In this post:
Metabolism term cheat sheet
3 reasons why its so hard to get and stay lean!
Short term diet effects
Long term diet effects
3 reasons getting and staying lean is hard!
Why long term dieting can make you fatter
What to do about it- 7 tips and tricks
If you have ever dieted, which most of us would be in this boat, you know it is not easy in the first place but, if you put your mind to it, it will happen, especially if you are a beginner or are on the heavier end of the spectrum, bigger changes happen more quickly.
As your fitness level increases and you become more advanced gaining more muscle or reaching lower body fat levels whether you are cutting to compete in a bodybuilding show or not, getting leaner becomes more difficult. You can feel like you are up shit creek without a paddle when you get on the scale in the A.M. and the number remains unchanged. It is important to note here that weight is only a number and leaning out happens with the right diet and workout program even without tipping the scale.
Other issues also occur when you are pushing the limits of having excessive muscle as muscle requires a lot of energy to build and sustain while it doesn’t provide much energy when broken down. Naturally the body wants to maintain a “set point” body fat percentage and enough muscle to carry out activates necessary for survival and no more, although, hunting and gathering on the plains isn’t on the modern day “to do” list. Other than that, the battle is on. As a natural athlete, dieting to super cut lean levels is a fight with your body to lose fat while keeping that hard earned muscle. No one wants to lose that sexy booty or swole shoulder caps.
The body is a perfectly coordinated machine constantly trying to maintain homeostasis. There is a fine balance of hormones and processes that keep your body within the same temperature range, hydration levels, energy storage and so on.
So what happens when we throw our bodies into a negative energy balance trying to get below 20-22% body fat for women or 12-15% for men? A whole lot of things. But here is a summary of the short story which is the summary of a long ass story!
This following physiological reactions are from the stand point of a typical cutting diet- moderate to low fat, moderate to high carbs, and moderate to high protein. As you cut calories, you lower your fat to about 20% of your diet, keep protein constant around about 1-1.5g of protein per pound of bodyweight and manipulate your carbs and cardio to create caloric deficits.
Before we get started, here is a little cheat sheet you can look back on for clarification… Otherwise, skip on down to the 3 reasons why its so hard to get and stay lean!
Metabolism Term Cheat Sheet
Energy Storage in the Body:
Glucose: sugar/carbohydrate. Stored in the muscle and liver in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is mobilized from muscle and liver cells into the blood stream to be used for energy.
Fatty acids: Fat circulating in the blood stream. Stored in fat cells (adipose tissue). Mobilized from fat cells into blood stream to be utilized as energy. Dietary fat you eat are triglycerides, which is a molecule of glycerol (a sugar) bound to three fatty acids.
Insulin– hormone that reduces blood sugar levels by regulating cell uptake of glucose (carbs). Also anabolic (muscle building).
Insulin sensitivity– meaning insulin will generate a large response in the body as the cells are very receptive to insulin.
Insulin resistance– meaning the normal response to insulin is reduced. Your cells are resistant to insulin and cell uptake of glucose is hindered.
Glucagon– hormone that increases blood sugar levels when energy is needed. Causes a release of glycogen (stored from of glucose) from muscle and liver stores to be used for energy.
Insulin like growth factor (IGF-1)– a hormone that has an anabolic (muscle building) affect and mediates growth hormone
Growth Hormone (GH)– hormone that stimulates protein synthesis (muscle growth).
Catecholamine– (norepinephrine and dopamine for example) Is a neuromodulator. Prepares the body for physical activity like increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and blood glucose levels with general reaction on the sympathetic nervous system. High levels in the blood are associated with stress.
Cholecystokinin– hormone that stimulates the digestion of fat and protein.
Leptin– the satiety hormone. Made in fat cells, regulates energy balance and fat stored.
Ghrelin– the hunger hormone. Regulates appetite, secreted when stomach is empty to let you know you are hungry.
Cortisol– the stress hormone. Released in response to stress and low blood glucose by raising blood pressure, blood sugar and modulating your immune system but leads to protein breakdown (muscle loss), fat storage, decreased thyroid and other hormonal imbalances when there are prolonged elevated levels.
