This is going to really help you out, because I know you’re frustrated.
You’re barely eating anything and every calculation suggests you’re in a calorie deficit.
So why aren’t you losing weight?
I mean it’s calories in vs. calories out right?
Maybe you’re in ‘starvation mode‘?
Maybe there is more to it than just calories?
Maybe there is something else…
You’re in Starvation Mode
The fact is you’re eating less than you used to, and you’ve been doing it a long time. The body responds to what you give it, and by giving it very little your metabolism has crashed, it’s damaged and you’ve fallen into starvation mode. So your body is holding onto every last calorie and dropped your metabolic rate, so now you’re not losing weight anymore. — That may seem somewhat logical, and in parts it is true, but when we look into it, there is a lot more to it.
You Get Out What You Put In
Your metabolic rate is the sum of energy you burn per day, it is made up of your basal metabolic rate (BMR- energy used to stay alive), activity level (exercise), non-exercise activity expenditure (NEAT- fidgeting etc.), non-exercise physical activity (NEPA- walking the dog, cleaning the car etc.) and to a lesser degree the thermic effect of food (TEF- energy lost in digestion). Each of these contribute different amounts to our total metabolism, this can be clearly seen below.
[bctt tweet=”Your metabolic rate is the sum of energy you burn per day”]
When you decrease the amount you eat several things happen; your TEF will reduce simply because there is less food to digest, you’ll have less energy and thus you will see reductions in your NEPA and NEAT and as you lose weight your BMR will reduce because there’s less of you. Furthermore, we see changes in a few hormones which are summarised below, and the overall effect here is our energy burn reduces and our drive to eat increases.
[bctt tweet=”Your body is fighting fat loss”]
As you can see, when you change an input (the amount you’re eating) you see changes in the outputs that make up your metabolism, or total calorie burn. Nothing is damaged, these are all logical adjustments made by the body, because your body doesn’t want to change.
[bctt tweet=”Your body has one goal in mind when it comes to energy use: efficiency.”]
Thus, if you create a 500 calorie deficit using your original maintenance intake, you have not actually created a true 500 calorie deficit. Because you now burn less than before, the equation isn’t as simple as it may first seem. There are many inputs and outputs and these change in relation to one another. So if you were maintaining on 2500 calories, and drop your calorie intake to 2000, there isn’t an exact 500 calorie deficit, it’s lower because you changed an input, our bodies don’t work by simple math.
[bctt tweet=”When you provide less energy, you expend less energy.”]
Therefore you can see your total metabolic burn or Total Energy Expenditure (TEE) is dynamic, it changes with your body, with the inputs and outputs. However, even when we take these changes into account it still doesn’t explain why you’re gaining weight does it? If you’re eating less than 1000 calories it would mean your metabolic rate had reduced below that and that just doesn’t really work out in practice.
Even when you calculate just your BMR (the largest component of your TEE), and don’t take anything else into account it will be above 1000 calories, unless you’re teeny weeny. A general calculation would be to multiply your bodyweight by around 10, so if you were anything over 100lbs your BMR would be above 1000. We’d expect our BMR to drop in proportion to the amount of bodyweight lost, so what’s going on? You’re experiencing drops in your TEE that are not entirely explained by changes in body composition.
Metabolic damage! Surely?
OK so lets look into what we think could be your problem, but first lets get the terminology correct, because you can’t damage your metabolism, as you saw above it just adapts to what you give it. However, we do see a drop in our BMR that is out of proportion to the loss in body weight, this is called adaptive thermogenesis or metabolic adaption.
[bctt tweet=”Metabolic Adaption is a drop in energy output not explained by predicted values from weight loss”]
In one study 16 obese subjects went onto a diet for 30 weeks and lost nearly 40% of their starting bodyweight . Most of this weight was lost from fat and 17% came from fat free mass (FFM); FFM is more metabolically active than fat mass and despite it being relatively well preserved there was a drop in BMR by up to 18%. Their metabolism thus adapted downwards by 18% more than predicted, so if you were predicted to maintain at 2500 calories, you would actually maintain at 2050, close to a 500 calorie difference. That’s a pretty significant amount of calories, certainly enough to stop you losing weight.
However, bear in mind that this study was extreme, the subjects saw rapid and massive weight loss through a combination of diet restriction and vigorous physical activity. The size of the calorie deficit determined both the degree of weight loss as well as the metabolic response acting to counter weight loss. So the harder and longer you push the diet, the larger the metabolic adaption. Many people when they diet do push it to the extreme, and you may be one of those people, seeing great initial progress but then stalling out.
