No this isn't an article about guns. Or Predator. Sorry.
This is a semi-follow up to the article I wrote on Tony Gentilcore's site regarding how to assess and address a client who is not losing weight, despite a low calorie diet. I wanted to go into short detail on how I might start addressing the issues, and even increase calories slowly over time. However, before that, there are critical steps that need to be taken and addressed before jumping too far ahead so I'll recap those first to show the logical progression.
While I understand that A. not every client is 100% truthful in their dietary recall and B. even if they think they are telling the truth, they may be underestimating their portion sizes, there does exist a certain group of people who are eating a calorie deficit yet not really seeing any results in fat loss.
While not everyone agreed with my statement, or possibly misinterpreted my intentions, I believe there does exist a time and place for having a client eat more before having them eat less. Often, increasing protein results in an initial rise in overall calories but may quickly lead to a calorie deficit as the client may be so full from protein that they instinctively eat less fat and carbs. Also, simply having a client ditch their “guesstimations” and follow your advice may get them to eat less despite the fact that 5 servings of veggies and 130g protein sounds like more........only because they did not realize that a cupped palm of rice is measure on their hand, not Andre the Giants'.
Do This! Step 1
Jokes aside, whenever trying to adjust body-fat levels (I am assuming you don't want to lose just general weight (i.e muscle, bone, organ tissue etc), you need a baseline. Maybe it's 1200 calories a day, maybe it's 4000 calories a day. Whatever you do, you need to find out what you are eating now and hold that as your constant. You can do a few things to get there:
- Measure food servings by hand and eat according amounts at each meal
- Track macronutrient (macro's) amounts of fat, protein and carbs
- Count calories
Counting calories is just infuriating and micromanaging at its worst. If you were really trying to be specific and exact, maybe you could go down that road but I don't think it is necessary. That leaves counting macro's or just going by portion sizes. If you go by macro's, the best way is just to eat normally and plug everything in to My Fitness Pal or some other program. Do this for a few days and see what you are eating in grams of protein, fat and carbohydrates. Now you know your baseline or thereabouts, assuming your weight has been constant in the last couple of weeks.
If you choose to measure by hand sizes such as palms of protein, thumbs of fat etc. you would just start eating a baseline recommendation of each at your meals (such as palm of protein, thumb of fat and 1 fist of veggies) and provided you did not instantly gain or lose body-fat, that would be your base. If you DID start gaining/losing from the get-go, that would be an indicator that you are slightly above or below your baseline and some common sense would tell you slightly less/more food would get you to a maintenance weight. Obviously if this approach automatically leads to body-fat loss, why change anything? I would just keep on truckin' until that approach stops working. If you gained weight though, a small decrease in your portion sizes here and there would probably level you out.
This is a critically important, and often skipped, first step. Would you make a bank withdrawal without knowing your general balance? Randomly picking a calorie amount and trying to eat that everyday doesn't make sense, either.
Now Do This! Step 2
Talk to the Hand
So you've found a good maintenance point and want to move forward. Hold it there, bub. There is no reason to address finer points like nutrient timing, meal frequency, fasting, Green Coffee Bean Extract, sweet potatoes vs white potatoes and so on if you aren't doing the following:
So, to bring back the favorite saying of the kids on my school bus in the 90s, you can talk to my hand if....
You aren't eating enough protein
Your aren't eating enough vegetables
Your aren't drinking enough water
You aren't getting enough sleep
I am sure there are a few others but this really needs to be nailed down before anything else. I guarantee if you aren't meeting any of the criteria above, you don't have business thinking about post-workout nutrition, carb timing, peanut butter vs almond butter or whatever. Simply addressing these 4 things can do wonders.
This is a great first step and can often get things moving in the right direction. Sure, you might need more or less carbs than someone else, you might not eat red meat and fish so you'll need a decent protein powder or your life is so stressful that 6 hours of sleep per night is the most you'll get during the week. Don't ignore these things specific to YOU, but definitely address the above list first.
I'm at Maintenance, So Now What? Step 3
Great, you logged your food and found out what you were eating. You adjusted so you were eating enough protein, veggies and drinking enough water. Maybe that got some results for a month but since then things have stopped. Now we can take an 'ol gander at your protein, fat and carb amounts and adjust.
