"I’m just not supposed to lose fat!"
“My metabolism is different”, “ I could never eat THAT much!”, “I hold water”.
As a coach, these things are repeated to me and a lot of my peers just about every day - everyone is a unique and delicate little flower, just like their mother told them.
Or are they?
Well, you are unique in your own little way. Your nose may not be like the next persons, your taste in clothes may be different and your hands look like no one else’s, so in effect, yes you are different. You also may have a slightly different insulin sensitivity, or a greater or lesser genetic potential for muscle gain, but with all these details aside you still have the same physiological internal mechanisms to lose weigh. Sure, your metabolic rate may be a touch different to Jane who you speak to at Zumba, but the difference is small and is no way able to explain why she can drop 2-3lbs per week and you can’t. So why is it then your weight is staying stagnant or you’re possibly gaining weight?
A quick 101 on Energy balance
…This is important so bear with me.
“Energy balance” is the difference between your energy expenditure, (which is determined by your metabolic rate, daily activity and other things such as the thermic effect of food) and your energy intake (which is the food you put in your mouth and absorb). The difference between these two determines what happens to your body mass, whether it goes up or down or stays the same – energy can’t disappear, so it has to be used or stored and that’s about it. If you absorb more energy from food or liquids than the total energy you expend, the obvious happens and you gain weight; flip this over and the opposite will happen (eating less than you expend consistently will reduce body mass).
If your energy balance is even, your weight is maintained. Sure, different macronutrients can have different results in terms of what that weight is – muscle, fat, glycogen, all that good stuff - but this is a lengthy post for another blog. Here we are just talking about the energy balance equation as a whole and the resultant changes in your stored energy, hence, weight.
A lot of people attempt make this simple process of “Calories in vs Calories out” extremely confusing by talking about hormones or special foods or special exercise modalities which ‘cheat the system’ and some may even choose to denounce it entirely, but when we take a step back and look at the facts – the laws of thermodynamics (1) and thus the energy balance equation ALWAYS rings true.
A lot of approaches which deny the calories in/out equation apply trickery such as raising protein, but this simply serves to to increase the thermic effect of food slightly and also decrease hunger, ultimately meaning that you consume and absorb less energy than usual, potentially altering the energy balance equation.
This calorie in/out rule applies to everyone. If you are eating in a caloric deficit consistently over time then you should lose weight, but this raises a question - why do people still claim that when they eat a very low calorie diet, they still cant lose weight or they seem to gain some?
Factors in fat loss stalls
There could be many reasons but the main ones I’d like to discuss today are:
- Guilt and repeated lying to ones self about what food is actually being eaten
- Occasional binge-like behaviour which goes unreported
- Lack of experience and inability to track accurately
- Genuinely not realising when eating
- Blatant lying (which is doubtful, but it does happen)
…All seem to be main factors
I hear “ I cant lose weight” or “ I cant gain weight” so many times, that I do actually think people convince themselves that it’s true and consider their goals impossible to reach – but this is not the case. Create a large enough calorie surplus, or calorie deficit, and something has to happen, end of story. It may not be fun being in a large calorie deficit, it might not be sustainable for ever, but body fat will be lost in times of calorie deficits. Look back to the survivors of the concentration camps, they were on low calories for long periods of time and there wasn’t one over weight individual among them. So a person who claims they are gaining weight on low calorie diets fall into two categories.
- People who are gaining and storing obscene amounts of water due to a variety of reasons.
- People are just really bad at estimating calorie intakes vs energy expenditure, or choosing to convince themselves something else is happening, but still over consuming calories.
And it’s often a combination of the two.
"So why is it then your weight is staying stagnant or you’re possibly gaining weight?".
Studies show that when asking people to fill in what they think is an honest food diary, they underreport their food and over estimate the amount of calories they burn – even when they are shown how to do it correctly and even when they KNOW that they will be ‘caught out’ if they misreport. (2) So what this means is that when people compare their food intake to their energy expenditure, they’ll tend to say that they eat very little and burn a lot; and be totally way off the mark. This means that the expected weight loss simply doesn’t happen.
Ask someone to write down their food intake for the day and you run in to a lot of issue out of the gate; they can’t remember exactly what they ate or the amounts they ate, and they only tend to remember the good foods they ate, and seem to ‘forget’ the bad. The few extra chocolates they had from the office box, the cake at a party, the milk and sugar in lattes, the spoon of coconut oil they put in coffee or over their healthy superfood salad ( because coconut oil burns fat right – Joke) all come down to under reporting what is actually being consumed. Watch this real life test that was carried out on underreporting.
