How to Make Adjustments as You Diet to Keep Progressing

In the previous article, we covered Why You Need To Make Adjustments as You Diet. This is the guide on how to do it.

Your diet progress has slowed or come to a stop for 2-3 weeks, diet adherence has been good, you’re sleeping well and there is no additional stress at home or work. So what do you do to get things started again?

This is where manipulating your macros may come in.

The goal should always be to have the smallest calorie deficit that you can get away with while still progressing with your diet. This helps keep metabolic adaptation at a minimum, which is important for three key reasons that I’ll quickly explain:

  • Your sex drive stays healthy.
  • You don’t run out of places to make cuts.
  • You reduce the risk of rebound.

1. Your Sex Drive Stays Healthy – No explanation needed of the importance, just bear in mind that when dieting, testosterone is affected, and thus libido will be affected to an extent. We just try to keep that to a minimum.

2. You Don’t Run Out of Space To Make Cuts

The Story of Andy and Bob

Consider two friends whose maintenance calories are 2500kCal per day. They decide to go on a diet to see who can lose the most weight over the next 6 months.

Awesome Andy starts with a daily deficit of ~500kCal, Bonehead Bob ~1500kCal.

The first week…

Bob starts losing weight faster than Andy.

Bob is happier than Andy and considers the hunger worth it because of how quickly the results are coming.

Andy is a little jealous of Bob’s progress but doesn’t really feel hungry or deprived.

6 weeks later…

A is feeling good, progress has been steady but slowed a little recently, still doesn’t feel particularly deprived though, and gym sessions are going well – strength is being maintained.

B on the other hand is suffering, badly. This is both physical and mental. The initial huge water-weight dump set B up with inflated expectations of the fat losses that could be achieved per week. In the second week, losses were a lot less, but still ahead of A so he could put up with the hunger. From then on the losses have slowed considerably each week, strength is being lost in the gym, it’s getting really hard to keep saying no to drinks with friends, and he’s lost interest in sex with his girlfriend.

After 6 weeks of dieting both A and B now need to decrease their macros to continue progressing. Recall from the post, Why you need to make adjustments as you diet, that part of this reason is metabolic adaptation – a drop in their base metabolic rate (BMR). The key difference here is that B’s metabolic rate will have dropped to a much greater extent than A’s.

B has lost more weight than A, but B has really suffered for it.

A is pretty relaxed about making a decrease and progresses onward.

B is faced with eating even smaller meals, or adding cardio. Both are unappealing. It’s just a matter of time before he cracks. B has run out of places to make cuts.

3. You Reduce the Risk of Rebound

Well, Andy certainly has. Bob, however, has set himself up for a big one. Let’s continue the example:

It’s now the end of week 8…

Andy and Bob are camping away with friends for the weekend at a music festival. They’ve had this planned for months. Everyone gets drunk on Saturday night. With lowered inhibitions, they both stumble over to the kebab stand at midnight. Andy has a kebab and stumbles off to the tent to call it a night. Bob, after weeks of heavy calorie restriction just can’t help himself and goes wild – he eats four, runs out of cash, steals a hotdog and wakes up in the car park surrounded by fast food wrappers. They both decide to declare Sunday a total day off.

Monday morning Bob steps on the scales and finds he’s gained 8lbs. He’s heartbroken, and a text message from Andy saying that he gained (just) 4lbs pushes him over the edge. He quits the diet and concedes the challenge.

Part of the weight gained back in both cases is water weight – due to increased carb and salt intake – but B will have gained more fat because he’s hormonally more primed for fat gain after weeks of heavy calorie restriction. With the challenge aborted, the fat gain continues over the next two weeks, despite not eating any more than he would have prior to the challenge, and soon B finds himself back to where he was 8 weeks ago.

Does this story sound familiar? This is why you see most competitive bodybuilders balloon up after their stage day – they cut too quickly and don’t moderate their calorie intake increases afterwards – often they can’t as they’re mentally at breaking point by the time they hit the stage.

The best diet is the one you can keep.

The story of Bob happens every day. But of course, no one is interested in moderation, and companies pushing diets on us don’t give a shit about the rebound.

So what is moderation then? What is reasonable progress?

Fat Loss Guidelines

The body has a pesky tendency when in a calorie deficit to burn the fuels in the ratio they are available: free fatty acids from your stored fat or amino acids from your muscles. By keeping protein high and doing resistance training we try to avoid muscle mass being broken down, however, there is a theoretical limit to how much fat can be released from the fat stores in a single day, and this is inversely proportionate to how lean you are.

