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.
- 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:
- Hunger pangs, lethargy, and cravings are minimised.
- 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):
- Sleep – Not getting enough? Do something about it, the deep, uninterrupted kind. Sleep affects everything, fat loss is a biggie.
- Stress – Period of high stress at work or home? Consider a diet break. Stress affects your fat loss efforts.
- Diet break
- Macro adjustment
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. Questions welcomed in the comments as always.