This post is going to be straight to the point and may be a gut check for some of you. There may be some very obvious points but I just want to make them clear to everyone in hopes that you will self-assess your own actions. Besides, it’s all about getting better, right?
There’s a difference between losing weight and losing body fat which is why I used the term “leaner.” Most people want to get leaner or at least maintain their level of leanness for obvious health and physical performance reasons. Perhaps you’ve had some trouble doing so despite your efforts of “eating clean,” going to the gym a few days a week, and taking the latest supplements that Dr. Oz is promoting on television.
But first let me explain…
1. You Eat Too Much or Don’t Eat Enough
Calories count. It’s just science. The “calories in, calories out” saying is explained HERE.
If you sustain a net positive energy balance in terms of caloric consumption, you will gain weight. If you sustain a net negative energy balance, you will lose weight. Some of that weight gain or loss will be body fat, some may be lean body mass, or it could be a little of both. This largely depends on a lot of other factors such as the macronutrient composition of your diet (proteins, carbs, and fats), mode of preferred exercise (aerobic training vs resistance training and how much of each), and genetic & metabolic factors.
I’d recommend keeping a highly detailed food log while being as precise as possible. Apps like My Fitness Pal are very comprehensive and best of all, it’s FREE! There is a large margin of error to self-reporting calorie intake, however, studies show it leads to better awareness and may even help to keep weight off in the long-term.
More often than not during a consultation, people tell me they’ve noticed a gain in total body weight over the span of a few months. Since diet is the number one factor that effects body composition, it’s likely safe to assume that your food intake has increased to your proportion of overall activity (in most cases).
Conversely, you can severely under eat and lose weight rapidly (at first). This is something I see frequently and often times with my female clients that have eaten this way for an extended period of time. They get to a point where the weight loss ceases and then become discouraged. While establishing a caloric deficit is absolutely paramount to losing any amount of weight or body fat, you can also set a very drastic deficit as well. In doing so, the consequences may be higher.
You may drop weight rapidly in the beginning but at what cost? The longer you diet while in a severe deficit, the more rapidly your metabolism slows down. Your weight may not change much at this point because you have to remember there are other tissues in the body that rely on sufficient amounts of fuel to perform optimally. Exercise performance, recovery, and intensity typically suffers from large caloric deficits which also means you’re likely losing muscle. This is no bueno.
During prolonged periods of weight loss or caloric restriction, your metabolism slows down. The lighter your total bodyweight, the less energy your body expends during rest and physical activity. Part of this is due to adaptive thermogenesis which is an adaptive component triggered by changes in environmental factors such negative energy balance or positive energy balance.
Generally speaking, when you’re lighter your body tends to move less thus not burning as many calories. This is part of the reason why people hit plateaus when dieting with the intent of losing weight. Exercising can then be counter productive if energy supply is insufficient because you have to support your body’s energy demands plus the demands from planned physical activity.
The opposite does not always apply, unfortunately. Increasing calories may make you move a LITTLE more but the increase in calorie intake sometimes does not exceed the increase in Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).
Depending on how fast a rate of weight-loss or fat-loss you want will determine how much of a deficit you should create. Experiment with these VERY general calculations to find what works best for you:
Calorie Requirements for Fat Loss: Multiply ~9-13 calories x bodyweight. If you’re significantly overweight, try using your lean body mass instead of total bodyweight. If you are a relatively smaller individual, use the lower end.
Calorie Requirements for weight Maintenance/Recomposition: ~14-16 calories x lean bodyweight.
Calorie Requirements for Weight/Muscle Gain: ~16+ calories x lean bodyweight.
Again, these are very general calculations but feel free to give them a shot and make adjustments as necessary.
2. Not Enough Exercise
Notice I didn’t say physical activity. Exercise is something that is planned, structured, and routine in nature. It is typically accompanied with some set of goals, sometimes realistic, often not in my profession. This is where most people get in trouble because they don’t expend enough energy via vigorous or even moderate effort exercise for several or more hours out of the week.
Burn more energy than you consume, you lose weight. If you’re someone that refuses to track their food intake, try adding more exercise into your daily routine for a week or two without changing your diet and monitoring all changes in your body composition. It can be one extra day of lower to moderate intensity activity. Call it a self experiment.
Track the results. If no changes, go back to the drawing board.
If you saw positive changes, you’re on to something. KEEP GOING!
3. Not Enough Activity
This is kind of a caveat to number two. Maybe you make it into the gym regularly and have a pretty good grasp on diet BUT you’re missing that little extra activity to offset your weekly energy output. This is where I get in trouble myself. I monitor MOST things that I eat via My Fitness Pal. What I drink however, is another story if you know what I mean (insert Kanye Shrug).
