“We don’t have a problem losing weight. We have a problem keeping the weight off once it’s lost.”
This has become a popular discussion inside the nutrition coaching space. Honestly, it’s become one of the most focused on aspects with my nutrition coaching clients over the years as well.
Not because it’s a “hot topic,” but because it’s a serious problem that needs to be faced head on. There’s a staggering statistic showing that roughly 90% of people who lose weight will gain all of it back, if not more in the future. 90 PERCENT!
That stat doesn’t sit well with me. If you’re another coach in the nutrition space, it shouldn’t sit well with you either. Even if you’re a regular person who has lost weight or are looking to lose weight in the future, it’s something you need to be fully aware of as well.
What’s the point of going through all the work of dieting if you can’t enjoy the fruits of your labor? I blame a big part of these harsh regains on quick fix approaches, fad diets, and a lack of education.
Most want a fast approach that doesn’t take a lot of thinking. Just a simple game plan that’s going to get the weight off quick. It seems logical because there are hundreds of fitness companies preying on people’s lack of knowledge, insecurity of being overweight, and desire for a skinnier body in the next 30-60 days which gets you to dive into your pockets to handle the problem as fast as possible.
Unfortunately, this works… IN THE SHORT TERM. These detoxes, supplements, low calorie meal plans, fad diets, and other products teach you how to restrict, eat extremely low calorie, and create quick results. Although it works initially, the weight regain problem arises because you don’t learn anything that’s sustainable during the process.
So to continue making progress or maintain the result you have to continue suffering until you get to a point where you finally say “screw this” and fall back into old habits because of the overwhelming inconvenience, lack of motivation, and restriction it puts on your life.
What’s worse is the extreme protocols force your hormones that regulate hunger and cravings to go haywire, as well as beat your metabolism into the ground with the low-calorie regulations. This leaves your body in the perfect scenario to regain weight very quickly if you rebound.
In my experience, this is the biggest contributing factor to why the weight regain stat is so damn high. It’s easier to sale people on a quick fix than it is to sale them on a longer process that’s going to take education, responsible implementation, building sustainable habits, individualization, nutritional periodization, and consistency.
But if you’re looking out for yours (or your client’s) best interest, and more importantly, yours (or your client’s) long-term body composition success, they’re things that you can’t ignore. Which is why this blog is going to the lay the blueprint on how to lose the weight, but more importantly, keep it off for good… let’s get into it:
Step 1: Understanding the Effects of Energy Balance
Before you go worrying about what foods to eat, what foods to avoid, when the best times to eat are, or when the worst times to eat are, you have to understand what actually creates weight gain, weight loss, or even weight maintenance. To keep it short and simple, it comes down to your body’s overall energy balance – aka calories in vs calories out.
Eat more calories than you burn over a given amount of time, you’ll gain weight (calorie surplus).
Eat the same number of calories that you burn over a given amount time, you’ll maintain weight (calorie maintenance).
Eat less calories than you burn over a given amount of time, you’ll lose weight (calorie deficit).
Simple, right? When you break it down like this it reveals that no single food group is fattening or non-fattening, but your overall diet dictates how your body composition responds overtime. The reason any diet you’ve previously done worked isn’t because of the method it used of timed eating windows, cutting carbs, avoiding sugars, demonizing processed foods, or anything else.
It worked because it had you eating less calories than what your body burns consistently. This forces your body to use stored energy as an energy source which ultimately leads to weight loss. The “method” of the diet (restricting something) led you to adhering to the overall “principle” (calorie deficit).
Effects of A Calorie Deficit on Hormones and Metabolism
Knowing that the calorie deficit is the deciding factor to weight loss, you need to know the other effects a calorie deficit has on your body. I’ll keep this as simple as possible so it’s easy to understand.
The body doesn’t “want” to lose weight. Its main goal is to stay alive, which means the longer you stay in a calorie deficit and lose weight, the more the body will try to fight back to stop you dead in your tracks and maintain homeostasis.