Under the influence of alcohol, things become even worse, the food consumed and calories swallowed by alcohol all add up, and add up incredibly quick too, you know how it is when you have a beer and your mates drag you to the pizza shop after, I don’t want to spoil your fun but it’s easy to fold away 1000’s of calories on a night out drinking and eating. Does that mean alcohol and socialising is off limits? Hell no, you can consume alcohol and get results if done properly, but this is more than id like to cover in this blog. More on this to come later.
So as you can see it makes it extremely difficult to track a person’s food intake, especially if they are doing it at the end of the day. This is why, even though it’s a huge pain to do (at least initially), meticulously tracking food intake DURING THE DAY for a few days or weeks can be an excellent learning tool to accurately quantify a person’s food intake, providing it’s done right and the person is educated on “how to” do so correctly. This should be done by getting a food scale and measuring cups/spoons then weighing and logging food at each meal. Sounds easy enough…well; it is in principle, but it actually isn’t for most people. Part of the coaching process I use has a structure that shows my clients how to track easily and effectively, I educate them on foods, macronutrients and how to track, they don’t have to track long term and we then move onto how to eat more intuitively if you don’t have time to track all of the time or you eat out a lot and can’t - which when done correctly has seen my clients getting some pretty “INSANE” results - without all the added stress and confusion.
When people who persistently swear up and down that they “Just don’t eat that much food” actually sit down and track their intakes, I suddenly find that they are eating up to two or three times as much as we first thought, and I have seen this a number of times throughout my years of coaching. I’ve done it my self when I first started understanding and tracking foods many years ago, before all these fancy apps arrived on the market, I missed a full day logging foods leading up to a show and came to find at a later date, I was missing hundreds of calories – simply due to not being able to remember what I ate that day. If people who are familiar with tracking and understanding foods easily slip up, those who don’t have the same amount of practice will understandably find it a very troublesome and frustrating task, but once you are shown how to track and understand nutrition from the ground level up, the results you have been waiting so long for, all come together (hopefully by now you are learning the ropes).
Sometimes, hormones are genuinely out of whack
When I have a client that presents no weight loss, when weight loss should be happening, hormonal issues could indeed be present – but this is not to say that the person can never reach their goals. Even those with hormonal issues can still lose weight, as mentioned earlier it is possible, just slower than you'd expect but it can still happen and we have to reinforce this as a coach that time is a virtue in some cases. If I feel that there are hormonal restraints impacting the coaching, its time to refer to an endocrinologist. Thyroid issues can indeed make fat loss harder, but it’s still possible, and hormone replacement medication is extremely effective.
Ultimately, though, if a client doesn't lose weight on a low calorie intake, they are most probably eating more than you or they are aware of. Days where tracking food is not consistent can easily see a large increase in calories, simply because there is no thought or awareness involved. Calories pushed to one side such as binge eating at a weekend, or having a non-tracked day where (" they went a little over") can of course blow out a full week of good eating.
What to do next?
For the typical weight loss client, daily under-reporting, or under-reporting a few times throughout the week is much more likely to be the issue of why their results are slow or not happening at all, rather than the fact they have ‘metabolic damage’ or struggle to lose body fat. In these cases I ensure I ask the right questions which will depend on the person I have in front of me.
Is my client under-reporting on purpose or are they unknowingly tracking incorrectly?
If so, how often is this happening and do I need to use an accountability tool such as “Evernote” food diary, for ways that the client can take a picture of the food they consume, allowing me to see their portion sizes, choices and times and dates taken. That way I can get a true reading of what is served in front of them on a daily basis.
My fitness pal is a great tool to use, but there are so many flaws of use for someone who has only a basic understanding of food and tracking. For example, if you type “white rice” into My fitness pal, an uncooked 100g portion will give you 75g of useable carbs, accidentally click on “white rice that is cooked” and you will get only around 30g of carbs. This, in itself can be a real issue when under reporting, as you can see, the portion size has doubled. Some people are also ‘selective’ of which option they use, purposefully looking for the lowest value for a given food – they are tracking ‘accurately’, but only lying to themselves.
So long as this approach is fully explained to the client, tracking and understanding foods can be a fun and educational way of learning about what you eat, how to eat and how it makes you feel and perform.
If you are someone who wants to feel good, understand your own body, what foods to choose and how much to eat in order to look and feel great everyday, drop me an email as I am looking for two clients - dedicated clients who want to finally get results.
- "A calorie is a calorie" violates the second law of thermodynamics, 2004, Richard D Feinman, Eugene J Fine
- Discrepancy between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects, 1992, Lichtman SW et al