If you’re trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I’ve had them, everybody has had them. But obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.
Do you ever feel like you have a harder time losing fat than other people?
First and foremost, you’re not broken.
The rules of energy balance still apply to you.
These rules state that eating more energy than you consume over a prolonged period of time will cause fat gain, and the opposite will produce fat loss.
However, there are certain factors that can make the consistent application of these rules in your daily life more challenging.
Some of these factors can influence your physiology, psychology, or both, in a way that makes adhering to a diet legitimately more difficult than it is on average.
Other factors can slow down or mask fat loss. So, although you’re getting results, you may not be able to detect them on the scale within the timeline you expected, so you could convince yourself that you’re doing something “wrong” when that isn’t the case.
In this article, I’m going to cover four of these factors and what you can do about them, if anything.
Importantly, they make fat loss challenging, but not impossible. Even if you can’t change them, you’ll still be able to achieve your goals with consistency, patience, and the guidelines I’m going to offer.
Let’s get started.
Factor #1: Having less body fat
When dieting for fat loss, you’re by definition not eating enough energy, so your body has to make up for that by taking some energy from your inner reservoir, which is the body fat you carry. You can read more about this phenomenon here.
Carrying less body fat means that this energy reservoir is smaller.
The smaller the energy reservoir, the less spare energy you may have available to survive life-threatening emergencies, such as a famine or a predator attacking you.
Likely to protect you from this and to ensure your survival, the body seems to have a defence mechanism against excessive weight loss, a mechanism that includes a host of physiological changes called “metabolic adaptations”.
These adaptations are aimed at conserving as much energy as possible to prevent you from losing any more body fat. For example, your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which is the energy expended on unconscious activity, like fidgeting, blinking, breathing, etc., decreases; ghrelin, a hormone associated with increased hunger, rises; leptin, a hormone associated with increased satiation, drops; etc.
As a result, you move less and experience more hunger, two outcomes that can reduce the size of your deficit or even take you back to maintenance calories or into a surplus.
The longer you diet for, and the more body fat you lose, the stronger these metabolic adaptations can become, making fat loss slower and harder over time, forcing you to move more and more, and eat less and less in order to continue progressing at the same rate as before.
Moreover, when you have less body fat, you have a higher chance of losing muscle mass in the dieting process, so you likely need your rate of weight loss to be slower than it used to be in the initial stages of your fat loss phase.
However, you need to be very lean to be at true risk of muscle loss, so this may only become a concern for you if you decide to diet for a photoshoot or for a bodybuilding show.
Nonetheless, you may still want to accept a slower rate of fat loss, provided that it’s within a reasonable range of 0.5 to 1% of bodyweight lost per week. The reason is that, when metabolic adaptations occur, the only way to overcome them is to either lower your food or increase the amount of cardio or steps you do.
If doing either affects your adherence, you’re better off losing fat consistently, albeit at a slower pace, until it becomes truly necessary to ramp up the challenge in order to continue making progress, such as when you plateau or when your rate of loss becomes so slow as to be nearly undetectable and thus demotivating.
In summary, it’s normal, expected, and sometimes even desirable for fat loss to slow down after dieting for a prolonged period of time and losing a sizeable amount of body fat.
Nevertheless, if you were previously losing weight at a faster rate, you may get the incorrect impression that your diet isn’t working anymore.
However, you haven’t plateaued unless you’ve been extremely consistent and you’ve stalled for at least two to four weeks in a row. Until this happens, your diet is still working, and accepting the slower rate of loss may not only be beneficial to preserve your hard-earned muscle, but also your consistency.
If you seem to have plateaued, look into these potential solutions before making any changes to your calorie or activity targets.
Finally, if your progress has indeed come to a halt because of metabolic adaptations, then you need to do more activity, eat fewer calories, or combine the two strategies in order to encourage more fat loss.
It sucks, but it’s the hard truth: the leaner you want to get, the more patience and resilience you need to have.
Factor #2: Being a smaller person
Due to their size, smaller people can lose the same relative weight as bigger people, but not the same absolute weight.
Your relative weight is a percentage of your bodyweight, such as 1%. Absolute weight is any amount of weight irrespective of your bodyweight, such as 2 lbs. For instance, a 200 lb person targeting a loss of 1% of their bodyweight weekly (relative weight), can expect to drop around 2 lbs (absolute weight). A 100 lb person can also lose 1% of their bodyweight per week, but this will be only 1 lb.
So, if you’re smaller, you need to accept that you won’t see the same large scale drops as your bigger friends may.
Another challenge is that smaller people may not be able to target the same rate of loss as larger people if they want to keep their diet realistic to adhere to.
The reason is that smaller bodies require fewer calories to maintain their weight than larger ones. So, while a 200 lb person may maintain their weight on 3000 calories and thus diet on 2500 in order to create a 500-calorie deficit, a 100 lb person, who may instead maintain on 1800 calories, would have to diet on 1300.
The smaller your daily calorie budget, the stricter you need to be with your food selection and portion sizes, which isn’t sustainable for some people.
