There's tons of questions and frustrations around trying to figure out what's actually important for fat-loss. Some of the questions I get frequently include:
Whether you want to drop a size or few, level up your health, feel more energized or simply feel more comfortable in your skin chances are that path has taken you down the road of thinking about fat-loss at some point.
Realistically I've met very few adults who haven't tried to lose weight.
So consequently it's often a common practice to chatter among friends, family and coworkers about what approaches worked and what didn't.
Now this can be useful occasionally for moral support, but more often than not it's also a cluster f*ck of confusing principles taken from personal experience.
Why is that?
Well mostly because a lot of approaches can work if they satisfy the most important rule of the equation. Everything else comes down to individual preferences.
Now let me note there are better approaches than others, and I definitely have a bias towards fat-loss approaches which are sustainable, prioritize health, and allow you to still enjoy the things you love. That's not what this particular article is about though.
I want to help you understand why weight-loss happens so you can focus your attention on things that actually matter and avoid wasting more of your time, effort and money on snake oil.
One Rule to Rule all weight-loss
In order to trigger fat-loss no matter what the weapon (approach) of choice it needs to satisfy the energy balance equation. Energy balance is the relationship between energy taken into our body and energy expended by our body.
ENERGY BALANCE EQUATion
Energy In (Food and Drink) - Energy Out (Body's Basic Functions (aka Basal Metabolic Rate [BMR])** + Daily Activity + Intentional Exercise) = Possible changes based on the remaining energy
**Your body's basic functions include the energy your vital organs need to function, along with things like digestion.
If there's a surplus you gain weight
If there's a deficit you lose weight.
If you break even you stay the same.
Figuring out how much energy your body burns is often where things break down when calorie counting. This makes up to a collosal 80% of your output, which means it has a huge influence but you have little to no influence on it since it happens automagically and it varies from person to person.
Not everyone's body operates at the same efficiency, and not all the time. Things like genetic factors, underlying health conditions, digestive health, and previous weight-loss attempts can modify it's output substantially.
Keep in mind this doesn't make weight-loss impossible, but it can make it more difficult in some cases.
People statistically often grossly underestimate the quantities they eat and overestimate how active they are which increases the frustration and confusion.
Your body doesn't give a sh*t about your abs, biologically speaking
It's important to understand that your body and brain prioritizes survival above everything. Bodyfat is like money in the bank, it's energy just like cash that's being saved in the event of some hard times.
Now, if you give your body some reassuring circumstances (slight deficit) and steady income (eating nutritiously regularly) it's more likely to let you spend a little (release body-fat).
If you're on the poverty line (harsh deficit and/or long fasts) and spending what you got on cheap tricks (bingeing, eating low nutrition food) it'll be much less likely to part with the precious. It'll sell what's expendable(muscle), and hoard what it's got (bodyfat).
What this means is when in a calorie deficit your body will gradually increase it's resistance to that deficit, the more aggressive the calorie deficit and amount of time in said deficit the harsher the resistance.
Things that can happen include:
The reason for this is again the body wants to conserve energy, so anything that consumes energy in a way it considers frivolous or unnecessary at the time (aka not necessary for survival) will be dialed down.
Ways to prevent this is making smaller more gradual changes over longer periods of time which you can stick to, and taking periodic dieting breaks especially if you have a significant amount you wish to lose. This is the essence of habit based coaching which I practice.
Common challenges with fat-loss
I eat 1200 calories why am I not losing weight?
Unfortunately you're likely not. I mentioned that people grossly underestimate the amount they eat above.
Often this is because we don't accurately measure what we're eating, and we don't count those little bites, snacks, and sips that accumulate throughout the day and week.
There's also often a "f*ck it" calorie bomb meal or few that make it into the week that we assume has little to no impact.
Please know that I understand you're trying hard, and I completely understand how unbelievably frustrating that can be. Especially when you feel especially deprived and that you've pulled out all the stops.
A common strategy I'd use for this complete a written log of everything (I mean every single thing) you ate and drank for a week. If you want to be absolutely sure, weigh it on a food scale and track in a calorie calculator like myfitnesspal. If you still can't explain it, feel free to reach out, and I also wouldn't hesitate to consult with your family physician to run some bloodwork.
I've tried x diet and it's the only thing that worked for me, cutting calories didn't.
Congratulations on your success. The thing is if a dietary approach resonates with you that's great. It was able to accomplish a calorie deficit which triggered fat-loss in a way that worked for you and your lifestyle.
