As many of you may know, one of my main points of interest that formed over the later years of my adolescence was a passion for nutrition, the human body, and exercise science. This passion truly begins in my childhood, when I was always a bit overweight. Never obese or anything quite that severe, but I was certainly the chunky kid.
This wasn’t much of an issue as a young child, as no one quite seemed to mind and it was always seen as cute. Things changed, however, as I reached middle school and beyond. What was once a cute, slightly chubby kid soon began to grow more and more into an overweight teenager. I reached my most overweight point when I was 15, just barely 5’4” and 182 pounds. I didn’t carry that weight well. This came at a time when I desperately wanted attention from girls, but none of them seemed interested, even if I did manage to be smart and funny. My self-esteem was rapidly declining, and I decided I needed to do something. Something within me clicked that year (being my freshman year in high school) and I began to make an effort.
I started switching out pastries for apples and almonds, I worked out more with my football team’s strength coach, but I wasn’t seeing the results I so desperately desired. Despite my “healthy” eating, my body was refusing to respond. At 16, I pushed things further by beginning to track everything I put into my body, working out at the gym 4 times every week, and doing rigorous amounts of cardio early in the morning and in the evening. I began cutting calories to dangerous levels, near 1500. Keep in mind that I was 16 (and a late bloomer, to boot) so I needed food to fully develop and grow, and I was now depriving myself of that which my body still needed. I had dropped down to 160 at 5’8” when I was at the start of my junior year (age 17), but nothing I could do would get the remaining belly fat off. I had become obsessed with my self-image, and the girlfriend I had at the time (incidentally the same young woman that will be my wife on the 28th) was very concerned for my wellbeing.
I even got to the point where I was diagnosed as mildly depressed, offered medication to improve my mood. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I knew something had to be done, so I looked to science for my answers, as I should have years before when I had decided to begin my journey. I stumbled upon Layne Norton’s video about metabolic damage, looked more into the evidence behind it, and found that I had made a rather clear and simple mistake in how I attempted to lose fat. This mistake, however, is not one that is commonly known and is still a huge reason why so many people fail to lose weight permanently.
In each and every one of us is a set-point, a body weight/composition that our body’s mechanisms try their hardest to maintain which has been shaped by genetics, exercise, nutrition, and other long-term habits. When you dramatically cut calories, like I had done, the body initially responds by losing weight because it has not been given time to adapt, but quickly I found that it became harder and harder to lose weight, I could eat barely anything and exercise incessantly, yet the fat that I came to so loathe remained. My body had adapted by becoming more efficient, because I had dramatically tried to change my set-point, which my body was resisting. The same happens for those that try to gain weight in the opposite direction. In any drastic shift away from one’s set-point, the body will adapt in whatever way possible to avoid deviating too far from your current set-point.
My body had become so efficient that it could run on 1500 calories per day while I thought I expended over 2000 calories per day by lowering a number of factors, including my BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate), and the number of calories that I actually burned through physical exertion. All the while, as I was eating less and had lost that initial weight, I was getting hungrier and hungrier. This was due to the initial decrease in adipose tissue that my body had experienced, which just so happens to be the tissue that excretes leptin, one of the hormones involved in signaling when the body is “full”. Simultaneously, ghrelin production increases, which is one of the only known hormones that induces hunger. So my body was responding to the fat loss by excreting less leptin and more ghrelin, making me hungrier and less satisfied.
This is the point of failure for most attempts at a fat loss diet. The idea of so many is to cut calories right off the bat to extreme levels in order to speed up weight loss. I’ve seen people practically fast for weeks in a dire attempt to lose weight, and guess what? It never works out. After the initial weight loss they experience from the shock the body undergoes, adaptation sets in and the weight loss stops. Then, once they end their “juice cleanse” (don’t get me started on that faulty “science”), they go back to their old eating habits and wind up gaining back most, if not all or more body fat. In fact, gaining back more weight than one carried before the dieting phase is a phenomenon commonly called “overshooting” and may occur in up to one-third of those that attempt to lose weight.
So what does a healthy and scientific approach to weight loss actually look like? First, start by getting an idea for what you’re eating. Track your intake on an app like MyFitnessPal and get a good idea for what your “maintenance intake” is (what you can eat to neither gain nor lose weight). After you have determined this, make an incremental decrease in intake. A 15-20% decrease in caloric intake per day is fairly moderate. Continue at this level until you don’t see any more weight loss, and then make continuous steps of 100-200 calorie decreases, only taking the next step down when weight loss plateaus.
Once you’ve reached a point where the dieting is really beginning to weigh on you and you can’t go further, or you are below a safe intake for your size and sex (there are many online calculators to find this), it’s time to reverse diet. This is also what should optimally be employed for those who have already caused “metabolic damage”. Reverse dieting means you very slowly increase your caloric intake, possibly as little as a 1-5% increase in caloric intake per week. By taking a slow, methodical approach to reintroducing these calories into the diet, it gives the body time to adapt to this slight caloric surplus. This minimizes any potential weight gain that often occurs from those coming off of a diet, and can ultimately result in the subject having a higher metabolic rate than they had before the initial diet. After I realized that I had done damage, I went on a 2-year reverse diet and increased my caloric intake from 1500 to 3100 calories per day, and gained zero pounds. In fact, many have said that I look healthier and more fit than I did then, as my body composition has very gradually changed while my weight has remained the same.
My personal results notwithstanding, the main takeaway from this is that diets need to be sustainable and gradual to have any chance at success. Fad diets and similar approaches to fat loss are often drastic in nature because it’s sexy and putting “Lose 10 pounds in 2 weeks!” on a tabloid cover will sell because people think that it sounds too good to be true. And yes, it is too good to be true. The truth isn’t always pretty, but it works. Take it slow, seek out scientific sources of information, and most importantly, the best diet is the one you can adhere to.