Calorie intake control, the fundamental requirement in reaching body composition goals. It always seems so simple, but when it comes to choosing to make a change in body composition, either through an increase in muscle mass or reduction in fat mass, we have to understand and reflect as to why it is that so often our endeavours fail.
Firstly lets look at this solely from a fat reduction standpoint before we turn the tables on muscle gain in a future post. We all at some point may encounter a desire for fat loss for personal reasons. This could be focus on a performance outcome (the ability to jump higher, sprint faster, make a weight class in a sport…), a focus on physique to achieve a certain look (6-pack abs, a slimmer waist or looser fitting clothing…), a focus on health (an improvement in blood work markers…), or a focus on a lifestyle change (trouble moving around day to day, ability to remain active in later life…).
Yet fundamentally what each of these have in common is underneath them all the same mechanisms and procedures are at play. Our goal is to reduce the amount of adipose tissue a person has, we’re trying to make individual fat cells smaller whilst maintaining accrued muscle mass. We are NOT trying to turn fat into muscle…
When it comes to fat loss, we have two main factors to consider;
- Fractional Synthetic Rate (FSR) of Fat Tissue: the rate in which new adipose tissue is stored
- Fractional Breakdown Rate (FBR) of Fat Tissue: the rate in which we break down adipose tissue for energy usage.
When FBR is greater than FSR, body fat is lost. On the surface it really is as simple as that. This is the whole energy in vs energy out equation we all fully understand yet find it so hard to implement.
Contributors to having a higher FBR are components such as our metabolism (what it takes to keep us alive internally), our general daily activity (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis), our intentional exercise (Exercise Activity Thermogenesis), and an adequate amount of sleep and low levels of stress. Each of these components play a role in assisting in body fat loss.
Contributors to a lower Fractional Synthetic Rate? (i.e. a lower ratio of weight gain)…
Calorie Intake Control.
So what is all this telling us?
We need to move more and consume less overall calories, the rest is simply detail.
But the devil is in the detail…
Many individuals fail in a weight loss endeavour because they will fall short in meeting one of the following criteria.
- Not actually creating a calorie deficit: this could be through under reporting of food if tracking, under estimating of portion sizes, eating surprisingly calorie dense foods or blowing out a weeks worth of calories for one night out and a takeaway. If we take in more resources than the body needs, it creates a situation for storage.
- Not consuming an adequate amount of Protein: weight loss and body composition changes are NOT synonymous. The goal is to maintain as MUCH muscle mass as possible, not simply becoming a smaller version of yourself. Muscle is a fundamental preventer of all cause mortalities. The more muscle mass we can maintain across the lifespan, the greater our health and lifestyle is likely to be.
- Not consuming enough Carbohydrates to support muscle and performance: if you want to lose weight and still exercise, you need sufficient amounts of carbohydrates. Not only are they a fuel source for exercise, they are literally protein sparing. In the presence of both carbohydrates and protein, the body will preferentially choose to use carbohydrates, thus preventing muscle loss.
- Not consuming enough Fats to support muscle and performance: anyone who has attempted to lose a large amount of weight quickly, or for an extended period of time, may have encountered significant disruption to their sex life in some capacity… Fat is a precursor to hormone production, when levels of consumption (or actual body fat) get too low, it directly effects our HPG Axis, the regulator of our sexual function.
- Failure to maintain a reasonable nutritional timing: Intermittent Fasting, Alternate Day Fasting, skipping breakfast, missing dinner… whilst all of these may contribute to a reduction in calorie intake, how sustainable are they psychologically over time? If I’ve only got 1800 calories to consume within a day, 4 evenly split 400-500 calorie meals is a far more sustainable approach over a fat loss phase than two meals of 900 calories. Why? Regular feeding windows offset some of the effects that our hunger hormones have on appetite, we’re far less likely to binge in periods of perceived hunger when meals aren’t interspersed with 6-8 hours windows.
- Misguided use and understanding of the importance of supplements: Fat burner pills, wonder shakes, teas, quick-fix approaches and magical transformations. Don’t fall for marketing. Don’t put the cart before the horse. Supplements are designed to supplement. Understand first principles and develop a “bullshit detector” against those that promise the world but provide nothing in return.
- Consistency: Commit to a time frame by understanding typical time courses for the goal you desire. Then attack it surgically day after day. Hitting your calorie or macronutrient targets Monday through to Friday and then over-consuming by 1000 calories on each day of the weekend days leaves you in a surplus of 285 calories each day… 2-3 weeks down the line and you’re a kilo heavier, rather than lighter.
- Corollary of Consistency: when a plan goes wrong, how badly does it go wrong? Eating an extra 50-100 kcal a day to have a small treat that keeps you motivated to continue is nothing compared to one night of eating 4000 kcal of takeaway, beer, shots and only getting 3 hours of a semi-attempt of sleep because you deserve a “cheat day”. If you’re going off plan, still have a plan…
- Proper duration: a pregnant female may put on an extra 10-15lbs+ of weight over 9 months. A middle-aged man may experience the creeping normality of a few extra pints here and there over the course of 3-5 years before they notice the weight gain. Losing body fat should NOT be a rapid process. If it took 18 months to put on, it won’t take 4 weeks before a holiday to take off. There is a reason why individuals rebound in weight from examples just as these. It may take longer than you expect, you may need to commit more time, it may involve splitting overall weight loss into phases, but the difference between making sure this is the “last time you lose the weight” is commitment to making sure it really is.
Attempts at body composition changes come with individual reasons and benefits, trade-offs and downsides but the process is simple, the adherence, effort and consistency is where the challenge lies.
Ask yourself the next time you want to make a body composition change;
- Why do calories even matter?
- How do I know how many calories I should be eating to maintain weight? Lose? Gain?
- Does my bodyweight on the scales actually matter?
- Why does Protein, Carbohydrates or Fat actually matter?
- How do I know how much Protein, Carbohydrates or Fat to eat day-to-day?
- How many meals a day should I be eating? At what times of day? Does it matter?
- What types of Protein, Carbohydrates or Fats should I be eating?
- What legal supplements actually help me to reach my goal?
- How should I measure my progress?
- What happens if I’m gaining or losing weight too slow?
- What happens if I’m gaining or losing weight too fast?
- What is the best rates of weight gain or loss?
- Can I gain or lose weight for too long a time?
- Can I gain or lose weight for too short a time?
- Can I just gain or lose weight endlessly?
- How do I safely adjust calories up?
- How do I safely adjust calories down?
- What should I adjust? Protein, Carbohydrates or Fats?
- Does the types of food I eat matter for weight gain? Weight loss?
- How do I adjust the legal supplements I may be taking?
- Are there circumstances in which choosing to gain weight or lose weight is detrimental?
These questions underpin the process of body composition changes. A coach or personal trainer should be able to support and guide you through these scenarios. If you have a plan with dealing with these scenarios, you’re in a good place to make the changes you desire.
But without a commitment towards consistency and adherence even the best laid plans are unsuccessful. Have the path laid out beforehand and understand the barriers that you will face, rather than jumping headfirst into a body composition change based on timescales, scale weight targets and methods that aren’t created with the individual in mind.
As the prospect of gyms reopening seems more a likelihood over the next few weeks/months within Wales and the UK in general, we are all faced with how we deal with the health aftermath of Lockdown. We all understand the possible negative health implications of being overweight and obese likely now more than ever. Make it the last time you choose to lose excess body fat, should you feel you need too.