If you took a poll of fitness freaks and asked them why they had started their fitness journeys in the first place, the most common answer would likely be the desire to become “Lean and Mean”.
Apart from lifting heavy, this pursuit often comes with the additional requirement of staying in a caloric deficit for an extended length of time until you finally get to see THEM ABS!
It’s all fun and games until you realize that while you may get the body of your dreams, it is actually difficult to maintain it without increasing your calories to previous numbers. And that’s when the mental war begins.
Do I starve at such low calories and stay lean all year round or do I eat to my heart’s content and bid adieu to these abs I worked so hard for?
Here’s the thing: You can eat the same amounts of food all year round and maintain that physique. But there’s a price to be paid: a slowed down metabolism.
Millions of years of evolution have taught the human body how to survive in the toughest of conditions. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors often faced feast-or-famine conditions and our bodies developed certain coping mechanisms when faced with such scenarios.
When you keep yourself in a caloric deficit, your body assumes that you are facing a shortage of food – in short, your body thinks it is starving. So, when you stay on a deficit for an extended length of time, you voluntarily put your body through a bunch of adaptations which bring down the energy expenditure with each passing moment.
Side-effects of Staying in a Prolonged Caloric Deficit:
- The thyroid activity (which majorly influences your metabolism) goes down.
- The stress hormones like Adrenaline, Noradrenaline and Cortisol levels stay elevated.
- Leptin (the satiety hormone) goes down while Ghrelin (the hunger-inducing hormone) goes up.
- Nervous system output, thermogenesis, and free testosterone levels of the body go down
These are just the beginning of a host of other issues that start to unfold. Due to all of these adaptations, a bunch of negative effects like muscle loss, sleep loss, stress, depression, anxiety, slowed recovery, and decreased spontaneous activity (NEAT) start popping up one after the other. It’s not that our body hates us; it’s just that these adaptations are necessary to ensure our survival. In other words, we will stop expending our energy on all those processes that aren’t necessary for our survival. This is how our maintenance calories come to a much smaller number. Eventually, no matter how low the calories are, your body will have adapted to that number, and you will stop losing fat any further.
Fixing Your Metabolism
Are you are someone who is experiencing some of the symptoms (or even all of them) mentioned above? Don’t worry, there’s a solution at hand, although it can be a long and tedious process. While there are a bunch of strategies that we can choose, I shall jot down the simplest one here.
Before getting started, you need to bear in mind that you won’t see any fat loss for a considerable length of time. In fact, you may even regain a little bit of fat in the process. You need to accept this if you want to lose the leftover fat in the future.
You need to understand that you did not reach this fatigued state within a week of dieting. So, you certainly won’t get out of this state in just a week either.
To get started, you need to find your new Maintenance Calories. Then, add around 300-400 kcal on top of the current diet. Stay there for a good 7-14 days.
Initially, your weight might go up. This is not fat that you have gained. When you increase calories, the body will initially try to hold on to some water. But this weight gain will stop at a certain point. Stay here for a week even after the weight stalls.
Once you hit a plateau at this higher number, increase your calories again but this time, make a smaller jump than before. As long as your weekly average of weight gain is around 200-300 gms, keep repeating this cycle. Needless to say, it is extremely important to do some strength training during this period. By doing so, you make sure that whatever little weight you gain, most of it is pure muscle mass.
By progressively increasing calories, all the negative adaptations that took place in your body will start to reverse.
Just as your body is wise enough to adapt to a lowered caloric intake, it is also wise enough to sense that the food supply is in abundance and now, it can go back to normal. Having said that, it does not mean that the body will adapt to higher calories just as fast as it adapted to low calories. So, when you increase the calories, do it carefully.
Once you have reached a stage where you are eating sufficiently higher calories, you can consider restarting your fat loss cycle. This time around, make sure you cut your calories by only a small margin. Also, don’t forget to take diet breaks frequently; don’t make the same mistake and stay on a deficit for too long.
You must understand that getting fit is a lifelong process. There’s a time and place for both: cutting and bulking. Stay in a mass-building phase for a majority of the time, as gaining muscles is a slow process; unlike fat loss, you cannot dictate how fast your muscles can grow. Also, it becomes that much more important to remain strict with your diet during a massing phase. Any food you eat beyond what is required for building muscles, is definitely going to be stored as fat. By preventing unnecessary fat gain, you make sure you can keep building mass for as long as possible.
And again, DO NOT STAY IN A DEFICIT FOR TOO LONG!
Author credits – Nachiketh Shetty