By Adam Bisek
With the holidays in full swing, many hopes of maintaining a semblance of diet and exercise rigidity have been differed to the “new year new me” category. And while I’m completely on board with some dietary laxity in this period I do think it’s worthwhile to proactively start thinking about setting yourself up for success. Not only will this article apply to the aforementioned resolution crowd, but for anyone at any time commencing a diet and exercise regimen to lose body fat, whether it’s your first time, or one of many. For those of you who may be a bit more advanced, this can serve as a refresher, a re-calibration protocol of sorts. After all, it’s always good to implement a “check yo self before you wreck yo self” audit from time-to-time.
I will refer back to my article series “The Metabolic Audit” as it serves as a good starting point or re-calibration point for determining how ready you are to partake in a “diet.” And just to be semantically clear, and to do my due diligence, what I am speaking of here is a dietary and exercise protocol that creates an energy deficit in an attempt to lose body fat.
Determining Your “Readiness”
As with most worthwhile endeavors going into a diet blindly is a recipe for long-term failure. For those massively overweight and sedentary a simpler approach may be just fine, but I don’t think that’s the who’s reading at the moment. For those who consistently partake in a relatively healthy lifestyle a more strategic approach is necessary.
The first step in a strategic dietary approach is to calculate the amount of calories you should be eating. It’s important to understand that the calculators you find on a cursory google search are going to use your anthropometrics (height, weight, age, gender, body composition) and your activity level to spit out a number that is your MAINTENANCE calories: the amount of calories you should be able to consume and maintain your weight . Some will offer general recommendations in addition to this for those wanting to gain or lose weight, typically plus or minus ~5-10% calories, but again, these recommendations are very general and are based on where your metabolism is assumed to be functioning.
Even if you have already calculated your maintenance calories, if you haven’t read through my “Metabolic Audit” series I highly recommend doing so as it’s a more concise breakdown of how to go through the process correctly for YOU and will help you understand some of the pertinent terminologies such as BMR (basal metabolic rate) and TDEE (total daily energy expenditure). Once you’ve calculated your estimated TDEE, which is the amount of calories you expend in a day, all things considered, we are ready to implement Step #1.
Step #1 The Audit
I will keep this short as it’s a refresher of sorts from my previous article. After finding your maintenance calories do your best to implement AND track them as closely as possible for ~2-3 weeks. Alongside that measure your weight every morning immediately upon waking so that you can see your average weight week over week as well as the trend it takes.
Why not start at a deficit? Because the TDEE estimate you calculated is the amount of calories you should be able to take in and maintain your weight if your metabolism is relatively healthy compared to the norm. Starting below that will throw off the auditing process we are going to go through. Not only that but you’re then operating out of the assumption that you’re in a healthy metabolic position; we still need to figure that out with said auditing process. This may not be applicable for every single context, but for all intents and purposes, it will generally apply to the majority of people.
As a disclaimer, it’s important to note that if you already know you have been consuming far fewer calories than what your estimated TDEE is while maintaining weight then a slightly different approach is necessary. I do have clients that come to me in this position quite often and while my strategy is more nuanced and tailored to the individual’s context, a fairly safe and probably necessary starting point is somewhere in the middle between your current intake and your calculated estimated TDEE. Alongside that, other variables such as your activity, sleep, stress, etc. need to be considered even more so in this situation as they will play a large role in your success. Thereafter you can still use the guide that follows.
If you over the first ~3 Weeks You:
It’s safe to say the estimated TDEE you calculated is lower than your actual TDEE and metabolically speaking you’re in a good position. Because you’re already on your way to losing the pounds you don’t need to drop any calories at this point. A weight-loss average of .5-1% of your body weight per week is a healthy, sustainable amount to shoot for and keeping that governor will help maintain muscle mass. Notice I say average, this number may be higher or lower week-to-week, but we want to look at the average trend over time. If your average weight stays the same for two weeks in a row then it is advisable to drop your calories ~5%. If your weight doesn’t drop over the following week then drop them another ~5%. Smaller increments of pulling calories are better, get the most scale movement out of the least dietary movement. Also understand that while body composition isn’t mutually exclusive from weight change, it’s not the same thing. Depending on the circumstance one can slowly gain muscle and lose body fat with little respective change in scale weight.
For all intents and purposes, your estimated TDEE calculations were correct in approximating your metabolic rate. All else being constant a drop of ~5% of your calories should result in some average weight loss over the next week. Similar to the protocol listed above if your average weight does not drop over the next week then drop calories another ~5%. Remember, successful progress is .5-1% bodyweight average loss per week over time, but any loss is success remembering that body composition can change without scale movement.
