The wait is over! In our last article, "How Your Fat-Loss Diet Could Be Making You Fat, " we laid out the problems with the age-old "eat less and exercise more" mantra of fat loss. The more strictly you diet, and the more times you try to diet, the more efficient your metabolism becomes. This sounds encouraging at first, but it's actually pretty grim. It means our bodies burn fewer calories for any given activity. This is great for survival purposes, but not for those of us who are intentionally attempting to shed body fat.
Further complicating things, your hunger level often increases during weight loss, satiety decreases, and the body desperately tries to shove you back up to your body-fat set point. This point, you may recall, is your body's customary level of body fat. While you may think that hard training and strict dieting would inevitably push that point down, the popular yo-yo-diet model can actually push it up—meaning your body is trying to get fatter, not leaner.
When this happens—when, despite low calories, consistent workouts, and an overall diligent fitness program, forward progress of any kind is nowhere to be seen—the body is said to be "metabolically adapted."
But not all hope is lost! As promised, here is how you can lower your body-fat set point, conquer metabolic adaptation, and find a fat-loss approach that lasts.
Preventing metabolic adaptation starts with setting up an appropriate diet in the first place. This starts with a single idea that you need to take to heart: Diet on as many calories as you can get away with while still making progress.
Less is not better; sustainable progress is better. For everybody, that is going to be a different number, and if you're accustomed to the "diet on as few calories as possible" approach, it will probably take you some time and struggles to find yours.
Spend the next three days tracking your daily macronutrients—that is, number of grams of protein, carbs, and fats—and establish a caloric baseline.
If you've been restricting food but not counting calories—this is more common than you might think—then our first recommendation is to perform an honest audit of your current intake. Spend the next three days tracking your daily macronutrients—that is, number of grams of protein, carbs, and fats—and establish a caloric baseline. You can use the old pen-and-paper method, or utilize any of the popular nutrition-tracking apps like MyMacros+ or MyFitnessPal. More importantly, don't change yet. Do your best to be as honest as possible about what and how much you truly eat.
Once you've got that number, it's time to tweak it. Most people will find that dieting on a bodyweight multiplier of 12 for total calories is a good starting point. In other words, take your body weight in pounds and multiply that by 12 to determine your total intake for the day. So if you weigh 150 pounds, then 1, 800 calories per day will be your goal for fat loss. If you started far lower than bodyweight-times-12 in the past, that could be precisely what led you down the road to adaptation.
Bear in mind that this is just your starting point, because everyone is unique. You may find after a few weeks that bodyweight-times-12 is too low, you feel lethargic, and your workout quality is suffering. On the other hand, you may discover after a few weeks that you need to drop your calories even lower than that. But the important part is that now you have a reasonable point from which to proceed systematically.
The larger takeaway is this: Don't be afraid to take things slow. While it may be more tempting to slash calories left and right and go from 0-60 in the gym, utilizing the extreme approach is unsustainable and will eventually lead to burnout, both physiologically and psychologically. Burnout leads to binge-style rebounds, and that, as we discussed in the previous article, can actually succeed in raising your body-fat set point.
So you're systematically working your calories downward and seeing results. What next? Should you stay down there forever? Definitely not. Should you unhinge your jaw and Garfield your way through the nearest buffet? Not this time.