  • The leaner you get, the less body fat you can burn a day.
  • If your energy deficit for the day is beyond your body’s capability to fuel itself from fat stores alone, you will lose muscle mass.

Put another way, an obese person can get away with a greater deficit than a leaner person; they can lose fat at a greater rate.

If you shoot for the following you should be ok for preserving muscle mass:

Body fat % Loss /week
30%> ~2.5 lbs / 1.1kg
20-30% ~2 lbs / 0.9kg
15-20% 1.25-1.5 lbs / 0.45-0.7kg
12-15% 1-1.25 lbs / 0.45-0.6kg
9-12% 0.75-1 lbs / 0.35-0.45kg
7-9% 0.5-0.75 lbs / 0.2-0.35kg
<7% ~0.5lbs / 0.2kg

The above figures are my guidelines, they are based on observation, not theoretical limits. For the latter, it will generally be slightly more, but to calculate it is complicated and unnecessary.

Notes:

  • Patience, clearly, is increasingly important as you get leaner.
  • Obese people significantly over 30% body fat will be able to lose more per week without muscle losses, but I don’t advise it for skin elasticity reasons.
  • They are just average guidelines. Short people should shoot for slightly less; taller people may shoot for slightly more.
  • With my coaching clients, I usually advise a maximum targeted rate of 1.5lbs per week, even with those over 20% body fat. This is because it’s more sustainable and produces better results even in the shorter-term:
    1. Hunger pangs, lethargy, and cravings are minimised.
    2. Strength/muscle gain potential is not hampered in those that have the potential for it, as they are with higher deficits. This is important so you don’t diet yourself down from the ‘fat & weak’ category into the ‘skinny-fat’ category. (More on this here.)
  • Strength/muscle gains in beginners (and some lucky intermediate trainees) will make targeting the above rates of fat loss more tricky, as you have muscle gain to factor in. Body measurements and lifting stats become a lot more important for tracking your progress so make sure you know how.

If you are at a point where your fat loss falls short of the target for 2-3 weeks, firstly, wait another week. – Water retention masking fat loss is common for shorter periods, but it gets exponentially more uncommon as time goes on. Waiting 3-4 weeks is what I’d suggest – the fine balance point between the likelihood that it is just water retention vs realistic limits of people’s patience. (Note: if you’re under an unusual amount of stress, then that can cause this to go on for longer.)

If you have waited 4 weeks and the fat loss isn’t happening then you need to either take a diet break or make macro adjustments.

[Update 19/12/2014]: I talked about a male client that had issues with water retention for around 8 weeks on Facebook here. You can see my reasoning on why I didn’t feel the need to make adjustments here.]

Diet Break > Calorie Reduction

Recall the lessons learned with Andy and Bob – we want to make the minimum changes required when dieting to keep fat losses going to avoid unnecessarily high levels of metabolic slow down.

Before looking to cut your energy intake, consider taking a diet break. This won’t counter all the hormonal effects of dieting, but it can help keep your BMR higher, for longer, by minimising the metabolic adaptation. – This means you’ll be able to eat more food while still losing weight.

Lyle McDonald recommends taking a two-week diet break:

Body fat % (men) Diet Break Frequency
<15% every 4-6 weeks
15-25% every 6-12 weeks
25%> every 12-16 weeks

Women add ~7%.

Post diet break people often find that they progress for a while with their previous macro intake. Diet breaks generally are underused though, as they require more patience than people can stomach, and clearly aren’t sexy to talk about.


How to Make Changes To Your Macro Intake

I’m going to assume here that you have set your macro intake according to the rules laid out in the article, How to Calculate Your Macros. (If you haven’t then don’t worry, this should still make sense because you’ll be able to refer to that after.)

Though there will clearly be individual differences, by following those guidelines everyone’s protein intake is going to be set conservatively (high for muscle preservation purposes), and fat intake will be set at or above what I’d consider minimum (for hormonal purposes).

  • To continue with fat losses you’ll want to decrease your overall energy intake for the week by around 5-8%.
  • Protein can be kept the same – it’s the macronutrient that gives the most satiety, and is also muscle sparing, so this is a no-brainer.
  • Reduce energy intake primarily via your fat and carb macros – a 50/50 calorie split respectively will work fine, though there is scope for personal preference here as long as you…
  • Don’t go below 0.4g* of fat per pound of lean body mass – from that point just adjust your carb intake. When you calculate your fat requirement beware of the tendency to underestimate lean body mass, as this will leave your minimal fat intake threshold higher than necessary. *This number is an average to be taken over your training and rest days.

For Leangains Users

(…or anyone having high-carb, low-fat training days and low-carb, higher-fat rest days.)

