i.e. The CHP guide to weight loss.Weight loss and dieting is a topic that has been nearly beaten to death, both on the internet and in print. There are hundreds of thousands of “best” diets available to choose from, all of which seem to conflict. Indeed, to an individual simply looking for fast, effective fat loss, the information can seem overwhelming. This is even more pronounced for athletes- continued high performance is always their objective, and the diets geared towards preserving energy and muscle mass for active individuals tend to be even more complicated. Of course there are plenty of reasons athletes may want to cut weight- they may wish to compete at a lower weight class next season, they may wish to remove excess mass to aid in speed or climbing ability, they may be looking to diet for bodybuilding competitions, and so on and so forth.
This article is meant to give a straightforward overview of the most effective ways to cut weight without losing muscle mass or experiencing terrible decreases in energy levels. In the process, several commonly held misconceptions will be addressed, and hopefully the reader will come away understanding that simplicity here, as anywhere, is often directly related to effectiveness.
Before changing any variables, understand the status quo
Any readers with a background in process management or consulting are intimately aware of the fact that, before you propose a change to a process, you need to understand where the current process is getting you. Before making ANY changes to diet, EVERY individual needs to understand what their current intake is, and where it is getting them. Yes, this will mean some calorie counting, but only needs to be done once. Our guideline is simple- for one week, an individual should weigh themselves once per day (at the exact same time), and record EVERY bit of food that they eat- as precisely as possible. After one week, the trend in scale weight should be observed, and the calories (and macronutrients per day) should be calculated. There are PLENTY of easily available resources online for looking up calorie counts- tallying a week’s calories shouldn’t take more than an hour or two, and this is time well spent.
This is one’s baseline caloric intake (and depending on change in scale weight, can either be above, at, or below maintenance). Note that this is done IN PLACE of using a calorie calculation based on bodyweight with an activity multiplier. These calculators tend to make broad, sweeping generalizations on activity level, and fail to take into account the nearly infinite variables introduced over the course of a full day (e.g. how far away one parks from the store, and how many cups of coffee consumed which controls how many hours an individual spent at her desk twitching her leg, these and more can all blow calorie calculations out the window).
Armed with this number, the next step is simple- determine the weight loss objective, whether it be light/moderate or severe. Depending on how quickly one wishes to lose weight, the overall approach may change somewhat (and this will be addressed individually in separate sections). But before determining realistic objectives a few basic concepts need to be discussed.
Starvation Mode, Metabolic Damage, and how much can I cut calories before weight loss stalls?
Starvation mode and metabolic damage are two terms which truly need to be struck from health and fitness writer’s vocabulary, not because they do not exist, but because what they are in reality are FAR removed from the definition that has been adopted to describe weight loss plateaus.
True starvation is a clinical condition where the body simply does not receive enough nutrients to support life- basic systems begin to shut down, the body begins to shed all skeletal muscle and consume even essential bodyfat, and the eventual result is organ failure and death. What health and fitness writers describe as “starvation mode” is something else entirely- their argument is that the body’s metabolism slows due to constant dieting, and the body then begins to “hold on” to weight (and fat) by becoming more efficient. This is an explanation that many have when their low calorie diet has resulted in no net weight loss for several weeks or months.There is one major problem with this concept- it just isn’t true. The body DOES have several systems in place that can slow metabolism somewhat- studies done on moderately hypocaloric individuals on extended diets show a moderate decrease in thyroid hormone production, changes in leptin/ghrelin levels (two hormonal mediators of food intake and metabolism), and slight changes in androgen/estrogen levels. However, clinically speaking, these changes tend to reduce the basal metabolic rate by LESS THAN 10%. The body cannot simply reduce the amount of energy it takes to, say, walk a mile or power basic brain functions.
So what is really going on? First, if calories are low, peripheral activity levels will slow. Well-fed individuals may be far more “sprightly” and active, even while sedentary, than those on low calories. A reduction in “fidgeting”, a lower likelihood of getting up from the couch, a tendency to avoid excess movement- these daily reductions in overall caloric burn can end up being quite significant. Another possibility is that extended dieting has substantially reduced muscle mass, which can lower daily caloric requirements significantly, which is why strength training while dieting (for ALL individuals, even endurance athletes) is so crucial. Also important to note is that the individual is also no longer synthesizing significant new muscle tissue, which can reduce energy needs quite a bit. However, the MOST likely reason for stalled weight loss (and one that the author has seen most frequently) is that the individual is simply totaling their calories incorrectly. The author recalls one individual who swore he was eating fewer than 2000 calories a day, but an inspection of just his lunch salad revealed that it was over 400 calories higher than calculated- the true dietary intake of this individual was closer to 3000.
