Setting yourself up for success is important to obtaining your goals, but we tend to reach way too far and set unrealistic goals and timelines. This usually results in failed attempts at a certain endeavor and being a nutrition coach, I see this all the time with people wanting to diet down. They set a weight loss goal that doesn’t make sense with a timeline that makes it even more impossible to obtain. In this article I am going to go over how to know when it’s the right time to diet and how to set things up to be successful. When I get a potential client reaching out to start dieting I ask 3 things that are crucial for moving forward. I ask if they are in a deficit and how long they have been dieting, when is the last time they’ve had blood work, and how many calories are they currently consuming. These three things will tell me if they are ready to diet.
If a client has been dieting for a long time or they are life-long dieters this is not a good sign that they are in a good place to diet. This is because most of the time if a client falls into this category they have really put their body through a train wreck. This can lower their resting metabolic rate because people who diet for too long their metabolism starts to slow down, ghrelin is high which is your hunger hormone and if it is high you will constantly be hungry and making adherence hard, leptin is low which is a satiety hormone that signals you are no longer hungry, you have probably lost a bit of muscle from over dieting, and your other hormones drop. You also become less active and you have less to pull from in order for you to keep making progress towards your weight loss goals. For long term dieters it is extremely important to work their way back up into maintenance or a slight surplus and just keep on that and focus on performance for a while. This will allow their body to get back into a good position and a healthy position to start dieting. For men that can look like weight progressions, increase motivation and recovery. For women it will be getting their menstrual cycles back on track and the same indicators as the men. This may be hard to convince the client to do as they came to you to lose weight and instead you want them to add food and gain weight. Communication is key and you must do what’s best for the client even if they don’t hire you because of it.
This also goes into wanting to know where your calories are at, if they are lower than your energy availability (EA) than your body is already starting to “shut down” as previously stated. EA represents the amount of energy to fuel the body at any given time, EA= (Calorie Intake – Exercise Energy Expenditure)/LBM. If EA falls below a certain level, the body will adapt, shutting down non-essential processes to ensure that there is sufficient energy to maintain the essential ones. (McDonald, 2017) You also have to understand how weight loss works, creating an energy balance is the key to dropping weight. It takes a 3500-calorie deficit to drop 1lbs of fat, divide that by 7 days of the week and you have to create a 500-calorie deficit a day if the goal is to drop 1lbs of fat a week. This deficit will come at an increase in exercise/activity and or a drop in current calories. If your calories are already low you have to allocate all of those calories coming from exercise. This is only the first adjustment required to make so as you can see this gets ugly really fast for long term sustainable weight loss. You will need to do the same thing as I described above for the life-long dieter, increase calories and decrease activity will set them up for a very successful diet. It will also allow them to just work on performance improvements and learning how to train hard which will only help them improve their ability to retain muscle and maybe even gain a little in a deficit depending on where they are starting.
Blood work is the next most important thing this can show you where their thyroid, testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone are at which is extremely important when it comes to starting a diet whether natural or enhanced. If enhanced other blood work will be necessary as well. You want your body to be in the most ideal situation possible in order to start a diet. As you diet down you start to decrease your thyroid and testosterone so if it is already low you will be fighting an uphill battle. If estrogen and progesterone are off at the beginning either too low or too high it can make dropping fat nearly impossible. I always advise getting those markers in place before we start a diet. A lot of the unhealthy blood markers that can occur can get dramatically improved just by dieting so we don’t need to try and fix those before starting.
It is a tough spot to be in as a coach to tell a prospective client they are not ready to diet but you can see exactly why it is crucial to do. Not only will you be creating a more optimal position to have a successful diet and an easier diet but you will also be putting their health in a high priority which will show them you actually care and that you want the best for them. If that is always the goal as a coach you will do just fine so don’t worry about losing money because you are honest. As an athlete reading this please take the time to create the most optimal environment for you to be successful in your diet and to not screw yourself up for a long time. If you don’t take the time to do it right you will not only regret it later but you may spend 1-2 extra years to fix the issues instead of the 4-6 months it would have taken you in the beginning.
