One of the most common things we're asked about here at BTN is a situation in which someone’s client is not losing weight, despite being on an apparently very low caloric intake.
Because this seems like such a frequent issue, we wanted to give a broad answer that will hopefully help you if you ever come across it either in a coaching capacity, or in the pursuit of your own goals. We’re not saying that this would be the solution in every single instance of course, because as we all know, each situation is different, but it is a good place to start.
So, if your client is aiming for a calorie intake that should comfortably place them in a deficit, but they're not making the progress they should be, the following steps are what we would recommend you take in order to begin to understand the problem:
1 – Check your maths.
This comes first because it's the easiest thing to check and, frankly, if it's the problem then nothing else would have mattered anyway. Run your calculations again for estimating your client's calorie needs and ensure they're in a deficit. Remember, nobody has the exact calorie requirement that a calculation will give you and so if your client is only in a small deficit according to the calculation you've done (say 10-15%) then try just dropping another 10% and seeing what happens. Calorie calculators provide educated guesses, not precise figures, and it’s not unusual for them to be out by 100-200kcal and so if this is the entirety of your client’s deficit the problem may simply be here.
You may also want to check your client's activity - it may not be as high as you thought initially, so recommending some more steps/cardio sessions or reducing your calorie recommendations would be good. Finally, if the client has already lost a lot of weight, then their calorie requirements will have dropped too and they may no longer be in a large enough deficit. So, it is worth periodically reassessing to ensure that they are still in a calorie deficit.
2 - Work out how long it’s been.
Stagnating on the scales for 1,2 or even 3 weeks is normal, so chill (especially if other measurements are broadly going in the right direction). This goes double for clients with a menstrual cycle, as this can cause temporary weight gain and bloating.
3 - Look at their tracked food choices.
Here you're looking for two things: Firstly, an abundance of highly processed, low nutrient snack foods, and secondly things like drinks, cooking oil, snacks, condiments, and spreads not being tracked.
You're looking for the first thing because these foods tend to be pretty poor from a satiety point of view as well as being hyperpalatable. While flexible dieting is great for many, those who eat lots of these kinds of things and are finding it hard to lose weight tend, on average, to have poorer overall dietary adherence due to hunger and cravings.
Though there isn’t a ton of data looking at this snack-adherence issue directly, diets rich in snacks and low calorie highly processed foods tend to be less satiating and more hyperpalatable which, in many cases in our experience as coaches, can lead to additional snacking that doesn’t get tracked. This is all to say that diets rich in low calorie, highly processed snacks can often be higher calorie than expected, as those eating them can overeat due to cravings and hunger without tracking their food accurately. Recommending a higher intake of unprocessed foods (rather than cutting stuff out, which is a more negative framing) can be useful here as the client should feel more satiated between meals.
You're then looking for a lack of cooking oil, drinks, and so on because these are things that people tend to miss or forget when tracking, and they can add a lot of calories – simply asking the client if they ever use these things is a good, non-confrontational way to broach the topic initially.
4 - Have an honest convseration
If the above checks out (the client is in an appropriate deficit, has stalled for quite a while, is making good overall food choices, and isn't missing obvious stuff) it's time to have a difficult conversation because, ultimately, your client isn't tracking accurately. Some may think 'what about adaptation?' and this is valid, but unless the deficit is fairly small adaptation won't lead to complete stagnation.
But how do you approach this?
There are two obvious ways you can go about this, both of which we discuss at length on The BTN Practical Academy.
The first option is to talk to them and ask questions such as "if there was some aspect of your nutritional approach that you feel may be holding you back, what might it be?" or "how many times in the last 30 days are you confident that you've tracked with absolute precision?" and "were there any days where you've had to have a bit of a guess?" Assist them in isolating the issue, and then help them solve it, maybe with better planning, or alternative strategies. Typically, a day of poor tracking can lead to a few days of poor eating because that's just how habits work and tackling that will be a massive help. Remember, dietary non-adherence doesn’t usually look like 7 days out of 7 being off-plan; dietary nonadherence tends to look like complete adherence, but with a few 10 minute windows throughout a week of eating a little more than planned, that a client can simply forget about.
Secondly, consider not tracking for a while. A client that finds it hard to track usually (not always but usually) finds dietary adherence really difficult in general, so just plugging away by trying to improve adherence without changing the strategy entirely isn't likely to help. Perhaps it's time for the client to instead just reconnect with their hunger and satiety cues, make better food choices, and get in the habit of eating in a sustainable way without focusing on loss at all. Taking a few weeks/months to help a client get a better relationship with food, rather than focusing on fat loss, is a perfectly justifiable nutritional strategy and one that can help your client massively in the long run. Sometimes you have to take a step back in order to take 2 steps forward, and there is no law that says someone wanting to lose fat needs to start seeing a change in the scales immediately – in order to do something you have to get ready first, and that might take some longer than it does others.
Remember, when working with nutrition and exercise you're not just a fat loss coach, you're a nutrition and exercise coach, and changes that don’t show up on the scales are important, too.
That's why at BTN we say learn nutrition, change lives
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