Unless someone was obese or just happened to have the ability to over-eat protein, I might adjust them down in protein intake. Telling someone who is 250lbs and 30% body-fat to eat 1g protein per pound of body weight would be overkill. Likewise, if you were 130lbs but just LOVED red meat and chicken and ate 200g protein everyday, I would definitely say back it off to a more reasonable amount. However, most people don't and won't over eat protein and once they are eating enough, there is no reason to really reduce it.
That leaves carbohydrates and fat. Remember, we all have different tolerances and metabolic preferences for certain macronutrients. History of dieting as well as activity level and type of activity all play a role in how well we tolerate and need fat and carbohydrates.
In general, although there are no hard and fast rules, if you tolerate and metabolize a lot of carbohydrates well, with no health ramifications, your fat intake will generally be lower while some who isn't very insulin sensitive and just naturally doesn't metabolize carbohydrates well will do better with more fat and less carbs. This is a generalization and subject to individuality but a good starting point.
So you really need to look at your physique, activity level, current diet and history of dieting.
Higher Carbohydrate Needs:
-Most athletes, high-volume weight training, naturally lean/thin individuals, training for sport or a competitive event or any other high volume/frequency training with a high intensity like Crossfit, bodybuilding, Strongman etc., more sympathetic dominant individuals( fidgeters, those sensitive to caffeine, nervous energy-types)
Higher Fat and Lower Carb Needs:
-Individuals with naturally higher body-fat and reduced insulin sensitivity, sedentary individuals, older clients, more parasympathetic dominant individuals (lower energy-types).
Look at the above, if you were a hard-training football player trying to go low carb, your performance and physique would likely suffer, even if calories were sufficient. In turn, trying to go high-carb and low fat while sitting on the couch day in and day out would have equal negative reactions if your carbohydrate tolerance is low. But JUST as importantly, if you had a physiological preference for carbohydrate metabolism and went low-carb, the results would also be negative. Even if calories are in check, food type for your specific person makes a huge difference, especially once you are following the 4 points on the checklist above. So don't go low carb just because you heard it works or go high carb because you heard saturated fat is bad. It all works for someone, but it might not be you.
**BONUS: If you really want to get a good handle on your “type”, here's a link to a great article explaining three general “types” and more detailed nutrition recommendation.
Recap: Unless You Know...
A. Where you are starting (maintenance) and
B. What to eat for your specific body-type, activity level and health history...
you are really just shooting from the hip. And hey, sometimes you might hit something but I'd rather aim because it might be your own foot.
Up or Down? Step 4
This statement was basically the crux of my original article. If you've followed the recommendations above and are eating a reasonable amount of food( protein, veggie, water etc) without severely neglecting one macronutrient and eating best for your type, you can consider reducing. I like to take the long, slow approach here. The reason for this is something called adaptive thermogenesis. Research has shown that even in semi-starved conditions, where calories were reduced amounts significantly below maintenance, subjects experienced a reduction in metabolic activity. Essentially, they did not lose as much weight as would be expected from the calorie deficit because their metabolisms adapted to the lower food intake and resulted in decreased energy expenditure at rest (12.6% lower) and during activity(17.6% lower) by the end of the study.
This means the body adjusted to decrease the amount of energy it expended overall so that is could off-set the semi-starvation. This is a reason why you might notice a significant decrease in body-fat if you drop 800 calories a day from your diet but after a few weeks you stall. It's better to slow it down and only drop as much as you need to to lose fat so you still have plenty of wiggle room to reduce in the future. Reducing by 25-50 grams carbs (cupped palm) or 10-20 grams of fat (1-2 thumbs) at a time and holding constant for a week is a good choice.
For instance, if you could lose fat or gain muscle by decreasing/increasing calories by 250 each day, doing so by 500 might not get you there any faster; Think of it like roasting a chicken at 350 degrees for one hour. It's cooked and still moist and juicy. Try roasting at 700 degrees for 1/2 hour to get the same results Uhhh, wait, don't......unless you like chicken like your microwaved Hot Pockets: Scorched on the outside and cold in the middle.
Moral: Sometimes slower is better.
