This is simply how the body works. Push one pathway long enough, the body fights back. This is why it’s crucial to not live in a calorie deficit.
Yes, we need to spend time under-eating to generate a fat loss result but when we spend an extended amount of time in a deficit our body reacts, and adverse adaptations happen.
Firstly, let’s take a look at the positive adaptations of a calorie deficit:
- Improved fat oxidation. When eating in a calorie deficit our body will oxidise stored body fat as energy.
- Improved insulin/leptin sensitivity. Insulin and leptin are our two key hormones that regulate food intake and energy balance. A calorie deficit resulting in lowered body fat levels leads to improved insulin and leptin sensitivity, which is what we want. The leaner the individual, the more optimal our sensitivity levels.
- Decreased inflammation. Body fat is an endocrine organ which secretes its own hormones. This includes leptin, aromatase, and cytokines. Cytokines are pro-inflammatory hormones, and the more body fat we have the more they’re secreted. When we drop body fat, we have less cytokine expression which equals less inflammation.
We want to maximise the positive adaptations of dieting. However, it’s also important to recognise the negative adaptations in order to get the best results.
These negative adaptations include:
- Sub-optimal nitrogen balance. Nitrogen balance is the relationship between muscle protein synthesis (anabolism) and muscle protein breakdown (catabolism). In periods of overfeeding we successfully favour muscle protein synthesis, which is why eating in a surplus of calories can enhance our ability to put on muscle mass. However, when eating in a deficit, this changes to muscle protein breakdown. This results in higher rates of muscle loss.
- Decreased metabolic rate. The longer we diet, the more our ‘calories out’ component of energy balance is compromised. This is due to the metabolic rate dropping, which primarily comes from thyroid levels decreasing. The thyroid is the key regulator of our metabolic rate and is generally down-regulated by low calories, low carbohydrates and stress.
- Increased hunger cravings. Leptin is our key hormone which regulates satiety. Leptin has an inverse relationship with our hunger hormone ghrelin. If leptin lowers, this allows for ghrelin levels to rise and drive up hunger. Low satiety and high hunger levels are not our friends when trying to drop body fat levels.
- Decreased libido. When living in a calorie deficit, our androgens drop. Androgens are our sex hormones. Sex drive is the least of our body’s concerns when trying to preserve energy. When testosterone lowers, this allows for estrogen to rise. Not a great place for a male looking to optimise their body composition.
As you can see, there are a number of negative adaptations that come from being in a calorie deficit. What we need to do is manage how long we spend on that deficit. We want to maximise the positive adaptations, whilst minimising the negatives.
So, how do we do this? I like to use a combination of diet breaks and various cyclical nutritional strategies. This slows down the adverse effects of under-eating. Here are a few simple strategies:
- Diet breaks. This is when we increase our calories out of a deficit and place them at our calculated baseline. The baseline is where our body does not gain or lose weight. This is what we call our ‘maintenance’ calories. A diet break involves driving up carbohydrates and should last anywhere from 3- 14 days, with the goal of restoring the negative metabolic adaptations of dieting. This helps raise our leptin and thyroid levels, which then directly raises metabolic rate. This is crucial for aiding the ‘calories out’ component of energy balance.
- Davoodis Cycle. Davoodis Cycle is a cyclical nutritional system which I use with more advanced clients who are prone to negative metabolic adaptations. It involves 11 days in a calorie deficit, followed by 3 days of driving up calories to baseline – primarily through increased carbohydrates. The 11 days are centred around fat loss, whilst the 3 days are focused on restoring hormonal markers. The 3-day diet breaks ensure leptin, thyroid and metabolic rate stay elevated. 3 days is the minimum amount of time required to restore down-regulated metabolic markers. A 1-day ‘refeed’ will spike leptin and thyroid levels initially, but those hormones will drop fast. 3 days will ensure these markers stay at a high level for a period of time.
- Not living in a calorie deficit. Negative metabolic adaptations begin to rise dramatically around the 4-6 weeks mark for leaner individuals. For people with higher body fat levels, the negative markers can hold off up to 8-12 weeks. This is why for leaner individuals my approach is never ‘living’ in a deficit. I consistently bring my clients out of a calorie deficit over the course of their training.
This is why cyclical nutritional strategies and planned diet breaks work so well. It allows us to slow down the fat loss process temporarily, which enables a greater rate of fat loss for the days we are in a calorie deficit.
We want to ensure we not only get great results for our clients but healthy results. It’s imperative as coaches we understand both the pros and cons of calorie restriction.
For every positive adaptation we create, we bring about a negative adaptation. The real key is having the ability to make the most of the positives, whilst doing everything we can to minimise the negative adaptations.
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