Mama had lost a good chunk of weight and things were going down the right road in her quest to lose about 100 pounds. We were about 40 pounds down. Mama is thinking, “Sweet!! All my hard work is paying off. I’ve cut my calories, started working out regularly, and it’s working. Best of all, I’m getting used to this and this week I didn’t even feel hungry.” Then, for 2 whole months, the scale started playing games with her. I mean that annoying game where, right when you’ve seen the lowest number you’ve seen in years, you stall. The scale is still moving… up and down, but never below that lowest number. Now she’s thinking that if she’s not hungry, she shouldn’t be eating because the fewer calories she consumes, the more weight she’s going to lose. To get past this plateau, she’s thinking, she’s going to have to really turn it up! There’s a problem, though. The scale still isn’t moving so Mama decides that she should cut her calories again and that’ll be her ticket to weight loss. The scale is now going up, and Mama is ready to start cutting off her fingers if that what it takes to see that number go down.
Rather than sacrifice appendages, she starts hitting cardio extra hard and tries an appetite suppressant comprised of concentrated unicorn blood and freeze dried fingernail filings of French-Polynesian nuns.
This supplement, she reads, has been used for thousands of years by everybody from Aristotle to Jessica Alba and it is the secret doctors DO NOT want you to know about for weight loss. Now she’s proudly reporting to me that she’s eating 900 calories per day but that damn scale is still not moving. Frustrated, she wants to give up, so I say, “That’s exactly what you should do!”
I love my mama very much, so don’t hear what I’m about to say as me being judgmental. She is one of the most stubborn people in the state of Colorado. That’s a fact not an opinion. It has tremendous benefit to many areas of her life because she sees things through, but in this case her energy was fixated on the wrong thing. Needless to say, when I told Mama to “give up” I saw a look in her eye that was a mixture of disappointment, frustration and maybe a little skepticism. She did not want to give up even though it was exactly what her body needed.
Let me explain what I mean by “give up”. Mama needed very badly to get off the road she was on because she was killing her metabolism and the best way to let it rebound was to step away from training for a while, stop cutting calories, and give her mind and metabolism a break. What I asked her to do specifically was take a week or two off and eat everything that wasn’t inorganic or another human being.
I didn’t care about carbs, I didn’t care about protein or fat, and most importantly I didn’t care if she was hungry. Her orders were to EAT EVERYTHING IN SIGHT and then eat some more. “Why,” you ask. Because my mama had taught her body that it had better learn how to use very small amounts of calories to do lots of work because she was not going to feed it.
Her body, in stark contrast to her mind, got the message very quickly and it started slowing her metabolism to a crawl to preserve calories. Why do I say her mind took a long time to get the concept? Because after 2 weeks of eating she had gained about 8 pounds (which I told her would happen). At this time she was getting frustrated, but she did as she was asked and kept eating and gym time was very low intensity if it existed at all. By the end of the third week, she had lost all of the weight plus about a half a pound at which time she said to me, “I lost weight and I wasn’t even trying.” I couldn’t tell you how I responded because I blacked out for about 30 minutes following that comment.
See, to Mama, “trying” meant eating very little and working out a lot. She was so bent on the idea that even after a successful “re-feed” she couldn’t shake the concept that she had to eat miniscule portions and do cardio until her legs fell out from under her if she was going to lose weight. To me, “trying” means doing whatever it takes to get the metabolism working in favor of weight loss and that very often means eating more and working out less!
Weight loss isn’t about cutting calories and then cutting some more. Instead, weight loss is about finding that perfect place where your body is fed enough that it doesn’t freak out and store calories, but it is still in a deficit that promotes fat burning. It can be a tricky line to walk, but I would generally prefer that you eat a little more than you think you should (or maybe a lot more than you think you should) and let weight loss stall because the calories are too high than underfeed to the point that your metabolism gives you the finger and starts working against your weight loss goal.
Just yesterday I got an email from a guy who is doing cardio every morning and lifting weights 3 times per week in a high intensity circuit. He weighs 245 pounds right now, and he wanted me to look over the diet plan that he wanted to use to get to 220 pounds. The diet he sent me came to a total of 1300 calories! Holy Moses, 1300 calories should be dinner for this guy. He had 6 meals listed and high protein content, but that kind of deficit would DESTROY his chances at sustained weight loss. He might lose fat for a while, but his metabolism is saying, “You wanna feed me like I’m a 97 year old cardiac patient… Fine, I’m going to burn calories like one!!”
I had him double his calories, and honestly I might recommend that for a couple of weeks he push his calories into the 3000 range so that we can slowly start backing the calories down (I mean like 100 less every week for 6 weeks). Then, hopefully his body will have sent all the signals saying, “You wanna feed me like an alpha predator… Fine, I’m going to look and perform like one!!” Depending on how bad it is, we might spend not weeks but months retraining his body to handle food.
