Today, we’re talking about one of the most important topics within nutrition coaching.
Nutritional periodization is a tool I use with all of my online nutrition clients to help them achieve their fat loss goals with more lean muscle, better hormones, a faster metabolism, and most importantly – make those results sustainable.
This is also a very under-utilized component in most people’s fat loss strategies, a big part of why approximately 95% of people who lose weight will regain it. (1)
This statistic in itself tells us one thing…
The commonly proposed weight loss model of “eat less, move more until you hit your goal” is broken.
This is a topic I’m passionate about because I’ve been there.
Now to be clear, I’m not saying that calories in – calories out a.k.a. energy balance doesn’t matter – it’s the most important factor for fat loss.
What I am saying: a periodized approach to your nutrition is the difference between getting temporary fat loss results, and being able to sustain a leaner, stronger body for a lifetime.
Nutritional periodization is essential to getting you results that you can sustain, and a big part of what my online clients do differently within their nutrition.
But let’s back up. You’re probably wondering…
“What does nutritional periodization even mean?“
Periodization: Splitting a period of time up into blocks. Each block is focused on creating a different adaptation or outcome – but all of the blocks synchronize to push you towards one specific goal at the end of the time period (e.g. squatting a specific weight, reaching a certain body fat percentage).
Within fitness, periodization is something that we as coaches apply to lots of things.
In training, I apply periodization to client’s programs. Over the course of a training program, we adjust volume, intensity, change movements, incorporate different loading schemes, and take deloads. All of this allows you to actually arrive at your end goal without plateauing, burning out, or wrecking your nervous system.
Basically, periodization means having a strategy deeper than… “Go hard at X until I achieve Y”.
You can really apply periodization to any area of your life… training, nutrition, business, personal developement, relationships… and achieve more optimal outcomes.
However, the most important (and most neglected) area you should be applying periodization is definitely your nutrition.
Here’s how to apply the concept of nutritional periodization for better aesthetics, better health, better hormones, a faster metabolism, and more sustainable results.
Now, the length of the priming phase depends on the clients experience, lifestyle, exact goals, and nutrition and training history – so this is very individualized to the client.
That said, here’s a broad overview of the what and why behind The Primer Phase.
→ Building a Foundation – The reality is, most new fat loss clients aren’t ready for an intense fat loss phase right out of the gate.
More often than not, simply giving someone fat loss macros and saying “GO!” leads to failure.
As a new client, you generally need time to be educated on proper food choices to fuel your body, how to track macros accurately, managing life stressors, training and recovery, and how to identify and change behaviors and habits that have held you back in the past.
This is the low-hanging fruit that we can clean up right away. For relatively little effort, you’ll achieve a much better place mentally and physically. You’ll also now have all the education and a good grasp of the tools we’ll be using in your fat loss phase.
→ Recovering From Your Last Diet – Depending on how long ago you dieted and how lean you got, a primer phase is a must to set you up for another successful fat loss phase.
The recovery of many hormones such as testosterone, cortisol, and thyroid hormone, along with your metabolism and regaining lean mass (a big part of your metabolism) can take anywhere from 2 to 6 months. (2)(3)(4)
→ Breaking Free From The “All-or-Nothing Mindset” – The primer phase is also a time I use to educate clients on the dangers of all-or-nothing thinking.
The reality is, no matter how disciplined you are, at some point in your diet you’ll feel like you’ve “failed” – be it from missing your calorie goal, or seeing progress at a slower rate than you’d like.
With the wrong mindset, this temporary “failure” usually leads to you quitting the diet altogether.
The primer phase helps us avoid this, educating online clients on the idea of consistency over perfection, and teaching you to become focused on the process, knowing that this will lead them to your desired outcomes.
→ Optimizing Metabolic Capacity – To use an analogy I learned from Cliff Wilson, you can think of metabolic capacity like the gas tank of your car.
Anything you can do to create fat loss is “in the metabolic gas tank”… the amount of cardio you can add to your routine, and the amount of calories you can deduct from your intake.
When a new client starts coaching maintaining their weight on relatively high calories and low cardio, they have a very full metabolic gas tank.
However, if someone starts coaching looking for fat loss, but already eating extremely low calories and doing tons of cardio, their tank is empty. We can’t create more fat loss without it being very detrimental to the client’s hormones, psychology, lean muscle, and health.
If this is the case, you need to spend some time in primer phase, focusing on refilling your metabolic tank by increasing calories and decreasing cardio before starting a fat loss phase. Starting a trip with an empty gas tank means you won’t make it very far before things stall. (2)
This is the sexy part – the part that gets you the quickest changes and closer to the abs you’ve always wanted. It’s also a huge amount of stress, both physically and psychologically – which is why periodization is so important.
Think of fat loss phases as the tool within nutrition coaching that we use to help you achieve the results you want.
Think of primer phases, maintenance phases, diet breaks and refeeds as the tools we use that help you maintain the results you achieved (along with more optimal health, and better hormones and metabolism).
