Today we’re talking about fat loss, and in particular, your metabolism. Because once you understand how your metabolism works you can better appreciate why it can be so challenging to lose weight.
Your metabolism is really quite amazing.
Obviously, it’s mind-bogglingly complex and most analogies to simplify it seldom hit the mark.
The best one that comes close is that of a thermostat—and better still, a NEST thermostat.
- Gets too cold? Pump the heat until the room back to normal.
- Too warm? Crank the cold until the room gets back to normal.
Our metabolism works something like this too. That is, it is constantly making “adjustments” in response to the “environment”.
In the context of our bodies, “adjustments” equates to the up/down regulation of a whole host of physiological systems to maintain homeostasis—i.e. equilibrium.
And the “environment”? Near constant fluctuations in energy balance—food eaten, meals skipped, calorie sparse meals, calorie dense snacks, steps walked, hours spent sitting at a desk, workouts crushed and workouts missed.
Can you imagine what it would be like without your body working to maintain equilibrium?
We would likely be completely overwhelmed—both physically and mentally—in response to the constant churn we’re exposed to as humans.
A few days of calorie sparse meals and you’d be out of energy and bedridden. A day or two of indulgence and you’d pack on pounds of fat and need a new wardrobe.
This is why fat loss (and gaining weight for some) is so hard.
We can seemingly “eat clean” and “move more” for a couple of weeks and see literally no progress at all.
That’s homeostasis at work right there.
Your body, seeing the drop in calories and increase in activity, immediately starts to require less energy to function. This has the effect of offsetting some or all of the deficit you worked so hard to establish.
The same is true in the opposite direction—gaining weight. Although our body is a little more lenient here as it is quite happy to store some excess energy in the form of body fat—an energy resource it can draw on later in times of need.
This is why you’ll see people that have been chronically dieting for years gaining weight on 1300 kcal a day. Their metabolism is not “broken”—in fact you could say it’s working perfectly. It’s simply the case that their energy requirements are now so low that any increase in calories has an immediate rebound effect.
So what’s my point here? Where is this going and how is this useful?
The Three Ps of Fat Loss
The basics of fat loss and building muscle are simple. Decrease calories and increase movement (exercise and daily activity) and you WILL lose weight. Increase calories, train hard and reduce unnecessary calorie expenditure and you WILL gain weight.
Of course, the details matter greatly, and for many life is frequently trying to sabotage our plans.
The two biggest ones are STRESS and SLEEP.
All bets are off when you are chronically stressed. Elevated cortisol will definitely fuck with your plans to drop weight and have you tossing and turning at night.
Lack of sleep is HUGELY disruptive on nearly all physiological processes and will have you pumping out cortisol long into the afternoon hours. And don’t forget, dieting is a stress on your body. So anything and everything you can do to minimize sources of stress when trying to lose fat is essential.
Given the above, you can see that fat loss is never instant—especially if you are looking to lose FAT and not just WEIGHT.
The last time my wife successfully shed 14lbs of fat in 8 weeks, literally NOTHING happened for that first two-plus weeks. And yet she was nailing her intake at 400kcal below maintenance, hitting the gym and walking for 30 minutes every day.
That was her metabolism reacting to the change in environment and starting to down-regulate energy needs.
However, she kept going and in week 3 and 4 things started to happen and she was losing half a pound every 2-3 days.
But here’s the thing, you’re not going to outrun your metabolism. So that energy deficit you created at the start of your diet through reduced calories and increased activity is soon chased down by your body until homeostasis is achieved. And what happens then? Your body can now happily accommodate 1600 kcal, hard training and a 30 minute walk every day.
So to continue to make progress, you have to further reduce calories and likely increase non-exercise activity too. And this is when persistence is needed as you are essentially fighting your body all the way through the process.
In my wife’s example, calories were dropped by 100 every week and one 30 minute walk each day became two.
By the end of the 8 weeks, she was on ~1300kcal a day, training 4 days and walking twice a day for 40-60 minutes. But success came from the PERSISTENCE to keep going when everything about the process is screaming STOP.
BONUS: How to extend your run of fat loss
Still following the example of my wife’s last successful diet, one piece of the protocol that helped in maintaining momentum in the later weeks was that of the “cheat meal”.
In her context, it was more of a refeed. But whatever you want to call it, it is a fundamental part of the protocol that can help to maintain fat loss in calorie sparse environment.
Essentially, the refeed meant eating substantially more calories on the Sunday. It was still calorie controlled (~2000kcal), and it was rich in protein and quality carbs.
And it works through a couple of key mechanisms.
A HUGE part of the battle during fat loss is psychological. You’re perpetually hungry, fighting your body and frequently feel like quitting. The Sunday reefed was like a beacon of hope. Just make it to Sunday and it will all be better! And it was better. Utter joy in the the abundance of calories. Eating to satisfaction. Sleeping on a full stomach.
Refeeds are more than just a psychological break from the process of dieting. Leptin is a hormone that is released from our fat cells. So when we enter a calorie deficit and start utilizing fat for energy, the drop in leptin levels signals hunger in an attempt to have us source more food. By ignoring this call to action, we continue to burn a fat. Great. However, as leptin levels continue to fall, hunger gets harder and harder to ignore. By consuming a more calories—ideally rich in quality carbs—we can restore leptin levels [somewhat] and briefly elevate our metabolism in response to the perceived calorie surplus. This way, we can eek out a few extra weeks on the diet and maintain forward momentum.
A word of caution though. Eating a metric fuck-ton of ice cream and candy on your refeed is likely going to unravel your progress. Refeeds should be controlled in calories and ideally consist of high quality proteins, carbs and some fats. A little indulgence is ok, but the cleaner you keep it, the better your progress.
It’s also worth noting that a total weekly deficit is still the key here. So if the average calorie load across the week is above your “ever changing” maintenance level, fat loss will stall.
If you want help on your physique transformation journey, there are few coaches that value client relationships as much I do. Get in touch in the comments below, or drop me a message and we’ll talk.
It’ll cost you nothing but a little of your time, and it might just change your life!
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