If you track your calories and/or macronutrients, you will probably arrive at a point where it feels like your progress has stalled, either while cutting body fat or trying to pack on muscle. I’m going to talk about fat loss in particular today, because that’s what the majority of my online training clients are after when they track their calories.
Imagine this scenario:
You see barely a change on the scale in a week’s time. Then two weeks go by. It might go up a bit, and then down. And then just hang out in one spot, taunting you. Believe me, I know this feeling. It’s annoying as hell while you’re cutting fat. We want fat loss and we want it NOW! (Then I stomp my feet a bit, like Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)
The answer depends on both your behavior and your body. My clients (and hell, myself at times) have an initial urge to further reduce calories. Have you been here too? Ask yourself a few questions before you start slashing.
1. How accurate is my diary? Don’t get your feathers ruffled, I’m not saying you’re secretly gorging on treats. Although that happens too, especially if you’re restricting too severely. Most of us aren’t terribly accurate about tracking, as I wrote about in this piece. Even nutrition pros can be off in their estimates by a few hundred calories each day. 1
Even if you’re tracking relatively diligently, forgetting things here and there is human nature. If you don’t measure and weigh your food or track nibbles, it’s even more likely that your diary’s data is more of a “guesstimate”. Don’t feel bad about this – it’s really common.
Be honest with yourself. If I hear from clients that they miss tracking regularly, I’m less likely to recommend that they cut their target down even further. Instead, it could be extremely helpful to commit to tracking absolutely everything for a few weeks. This is a long term process, after all, and accurate data is useful.
Alternatively, if you’re someone who truly struggles with tracking or just dislikes it, consider strategies based on portions, honing hunger cues, and learning to compose meals with foods that support your goals. These skills are important to develop for the long run anyway, as you likely won’t track your food forever.
So perhaps you’re certain that you are indeed tracking your calories accurately. Yet you’re sure you’re stalled. But are you?
2. How do I measure my progress? If you’re only looking at the scale, you’re doing yourself a disservice. The scale is only one tool among many for gauging fat loss. Pictures and measurements can tell you much more about your changing body composition.
3. How did I calculate my target? Calorie guidelines are just estimates. It is possible that calculations for key variables are not quite accurate. Your RMR (resting metabolic rate) and TDEE (total daily energy expenditure, i.e. how many calories you estimate that you burn each day through doing stuff) may actually be a bit lower than you were given via the formula you used. Some calculations are broad to begin with, like multiplying your weight x 10 to get a daily calorie target if you want to lose weight yet aren’t active.
For the long haul, moderate deficits that are anywhere from 300-500 kcal below your weight maintenance will make less of a hormonal impact on your body than more drastic cuts. If you decide to lower your target, do it slowly. Sure, this paves a slower road but is a quick fix worth not getting to eat much? In my opinion it isn’t for most people. They’re more likely to adhere to a less fun-sucking nutrition plan –whether or not you count calories, don’t you want to eat as much as you can while still losing fat? Probably so, because food is delicious.
4. Am I factoring in calories burned from workouts? Another red flag is hearing from someone who is stuck mention that they base their daily intake from what tracking apps like Myfitnesspal. These apps often advise them to “eat back calories” from exercise. Calorie burn from activity is tough to estimate, and a number is usually wildly inaccurate unless you have some fancy equipment to aid you. Plus, the idea of trying to earn more food by exercising sets many up for having a more negative relationship with exercise.
5. Have I been dieting for a long while on low calories? Especially if you’re already quite lean, being on a diet for a long while can impact your hormonal signals. In essence, hormones such as ghrelin, insulin, peptide YY and others send signals to your brain that inform it about your energy stores and how much energy you’re taking in from food. When these hormonal levels change, other neurochemical changes happen as well, impacting our metabolic rate, hunger, and many other processes that impact our efforts at regulating our weight. 2
Leptin in particular is a more scarce resource among those who are lean. If you’ve been spinning your wheels in one spot, consider taking a diet break. Nutrition experts like Lyle McDonald and Martin Berkhan have both advocated “refeeds”, extended periods of time when calorie intake and carbohydrate in particular increases. The purpose of a refeed is to make your hormone signaling more favorable to fat loss once again.
There doesn’t seem to be hard data regarding exactly how long a refeed needs to be, but McDonald theorized that it’s likely longer than the typical increase of calories in a 5-24 hour window that traditional cyclical dieting uses.
Cyclical dieting is a strategy where you eat lower calories on some days of the week and higher calories on others.
I’m grossly oversimplifying McDonald’s strategies here, and his game plan is most applicable to those who are already very lean and want to diet down for either aesthetic or performance purposes. But extended dieting can and does impact our bodies.
I used cyclical dieting during my last fat loss period and found it to be extremely useful in terms of energy needs, effectiveness, and social happiness – I could plan a dinner out on a day when my calorie goal was higher. However, I’ve now entered a stall in my own progress after months of dieting and am doing an extended refeed myself. I’ll let you know how it goes in a few months and maybe post pics of carbs on Instagram.
6. Have I been to the doctor lately? I’m throwing this one in as a “Hail Mary”. Most people don’t have a medical issue – they just eat more than they think they do. But hormonal conditions like hypothyroidism are very real and can really screw with your body composition efforts; certain medications can also pack on pounds. So if you answered all the above questions and are still flummoxed, a trip to the doc may be in order.
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