Should You Even Diet in the First Place?
This depends on previous diet history and when the last time you dieted was. One of the most important questions that we ask when on-boarding new clients who want to begin a fat loss phase is “When was the last time you dieted?” Diet history has a major impact on your current metabolic rate and will ultimately determine whether you are in a good spot to begin a fat loss phase or if you should take some time working calories up to optimize your metabolism for a fat loss phase down the road.
If you have a chronic history of dieting, this will impact your rate of loss and how soon you might see your weight plateau. If your body is already adapted to a low intake but is still carrying some body fat, it is going to be difficult to get calories low enough and cardio high enough to get the scale to move.
If you have spent plenty of time eating at a surplus and training hard, chances of having a successful fat loss phase are higher, as your metabolism isn’t adapted to low food and will likely respond to the changes you make to create a caloric deficit. However, this doesn’t guarantee a magic metabolism either. The reality is some people naturally carry more body fat and will have to crush themselves no matter how high their calories get in the phase before fat loss. If you are one of those people, asking yourself whether or not you are ready to have to go to those lengths is also a good question of preparation.
Another factor to consider before jumping into a fat loss phase is resistance training experience. How new are you to lifting weights? If you are a newbie, fresh to the fitness scene, I wouldn’t recommend starting out with a fat loss phase right out of the gate. I would recommend learning how to fuel your body and maybe find where maintenance calories are at before doing so. The newbie gains will likely cause body recomposition (i.e building muscle and losing fat) without having to go into a deficit.
The Surplus Phase Before-Hand
Often times (with a few exceptions), Team LoCoFit coaches typically will recommend to work with clients for at least 8-12 weeks in a maintenance phase before beginning a fat loss phase. However, depending on how long the planned fat loss phase is going to be (i.e. 16-20 weeks), it is important to take a sufficient amount of time off from dieting before hand. The “maintenance/reverse phase” is where we really try to prime the body to lose fat by trying to get the metabolism to adapt to a higher intake and lower amount of cardio. Making sure we have a higher caloric baseline to pull from and a lower cardio baseline to add on to also gives us some reassurance to know that we have plenty of room to make adjustments when weight begins to stall. The surplus before-hand is also an important learning phase for us as coaches, to understand how well your body responds to more carbs, more fat, certain types of cardio, etc.
Planning for the Length of the Diet
A successful fat loss phase is one that actually loses fat, but maintains that hard earned muscle. In order to do this, it is best to plan a slower fat loss phase, and begin with the minimum effective dose of the deficit to induce weight loss. That is where the hard work in the offseason/reverse diet phase really pays off. If you were already eating a low amount of calories and doing a ton of cardio, then your metabolism is likely going to be adapted to that intake and expenditure. Similarly, if you try to aim for a rate of loss that is too high (i.e. 20lbs in 8-10 weeks), most females will then likely have to get to extremes quicker, and your chances of losing muscle early on are much higher than if the fat loss phase is begun aiming for a moderate rate of loss week to week over a longer period of time.
Fat Loss Macros and Calories
The old school mathematical rule of thumb was to start out every fat loss phase at a 500 kcal deficit so that you lose 1lb/week (500×7 = 3500 calories = 1 pound). However, we have come to find that, that equation actually isn’t necessary for everyone. Some people only need a 300 calorie deficit to begin to see the scale move. This is why I won’t give a specific prescription of how many calories everyone should cut to see weight loss. I would recommend starting out conservative (but at ~200 kcal minimum), and depending on how your rate of loss looks week to week, you can decide whether or not you need to get more aggressive with either the caloric deficit or cardio.
When it comes to setting up macros for the deficit, it is recommended to keep protein where it was before you began the fat loss phase, as that along with resistance training is going to keep you from sacrificing that hard earned muscle, as research has shown over and over again. Decreasing protein is not the best way to begin a fat loss phase.
The first macros to be moved should be carbs and/or fats. Some people respond better to higher carb/lower fat, some people respond better to higher fat/lower carb. This will take some trial and error in knowing what your body is better at metabolizing (i.e. what you want to find out during the surplus before hand).
Cardio is a tool, used to increase the deficit through caloric expenditure. As I mentioned before, beginning with the minimum effective dose will keep you from plateauing early and being miserable sooner than you should be. For some people this looks like adding in more HIIT sessions per week to begin with, or increasing total steady state minutes by just 20-30.
Look at the response your body has to the initial change through weight scale measurements, and weekly photos. Then decide on whether you should get more aggressive or if your body continues to respond to the current dosage of cardio.
The Forgotten Variable: NEAT
Sometimes clients will be hitting their macros down to the gram, giving their all in every minute of cardio but the scale still won’t move. Why?
NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis can be significantly reduced because when you are dieted down, fatigue may be much higher during day to day activities, causing you to move much less. Calories burned through NEAT may add up and have quite an effect on your fat loss phase if it does not stay consistent. This is when tracking apps such as the FitBit or even the Health App on your iPhone can really come in handy in tracking NEAT through steps or calories. While these measurements may not be accurate, it can still serve as a metric to observe and see how day to day changes affect your fat loss.
Adjusting the Variables
In order to see progress and keep seeing progress, remember to begin with the minimum effective dose. Don’t go from no cardio to 4 hours a week or from 200g carbs a day down to 50g. As we mentioned before, your goal is to maintain the hard earned muscle you’re packing then make your adjustments conservative until you are getting close to your fat loss deadline.
Don’t make changes sooner than you need to. If your body is responding to a certain calorie intake and cardio regimen, keep riding that wave until you see weight begin to stall again. Then you can make adjustments to get more aggressive.
Don’t adjust too many variables at once. This is still looping back to maintaining muscle with the minimum effective dose. Maybe all you need is a bit more cardio to keep the needle moving or maybe you just need to drop carbs by 15-20g. It’s hard to tell what your body responds to best when there are multiple variables changing all at once too often.
Lastly, for a successful fat loss phase it is important to understand that everyone’s body will respond differently to different variables. Comparing your fat loss progress to someone else’s will only cause you to feel frustrated for no good reason. As we mentioned before, there are so many variables that are specific to each person that can determine how fast or slow they lose weight. Genetics, diet history, etc. all play a role. When you embark on your next fat loss phase, just remember to put your head down and work. As long as you are making even 1% progress and achieving a better version of yourself through the process, that is all that matters!
Written by Karina Noboa