You see, a calorie deficit eventually means death. VERY EXTREME example, but ultimately true. Think of your body like a burning fire.
If you don’t consistently stoke the fire with enough wood (aka food) it’ll eventually dwindle down to nothing.
If you consistently stoke it with the same amount of wood as it burns, it’ll maintain its flame.
If you add more wood than it needs to maintain its flame, it’ll grow.
But here’s the thing… your body is a little smarter than a fire (obviously). It adapts and adjust its metabolism and hormones when you stop providing it with the calories it needs to maintain its weight.
Real quick history lesson so you understand:
Over the evolution of mankind, our ancestors experienced “feast or famine” epidemics. During times when food was scarce, the human body learned to adapt and become more efficient to stay alive. Meaning the metabolism would slow down as much as possible so that it didn’t require as many calories to maintain its weight to ultimately fend off starvation. The body’s hormones sync with the metabolism as well. Meaning hunger levels would spike to keep us constantly searching for food (ghrelin hormone), and our fullness cues would dissipate so that we never felt full when we started eating because the body was unsure of when it would be fed again (leptin hormone).
To sum up this little lesson about our evolution, the more extreme you try to make a calorie deficit and lose weight fast, the slower your metabolism will get and the harder your hormones will overcorrect in creating hunger and cravings. Not the best news, I know.
We’ll talk about how to minimize the metabolism adaptions and hormone deficiencies that ultimately lead to regaining the weight throughout the rest of parts 2, 3, 4, and 5. So continue reading and it’ll all come together at the end.
Step 2: Building Habits & Individualization
Now you know calories are most important when it comes to body composition, it brings us to the dilemma of tracking them. Before you say, “I don’t have the time” or “I don’t want to deal with tracking my food…” Trust me. I get it. Tracking can be a bit of a pain when first beginning, BUT it’s the only way for you to truly know how much you’re eating with accuracy.
Don’t worry, it’s not something you’ll have to do forever. I’ll explain in step 5 how to stop tracking and still maintain your new body composition. But first, to create your new body composition in the most efficient/fastest way possible, pulling out My Fitness Pal and tracking your food is an investment that will pay for itself in the end. Without spending the time upfront gaining the experience needed of tracking calories, you aren’t going to have the skills needed to estimate or “eyeball” them in the future with legitimate accuracy.
Something to keep in mind is that to become a better version of yourself, it’s going to take doing things that your current version might find inconvenient or uncomfortable at first. Success comes from doing the necessary things consistently rather than complaining about it. That may feel like tough love, but if you’re serious about change, it’s going to take doing things you may not always like or find convenient at first.
You hopefully realize there are no “best” foods for fat loss at this point. With that said, there are foods you should be consuming more of than others to make the process easier and more sustainable when in a deficit. When eating less calories than your body burns each day, hunger rises like we’ve already discussed to your hormones. To mitigate the hunger, including high volume/low calorie foods as a big percentage of your diet will help keep you more satiated throughout the process. A good rule of thumb while in a deficit is to keep 80-90% of your diet full of lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fibrous carbs, etc to ensure you’re getting the micronutrients your body needs as well as staying satiated to keep adherence high while eating less calories, and the other 10-20% can be sugary, processed, or “unhealthy” foods that satisfy your “sweet tooth” cravings that come and go.
As you learn to come out of the calorie deficit and “maintain” the progress you’ve made, hunger levels will dissipate, and hormones will level back out. Once this happens food choices can become a little more flexible and the ranges could shift to 70-80% whole foods and 20-30% “unhealthy” foods. More on maintenance coming later.
Just understand, when it comes to food choices, make sure you’re incorporating foods that you enjoy as well as foods that your body needs to operate optimally through vitamins, minerals, and fiber which will generally keep you satiated for longer. The ratios above are a good guide to keep in mind, but if you’re staying within your calories consistently throughout the process, you’ll still make great progress even if the ratios are slightly off.
Counting “macros” has become a hot topic in the nutrition space over the last decade. Although it does have merit the more experienced you get, trying to count proteins, carbs, and fats when beginning can be a bit overwhelming and a little tedious.