Polypeptide YY– hormone that inhibits hunger.
Thyroid hormone– T3 and T4, regulated by thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). Increases metabolism, blood pressure, regulates tissue growth.
Other Helpful Terms:
gluconeogenesis: – generation of glucose from non-carbohydrate sources like protein, aids in the metabolism of fat, protein and carbohydrates.
Fatty acid oxidation: fat burning
Catabolic: muscle breakdown
Anabolic: muscle building
3 Reasons Why It’s So Hard to Get and Stay Lean!
And what to do about it…
All right. Now that you have all those terms memorized and ready to go, here is what happens when you diet by decreasing caloric intake and increasing activity output.
Initially, in the short term, your diet goes well, especially for those that are obese or beginners in the fitness realm.
- Blood glucose and insulin levels are reduced which is good as this helps to mobilize fat from adipose tissue (fat cells).
- Catecholamine release usually increases which is good as it helps to mobilize fat for energy preparing the body for physical activity.
- As a result of the changes, fatty acid levels are increased in the blood stream (pulled out of the fat cell) and used for fuel.
- The whole effect increases if you deplete liver and muscle glycogen. Many people cutting for a bodybuilding contest (this includes you bikini girls) will have low and zero carb days to use up glycogen (carbohydrate stores) so your body will utilize fat stores.
- The increase in fatty acids in the blood stream causes short term insulin resistance which spares glucose and promotes fat oxidation (fat burning).
So far so good… right… well, as you diet for longer periods of time and start getting leaner other things begin to happen…..In the end, the harder you push your metabolism, the harder is pushes back.
As you push your limits and go beyond the normal body fat levels (20% for women, 12% for men) by doing more cardio and/or cutting more calories, your metabolism compensates. You start feeling hungry all the time, energy begins to suffer, and you feel cravings for sweet, salty, and fatty foods. Worse than that, depending on individual responses, metabolism has now slowed down significantly or put on the brakes slowing daily calorie burn rate by between 200 and 800 calories per day.
1) Stressed sympathetic nervous system
Your nervous system is categorized into two systems, the symapathetic nervous system also known as the fight or flight system and the parasympathetic nervous system also known as the rest and digest system. These systems maintain a balance in your body and when that balance gets tipped to one side, the whole system is thrown off.
Extreme lower calories diets and continuous heavy cardio, which is commonly seen in a competitors routine, stresses the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system sending it into overdrive where its “stuck” in the on position and suppresses the parasympathetic nervous system. You may wake in the morning with a higher heart rate, experience sleep disruption, be more sensitive to bright lights, have lower motivation, feel fatigued, retain water and have digestive dysfunction like IBS, gas and bloating.
One good reason to make sure your contest prep is the appropriate time frame for the natural bodybuilder. Trying to lose more than 1.5# per week is too fast and maximizes adverse metabolic effects.
2) Hormone signals go into overdrive slowing your metabolism
Hormonal signals to the endocrine system sends the entire metabolism into overdrive overwhelming much of the regulatory balance, antioxidant/free radical balance, acid/base balance, blood sugar balance and so on. Your body will do its best to slow the metabolism to meet its energy intake and expenditure. Here’s a simplistic version of what happens with your hormones…
Leptin drops which tells your brain you need to eat! This directly affects liver, skeletal muscle and fat cell metabolism.
While this may mobilize fat, the insulin drop causes testosterone to bind more efficiently to SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin) lowering testosterone levels. Yes ladies, you have testosterone but much lower levels than men. Testosterone is anabolic (muscle building). This is why insulin prevents catabolism of the muscle, when it is low, muscle breakdown occurs more readily.(Also see Don’t Lift, You’ll Look Like a Man!)
As mentioned above, testosterone also drops. It can drop as much as 70-77%! This has greater adverse affects for the male than female due to females having much lower levels of testosterone to begin with.
Peptide YY (PYY) drops
This hormone controls your appetite. When levels are low, your appetite will soar.
