Unpopular truth: The belief that “slow and steady fat loss is best” is flawed at best, and keeping a lot of people UNHEALTHY.
There’s a dated train of thinking around fat loss that goes something like this…
“If you care about your (or your clients) health or KEEPING your results, you must lose weight slowly.”
But as an online nutrition coach, I’ve seen the exact opposite time and again. The overly-conservative approach to fat loss is exactly what’s been keeping many people with higher body fat (and often less healthy) than they could be.
In today’s blog, we’re dispelling the myths around slow vs. fast fat loss, and teaching you how to crush a rapid fat loss phase to achieve the lean, strong physique you’re chasing, sooner.
As a reader of this blog, you no doubt have a good understanding of what your metabolism consists of (if not, check out this blog). Basically, it’s the total calories your body burns in a day, and is the product of how your current body size, how much you’re eating, and how much you’re moving.
So as you can see from the above, your metabolism will slow as you lose fat.
Your body weighs less, and therefore takes less energy (calories) to move. The only way to avoid this would be NOT losing weight… which is a bit counterproductive for fat loss.
As your body needs less fuel (calories) to sustain this smaller version of itself, you’ll also have to eat a bit less to continue losing fat, which means you’re burning fewer calories during digestion.
Again, eating less is a requirement for most to lose fat, so this is unavoidable.
Now, we could argue that eating in a smaller deficit equals a faster metabolism, due to the increased calories burned during digestion. This is true. But a smaller deficit also means slower fat loss, and more overall time spent in a calorie deficit before you can return to eating more food long-term.
A more aggressive approach leads to you being able to increase calories to a healthy new maintenance level long-term, sooner.
To achieve your goal body composition, your body will eventually have to get smaller, and you’ll have to decrease food intake – meaning that two of the three major components of metabolic adaptation are inevitable whether you go fast or slow.
The wild card here is your movement. It makes sense that eating in a larger deficit would lead to your body putting tighter clamps on calories burned through movement in order to preserve more calories than a smaller deficit… so regardless of your deficit size, hitting a daily movement goal is an important piece of the puzzle.
But remember, we’re also creating a larger deficit here – so while some increased reduction in subconscious energy expenditure might happen, it’s not going to be enough to cancel out the fact that you’re in a larger deficit, and losing fat quicker (as long as you’re tracking movement).
Again, this will allow you to return to maintenance calories sooner than a less aggressive diet – meaning your calories burned through digestion and movement will be increasing again sooner.
So essentially the same amount of metabolic adaptation (the process of your metabolism down-regulating as your body changes) will happen whether you take a fast or slow approach to fat loss.
The flawed thinking here is, people only see…
Aggressive dieting —> slower metabolism than less aggressive dieting
…but fail to consider how much your metabolism is constantly in flux, dependent on how much you’re eating. They’re only looking at part of the picture. The whole picture is…
Eating less —> slower metabolism but quicker fat loss —> eating more/stop dieting/faster metabolism again sooner
Most of us have worked incredibly hard for every bit of lean muscle on our bodies, so this is a completely understandable fear.
And the reality is, as you feed your body fewer calories, it turns internally for energy. One potential “energy source” here is your muscle protein. So muscle loss is a very real possibility if you’re eating fewer calories than you’re burning.
That said, studies seem to show that muscle loss isn’t a large concern as long as your deficit isn’t too aggressive for too long.
This study split two groups of already lean track & field athletes into two groups:
1. A group in a ~12% deficit
2. A group in a ~24% deficit
Both groups were following a high-protein diet.
After 4 weeks, the larger deficit group had lost much more fat than the smaller deficit group, but had maintained a very similar amount of muscle.
In this study, men ~ 23 years old were in a 40% calorie deficit (a.k.a. a big ass deficit), followed a high protein diet and lifted weights, and were actually able to build muscle.
So, while a more aggressive diet does put you in a situation where you could potentially lose more muscle than a less aggressive diet, the above studies show us that muscle loss if far from inevitable on an aggressive diet… but it’d be smart to eat lots of protein and lift weights.
Ahhh, the most common, most terrifying myth of all.
