Before we discuss why you may not be losing weight, lets quickly go over how fat loss is achieved.
Fat loss is achieved by burning more calories that we ingest, and it’s that simple.
Now there are many things that influence how many calories we burn:
BMR (basal metabolic rate):
This is the minimum amount of calories we require to maintain vital functions of the body without any movement or digestion. We can roughly calculate our BMR with a formula, but to accurately establish it, we would need to complete a 12 hour fast and motionless for an extended period of time in a laboratory setting. Staggeringly, your BMR contributes to 70% of overall calories expended though out the day.
TEF (thermic effect of feeding):
The very act of eating food increases our metabolism. Digestion, absorption and assimilation of ingested food/nutrients is an active process and thus requires energy to do so. TEF is estimated to contribute to around 10% of our energy expenditure throughout the day. This is why your typical ‘bro’ may opt for 6 to 8 meals per day, as they say it keeps the metabolism ‘revved up’ etc. But if you ingest 3,000 calories over 6 or 8 meals or over 3 to 4 meals, the amount of energy expended to digest the foods would still be the same. So eating 6 to 8 meals is not superior to 3 to 4, which I typically recommend. Protein has the highest thermic response when consumed, whilst fat has the lowest.
NEAT (non-exercise associated thermogenesis):
NEAT is the unplanned, low intensity physical activity that we perform on a daily basis. This would include walking around the office, taking care of the family, fidgeting, shopping, light labour, foot tapping, gardening etc. This component of the metabolism is the smallest contributor of daily energy expenditure, yet it’s been found to be an important indicator of weight loss or weight gain. This is the reason we tell people to increase their general activity levels!
EA (exercise activity):
The energy used to perform purposeful exercise is known as exercise activity. This can be a highly variable component of daily energy expenditure as not everyone exercises every day, and nor should they. For sedentary (low activity) people, EA can make up 10-15% (or less) of their daily energy demand. For highly active people, it can contribute to 30% or more. Anecdotally, swimming Olympic champion Michael Phelps was said to be consuming 12,000 calories per day to keep up with his heavy training demand. Many of these calories were consumed via highly dense caloric foods and drinks as eating this amount of calories in ‘clean’ food would end with some serious GI distress.
We now know that all of these things above are what makes up our TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) or metabolism:
BMR + TEF + Physical Activity (NEAT+EA) = TDEE
Simply put, the more you move, the more active your job, the higher your training demand, the more muscle mass you have (which leads to increased BMR), the more calories you’ll be able to consume to keep up with the body’s demand. On the flip side, if you’re under active, have a sedentary job, and low muscle mass, you will require less calories.
There are many formulas out there that you can use to estimate energy requirements. www.IIFYM.com is a website which you can visit and input your individual data. This will give you a rough estimate based on your age, sex, height and activity levels.
If I was to take myself as an example. I currently weigh 95kg (209lbs) and would consider myself very active, this means as a good starting point, I’d require between 2,926 and 3,344 calories to lose weight.
When it comes to fat loss, I’d recommend as least aggressive strategy possible. Drastically reducing calories and increasing exergy expenditure will get very short term results (see: http://www.2b-fit.co.uk/diets-dont-work/).
By hitting your caloric targets for 2-4 weeks, you’ll be able to see whether or not they’re appropriate. Using an app called MyFitnessPal, you are able to track the foods you eat. Of course, these are just sums to get you a ball park figure. By accurately consuming your calorie targets you’ll be able to establish whether they’re too high or too low.
Note: Aim to consume about 2g of protein per kg of weight, 1g of fat per kg of weight and the rest of your calories from carbs as a good starting point. If you’re heavily overweight, predict your lean body weight or use your target body weight to do all of the sums above, including your target calories. Depending on your activity levels, personal preferences and body type, you may opt for a higher fat/lower carbs diet or vice versa.
You have to understand that you must be honest with yourself when it comes to ingesting calories. Despite what your local slimming club leader says, there is no such thing as ‘free foods’, all foods contain calories which are made up of macronutrients (carbs, protein & fat) and micronutrients (vitamins & minerals). This means you must be accountable for all the food you consume.
Some foods contain high levels of calories (calorie dense) and low nutrients per volume of food (E.g. processed foods such as donuts, pop tarts, cake etc.) Some foods contain high amounts of nutrients (nutrient dense) and low calories per volume of food (E.g. Spinach, salad foods, some fruits etc.) Some foods can contain both high calories and nutrients (E.g. Nuts, oily fish, etc. typically high fat, but natural foods).
As you can imagine, it’s far easier to overeat on calorie dense foods, however, an overeat on ‘clean’ foods can easily be done, especially consuming nuts and eating coconut oil like Winnie the Pooh eats honey. 5,000 calories of ‘clean’ food is still 5,000 calories, it’s just more difficult to overeat on nutrient dense foods like vegetables and lean meats as they offer increased satiety and overall volume compared with high calorie dense food. This is why we recommend consuming 80-90% of your diet from whole, single ingredient foods and the other 10-20% from whatever takes your fancy, so long as overall calories targets are met by the end of the day.