This is the great thing about having options that work. There's always some that fit better than others for you specifically. That's a lot of what I do with my clients is tailor an approach which makes sense for them.
I can't lose weight when I eat carbs
The more body-fat we have available the less efficient our body is at using carbohydrates efficiently. So that can make the fat-loss process slower but not impossible.
It's also more difficult at times to gauge or stick to appropriate portions with some higher carbohydrate foods, think bread, pasta, pastries and desserts. Also how carbs are cooked can have an impact on our ability to reel these in.
Think about a boiled potato or a plain baked potato vs french fries. Which one are you gonna eat more of?
I eat pretty well, except I can't stop snacking though I don't feel like I'm eating alot
You're not alone in this one. Our brain also uses foods to satisfy our emotional or habitual needs such as boredom, stress, sadness, anger, and even happiness.
Each sip, snack and bite throughout the day added to our regular eating patterns adds up.
If our body is already less than efficient at using calories that can put you in a tough spot for your fat-loss efforts. Part of the reason I focus so much on habits in my coaching practice is because these things have to be addressed in order for any long term success to be had.
There is no magic weight-loss diet
Weight watchers is the most popular fat-loss system ever created. To a degree it's because it works fairly consistently for those who commit to it.
It doesn't do anything special, that's what makes it work.
Yes, you read that right.
You see it just simplifies the principle of energy balance into a point system and allots a number of points to stay within. If the point limit is low enough to provide a calorie deficit you have weight-loss success.
Going vegetarian or vegan is another approach which often times seems to bring magical transformation. The thing about vegetarian foods is they tend to be less calorie dense than their meat counterparts. As long as portions stay in check then you get weight-loss success.
Keto or low carb diets are back in force from the late 80's when it was popularized by Atkins among others and again has people believing it's magic. The reality is it's hard to overeat lean meats and veggies. So as long as one sticks to meat and vegetables as the majority of their intake it often translates to less calories eaten than normally, and you guessed it: weight-loss success.
Gluten Free and Paleo is another approach which comes with it's own tribe. More and more people have developed a sensitivity to certain foods, and digestive challenges. Removing food allergens can improve digestion and consequently digested calories can be used more efficiently. Along with this is a greater attention to what foods are being eaten, so less processed foods and more nutrient dense fibrous foods often moves many into a calorie deficit.
These are just a few examples, these and many other approaches can work and work well for different individuals. They also fail for their own individual reasons which often comes down to sustainability, health, and simplicity. In other words can you do it forever, while living your life, and having other people in it, in a lot of cases that's a solid no.
What often happens is you might use a diet as a tool to lose weight but if you cannot sustain that approach and if you haven't established a baseline of habits that still allow you to maintain your weight-loss than you regain said weight.
Why? Because your body gives zero f*cks about your abs and wants to go back to those cash rich days.
The fat-loss hierarchy of importance
So if you're with me so far, you might be asking what actually matters for fat-loss? From a practical standpoint there are three factors that would guide my decisions in order of importance:
Energy Balance (Calories in and Out)
By now I hope you understand this is the head honcho.
Macros (How those calories are broken down, protein, fats, carbohydrates)
The ratio of calorie types we eat (protein, fat, and carbs) determines how our body deals with weight-loss.
Higher protein dietary approaches will generally make weight-loss easier, and allow you to retain more muscle versus fat.
Fat and carbohydrates are both energy to your body just in different forms, so they are generally interchangeable. Some people react better to different ratios of one over the other.
By react I don't just mean body composition, other factors include blood sugar management, satiety, digestion, hormonal stability, sleep, mental health, and more.
Timing (When those calories are ingested)
Eating more calories around active times like your workout can have an impact on how efficiently these are used. Also fasting for periods of time can have some interesting implications for those with digestive issues, poor blood sugar management, some form of inflammatory condition or simply just lead a lifestyle that isn't conducive to many meals (though it can't just be used as an excuse to not eat).
Stay on the lookout for another article on macros and timing and how to manipulate those for maximum effect.
Putting it together
You need to understand for now that though there are a lot of things for me as a coach to understand in order to do a great job. For you to take action it's simply about avoiding distractions and focusing on the things that have the greatest impact on your efforts.
If you're having trouble losing body fat it's knowing you're not broken, your approach might be though.
How creating a calorie deficit works in practice, some action you can take:
Stay tuned for part II of this article, and if you enjoyed this please don't forget to join the BID Collective below for more insights, tools and thoughts to put it into action.