Furthermore, this study for me had some flawed components in addition to being rapid:
- Insufficient Resistance Training (which as we learnt here is very important in preserving FFM)
- Insufficient Protein (which as we learnt here is very important in preserving FFM)
- No use of periods of eating at maintenance (which as we learnt here is very important)
These ‘flaws’ are all to common with the average dieter, and if they sound familiar to you we may have found your problem. Also it appears that if you’re lean and muscular you may be at a higher risk of metabolic adaptation; in one study they stated: individuals who presented higher BMR and lower FFM at the beginning of the weight-loss programme were more at risk of falling below their predicted REE during an energy-restricted diet aimed at inducing weight loss .
[bctt tweet=”Lean folks are at greater risk of metabolic adaption”]
You might be one of those people, lean and doing everything right; fortunately there has been one study done where sufficient protein and resistance training were used in combination with a calorie deficit. The study looked at a professional natural bodybuilder in his contest prep and as you can see in the graph below he continued to lose weight over the course of his 6 month contest prep . Energy intake didn’t need to dramatically fall, and a predictable lowering of energy expenditure occurred. This down regulation was an adaption, and we also saw an up regulation after the competition as energy intake dramatically increased. The curve for metabolic rate recovery is more or less the reverse of the dieting phase, the curve is right on track to be right back to 100% normal.
Although this study was done on only one person it does nicely show that when you do things right you don’t stall out and stop dropping fat. It also clearly shows an adaption both down and up, which is expected and was predicted.
Studies therefore have shown that metabolic adaption although real is relatively small, making up around 10 to 15% of the lower metabolic rate fore the most part. This in absolute terms is only 100 to 200 calories on average, obviously the larger you are the bigger the number of calories. For the vast majority it is quite insignificant and is unlikely to stop fat loss let alone cause weight gain.
So what this means is that say you went from 180lbs and your maintenance was 2700 calories, if you dieted down and lost 20lbs we might expect your maintenance intake to be 2400 calories (using general calculations), but due to metabolic adaption it is likely to be 10 to 15% below this, making it around 2100 calories. So if you started on a diet of 2000 calories you would expect to still be in a calorie deficit even until you reach 160lbs.
Thus metabolic damage or starvation mode doesn’t really exist in a technical sense, if someone is suggesting it does they really mean adaption. So if your weight gain isn’t down to a damaged metabolism, and metabolic adaptation is relatively small, what could the reason be? The body doesn’t defy laws; energy cannot be lost, only transferred or altered as we learned in your tailor made diet.
[bctt tweet=”The body doesn’t defy laws; energy cannot be lost, only transferred”]
Let’s summarise this section:
- Your body will adapt to what you give it.
- Our bodies will fight to stay the same – homeostasis.
- The law of thermodynamics cannot be broken.
- Starvation mode does not exist, but metabolic adaption will happen.
You Suck at Reporting Calories
The other day I was putting some salsa on my plate, didn’t weight it, didn’t log it. Later that day I also had input that I would have 300g of potato, but it actually came to 350g, I didn’t adjust anything in my food diary however. Oh and because it is Christmas I have an advent calendar, which obviously means chocolate. I never bother putting these into my food diary. I am, we all are, awful at reporting our real calorie consumption.
[bctt tweet=” there are no calorie freebies, they all count”]
I get it, counting calories can be tedious, it can be a pain in the butt, however there are no calorie freebies, they all count. You may think you’re not getting very many calories from these small non-counted items, but trust me they add up over time. Cream in your coffee, that extra slice of meat and even that dollop of ketchup, they all count.
Under reporting is a real issue and in the past it has caused researchers to conclude things that are simply not true. For example with obesity, for years it was thought that based on self-reported dietary intake data, those who were obese, on average, ate less than lean subjects. From that they assumed that obesity was down to a metabolic defect, rather than just excessive energy intake. Much like many seek metabolic damage as a way to explain their inability to lose weight, when in reality there is something else going on.
If you’re anything like the rest of the world your ability to report calories is getting even worse as in 1982 39% of men and 33% of women were identified as suspected under-reporters; this has increased to 43 % and 34 % respectively in the second assessment in 1992 . Why might this be the case? Surely with the rising obesity epidemic and push for healthier living people would be getting better at this? Well maybe this rise is associated with an increasingly more diet conscious society containing individuals less likely to admit their true intakes? Do you ever feel guilty for eating something not on your diet?
Are you one of the main culprits?