With him, we won’t just eat willy-nilly like with my mom (I’ve found simplicity is best with Mama, and we were trying to get her over the psychological barrier of eating so my recommendation to her was a little less precise). We’ll start with eating more frequently, and our target will be 6 separate meals throughout the day with most of his carbs earlier in the day or pre and post workout. We’ll start his calorie target high and see how his body responds. At first, he will almost certainly gain a little weight (somewhere around 5-10 pounds just like my Mom), but once his body gets the hint that there are plenty of calories to go around, that fat-storage response that he’s getting from being underfed will start to ease up.
As if by some form of meathead magic, he’ll start losing weight even though he’s eating much more food than his original diet suggested. Once we see the scale start moving down, we know we’ve done the right work to get his metabolism moving again. Then and only then do we start slowly backing the calories down and/or adding more workouts. The hard part is watching the scale go up for a couple of weeks (again, maybe even some months depending on how bad it got) before it finally starts going down again.
The fact of the matter is, you can keep trying to starve yourself into weight loss and eventually ruin your metabolism, sometimes irreversibly, or you can suck it up, get off the freakin’ scale for a while, and correct the root of the problem.
Here is where we talk discipline. Eating 6 times per day is tough, and takes immense planning. You have to be ready with your food before your day starts or you’re screwed. Also, you have to be diligent in timing your meals and making sure you're eating on time even if you’re not hungry.
**A quick side note about not feeling hungry: that’s a bad thing. You should feel hungry when you haven’t eaten in a while, that’s your cue that your metabolism is running full speed ahead. If you can go 6 hours without food, something is wrong. Trust me when I tell you, you don’t wanna hang around me if I haven’t eaten on time. I get bitchy and I feel like I need food (although I have definitely not always had a healthy metabolism, even while I was in the fitness industry there were times when I let my diet go and I ate large meals infrequently and I got fat).
How many total calories you should be consuming greatly depends on your activity levels, your current body weight and body fat levels, and your genetics, so I can’t give you an exact number. The purpose of this article is to get the people who are stuck like my mom out of the rut they're in by helping them shift the way they think about food intake. But dieting, like everything else in fitness, is a unique to the individual. Underfeeding for extended periods of time can lead to metabolic slowing, and the scale getting stuck should be warning flag that most people are totally missing.
So, how do you know if you're one of the people who need to consider adding in more calories to promote weight loss? Well, first of all, if you're just starting a diet, think of this article as a heads up but chances are good you’re not underfed. You're very possibly not eating frequently enough, but that extra weight you're trying to lose is probably not the result of underfeeding. So for those reading who are starting a diet, just don’t screw it up in the first place by cutting calories too drastically too soon.
Figure out how many calories you're eating now with the http://www.myfitnesspal.com/ program and try maintaining the same calories, or adding very little, just spread out throughout the day. Also, make sure you're not eating too many carbs (especially late in the day) or fats. I hardly believe anybody out there is eating too much protein regardless of what the program says, but don’t eat so much protein that you're using that as your primary fuel source. In other words, you should be getting more calories from carbs and fats combined than from protein. The key is tracking and figuring out how you're responding to calories cuts or calorie additions.
If you’re one of those readers who has been dieting and your weight loss has stalled, the major sign to watch out for that is a clue your metabolism is slowing is loss of appetite. If you're not hungry and the thought of eating isn’t appealing, there’s a very good chance that you're underfed. If that’s the case, try the “re-feed” I talked about above for a couple of weeks and see if that’s just what the doctor ordered to kick start your metabolism again.
Even if you’re losing weight dieting in a way that is different from what I listed above, I warn you: If your diet helps you lose weight immediately but it makes your metabolism slow down over the long haul, you're going to be right back to square one the second you start eating like a normal human being. Enter the yo-yo effect. You lose 30 pounds then add 40 pounds; you lose for 3 weeks then gain for three weeks. It kills your motivation and sets you up for failure over and over and over again. If there was a better way to lose weight AND keep it off, I’d tell you about it, but there isn’t- plain and simple. The human metabolism needs constant signals saying, “You’re OK to drop some fat. You don’t need to hold on to it for the future because your calorie needs are being met through food intake.”
Once you get your metabolism moving, through several months of solid dieting, then you can breathe a little and not be so consumed with missing a meal or going out and eating, drinking, and being merry because your metabolism can handle it. Until then, you’re going to be in retention mode and your body is going to try to hang on to calorie reserves called body fat. So, the ball is in your court. Take the quick fix of under-eating and blasting your body with long, hard cardio or do the right work to get your metabolism moving and sacrifice the “right now” gratification that comes with watching the scale move another 4 ounces. It’s up to you!