By: Bianca Herres, CPT
Have you ever heard the phrase “you have to earn the right to diet”?
It seems a bit out of place sometimes, given that our general culture says quite the contrary: that we should be dieting and pursuing body change. It’s seen as the baseline expectation, not a phase to be built up to, earned, or planned.
A true fat loss phase is an intentional, temporary state where we focus on dropping calories over time, only when we’ve prepared our metabolism to do so, and on a timeline that works towards eventually bringing them back up. In other words: a fat loss phase is not only planned when done correctly, but also should have an exit plan before it even begins.
Two questions we like to ask at Strong Not Sorry before pursuing a fat loss phase are:
- How long have you been dieting? How long have you been attempting fat loss phases?
- Have you ever tried just eating at maintenance, prioritizing recovery, and really pushing in the gym?
What these questions allow us to look at is whether or not a client (or ourselves!) is ready, both mentally and physically, for what is asked of us in a cut!
So how do we earn the right to diet?
First, we have to look at our dieting history. Most adult women in particular have undergone chronic dieting for as long as we can remember – constantly feeling as though we should be eating less and moving more. The truth is though, when we are chronically in a deficit, we are actually working against our body in regards to long term fat loss goals. Our bodies are SMART. So, when we are in a deficit, our body down-regulates to keep us running on less food. What this means is that our BMR, our basal metabolic rate, slows down and burns less calories at rest. Without exercise even in the equation, we burn less calories when we eat less calories, because our body has less to work with. Because we’re running on less, we also move less. Our NEAT – non-exercise activity thermogenesis – i.e. fidgeting, pacing, etc., also drops when our calories do.
The good news is, however, that our body’s adaptive response works both ways! We can also adapt to more food. When we eat at maintenance or in a surplus, our metabolism can more efficiently use calories, burning more per day, our NEAT goes back up, and our body can run more efficiently on more food. If you have ever heard of a reverse diet, this is where we re-teach our body how to use more food efficiently while maintaining the physique from our deficit.
Picture this: we’ve been in a gnarly, 1200 calorie deficit for 6 weeks. Then, we go on vacation, or to a wedding, or out to eat, and we say screw the diet, and let loose. We remember how much better it feels to not be deprived, and naturally, most of us respond to periods of dieting with periods of rebounding: no tracking, eating foods we missed out on, and more.
We then gain some weight back, and decide it’s time to diet again.
Don’t forget, though, that we already dieted, and our metabolism has already downregulated. We went from this diet in the opposite direction, so now we are less comfortable in our body, AND our metabolism is left feeling unsupported.
The problem here isn’t “going off track”, though. The problem is going into a deficit 1) too forcefully, and 2) without a long-term plan.
This is why it should be part of a long-term, periodized plan.
Now, let’s picture an alternative scenario.
We are working with a coach, and we eat at maintenance calories, push HARD in the gym, and sleep 8hrs per night for 6 months. We are nourished, we’ve put on muscle, and we’re feeling capable and ready for a deficit. We spend 12 weeks slowly dropping calories and seeing steady weight loss, without losing muscle. We then work back up to our maintenance, and eventually into a surplus to put on even more muscle!
Does this mean those 12 weeks were easy? No! Does it mean we don’t have to adjust whatsoever for a fat loss phase? Not at all! But what it does mean is that we went through a deficit with intention, structure, guidance, and an out.
So now you might be thinking, okay, I understand that I need to support my body, but how do I even know if I’m doing that, or where to begin?
This is where our fat loss checklist comes in. There are 4 elements we want to look at most closely.
- Movement routine: what kind of intentional movement can we commit to? This doesn’t have to be idealistic; rather, it should be realistic to what you enjoy and can be consistent with. We’d love to see you on a strength program, but this could also be going to yoga, or a spin class, or walking!
- Track your steps: genuinely, honestly, look at how much you’re moving day to day beyond your workouts. This helps us realistically frame how much energy you’re expending, and what a true deficit would be like in relation to that
- Knowledge and execution of tracking our food. Truly taking responsibility for our fat loss does require dedication and intention with how we log our food. If logging doesn’t feel doable mentally or logistically, this may be a sign that you’re not quite ready for a full on fat loss phase yet!
- Sleep! Quite frankly, we don’t recommend a fat loss phase to anyone sleeping less than 7-9 hours per night, consistently. Improper sleep not only dysregulates our hunger hormones and therefore our cravings, but it also impacts mood, motivation, recovery, performance, and plan adherence.
If we hit every checklist mark, we might just be ready to dive into an intentional fat loss phase. If not, that is also completely okay! The checklist not only sets up a framework for success, but also gives us an opportunity to check in with ourselves about where we are, and what we want.
In short, there are a few truths we have to confront when we are trying to figure out whether or not we are ready to diet.
Dieting is not convenient. There are trade-offs that come with it! Tracking, saying no to some things socially, limiting how much strength we can gain, and feeling hungrier are very real possibilities.
Dieting is not permanent. If you’re afraid of your body, or what it will look and feel like if you’re not in a deficit, that’s grounds for more internal reflection on your own or with a professional, not a problem that can be fixed simply by shrinking.
When we say you need to earn the right to diet, it’s not because you aren’t worthy of nourishment, or body composition change, or confidence. In fact, it’s the opposite. You deserve a deficit that doesn’t feel like sh*t, and that comes with time and commitment to a long term plan.