With that said, if you’re a serious athlete looking to perform at the highest level, or very experienced dieter looking to get to lower than normal body fat levels, tracking all three macros will become more of a necessity and have a greater pay off. Most of us are not in that position though and won’t need to be quite as “on the ball” with all three macronutrients.
If you’re just looking to drop body fat, feel better, get stronger, and create more definition in your body, there’s only one macro that you’ll need to be precise with each day – protein. Protein is the main contributor to repairing lean tissue, maintaining lean tissue, and building additional lean tissue. Studies have shown that our body needs anywhere from .75-1.2 g of protein per pound of bodyweight when paired with resistance training. Generally, the more fat you have to lose, the closer you should be to the lower spectrum of that range. The less fat you have to lose, the closer you should be to the higher spectrum of that range.
By staying within your calorie range, staying relatively close to the ratio of “healthy to unhealthy” foods dependent upon the phase you’re in, and hitting your protein requirements each day, your macronutrient ratio of carbs to fat will most likely be just fine and not need to be tracked tediously to achieve just as good of a result.
Consistency is where most end up failing. Knowing what to do is one thing, but consistently doing it is another. Which is why I don’t think it’s smart to start out thinking you need to be perfect with everything we’ve talked about so far. Changing your habits and implementing new things can cause stress, anxiety, and ultimately lead to overwhelm.
That doesn’t have to be the case when first beginning, but it will be the case if you try to implement everything at once. So, here’s my advice on what I’ve found to work best with the people I work with on a 1 to 1 basis who are new to this lifestyle – start with the most important habit (tracking) and don’t incorporate any of the others until you’re comfortable with that one.
That’s right… Don’t worry about how many calories you’re eating, how much protein you’re eating, or what foods you’re eating at first, just start with tracking your food intake each day and being consistent with it. That one implementation will make the other habits of calorie control, protein, and food quality easier when you decide you’re ready to implement them one by one as well. Honestly, those things will improve drastically when you start tracking anyway because tracking will make you aware of what you’re eating and push you to make better choices subconsciously.
Once you’re comfortable with tracking and you’re consistently doing it over a 1-2 week span, you can start to focus further on the other habits of dialing in your calorie intake, eating sufficient protein, and getting your ratios of “healthy” to “unhealthy” under control. Just make sure to not rush it. The last thing you want to do is start your calorie deficit under a lot of stress and lack of consistency.
Once you feel good about implementing the things above on a consistent basis without stress or anxiety, you’ll know it’s time to start the actual process of changing your body composition and enter the calorie deficit phase.
Step 3: The Calorie Deficit Phase
I’m not going to explain where to set your calories for time’s sake, and because it’s in our free resource –The Macro Starter Kit that you can download for free. This blog is more about how to handle the calorie deficit for better long-term results anyway. Just know that any calculation you use to find your calorie intake is at best an educated estimation, even if you use our resource – The Macro Starter Kit. Adjustments will need to be made as you start creating data around the intake you start on regardless of how you find that calorie number.
Like discussed earlier, the calorie deficit phase will create fat loss, some rate of metabolic adaption, and some fatigue to your hormones. There’s no getting around any of it, but there are ways to accentuate the good (fat loss) and minimize the bad (metabolic adaption and hormone fatigue).
Rate of Fat Loss
A good guideline I suggest to follow is somewhere between 1-2% body weight lost every 7-14 days for the most sustainable results that don’t cause too much harm to the metabolism or hormones in the process.
If you’re losing this amount, your calories are in a good place. Just rinse and keep repeating.
If you’re losing less than this, it may be a good idea to drop calories by 50-100 daily or add some cardio to create a bigger deficit and then reassess in another 1-2 weeks’ time.
If you’re losing more than this, although it may “seem” great in terms of progress, you’ll find hunger levels rising as well as your metabolism will be adapting faster. A faster approach like this can work, but I don’t ever suggest it unless you are highly experienced inside of nutrition as the regain of weight is much more likely due to overcorrections. To make progress more sustainable, I’d suggest adding an extra 50-100 calories each day and reassessing in another 1-2 weeks’ time to hit the sweet spot of 1-2% lost per week.
