Why ‘Eat Less, Move More’ Is Failing You

If you’re stuck trying to lose a few lbs you’re not alone.

I speak to dozens of guys every day who send me messages telling me things aren’t working anymore.

“I’m stuck at this weight no matter what I do”

“I used to always be able to follow this diet for awhile and drop 10 lbs but it doesn’t work anymore…”

“I can’t gain an ounce of muscle no matter what I try, and my spare tire isn’t going anywhere, either”

You see, your body is programmed to keep you alive. It does a good job of that, but it can be a big pain in the arse when dieting.

When you try to outsmart your body, it outsmarts you back.

If you try to rush the process, here’s how your body tries to keep your weight steady when you take in less energy and start to lose weight, according to Precision Nutrition…

  • Thermic effect of food goes down because you’re eating less.
  • Resting metabolic rate goes down because you weigh less.
  • Calories burned through physical activity go down.
  • Non-exercise activity thermogenesis goes down.
  • Calories not absorbed goes down and you absorb more of what you eat because your body senses a calorie deficit.
  • Reducing actual calories eaten also causes hunger signals to increase, causing you to crave (and maybe eat) more.

Definitions of each below

Thermic effect of food (TEF): Every time you eat, a certain percentage of the calories ingested are “burned off” just to digest the food itself. What you eat matters here as some macros are more metabolically demanding to digest.

  • Carbohydrates: 5 to 15% of the energy consumed [1]
  • Protein: 20 to 35% [1]
  • Fats: at most 5 to 15 %[2]

Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) : RMR is the number of calories you burn each day at rest, just to breathe, think, and live.

Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT): NEAT is the calories you burn through fidgeting, standing, walking and all other physical activities except purposeful exercise.

So, a number of factors are working against you when trying to lose weight… So what can you do if more exercise and less food isn’t really the answer forever?

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1. Eat more protein

Protein is essential when losing fat.

Protein helps you keep that all-important lean body mass so you don’t look like a bag of milk when you’ve got to your goal weight.

When you’re in a significant calorie deficit (i.e. eating less than you burn), your body is happy to feast on muscle for energy. It doesn’t tend to throw out just fat and keep muscle… unless you eat lots of protein.

That’s why scale weight is not the only measurement of success.

Your diet sucks if it drops as much muscle as it does fat.

How much protein then?

T-Nation reported on a study conducted by Dr. Joey Antonio on 48 bodybuilders. Each of them reported to have taken in about 2 g of protein per kilogram every day for the last few years. Dr. Antonio split the group in two. The first group stayed on the same protein intake (NP). The second increased their daily protein intake to 3.4 g per kilogram per day. All of them did the same training program.

The Results

Both groups, the 2.3 g “low” protein group and the 3.4 g high protein group, gained the same amount of muscle. However, the really high protein group lost much more fat mass, even though they were taking in about 400 more calories a day. The NP group lost an average 0.3 kg of fat, but the HP group, despite the extra calories, lost an average of 1.6 kg of fat. Percent body fat decreased, too. The percent body fat decrease was -2.4% in the HP group and -0.6% in the NP group.

How could this happen? Dr. Antonio’s group speculated that it might have something to do with the thermic effect of protein or TEF as mentioned previously.

Regardless, the study had three main findings:

  • Protein overfeeding is unlikely to cause any gains in body fat, and appears to actually reduce body fat.
  • It’s wrong to conclude that eating anything more than 1.5 to 2.0 g per kilogram of protein is a waste of time.
  • Blood tests confirmed that a high-protein intake had no detrimental effects to the kidneys or any other parameters of health.

My suggestion for most is to aim for 1 gram per lb of bodyweight (and sometimes more, as I’ll outline later)

One study showed that 40 grams of protein induced greater muscle protein synthesis than 20 grams in both high and low LBM groups, contradicting previous studies suggesting that MPS after exercise is maximized after ingesting 20–25 grams of high-quality protein.

Overall, a 40-gram dose of whey protein isolate taken immediately after training stimulated MPS to a greater extent than a 20-gram dose.

Take home: Just by eating more protein you burn more calories, because of the increased thermic effect of eating. If you eat 100 calories of protein, you’ll only use about 70 calories of it. (remember that embarrassing episode of “meat sweats” at the Brazilian BBQ joint? Yeah, embrace the pit stains.)

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2. Build more muscle

Your body burns more calories maintaining muscle tissue than it does fat tissue.

How much though?

Some experts estimate that each extra pound of muscle you gain burns 30-50 extra calories a day, while others estimate that a pound of muscle burns 6 calories at rest, compared to 2 calories burned by a pound of fat. It’s not a perfect science, and not a huge difference, but it can add up.

I believe there’s more to the story here though.

The more muscle, the more storage capacity for glycogen (stored carbohydrates in your muscle cells).

The more muscle, the more insulin sensitive you are.

The more muscle, the better your body performs.

Take home: Do everything you can to build and maintain every ounce of lean muscle.

Footnote: Muscle isn’t just for looking good. Artero, et al., (2012) did a review of the literature on the effects of increased muscle strength and found that it has a protective effect on all-cause and cancer mortality in healthy middle-aged men, men with high blood pressure, and those with existing heart disease.

3. Eat every damn macronutrient (within reason)

A balanced diet is sustainable.

A balanced diet will over the long haul.

As mentioned, protein should form the base of your fat loss diet.

Aim for 1-1.5g per lb of bodyweight, particularly if you exercise regularly and want to maintain or gain some muscle along the way (and who doesn’t … seriously).