Now, the length (and therefore periodization) of your fat loss phases depend on how much fat you’re looking to lose.
Generally, a good speed rate of weight loss is .5-1% of your body weight per week, which usually equate to .75lbs – 2.5lbs of weight per week.
Losing slower than this often makes it hard to keep client motivation high, as changes week to week are barely noticeable.
That said, going too fast is also a bad idea for most.
→ Slower rates of weight loss are associated with the ability to build/maintain (depending on your training experience) more muscle – You’re able to eat more food, train harder, and do less cardio with. This leads to better training performance, recovery, strength, and muscle. In turn, when you hit your fat loss goals you’ll have a body that looks leaner, feels stronger, and a faster metabolism (due to increased muscle).
→ Reduced Stress On Your Body – Fat loss is very stressful for your body – both physiologically and psychologically. Extreme diets can drastically alter many hormones and your overall health.
Length Of The Fat Loss Phase(s):
With the above recommendations, we can conclude…
→ If you have 10-25 lbs to lose, this usually equates to 3-6 months in a fat loss phase.
→ If you have 25 lbs+ to lose, this obviously varies by total weight to lose, but will usually require at least 4 months in a fat loss phase.
→ If you have less than 10 lbs to lose, we can likely accomplish it in a 3-8 week mini-cut. (This is an approach I use with clients much more often in a building phase than a fat loss phase.)
Caloric Periodization Within The Fat Loss Phase
“…Periodization within periodization?! Seriously?“
I know I know. But I promise this is important.
When you diet, you experience something called metabolic adaptation – which is your metabolism and hormones downregulating as a response to you eating fewer calories and your body getting smaller/lighter:
The longer you diet, the more pronounced all these adaptations get.
To add to all of the physiological adaptations, dieting is just very hard psychologically.
Honestly, this is the BIGGEST problem that stalls people fat loss – you’re just sick of dieting, and not able to adhere consistently enough to make progress.
Now, while nutritional periodization as a whole is a very big part of regulating these adaptations and staying healthy, caloric periodization within your fat loss phase is also important.
There are a few tools I implement within an online client’s fat loss phase to get them to the end of the phase in a much better place muscularly, psychologically, and hormonally – namely refeeds and diet breaks.
→ Refeeds – When you diet, your muscle glycogen stores become depleted. This is an important fuel source for your training sessions – so a decrease can hurt your training performance, in turn impacting muscle growth or maintenance.
Several hormones that have a big impact on your metabolism – primarily leptin and thyroid – are very responsive to carb overfeeding. (2)
→ Diet Breaks – A diet break is 4 days or more with calories at maintenance intake, again with the increase coming primarily from carbs. Diet breaks have a much greater effect on your hormone levels and metabolism than refeeds, due to the increase time frame (most client’s diet breaks last 1-2 weeks).
(Read What To Do When Fat Loss Stalls (6 Proven Nutrition Strategies) to learn more methods of caloric periodization nutrition clients use within the fat loss phase to optimize training, body composition, and adherence.)
Implementing Caloric Periodization In The Fat Loss Phase:
→ If you have a short time-frame (3-8 weeks/less than 10lbs to lose) – You don’t need to worry about caloric periodization much. The best thing to do is get the fat loss phase wrapped up as quickly as possible, so you can get calories back to maintenance. Since it does come down to calories in-calories out, less time in a deficit creates a longer cut.
→ If you have moderate time-frame (3-6 months/10-25 lbs to lose) – Refeeds are good idea for most – they’ll generally help adherence, and will provide some hormonal benefits.
Depending on the length of the diet, a diet break can vary from a probably not necessary to a very, very good idea.
If your time-frame is closer to 3 months, you’re likely good to just push through the diet and get things wrapped so you can get back to maintenance calories for good.
As you get closer to 6 months of dieting, taking a diet break becomes more and more important for allowing you to continue to see progress and avoid as much adaption as possible (some is inevitable).
For those who fall in the time-frame generally, taking a 1-2 week diet break for every 6-12 weeks in the fat loss phase is a good idea.
→ If you have a longer time-frame (>4 months/25 lbs+ to lose) – Again, refeeds are a good idea to break up the monotony of dieting, and improve adherence and training performance.
Diet breaks are definitely a good idea here. Like above, taking a 1-2 week diet break for every 6-12 weeks in the fat loss phase is a good idea.
For clients who fall into this category, this amount of weight loss involves a dramatic lifestyle and body composition change. Thus, multiple maintenance phases (more on this below) are often incorporated in the place of diet breaks.
Post-diet maintenance phases are a huge piece that most are missing from their nutrition protocol.
The reality is, after a long fat loss phase, your body is primed for fat gain:
→ As we lose weight, our fat cells shrink – Smaller fat cells produce less leptin, which leads to an increased appetite (as leptin decreases, ghrelin – the hunger hormone – increases) and drastically decreased energy expenditure.
