Why dieting is tough & what you can do about it

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There is one basic principle of fat loss that must be met for fat loss to happen;

You must be in a calorie deficit to lose weight.

It is one of the laws of thermodynamics and. For any diet program to work, it must be pushing you into a calorie deficit.

Whether you create a calorie deficit by taking in less calories, moving more or a combination of the both - you must be in a calorie deficit to lose weight.

Being in a state of calorie restriction brings with it a few certainties that, when understood, can be better managed. Running a diet into the ground is a sure fire way to set up a host of problems down the line.

Here are a few truths of dieting:

The less you eat the less calories you burn

The food you eat needs to be broken down, processed and used or stored. This process requires energy in itself. The human body uses energy to digest and process the food that you eat. Protein uses the most energy (20-35%), carbohydrates are in the middle (5-15%) and fats use the least (0-5%).

The energy used to process your food can contribute ~10-15% of your metabolic rate. When you eat less your body will need less energy to digest that food, therefore lowering your energy expenditure. The drop in energy expenditure will be more profound if you are a bigger individual and/or if you are making bigger cuts in your food intake.

Salad - less food

Salad: the staple 'diet' food.

What you can do:

There isn’t much you can do about the drop in energy expenditure. Although the energy used to digest food only makes up a small percentage of your metabolic rate, it is still a contributor.
The general recommendation is to keep your protein intake higher as it requires the most energy to be broken down, whilst keeping you feeling fuller for longer.

The less you weigh the less you burn

As you lose weight your metabolic rate will decrease. Your body mass is one of the variables in the equations used to calculate your metabolic rate. A lower body mass results in a lower metabolic rate.  This is why a bigger person is able to eat more than a smaller person and not gain weight.

As you lose more weight it gets harder to maintain the progress you have seen, especially if you keep eating the same amount of food and expending the same amount of energy.

Smaller bodies burn less calories

Smaller bodies burn less calories

What you can do:

If fat loss is your goal, there isn’t a great deal you can do about this (just like the above point). You are going to weigh less, and a lighter body requires less calories to function.  

The two factors that you can control are your activity levels and body mass. Your body mass is going to decrease, but you can keep exercising and moving.

Working hard in the gym to build or maintain your muscle mass is an energy expensive process and will help to keep your metabolic rate raised. But, this does lead onto the next two points:

Your recovery capacity decreases

Exercise is an energy expensive activity; especially if you are using higher intensity methods like weight training or interval training. Your body needs energy and nutrients to remodel your tissue and boost performance.

Think of your recovery capacity as a wall of Lego bricks. When you are well rested and well nourished you have a nice big wall of Lego. Exercising takes away those blocks, temporarily at least. When you well nourished, well rested and low on life stress you are able to rebuild the wall and then add some more bricks to the wall. This is how performance improves.

Exercise recovery capacity

Your Lego recovery wall

Certain types of exercise will knock of more blocks than others. The harder you train, the more blocks you remove. Heavy weight training and intervals are harder on the body than low intensity methods like cardiac output training.

Being in a calorie deficit means your ability to rebuild your Lego wall decreases. It is harder to recover and harder to see improvements in your performance. This effect is pronounced if you have been dieting for a longer period of time.

What you can do:

Think about training in terms of stresors. You can train hard (with intensity) or you can train long (with volume). Training with both volume and intensity, even at the best of times, is not a viable option.

The general recommendation is to keep exercise sessions shorter, sharper and more focused. Training with less volume, whilst maintaining intensity in the weight room will help to maintain performance and lean mass, whilst requiring less recovery.

Lower intensity cardio is a great option for recovery, whilst improving training capacity, helping improve your response to stress and burning a few extra calories.

If you are a regular exerciser, you can support your training by eating a bigger meal leading up to your workout. This can help boost your training performance and overall results. We recommend this in our Quick Start Nutrition Guide which you can download here.

You will be hungrier

Being in a calorie deficit means you are going to be hungry. Again, unfortunately, that is a fact of dieting.

The goal during a fat loss phase is to be in a calorie deficit and manage your hunger as well as you can. It’s about getting used to what comfortable hunger is.

Salad - less food

Salad: the staple 'diet' food.

Never being hungry is a sign that you probably aren’t in that important calorie deficit. This can lead to a strange phenomena whereby you are are sure that you are doing everything right, and therefore in the diet mindset. But without the weight loss, you find yourself becoming agitated and

And on the other hand, being hungry all of the time is a sign that you are either working out too hard and/or not eating enough; that calorie deficit is just too big and your body is screaming at you for some nourishment.

What you can do:

a) Foods that leave you feeling full for longer are essential during a fat loss phase. Eating more nutrient dense foods like lean proteins and fibrous veggies will help stem hunger. In addition to hunger, trying to keep energy levels as high as possible for training and life in general is important; taking in fats and carbohydrates will help this.

b) Slowing your eating speed, a key habit that we use at Revolution Lifestyles, (insert link to coaching program) will help you feel satisfied on less food. Eating slowly gives your brain and stomach a chance to ‘sync up’ and let you know when you are satisfied, which means eating less food.

c) From a mindset point of view, you will want to be more aware of why you are eating. Mindlessly snacking, eating when you are bored, or eating for reasons other than physical hunger is an easy way for the calories to add up. A few strategies to try include:

  • Hydrate with water. Sometimes thirst can masquerade as hunger.
  • If you have been stuck at your desk for a while, and you can’t shake the hunger bug, try and get up and move. The increase in blood flow can do wonders for suppressing false hunger.
  • When you do eat when you are not stomach hungry, try to be aware of the process as it happens. Why are you eating; are you bored, stressed, lonely or tired? Being aware of something is the first step in being able to change it.

“You cannot change what you are not aware of” Sheryll Sandberg

60 Second Take Away

  1. If your goal is to lose weight then you must be in a calorie deficit.  
  2. Being in a calorie deficit will increase your hunger, decrease your recovery capacity and decrease your metabolic rate via a decrease in TEF (thermic effect of food) and body mass.
  3. Make changes to your training plan & nutrition strategy and being more comfortable with hunger will help to improve your weight loss results without fighting your body and mind too hard.
  4. Diets should be a focused, short term approach to enhance weight loss.  Building a sustainable strategy into your lifestyle for the rest of the time will help keep you fit, healthy and full of energy. 

About the Author

Matt is a personal trainer from London. He has a BSc in Sports Science, is a qualified personal trainer and PN Level 1 Nutrition Coach.

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