A Quick Note about Water Balance
Before I get into the meat of the article, there is one topic I want to bring up first. Many people have an expectation of fat loss being this nice weekly linear thing that occurs in a predictable fashion. And certainly, for some people this can be the case. However, for an equally large number of people (and I’d probably tend to argue that these folks are in the majority), fat loss does not occur in a predictable linear fashion.
Rather, there are often stops and starts or, as it’s often referred to on the Internets, stalls and whooshes. I discussed this topic in some seriousness in The Stubborn Fat Solution and excerpted that bit in the article Of Whooshes and Squishy Fat. The main culprit here is almost always water retention which can mask fat true fat loss and make it look as if a diet that is otherwise set up perfectly (and working just fine) actually isn’t.
People vary in how predisposed they are to this occurring. Some folks seem to retain water like crazy, especially if they try to combine hard deficits with excessive and or too intensive of activity. Women of course have an additional factor of shifts in water balance throughout the menstrual cycle. Even that is massively variable, some women gain little to no water weight throughout the month, others can hold an extra 5-10 pounds (2.5-5kg or so) easily.
Coupled with a generally slower rate of fat loss in the first place, women can go nuts trying to figure out if their diet is working or not. Put differently, let’s say a woman is on a moderate deficit diet and should be losing right around 1 pound of fat per week. If she is holding an extra 5-10 pounds of water, it could take 5-10 weeks before she actually sees that her diet is working.
Of course, if the water retention is related to menstrual cycle stuff, what she should see if times of the month when her weight/fat is down (below where she started) and other times when it’s not. Plotting weight or some attempt to measure body composition on a monthly basis to see what the overall trend is is probably going to be more beneficial than looking at it on a week to week basis.
My point in bringing this up is actually not just to depress people. Rather, I’m pointing out that what I’m going to discuss in this article in terms of adjusting the diet can be done too often. For folks who have issues with water retention (who may see big drops every couple of weeks rather than smaller drops weekly), trying to gauge true weekly fat loss and adjust the diet is usually a losing proposition.
Rather, those folks may have to only look at what’s happening every 2 weeks to decide when and if to adjust their diet. Women with major menstrual cycle swings may even have to chart their monthly trends to see what’s happening and only make adjustments every 4 weeks.
Yes, I know this is a pain but at this point there’s really no solution for it. All of the methods that we have to measure body composition are too inaccurate to get around this and the point I want everybody to really take home is that expecting predictable weekly fat loss may not be realistic depending on individual propensity to hold water or not.
Back to the Point
Accepting the above, that water balance can throw off expectations on a week to week (or even month to month) basis in terms of fat loss, the first necessary data point is what the predicted or expected fat loss actually is. I gave some examples of this in Setting the Deficit-Small, Medium or Large and clearly the expected fat loss will depend on two things: the size of the dieter and the size of the deficit. Bigger dieters and/or bigger deficits mean faster expected fat loss and vice versa.
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to use a relatively ‘average sized’ dieter and a moderate deficit with a weekly expectation of approximately 1-1.5 pounds per week of true fat loss. This would be a reasonable degree of fat loss for a relatively ‘average sized’ male using a moderate deficit (20-25% below maintenance); again the numbers would be different for smaller/larger dieters and/or smaller/larger deficits.
Based on that, the chart below is how I’d adjust calories (either by reducing food intake or increasing activity, again a topic I’ll address another day in terms of which may be better or worse) based on measured weekly (or bi-weekly) fat loss.
Frankly, there’s nothing that exciting in the chart and it should be fairly self-explanatory. If your predicted fat loss is 1-1.5 lbs/week (and you’re not messing up your calories somehow, through mis-measurement or what have you) and you’re not achieving that, you need to reduce calories further (or increase activity to burn the extra).
Clearly, if you’re hitting your goal numbers right on the spot, don’t change anything.
Of course, there are times when the actual weekly weight loss ends up being larger than expected. Some of this can be water or what have you but not always. And that leads me to an explanation of the middle column.
As I discussed in Weight Training for Fat Loss, one of the primary metrics that should be used while dieting (for non-athletes) is the maintenance of poundages in the gym. Now, it’s not always possible to maintain 100% of strength (and this tends to be a bigger issue as folks get to lower and lower body fat levels) but if major dropoffs are being seen and training is correct, that usually indicates that muscle is being lost. In that situation, the deficit must be reduced, either food intake should be increased or some of the extra activity (usually excessive cardio) should be reduced.
Of course, the same would go for athletes who are trying to reduce body fat levels, if some useful metric of their performance (e.g. run time, cycling power output, whatever) is worsening, then the deficit is too aggressive and calories should be increased (with any ‘junk’ or extra activity being reduced if necessary).
I’d note that, strictly speaking, I could have included the performance loss column for any of the weekly fat losses. Some people even doing everything ‘right’ simply can’t achieve optimal fat loss results without performance loss. They will need to use less agressive deficits (again either reducing food intake or increasing activity) to avoid major performance falloffs.
And that’s how I adjust diets. Honestly, there’s nothing too majorly complicated to it and there are basically three steps.
First off you need to have some idea of what the expected or possible fat loss for a given deficit is. I’d note that people always want fat loss to be faster than it is no matter what they do. If they are losing 1 pound per week, they want 2 pounds per week. If they are losing 2 pounds per week, they want 4 pounds per week. If they are losing 5 pounds per week, they will want 10 pounds per week. This is just human nature but it’s not always realistic.
Certainly there are ways to do this (usually involving monster daily deficits as discussed in Setting the Deficit-Small, Medium or Large) but even there there is going to be some expected degree of fat loss based on the deficit that is created. You need to know what is realistic based on the deficit that is being created.
Second there needs to be some awareness of the issues related to whooshes, stalls and water balance. This basically relates to how frequently you are going to decide whether your current activity level and deficit need to be examined and/or adjusted in the first place. Folks vary in how much of an effect this has.
Women, on average, have bigger issues but some men also deal with it. If you know that you take 2 weeks before you see a drop, clearly using a single week of measurement to make a decision is a mistake. If you’re a woman with major monthly swings, you may have to only examine true fat loss on a 4 week cycle, using what happens weekly (or daily as is sometimes the case) will not only drive you nuts but be inaccurate.
And then you simply compare the expected fat loss to the actual fat loss. If what happened is less than what’s predicted (and you’re not mis-measuring food or something), then you need to increase the deficit slightly. If you’re right in the sweet spot, losing what you’d predict, don’t change anything. And if you’re losing more than predicted, you may need to increase calories (or decrease activity).
I usually use small adjustements here, 10% is usually fine for increases or decreases. Then stay there for whatever time period is appropriate for you individually and adjust again. Eventually you’ll nail it down to exactly where you need to be.
Since I imagine someone will ask about this in the comments, I’d note that, as people lose weight/fat, and maintenance requirements fall (both as a function of body mass loss along with the adaptive adjustments), often caloric intake has to be reduced further (or activity increased) to maintain the same degree of weight/fat loss. This is something I’ll address in more detail in a later article.
Finally, another consideration is performance loss. If you’re a general weight trainer or physique athlete, poundages in the gym are the usual metric. If they are cratering you are probably losing muscle; regardless of the weekly fat loss, you need to reduce the size of the deficit. You need to either increase calories or reduce volume (usually cardio). For performance athletes, there should be some performance metric that you’re tracking to judge if your diet is doing more harm than good. If that metric is going down, you need to reduce the size of the deficit.
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