The first step I take when beginning with a new client is to “reset” their metabolism. This is a relatively new concept for most people. But in my opinion, absolutely necessary and can have a profound impact on the rate of fat loss.
It’s commonly known that in order to lose weight we need a caloric deficit.
A “deficit” simply means we are restricting calories. When you eat less calories than you use each day, you are in a negative energy balance, or caloric deficit. It is impossible to net a weight loss without a negative energy balance. Although it’s possible to lose fat mass while gaining muscle and thus, overall weight, it’s typically required to have a caloric deficit to drop fat mass at the fastest rate possible.
In other words, we just need to eat less and we will drop fat mass, right?
Not so fast.
You see, many people are eating TOO LITTLE to lose fat mass.
I know that may seem confusing, but your metabolism is highly dynamic and the amount of energy it uses day in and day out revolves around many factors.
In this post I am going to break down the metabolism, what it is and what parts it’s comprised of, why it matters to “reset” it, and why it could be the answer if you have not been losing fat mass even though you eat clean and do not overeat.
What encompasses human metabolism?
The calories used by your metabolism are based on the sum of a few parts, these parts are:
1. BMR – base metabolic rate.
This is the base amount of calories that are needed to support the internal workings of the body. This excludes any physical activity and instead encompasses the vast internal workings of the body – the trillions of cells, multiple organs and thousands of tasks that are carried out every second by the body to keep us alive. This is the biggest “piece of the pie” when it comes to calorie usage and the metabolism.
2. NEAT – non-exercise activity thermogenesis.
This may sound fancy but think of it this way: it’s how many calories your body burns being physically active throughout the day. This is NOT purposefully exercise (hence the name). Things like walking to the grocery store, helping old ladies cross the street (has anyone actually done that?), or being chased by Uncle Jeff’s dog all qualify.
3. TEF – thermic effect of feeding.
This is the caloric cost of metabolizing the food you eat. This can add anywhere from 10-25% of extra calories to your metabolism, based on several factors. If you eat all whole foods, are lean and active, eat mixed macronutrient meals with high protein and fibers you are closer to 25%. Where if you eat processed foods, are overweight and eat the “average” diet you’re likely closer to 10%. Yes – this means that the healthier you eat the more calories you burn (who knew healthy foods could be… healthy? +1 for good foods, -1 for IIFYM).
4. Exercise – no cool acronym here.
Once we add up all of these parts we get our TDEE or total daily energy expenditure. This, in essence, is our “0” point. If we eat this amount we should neither gain or lose weight – and THIS is what the “reset” is. So why is it important to start here?
Take a look at most standard BMR calculators and you will quickly see how many calories your BMR could burn per day. This, again, is only a piece of the puzzle but gives you an idea of where to start.
How then, can you possibly explain a women between 140-160lbs eating only 1200 calories per day and exercising 7 days a week not losing weight? Based on these calculations she should be eating 2,000 calories or more. I get these clients EVERY DAY.
What about the male who is 250 pounds and only eats a muffin for breakfast, a small lunch and average dinner each day, and not losing fat mass? This would mean he is hundreds if not 1000’s of calories below his TDEE? How is he still overweight?
This phenomenon also happens when people go into “crash diets” or a “cleanse” and restrict way too many calories to “lose weight fast”… so what the hell is going on here?
Down regulation and why you might need to eat more before you eat less
When you eat too little for too long your body gets worried. It thinks world hunger has finally caught up to you and death by famine is right around the corner. Your body enters survival mode and will do everything it can to live. It does not realize you’re too lazy to go to the store, or think by starving yourself you’ll look like Carmen Electra. It thinks you’re back in the hunter-gatherer days and you have been chasing a deer for the last 4 days and that you may die before you can catch it.
Your body is very efficient and hard to kill. When it reaches this point it halts all further fat loss as a way to retain what ever energy it can. More of a cut to your calories will no longer correlate with a cut in weight.
Interestingly, when the metabolism down-regulates or “slows” it actually becomes more efficient – being super careful with where it spends energy. Similar to those broke college days – you suddenly become very sensitive to where you spend money. As you can probably guess, this is not a good thing.
Most people who are looking to lose fat mass are not coming from eating their “0” point or there TDEE. In fact, most people I have worked with have down regulated metabolisms; i.e. they eat too little. When this happens your body stalls out and lowers the “cost of living” via the resting metabolic rate:
(note – if your wondering the difference between BMR and RMR it’s pretty simple. Although sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably, RMR (resting metabolic rate) is your metabolic rate in a relaxed state, but not completely inactive. BMR is your metabolic rate if your body was entirely motionless without food for a day. BMR is more commonly used in research.)
