Having a healthy body composition is one of the main indicators for good overall health. This is achieved through a good nutrition approach and regular exercise. The goal is to have a healthy balance of fat and muscle on the body.
That being said, most nutrition and personal training clients have the goal of fat loss– whether it’s for health reasons or aesthetics. However, jumping into a fat-loss phase right away is not for everyone, and each person should be treated uniquely, based on their experience and current situation.
Factors to Consider
Losing weight is easy, all you have to do is expend more calories than you consume. This can be done several ways:
Eat less calories (decreased caloric intake)
Increase activity (increased caloric expenditure)
If a negative energy balance is achieved, then you should see weight loss. Simple…but not really. There are other things we want to consider:
Muscle Preservation. We want to preserve our muscle mass. When we lose weight, it is taken out of two buckets: body fat and/or muscle mass. If you take an extreme approach, you may end up losing weight primarily through muscle and your fat storage will be relatively the same. To preserve muscle mass, sufficient protein should be consumed; the general daily recommendation is to consume 0.8 to 1 gram per pound of body weight (i.e, a 180-lb person should eat about ~145-180 grams of protein per day). If we cut calories out too quickly (crash diets) our body will eat away at our muscle and fat…which can lead to health complications, mentally and physically.
Healthy Body-Fat Percentage. Most people want abs, which is great, but it should not come at the expense of having an extremely low body fat percentage. The goal for sustainability and overall health is to have a healthy body fat percentage, and if we go too low, then we are jeopardizing our health. We need fat in our body for digestion, energy metabolism, production and regulation of hormones, reproduction, and regulating the water balance in the body.
Strength and Performance Preservation. If weight loss becomes extreme (too much weight loss or an extreme weight loss approach), then performance will suffer. Calories are fuel for our body, and if we go into a very deep negative caloric balance, then we will not be able to perform. Extreme approaches lead to strength loss, poor performance, and extreme fatigue in everyday tasks. An example I like to use is when someone has the flu. When they are sick, they are unable to eat and they usually throw up the food they have in their system, which leads to extreme fatigue. There are not enough calories in their body to fuel even the simplest of movements, like walking around the house or getting out of bed.
Sustainable, Long-Term Approach. With everything mentioned above, it’s imperative that you take a sustainable approach that fits your needs and lifestyle, and that you can adhere to long-term. If you want to lose 10 lbs in two weeks, that is probably not the best approach. It will require extreme measures, will lead to bad habits, and you will likely gain the weight back quickly because you’ll revert back to old habits. Instead, think of the long-term goal with short-term milestones and create a reasonable timeline to achieve this. The intent is for you to reach that healthy body fat composition in a sustainable way, so that you can stick with it and build habits that you will carry with you for the long run.
A few things you should consider to achieve sustainability: your daily schedule and routine, social events, your current maintenance calories, foods that you like, nutritional habits, life stressors, and overall challenges.
When NOT to Enter a Fat Loss Phase
Before embarking on a fat-loss journey, think about what works best for you and where you currently are at with your nutrition. There are a few situations where an immediate fat loss phase may not be the best course of action.
For example, if you are in an extremely restrictive situation, such as eating very little food, you probably should not be entering a fat-loss phase. Instead, you need to restore metabolic health. When you restrict your caloric intake drastically and for a long period of time, your metabolism adapts and essentially accepts the low-calorie as the maintenance, which is why people in this situation can’t lose weight even when they eat so little. Their metabolism needs to be restored, which is done through increasing caloric intake progressively.
Another situation where a fat loss phase should be delayed is for someone who has an unhealthy relationship with food, such as binge-eating, yo-yo dieting, and/or emotional eating. In this case, the focus should be building a healthier relationship with food and developing foundational nutritional habits.
Overall, the concept behind losing fat is simple, however intricacies become involved in the process due to the individualization that it requires. Everyone is different, which leads to different approaches and unique requirements. Before you jump into a fat loss journey, think about where you are now, what your long term goal is, and make a smart plan that fits YOUR LIFE— not something that worked well for someone else.