Metabolic Adaptions & Adjustments
When in a deficit, there’s no getting around some form of metabolic adaption. Like discussed earlier, blame your ancestors and evolution. Because of this, the calorie number you’re able to lose weight on will eventually stop producing weight loss because your metabolism adapts to this intake over time.
If you’re hoping for a specific time frame for when this occurs, unfortunately, there isn’t one. We all have very different genetic makeups and will have to learn how our metabolism responds during the process. I’ve worked with people who can lose 20, 30, even 40 pounds with hardly any adjustments to their calorie intake throughout the process and I’ve worked with people who need adjustments to calories every 5 pounds lost because their metabolism adapts very quickly.
It’s different for everyone and why nutrition requires a high level of individualization for each of us to get great results. Just make sure you ask yourself this one thing before you go adjusting your calorie intake because you think you’ve plateaued:
Am I staying 90-100% consistent with my nutrition and not making progress, or am I not staying as consistent as I could and that’s why I’m not making progress?
The answer to that question will tell you what your next step of action should be in terms of adjustments. From experience, I’ve found that it generally is a consistency issue first, and a metabolic adaption issue second. Ultimately, just make sure you’re adjusting calories because they need to be adjusted, not because you aren’t willing to look in the mirror and deal with your lack of consistency.
If an adjustment is needed after hitting a plateau due to metabolic adaption, I’d suggest dropping your intake by simply 50-100 calories and continuing the process and reassessing every 1-2 weeks. Usually a small decrease of such will kickstart weight loss once again given consistency remains.
Just as the metabolism adapts to the calorie deficit to make things harder, your hormones will begin to work against as you as well while dieting like mentioned earlier. You have two hormones that play a big role in feeling hungry and feeling full. They’re referred to as “ghrelin” and “leptin.”
Ghrelin is the hormone in your body that tells you when you’re hungry, and leptin is the hormone in your body that tells you when you’re full. As you continue dieting inside of a calorie deficit and lose fat, ghrelin increases which causes you to feel more and more hungry while leptin decreases which stops you from feeling as satisfied after eating.
A recipe for disaster if the calorie deficit goes on for too long, or when trying to create too big of a deficit and lose weight too fast. This is where extreme diets that are too low in calories or restricted in food groups generally cause a yo-yo effect in the end.
Taking the process a little slower by aiming for 1-2% of weight loss per week and managing these hormones by paying attention to your bio feedback markers each week becomes very important. If you don’t pay attention and manage them correctly, you’re in for a long road ahead that can lead to binges and regain of all the weight you lost in a very short amount of time. This is a huge reason why 90% of people regain the weight like mentioned in the intro.
Refeeds are quick maintenance phases that are put inside of a calorie deficit phase to help slow down the metabolic adaption and hormone deficiencies that the calorie deficit leads to like discussed previously. They won’t completely stop the two from happening, but they’ll help slow it down to a degree. Plus, a refeed means you get to eat more calories over a selected time period which can help with adherence and your mental state while dieting.
Refeeds can be implemented in many ways and the one you choose to follow will be dependent upon what you feel will help you be the most consistent with. Here are a few options:
You could run a 5/2 split. Meaning you spend 5 days in a deficit and 2 days at maintenance. Works great for people who struggle on the weekends.
You could run a 11/3 split. Meaning you spend 11 days in a deficit and 3 days at maintenance. Works great for people who are looking to make faster progress with more days inside a deficit at each time.
You could even run a 30/7 split. Meaning you spend 30 days in a deficit and 7 days at a maintenance. Works great for people who have a lot of weight to lose.
It’s important to note that none of these refeed splits are better than the other. There are a million different ways you could set them up other than just these three options. Create a refeed plan that works for you and your situation. One suggestion I would make is to try and make sure refeeds last at least 48 hours. Although a 24 hour refeed can work, a longer refeed of at least 48 hours allows your body a little more time out of the stressed state of a deficit which can help mitigate adaptions and hormone deficiencies further.