Cholecystokinin (CCK) drops
This hinders the digestion of fat and protein
This is a big one. Cortisol, the stress hormone released in response to stress and low blood glucose, increases as much as 100%. This promotes protein breakdown, stimulates the conversion of protein to glucose in the liver (bad news bears for keeping that muscle) and raises blood pressure, blood sugar and modulates your immune system. Aside from promoting protein breakdown (muscle loss), prolonged elevated levels promotes fat storage and decreases thyroid function among other hormonal imbalances.
The hunger hormone tells you you need to EAT!
Fall in energy state of the muscle hinders protein synthesis but increases FA oxidation (fat burning)
Good for fat burning, bad for muscle retention
Overall- protein synthesis (muscle building) is decreased and breakdown is accelerated.
High fatty acid levels impair the uptake of inactive thyroid hormone into the liver while there are also changes in the liver that hinder the conversion of inactive thyroid hormone to active thyroid in the liver. This negatively affects metabolism, blood pressure, and tissue growth.
Insulin like growth factor (IGF-1) decreases
Due to the changes in liver metabolism, decrease in IGF-1 hinders muscle building and growth hormone.
Growth Hormone (GH) decreases
Decrease in GH hinders muscle building effects.
All of the above are not ideal combo’s if you want to keep all that hard earned muscle you worked for during your bulk phase while trying to get lean! Whether you are a bikini girl or a physique female, keeping that booty or those fabulous quads is important for your competition.
3) Your body will always be hungry below the normal body fat range
When body fat levels are low the combination of signals sent by leptin, ghrelin, insulin, glucose, and a host of other hormones (cholecystokinin, glucagon, peptide YY and so many others) are all involved in hunger and appetite telling you you need to eat… feed me! I am starving! I need to survive! Your body doesn’t know you are trying to look like a fitness model or compete in a figure competition. Think you want to stay 10% or less as a female… good luck! It is possible but not easy.
Why long term dieting can make you fatter
Prepare to lay down the fat!
As stated above, your body is concerned with survival first and foremost. The more energy stores you have (fat) the more likely you are to survive famine… to a point. Your body has a set point where maintaining a particular body composition is relatively effortless and differs from person to person. Aside from the obvious reasons for being too thin, there are great disadvantages to being obese as the modern day diets have thrown many into terribly and unnatural obese ranges. At any rate, long term dieting and low body fat ranges will make your body prepare itself to lay all that fat you worked so hard to get off right back on and then some. Combine the decreased metabolism and fat burning with enhanced caloric storage and you’ve got yourself a recipe for some serious badonkadonk if you start eating pre-diet maintenance or more calories again.
What to do about it
7 tips and tricks to get leaner and stay leaner
Even though you are fighting primal physiological survival mechanisms, you can biohack your way into keeping your metabolism primed (as much as possible) while losing fat and at least maintaining muscle….
1) Lose 1 pound or less per week
As this may seem like torture, losing weight slowly will retain muscle mass and keep your metabolism as optimal as it can be. Crash dieting quickly just doesn’t work, exacerbates the stresses in the body and is very hard to stick to. Aim for cutting 50-100 calories per day every 1-2 weeks. A calorie deficit can be created by cardio or a decrease in calories. For example: Week 1: eat 2,000 calories. Week 2: add in cardio. Week 3: eat 1,900 calories and so on. Remember that leaning out happens even though you may not be tipping the scale so pay close attention to body composition and progress pictures.
2) Use cardio sparingly
Keep strength training in and use cardio as needed. Cardio depletes muscle. Having muscle increases your resting calorie burn. Bonus! If training for a bodybuilding contest, you already have the lifting part down. Now try not to get too excited and up the cardio too early. You may find yourself at a plateau too far out from your contest and not even close to being ready when need be. See It’s Not Nice to HIIT for information on how to use cardio and Competition Articles for info on diet, training and resources.
3) Eat protein and keep carbs high
A good rule of thumb is to keep protein intake at 1-1.5 grams per pound of body weight, fat around 20-25% of your caloric intake and fill in the rest with carbs. This is optimal for energy output, muscle building and fat burning. Calculate your macros with the IIFYM.com calculator.
4) Keep in cheat meals/ refeeds
Keep in a cheat meal once per week so you can take a little break physically and mentally. Remember its a cheat meal, not a cheat day (for most people)!
