There’s a “trapdoor” in the fat loss process that explains why you oftentimes cycle through many different approaches without results. It’s subtle enough that you don’t even recognize when you are standing on the trigger, especially if you’re trying to lose weight fast.
Here’s how it works: if you’ve ever tried to drop more than a few pounds or really change the way you look, there comes a time when you have to make a choice: continue to believe in a process that is clearly not working, or look for better options for your goals.
You probably choose option B — correctly — but it leaves you vulnerable to the trapdoor. When you’re trying to lose weight fast, it’s easy to become frustrated by a lack of progress and go searching for alternative options that make sense. You inevitably stumble upon theories about inflammation, food allergies, not enough “good” fats, a lack of superfoods, how eating breakfast is the problem…or is it avoiding breakfast and fasting?
When you learn about theory of fat availability, it can change everything about how you understand fat loss.
The list goes on and on. You’re stuck in plateau mode, so just about any option starts to sound good and then you make a choice that still doesn’t lead to change. (This might explain your fexperiences with most diet books.)
The problem isn’t that you’re making changes, it’s that the adjustments and misleading solutions are overwhelming, confusing, and oftentimes inaccurate.
Most fat loss hype is just another empty promise that is more likely to leave you frustrated with your body rather than satisfied with your results. Instead of relying on scapegoats — like meal frequency, single categories of foods, or anything else that flies in the face of science — a more effective approach is rethinking why your previous attempts didn’t work.
Behind the “Lose Weight Fast” Solutions: Seeing is Not Believing
You’ve probably heard a lot of reasons why you gain weight or struggle to drop pounds, these include:
- You don’t eat enough meals in the day to help your metabolism
- You skip breakfast, which means you don’t “turn on” your metabolism to start the day
- You don’t do intermittent fasting, which means your hormones are messed up (Yes, I wrote a book on intermittent fasting; while it’s a good technique, my thoughts on how it benefits your body have changed)
- You eat too late at night and those calories are more likely to become fat
- You eat “starchy” carbs, which are transformed into sugar
- You eat white foods, such as white rice, which make you fat
- You eat gluten or non-organic food sources, which pollute your body
All of these are behavioral choices you can make…if they fit your lifestyle and feel sustainable. But don’t be fooled: none of these are reasons why you gain weight or can’t lose fat.
You can eat meals at night, enjoy gluten, and never fast a day in your life, and your body is still capable of changing.
You must learn to separate technique from causes, differentiate strategy from roadblock, and science from science fiction.
Instead of searching for quick answers for your “lose weight fast” goals, it’s more effective to ask why your current approach has failed to produce the results you want.
Here are four common weight loss mistakes and alternate solutions that can set you on the right path. None of these approaches are extreme or set unrealistic expectations. What they will do is help you understand why you haven’t seen changes in the past, and why this time — with a more strategic approach–your results can be different.
Weight Loss Question #1: What is Your Body Type?
No one likes to admit it, but genetics are an important part of the weight loss equation. They can influence what diets might work best for your body (many diet plans work, so don’t buy the hype that you must follow a certain plan), as well as how you metabolize food.
You probably have at least one friend who can eat ‘whatever they want’ and still stay thin. While exceptions exist, chances are your friend is taller than you, and this isn’t a coincidence.
Your metabolic rate is highly influenced by your lean body mass. That is, the amount of muscle on your body relative to your total body weight. And the taller you are, the more likely it is that you’ll have more lean mass. That’s because a tall person’s lean mass advantage isn’t just limited to their muscle.
Your internal organs—the real metabolic power plants of your body—are also dependent on your height. So the taller you are, the bigger your heart, lungs, liver, and every other organ that requires energy to function. And in order to keep those organs functioning, you need calories. That means those with bigger organs burn more—and can eat more without gaining weight.
In fact, your height can make a significant difference in how much you can eat every day. Consider a person who is 6 feet 4 inches tall. Compared to someone who is 5 foot 8 inches, the taller person could be burning as much as 400 calories more per day, and that’s just when you’re inactive. And the impact is only compounded during activity simply because of the size of their body.
It may not seem fair, but it’s true: The taller you are the more you can eat. What’s more, this impact is further heightened between sexes. Men’s bodies burn more calories than women, too.
When starting a nutrition or diet plan, don’t blindly follow a template that works for someone else. The “it works for them, it must work for me” is the exact reason why so many people fail in their attempts to lose weight. And the stubborn approach to stick with a program that isn’t making changes only enhances doubts about your ability to make the number on the scale shrink.