This supposedly “inevitable rebound” is often pinned on one of two culprits:
1. The false belief that aggressive dieting “breaks your metabolism”. This has already been thoroughly debunked through The Minnesota Starvation Experimenting, in my own blog, and countless other times. Please, read this blog if you’re still worried about damaging your metabolism.
2. The fact that rapid fat loss often comes through unsustainable methods/poor dietary practices.
There’s a lot more validity to this.
Look, if you lose the weight following a keto diet, and haven’t learned how to control calories outside of this (likely) unsustainable method… you’re going to regain the weight.
If you’re consuming mostly meal replacement shakes for the duration of the diet, and haven’t learned how to control calories outside of this (likely) unsustainable method… again, you’re going to regain the weight.
But the problem here isn’t aggressive dieting in itself – it’s the use of unsustainable dietary practices and a lack of focus education and behavior change by coaches.
You don’t regain the weight because you dieted aggressively… you regain it because you never learned a few key behaviors my online clients focus on:
—> Behavior 1: Food Selection
The reality of the society we live in is, most of our foods are designed to make us want to eat more. Pair this with the fact that most highly-processed foods are also very calorie-dense and low on nutrients, and you have a combination that makes stay lean quite a challenge.
If you’re eating lots of hyper-palatable foods, it will always be a struggle to avoid overeating – you’ll always be hungry, even at maintenance.
And while most of us can grind out 12 weeks of being super hungry on a diet, it’s MUCH harder to commit to a lifetime of being super hungry, just to maintain.
A huge part of what I focus on with my online clients is teaching them how to habitually choose foods that are very filling per calorie.
This essentially puts your appetite on auto-regulate, and makes it much harder to overeat.
In the simplest terms, 80-90% of your food should have either:
a.) Grown from the earth
b.) Had a face at one point
These foods are packed with nutrients that will make your body feel amazing, create more optimal hormones, and aid your training performance and recovery. They’ll also keep you full much longer than their highly-processed counterparts.
Guidelines To Consider When Selecting Your Foods:
1. Build your meals around protein and fiber – Lean proteins and fibrous carbs especially have a lot of volume and are very satiating per calorie. Make these a big focus of your diet to keep hunger low and make fat loss easier.
So basically, make an effort to include at least 25-50g lean protein at each meal you eat. This is always your #1 focus when selecting a meal.
From there, make an effort to always include a fist-sized serving of fruit or veggies with each meal.
2. Don’t drink your calories – Liquids will digest much quicker, meaning you’re hungry again sooner. If you’re using milk as a protein source, swap it for cottage cheese or greek yogurt. Go with zero calorie sodas, and energy drinks. Black coffee.
When it comes to alcohol, things like liquor & a zero calorie mixer (e.g. vodka water, vodka soda, whiskey diet, etc.) are smart if you’re going to have more than a few.
3. Find lower calorie versions of oils, dressings, and condiments – Swap olive oil for calorie-free cooking spray. (It still has calories, but less.) Find a lower-calorie BBQ sauce or use steak sauce. Swap high-calorie salad dressing for a fat-free vinaigrette.
Often a few easy swaps here (that you won’t even notice) can give online clients hundreds of extra calories to work with in a day.
4. Try to avoid foods that are high in multiple macronutrients – For example: you could eat…
a.) 6oz ribeye for 493 calories (36 pro/39 fat)
b.) 8oz sirloin (51 pro/9 fat) + 1 large avocado (10 carb/24 fat) for the same amount of calories, but more protein.
Generally avoiding foods high in multiple macros will make eating lots of food volume (think: size of food per calorie) much easier, which in turn helps you feel more full on less calories.
—> Behavior 2: Planning
The reality of having both a flexible lifestyle and a lean body you feel supremely confident in is, it just takes some planning ahead. I always encourage my online clients to look planning as the “rent” you pay for being able to enjoy your lifestyle and feel amazing in your body.
1. Meal Prep – Being prepped ahead nearly guarantees you’ll be successful at sticking to this style of eating 80-90% of the time. You’ll never “not have the right food available” or “run out of time”. This doesn’t mean the every meal you eat for the rest of your life has to be prepped, but most of us just won’t ever have the time to cook food that aligns with our goals 3-5x/day.