Honestly, everyone does it, I’ve even heard Lyle McDonald quote how even nutritional researchers have been found to under-report what they’ve eaten. However, it is more common with some than others; typically it is women and the overweight or obese doing the under-reporting.
If you’re obese or female, I have no doubt you feel pressured to eat well. In a society where eating small amounts has been associated with ‘femininity’ and where women often feel under social pressure to conform to such images, it is not unexpected that there is more under-reporting among women. With these pressures women are more likely to report an intake that they perceive as socially acceptable.
The same goes for those who are obese, they are under constant attack to eat less, and so who can blame them for miss-reporting? In western societies obesity is highly stigmatized, making the obese an obvious group within the population to be the object of social pressure to reduce weight .
While under-reporting is more prevalent among overweight and obese individuals, it must not be assumed that it is confined to this section of the population. Men are now under more pressure to look lean and muscular. Whether it be in the news, on social media or at our local gym, we’re all feeling the pressure.
Lastly self-deception cannot be ignored and it may play a significant role in under-reporting, rather than a desire to deceive anyone.
What’s being misreported?
Studies have reported that protein, in contrast to carbohydrate and fat, is typically accurately reported or even over-reported . Under-reporters were found to record lower intakes of high fat sweet foods (e.g. cakes, biscuits, pastries, and other sweet foods), than accurate reporters and when intakes were adjusted for total energy, relative consumption of cakes, biscuits, pastries, sugar, confectionery, butter (women only) and fruit/nuts (men only) was lower, but meats, vegetables, salad, eggs, fried fish, white bread, refined cereals (women only) and rice, pasta (men only) were higher for under-reporters.
So basically those who are miss-reporting are claiming to have eaten more of the foods viewed as healthy and less of foods traditionally seen as junk. This provides further evidence that under- and over-reporting is related to the health image of foods. Snack foods also tend to be associated with a negative image which leads to their omission from food records, and many diets promote the idea that snacking is associated with weight gain.
Maybe there are other reasons why you’re misreporting?
Do you track manually using a food diary? Maybe you’re writing down some of your nutritional information wrong and that is the key. Or maybe you’re using a fitness app like myfitnesspal but the items you’re entering are not accurate, making it appear as though you’re misreporting. Potentially you’re unsure of what nutritional information is most important to track, and so you’re focussing on reporting the wrong things.
Are you weighing things out on a scale or using cups, tablespoons etc.? Do you eat out a lot and guesstimate your calorie intake? If you do use these you could easily misreport by hundreds of calories, for example most view a tablespoon of peanut butter as heaped, but I’m sorry to inform you, it isn’t, and you’ll be getting in almost double the serving you were going for. If you’re guesstimating meals out at restaurants you really need to be careful, because the chefs don’t care about your diet, they are only interested in creating a tasty meal. That often means copious amounts of butter, oil and these are calorie dense and mean you could easily under-estimate.
Or your inaccuracies could be because you simply cannot remember what or how much you ate at a meal. The evidence of food records have often surprised subjects about what they eat, described in statements such as “ . . . it proved that I ‘nibble’ between meals” . These individuals are less likely to record food intake accurately when it is largely dependent on memory (e.g. 24 h recall).
How to get round this issue?
- Be 100% honest with yourself – remember why you are dieting, and every time you’re about to deviate from the plan think back to that why. If you do overeat, account for it, because at least then you can look back and know where you went wrong.
- Make the process easier – when people were asked why they under-reported many responded in saying it was a hassle, they looked for alternative meals and snacking patterns and substituted foods which were easier to weigh or simply not recording some foods which were a pain in the backside. So if this sounds familiar make life easier, maybe follow a relatively basic meal plan day to day, or maybe you need to find a different method of tracking, using something like portions sizes. The key is being accountable to everything you eat, find a way you can do that and be consistent.
- Take photos of everything you eat– I’ve had clients who have been in a similar situation, according to the number of calories they say they’re consuming they should be losing weight. The best solution I found was to get them to take pictures of everything they ate, that way I could see whether the pictures matched up with their reporting. Often foods were omitted from their food diaries; condiments, milk and sugar in their tea, butter they used to cook their meat.
You Need to Get Pissed
You’re honestly counting all your calories? You’re not sneaking in an extra biscuit? Or eating out a load? Well then, there is only one thing for you to do, go and get drunk. This will work, if you don’t trust me, then trust Lyle McDonald who I can quote saying getting drunk and getting laid can help reignite fat loss. Still not convinced? I don’t blame you, so let’s look into why.
