Losing fat seems simple enough in theory, with nearly all the advice boiling down to “eat a little less, move a little more, adjust as you go”. In THEORY that’s all there is to it, but in practice it can be a little harder.
Even when we follow the plan, the fat loss process is rarely linear or a nice smooth process. There are plenty bumps in the road, and also points that we’ll come to a complete halt.
Fear not, for this is all part of the process, and doesn’t mean your going to need to chop your intake in half or suddenly join a daily Hyper Grit Plyo Xtreme class (that does sound badass though…*checks trademark availability*).
Some of the bumps along the way can be easily explained and worked on, and those are the ones we’ll be looking at today.
First off, we may be following a nutrition or meal plan that is no longer relevant. While it worked great for the first few weeks, progress has slowed - even though we’re eating exactly the same as when it was working. What’s happened here is that we’ve lost weight, so our energy expenditure has changed - less body mass takes less energy to function. So while the plan has worked, it is now outdated. All we need to do is adjust or get a new plan for our new situation, and crack on with our fat loss.
I’m sorry to say but we are terrible at estimating. Whether it’s recalling each meal from memory or just remembering how much of everything we ate/used, studies have shown we’re not too hot at this part. If we’re not noting or using an app to jot down our intake as we go, we could be missing foods and snacks and forgetting how much we’ve truly had for the day. This can lead us to assume we’re following the plan exactly, and wonder why it’s not working, without realising we’ve had some extra calories that are slowing us down. The best way to avoid this is by keeping a note of what you’re had in a food diary, or using a nutrition app that lets you save the ingredients and meals you’ve had to keep an accurate log.
LOSING WEIGHT, JUST NOT FAT
One of the best ways to judge how your nutrition is going is to take a look in the mirror, or comparing before and now pics. While the bathroom scales seem to be the obvious choice, the variability of water retention (how much water our body is holding on to) and changes in lean muscle (muscle is denser than fat, so takes up less space than fat of the same weight) mean our body weight can vary regardless of how much fat we’re carrying. This is why it’s important to differentiate between fat loss and weight loss, and work out how to judge that we’re getting the outcome we want.
One of the ways scales can lead us astray is that it shows we’re losing weight, but we don’t look too much different - we haven’t lost any fat. The problem here is often that we’ve had too big of a calorie cut, and we’ve started to lose muscle mass.
Not the muscle tissue itself, as previously thought, just some of the mass inside it - the water and glycogen. The body has sensed that it’s taking in a LOT less energy than it needs to keep going, so it sucks out some of the glycogen stored in our muscles to be converted and used as glucose elsewhere. Glycogen contains and attracts water, so when it gets escorted from the muscle some water is taken along with it, reducing the mass of the muscle without it being broken down. In the meantime we’ll still be using some of the fats from our fat stores, but the glycogen and water lost will make a more noticeable impression as glycogen, and the water it drags with it, weigh more than the triglycerides used in fat storage.
This will also have the impact of our muscles looking a bit “flatter”, as they’ve not got as much filling. Combined with the layer of fat not shifting much, and we’ll have lost weight but won’t look much different. To prevent this, we just need to make sure we’re not drastically dropping our calories, only small changes at a time so that the body has no need to pull the glycogen from our muscles.
Fun fact: this is why bodybuilders, bikini and physique competitors have sugary snacks just before stepping on stage or a photoshoot - after weeks of drastic dieting the muscles can look deflated from trying to burn up as much of the fat stores as possible, so combining a few pump up exercises with sugary treats fills the muscles back up with glycogen and some of the water it pulls along with it, giving it a fuller and more pumped up look on stage.
I was a little hesitant to put this one in, as there’s not much research been done into it, but there appears to be some anecdotal evidence to confirm it and, most importantly, water whoosh is fun to say.
The idea is discussed by Lyle McDonald, know for his books on fat loss, nutrition and dieting, and he himself discloses that he couldn’t find any scientific studies to back it up, just anecdotal evidence. The theory is that when the fat storage cells are emptied of triglycerides, they are temporarily filled with water. While it doesn’t serve a known function, it can make us look like we haven’t lost any fat at all as the water has taken the place of the fat in storage. That is, until a few days later when it gets flushed out of the cells, or “whooshed” out, and we suddenly drop a few pounds in weight and lose some inches. Similar to water retention or bloating, the extra water hides any progress we’ve made until it leaves the storage centres, making it seem like we’ve stalled.
Whether this is fact or not is up for debate, but until we know for sure it’ll still be fun to say.
SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE
While there may be more individual genetic factors at play (such as metabolic rates, insulin sensitivity, thyroid levels etc), the above factors are the most common things we’ll face in our fat cutting journey. As always, the most important thing with our nutrition is to be patient and make small changes at a time, observing the results - even if it’s just how you feel you look in the mirror - and adjusting as we go.
Hitting small bumps or stalls as we go is no big issue - sometimes it’s a little temporary water retention, bloating or it could be one of the factors above - but whatever it is, patience is going to help us out here. As long as we stick to the nutrition plan, we can judge after a few days (usually 4-7 days is enough) if anything has changed or we maybe need to change our approach.
Klein S, Sakurai Y, Romijn JA, Carroll RM. 1993. Progressive alterations in lipid and glucose metabolism during short-term fasting in young adult men. American Journal of Physiology. [online]. 265 (5). Available at: http://www.physiology.org/doi/10.1152/ajpendo.1993.265.5.E801 [Accessed 23/1/2018].
Lyle McDonald. 2009. Of Whooshes and Squishy Fat. [online]. Available at: https://www.bodyrecomposition.com/fat-loss/of-whooshes-and-squishy-fat.html [Accessed 23/1/2018].
Science Direct. 2017. Glycogen. [online]. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/glycogen [Accessed 23/1/2018].