If over the ~2-3 weeks your scale showed an average increase in weight don’t fret. Often times when one begins a more concerted weight training program along with adequate carbohydrate and caloric intake they will have an increase in weight purely from intramuscular glycogen and water retention, this is completely normal. And if the amount of food you have been taking in over the initial several weeks was more than what you had been taking in prior this may very well occur, BUT it doesn’t mean you’ve gained fat per se, as a matter of fact, it’s unlikely that you did so in this short of a period of time.
If the average 70kg (154lbs) person can store ~500grams of carbohydrates as glycogen (Wasserman) and that holds approximately 3 times its weight in water then that average person could theoretically rise and fall ~2000 grams or 4.4lbs top to bottom purely from changes in carbohydrate consumption and storage. While this scenario is an approximation you can still extrapolate the mathematics to your frame and get a sense of what is possible. This glycogen/water weight increase will plateau within the first week or two and you will have a baseline from there moving forward for progress.
Weight gain in the initial portions of this process is oftentimes scary and/or demotivating. In my experience, more often than not this initial increase in weight is solely due to the aforementioned glycogen/water retention phenomena or similar physiological changes that are not related to body fat accrual. What tends to follow is a subtle metabolic adaptation by which your body increases its TDEE to meet your new higher caloric consumption. On paper, you’ll see your bodyweight slightly increasing, let’s say ~3-5% over the first month, and then maintain thereafter. I most often have someone maintain weight at this intake for a while before starting to pull calories away, sometimes a month, sometimes a bit longer depending on the context. At that point, you're more suited to start creating a caloric deficit similar to what I have mentioned in the first two scenarios.
If by chance your average weight continues to rise at or even above ~3-5% of your body weight within the first couple of weeks, or if you’re not 100% comfortable with that happening then a slightly different path can be taken. Simply take your calculated TDEE and drop it by ~15-25% and start the process from there. If you gain weight at ~25% or more below your estimated TDEE you more than likely needed to go through the process of gaining weight until you find weight maintenance or should seek the advice of a professional coach to help look at your specific situation. Remember, we are looking for weight maintenance via your body adapting its metabolism/TDEE before we make strategic moves. Patience is most certainly a virtue here.
Once you’ve found weight maintenance the idea is to build up your calories subtly over time to meet your estimated TDEE. By doing so you’re essentially building up your metabolism through metabolic adaptation. I use a similar process to the first two scenarios in reverse. When you find a plateau in weight increase calories ~5%. If and when you plateau again keep raising your calories ~5% until your weight settles around your estimated TDEE. Once it does so, maintain weight for around a month at that caloric intake and then you can begin employing a caloric deficit. Now you can refer back to the maintenance scenario above.
The conditions I ran through above are contingent on all other variables being consistent. We, of course, do not live in a perfect world and to not account for one’s training, sleep, supplementation, stress, water consumption, psychological state, etc. would be silly. These variables have a massive impact on how this process works and balancing them within context and implementing the right mix can be a complicated puzzle to put together, but that’s why coaches like myself have a place.
The one major consideration outside of caloric consumption is expenditure: training. Your training and overall activity is the “energy out” side of the equation and quite obviously interplays with the “energy in” side of the equation this whole article has spoken to. I will not even begin to touch on proper methodology as that is too large of a topic to tackle in this already waning article, however, changes in your overall activity will affect your energy balance. The audit I have gone through is dependent on “energy out” (training) being consistent. Simply appreciate this concept as well as understand that if your total energy expenditure through exercise changes during this period it needs to be taken into account appropriately.
It’s Not the Only Way
While the “metabolic audit” process I have outlined is a good, proven framework to help someone lose body fat healthfully it’s most certainly not the only way to do so. There are many ways to skin the proverbial dietary cat, there are just ways that are more strategic and planned than others. I believe in making sure one is in a healthy metabolic state prior to attempting to lose body fat by creating an energy deficit. The amount of other successful methods and approaches that exist are numerous, so remember no one way is “right,” there are, however, methods that are better than others.
When it comes down to it there is one main theme that is consistent amongst all successful dieting practices. That theme is adherence and sustainability. I do believe that education is extremely important and should be integrated into any plan as well. So, when you’re deciding to dive into a “diet” make sure that you have an exit plan, that what you’re trying to achieve can and will be done with sustainable methods, and that you never stop learning along the way. After all, the problem usually isn’t in losing weight and body fat, it’s in keeping it off. Be pragmatic, be methodical, and you’ll lose those love handles for good.
Wasserman, David H. “Four Grams of Glucose.” American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism, American Physiological Society, Jan. 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2636990/.