"Everything works, but nothing works forever."
This is something that so many people either overlook or flat out refuse to believe when it comes to nutrition.
For whatever reason, people love to find one approach and stick to it.
Through thick and thin.
Through the good times and the bad.
It's almost like they're married to it.
And then the marriage goes south.
Frustration starts to boil over, and you're not as happy as you once were.
You stop seeing the results you were seeing at the beginning; the fire's just not there anymore.
Now matter how much you're trying to cling onto that specific approach, it's just not working.
This is where people normally do 1 of 2 things:
1. Keep trying to force the issue and end up in a cycle of frustration.
2. Just flat out give up altogether because fat loss, muscle gain, or performing better in the gym just "isn't for them."
I'm here to present you with a third option; one that I like to think is a lot more fun and a lot more effective for your progress.
That third option is to take a periodized approach to your nutrition.
All nutritional periodization is is simply breaking your nutrition plan up into phases, with varying goals in each phase.
In this article, I'll give you a blueprint for how you can utilize nutritional periodization to see long term fat loss. But, before we get into how to implement it, let's talk about why we need it...
Why is nutritional periodization necessary?
As I mentioned before, everything works, but nothing works forever. The reason why this is the case is because your body is constantly changing; it's an adaptation machine.
Adaptation is a response to a stimulus.
And eventually when we receive that stimulus over and over again, it doesn't elicit that same response.
For example, when you first start lifting weights, benching 100lbs may have seemed difficult and it likely resulted in muscle growth.
However, after a week or so that 100lbs doesn't feel so heavy anymore and it doesn't really result in anymore muscle growth. So what do you do? You increase the weight, and that new stimulus results in more of the desired adaptation (muscle growth).
The same principle can be applied to nutrition.
For example, when trying to lose fat you go into a calorie deficit. The deficit is the stimulus that results in the desired adaptation of fat loss.
After a few weeks, your metabolism adapts and slows down to accommodate for the decreased intake of calories (it's an evolutionary survival mechanism). In this case, you'd then have to lower calories even more to get the fat loss response that you're looking for.
This is where periodization comes in.
Where a lot of people go wrong is that they drive the calories down lower and lower until it's flat out unhealthy.
When you do this, you end up with low energy, ultra-stressed out, shitty workout performance, and poor sleep...
Instead, we can break your nutrition plan up into phases to correctly address and work WITH this adaptation rather than against it.
Let's get into how exactly you can do that...
Step 1: The Diet Before the Diet
Before you can pursue long term fat loss, you must make sure that your body is in a place where it can effectively lose fat.
This checklist that you should be running through includes:
-Are you eating enough?
-Are you eating 80-90% whole foods?
-Are you sleeping enough?
-Are you managing life stress effectively?
-Are you training at an appropriate intensity?
Now, do I expect every single item on the list to be picture perfect? Not necessarily.
BUT, you should be making your best effort to check as many items off the list as possible in order to set you up for the most success possible during your fat loss phase.
Where I really want to focus on in this blog is the question of "Are you eating enough?"
Oddly enough, the vast majority of people that come to me wanting to lose fat are actually under eating!
Either they've been trying to diet for months and even years now without taking their foot off the gas, or they simply have no awareness around how much they're actually eating.
In both situations, the first step is to create that awareness. You need to confirm whether or not you are under eating. I have all of my private coaching clients log their food for 3-7 days before we get started with any sort of nutrition protocol.
The reason why you want to track for multiple days instead of just using a standalone food log for just one day is that taking the logs over several days allows us to calculate an average of how many calories you're eating per day. Just like scale weight, for someone who isn't tracking their intake there are likely fluctuations in how many calories they are eating per day.
After you have those food logs, you'll take an average of the total calories for each day.
Assuming that you're not gaining or losing an weight currently, this average gives us a pretty good idea of what your maintenance calories are.
Now, what do you do with that number? Here are a few different scenarios based on the average calorie amount in relation to your bodyweight:
Scenario #1: You're eating 14-16x your body weight in calories daily (For example, if a 200lb individual was eating 2800-3200cals). If this is the case, assuming everything else is normal you are ready to enter into a fat loss phase. You can go ahead and skip to the fat loss phase section of the article if you'd alike; although I would recommend reading about what to do if you're in the other scenario (education is key).