As your diet progresses and carbs get lower and/ or cardio increases, keep in structured refeed days where your carb intake for that day is 1.5-2 x that of your cutting diet or 20-50% more calories above daily caloric cutting diet levels. This will vary greatly person to person as metabolism, workout and diet programs differ. You may see an increase on the scale the next day but this will decrease over the next few days and then some if your program is on par.
Center high carb meals around your workouts and keep fat low on refeed days as well (if it isn’t already).
When in a deficit, especially a deep one, one refeed a week will raise leptin levels for that day but its usually not enough to tell your body you’re not starving. A few days of refeeding will but then you risk putting fat back on. Not ideal when cutting for a show or dieting in general. But there are still added benefits to a short term 5-24 hour refeed such as replenishing glycogen stores, creating an anabolic environment in your body, eating things you really want to eat and giving you a psychological break more than anything.
5) Cycle Carbs
Refeed days are included in the carb cycling plan but I wanted to put it as its own point. Carb cycling is a method used to help mobilize fat and deplete glycogen ( which mobilizes fat) where total weekly carbs are split up into high, medium, low and/or zero carb days over the course of the week. Daily protein and fat stay the same daily. Cycling carbs is best used when carbs and calories begin to get low or you need a push to get below normal body fat levels (20-22% for women and 12-15% for men).
Coordinating carbs with your workouts are important as this gives your body high carb days centered around workouts that require building important muscle groups for that individual as well as giving you the most energy for intense workout days where low or zero carb days will be centered around off days.
Some structure the order of high, med and low carb days like this:
- High day
- Medium day
- Low day
- High day
- Medium day
- Low day
- Refeed day
- High day
- High day
- Zero day
- Zero day
- Zero day
Carb cycling coordinated with a workout plan focused on building shoulders, back and legs.
- Refeed day- Saturday: Shoulders & Back – heavy
- Med day-Sunday: Legs-Heavy
- Med day-Mon: Chest & arms – Heavy
- Med day-Tue: Shoulders & back – high rep
- High day-Wednesday: Legs & Abs -high rep
- Med day-Thursday: Chest & Arms – high rep
- Low day- Off day – Friday: off day diet.
6) Try a ketogenic diet
If you need a diet switch up or if you are cutting for a show, a method many trainers are utilizing the last portion of a cut phase (6 weeks out-ish) into a contest is a ketogenic diet. Caloric intake may stay the same but the ratio of macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat) changes where fat becomes 70% of the diet, carbs go to 30 grams or less per day and protein intake may be lowered a bit. Protein in excess can be converted to glucose in the body as this negates the whole point of the keto diet which is to burn fat as the energy source. Once your body is in ketosis after 2 or more weeks, it is beneficial to add in 1-2 refeed days that are low fat high carb if you are highly active or bodybuilding.
Switching up eating higher fat helps to increase leptin and growth hormone levels, decreases cravings and spares protein (good for muscle retention). These are all major bonus benefits that are needed after having dieted down to low body fat levels. The keto diet is a nice push to the end.
7) Don’t forget to reverse diet!
Now, if you are a non competitor that has reached a healthy 20-22% body fat range (12-15% for men), maintaining healthy food choices and fitness levels should keep you right where you need to be. For those that have dieted down to lower body fat levels and are done competing or for those that need to maintain lower body fat levels for more contests or fitness photo shoots, reverse dieting is a must. (see reverse diet article)
I have seen so many girls compete, especially those having competed for the first time end up heavier than they ever started because they didn’t reverse diet. They took a mental break and ate junk they wouldn’t normally have eaten but in excess for 2 or more weeks post show. Then thinking that dieting shortly after to get that fat back off will work…. NOT! The metabolism still isn’t up to speed. It takes time to stabilize hormones and physiological processes for a top notch metabolism. (see reverse dieting article). I actually found it easier the second season of competing to reverse diet as I mentally prepared for it, I knew what to expect as I think reversing up is way harder than dieting down! When your hormones start revving up and you get HUNGRY!
Also keep in mind, it can take 3-5 months just to find balance mentally and physically after a contest prep. Make sure to reverse diet to set your self up for success for your next prep a year or more from now!