When It's Time to Go Up: Step 5
I don't have any research, data or large case studies to say there is a rule for when you should consider increasing calories. All I can say is that if you've been eating 1200 calories a day for 3 months with no fat loss and you exercise 4 times a week, sleep well and aren't doing crazy things like entering beer-chugging competitions on the weekend, you might need a break from the calorie deficit.
At this point, it probably isn't even fair to consider it a deficit anymore because your metabolism has adapted to the lower calorie set-point and now considers that “maintenance”. That's a lousy place to be.
The good news is that your metabolism can adapt to higher calories as well. However, the rule of slow and steady applies just as much, if not more, here as well. Going from 1200 calories a day to 2000 is going to result in fat gain because now you are at an 800 calorie surplus, despite the fact that 2000 calories really isn't a whole lot. Plus, your metabolism has slowed to a grind and won't be able to effectively handle a huge surplus.
How to Experiment
I've experience adaptive thermogenesis in the calorie surplus direction as well as the calorie deficit. Using myself as an example, I had suspected that after going low-carb for so many years I had gotten myself back to a decent level of insulin sensitivity and felt that long-term carbohydrate depletion was actually making things worse, rather than better. Long-term carbohydrate restriction reduces insulin sensitivity which seems fine if you want to stay low-carb forever but eventually if you want to come out of it, it takes some patience. All I did to get my carbohydrate intake up was set a baseline of protein, fat and carbs, where I was at maintenance. I knew since I wanted my carbs higher, I did not also want very high dietary fat, so I kept it moderate from the start.
I simply increased carbs by 25-50 grams per day and held that constant for at least a week to see what happened. I went from 150g carbs a day to 200, to 225 to 250 with no body-fat increase. In fact, at 250g carbs a day, I experience a few pounds of fat loss, leading me to believe (all circumstantial) that this was a pretty good baseline amount of carbohydrates for me. I continued to increase this way until I got myself to 300g carbs a day with no fat gain.
This represents weeks of small, measured increases. It also represents a total increase of about 600 calories worth of carbohydrates; I will admit that I probably was at the lower end of maintenance when I started because I reduced my fat a little, but still this was a very successful experiment.
After my last article for Tony's site, I was contacted by a reader who was experiencing trouble with her diet in terms of fat loss She was already at a relatively low amount of calories and did not feel she could reduce any further due to her level of physical activity as well as how she felt when calories were lower. She had been at this level, about 1600 calories, for some time with no result in fat loss but concerned that increasing calories would result in fat gain.
I made the same suggestion that I used on myself above. Being smaller and eating less, I suggested smaller jumps; about 50 calories a week. This would take her from 1600 calories, to 1650 to 1700 etc, increasing by 50 calories, holding constant for a week and then increasing again if she did not experiencing fat gain. I normally don't like counting calories but this is one situation that warrants it.
I received an email a short time later saying she had worked her way from 1600 calories to 1800 and actually lost 1/2 inch on her waist! Her body had adjusted to the lower calories as maintenance but any large increases over that consistently led to some body fat gain, which prompted a return to the lower calories. Taking the time to allow her metabolism to adjust paved the way for a higher baseline calorie intake with the added bonus of losing fat around her waist.
Provided protein is sufficient, the increases would come from fat and carbohydrates. If you felt your calories were already sufficiently high and just wanted to increase carbohydrates, you could reduce fat intake slightly each time you increased carbohydrates to keep overall energy intake the same.
So you might go up by 25 grams carbs, but go down 10 grams fat or so.
Don't Skip These Steps!
Get an account of what you are eating now so you have a idea of what needs to be addressed
Address your deficiencies by correcting with sufficient protein, vegetables, water and adequate sleep
Adjust fat and carbohydrate amounts based on your leanness, activity level and individual tolerance to carbs and fats
Assess if you are eating sufficient food and not severely restricting any one macronutrient: if not, make small measured adjustments down and track for a week
If already at a long-term, low-calorie intake, consider slow, measured increases over the course of weeks and track body-fat levels and measurements as you do.
1. International Journal of Obesity (2007) 31, 204–212. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803523
2. Andrews, Ryan.(2010-2014 ) Body Type Eating.
Retrieved April 24, 2014. www.precisionnutrition.com