Typically, I would advise the leaner you are, the more often you’ll need refeeds. The more weight you have to lose, the less often you’ll need refeeds.
This is arguably the most important factor to your success inside a calorie deficit. Knowing that your metabolism is slowly adapting, and your hormones are causing you to slowly get hungrier and less satiated, you need a timeline for the deficit. Typically, I would advise somewhere between a 3-6-month time period inside a deficit. This could vary for some, but those are good timelines to think about for most.
Creating a start and end date to your deficit will help to “see the light and the end of the tunnel,” so to speak. If you just continue in the deficit without ever knowing when you’re going to be finished, it gets a lot easier to lose sight of your goal and end up with worse adherence overall.
Create yourself a timeline for the deficit and commit to being consistent each day inside that timeline. For some, this means you’ll lose all the weight you want to lose in one deficit phase. For others, you may not lose all the weight you want to in one deficit phase if you have a lot of fat to lose. That’s completely ok. Remember, this is a long game and you can’t change you’re starting point. All you can do is make educated and responsible decisions so that you can eventually get to where you want to be in the end and sustain it.
Step 4: The Reverse Diet Phase
The reverse diet is the phase immediately following the deficit. Just as your metabolism slows down and adapts on the way down of a calorie deficit, it can speed up and adapt on the way out of a calorie deficit if done correctly.
Where most go wrong after a diet is by going back to eating as what was once considered “normal.” Knowing that the metabolism is in a fatigued state and your hormones have you hungrier than ever, this leads to an overconsumption of calories that typically leads to a quick regain of all the fat you just worked so hard to lose.
How to start the reverse diet
To begin the reverse diet, I’d suggest making the initial bump to just below your current maintenance. Here’s something to keep in mind though, now that your body weighs less and your metabolism has been slowed down, your maintenance level of calories isn’t the same as what it was when you started dieting. Don’t get too excited here and make the initial bump too high. I’d recommend being conservative and making the first bump of calories by 300-400 maximum to be safe.
After the initial bump, expect a 1-3-pound gain in weight throughout the first week. Don’t freak out and think you’re putting fat back on. This initial weight gain is just your body filling back out with glycogen, sodium, and more food volume in your digestive system. It’s completely normal and something that can’t be avoided.
After the first bump, you’ll want to leave calories alone for a solid 1-2 weeks generally. If your bio feedback is bad and you’re ravenously hungry I’d suggest only a week. If your bio feedback isn’t unbearable and your hunger isn’t consuming you, I’d suggest taking closer to two weeks at the initial bump.
How to proceed and finish the reverse diet
Now that it’s been 1-2 weeks since the initial bump in calories to just below your maintenance level and had the initial slight increase in weight, it’s time to start pushing your metabolism back up as much as possible to reverse the adaption that’s occurred. To do so, you’ll want to add somewhere between 50-100 calories every 1-2 weeks and assess the feedback your body gives.
If your weight stays relatively the same over the 1-2-week timeline, you’ll know you can make another bump in calories to keep pushing your metabolism to a higher calorie intake for maintenance. You should be able to do this at least a couple times every 1-2 weeks if you’re initial bump to start the reverse diet was just below your maintenance.
Typically, if your metabolism adapted a lot on the way down and you ended up low calorie with a lot of drops, you’ll be able to adapt it decently well on the way back up as well because of the adaptive traits your metabolism carries. Meaning you’ll be able to add 50-100 calories for a decent number of weeks without a jump in weight.
On the flip, if your metabolism didn’t adapt much on the way down and you didn’t have to make many adjustments through the process, you won’t be able to adapt it much on the way back up either because of the lack of adaptive traits your metabolism carries. Meaning you won’t be able to add 50-100 calories for many weeks without your weight beginning to rise and entering a surplus.