Scenario #2: You're eating 10-12x your body weight in calories daily (For example, if a 200lb individual was eating 2000-2400cals). If you're in this camp and not already seeing the fat loss you'd like, you need to take some time to reverse diet. If you try to keep lowering your calories even deeper into a deficit, you may see short term weight loss, but you will quickly plateau again. And so on and so forth until you're eating an absurdly low amount of calories per day.
A reverse diet is when you slowly ramp up your calories over the course of several weeks. By reverse dieting, you will be able to build up your body's metabolic capacity and take some of the stress off of your body that comes along with a calorie deficit. I'll be going more in depth into the process of reverse dieting in the "post-diet" phase section, so please refer to that for a more detailed description of how to go about reverse dieting.
Scenario #3: You're eating less than 10x your body weight in calories per day. If this is the case, refer to the answer for number two. It's important to understanding that if this is the case for you, chasing fat loss may not be in the cards for several weeks or months until you can get your calories up to what your maintenance should be (if this is you and you have more questions, shoot me a message on IG).
So, what do you do once you've hit maintenance? Is it time to go right into the fat loss phase?
Not so fast.
Before we can take you into a fat loss phase, you need to eat at maintenance for 3-4 weeks. The reason that this is necessary is that it allows your body to adjust to this new set point. It allows your body to recognize this new, increased calorie amount as it's new normal. That way, you will truly be in a deficit when we move into the fat loss phase...
Step 2: The Fat Loss Phase
Now that you've done your due diligence and set your body up for success in the fat loss phase, it's time for the fun to begin...
In the fat loss phase, there are a few ways you can go about this dependent on the context of your situation (working with a coach can be a great way to determine which is right for you). I'll take you through each one in this article.
Option 1: Long-term, 16+ week cut
In an ideal world, this is what I would love for everyone to do.
A few reasons, actually. By going about fat loss at a slower pace, it's more likely that you'll actually be able to keep it off in the long term. It gives us more time to teach you the skills necessary to maintain that new low weight for life, making it a lifestyle rather than just another crash diet.
Not only that, but during the fat loss phase you won't have to be in as deep of a calorie deficit since you're giving yourself a much longer time frame to accomplish the desired fat loss. This means less hunger, less cravings, and a more enjoyable experience. This makes it more likely that you'll be able to adhere to the plan; and as we know, adherence is the king when it comes to determining the success of a nutrition plan.
Building on point number two, the longer time frame allows for the insertion of diet breaks and multiple refeeds (more on this in a second), again increasing the likelihood of adherence to a specific plan by giving you "something to look forward to."
So, what does a 16 week cut look like in action? I'm going to lay out 3 different options for you (told you this was going to be detailed).
Option 1A: 16 weeks; 3 week deficit/1 week diet break
In this option, as the title suggests, you'll be in a calorie deficit for 3 weeks followed by a 1 week diet break. You'll repeat this cycle over the course of the 16 weeks.
For the calorie deficit during a longer cut, I recommend starting off in a 5-10% calorie deficit. For example, if you're eating 3000 calories, a 5-10% calorie deficit would mean cutting 150-300 calories.
These calories will come from carbs or fat. Whether you choose carbs, fats, or a combo of both to subtract from is completely your preference. As long as you're eating 0.4g/lb body weight of fat per day, you're fine. If you're looking to maintain performance in the gym, I would probably recommend subtracting from fats as long as you're staying above the aforementioned threshold.
Like we talked about earlier, you metabolism adapts. So, after a while its will likely be necessary to cut calories again. Only do this once you've plateaued for 1-2 weeks (not including the diet breaks). I would recommend taking calories out in increments of 100. You don't need that much of a deficit to elicit fat loss! Be patient and don't go too hard too quick.
Ok, now that we've got the calorie deficit down, what's a diet break?
A diet break is exactly what it sounds like: a break from the calorie deficit.
During a diet break, you'll bring calories up to maintenance for a week. The increase to maintenance will come through carbohydrates.
Diet breaks are very useful to promote adherence to the nutrition plan as well as delaying metabolic adaptation. By implementing diet breaks to delay the slowing of your metabolism, we are able to have you eating a higher amount of calories over the course of the cut and draw out the duration of the fat loss phase before a reverse diet is necessary.
It's important to note that you will likely see an upward fluctuation in the scale during your diet break.
