All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.
Last summer, I went on a fat loss diet and described my experience in three articles. In the post about my approach to nutrition for fat loss, I talked about the mistakes I made in the process.
At the time of writing, my intention was to document that experiment so I could go back to it one day and use what I learnt from it for myself and in my coaching practice.
Almost a year later today, my approach would be completely different. So I decided to write today’s article to share six mistakes you could make during a fat loss phase and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1 – Terminology
My first mistake was to call the two phases “cutting” and “bulking.”
Although these are terms usually associated with physique athletes, they are often used by recreational lifters, too, so I did the same. To be fair, they are less of a mouthful than “fat loss phase” and “muscle gain phase.”
The problem was the impact those terms had on my mindset. I was just starting out, I was pumped, and I wanted to have the best results possible. With that attitude, my fat loss phase could have gone too far.
Now I prefer “fat loss phase” and “gaining phase.” These are more precise and encourage a more sustainable approach than that used by athletes on a strict deadline.
“Gaining phase,” in particular, is also more motivating and less scary for cis girls, who might be worried they’re going to get unnaturally bulky doing resistance training and eating more.
Mistake #2 – An Incomplete Picture
I wanted to lose fat, so I decided I was going to record my starting weight as a way to track progress. So far, so good.
However, I completely overlooked the other side of the equation: my energy balance at the time. I knew I was in an energy surplus, hence the excess fat, and I calculated my macros using one of the many cookie cutter methods you get with a quick Google search.
Had I had a base to start from, I would have been able to make a more accurate estimation of my new maintenance calories at the end of the diet. Moreover, I wouldn’t have spent as long as I did in a “reverse dieting” style phase towards the end of the diet, trying to find my new maintenance.
As a side note, cookie cutter programmes can have a place as a starting point. But they should be used as a guideline rather than a set of hard and fast rules.
Mistake #3 – No Breaks
Diet breaks and refeeds are periods during which you bring your caloric intake back to maintenance. The evidence is only just starting to build up, but it seems that they may be beneficial to achieve greater fat loss in athletes and in the general population.
For the latter category, these periods wouldn’t need to be specifically programmed. They could coincide with holidays and other times when sticking to a diet might be difficult or impractical.
Regardless of the potentially better fat loss outcome, in my case, since I’m neither an athlete nor obese like the sample groups in those two studies, taking a mental and physical break from dieting might have made the whole process easier on me.
In other people, who may need to diet for longer than I did, breaks could be essential to get them to adhere to the restriction.
In light of that, I’m all for breaks now!
Mistake #4 – Too Much Cardio Too Soon
Many a lifter – and I’m in the front lines – would only “subject themselves” to cardio for the sake of fat loss. At the time, I was sure I had to combine cardio – preferably HIIT – with a calorie deficit in order to succeed.
Now I believe that a more conservative approach to cardio could be beneficial, especially if one is only doing it to achieve fat loss, not for personal enjoyment.
For some individuals, it may be possible to get away with minimal or sometimes no cardio, depending on their build and the length of the fat loss phase. They could also achieve their desired results by limiting cardio to the final weeks of a diet.
In all these cases, I am assuming they would be lifting weights on a regular basis in order to retain muscle mass. In addition to preserving their physique, this also increases metabolic rate and therefore can help with fat loss.
On the other hand, excessive cardio may have the opposite effect and make you lose muscle mass.
However, context is paramount. If you have a lot of fat mass to lose, for example, you don’t have to worry about dropping muscle. Aside from fat loss, aerobic exercise can only be beneficial, as it will also improve your heart and lungs health among many other benefits.
It’s likely I would have needed some form of cardio at some point, too. For one, I’m in a small body, so my maintenance calories were already relatively low. I can only reduce them so much before I get to 1,000 kcal, which no, thank you.
At the time, I was also “skinny fat,” with little to no muscle mass, so my metabolic rate wasn’t great. (At the moment I need about 500 calories more to maintain my weight than I did then. The wonders of gaining muscle!)