2. Flexible Dieting Tools – When guiding online clients through the maintenance phase post-diet, I’ll literally encourage clients to go out to restaurants, bars, etc., if that’s something that want to be a part of their life in the future.
We need to practice for events like this, to make sure the client has a good handle on how to manage these situations and maintain their progress.
Now, while this could be a whole blog in itself, it essentially comes down to educating online clients how to use some flexible dieting tools like…
a.) Intermittent Fasting – On days clients know they’ll be going out and/or eating a high-calorie meal later in the day, they can offset this a bit by fasting until noon-ish.
Black coffee and other zero-calorie drinks are perfectly fine. But outside of that, avoid calories.
A lot of my online nutrition clients always fast on Saturdays to allow for more flexibility in the evenings.
b.) Eat a meal of protein + high fiber carbs before drinking – The enemy here isn’t alcohol itself. The enemy is drunk you who wants to eat an absurd amount of Taco Bell at 2am.
The best strategy to prevent this is to drink on a full stomach.
We already talked about how protein is the macro that keeps you full, longest. Fibrous carbs are the second most satiating these + lean protein is a solid pairing to keep you full for a long time. The carbs will also “soak up the alcohol”, making your hangover less terrible.
As you drink, inhibition lowers and you’ll be much more likely to eat lots of calories later, which is what we’re really trying to avoid here. Think of this pre-drinking meal as damage control.
c.) Pulling or Pushing Calories – Ever eat too many calories on a Saturday and think…⠀
“Well, my diet screwed”?
I know I have.
This usually leads eating TONS of extra calories the next few days with the “F it” mindset.
In reality, what clients do with their macros on a daily basis makes very little difference. What you do on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis makes much more difference.
A single day of over eating is easily correctable.
If a client’s weekly intake is on point, they have a lot more room to play with daily intake. As long as your weekly deficit is the same and you’re hitting your protein goal daily, you should get VERY similar results.
I like to call this pulling or pushing calories.
Basically, you’re saving up calories ahead of time or eating less in following days to allow your calories on point.
This approach is amazing for online clients, because it gives them a lot more flexibility within their diets. For many clients, I simply build higher calorie intake on the weekend into their nutrition protocol for more sustainability and adherence.
c.) Macro Planning – Planning ahead is always the key to staying on track with nutrition.
This is why I encourage all my online clients to plan their days out in MyFitnessPal the night before.
Weekday or weekend, when clients go into the day with a good idea of how to need to eat to both enjoy life and hit their goals, they’ll be much more likely to succeed.
—> Behavior 3: Movement
One of the biggest differences we see between the metabolisms of individuals who are naturally lean, and those who have lost a large amount of weight, is their NEAT (non-exercise activity a.k.a. movement outside of the gym) levels.
Post-weight loss, levels of NEAT will naturally be suppressed for most. If unaccounted for, this can (and often does) lead to weight regain.
This means that maintaining a consistent movement goal post-diet is very important for long-term maintenance. Personally, I assign my clients a daily step goal.
The point of all this is – rapid weight loss in itself doesn’t cause weight regain. It’s the fact that people don’t take the time to learn the necessary strategies and behaviors to sustain weight loss long-term. Now, depending on the aggressiveness of the diet, things like “practicing” going out every weekend might not be feasible… which makes a post-diet phase to “practice maintenance” even more important.
Long, drug out timelines for dieting are the reason many people fall off the diet in the first place.
Let’s say you have 25lbs to lose in order to achieve that lean body composition you’ve always wanted, and I told you to lose .25-.5lbs/week (a conservative pace).
This means that you’re looking at a minimum of 50 weeks of dieting. Knowing that you’re not even close to the end of the process is incredibly de-motivating.
You fall off the wagon, and NEVER get as lean as you want.
And this is the crux of the problem overly conservative dieting for many… Long, drug out timelines are the thing that cause many people fall off the diet in the first place.
The goal behind a more aggressive dieting is, we wrap the diet up SOONER. For many clients, this approach makes it more likely it is that you will actually be able to reach your desired end goal, and will to a long-term maintenance phase SOONER rather than later.
