Question: If someone is looking to reduce body fat and is not showing progress at 20% below their calorie maintenance level, what would be the next logical step to induce fat loss? This person engages in regular aerobic and resistance training.
Answer: The first question I would ask this person is if they had just started their diet and exercise program. I have often see this sort of weird ‘delay’ in fat loss when people first start a new diet/exercise program. And this tends to be far more so the case for women than for men (men always have it easier).
Trainees would be doing everything ‘right’ and absolutely nothing measurable would happen for the first four weeks. And then sometime after week 4, there will be this big change in body composition, seemingly overnight. On the Internet, this is often called the ‘whoosh’ (which usually comes after a ‘stall’).
Which, of course raises the question of what is causing this to occur. Some of it may have to do with gene expression in terms of mobilizing and burning fat off the body, these pathways seem to take some time to get up to full speed when people are just starting out. Some of it may simply be the error in terms of making caliper measurements and our ability to measure small changes with current technology. I suspect a lot of it has to do with water balance. When in doubt, I just chalk it up to voodoo magic and acknowledge that it happens even if we don’t exactly know why.
I honestly suspect that weirdness in water balance plays a huge role in this; and there is a lot of individual variance in how much people are prone to retain water (simply, some are more prone than others). I discussed the ‘whoosh’ phenomenon in The Stubborn Fat Solution and honestly think that water retention and such tend to ‘mask’ true fat loss in a lot of cases, at least over the short term. Then seemingly overnight, it looks like someone has lost several pounds of fat; people wake up leaner and lighter. At some point in the future, I’ll write a full article about the topic.
And while the above applies to both men and women fairly equally, women have an additional issue which is the changes in water balance throughout the month due to the menstrual cycle. As I discussed in Body Composition Recommendations, some women can shift fairly significant amounts of water over the duration of their monthly cycle. That will tend to overwhelm all but the most extreme rates of fat loss.
Trying to measure fat or weight loss in women on a week to week basis is often a futile endeavor and females may have to measure only once per month (ideally at the same point in the cycle) to get any sort of consistent or comparative measures. Women should generally pick a specific point in their cycle and make all measurements then to track changes month to month.
Another option is to measure weekly but only compare the same week of the cycle each month. So week 1 of the cycle would be compared to week 1 of the cycle a month down the road, week 2 is compared to week 2, you get the idea. What doesn’t work is comparing week 1 to week 3 because the body may be holding a ton of water during one of the weeks and not during the other making comparison impossible.
Tangentially, an idea that seems to come in and out of fashion in bodybuilding circles is that of a water load. Bodybuilders who think that they are holding water may bump up water intake fairly significantly for a few days before cutting it back to normal levels. This can often help the body to normalize water balance and may help get past the water retention issue.
I’ve often also seen refeeds (high-carbohydrate overfeeding as discussed in A Guide to Flexible Dieting) trigger whooshes. A bit more accurately, people get fed up with dieting for a month with no visible results, say ‘screw this’ and go pig out. And frequently wake up several pounds lighter and looking leaner. I just try to structure and control it a a bit better with structured refeeds.
Something else to consider has to do with the issue of the estimation equations for maintenance intake. As I discussed in How to Estimate Maintenance Caloric Intake, I use a rough estimate for maintenance of 14-16 cal/lb (31-35 cal/kg). A standard moderate deficit is usually a 20% reduction which puts most people in the range of 10-12 cal/lb (22-26.5 cal/kg).
However, those values are only estimates which have to be adjusted based on real world fat loss (I’ll discuss how I make adjustments in a later article). In modern times, with decreasing amounts of daily activity, I’m finding that many people, unless they engage in quite a bit of exercise during the day, find that even 10 cal/lb doesn’t generate significant fat loss. Because their true maintenance is lower than the estimate.
I have known people who have to go to 8 cal/lb (often with an hour of activity daily) to lose fat at any reasonable rate. So if you’re basing the 20% reduction on one of the estimation equations, that may be getting you into trouble. If your true maintenance isn’t actually 15 cal/lb, using a 20% reduction from that starting point won’t yield appreciable fat loss because true maintenance is lower than the equation is predicting.
A related issue is that, contrary to what some seem to believe, maintenance caloric expenditure is not static, it can vary somewhat with changing diet and activity (both up and down). During dieting, many people tend to move around a bit less during the day, due to fatigue and lethargy, and this reduces the pre-diet maintenance level, offsetting some of the supposed deficit.
An additional factor has to do with systematic mismeasurement of food. And here I’m not talking about people just grossly mis-estimating their food intake; rather, I’m talking about folks who are measuring the amounts of food they’re eating but making mistakes in their measurement (a point made in some detail in Leigh Peele’s Fat Loss Troubleshoot). If you’re using cup or teaspoon (or whatever your metric equivalent) measures to track your food, it’s very possible to end up eating more than you think because you’re still mis-measuring things.
A good example is peanut butter, if you load a tablespoon (supposedly 16 grams and about 100 calories according to the label) fully and then actually weight it on a digital scale, it will invariably be more than 16 grams. And since we all know that you actually overfill the spoon and and lick the sides, well….it’s easy to get a lot more calories than you’re actually writing down. And over the course of multiple meals per day, this adds up.
Depressingly, even vegetables, which are often thought of as ‘free foods’ on a diet, can be a problem in this regards. Due to hunger, some dieters start eating enormous amounts of vegetables (e.g. a head of cauliflower) and when you actually go look up the amount of digestible calories this provides, it does start to add up.
For smaller dieters who don’t have a huge deficit in the first place, it’s possible to eliminate the deficit almost entirely because of this type of thing. Correlating your cup/spoon measures on an actual digital scale may be necessary to make sure you’re not doing this. Yes, this is a pain in the ass and yes this starts pushing people towards insane levels of obsessive compulsive neuroticism. But in some cases it’s absolutely necessary to ensure that what you think you’re eating is actually what you are eating.
However, assuming that none of the above is the actual problem, what would I recommend someone in this situation do? It’s easy, if a 20% deficit is not generating reasonable enough fat loss, I’d suggest increasing the deficit by an additional 10% (this can be done by reducing calories or increasing activity a bit) for a month to see what happens. If that’s still not working, maybe go another 10% for a month. And if nothing has happened by then, I’d suggest getting some blood work done because something would appear to be profoundly wrong.