  • Make reductions from both your training and rest days initially. – Depending on how you set your initial macros you may have little choice as to where your reductions come from: typically for training days it’ll be carbs and rest days it will be fats.
  • When you can’t reduce any more from your rest days just make the reduction via the training days.

Following the above guidelines the first adjustment a person may make to their macro intake might look like this:

  • Training day: Carbs -40-70g, Fats -5g
  • Rest day: Carbs -25g, Fats -10g

Fat Loss Trouble Shoot  Priority List

Reducing calories is a stress to your body. It’s important that before you do so you have all the other pieces of the puzzle in place, or you could drive yourself into a metabolic hole. The only reason you’re reading this article is because you want to know what to do when the fat loss stops. Here is the specific order in which to look at things (note how ‘macro adjustment’ isn’t first):

  1. Sleep – Not getting enough? Do something about it, the deep, uninterrupted kind. Sleep affects everything, fat loss is a biggie.
  2. Stress – Period of high stress at work or home? Consider a diet break. Stress affects your fat loss efforts.
  3. Diet break
  4. Macro adjustment

Concluding Comments

After a long period of dieting it is perfectly normal to have a stall of several weeks. When this happens it can be best to leave things as they are and just challenge yourself to maintain your current weight. If you have 50lbs to lose then it’d be normal to stall 2-3 times during that period. Prepare yourself mentally for it and don’t get frustrated. Maintenance in and of itself is an achievement.

I know everyone wants to get shredded now, but this isn’t a race. The winners are the people who can maintain their physique and that comes down to those that can keep to their diet in the long run.

How often do you typically need to make adjustments to a diet? 

I can tell you what I experience working with clients, but obviously, that’s biased towards less adjustments because I have more practice at setting things up.

In around 25% of cases where the focus is fat loss I won’t need to make any adjustments during the full 12 week period that I typically work with people.  In the rest it’s normal to need to make a change at some point. As I’m fairly good at guessing initial calorie intakes and suitable macro settings, I’d say that the majority of the adjustments that do take place come in the 8th week or onwards.

The best situation is where everything proceeds as planned and you don’t have to make any diet changes for as long as possible. Don’t wish for complication and never adjust things unnecessarily.

*******

Thanks for reading.

Browse the other diet adjustment guides using the menu at the top, or get access to my full book on the topic of how I adjust the diets of my clients to take them to shreds and how you can do that too, here.

Questions welcomed in the comments as always. – Andy. 


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About the Author

Andy Morgan

Hi, I'm Andy, co-author of the highly-acclaimed 'Muscle and Strength Pyramid' books and founder of RippedBody.com. This site is my sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire me to coach them, which I've been doing full-time, online, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one coaching to help you crush your physique goals, let's start the conversation. (You can read more about Andy here.)

365 Comments

  1. WeiXian Teh says:

    I think I hit a plateau on my shredded plan. I have been doing 15 min Medium intensity Tabata every morning, upper lower workout split (4 days a week) with strength low reps training, 4 session of 20min Low-intensity steady state cardio after workout. Been including refeed day once a week by eating maintenance calories with increasing carbs intake only. Now I’m starting to feel very weak is like when I walk then I felt very tired. So what do you think I should do? Lastly is it possible I remain my weight but I manage to get to 8 percent body fats due to refeed? Or the right way to track is I still have to lose that amount of weight?

    Regards,
    XIAN

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      What should you do? Stop doing all the shit I haven’t suggested you do. No refeed. No Tabatas. Drop the cardio. Have patience. You’ve set yourself up in a way you can’t sustain and it’s no wonder you’re feeling tired. You’ll find my decision-making process in my book.

  2. Mike says:

    I’ve been trying to get out of purgatory for a while. I’m 5’8, small frame, naturally slow metabolism, 140 lbs, bf between 15% and 20%. Trying to get close to 10% so I can start a clean bulk. I’ve been tracking my calories, lifting heavy several times a week, little to no cardio, and gradually adjusting my calories downward. I’ve lost about 30 lbs over the past year. I’ve stopped losing weight at 1500 calories and I don’t want to dip much lower than that. Diet breaks haven’t helped me too much in this regard. I’ve found recently that doing long periods of very light cardio (active recovery heart zone on bike or elliptical) helps me to drop some weight without interfering with lifting sessions. My thought was to use this to break through plateau. Any thoughts or other advice? Thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Large amounts of loss come in waves. I think your best approach is to just keep on as you are and be patient. – That’ll be enough.

      The cardio is probably more incidental to this than you realize given the relatively low caloric burn, but if you’re happy doing it and it’s working, keep at it.