Like I mentioned, the calorie increase is coming from carbs. This means that more glycogen and water are being stored in your muscles, resulting in an upward fluctuation on the scale.
If done correctly, there should still be a net total loss in weight (if not, that would defeat the purpose of the cut!).
Option 1B: 16 weeks; no diet breaks, 1 or 2 refeed days per week
This second option for a 16 week cut does not include diet breaks, but it does include refeed days. The calorie deficit portion of the plan carries over form 1A to 1B.
Refeed days are essentially mini diet breaks, where you'll increase calories up to maintenance via carbs for 1-2 days at a time.
It's very important that you are intentional with what type of refeed you utilize, as the have different effects depending on the duration.
2-day refeeds can be utilized similarly to diet breaks in order to delay metabolic adaptation during the fat loss phase. If I had to give my blind recommendation for you reading this blog, I'd likely recommend the 2-day refeed if you're embarking on a 16+ week cut. These are great to include on weekends so you give yourself a bit of a calorie buffer to go out and enjoy yourself (within reason, of course)!
1-day refeeds actually do NOT have the same metabolic effects as their 2-day counterparts, but they can still be very useful. While these tend to be more applicable during a shorter duration cut, they can definitely still be used in a longer term cut. If your metabolism is in a healthy enough place, you may not need to utilize refeeds or diet breaks to slow metabolic adaptation. In your case, a 1-day refeed may actually be better simply to increase adherence to the plan and give you a higher calorie, higher carb day to look forward to every week during your cut.
IMPORTANT: A refeed day is not a cheat day! Refeeds are planned and controlled, while cheat days are reckless and counterproductive. Yes, the higher carb intake does allow for some more "fun" foods, but be careful not to abuse the power ;)
You can also utilize 1 day refeeds at two separate points throughout the week (for example, Monday and Thursday). These still do not have a metabolic effect; however I find them to be useful for someone looking to maintain performance as high as possible during a fat loss phase. By replenishing carb stores at 2 points each week, you give yourself more fuel to perform in your training.
So, in short, for Option 1B go into a calorie deficit 5-6 days of the week while implementing 1-2 day refeeds over the course of the week!
Option 1C: 16 week; diet breaks + refeeds
This is the option for someone who has done some serious yo-yo dieting in the past and has dealt with some pretty gnarly metabolic adaptation. You'd essentially be combining the tools in each approach to minimize metabolic adaptation as much as possible for as long as possible. To be completely honest, if you're in this situation I would highly recommend working with a coach as these cases can get complicated.
Option 2: 12 week cut
While a 16+ week cut may be ideal, a 12 week cut is often times a lot more realistic. It's actually what I tend to implement the most with my clients.
The shorter time frame allows us to get more aggressive with the calorie deficit, and therefore see progress at a faster rate.
The visual progress tends to motivate people to keep going and actually builds adherence! This is especially true if your a "Type A" person who is highly motivated and wants to put in that hard work. Seeing that hard work pay off is very rewarding.
So, as I suggested, the calorie deficit in a 12 week cut will be a bit more aggressive. I typically recommend starting at a 300-500 calorie deficit.
However, when you plateau, I would still recommend not overdoing the subsequent cuts in calories. After that initial 300-500 calorie cut, opt to keep cutting in increments of 100-200 calories at a time. Again, only after you have seen ZERO scale weight or visual progress!
During a shorter duration cut like this, I don't usually utilize diet breaks since we don't have to worry as much about preserving metabolic capacity. Also, it can be a bit demotivating to see the scale fluctuate up during a short term cut like this.
However, refeeds are still very useful and I would opt for these over diet breaks in the case of a 12 week cut. They allow you to slow down metabolic adaptation without having to worry about as much of an upward fluctuation in the scale. The same options apply as in the 16 week option, so refer to that section for how to implement refeeds.
As you can see, the 12 week cut is fairly straightforward! 300-500 calorie deficit with 1-2 refeed days per week and you'll be all set!
Step 3: The Exit Strategy
This is perhaps the most important part of the whole process, and the part that is so often screwed up.
Let me ask you this...
What's the point of losing all that fat only to gain it back (like 85% of people who lose weight do)?
Pretty counterproductive, right?
This is where having an exit strategy is absolutely crucial.