“Metabolic damage” is another concept that is now in vogue- it is the idea that extended dieting will somehow cause permanent changes to one’s metabolism (in line with the “starvation mode” idea above), but this can be avoided through either eating frequent meals or one big meal (depending on what side the article author falls on), engaging in HIIT (high intensity interval training), taking in branched chain amino acids, or using corn starch as a dietary supplement (Yes- there is a fairly well known USA Triathlon coach and speaker who fully endorses corn starch as the next amazing supplement that will moderate insulin levels and make one’s metabolism more efficient). Again, the main problem is that this is not true. Changes to an individual’s metabolism are transient and reversible- and also impossible to avoid when dieting. Again, look to actual activity level and true caloric intake to determine why one is no longer losing weight. True “metabolic damage”, where basal metabolic rate and hormonal functions are permanently altered, is nearly always a function of severe malnutrition, chronic and long term vitamin or mineral insufficiency, or disease.
These two concepts, therefore, are completely scientifically bankrupt when it comes to dieting and the typical well fed westerner, but bring up one very good question- how low can I reduce my calories before weight loss stalls? The answer- as low as you want. Gastric bypass surgery is nearly 100% effective in aiding weight loss in even the most morbidly obese patients, and even the most dramatic types of bypass surgery (where calorie intake can be reduced reduced by 80-90%) do NOT cause weight loss via reduction in absorption, they do so via portion control. As long as the body is taking in fewer calories than it burns, weight loss will continue- there are few anorexic individuals or starving Sudanese children who manage to maintain a healthy weight or find themselves reaching “weight loss plateaus”.
However, this is not ideal- so what is the BEST way to lose weight?
First things first
Once a caloric baseline is established (as above), the most critical next step is making sure that the basic nutrients are in place. The most important of these is essential fat (not protein)- the individual should make certain that he or she is taking in at least 25-35 grams of high quality fats, whether these be from fish, nuts, flax, olive oil, or the like. Essential Fatty Acids supplements are highly recommended here, as we are discussing HIGH QUALITY fats (Omega 3/6/9s, and the like). The higher FDA recommendation for overall fat was developed primarily based on an assumption that, if an individual takes in ENOUGH fat, chances are a certain percentage of those will be the quality kind. We assume better in our athletes.
The second most important is dietary protein. As mentioned in other articles, protein requirements for even active individuals are not quite as high as many writers may state- 1.5g/kg is quite frankly sufficient for 99% of ATHLETES, and please note that this does NOT increase while dieting. There are no mystical systems in your body that tick on while dieting that increase the need for dietary protein… however there are certain changes to protein intake that are recommended in severe dieting (more on this later).
The third most important is pre- / peri- / and post-workout carbohydrates- the individual should ensure that he or she is taking in enough carbohydrate around planned activity to fuel high quality workouts and ensure adequate recovery. For most individuals, 0.5g/kg of carbohydrates before and after a workout is sufficient, with an additional 0.5g/kg of carbohydrate per hour of activity beyond the first.
With these three basic targets put into the framework, the rest of the diet then becomes flexible.
Low to Moderate weight loss
If one’s goal is rather moderate- say 1-3 pounds a month, the guidelines are simple- find one’s set point above, and reduce calories by 10%. Where should these calories come from? Quite frankly, they can come from any source as long as the three basic items listed in the previous section are not removed.
With regards to additional activity, we do NOT endorse the introduction of high intensity interval training for weight loss. Though superior to steady state cardiovascular exercise alone, it is INFERIOR to a combination of steady state cardio and weight training for optimizing body composition. Interval training seeks to combine both cardiovascular conditioning and strength training into a single workout, but as a result optimizes neither. For a proposed routine, read part two of So you want to run and be strong, and choose a mix of objectives that match your schedule. If you are an athlete, do NOT introduce any additional activity, as this could compromise your sports-specific programming. Changes to body composition for in season or peaking athletes should be made strictly via diet.
Generally speaking, a dieting individual’s biggest emphasis when it comes to additional activity should be on weight training to prevent skeletal muscle loss- the body adapts to imposed demand, and if the body is being told that the presence of skeletal muscle is critical to its survival, it will certainly hold on to as much as possible. If cardiovascular activity MUST be introduced (and we do recommend it for general health), it should be low intensity enough to NOT negatively impact weight training sessions or potentially cause injury.