Remember, your meal frequency does not impact your metabolism. So if you eat 2,000 calories per day, it doesn’t matter if it’s spread across 3 or 6 meals; your calorie burn is the same, assuming that the food quality (proteins, fats, and carbs) is equal. Instead of following a general plan for meal frequency (for weight loss), track when you feel hungry during the day, and then build your eating plan around your schedule. This can help with overeating.
Not sure how much to eat? Start with the sample equation (below) and track your food intake for a week. (I use My Fitness Pal with my coaching clients.)
Protein: Eat 1 gram for every pound of your target body weight. If you want to weigh 180 pounds, you’ll eat 180 grams of protein. One gram of protein is about 4 calories, so 180 grams of protein is 720 calories.
Fat: Eat .3 to .5 grams for every pound of your target body weight. So if you did .5 (based on a preference of more fat-filled foods instead of carb-based foods) for a goal weight of 180 pounds, that’d be 90 grams. One 1 gram of fat has about 9 calories, so 90 grams is 810 calories from fat.
Carbs: Add your calories from protein and fat, and subtract that total from your allotted daily calories. Using the 180-pound example, that leaves you with 630 calories. One gram of carbohydrates is four calories (just like protein), so 630 calories divide by 4 would equal 158 grams of carbs.
NOTE: Remember, your diet should be personalized, so the exact amounts of carbs and fats — in particular — might need to be adjusted more or less aggressively, or changed once you reach a plateau.
Weight Loss Question #2: Are Your Being Too Patient?
The example above is a great starting point for almost anyone. But the big secret in weight loss is that one size does not fit all. And while the best nutrition plan is one that is sustainable, the doesn’t mean you can’t be aggressive with your plan. It all depends on your body and how much weight you want to lose.
Tell me if this story sounds familiar: You start a new diet and instantly lose weight. Maybe it’s 4 pounds the first week. And then a few more pounds the next week. But after that initial surge the weight loss slows down, and by the second month, your progress has come to halt. In some instances, you might have already regained the weight.
Naturally, you search for answers. The typical explanation: Your body has entered “starvation mode” or your metabolism has slowed down.
Both options seem reasonable, and you become convinced that you need a diet that’s even more extreme, or you convince yourself that fat loss pills are necessary for an extra boost.
Those answers are not what you need. Save your money.
But, when nothing works you become convinced that the problem is you.
However, slowed fat loss is natural and something that happens to everyone. You see, body fat is just stored energy. When you diet you create a deficit between the calories you eat and the amount you burn in a day.
That deficit is ‘made up’ by the calories stored in your body fat. This is known as the “theory of fat availability.”
As you become leaner, there is less fat available as an energy source – meaning you can lose lots of fat at the beginning of a diet, but less and less as you become leaner.
In other words, your body has a hard time keeping up with your calorie deficit as you continue to lose body fat. You end up feeling grumpy, tired, lethargic, and even risk losing your hard earned muscle.
Part of avoiding this frustrated is to adjust your expectations. The “how to lose 20 pounds in 4 weeks” is frustrating because no one can blindly make that guarantee. (I’ve discussed these “lose weight fast” lies in the past.) Can quick weight loss happen? Of course. But it all depends on your body, your goals, your activity levels, your genetics, and a host of other factors. So before you start any plan, hit reset on your expectations.
That said, when weight loss stalls, most people don’t challenge the typical approach to weight loss, or at least reconsider what might work best. Instead of looking at how much weight they need to lose (and thus ignore the theory of fat availability), they start with a small calorie deficit.
As time progresses, they become more extreme in their efforts and increase the strain on their body. If you need to lose a lot of weight, oftentimes this can be the opposite of what you should be doing.
Based on the theory of fat availability, you should start off going hard, and try to drop as much weight as safely as possible in the first few weeks and then ease up. This does not mean taking extreme measures that aren’t sustainable, such as removing all foods or carbs.
Diets that drop to dangerously low levels of calories — such as plans that go below 1,000 calories — are not aggressive, they are dangerous.
But this does mean you can experiment with accelerating the process, and then making it easier over time.
With each week reduce your expectations a little bit. Think of this as easing your way into your new body as opposed to starving yourself into it.
As a rule of thumb, you should match the size of your calorie deficit (calories you eat minus calories you burn) to the amount of body fat you have. The more fat on your body, the larger the deficit you can handle.
