Most fat-loss experts agree that the keys for successful fat loss for beginners is a combination of calorie restriction, improvements in the quality of food eaten and exercise. However, do these strategies still apply to fit people who continue to struggle to lose body fat? Let’s dig in.
While calorie restriction is the single most important factor in fat loss, there are problems with it. Research shows that weight loss tends to come from both stored body fat and lead muscle mass. This is exactly why anyone wanting to lose weight should be strength training – to offset the negative implications of muscle loss. However, it is impossible to completely preserve all lean mass.
Another issue is that many people expect fat loss to happen in a linear fashion, and this never happens. It is common for dieters to get frustrated and start going to extremes to “break through plateaus,” etc. This is never a good idea unless you are prepping for the bodybuilding stage.
The body decides where calories are allocated, and this is based on a hierarchy of needs. The energy required for basic survival and brain function ALWAYS get prioritized, and it is estimated that approximately 65-75% of your daily calories are required for these biological processes.
Any remaining energy is used for daily activities such as exercise and recovery. This means that if you cut calories really low (i.e. extreme dieting), your body will need to find a way to fuel these other activities. This normally happens from the breakdown of body fat to be burned during exercise. Reducing calories works well in the beginning, but over time it effectiveness tends to diminish for a number of reasons.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the effects of chronic stress, which has the effect of preserving body fat. Chronic stress causes humans to store more body fat, while also creating digestion and nutrient-absorption issues, along with neurotransmitter problems (affecting mood and motivation), and possibly fatigue. At the end of the day, the “fit” person will find fat loss to be more difficult.
Is there a Solution?
Every person is different and responds differently to different foods, protocols, exercise regimens, etc…and as such, there is not a simple answer. However, there are strategies that can be implemented with varying degrees of success. More often than not, it comes down to the individual doing a series of N=1 experiments over some period of time. And that does not mean doing daily or weekly experiments. Often these take months
Some of these strategies include:
- Reverse dieting – slowly adding more calories in on a weekly basis over the course of 4-6 months, while continuing to improve the nutrient density of the diet.
- Calorie cycling – higher calories on training days and lower calories on recovery days.
- Workout cycling – changing the type of workouts every 2-3 weeks, for different training effects.
It’s important to realize and acknowledge that 1 of the above strategies may work for a while, but then it stops working. This is actually normal, because human biology is complex. And this is why it’s critical to do regular assessments. The reality for all of us is that there are always going to be specific stressors that will impeded your ability to lose fat, no matter how good you are with your diet. According to Susan Birch, there are 4 main stressors that impact fat loss for fit people.
Out of Range Blood Sugar
If you’re struggling to lose fat, it may be a good idea to monitor fasting and post-prandial (after eating) glucose. Without going into the science, the important point is that levels outside of the normal range will indeed affect your ability to lose body fat. Out of range blood sugar leads to cortisol dysregulation/hypoglycemia, which results in sleep issues, and the inability to recover properly from training-induced inflammation.
Inadequate Sleep and Thyroid Function
Good quality sleep is essential to fat loss. Regular sleep loss depresses the immune system. Even as little as one week of inadequate sleep disrupts blood sugar to the level of a prediabetic. Studies show that the effects of stress and cortisol disruption often manifest as difficulty in falling asleep or problems staying asleep.
Thyroid function along with the interaction of all the other hormones, enzymes, cofactors, etc. helps provide energy to the human body, while regulating fatigue. Women are more susceptible to low free T3, particularly when they’re eating fewer calories and insufficient carbs.
Gut Microbiome Dysfunction
Gut microbiome problems are a major source of stressor for the body. Digestive issues will stall efforts to lose body fat. This may require testing and professional consulting from a specialist. Proper digestion and the absorption of nutrients is essential for fat loss, because the body simply cannot function without the right nutrients available.
If you are not ready to pay for testing just yet, here are some simple ways to assess your gut.
- Take note of your bowel movements. You should be regular and consistent and the stool should be well-formed. Consistent episodes of constipation and diarrhea are red flags of digestive issues that need to be addressed.
- Bloating, excessive gas, and reflux are all indications of not properly absorbing nutrients and may possibly also indicate bacterial imbalances or food intolerances, or possible parasites.
- Food allergies are an indication that digestion and elimination pathways aren’t performing as expected. Gluten and lactose sensitivities are common these days.
Continuing to train when we need to recover will result in the release of excess cortisol and other hormones that increase heart rate and blood pressure. This will put our bodies into chronic stress mode. And it create a vicious cycle that induces inflammation, decreases sleep and increases cravings for sugary foods. It’s important to pay attention to your body and there are tools today that can help us to do that quite accurately. Assessing HRV (Heart Rate Variability) is a very good tool to use.
In conclusion, if you are fit and are struggling to lose fat, know that it’s not an impossible task, but that it does require stepping up your game. Assessments of key stressors are a necessary piece of the puzzle. And what works for you may not be the same thing that works for your brother, sister, spouse or training partner. It may require some testing, some consultation and some experimentation.