Severe or extended weight loss
If the goal is over a pound a week of weight loss or extended weight loss, the parameters change somewhat. Beyond the initial 10% reduction, the individual in question can reduce calories by further 10% increments until the desire rate of weight loss is achieved. (We recommend reducing 10% the first week while monitoring weight, no more than 10% the second, and so forth).
These calories should come from more specific areas, however. These are listed below in terms of the most “useless” calories first, with more essential calories being further down the list:
1) Carbohydrates far removed from workouts. Though carbohydrates are important, at low (non-exercise) levels of activity, carbohydrates are not quite as vital, and energy can be fueled by non-carbohydrate sources. Reduce these calories first (though do not eliminate them entirely), before moving on to the next. Note that carbohydrates first thing in the morning should be last on this list, as the body may need the kick in the morning to fuel the day.
2) Non-essential fats. Though fats are important, if one is taking in several multiples of the base level of fats recommended, and they are from less desireable sources (non-EFAs), these also make a good candidate for reduction.
3) Non-essential protein. Though protein is important, excess protein is no more useful than excess carbohydrates. As long as intake doesn’t drop far below 1.5g/kg, there should be no ill effects.
Protein does bear further mention at this point- while in a well-fed individual, protein intake timing is not truly relevant (due to speed of digestion, etc.), in an individual engaged in severe dieting, this becomes a bit more important. Minimizing catabolism is the goal, and ideally the individual should have all required amino acids in the bloodstream at all times to avoid the need for the body to break down skeletal muscle. In an iso- or hypercaloric individuals (those eating at maintenance or above), the minimal loss of muscle due to momentary amino acid needs is insignificant in comparison to rate of muscle synthesis, but severely hypocaloric individuals are a different story. In their case, it is wise to spread protein intake evenly throughout the day. We also recommend the use of Branched Chain Amino Acids during extended activity, and possibly the use of complete protein supplements such as whey or egg protein powders if the individual is not able to have a meal for an extended period of time.
A note on re-feeds
Many individuals engaged in severe or extended dieting like to periodically re-feed (spend a day eating maintenance levels or higher) to “bump their metabolism back up”. Simply put, this MAY return several hormone levels to non-dieting levels… for about 24 hours. Re-feeds are good psychologically, and may be useful if a particularly important workout is coming up, but have little to no long-term impact on a diet. In fact, they can potentially undo an entire week of solid dieting if taken too far.
A note on meal frequency
Does eating more frequent meals have ANY impact on metabolic rate or weight loss? Simple answer: No. None whatsoever.
So what would this look like?
Say we have the following daily intake for a sample individual (a 5’8″ 165 pound 5k/10k runner who is looking to be more competitive at longer distance trail runs, and believes that dropping to 158 would make him lighter on his feet):
Breakfast: 1 cup oatmeal, ½ cup blueberries, 1 cup yogurt
Snack: 1 glass skim milk, ½ cup granola
Lunch: Spinach and walnut salad with 4 ounces salmon
Snack: Trail mix and 2 tbsp peanut butter
Pre workout: 8 ounces Gatorade, Clif ™ bar
Post workout: 1 glass chocolate milk
Dinner: 8 ounces grilled chicken, 6 ounces pasta, ½ cup kidney beans
Snack: 2 tbsp peanut butter, 1 glass skim milk, handful of almonds
As a ballpark total of 3000 calories, for moderate weight loss this individual should look to remove 300 calories from the diet. He should not touch the salmon and almonds (these are good fat sources), the chocolate milk, energy bar, or Gatorade (these are his normal workout fuel), or the morning yogurt , chicken at dinner, or skim milk (these are good protein sources, and together with the salmon provide him with about 85 grams of protein, near his recommended total of 112.)
So the best places to remove calories from? The granola isn’t adding much essential, nor is the peanut butter during his midday snack. Removing these alone drops 300-400 calories from the diet without affecting the essentials. If further cuts needed to be made, removing the walnuts from the salad and reducing the pasta portion at dinner could remove another 200-300, which already drops this individual down close to 700 overall, without negatively impacting workout performance. If even further cuts are needed, the portion of kidney beans and remainder of the peanut butter can be eliminated. However, a 700 calorie reduction (Nearly 25% of his intake), together with additional strength training should create a large enough deficit to help this individual drop weight.
If he doesn’t already do so, this runner should also consider engaging in some specific strength training exercises (primarily lower body) to maintain muscle mass in his legs while dieting.
And this is it. Simple. No calculators, no meal timing, no carbohydrate cycling, no refeeds, no thermogenics… in a system with one million variables, a model that only changes a handful of variables is no less effective than one that changes a hundred.
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