A persistent calorie deficit will eventually stop working. If your fat loss is stalling and you’re eating less than a junkie, check this out.
As a trainer and nutrition coach, one of the most common quotes I hear is, “I’ve been eating 1100 calories a day for the past two years and I still can’t lose any fat!”
For most average height, active people, around 1000-1200 calories is a huge deficit. Eating so little for so long and not showing anything can be confusing and frustrating.
We like to think with a very input/output mentality. Most calorie calculators assume that if they stay within a certain calorie range, they can lose as much as they want. When this does not occur, these individuals conclude that their metabolism has slowed down due to age or genetics.
These beliefs are often false. Fat loss does not happen linearly because our bodies adapt. Their metabolism simply adapts to their current calorie intake.
Many coaches describe this phenomenon as “starvation mode,” but that’s not entirely true. (I also use this term before getting to what’s actually happening.) Let’s examine why this happens and what you can do about it.
When you chronically undereat, your body adjusts on hormonal levels. According to Dr. Eric Trexler(1), the effects of weight loss and caloric restriction have broad effects on hormone profiles, including:
- Thyroid hormones decrease, causing a drop in metabolic rate.
- Leptin decreases, leading to a drop in metabolic rate and increased hunger.
- Ghrelin increases, which increases hunger.
- Insulin decreases, increasing hunger and threatening muscle retention.
- Testosterone decreases, threatening muscle retention and reproductive health in men.
- Decreased estradiol threatens women’s bone health and reproductive health.
- Cortisol increases, leading to water retention, decreased leptin activity, and may threaten muscle retention.
Prolonged calorie restriction is not only a metabolic adaptation, but according to Trexler, it is “a multifaceted adaptation involving regulation of energy expenditure, appetite, reproductive function, and the balance between anabolism and catabolism.” ( 1)
Once your body has adapted to a state of calorie restriction, the only options for continuing to lose fat are further calorie restriction or increased energy expenditure. However, there is one thing you can neither do safely nor expect to get a positive return.
The problem is, there’s no clear cut-off for the maximum amount of time you should spend in a caloric deficit. For most people, the fat loss phase will be a 12-week cycle, but there can be some variance in this number depending on how much weight you have to lose and the level of calorie deficit you’re in.
So how do you get your body back into homeostasis and potentially preparing it for a successful fat loss phase?
The first step is to increase caloric intake to maintenance levels. This number is equivalent to your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure). You can find it by simply googling “TDEE calculator” and entering your height, age, weight, and activity level.
If you have been in a severe deficit for an extended period of time (more than 6 months and have a calorie deficit of more than 500 calories per day), take 6-8 weeks to stay at maintenance levels to allow your body to return to a state where your hormones can readjust, And you can restore your metabolic function.
Even if you have a lot of weight to lose, short diets can help both physically and mentally. However, if you are on a long-term fat loss journey, when you enter a brief maintenance phase, your new maintenance level of calories will be different than when you started. Remember, when you lose weight, your maintenance level (TDEE) also goes down.
I have coached many people who have spent over a year in extreme calorie restriction before coming to me.One of the scariest things I’ve ever had them do was increase their calories, emphatically proteinThere is usually some resistance to this strategy, but once they trust the process, amazing changes begin to take place in their bodies.
If you’re in a similar situation, try a macronutrient ratio starting with 40% protein, then break down fat and carbs to your liking. It may take some tweaking, but I recommend a higher percentage of carbohydrates for those who are hungrier and a higher percentage of fat for those who are less hungry.
Carbohydrate sources tend to be bulkier.If you struggle to consume a maintenance level of calories, choose a tablespoon of olive or coconut oil high protein drink Get your calories from fat without filling you up too much.
After you’ve returned to your maintenance level for a while, restart the fat loss process by slowly cutting calories again. It sounds counterintuitive, but the goal is to eat as much as possible while losing fat.
Also, all planned calorie reductions should come from carbohydrate and fat sources. Focus on keeping your protein intake high to ensure you retain as much muscle as possible.
The most important takeaway? The fat loss phase needs to be just one phase. You shouldn’t be spending months or years in the red. After a certain point, the return on investment diminishes considerably.
If you’ve been in a caloric deficit of 500 calories or more for more than 16 weeks and you’re no longer seeing positive changes in your physique, it’s time to seriously consider a short-term diet break or a long-term maintenance phase. Fat loss can improve your health, but prolonged calorie restriction can have harmful metabolic and hormonal effects.
If you’re just starting the fat loss phase, you might also consider spending five days on fat loss and two days on maintenance. Details here: Nonlinear fat-loss diets for weightlifters.