Under reporting the foods you've eaten can go a long way in either being in a caloric surplus or at maintenance. It is important to take into account the weekends too; this is the time when people typically relax a little with their nutritional choices.
For example, if an individual needed 2,000 calories to maintain weight, creating a deficit of around 500 calories per day would allow fat loss of around 1lb per week. Here’s why your typical weekend warrior may struggle with fat loss:
Monday to Thursday: Average 1,500 calories per day
Friday, Saturday & Sunday: Normal food, plus drinks, possible take away. Average: 3,000-5000 calories per day (sometimes more)
Monday: Cycle starts over
This maybe an extreme example, but it's to illustrate that over consuming calories can easily happen, especially with alcohol thrown in the mix.
In the case above, if this person requires 2,000 calories on average to maintain weight, having roughly 500 calories deficit should result in a steady fat loss. 1,500 x 7 = 10,500 calories for the week. Let’s say you went nuts on a weekend and had 3,000 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, this would result in consuming a weekly intake of 15,000 over the week (4 x 1,500) + (3 x 3,000) = 15,000. Remember, maintenance was 2,000 per day for this person which is 14,000 per week. They’d actually be in a 1,000 caloric surplus and weight gain could be a result.
The problem with calories is that they’re everywhere and quite often they can go unchecked. Have you ever eaten a packet of crisps whist watching a film and went to take another handful to realise there are none left? Maybe those spreads or oils go unchecked, that glass of wine, one or two sweets, a couple of cans of coke a day, the calories soon mount up. Habits can usually dictate our overall caloric intake. Many people find it easier dieting during the week as they have more structure because of their job. The weekend comes and routines from the week are usually lost. Less planning is done, the diet that is followed during the week is boring or hard, and the weekend is seen as an opportunity to relax and enjoy the foods that are usually off limits.
To track or not to track?
Every diet system has its drawbacks, I’m a huge advocate of IIFYM but I can see why people can see it being a pain in the neck. Personally, I find it works for me, I enjoy it and through time and practice, it gets easier and easier. It allows me to enjoy a variety of foods and ensures I eat the amount of calories I need to look and feel good. It’s also known as flexible dieting, so I don’t always track. There are times I don’t track but due to being so familiar with the principles, I can easily eat intuitively and roughly estimate the calorie value of a plate of food allowing the freedom to socialise without ruining my goals.
Many coaches will tell you calories aren’t important, but if they weren’t, why would all of the foods we eat contain them and why would our body use them for energy? Unfortunately, they do matter, and every fat loss system out there is designed to do one thing: KEEP CALORIES IN CHECK. Fat loss sells, so of course, as a consumer, you want the quickest, cheapest, least time consuming option available. So ‘Mr Calories don’t matter’ will sell you on this. The sale pitch coupled with some before and after photos: SOLD! The issue with IIFYM is it puts responsibility on to the individual, and it takes a great deal of time to learn it whereas following an A4 sheet of paper takes no thought what so ever.
To be blunt, people need to accept responsibility for their own health & body composition and stop looking for scapegoats to justify their current situations.
The tracking of calories can be flawed in itself. The numbers on the labels don’t actually take into account what is properly digested and assimilated. A healthy digestive tract is capable of digesting and absorbing about 97% of the food we eat (Note: The rate of absorption can be compromised when gut health is sub-optimal due to things like IBS, celiac disease, food poisoning, food intolerances and more). Another issue is whether or not the information on the label is correct in the first place. This is why it’s important not to be too anal with measurements and calorie counting.
People can also track calories very inaccurately. Guesstimating the amount of food on your plate may get you somewhere to a certain degree, but when progress stalls, being a little more meticulous will go a long way. Weighing food is something I do and recommend to others, it isn’t as big of a pain as you think it is. By measuring your food, you’ll be able to accurately see the caloric values of food and over time become better at guesstimating the values of food when you’re not tracking (which you don’t always have to do).
Another issue is that people simply don’t log all of the food they consume. I recommend either pre logging or logging straight after your meal to ensure you’re as accurate as possible. In the early days of flexible dieting, I would prepare my entire next days’ worth of food. However, now that I’m a IIFYM ninja, I can log very effectively as I go and ensure my calorie/macro targets are hit by the end of the day.
The incorrect logging of foods can also be a huge flaw in this method of dieting. Some people have simply not inserted the data correctly into MFP. I recommend double checking on the packet when you use the barcode scanner to see of the data matches up, if not, you can simply add the food manually. This is also handy as it is likely that you’ll be eating that food again in the future and you’ll know it’s accurate. Also, consider cooked vs. uncooked foods. Rice is a great example, by accidently logging raw rice as cooked rice, this can make a huge difference in the amount of calories consumed.
Now IIFYM doesn’t work with everyone, not everyone has time to be so meticulous. But, despite our time restraints, our busy schedules or our excuses, we can’t deny the laws of thermodynamics and human metabolism:
In order to lose weight/fat, you must burn more calories than you take in.