The above, paired with a few other changes to your shrinking body and fat cells creates an environment that promotes fat storage.
→ Post-weight loss, your body wants to restore it’s previous weight – You experience this “want” as excessive hunger signals and low energy. This combo makes eating excess calories hard to avoid – IF you enter the post-diet phase without a plan. The weight regained is preferentially stored as body fat.
→ Body Fat Overshooting – It’s also thought
that you can INCREASE the number of fat cells you have by gaining weight
too quickly, this is called body fat overshooting. This increases the odds that you’ll regain more fat than
Plus, the negative changes that come with shrinking fat cells –
increased hunger, less energy expenditure, etc. – will be amplified
next time you try to lose, due to having more fat cells.
Basically, all of the hormonal and metabolic adaptations, your decreased body mass, and your body being so far from it’s previous set point add up to you being really damn hungry, and your body preferentially storing excess calories as fat.
This creates rapid weight regain (a big part of the 95% regain statistic I cited at the beginning of this article), and in some cases, body fat overshooting.
Now, does any
of this mean that you should be scared to lose weight?
It just illustrates the importance of:
1️. Having a plan for the diet
AFTER the diet. (A huge focus for all nutrition clients.)
2. Understanding what is going on with your body after
losing a lot of weight.
These negative adaptations won’t last forever,
and with smart nutritional periodization, you CAN maintain a lean, strong
As implied by the name, a maintenance phase is simply a time where focus on maintaining your new leaner body post-diet.
Here’s what we’ll do:
→ Increase calorie intake to your NEW maintenance intake – You have a new body. It’s smaller, and different hormonally and metabolically than it was at the start of your fat loss phase. You likely won’t be able to maintain your new body composition on as many calories as you could eat to maintain your old, heavier body. So…
→ To find your new maintenance intake – We know that 1 lb of fat loss require a deficit of ~3,500 calories. Thus, if you’ve been losing an average of 1 lb per week, we know you’re in a weekly deficit of ~3,500 calories, or a daily deficit of 500 calories (3,500/7=500).
We’ll apply this logic to find your specific maintenance, and increase your macros to match that.
From here, as your hormones and metabolism start to normalize, you’ll start burning more calories.
My goal as a coach is to help you maintain during this time period – losing weight would be counterproductive in a maintenance phase. So the fact that you’ll start burning more means I’ll also likely have to give you frequent macro (but relatively small) macro increases to keep you maintaining.
The next step is the hardest.
You’re not going to do anything.
No immediate transition to a gaining phase.
No trying to push the fat loss further.
→ You’re just going to chill at maintenance – I push most of my clients who have gone through a lengthy weight loss to spend 1-2 months in a maintenance phase, at least.
Some key changes happen during the maintenance phase that make your results more sustainable:
Basically, your system normalizes, and your body gets used to this new weight. Everything starts to feel normal again over time, and your body stops fighting you so hard to regain the weight you lost.
Your body really doesn’t like change. It wants to return to it’s old normal as quickly as possible. The maintenance phase is a must to allow you to cement a new normal for your body.
This is also a very important time for you to create new habits. Again, the lifestyle that you lived before got you the body composition you had before.
Periods of practicing maintenance allow you to learn new habits and behaviors around your food choices, training, daily movement, dietary flexibility, and what your entire lifestyle will need to look like to maintain this new body.
→ For nutrition clients with large weight loss goals – A maintenance phase can actually serve as a substitute or longer version of a diet break. Clients looking to lose 50+ lbs often need a longer break from the grind of dieting. This allows them time to let their bodies normalize, and practice maintaining their weight loss.
The maintenance phase is a key part of what we do in our work together to make sure that you can sustain this new leaner version of yourself long-term.
Now that we’ve gotten you to your desired fat loss outcome, and successfully cemented this as your body’s new normal – it’s time to reassess your goals.
If you’re content with where you’re at, cool. Just keep practicing maintenance.
But most often, clients want to focus on staying lean, while simultaneously build strength and lean muscle. Proper nutritional periodization is just as important here.
Now I wrote a whole article detailing the exact process I take clients through to help them build lean muscle and strength while staying lean (HERE) – so I won’t go too in-depth here. But basically, with proper nutritional periodization, you can stay very lean and build a physique that looks stronger and more aesthetic.
Educating you as a client on proper nutritional periodization is one of the most important things I can do as a coach.
The reason WHY I coach is I love the way educating others on nutrition and training allows me to empower them to make their whole lives better.
Nutritional periodization not only allows you to create a leaner, stronger, more confident version of yourself – it allows you to sustain that for the rest of your life.
I’ve seen nutritional periodization help so many clients escape feeling trapped in their bodies for good, which is why it’s a topic that I’m so passionate about within coaching.
(1) Norton L., Baker P., (2018). Fat Loss Forever
(2) Wilson C., Fitschen P., (2019). Bodybuilding: The Complete Contest Prep Handbook