Now, to be clear, I’m NOT saying that everyone should diet aggressively. Like everything else within online coaching, it depends on you as a client.
—> Do you want lots of “lifestyle flexibility”, and freedom to enjoy food and drinks at frequent social events during the diet? You’re not a good candidate for an aggressive approach. (But you would take a lot of value from The Lifestyle Diet.)
—> Are you competing in sports or a performance driven style of training more than 2-3x/week (e.g. Crossfit)? Again, probably not a good fit.
—> Do you have a poor relationship with food? If so, you’re likely not in a good position to be dieting period.
—> Do you just find the idea of eating a bit less, for longer, less daunting? A more conservative approach is probably better.
—> A larger deficit is required – generally 20-25% below maintenance levels.
—> High protein seems to be essential – both for maintaining muscle and keep you satiated throughout the diet. 1.2-1.5g protein/lb body weight is a good rule of thumb.
—> Rate of loss – I like Martin MacDonalds approach here:
1. Find an accurate measurement of your body fat.
2. Divide your %BF by 13 (more aggressive) -20 (less aggressive).
3. The product is the % of your total body weight you can lose per week while minimizing muscle loss in the process.
That said, since most don’t have access to an accurate way to measure body fat…
– If you’re not lean at all, most can push to lose ~1-1.5% of body weight per week.
– If you’re relatively lean, but definitely not “shredded” most can push to lose ~.6-1.2% of body weight per week.
– If you’re already super lean, you just don’t have much weight to lose. Closer to ~.25-5% of body weight per week is realistic.
—> Lift weights 3-6x/week – This of course contributes to muscle maintenance/gain, and also increases metabolism.
—> Hit a consistent step goal daily – Because your body adapts to the reduction in calories in by decreasing N.E.A.T. calories out (subconscious movement like pacing, fidgeting, and blinking). A daily movement goal helps prevent this from stalling fat loss.
—> Most will benefit from taking a diet break every 6-12 weeks – Anecdotally, sticking to a diet (aggressive or not) longer than 6-12 weeks is very challenging for most. So while you’re still dieting aggressively, occasional diet breaks are still a good idea for adherence. Check out the Diet Breaks 101 blog for more.
—> Some will adhere better with a “floating refeed” – Like we talked about before, the biggest key to fat loss is finding a plan you can successfully stick to.
So even in the case of aggressive fat loss, this means that clients often need one day of higher calories every few weeks. This restores your sanity, allows you to work in more “flexible foods”, and get back to the diet game the next day in a much better place mentally.
The floating refeed is a single (optional) day at maintenance. You can implement 1 of these every 2 weeks, on the day of your choosing.
In the most ideal world, these extra calories would come from carbs to refill your glycogen stores – but the reality is, this is mostly an adherence tool. So if really, i’d let carbs and fats fall as desired within your overall calories for the day (just be sure to hit your protein goal).
That said, if you don’t feel the need to take the refeed, and would rather just keep pushing along the fat loss, feel free to skip it.
—> Track your metrics & progress – As always, tracking data is a huge part of you being successful. If you’re not tracking…
– Weight at least 3x/week
– Body measurements
– Monthly progress pictures
…you have no system to assess you progress, and no way of knowing where the issues lies if you’re not making progress. This is exactly why I’m such a stickler about my online clients filling out their trackers crazy consistently. At the least, I would watch this video, and replicate my clients tracker for your own progress.
—> Have a plan for “the diet after the diet” – This is where you as an online client cement the progress you’ve made over the last few months, and establish this body composition as your new normal. Check out the blog on my 3P Fat Loss Method to learn more about the diet after the diet.
—> Hire a coach – If you’ve struggled to lose fat OR you’ve struggled staying lean in the past, you’ll benefit tremendously from the education, structure, accountability, and expert guidance that working with a nutrition coach provides. It’s an investment upfront, that sets you up for quicker progress and long-term success.
Click here now to apply for Online Coaching with me.
Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the online coaching business Bairfit. Check out his Podcast and Instagram for more educational content.