However, I might have still been able to make some progress had I introduced cardio later on or had I started at a lower intensity.
Another reason why that could be a smart idea is that our bodies adapt to training. If you start doing cardio, eventually your body will learn to burn fewer calories to make up for the energy lost with aerobic exercise. So you may stop losing body fat unless you do more cardio.
On the other hand, if you were to add cardio in the later stages of a diet, you could encourage fat loss with a moderate amount of activity.
Alternatively, if you wanted to do cardio from the beginning, you could start from lower-intensity modalities and move on to higher intensities if and when needed.
This way, you get maximal results with minimum effort. You’re also less likely to plateau while doing 12 hours of cardio per week in your second week of a fat loss phase.
The specific approach will need to be individualised, but I believe finding your minimum effective volume with cardio can yield results, promote adherence, and make you happy.
Let’s be honest, it’s already hard enough to be happy when you have to eat less, so every little helps.
Mistake #5 – A One-Size-Fits-All Mentality
For all that even then I didn’t subscribe to this mentality, fat loss turned out to be the exception.
I thought, “It’s a calorie deficit. If I eat 3,500 kcal less per week, I will lose 1 pound per week. It’s the same for everyone, right?”
For one, I’m in a female body, subjected to a roller coaster of hormonal highs and lows that male bodies do not experience to the same extent.
For example, during the final phase of the menstrual cycle, before the bleeding starts, female-bodied people experience intense levels of stress, weakness, and food cravings.
In that case, a diet break or refeed, coupled with less strenuous workouts, might be the best course of action to cut your losses (pun intended) and avoid nasty things like binges, disappointment, and negative self-talk.
Similar strategies could also be appropriate for individuals in male bodies, for instance if they were under more external stress than usual, perhaps at work or at home.
The bottom line is, there’s much more to it than “just a calorie deficit,” even though that’s the basic concept at the heart of it.
(I’m working on an article on the menstrual cycle and its impact on diet and training, by the way. It will be up in a couple of weeks.)
Mistake #6 – “Hangry” for Results
When I started dieting, I was excited. I was ready to lose the fat, ready to get results, ready to hit all my macros every single day.
In return for my level of commitment and motivation, I wanted results every single week.
That was all well and good until I hit a week when the scale didn’t budge.
I tried to keep my cool and waited another week. Still nothing. So I freaked out and reduced my calories by what I considered an “appropriate” amount.
As you might imagine, “appropriate” had a very different meaning then – when I was impatient and hangry 24/7 – compared to now that I’m not dieting and I (like to think I) know a little bit more about this topic.
The new calorie deficit was a little on the “too much” side. It kickstarted the fat loss again, but I believe I could have done with a smaller reduction.
Maybe I would have needed to go that low eventually, but the decrease could have been a gradual descent instead of a sudden steep plunge. It would have been a lot better for my psychological as well as physical state.
It might have yielded better results, too. For all that I began losing fat again, it wasn’t as much as when I raised my calories again a couple of weeks later. My hypothesis is that increasing calories again told my body we weren’t in a famine anymore and thus persuaded it to stop holding on to the fat for dear life.
Again, moderation and patience are key to better results. Fat loss or muscle gain don’t come easily. We have to be prepared to be patient and experiment to find out what works, what’s sustainable, and what drives the results we want.
My goal for the fat loss phase was to develop a leaner base from which to begin building muscle with a much longer gaining phase.
Given my relative inexperience, my approach to dieting was by no means the best. Nevertheless, I’ve been able to maintain those results and to learn from my mistakes. On the whole, it’s been a valuable opportunity to put my studies into practice and improve myself as a nutrition and lifestyle coach.
To recap the main take-home messages from that experience:
In Future Episodes:
Next week, I’ll tackle two myths and two truths about training for pre-T trans guys.
If you have dieted before or are dieting now, what issues have you had or are you having?
An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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