they should all be respected with whatever strategy you use moving forward. It’s never just a case of pulling more willpower out of your ass, it’s far easier to use a strategy that requires less willpower.
Well done if you’ve made it this far, and for anyone who skimmed straight to the end, this should sum it all up;
- Creating an Energy Deficit is the number 1 factor to consider in weight loss & fat loss. Magic pills & weight loss shakes won’t change that, no matter how good the marketing may be.
- If you think you’re in a calorie deficit, and your weight isn’t shifting; it usually means you’re not actually in a deficit.
- This is usually because you’re underestimating energy intake, or overestimating energy output. Remember, energy out can change as we drop calories.
- Taking diet breaks, where we come back up to energy maintenance, gives us far greater scope to create a weight loss effect long-term (Energy Out follows Energy In).
- Minimise Restriction, and practice moderation. When you enjoy the food you’re eating, you won’t need to rely on nearly as much willpower, making intermittent binges far less likely.