People in this position will often realize that no matter how little they eat, they can’t lose weight. This is the work of a down regulated metabolism. They then make the mistake of eating even less. The metabolism seems to have a dose effect of down regulation, simply meaning: the less you eat and the faster you drop calories, the more your metabolism will slow down:
Menno Henselmans, someone I communicate with daily and is a leading figure in the research driven nutrition world (mainly for bodybuilders/strength athletes) explains it this way:
“As a result of the body’s adaptive processes that try to maintain energy homeostasis, progressively greater energy deficits results in less and less additional fat loss. A study comparing the difference between 3 months of dieting with a 25% caloric deficit or a VLCD (very low calorie diet) of 890 calories a day showed that although the VLCD lost more total mass, the ratio of muscle to fat loss was also considerably higher and this discrepancy didn’t balance out over the 6 month study period. Furthermore, the fat lost was not proportional to the size of the deficit. That is, a 890 calorie diet creates a deficit well over twice as large as a 25% restriction, but it resulted in less than twice as much fat loss. “
The article he was referencing:
In another experiment groups eating different caloric restricted protocols – 420, 660, 800 calories per day for 6 months showed NO significant differences in weight loss or body composition.
How could eating half the calories not help you lose more fat mass?
This, again, shows that the body begins to adapt to a caloric restriction, slowing the metabolism and entering a “survival mode”. It’s the same reason the crazy cardio girl who eats leaves and does Zumba 45x/day looks the same as she did last year (we all know one…).
So what exactly is happening that causes this metabolic suppression?
These adverse effects are mainly caused by the shutting down of the HPT axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid, -gonadotropic and -somatotropic axes) and the activation of the primary stress axis, or HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis. This, as the name implies, puts the body in “stress” mode. This than causes essential metabolic hormones (testosterone, growth hormone, insulin and thyroid hormone) to take a nosedive. Stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline) begin to take over. This puts the body into energy saving mode and is the core reason why the metabolism becomes suppressed.
Although a negative energy balance that is too severe can wreck the body as shown in these above studies and in turn suppress the metabolism, we can also see that the opposite is true. Eat more and your metabolism becomes faster and you will burn more calories per day (which is part of the goal of the reset):
The basic principle here is this: you should AT LEAST be eating your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) without gaining weight BEFORE you enter a caloric deficit to lose fat mass (this is the “reset”).
If you think about it, it only makes sense – if your goal is to lose fat mass and enter a “deficit” wouldn’t that itself imply that we need to start at a “non deficit”?
The research findings are pretty clear and I can back this up with my personal experience coaching 100’s of clients. If you don’t reset first not only is your progress going to be cut at the knees if you are already eating too little, but could also be dangerous. Eating fewer calories than your BMR can leave a nasty metabolic ‘footprint’ and cause metabolic and systemic damage.
Other benefits of a reset:
Among the metabolic benefit of the reset, and its ability to help better express fat loss later, there are a host of other reasons I reset my clients:
1. It ingrains the habits that go along with successful body re-composition BEFORE hunger strikes.
If you have ever been in a caloric deficit before, you know it can get hard. Hunger hormones increase as your body begins to crave calories to meet homeostasis. This is where low cal foods, fiber and other food choices become increasingly more important (-1 more point for IIFYM). When you feel this hunger immediately when starting a new plan it can make it difficult to adhere.
Most people I work with are not yet used to things like prep cooking, food timing, eating all whole foods instead of processed foods and taking objective measurements of themselves. When you feel hunger ON TOP of these other new elements it can be paralyzing and sabotage progress.
Instead, if we reset for the first two weeks and get habits in place, we not only get a fully fired up metabolism that is ready to rock and roll, but we can ease into these habits that will become the foundation for a proper caloric deficit later.
2. It allows me to see what your BMR actually is.
As accurate as a calculation can be there are still tons of variations to BMR’s. Take for instance the below review that compared a bunch of variables of BMR’s. Although most of the differences were noted to be the result of fat free mass (FFM), there was still a pretty sizable percentage that was unexplained (26%).
In yet another study, researchers found that even though their subjects had comparable body compositions (fat vs muscle) there was still a decent distribution of BMR’s. The top 5% BMR’s metabolized energy about 30% faster than the lowest 5%.
As you can tell, it’s not an exact science.
What’s the best way to learn than?
First you do your best to calculate the BMR as well as the other variables that go into the metabolism as listed earlier, and then you implement the caloric protocol and watch weight and body composition metrics to see its effects. If weight is pretty consistent then you nailed it, if you’re gaining weight after a few weeks you’re likely a little high, and if you’re drastically losing weight (passed the water weight phase) it may be too low. Yes, all of this science in the end comes down to a little trial and error.
This is all great information to know for later when easing back into a weight maintenance program or are attempting to fuel for athletic performance. It helps us understand the exact caloric use per day which can then help us maximize performance by ensuring glycogen is filled before competitions, among other things.
3. Resetting ensures that the weight we lose we KEEP off after we lose it.
Crash diets that don’t take this into account often perpetuate rapid re-feeding, with most ending up “fatter” than they were pre-diet. This is typically due to having a lowered metabolism but still returning to the same calories they were eating pre-diet – when their metabolism was higher – and thus gaining weight. This is highlighted even more when they go about their caloric restrictions poorly and lose muscle mass which will then take another hit to the metabolism.
If we know you reset at a given caloric amount and did not gain fat, then we simply adjust for the weight that you lost and create a new caloric reset post-deficit which will act as your “weight maintenance”. You should be able to follow that for as long as you want to stay at your current weight. VOILA the mystery of post diet fat regain is solved!