As we learned earlier we see our hormones shift when we diet, one of those hormones being cortisol. You probably already know that it is related with stress; the more stressed you are, the higher it rises. Dieting is a stress, training is a stress and thus cortisol increases. If you keep exercising hard, you keep giving your body insufficient nutrition (calorie deficit) and never have breaks problems can arise.
Our body responds to stress and the hormone aldosterone is released. Aldosterone regulates the balance of the electrolytes sodium and potassium in the body, and so if it is over-stimulated, sodium and potassium can become unbalanced. This imbalance can lead to water retention, as the two electrolytes work together to regulate water balance .
[bctt tweet=”When you’re stressed a lot, you release cortisol, cortisol makes you hold water”]
You’re killing it in the gym, you’re on a low calorie (maybe low carb) diet, you’re still going to work each day and trying to live your life, you’re stressed as hell and this causes water to be retained. The solution? Decrease stress and you decrease water. Hence why you should go and get pissed and laid.
[bctt tweet=”Go get pissed & laid and see the weight drop off”]
How to get round this issue?
- Keep carbohydrates in your diet – you shouldn’t restrict any macronutrient needlessly, as we learned in your tailor made diet each has their own role. If we’re very low on carbohydrate we can end up training in a glycogen depleted state and this increases cortisol because the body must work harder to breakdown protein for fuel (which is also not wanted). Plus studies have shown that carbohydrates can help reduce stress and stimulate serotonin .
- Implement proper fatigue management – that means you don’t just go ham in the gym every session, I’ve spoken about periodisation before and in weight training for fat loss I mentioned how you need to utilise lighter sessions and deloads. These will help bring stress levels down, allows you to recover and keep training and losing fat for longer.
- Get plenty of sleep – this could be an extension to fatigue management but I wrote extensively about how sleep can make or break your fat loss efforts here.
- Take breaks – calorie cycling or nutritional periodisation is becoming more and more well known, and it is in my opinion pivotal for long term fat loss success. By taking a break from dieting, eating at maintenance we can curtail all of the negative effects associated with dieting, learn more here.
- Use mild calorie deficits – finally don’t go ball to the wall with your calorie deficit, the harder you push your body the harder it will respond, so by taking slow gradual steps you will be more successful in your fat loss goals.
Why you’re Gaining Weight on 1000 Calories?
You’re not actually eating 1000 calories.
You’re holding onto water weight.
It’s as simple as that really, unless you’re incredibly small and in active you should and will lose weight on 1000 calories unless of course you’re chronically stressed or really suck at counting calories. You may at first take this article badly, in that you feel like I’m calling you out, or don’t understand how hard you’re trying to lose fat. But I assure you when you take onboard the advice above you will be in a much stronger and well-informed position to lose fat. Because there is no magic, there is no starvation mode, there are just predictable changes that our body goes through, and we can be pro-active and prevent them stalling our fat loss.
I’ve had people come to me stating exactly what this article is about, they have been dieting for a long time, eating very little, and have even started to gain weight. We’ve discussed the above and successfully found the solution, to allow them to again drop fat, and they couldn’t be happier.
Above is my client Ben, we did a ‘mini-cut’ and from left to right he lost 10lbs in 5 weeks, his calories didn’t change from week 1 to 5 and nor did his cardio. We put him on a roughly 30% calorie deficit and pushed his protein up appropriately and kept his fat and carbohydrate intake as high as possible whilst allowing Ben to drop fat. Ben also had a lot of experience in tracking his calories, and was happy using myfitnesspal to track his food using a flexible dieting approach.
In addition Ben was taking part in regular resistance training and making sure to get sufficient sleep and rest. By keeping the diet to 5 weeks we avoided any major metabolic adaption and Ben never stopped losing fat. After the diet we simply increased his calories to just below his predicted maintenance (to take into account any potential metabolic adaption) and from there slowly increased calories while monitoring his bodyweight. Ben is now eating the same number of calories as what he was previously maintaining on, but is 10lbs lighter with substantially less body fat.
If Ben wasn’t accurate with his calorie counting, continued his diet for longer periods of time, didn’t consume sufficient protein, never took rest days or do resistance training the result would not have been so favourable. So if you want to avoid gaining weight on 1000 calories, make sure to get these aspects in check.
If the content of this article has resonated you and you feel you’d benefit from some personalised advice about how to get yourself out of this situation, consider clicking on the “Coaching” header above and applying for a consultation with one of our awesome coaches; myself, Pascal, Ryan, Jess and Harry.
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