  3. Brian says:

    Hi Andy, semi off topic. I’ve noticed if I just eat when I’m hungry (not tracking macros) I can stay in a relatively low calorie deficit with minimal effort. However, once I try to stick to a macro goal, my adherence goes out the window, I just can’t do it, I start getting cravings I wouldn’t have otherwise. Any advice or even some literature you can point me to which will help me get some strategy in this area? Thank you sir!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Well, I would guess that it’s one of these things:
      1. The calorie deficit is too high. (My guide here.)
      2. You’re over-complicating the meal situation. (My guide here.)
      3. You’re making shitty food choices.
      4. The feeling of ‘missing out’ or constraint is causing cravings.

      The first three are fixable, the fourth is just a case of imagination and practice at building a diet out of the foods you love. Regardless, if you’re progressing as you say, perhaps don’t worry about this now. No point in adding in more complication than necessary.

  4. Alex says:

    Is there a chance that the sudden weight drop the first week of dieting won’t happen at all? Almost all my lifts are increasing, and my measurements are going down. But my weight loss has been linear and steady from the first week already (though slightly decreasing as weeks progress) and I’m curious about why this has happened. Should I include this week at my 4-week fat loss assessment? Thanks in advance.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Yes, absolutely. While your weight will be affected by your relative carb consumption (if the carbs came down, you can expect a water drop), there are other variables you changed when you started dieting. Salt intake can affect water balance as well as gut content, so don’t try to determine anything after just a single week.

      1. Alex says:

        Thank you Andy, for your answer and the great content you provide!

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Most welcome, Alex. 🙂

  5. Caitlin says:

    Hey Andy,
    When you say decrease your fat/carbs by 50/50 while keeping protein the same… do you mean 50/50 by calories or by grams? Since fat and carbs have different caloric values, that would affect how you’re reducing both.
    Thanks!
    Caitlin

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Calories. Thanks for the question, Caitlin. I’ll edit the article for clarity now.

      1. Caitlin says:

        Awesome, thanks Andy!!

  6. Naomi says:

    Hey Andy,

    I have scoured the site (all very interesting) but can’t find the answer to my question. With regard to training days/rest days – if I’m training 6 days a week (mostly CrossFit/Olympic Lifting) obviously that is a lot of high carb days – will this still be effective for cutting or should I alternate high and low carb days? I’m already a fairly lean female with approx 20% body fat.

    Thanks!

    Naomi

    1. Kevin McWhirk says:

      Andy- I am a larger athlete who does a lot of body building, metabolic conditioning and strongman type of workouts. I am on a great exercise plan. My problem is my nutrition. I am 6’3″ and 345#. I want to really lean out and preserve as much muscle as possible. What is the best approach for me? High Protein and Fat/ Low Carb off days and High Protein/ Carbs Low fat training days? What should my macros be for each type of day? I am a male and 42 years old. Please help!

      Kevin

      1. Andy Morgan says:

        Hi Kevin! All the same principles apply, I’ve got you covered here:
        The Complete Guide To Setting Up Your Diet

    2. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Naomi. As you’re training each day it would be better to not cycle your carbs.

      1. Naomi says:

        Ok great, thank you!

  7. Josh says:

    Hey Andy,

    So I recently stalled on my weight loss for two weeks and decided to do a diet break as I hadn’t done one in 12 weeks and was starting to become hungry and tired all of the time. The diet break worked in that I’ve gone back to my macros prior to the diet break and I feel great and not mentally or physically drained anymore BUT my weight loss is still completely halted. All in all I’ve stalled out for about a month now and I’m wondering if its time to make a cut or if I should just stick it out for two more weeks or so? My old myotape broke (shit quality) so Ive not had one for over two weeks as the new one is on backorder and ships out tomorrow but when I was taking measurements there wasn’t any noticeable difference for two weeks.

    Thanks for your response Andy,

    Josh

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Josh, thanks for the question. Essentially you’re asking whether you should be more or less conservative, which is down to you. I mean, any decision can be adjusted later, right?

      Now, as you’re feeling good, so make a cut. If you progress too quickly you can always bump things back up.

  8. Leigh says:

    Hi Andy

    What’s your thoughts on water fasting for 7 / 14 & 28 days?

  9. John says:

    Would you consider Kidney beans or any type of beans a good carb sorce for Macros ?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Sure, just be careful of that bumping up your fiber intake too high. Guidelines here.

Questions welcomed. (Over 16,000 answered)

For the sake of other readers, please:
  • Keep questions on topic,
  • Write clearly, concisely, and click reply when responding,
  • Don't post diet calculations or full training plans asking me to critique them as it depends too heavily on context.


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