The first component of this exit strategy is determining when to call it quits on the cut. For the sake of this article, and unless you're working directly with a coach, I would recommend that you stick to the 12 or 16 week timeframes.
Even if you're not where you'd like in terms of fat loss, still take the time to rebuild metabolic capacity through reverse dieting so you can continue losing fat in the long run. Where a lot of people go wrong is that they stay in a cut for wayyyyy too long: several months, and sometimes even years!
By taking the extra few weeks to reverse diet and rebuild metabolic capacity, you'll be able to maintain the initial fat loss and set yourself up to continue pursuing it and achieve your end goal. This is the beauty of a periodized approach.
With that being said, if you're absolutely crushing it and biofeedback is on point, you can definitely extend the fat loss phase as long as you're still feeling good and still seeing progress on the scale and in the mirror.
I really want to emphasize the biofeedback portion of this. When we get deep into a deficit, energy starts to decline, sleep suffers, cravings are out of control, mood is terrible, etc. This is often a sign that it's time to pull out of a deficit (unless you're prepping for a bodybuilding show or photoshoot). So, if the 12 or 16 week mark comes around and you're not feeling that dip in biofeedback, you can keep pushing it a bit more.
Don't take this too far, though. I would rather see you take an extra few weeks or months to reverse and ensure that you're keeping your metabolism in a healthy place. Yes, you'll sacrifice some short term weight loss, but you'll definitely reap the rewards in the long run.
Life After the Fat Loss Phase
When you've reached the end of your fat loss phase, I would recommend that you stay at that lower calorie amount for roughly 1-3 weeks. This reasoning behind this is the same as when we were reverse dieting you up to maintenance. It allows your body to adjust to this lower weight as it's new set point.
It's important to not stretch this phase out too long though. Usually 3 weeks is the most I'd like to see someone stay at that lower calorie amount; to be 100% sure, it's imperative that you're tracking biofeedback. If you're still feeling good, you can stay down there for a little longer. However, if you're feeling like crap and have low energy, I would not recommend hanging out down there for too long.
The Reverse Diet
This phase is the make or break of maintaining the progress you've worked so hard for. Unfortunately, many people revert right back to their old way of eating as soon as they hit their goal weight. This results in them ballooning back up to their former weight. If you've maintained at that lower weight for 1-3 weeks, you've already taken the first step in avoiding a situation like that.
Something critical to be aware of is that your maintenance calories are now lower since you're at a lower body weight. You simply have to use less energy since there's less body weight to move around. This isn't bad at all; it's simply a reality of the situation. With that being said, if the reverse diet is done properly you can still eat an amount of calories that is relatively close to what you were eating before (unless you were massively over eating, of course).
Just like when we calculated your maintenance calories in the "diet before the diet," you'll multiply your new body weight by 14-16. This will give you a range of calories to aim for over the course of your reverse diet.
To execute the reverse, you'll simply increase calories slowly over the course of several weeks. The duration is super individualized, but a good baseline to aim for is at least 8-12 weeks.
When increasing calories, again, it's very individual. This depends on you and your preference as to how quickly you'd like to go. As a baseline, I recommend increasing 50-100 calories every 1-2 weeks. This is a slow enough pace that you should avoid any unwanted weight gain.
When you increase calories, you'll likely be increasing them via carbohydrates. Protein and fat will be addressed first and will likely be at an optimal amount, neither of which should require much changing over the course of the reverse diet. At the beginning of the reverse, fat may need to be slightly increased depending on how deep of a calorie deficit you were in. As mentioned before, you should be eating a minimum of 0.4g/lb of dietary fat per day.
You'll slowly continue to ramp calories up until either:
1)You've reached the desired calorie range.
2)Biofeedback has improved and you have no desire to keep increasing calories.
Again, this answer isn't necessarily black and white. The most important thing is that you make sure biofeedback is optimal. This is the main purpose of the reverse. If you achieve this without getting all the way up to the desired amount of calories, by all means you can stay there.
However, if your goal is to cycle back into another fat loss phase, I would highly recommend pushing the calories up as high as possible without unwanted weight gain. Even if you end up exceeding that desired calorie range. If you still aren't gaining any weight, it's fair game.
The reason why I recommend this is that it's sets you up for more success in the next round of fat loss by ramping your metabolism up as much as possible. It's the same exact reason why we were reversing before the initial fat loss phase.