Furthermore, when you have fewer calories available, it’s also more difficult to eat enough protein, vitamins, minerals, and all the other nutrients you need in order to thrive.
The solution is to create a smaller deficit – such as 300 calories instead of 500 – so that you can diet on higher calories. Although a smaller deficit results in a slower weight loss rate, it may be the only way to ensure your adherence and an adequate nutrient intake.
As an alternative, you may find that you can stick to a larger deficit, but only for a few weeks at a time. So you can still aim for this deficit – provided your rate of loss is still within the previously mentioned range of 0.5 to 1% of bodyweight lost per week – but you may need to take diet breaks in order to complete your fat loss phase successfully.
As an added bonus, the diet breaks would enable you to increase your nutrient intake if you make appropriate nutritional choices, given your higher calorie availability.
To add insult to injury, dieting on lower calories as a smaller person is often both a mental and a practical challenge since portion sizes have been increasing over time. For example, most restaurant meals contain anywhere from 800 to 1500 calories… which is half or more of your daily intake if you’re dieting on 1300 to 1500 calories!
Last but not least, you may come across hundreds of success stories about people losing dozens of pounds over a short period of time, so you may get disheartened with your own rate of progress.
Trust me, you’re not failing. I’m 5ft, so losing fat for me is a slow process. For instance, at the end of a photoshoot prep diet, I’m only losing half a pound per week or less.
I understand that it can be discouraging, but hang in there.
You’re not failing; you just need more time than more vertically advantaged people.
Factor #3: Not knowing how to harness your menstrual cycle
The hormonal fluctuations that characterise a menstrual cycle can affect hunger, energy, and mood in some people. For instance, about 70% of the subjects in this study reported increased hunger during “the menstruation period”, with the greatest peak during PMS.
However, thinking that your menstrual cycle will only make fat loss harder, would be disempowering and not entirely accurate.
Though at some stages in the cycle you may experience some negative symptoms, such as heightened hunger, more frequent cravings, fatigue, mood swings, and pain, you’ll also have windows of time within the month when you’re less hungry, more energetic, and more focused, which is a great physical and psychological state to make progress on your fat loss journey.
Therefore, the key is to learn to work with your cycle rather than despair about its potential negative impact on your goals.
First, track your cycle and understand its patterns and the symptoms you may experience in each phase. You may find some resources covering the various phases in broad terms, like this article of mine, but it’s important to note that each person’s cycle is unique, with phases of varying lengths and different symptoms.
Second, if you experience particularly upsetting symptoms in a certain phase and realise that that’s when you struggle to stick with the same calorie deficit as in other weeks, then you may want to approach your fat loss journey with a “phasic” plan.
In other words, you may create a larger calorie deficit during the most favourable weeks of the month, then reduce the size of the deficit at the most unfavourable times by either increasing your calories closer to, but not quite at maintenance, or by taking a diet break at maintenance calories. There are infinite possibilities to suit your needs and preferences!
When coaching menstruating clients, I always tailor each plan to the individual. I’ve had clients thriving on a bigger deficit for two weeks out of the month combined with a smaller one for the other two weeks. Others could stick to the same deficit every week, but needed a three-day break at maintenance calories during PMS. Others still have a cycle, but experience minimal or no symptoms, so they can carry on with the same deficit throughout the month.
To find what’s best for you, collect data and experiment.
Third, you need to learn to read the scale correctly. While fat loss success is often associated with how much weight you can lose in a week – at least in the evidence-based fitness community – this isn’t always appropriate if you have a cycle.
During certain phases, some people can experience bloating from water retention and, even though they’re being as consistent as ever, this will show up as a weight increase on the scale compared to the previous week, which can lead them to believe they’re doing something wrong.
I recommend tracking your weekly weight average, then comparing differences in these averages between similar weeks in different cycles instead of comparing one week’s average to the previous and following week.
For example, if you tend to gain 1 to 2 lbs during PMS, compare your weight average during PMS to your weight average during PMS in previous and future cycles. As long as the weight is trending down from one PMS phase to the next, then you’re losing body fat, even if your PMS weight is heavier than the previous week’s weight, when you weren’t in this phase of the cycle.
Factor #4: Health conditions and seasons of life
Certain health conditions and seasons of life can add another degree of challenge to a fat loss phase by reducing the number of calories you can burn, increasing your hunger levels, affecting your psychology and mood, or a combination of all these.
Some common examples include:
While discussing each of the three health conditions in depth is beyond the scope of this article, there are ways to manage them and still achieve your fat loss goal, but they often require expert knowledge.
So your best bet is to reach out to a doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan, and to a coach that has proven expertise in working with people in the same situation.
Finally, the menopause is a whole new season of life that comes with alterations to your hormones and metabolism, which can in turn impact your body and mindset in ways you aren’t used to. That’s why it’s not uncommon even for previously successful dieters to struggle more with a fat loss phase when they enter the menopause.
For these reasons, consider working alongside a knowledgeable coach to get to know your evolving body and optimise your plan to get the best results that you can.
Thanks for reading. May you make the best gains.
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An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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