Today’s misguided obsession with “workout more and eat less” is missing the point entirely. As a certified strength and conditioning specialist, I am perpetually amazed by the number of health-seeking individuals who have been chronically undereating for years—literally years!—in the seemingly hopeless pursuit to lose fat.
Let’s clear something up: fat loss is not hopeless.
It’s actually quite simple! Just as gaining mass entails a caloric surplus, losing fat entails a caloric deficit. That’s all.
The complication, however, lies more in a basic misunderstanding of when and how to exit a calorie deficit. Think about this scenario I’ve seen far too often in my work. You reduce calories to lose weight, whether by tracking macros, cutting carbs, going paleo, etc. You experience some initial weight loss, which encourages you to double down. Maybe you even start doubling up on workouts and skip rest days. Soon enough, you flatline. So you diet harder. Cut more calories. Workout for longer. Next thing you know, you start gaining the weight back. What gives? You’ve been working your tail off and find yourself back at ground zero.
Sound familiar? Here’s why that’s happening. During a dieting phase, our metabolic and hormonal functions all downregulate. When we chronically under-eat by entering a deficit for longer than 12 weeks or so, our metabolisms adapt and run much slower in an effort to preserve energy, making it much easier to pack weight back on whenever we eat past our lower, recalibrated caloric floor.
It’s a fight-or-flight response and defense mechanism, and unfortunately, we can’t outsmart our bodies’ physiology.
As easy as it might be to chalk that incredibly frustrating scenario up to “genetics” or “age,” a primary problem lies in the dramatic nature and length of that calorie deficit. For example, rather than gradually cutting calories, maybe you jumped right to the sub-1,500 calorie zone—leaving you little to no room to continue cutting calories as you metabolically adjust and plateau. Also, you might not know when to reverse out of those calorie-reduced periods into a maintenance phase so that you can hang on to those initial results. Even if you have more progress to make, I never recommend sitting in a calorie deficit for longer than 12 weeks before initiating a maintenance phase for an equal or greater amount of time.
Here are some common signs that might indicate you’ve been dieting too hard for too long, and may benefit from a maintenance phase:
- You’re hitting a plateau in your progress that you can’t shake regardless of calorie adjustments, adhering to your diet protocol, managing stress, etc.
- You feel consistently sluggish and weak during your workouts, or you’re not recovering well and feel constant fatigue and soreness after workouts.
- You have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, or you can barely remember the last time you got a solid night of 7-8+ hours of sleep.
- You’re experiencing ongoing mood swings and feeling mentally foggy.
- You hermit yourself from social events out of fear of going overboard on “bad” foods even though you know that food is food and doesn’t need to have morality attached to it.
- You’ve been perpetually dieting in pursuit of weight loss, jumping from one trend to the next without ever having eaten at maintenance
Hey, you’ve got a specific body composition goal in mind—and there’s no shame in that game! But patience and periodization in your nutrition approach will be critical in your long term success. So try a maintenance phase that’s close to the time you’ve recently spent at a caloric deficit, then hit it hard again and see if you can get off that plateau.
We all want results tomorrow but remember: the overnight results are rarely the ones that stick around.
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