If you're taking this approach, you should be monitoring your weight fairly closely so you can see if it starts to trend upward slightly. If you notice a consistent 0.5-1lb increase over the course of 1-2 weeks, it's likely time to conclude the reverse.
After the reverse is over, you'll maintain again for 3-4 weeks and solidify this new weight and calorie amount as your set point.
Step 4: What's next?
If you've done the reverse diet properly, you'll be primed to do 1 of 3 things:
1) Cycle back into another 12-16 week fat loss phase.
2) Move into a muscle building phase (stay tuned for next week's article on this).
3) Maintain and enjoy your new body composition while eating a fairly high amount of calories!
There's no right answer here. It's purely up to you and your situation!
What about macros?
We've gone through this whole article and I haven't explicitly given you a macro prescription, I know.
That's because there's not much variance between the different stages except for protein and the total amount of calories your consuming.
During either the reverse diet or any of the maintenance phases, you'll want to be eating ~1g of protein per pound of body weight (ex: a 200lb person would eat 200g of protein).
During a fat loss phase, you'll want to bump that number up to 1.2g per pound of body weight. This is the case for a few reasons.
Protein is more satiating, meaning it keeps you fuller for longer. This is very useful during a fat loss phase to help fight off cravings and keep you satisfied throughout the day.
Also, protein has a relatively high thermic effect. This means that your body uses more energy to digest protein than it does to digest carbs or fat. While the deficit created from this will not make or break your fat loss progress, it can be a helpful tool to use!
Lastly, during a fat loss phase you'll likely be cutting calories via carbs and fat. Carbs are a "protein-sparing nutrient." This means that your body prefers to use carbs as fuel over breaking down muscle. When there's less carbohydrates available, the increase in dietary protein can help to offset muscle loss as much as possible during a cut.
As for fat, like we discussed as good minimum to aim for is 0.4g/lb of body weight. This is enough to maintain proper hormonal health.
Carbohydrates will fill out the rest of your calorie intake and will vary depending on your total calorie goal for the specific phase you are in.
Simple as that!
Frequency Asked Questions
FAQ #1: How much fat should I be losing per week?
First off, fat loss is not linear. Although we may have a fat loss goal per week, it's likely not going to work out to exactly that. However, over time the trend should be fairly consistent. A good rate to aim for is roughly 1% of your bodyweight per week. For example, a 200lb individual would aim to lose ~2lbs per week.
FAQ #2: What should my training look like?
If you are doing a properly programmed strength training regimen, nothing needs to change! Simply keep doing what you're doing.
If you aren't strength training... start! This is the best way to promote muscle growth and muscle preservation during a fat loss phase.
FAQ#3: What about cardio?
Honestly, you can go through a whole fat loss phase without doing cardio and be totally fine. Before implementing designated time for cardio, I recommend tracking your steps and ensuring that you're hitting at least 10k a day. From there, slowly ramp up the steps by 500-1000 week by week until it's genuinely not possible to increase anymore without going on the treadmill. Once you reach that point, then begin to introduce cardio a couple of times per week.
FAQ #4: I've hit a plateau but I'm doing everything you said in the article. What's going on?
If you're genuinely stuck, I would run through a checklist of possible causes.
1) Are you tracking your food correctly? If you're not logging your oils, entering in cooked food as raw, and not weighing things out, you're likely eating a lot more calories than you think you are. Do a food tracking audit to make sure everything is being tracked properly.
2)Are you following the 80/20 rule? If you're not getting there majority of your calories from whole unprocessed foods, this is another area you could clean up! Food labels have an error margin of 20%, so by making the switch to more whole foods, you'll be making sure that your calories are truly on point!
3)Are you sleeping enough? If you're not getting a minimum of 7 hours per night, you're not going to maximize fat loss. Period. Honestly, I'd rather see you closer to ~8 hours per night. If you notice you're not getting enough sleep, start to look at why that's happening and what you can do to fix that.
Wrapping it up!
Alright, that just about brings us to the end! I know we covered a ton of info in today's article, so if you have any questions at all, always feel free to shoot me a message.
If you follow these steps, you'll be well on your way to achieving the fat loss that you're after.
Next week I'll be dropping part 2 to this series and going in depth on exactly how to periodize your nutrition to maximize muscle gain!
Thanks so much for reading, and I'll talk to you soon!