So which ever system you follow, ask yourself whether it’s moving you towards your goal, are you in a caloric deficit (shown though fat loss), is it sustainable (does it fit in with your lifestyle, job, social standing etc.), and is it enjoyable? What do I do when progress/fat loss stalls?
Inevitably fat loss will stall through adaptations taking place, your body will simply not allow you to diet yourself to death. When fat loss stalls, we need to create another deficit, this can be done through reducing calories again or expending more energy. The best way to do this is by making all of the variables obvious, how many calories are you eating, how often do you train? How much cardio do you perform? How active is your lifestyle?
If it’s measured, then it’s managed!
So before you blame a ‘slow metabolism’, ensure that you’re being honest with your caloric intake. Here’s quite an interesting video I stumbled upon so I thought I’d share it:
Yes, you genuinely could have some underlying hormonal issues. If you truly believe this is the case, my best advice would be to speak to your doctor who would then refer you to an endocrinologist who would see if there are any problems and prescribe medication to resolve the issue. But before booking an appointment, it could be wise to spend a little time doing some of your own experimenting using some of the examples I’ve written in this article.
Another thing to consider is whether you have been in a calorie deficit for too long. Our body is always striving for homeostasis or balance. As mentioned above, the human body will not allow you to diet itself to death and will try to sustain life any way possible. A cascade of issues can be a result of being too aggressive when it comes to dieting, ladies can lose their periods, and gentleman can lose their sex drive (and trust me, this happens). Ultimately, your body will slow down to stop your efforts in fat loss by shutting off or lowering all non-essential functions. BMR will be lowered, the amount of energy expended during training will be lowered, you’ll move less in general, everything will feel like a huge chore, and as a result, health will suffer and fat loss will cease. It’s not only the physical demand that is hard, but the psychological can be even worse, paired with social media throwing 8 packs in our face every 2 minutes, it can lead to depression, obsessive behaviour and possibly even worse, an eating disorder. Unfortunately, even using flexible dieting, people such as myself can end up in these situations when dieting to extreme levels, such as for a competition for example. It must be remembered, getting into this condition takes a long time, hard work, a solid foundation to start from and a huge amount of dedication.
If this sounds like you, it could be a case of spending a good 3 to 6 months, or maybe longer forgetting about fat loss (which people don’t want to hear) and working calories back up to maintenance levels and spend some time being in balance. This holds true even if you’re not at your target weight yet. Now I’m not going to utter the word ‘metabolic damage’ because all of the ‘bros’ hate this and I’ll get all sorts of backlash, but if you’re truly eating 1,000 calories per day, training every day, and not losing weight or still overweight, then something’s not right and you could be 'metabolically suppressed'. You’re either not tracking correctly (as explained earlier) or adaptations have taken place. Those that do tend to be in a long deficit are increasingly likely to binge followed immediately by restriction, which is possibly the worst thing you can do to prevent fat mass. By reducing the overall stress on the body by slowly increasing food intake and gradually reducing training volume (if really high), this can work wonders. Why do you think bodybuilders have an ‘off-season’? This time is used to build muscle, to be a little more relaxed on their diet and enjoy their life before going into another fat loss phase. Fair enough, if you’re a sponsored athlete and your income relies on being near enough shredded year round, then you have a pretty big incentive. You have to remember that it’s their job, they are professionals, they’ll know their own bodies and have outstanding habits in place to preserve their look. Plus, take into consideration whether they are taking drugs, whether the pictures have been highly edited or whether all of the photos you are obsessing over were taken during the one week out of the year they were shredded, because believe me, all of these things happen.
Ideally, everyone would be eating intuitively, everyone would be able to eat the correct amount of food and enough nutrient dense food to promote health, performance and energy levels. We wouldn’t be over stimulated, under nourished, over stressed and under recovered (which is another blog in itself). The world is pretty broken from a nutritional & physical activity point of view, leaving us to rely on dietary systems because of the diverse food options we now have on offer. Regardless of whether or not you’re using flexible dieting as your fat loss system, there will need to be a certain amount of restriction in place as calories need to be in a deficit in order to lose fat.
We live in a society where it’s actually becoming increasingly harder to be healthy. Our perceptions have changed of what being ‘healthy’ is and quite often, the health side of ‘health & fitness’ is lost by trying to achieve the perfect body. People must understand that looking like a fitness model is a goal that should not to be taken lightly, it can take years to build the necessary muscle mass. There is nothing wrong with striving to become better, I never expected to be a bodybuilding champion when I first entered the gym 10 years ago, I just took each day as it came and eventually got to a place where it was a possibility to even compete. Along the way I’d set myself little bench marks to reach, these goals would challenge me and take some time, but they were achievable. As each goal was accomplished, I’d set another.
In the end, you need to experiment with different systems and come up with a plan that works for you. Most importantly, be honest with yourself!
If you feel as though need help with this, why not try our coaching system where we can teach you to live a healthier, happier life.
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