Once you reach a place where your weight spikes after a 50-100 calorie bump, you’ll know that your reverse diet is over. Meaning you’ve pushed your maintenance level as far as it could go. I’d advise dropping calories back to where they were before the spike in weight, so you don’t enter a surplus of calories and gain unwanted weight.
This takes us to the final phase…
Step 5: The Maintenance Phase
Maintenance is going to mean something a little different for everybody. For some, it’s the overall goal. For others, it’s the recovery period before hopping back into another fat loss phase to get to the overall goal.
Plan on going back into another calorie deficit in the near future?
I’d caution you to be patient before hopping back into another deficit. Maintenance is where your body is able to optimize health. Meaning it’s the period where your hormones will be able to recover. Don’t forget that a calorie deficit is a stress to your body. It’s not “healthy” necessarily. To recover from it and level back out your hormones, you’ll need to spend an efficient amount of time at maintenance to ensure you can get the most out of your next calorie deficit phase and make it as successful as the previous one.
The amount of time that will need to be spent here will vary on your mental state and bio feedback. If you feel overly stressed, fatigued, mentally drained, hungry, etc.… You need more time at maintenance to let all those markers level back out. Going into another deficit in that state will only make things worse and unmanageable. Staying at maintenance is the only way to turn those negative markers into positive markers as your hormones are able to recover and optimize.
Once you get to a point where you feel well rested, well fed, energized, minimally stressed, and mentally motivated, I’d still give it AT LEAST another month (possibly 2 or 3) before hopping back into another deficit. The longer you can let your body stay at maintenance, the better and more sustainable progress you’ll make when you push back into another deficit. Think of maintenance as your body’s “home base.” This is where it’s most comfortable, least stressed, and able to recharge.
Don’t rush leaving the house for another trip until you know you’re ready. Take your time and make sure you’re 100% committed mentally and physically before putting your body under the stress of another deficit again. When you decide to enter another deficit, the entire process I just explained in this blog will be rinsed and repeated from your deficit to reverse to maintenance. This is your blueprint for fat loss. Don’t try and cut corners or you’ll most likely end up paying the price at some point – consider that your warning.
Plan on enjoying maintenance, your health, and the result you’ve created?
If this is you, congratulations – you’ve made it! You might be thinking… I can finally quit tracking my food and just live!
First, you’re 100% right.
Second, there’s a little more to it than that.
Although eating “intuitively” and getting away from tracking your intake while maintaining your new weight should be the goal, I’d still HIGHLY recommend tracking your food intake while at maintenance for the first while until your hormones are recovered and health is optimized.
The amount of time needed to continue tracking your intake will be dependent upon your bio feedback that your body is giving and mental state you’re in. If you feel overly stressed, fatigued, mentally drained, hungry, etc.… I’d suggest continuing to track your intake to ensure you’re staying at a maintenance level of calories while those negative markers level back out and your health and temptation around food gets better.
Once you give your body enough time to recover at maintenance and you feel well rested, well fed, energized, minimally stressed, and mentally motivated, I’d still give it AT LEAST another month (possibly 2 or 3) before stopping tracking altogether.
Once you do get to this point, you’ll have tracked for at least 6-12 months in most scenarios, possibly more if you’ve gone through multiple fat loss phases. Chances are you’ve developed a pretty strong skillset of eyeballing portions and making good choices at most of your meals. Pair those skills with a metabolism at its full capacity and a healthy hormonal profile, you’re now in a great position to maintain your bodyweight by listening to your body in a more “intuitive” manner.
Now, this takes self-awareness, but it’s 100% possible and how most experienced people in the fitness and nutrition world maintain an improved body composition over the long haul. But only because they paid the price of going through all these exact protocols that we’ve discussed today and created the habits and skills required for this type of approach.
If you remain practicing the 70-80% whole food and 20-30% “unhealthy” food model, have adequate protein in each meal, and learn to listen to your body’s hunger/fullness cues, you’ll naturally eat around a maintenance level of calories each day without needing to continue tediously tracking your intake.
Like I mentioned earlier… your body is smart. If you learn to take care of it, it will learn to take care of you.