I get it. Sometimes the weekends get the best of you due to unexpected situations or unplanned events. This is where that little extra work comes into handy to keep you ahead of the game.
It could be something as simple as going for a brisk walk, riding your bike, taking the stairs into work everyday, jumping rope between sets at the gym, or getting up out of your desk and doing some light exercises at work every hour on the hour (hint) just to move around. Every bit goes a long way in the grand scheme of things. Make a move.
On the other hand, the intensity of exercise tends to blunt hunger, which could further create an energy deficit and cause you to move less in the post-exercise period. Again, adaptive thermogenesis. Have you ever trained so intensely that afterward you just had to sit, chill, and think about your life? There ya go. Keep moving and make sure energy intake is sufficient.
4. Not Lifting Frequently
Everyone wants to be leaner but some aren’t willing to put in the extra effort to get there. Muscle definition doesn’t just appear overnight. It is forged through weight-bearing activity in a repetitive, progressive, and structured manner. This is how you “trade” body fat for fat-free mass especially if you are new to weight training (I didn’t want to say muscle so the ladies wouldn’t think “bulky” or “toned”).
Example scenario: you’re a 5’6″ female weighing in at 150lbs and you get your body fat percentage taken and the results read that you are 30% body fat. This means your lean weight or fat-free mass is approximately 105lbs…yes, roughly 45lbs of that is body fat.
The question to now ask is, “How do I reduce that body fat percentage?”
The answer: YOU NEED TO LIFT! Seriously though. Nutrition will always be number one but the benefits of weight training will be far more rewarding in the long run.
Set some realistic short-term goals and get after it. Get your nutrition dialed in and follow a structured exercise program at least 3 days per week for starters and watch the pounds drop and the body fat percentage decrease!
5. Not Regarding Macronutrient Intake
This is arguably just as important as finding the appropriate amount of calories to consume on a daily basis. If you’re not familiar with macronutrients, I’m referring to food items that are considered to be sources of protein, carbs, and fats. You should have a range of target macronutrient numbers to hit on a daily basis if you have any sort of aesthetic goal, performance goal, or health improvement goal.
How does one go about doing this? After establishing your target calorie range based on your goal, which is step one (see above), you then set your daily protein intake based on your total body weight. If you’re a leaner individual, aim for around a gram per pound of bodyweight. If you’re a heavier individual, try to figure out your lean bodyweight and base your protein needs on that number. However, I would err on the higher side of the protein intake to blunt hunger and stay satiated.
Remember, that for each gram of protein, it is equal to roughly 4 calories. The research that’s available suggests that a range between 0.8g/lb of lean bodyweight up to ~1.5g/lb of lean bodyweight tends to do the trick. However, this range largely varies depending on type of activity you engage in, duration of activity, intensity of the activity, and severity of your caloric deficit.
To be more clear, endurance athletes should be putting more of an emphasis on carbs and fats so they would fall toward the lower end of protein needs. Professional athletes with high energy demands would likely fall somewhere in the middle of the protein continuum and should emphasize carbohydrates and/or fats depending on preference. The average person trying to improve their physique via weight training should lean more toward one gram per pound of lean bodyweight although I like to go slightly over just to make sure no muscle loss is occurring from dieting and to remain satiated. If you are in a severe deficit from being in the last stages of dieting for a bodybuilding competition, then you’d likely want to aim for the higher end of that range. Again, this is all case dependent.
Next in the hierarchy is establishing your daily fat intake. Most mainstream textbooks will suggest a range somewhere between 15%-30% of your total daily calories. Fat is the most energy dense macronutrient weighing in at around 9 calories per gram. You need dietary fat for functions that are far beyond the scope of this article such as cellular processes and hormonal balance. I’ll leave it at that.
You should have a fairly balanced mix of all types of fat from various sources such as monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fat. Trans fat is tolerable in small amounts but you should definitely make an effort to avoid it due to the fact that chronic overconsumption has detrimental effects on health.
Once you’ve figured out your target protein and fat, the only thing left from here is to fill in your remaining calories with carbs based on personal preference. For each gram of carbs, you need to multiply 4 calories per gram. I recommend a variety of tolerable carb sources from beans, fruit, veggies, pastas, rice, cereals, and breads. Try to make sure to include fibrous sources on the reg as fiber is also a contributor in the world of weight loss due to its satiating and thermogenic effects.
Use these 5 Steps as checkpoints or reassessment tools to keep yourself accountable and make continued progress. Maybe you’re lacking in one area or several. Your greatest competition is yourself so you have to adhere to the game plan and stay consistent. Be patient and good things will happen. Best of luck!