Before embarking on a weight loss journey, many of us already look for potential negatives. One of the most frequent comments I hear is “I don’t want to lose weight too fast.” A great way to find answers to potential outcomes is to look at extremes. In the case of weight loss, one side of the curve is figure athletes, and the opposide side of the curve would be those who have more than 100 pounds to lose.
Gain Progress on Fat Loss
One recent study caught my eye regarding female figure athletes. The researchers recruited women who were going to diet for a competition (figure, bikini, bodybuilding). This group was approximately in their late twenties and healthy. The cool thing about this population is that they are probably more adherent to their dietary restrictions when looking to cut down body fat than other people. A problem with most nutritional research is that self-reported nutrition intake has wildly variable accuracy. That’s a nice way of saying we stink at accurately reporting our food intake. This population of women, though, may be more accurate than normal. The results showed it—they lost significant body fat.
The study looked at the effect of hard dieting on hormones and recovery. Overall, the dieting group lost 12% of body weight and a little under 50% of body fat, on average. Following these women afterward, it took three to four months for hormones such as leptin, T3, testosterone, and estradiol to return to baseline.
In the study, the women reduced carbohydrate intake to get into a calorie deficit, ate plenty of protein, did resistance training using different body splits, and did some high intensity interval cardio as well as some steady state cardio. Sounds pretty straightforward.
There are steps you need to take to gain progress on fat loss:
- Decide on a meal structure
- Listen to your hunger
- Embrace a plateau as an opportunity to make an objective tweak to get past it
Create Meal Structure
Meal structure means that you have a plan for your meals. You know how many you’ll have, at what times you’ll eat them, and what they consist of. Grazing without definition is an easy way to stop losing weight. Decide what works based on your schedule. Does three meals a day fit into what you do? How about five or six mini meals? Or one meal and several planned snacks? You get to pick.
The reality is that it doesn’t matter so much. Whatever you pick will serve as a border. Let’s use three meals a day as an easy example.
If you eat three meals a day, and have nothing else between, you only need to plan for and track three things. If you stop losing weight, you need only to look at those meals and make adjustments. Compare this to eating when hungry and grabbing whatever you can get. Even if they are great foods, it leads to overeating.
Handle the Hunger
Unfortunately the “H” word is a scary thing. Hunger is seen as a bad word. No, you shouldn’t be starving all the time. But, to lose weight, you will experience hunger. Hunger in small and manageable amounts is a good thing. It’s your body saying “time for our next meal, when you get a chance.” About 30 to 60 minutes before your next eating time you should feel relatively hungry.
The problem happens when we overeat due to hunger. This happens for two main reasons. The first one is that we let it go too long. Hunger for periods over an hour can lead to being ravenous when we do find food. So, we overeat because we feel famished. The second reason is more emotional. As we feel hunger, it triggers us to eat right away and get rid of that feeling because we see it as a bad thing.
Meal structure and listening to your hunger go together.
Here’s an example from a gentleman I recently worked with. We decided, based on his schedule, that a meal structure for him will be three meals and one snack. The reason was because he would overeat at dinner because he would be overly hungry when he got home. We made his meal structure work for him by adding a planned snack, not a grazing snack. By adding some nuts and fruit at 4:00, it saved him from eating an excessive amount of food at his 5:30 dinner. It also made a difference mentally because he knew the snack was coming so being a little hungry didn’t worry him.
Embrace the Plateaus
Using the above example, the gentleman lost 10 pounds before we changed his meal structure. Just “doing better” by avoiding some late evening sweets and adding in some cardio worked for a bit. But weight loss stopped. It stopped for over a month until we had a conversation. First, let’s look at one thing. Fat loss stopped for a month after losing 10 pounds and he remained the same weight. Does that sound bad? Not to me. The way I look at it, he maintained a 10 pound weight loss, and that’s awesome.
So, a plateau is actually a great thing; it means you are maintaining.
Of course, a plateau that goes on too long can be discouraging, and will eventually lead to gaining some weight back. But, if we use it as an opportunity to be objective, it’s just a road sign. A warning to change direction a bit to keep you going.
The key word is “objective.” The opposite would be an emotional decision, like spending $400 on diet food and supplements. Or doing the cabbage soup diet. You get the idea.
Here are a few actionable steps:
- Pick a meal structure and track it daily. It’s a yes or no question. Did you stick to your meal structure? If you had a peanut between meals, the answer is no. However small the unplanned food was, be objective.
- Create different meal structures depending on the day. Weekends can be different from work days. Plan accordingly. One way to avoid weekend food issues are to have less meals or snacks.
- Track your meals. Have a piece of paper with a vertical line down the middle. Track meals or snacks on one side that leave you hungry too soon before your next eating time. This method of tracking will help you tweak the meals by adding carbs or protein, for example. Or you may want to discard the combination all together and try something else.
On the other side of the paper, track meals that worked perfectly. They left you feeling great and hungry for only a little while before your next eating time. Start to look for trends, like the amount of carbs, protein, and fats, on average. For me, if I don’t have a starch at my meal, I’ll be hungry too soon. This side of the paper can be called “my perfect customized meal plan.” Congrats, you now have what nobody else can give you. The exact things that work for you.
Understand What It Means for You
Whether you are a figure competitor or someone who needs to fight to keep weight off, it’s all difficult. Without having a meal structure in place, a plan to be objective, and a good sense of what hunger means, things will fall apart. This is why the well-meaning advice of eat less and move more doesn’t work. Yes, we need to do it, but how? You’ll be amazed about what you will learn about tracking your meal structure. Most of us eat more often than we think. Be objective, learn how to listen to your body, and good things will to happen.
1. Hulmi, Juha J., Ville Isola, Marianna Suonpää, Neea J. Järvinen, Marja Kokkonen, Annika Wennerström, Kai Nyman, Markus Perola, Juha P. Ahtiainen, and Keijo Häkkinen. “The Effects of Intensive Weight Reduction on Body Composition and Serum Hormones in Female Fitness Competitors.” Frontiers in Physiology 7 (2017). doi:10.3389/fphys.2016.00689.