When it comes to dieting there are a few key principles to think about that can drastically help you execute the perfect weight loss phase. Those are protein intake, calorie reduction/rate of weight loss, and training/cardio. It’s not about losing as much weight as soon as possible and for a strength athlete it’s not about dieting for an extended period of time, you want to get in and out because the ultimate goal is strength.
The building blocks of muscle whether it is trying to put it on or preserve is always going to be protein. There are a lot of studies that show how much protein we need to consume and it has gone back and forth but for athletes the recommended is between 1.3-1.8g per kg a day and if you are in a higher volume block of training going as high as 1.8-2.0g per kg. This was stated in a paper by Stuart Phillips titled Dietary protein for athletes: From requirements to optimum adaptation https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02640414.2011.619204?src=recsys
These recommendations vary when in a surplus and when in a deficit, as you start to drop weight you want your protein to be higher for a few reasons. 1) It is the most thermogenic food your body breaks down meaning it burns the most amount of calories out of all the macros for your body to digest it. 2) It is the most satiating macro so you are able to stay fuller for longer periods of time which is really helpful when dieting. 3) There have been studies showing that protein overfeeding can improve body composition over a diet that has less calories in it. This study was done by Jose Antonio and colleagues in 2014 The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals
In this study they feed one group of men 4.4g/kg/d as compared to a control group who kept things the same as before, consuming 1.8g/kg/d. The key finding in the present study is that consuming a hypercaloric high protein diet has no effect on body composition in resistance-trained individuals. Now when in a surplus you could lower protein intake down closer to 1.4-1.6g/kg/d and that is mainly because carbs are protein sparing and typically when in a surplus your carbs are higher. My basic recommendation here is to have your diet set at 1.8g/kg of bw.
When starting a weight loss diet the acceptable rate of weight loss is 1% of bodyweight per week. Weight loss is not the goal we want to target fat loss. This rate as long as protein is kept in range will allow for as much muscle retention as possible while dieting. It is very hard to gain muscle so we don’t want to be too aggressive with our weight loss and sacrifice the hard earned muscle we have.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21558571 By Garthe et al Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. In this study they compared a .7% weight loss pace vs a 1.4% and found that the athletes who did the .7% gained more lean mass and increased 1RM strength during this 4 and 12 week plan. Plan lasted once athletes hit around 4% loss in weight. A good initial drop in calories to start a diet phase would be roughly 15% of baseline and research shows that roughly a 40% reduction total is what some competitors do to get stage lean, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/sms.13568 so as athletes I think starting with a 15% reduction and going as high as 25-30% would be ideal to keep strength as high as possible.
The last thing to be talked about is understanding the importance of strength training during a diet. The main goal when dieting from a strength and muscle perspective is to try your hardest to maintain strength and preserve as much muscle as possible. This done by training with the focus being on the primary drivers of hypertrophy and the top of that food chain is muscle tension, the amount of tension you can put on the muscle will drive the stimulus to adapt and preserve. Focusing on progressive overload and training to get strong is the idea here and adding in some high rep metabolite training at the end of the workout. You should not go into a huge cardio only phase or a phase of super high reps to “tone and cut the muscles”. When it comes to cardio you want to focus on slowly progressing that and not having that be so high that it interferes with your ability to train. The interference effect is real and can play a huge role in muscle wasting while dieting so keep cardio away from training and have it be a systematic approach, so don’t start at 60mins a day on the stair stepper. The other focus needs to be on staying active and keeping your NEAT levels climbing, if done correctly and training hard you may not need to add in any cardio. NEAT is non-exercise activity thermogenesis which just means how active you are outside of exercise. You can track this by monitoring your steps and making sure you hit a step count each that progress’s as the diet does.
If you focus on nailing these three things I promise you success in your dieting efforts. Always keep in mind you are a strength athlete first and foremost so don’t let dieting bring you down a path that inhibits your ability to perform if it does pull the plug and follow my weight gaining strategies to systematically put weight on.
McDonald, L. (2017). The women’s book: A guide to nutrition, fat loss, and muscle gain.