If you are already lean and are trying to become even more defined, then your best bet is to go with a smaller deficit for a greater amount of time. It takes a little longer, but you won’t be faced with the uncomfortable lethargy or muscle loss.
Weight Loss Question #3: Is Your Post-Workout Nutrition Strategy Really Working?
Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a massive upswing in the supplement industry. Suddenly, the chalky protein powders and concrete tasting bars were more palatable, and for some even enjoyable. As the supplement industry grew to a multi-billion dollar business, a-not-so-coincidental emphasis on post-workout nutrition began to take hold of nutrition research and influence meal timing habits.
While pre- and post-workout nutrition is important, there was an overreaction to its importance on weight loss. In fact, if your primary goal is to lose weight fast, you could be undoing some of the fat-scorching benefits of your workout if you eat too many calories (and carbs) after you finish your sweat session.
The reason for eating after your workout goes like this: After your finish training, you need to replenish the glycogen (stored carbohydrates) that you burned during exercise. But here’s a truth few people ever mention:
- Most weight workouts do not deplete the glycogen in your muscles, so there isn’t an urgency to replenish.
- More importantly to your goal to lose weight fast: the glycogen in your muscles will replenish themselves over the next couple of days, and this slow approach will help you lose body fat.
If you stuff yourself with massive amounts of carbs and proteins after your workout, you can completely erase the fat-burning environment you created in the first place. That’s because the calorie deficit you created by exercising would be eliminated.
If you’re working out with any consistency then technically every meal you eat is both pre and post workout (because metabolic effects of a single workout can last up to 48 hours).
Every meal is important to your weight loss and muscle building goals, so there is no need to over-emphasize the meal after your workout.
If you are leaner, there is an exception to the rule. At low levels of body fat (visible six-pack), post-workout nutrition becomes more important, and the timing becomes emphasized more.
Weight Loss Question #4: Do You Put Too Much Faith in Weight Loss Calculators?
Counting calories is a great way to lose weight—with one small exception: Your calorie goal is nothing more than a guesstimate. And that has nothing with the choice of calculator you use or the foods you eat. The fact is many foods are mislabeled and your body works on a unique set of variables. (For instance, hormones like insulin can impact how you process certain foods.) So while using calorie calculators and applications may seem like a foolproof plan, you need to adjust how you eat based on your results.
Consider the following example, using a common weight loss caloric formula:
Let’s say calculate your BMR (daily calories you burn) as 1720 calories. As part of the equation, you then multiply that number by 1.3 to get the exact number of calories you burn in a day (2,236). Then, you subtract 500 calories to get 1736, or the “exact” number of calories you need to eat to lose a pound of fat in one week.
If you were to spend the next 7 days tracking every single calorie you put in your mouth, one of two things could happen: You’ll either lose the weight or you won’t. Makes sense, right?
So what happens when you don’t drop the pounds? For most people, you might blame your metabolism, your workout, or even the foods you eat (you knew those apples weren’t organic!)
But the problem most likely has nothing to do with any of those factors. The metabolic calculators and food labels are not 100 percent accurate.
The calculators are great for helping you track what you eat, make adjustments, and learn portion sizes. But they cannot accurately measure your metabolism. The provide a best guess at where to start estimating your metabolic rate, but it’s just a guess, and you have to test it out for yourself to truly determine how many calories you burn in a day.
More importantly, the calculators can’t be held accountable for bad food labeling. If you were to visit your local health food store and buy 3 protein bars and weigh them, you might be shocked to determine that many are inaccurate.
Calculators that tell you how many calories you burn while exercising are also fuzzy guesses and notorious for over estimating, some exercise machines can overestimate the calories burned by up to 30 percent. Again, this could completely sabotage your weight loss efforts if you assume you burned 500 calories during your daily workout when in reality you only burned 300.
This might frustrate you (and it shouldn’t), but there is no perfect math for the human body, especially when it comes to losing weight. Using tools can be very helpful, and it’s something next necessary for most people. But if you don’t lose weight, it’s not because the tool is broken.
Use these tools as a way to determine a starting point. From there, the key is finding what working for you, and adjusting until you find out what you need to eat and how much you need to exercise to produce results.
Personalize Your Fitness Plan
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and the author of You Can’t Screw This Up. He is the founder of Born Fitness, and the co-founder of Arnold’s Pump Club (with Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Pen Name Consulting. An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was previously the Chief Nutrition Officer for Ladder, the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. According to The Huffington Post, Bornstein is “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, and E! News.