New Year, Longtime Client: Why Am I Not Getting Leaner…?

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From Fitness Trainer January/February

Ireligiously track my food and exercise. I’m eating 1,300 calories (the number my tracker told me to eat if I want to lose 2 pounds a week). I’ve been following a strict diet and the scale hasn’t budged. My friends tell me I am eating too little. I think I must be eating too much because I am not losing weight. I feel so confused… What am I doing wrong?”

I often hear this complaint from weight conscious people who don’t know if they are eating too much or too little. They believe fat loss is mathematical. Exercising 500 calories more, or eating 500 calories less, per day will result in losing 1 pound (3,500 calories) of fat per week, correct? Not always. Weight reduction is not as mathematical as we would like it to be.

IS IT A DIET OR A FAMINE?

If your client is already exercising like crazy and eating far less than they deserve—but the scale doesn’t budge—they might wonder “Is something is wrong with my metabolism?” “Am I eating the wrong kinds of foods?” “What’s going on…?”

When athletes have excess body fat to lose, they tend to lose it relatively easily. But when they get close to their race- and/or dream-weight, fat loss can slow to a crawl. That’s when frustration sets in. They might think reducing their calorie intake even more would be a good idea. No. They would deprive their body of too many nutrients, to say nothing of lack energy to perform well.

When you significantly restrict calories, your brain perceives the lack of food as a famine. Doing extra exercise makes the situation worse, especially when your body is at a low weight. With no excess fat to lose, your body conserves energy and maintains weight at a calorie intake that historically would have resulted in fat loss.

This is where you can start the conversation

 Nature protects the body from losing weight during a (perceived) famine by slowing your calorie-burn: The heart rate slows (not due to fitness, but rather to lack of fuel). Blood flow to extremities slows in order to keep your organs warm. Your hands and feet feel cold all the time. The stomach/intestinal tract slows; constipation can become an issue. The hormonal system reverts to pre-adolescence. Women produce less estrogen and stop having regular menstrual periods. Men produce less testosterone. You feel excessively tired. You can muster up energy to exercise, but then are droopy the rest of the day. Fatigue becomes your middle name.

ROLE OF GENETICS

When an athlete complains about lack of fat-loss despite rigid food restriction, one of my first questions is “How do you look compared to others in your genetic family? Are you leaner—or far leaner— than they are? The standard response is far leaner. Remember, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Nature’s blueprint for your body might differ from your dream physique.

This is where you can start the conversation

Encourage your client to pay attention to what others say about their body. If their mom or partner says they are too thin, it’s time to listen up and stop striving to be leaner yet. Rather than struggle to lose those last few pounds, suggest that your client gently accepts their physique and be grateful for what their body does for them. It is strong, healthy, powerful, and able to do what you ask it to do (run a marathon, raise a family, train for and complete an Ironman, bike 100 miles, etc.). It is a resilient vehicle that carries you through each day. It’s good enough. Hopefully, they will not have to experience a broken leg or be diagnosed with cancer before they learn to be grateful for their body and how it allows them to walk, run, and live an active lifestyle—regardless of their size or shape.

 

EAT MORE, GET FAT?

You can stop the diet/famine by eating more; you will not instantly get fat. Rather, your metabolism will quickly return to normal. If your body is too thin, it will strive to restore itself to a genetic weight. This is why athletes can have a hard time staying at their “racing weights.” Being too thin is very hard to maintain.

If your client believes they still have excess flab to lose, yet the scale doesn’t budge despite their strict diet, what can they do? I generally recommend eating more and exercising less. To the shock of many of my calorie-deprived clients, this tends to work better than exercising more and eating less. Sounds counterintuitive. How can that be true?

This is where you can start the conversation

Have your client think of their body as being a campfire. When it has three logs to burn, it generates a lot of heat. When it has just one log, it produces just a small flame. The same with your body, the more fuel it has, the more calories you will burn.

While adding calories, focus on the benefits: how much better they feel, the power in their workouts, their happier mood, and better quality of life. If they don’t trust their body and are fearful that eating more will end up with regaining the weight they worked so hard to lose, they may need to get help. A sports dietitian can guide them through this process. Use the referral network at SCANdpg.org to find your local expert.

 

ARE FITNESS TRACKERS HELPFUL?

Fitness trackers offer information that is interesting, but not precise. Something strapped on your wrist can sort of measure what your legs are doing, but many variables impact accuracy. For example, pushing a baby jogger with straight arms gives a different step count than if you were to run with freely swinging arms.

As for energy expenditure, note that some of the calories reported as being burned during your workout include calories you would have burned in that hour regardless of exercise. Knowing calories burned can be dangerous… “Oh, I just burned 500 calories, so now I deserve to eat ice cream!!!” Tracking might not enhance fat loss.

This is where you can start the conversation

Your body is your best calorie counter. Instead of tracking calories to determine if you have eaten the correct amount, have clients try listening to their body. Before they eat, have them ask themselves, Am I eating because my body needs fuel—or because I am bored, lonely, or stressed? … Am I stopping eating because I am satisfied? Or just because I think I should? By eating mindfully, they will not overeat nor undereat. They’ll simply relearn skills from childhood, when they ate when they were hungry, stopped when they were content, maintained a good weight, and never ran out of energy. Life is better when you are free from being in food-jail.

REFERENCES

  1. Nelson et al. Validity of Consumer-Based Physical Activity Monitors for Specific Activity Types. Med Sci Sports Exercise, 48(8):1619-28, 2016.
  2. Jakicic et al. Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Life-style Intervention on Long-term Weight loss. JAMA 316(11):1161-71, 2016 Nancy Clark, MS RD CSSD

Nancy Clark

Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD has a private practice in the Boston-area (Newton; 617- 795-1875), where she helps both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes create winning food plans. Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook, and food guides for marathoners, cyclists and soccer are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com

For workshops, see www.NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com