Then utilize carbs in moderation – enough to fuel training, boost leptin (maintains metabolism), and promotes happy chemicals in your brain. Have you gone zero carb? Yeah, you were an asshole every minute of that diet, right? No need to drop carbs to zero and hate life. From the Department of Captain Obvious, in addition to starchy and fruit carbs, get in some greens. Vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and fiber to help you fill up during meals without the calorie cost.

Then comes fats. Fats are tricky. A lot of fad diets and fitness influencers would like you to believe you can defy the laws of physics (Energy Balance Equation) and somehow lose weight in a significant calorie surplus through eating fats and keeping carbs on the sidelines.

Fats are fine – in moderation – but there’s no magic there, no matter what some guru tells you. You don’t need heaps of butter and coconut oil in your coffee to get your brain working in the morning. One little tablespoon of butter has as many calories as almost a pound-and-a-half of fresh spinach.

Fats keep your sex hormones healthy, boost the immune system, and are satiating, but very calorie dense and blow up a diet if you aren’t careful. Stick to tight portion control.

Case in point, courtesy Ben Carpenter:

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Peanut butter on toast, these photos look nearly identical but the one on the left has 10g of peanut butter and the one on the right has 50g of peanut butter.

A subtle difference which equates to 260 more calories. Very easy to do on calorie dense fats like oils, spreads and nut butters.

As much as you may hate to hear it, if you are struggling to manage your weight it is quite possible that your guesswork sucks.

Take home: Eat a balance of all three macronutrients, proteins, fats and carbs, then add in veggies, but pay particular attention to your portions.

4. Adjust course when you hit a sticking point

As your weight loss progresses, the plan that got you from A to B may not get you to C.

Small adjustments can add up here.

Maybe it’s removing 5-10% of your calories from carbs and fats.

Maybe it’s adding in an extra walk or two each week.

Maybe it’s upping your workout volume in the gym by small increments.

However, one study referenced on Precision Nutrition found weight loss plateaus have less to do with metabolic adaptations and more to do with “an intermittent lack of diet adherence” – i.e. in scientific terms, eating too much shit too often.

Take home: Do an objective review of your actual diet in relation to your expenditure or hire a third party coach to help you get out of your own way.

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5. Cut back on processed foods

This transitions nicely from my last point. Stop eating so much shit foods, you’re a grown adult! If it comes in a box and has a long list of ingredients, avoid it for the most part.

For a number of reasons, the first of which is we absorb more calories from highly processed carbohydrates and fats, because they’re easier to digest. 

For example, research found that almost 38 percent of the fat in peanuts was excreted in the stool, rather than absorbed by the body. Whereas seemingly all of the fat in peanut butter was absorbed. Whole foods are more complete (with lots of fiber for one) and harder to digest as a result.

There’s two problems with eating junk food.

The first: Your brain is doing its job to keep you alive. Junk food is full of calories and highly palatable. Your brain knows it should load up on these calories while it can, in the event of famine down the road. Remember, your brain was programmed during a time when food was scarce or hard to come by.

The second: Junk foods also give us a “hit” or a reward. We’ll go out of our way to get foods with a high reward value. Do you stand in line at Starbucks? Busted.

Take home: Eat more whole, fresh, minimally processed foods with a balance of macronutrients, protein, carbs and fats. Keep the junk out of sight. It’s the only way to minimize temptations.

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6. Have patience

Motivation wanes. You need daily, consistent effort and habits to succeed over the long haul.

That means you’re going to have to view your weight loss journey as a marathon, not a sprint.

Smart weight loss can and should be relatively slow, as most recommendations suggest you aim to lose about 0.5-1 percent of your body weight per week.

This slow and steady approach helps to maintain muscle mass and minimize the adaptive metabolic responses to a lower calorie intake and resulting weight loss. Faster weight loss tends to result in more muscle loss without extra fat loss, as well as a larger adaptive response.

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7. Do the right amount of exercise FOR YOU

Resistance training is the Big Kahuna. Training helps you maintain muscle in a calorie deficit, according to lots of studies I’m failing to mention here.

When dieting, you’ll need to do a bit more exercise than you were doing to maintain your weight.

But make small changes at first.

I suggest you add in metabolic resistance training. It increases the metabolic cost of exercise through post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). The more you can create a deficit through exercise, the better, as it means you don’t have to drop your food intake even lower.

But don’t overdo it. How much is too much? That depends on you, as everyone’s recovery abilities vary based on lifestyle, genetics and a host of other factors.

One way to increase your training “tolerance” is active recovery work (e.g. meditation, walking). These low-intensity activities help you balance your training and lifestyle by decreasing stress (lowering cortiso).

My quick tip for the busy person is to take a 10-minute cool down walk or lay down on a mat with relaxing music in your ear -buds after every strength training workout. Easy, right?

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8. Find ways to increase NEAT.

Remember NEAT mentioned earlier in this novel of a post?

As you diet down, you’ll find yourself uncontrollably beckoned to Netflix and the couch.

This is your body’s attempt to down-regulate NEAT now that is has less calories to work with.

It largely happens without you realizing it, so you need to set some rules to keep yourself active.

Take the stairs. Park further away. Use a step counter and set a daily target.

These small increases in activity can make a big difference.

Take home: Do less sitting, more moving. The lower you take your calories, the more likely your body will down-regulate activity. You’ll need to schedule in activity to make it happen, even when the couch and Netflix beckon.

To recap, 8 ways to diet down beyond just more exercise:

  1. Eat lots of protein
  2. Build more muscle
  3. Eat every macronutrient (in moderation)
  4. Adjust course when you plateau
  5. Cut back on processed foods
  6. Have patience
  7. Do the right amount of exercise for you
  8. Find ways to increase NEAT

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