I wouldn’t hesitate to guess that the vast majority of you reading this have struggled to shift body fat at some point in your life. There’s good reason for this. Your body simply doesn’t want to burn fat. It is programmed to survive. For example, we know that when body fat starts to drop, circulating levels of hormones involved in homeostatic regulation of body weight start to change [1, 2]. This may be one of the primary reasons behind the high chance of weight regain following diet-induced weight-loss. It’s also party responsible for the ridiculous cravings that come with any calorie restricted diet.
The barriers don’t end there. There are several factors that can hinder fat loss, or alter your mind state and reduce your ability to stick to your diet. Here are five of them:
Calorie Intake vs Calorie Expenditure
The basic premise of weight-loss is consuming less calories than you are burning. Whilst sustained fat loss (or body composition changes in general) isn’t this simple, it is a prerequisite. If you’re consuming too many calories, you won’t burn body fat. Most of you will know this by now so there is no point dwelling on it too long.
Calorie intake is important, but macronutrient breakdown may also play a role in assisting fat loss. “Macronutrient ratio” refers to the ratio of your calories that come from protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Research is mixed on whether to go low-fat or low-carb for fat loss; it does seem as though there is more than one way to skin a cat.
However, what may be backed by enough science is the notion that higher protein intake is beneficial to fat loss . This may be by firstly, eliciting a different hormonal response when compared to carbohydrate, secondly, due it’s increased cost to metabolise (Thermic Effect of Food), and perhaps most importantly, by preserving more muscle tissue which results in higher calorie expenditure.
Therefore, those that are trying to lose weight may find it harder if they are eating a lower protein diet. Please note however that daily protein intake need not exceed around 2.0-2.4g/kg of bodyweight. Beyond protein, the ratio of carbohydrate to fat intake might not matter as much. It is worth noting however, that if performance is of any concern, then research suggests low-carb may not be optimal. Further to this, most people also find sustaining a low-carb diet somewhat difficult.
Stress & Sleep
Research seems to indicate a correlation between less sleep and greater fat mass [4, 5]. I wouldn’t hesitate to hypothesise the same correlation exists between increased stress and greater fat mass.
Stress elicits a physiological change in the body. One of these changes which has garnered attention over the past few years is an increase in circulating cortisol (the so called stress hormone). Neither stress nor cortisol are inherently bad things. Stress is a part of life and increased cortisol production helps us deal with it.
What isn’t healthy is living in a constant state of stress which can throw out our hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis; the system responsible for responding to stress (and producing cortisol). Doing so will almost undoubtedly have some effect on muscle and fat mass.
Biological Adaptation to Dieting / Weight-Loss
As stated earlier, your physiology changes once you start reducing calories and shifting weight. A drastic reduction in calorie intake will result in drastic homeostatic changes in the body. Amongst other things, cravings will increase and metabolic rate will reduce, leading to the impetus for weight regain. It is important to take this into consideration when deciding overall calorie intake.
Furthermore, it is worthwhile changing your environment and removing temptations where possible. Your body does not care how bad you want to lose fat and it is important you don’t rely solely on motivation to get you through.
Figure 1. Biology’s influence during obesity development, treatment, and relapse (MacLean, P.S. et al. 2011).
Relapse and Guilt
When it comes to body compositional changes, progress is never linear. For example, if you’re tracking weight loss on the scales then you’re guaranteed to lose more in the first week of dieting than the weeks that follow (most of that weight won’t be fat but that is another discussion).
Further to that, life is complex and unpredictable. There will be times when you miss training sessions, stray from your nutritional plan, drink, or even binge on some “forbidden fruit”. This is normal. Where people usually go wrong is letting the guilt following such an episode to consume them, and/or giving up on their plan for falsely thinking they have failed. This is the difference between a lapse (a minor slip) and relapse (falling back into old habits).
Lapses are normal. Never think you could have done things differently and don’t feel guilty for it. You are not responsible for your cravings; or even your biological and neurological wiring in general for that matter. Just accept it as a normal part of your journey, identify what may have been the cause, and then attempt to address it.
So What’s the Best Approach to Weight Loss?
This is too complex a question to answer in one paragraph. However, here are some simple fundamentals to put in place if you’re trying to burn fat:
1. Engage in resistance training.
2. Create a small calorie deficit.
3. Don’t starve yourself. A large deficit will lead to weight regain in the long run, even if initial weight-loss is great.
4. Some cravings are normal. Eat foods high in fibre, drink water, and look for low-calorie foods to satisfy these. Intense cravings could indicate your calorie and/or nutrient intake is far too low.
5. Consume enough protein (maximum of 2.0-2.4g/kg bodyweight per day).
6. Don’t cut carbs (unless you have guidance in eating a ketogenic diet and don’t have performance concerns).
7. Get adequate sleep.
8. Employ stress management techniques.
9. Don’t feel guilty for lapses (minor single episode slips). This is a normal part of dieting. Just get back to your plan as soon as you can.
10. Remember that you’re after long-term goals so don’t sweat the small stuff if you make mistakes along the way.
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1. Greenway, F.L., Physiological adaptations to weight loss and factors favouring weight regain. Int J Obes (Lond), 2015. 39(8): p. 1188-96.
2. Maclean, P.S., et al., Biology’s response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain.Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol, 2011. 301(3): p. R581-600.
3. Longland, T.M., et al., Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr, 2016. 103(3): p. 738-46.
4. Hairston, K.G., et al., Sleep duration and five-year abdominal fat accumulation in a minority cohort: the IRAS family study. Sleep, 2010. 33(3): p. 289-95.
5. Yi, S., et al., Short sleep duration in association with CT-scanned abdominal fat areas: the Hitachi Health Study. Int J Obes (Lond), 2013. 37(1): p. 129-34.