It seems that more and more often, when I am talking to people about nutrition these days, I find less of the classic over-consuming/under-active pattern where they are eating too much on a regular basis and/or not getting enough (or any!) physical activity. For those types of people, the solution is logical – reduce food intake until it is appropriate for their bodyweight, and get them moving more, and usually results follow.
Instead, what I am seeing more and more over the past several years are people who have been “dieting” and/or exercising for a long time (sometimes years) in an effort to lose weight, but have been stalled out for a long time. These are people who are reasonably active and often eat a relatively healthy diet, but just can’t lose a pound. Almost without fail, when I dig deeper, I find that these people need to be eating MORE, not less.
“How can that make sense?” they ask. “If I’m not losing weight now with how little I’m eating, if I eat more, I’ll gain weight for sure.”
At this point, I get lots of people walking away, thinking I’m out of my mind when I tell them to eat more. They KNOW that’s not how it works. They KNOW that they need to eat less, or exercise more, and it will happen. Worse yet, they go chasing the latest pill, potion, or “cleanse” in an effort to get things going again. As John Berardi from Precision Nutrition likes to say, "How's that workin' for ya?"
Those that listen and, however skeptically, decide to follow my advice, discover that “dieting” may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
As an example, I did a one-time consultation with one person recently, with a long history of dieting and calorie restriction, who also happened to exercise regularly anywhere from four to eight hours per week (and had done so, literally, for years). By conventional thinking, she was doing the right things. Her weight loss had been plateaued for a while, and when I suggested that she needed to increase her calories by over 20%, she told me she was literally TERRIFIED to do it because she would gain weight.
Despite that fear, with some encouragement, she gradually ramped up her food intake to almost the level I recommended. The result? In her own words:
“I'm almost afraid to say it...but I think upping the calories is working. Last week I lost .5lb and this week I'm down again by almost 1lb. Unbelievable. I can't tell you how long I've been torturing myself trying to eat less than 1500 calories per day with no movement in terms of weight loss or body composition. I've basically been careful to make sure I meet the protein and fat macros and I've doubled my carbs but I'm still not close to the carb numbers that you provided. Most days I'm between 1800-1900 calories. If I can manage to lose .5-1 lb a week while eating like this I will be very happy.”
Eat more, lose weight. Sounds completely ass-backwards, but for chronic dieters, it can be reality. Why?
The Diminishing Returns of Caloric Restriction
To put it simply, while cutting calories (sometimes drastically) the longer you chronically under-nourish your body by restricting calories, the less effective it becomes for weight loss because your body progressively down-regulates itself to adjust to what it sees as your new “normal” level of nourishment. Eventually, your metabolism slows down to the point that weight loss stalls.
Your body recognizes the chronic lower calorie intake as a “famine” period (vs. a “feast” period – I.E. feast or famine), so it makes some adjustments to reduce energy demands. Among other things, it will use the following to survive:
Catabolism of muscle tissue (I.E. muscle atrophy/wasting) to reduce the body’s energy needs
Your body will strip down muscle to the bare minimum it can carry to maintain your daily activities/strength demands
Loss of strength and reduced performance in strength-dominant tasks
Reduced capacity for glycogen storage in skeletal muscle due to loss of muscle mass
If blood sugar levels are normal and muscle and other glycogen stores are full, your body will store any excess as fat
Reduced metabolic rate
Your metabolism overall will be slowed down to preserve energy in the face of what your body sees as starvation or famine
Energy levels will be reduced, as your body tries to force you into inactivity to preserve energy – you’ll be fatigued more frequently, and may have trouble focusing on tasks
Hormone levels will be thrown off – could result in decreased sex drive, and again, reduced mental acuity
Not realizing this is what is going on, “dieters” will often restrict their calories even more and/or try to increase their exercise even more in hopes of triggering more weight loss (note this is dangerously parallel to anorexic behaviour, even if you are not underweight!). The inevitable result is a further slow-down by the body, and still little to no progress.
As a couple other examples of this, I have had other clients who have come to me after extended periods of time on severely restricted calories. One, a middle-aged male, recreational rugby player, was on a “diet” restricting him to only 1,300 calories per day (at a bodyweight of over 250 pounds!) – progress stalled. Another, a late-20’s year old female on a “diet” that restricted her calories to such a dangerous level that the diet manual itself advised her not to exercise (how ridiculous and unhealthy is that?!?!) – progress stalled.
So, just when you are trying to preserve lean muscle mass and get rid of fat, your body fights you by breaking down muscle and storing fat because you are not feeding it enough!
Finally, it just plain sucks to keep restricting and restricting, and restricting some more, especially with nothing to show for it. Eventually, and maybe even on a fairly regular basis while “dieting” you just can’t take it anymore and fall of the wagon and binge, setting you back even further.
There Is a Better Way!
Right about now would be when your typical online “fitness guru” would be pitching their latest and greatest fat loss program. I’m not going to do that. I’m just going to tell it like it is, give you the info you need to succeed on your own, and if you want to work with me as a coach, I’d be glad to help. No hard sell.
I’m also not going to take credit for coming up with some “magic” solution. The work of John Berardi and the rest of the team at Precision Nutrition, combined with the insights of people like Alan Aragon and Mike Roussell, have been a big influence in what I do, and are the foundation that I build upon.
***Most of the rest of this article has been updated and included in our newer article, "Fat Loss Nutrition - The Numbers Game". The parts that relate specifically to what we do with chronic under-eaters have been edited and can be found below - use the following info in conjunction with the other article to figure out the numbers where necessary.
How We Modify Our Approach for Chronic Under-Eaters
1. Increase Protein Intake First
When I am working with a chronic under-eater, the first action step we take with them is to increase their protein intake to the target amount from our other article, and make sure to hit it every day. Once they’re consistent with that for 2-3 weeks straight, we move on to the next step.
2. Increase Fat Intake Next
When working with a chronic under-eater, once we’ve sorted out their protein intake, fat intake is next. We account for the presumed fat content in their preferred protein sources, add in supplemental Omega-3’s from fish oil (which I recommend for everybody), and add additional healthy fats as needed from sources like avocado, nuts, olive oil and coconut oil. Again, we look for 2-3 weeks straight of nailing this habit 100%, then move on.
3. Modify Carb Intake Targets
When I am working with a chronic under-eater, I will swap out up about 20 – 25% of their target carb intake (calculated as per our other article) temporarily as we gradually ramp up calories, for two reasons. First, it is really easy to over-eat starchy carbs (or fat, for that matter), but more difficult to over-eat protein. Second, your body has to expend more energy to break down protein for fuel than it does with carbohydrate or fat, so adding in the extra protein can help get the metabolism sped up a bit more quickly. I.E. after sorting out the initial protein and fat targets and hitting them consistently, we’ll go even higher with the protein for a couple of weeks, then taper it back as we gradually increase carbohydrate intake over the next 4-6 weeks.
So, in short, eat enough to support your body and activities. Severe, chronic calorie restriction will only result in a crapped out metabolism and stalled weight loss. Keep calorie levels within about 10% or so of maintenance, and aim to lose weight at a rate of about 1-2 pounds per week. Adjust as needed, and work with a coach if you’re having trouble getting your head around the numbers, or having trouble preventing the “freak-out” from occasional stalls/stumbles.
Contact Us to let me (Coach JP) know if you have any questions, or if you found the article interesting/useful!