Are you gaining weight despite "doing all the right things?" When it comes to fat loss, more exercise and less food is not always the answer. Although this approach makes sense in a vacuum, the human metabolism is far more complex. Here is your guide to cracking the code on sustainable weight loss.
A Primer on Metabolism
The human metabolism is what keeps you alive. It doesn't have a mind of its own nor does it care about your desire to gain or lose weight -- it's sole function is to keep things steady, because steady keeps you within the ideal parameters for survival.
Resting metabolic rate (RMR) is the amount of energy required daily to support a healthy body while at rest. Should you choose to lay in bed all day, your body will still burn this set amount of energy to support life. That's right, you don't have to exercise or eat kale for your body to burn calories: 60-75% of your daily caloric burn happens at rest.
The additional 25-40% of daily caloric burn comes from both moving and eating. Yes, another brain buster: The Thermogenic Effect of Feeding (TEF) accounts for ~10% of daily metabolic demands. The more you eat, the more your metabolism has to work. This is also one of the main reasons that higher protein diets are recommended to weight-loss clients, as more energy is required to digest protein vs. fat or carbs.
Finally, movement affects the remaining 15-30% of daily energy expenditure in three ways:
1) Calories burned during exercise itself
2) Calories burned post-exercise as the body tries to recover and restore metabolic processes (EPOC)
3) Calories burned during unplanned daily movement like fidgeting, shaking your leg uncontrollably at work, adjusting your jock strap, etc. (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis)
KEY #1: Your metabolism is geared solely to keep you alive. If you want to lose weight you have to support your metabolism through healthful, balanced actions.
Determining Calories for Fat Loss
A simple way to determine your RMR is to take your ideal bodyweight and multiply it by 10. As a 5'8" male, my ideal body weight is likely around 170, giving me a RMR around 1700. A 5'5" female, whose ideal body weight may be 130, would have a RMR around 1300.
To calculate the rest of your daily energy demands, you simply add an activity multiplier reflective of your lifestyle:
Sedentary -- desk job and little to no exercise (multiply by 1.2)
Lightly Active -- light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week (multiply by 1.375)
Moderately Active -- moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week (multiply by 1.55)
Very Active -- hard exercise/sports 6-7 days/week (multiply by 1.725)
Extremely Active -- hard daily exercise/sports and physical job or training (multiply by 1.9)
This calculation will give you a ballpark calorie range for weight maintenance.
170lb male who exercises 3-4x per week can maintain his weight at around 2600 calories/day
130lb female who exercises 3-4x per week can maintain her weight at around 2000 calories/day
To achieve weight-loss calorie targets from these numbers, you should subtract no more than 500 calories/day and the number must always remain above your RMR. Dramatic calorie cuts will result in unhealthy and unsustainable weight.
KEY #2: Set your calories as high as possible while aiming for weight loss around 0.5-1lb/week.
As a general rule of thumb you should rarely, if ever, eat fewer calories than your RMR. Recall, this is the baseline number of calories that your body needs to power the metabolic processes that keep you alive. Going below this number will cause metabolism will slow down, making fat loss near-impossible, and potentially causing adverse health effects.
- Fat cells don't die, they shrink, so whatever plan you adopt to lose weight must be maintained forever to prevent these cells from re-expanding.
- If you slash your calories, you will acutely reduce your daily metabolic rate (via decreased TEF). If this deficit is maintained for too long you will lose muscle mass along with body fat which will chronically lower your RMR. This is how you damage your metabolism over time.
- The more extreme the diet, the less likely it is to work. Small, progressive changes in diet and exercise allow the body to adapt sustainably over time.
KEY #3: Losing more than 2lbs/week is unsustainable and will result in weight regain and potential health problems.
Are You Starving Yourself Fat?
If you are trying to lose weight through regular, intense exercise, you need to support this demand by providing the body with enough calories (and especially enough carbohydrates). It has become commonplace for people to combine intense daily exercise with crash diet plans devoid of carbohydrates, which is a recipe for metabolic disaster. As much as caloric restriction combined with lots of exercise "makes sense" for weight loss, this does not mean that more is always better.
Signs of a diet too low in calories:
- Stalled weight loss/unexpected weight gain
- Extreme mood swings
- Trouble sleeping/insomnia
- Constantly feeling cold
The solution is to introduce more whole food sources to your diet while easing off the exercise. Once you feel human again, you can reset with the calculations above to find your sweet spot for progressive, healthy weight loss.
Simple, basic, weight loss recommendations:
1) Set realistic, long-term expectations. Losing more than 1lb per week is unsustainable.
2) Start with a small caloric deficit. If the process feels like you're killing yourself, you're probably killing yourself.
3) Taking the point above into consideration, eat a diet that contains foods you'll actually eat. Nutrient-dense (whole) foods will give you better results and better health, but the best diet is the one you can stick with so make sure it includes some food options that you genuinely look forward to eating.
4) Aim for at least 1g of protein per lb of desired body weight. This will keep your metabolic rate higher and keep you more satisfied after meals.
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