*Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor or dietitian. I don't know what exactly is best for YOU - I'm just sharing my own experience.*
Let's take a look at an all too common scenario:
You're eating 1500 calories, which (according to fancy calculators) should be a 500 calorie deficit aka enough for you to lose weight. However, you've been eating 1500 calories for months and months and months and months and you still just can't lose weight. You up your cardio, work out more, train harder, and still nothing. The next logical step is to further increase the deficit, right? Okay, now you take calories down to 1200 calories. If you're not a very small human or stepping on stage in a physique show, this intake is probably unbearably low for you - you're cranky, hungry, miserable, and have trouble adhering to this low intake. And now you're stuck.
Does that sound familiar? If it does, I get it. I get how frustrating it can be and how you can feel like you're doing everything "right" but getting no results. However...have you considered not dieting?
I know. You're thinking "What the fuck? Why would I do that? I want to lose fat! and get lean!" I get it. But hear me out.
Let me preface this by saying that this advice doesn't apply to everyone. If you haven't been dieting or eating in a caloric deficit recently and want to start dieting to get a little leaner, then great! You go do your thing! If you've been dieting, as in eating in a caloric deficit and actively trying to lose weight, for several months during the past year, with no real break (single days or weekends don't count here)....then this is for you.
Weight loss, fat loss, dieting, whatever you want to call it typically requires a few things, including: some sort of caloric intake that is lower than what you need to maintain your weight, a decent hormonal environment that is conducive to fat loss, and progression of the deficit to accommodate your body's inevitable adaptation to said deficit. These factors all work together to help fat loss occur and all three are incredibly important. Another key component here is stress. Stress continues to be the biggest struggle for me (and the major contributor to my PCOS) and others, and managing stress levels is also a key factor in the fat loss equation. When I refer to stress, I don't just mean feeling stressed out about a looming deadline, exam, or relationship issue. Stress encompasses more than just psychological stress - eating at a lower caloric level is a stressor, training is a stressor, etc. To make a long story short, fat loss is complicated and several different things play a role in successful dieting.
When you diet, and you do so for awhile, things start to downregulate and adapt. Your body is built to adapt to accomplish the important task of keeping you alive, so it adapts to the energy intake you give it and starts to get pretty damn efficient at utilizing that intake to keep you going. In the example at the start of this post, some adaptation has definitely occurred. Again, great for the whole survival thing, not so great for fat loss efforts. So what is the answer? It depends. But one solution could be to take some time (like actual months, not days or a week) to build up your food intake, regulate hormone levels, and get yourself adapted to a significantly higher calorie intake. Is it easy? No. Is it uncomfortable at times? Yes. Is it worth it? ABSOLUTELY.
I'm going to use my own experience as an example here, but please note that I'm not special in any regard here. Physiology is pretty standard across the board and I have a few conditions that make my circumstance unique (PCOS, gluten free stuff, amenorrhea) but not shockingly different.
October 2016: I'm about 141 lbs here, very dieted down after a very long competitive season, my stress is very high from life stuff, and I'm headed off to my first strongman nationals. I'm definitely the leanest I've ever been and my gym performance is actually pretty decent. I'm dieting on 1600ish calories, which was typically where I HAD to go to start dropping weight.
January 2017: I take time off of dieting and start to ramp calories back up. I get diagnosed with PCOS and amenorrhea after some hormonal issues and missing my period. I end up gaining a good bit of weight quickly (due in part to the PCOS). Stress levels are okay, but not great. I'm probably about 148 here. Calories are up to about 1800+ here.
March 2017: I'm feeling okay about my physique but it's the heaviest I've been in awhile, around 150 or so, but my coach talks me through it. I know that hormonally, my body isn't ready to diet just yet and I'm not mentally ready to do that either. Managing stress is super key for me and my PCOS, so I'm working on that. I'm probably eating 2000+ calories here.
July 2017: I'm working on maintaining my weight and I'm up to about 155lbs, which is much heavier than I've been in quite some time. It's uncomfortable but my physique is starting to change, my hormone levels are in a positive spot, and I'm getting really really strong. Calories are about 2300+ here.
December 2017: I've been dieiting for about a month and a half to two months now (am 151 here), have lost 7lbs, gym performance is better than ever, hormones are great, and everything is moving right along. My calories are about 2100 on training days and 1850 on rest days. I've had my calories adjusted (to the current levels listed) ONCE and am continuing to drop weight in a slow and steady manner, have my strength increase, and have my physique change in positive ways.
Dieting this time around has been easy. But easy is earned. It took a lot of time to build back up and periods of discomfort to get to a place where my body was ready to diet down again.
I did nothing crazy, extreme, or incredibly special here. Seriously. There was no special supplement, or training style, or "diet hack" (lololol at that term). It was just trusting the process and making a commitment to set myself up for success. That meant being comfortable with being uncomfortable and truly embracing the fact that my self-image is not dependent on my body-image. My worth is not tied up in my weight or leanness or whatever. In fact, it's been a pretty awesome experience to watch my body change and realize that I'm dieting on 600 more calories than I had been at this time last year. It's a great feeling to feel like my body is working with me, not against me.
NOW WHAT DO I DO?
If you're stuck in a place where you feel like you're spinning your wheels and getting frustrated, the answer may not be to add more stress. Bodies are amazing - they can change, adapt, overcome, and do incredible things. But they need some kindness and some relief. So how do you accomplish that?
- Build up calories, slowly: Add a small amount of calories, about 100, (primarily in the form of fats and carbs) every week or two and continue to build up until you're at a level that is at or above your ideal maintenance level. This will be tough, mentally. But remember the long-term here.
- Train hard: Use all that extra food to get really fucking strong. Train hard, enjoy the strength gains, and focus on your progress here.
- Maintain a higher weight for awhile: Build up and then maintain there for a bit, at least 2-3 months. This varies by person but resist the temptation to immediately start dieting. Again, see the big picture here.
- Get some accountability: If this process is a struggle for you, I highly recommend seeking out a coach to guide you through it. If you don't want to hire a coach, find a group of people, friends, etc. that can help keep you accountable to your goals. Accountability is key and it helps to have someone or a group of people that you can vent to who understand the process.
I know that not dieting is much easier said than done, but dieting should not be a lifestyle. For your health, sanity, and long term progress, taking periods of time where you eating in a surplus and/or maintenance level is incredibly important. It may not be comfortable, but having periods of temporary discomfort to benefit your long-term health and goals is absolutely worth it.
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