If you've ever had success with a weight loss program, I'm sure it was from some combination of movement, calorie deficit, and improved healthy habits (sleep, stress management, etc).
Most likely, it was that second one (calorie deficit) that pushed the hardest to help you achieve fat loss, as proper nutrition is the most effective way to achieve body composition results.
The trouble is - because cutting calories IS so effective - it becomes addictive.
Being in a calorie deficit, what we in the industry call a "cut," was never intended to be a permanent state of affairs. Cutting (or remaining in a calorie deficit for a long period of time) is intended for beginners, those who are clinically overweight, or those who haven't trained regularly enough to develop the level of muscle mass to effectively serve as a glucose reservoir.
(If you are not even overweight and keeping yourself calorie deficit, stay tuned - I'm gonna circle back to you in a moment.)
But if you ARE overweight, on a weight loss journey, and feeling like you need to be in a calorie deficit every second of every day to experience any level of results - may I present the following: you might be doing more harm than good.
Being in what I call a "perma-cut" - the state where you are consistently eating beneath the number of calories your body needs to meet its current activity demands - comes with a whole host of problems (not the least of which is discipline fatigue, which I've addressed before, but isn't my focus here).
First, your metabolism "downshifts" - it starts to shut down non-essential processes in order to adapt to the consistently lower fuel intake, often leaving you feeling tired, lethargic, or brain-foggy. No bueno.
This downregulation also limits your body's ability to build and hold onto lean muscle, since (particularly in women's bodies, where natural testosterone is lower) the energy-costly process of building muscle isn't "worth it" to an underfed metabolism (note - for women of childbearing age - your body will absolutely prioritise holding onto fat for bearing dem babies, whether you want 'em or not).
Second, your relationship with food gets warped the longer you stay in a deficit-mindset. Avoiding calorie-dense foods by reflex, rather than by design, becomes a sort of fervour. You forego social occasions and outings because you know they won't keep you "on plan," and you're probably exhausted from saying "no" to nearly everything outside protein & veg.
Finally, your performance is probably suffering, whether you realise it or not. It's hard to lift heavy or run far without carbs. It's hard to get strong without the building blocks of muscle (food). And it's definitely hard to sustain any sort of consistent workout routine if you're always hungry, distracted, frustrated, or tired - the surest signs of a perma-cut lifestyle.
So what CAN you do to get out of this vicious perma-cut cycle?
The most obvious answer is, well - to eat more. Calculate your true maintenance (we can do this at LIFT Clinic using an expiratory RMR test), including a protein intake that is between 30-50% of total daily calories, and stay there for a while (a "while," by the way, is at least a month; ideally 6-12 weeks).
Prioritise progressive overload resistance training during this maintenance-eating phase to convert your additional food energy into new muscle (what we in the industry call a "bulk," a term that rarely goes over well with my predominantly-female audience but simply means "building lean mass") and you'll be able to eat more in the long run, even while losing fat mass, due to your increased metabolic power and mitochondrial health.
Staying on maintenance intake for 6-12 weeks will have different effects on different people. For some, there may be some initial weight gain, as more muscle is built and more calories are eaten. For others, there may be an improved relationship with food, as they lean in to more intuitive eating patterns without the good/bad food dichotomy of the deficit mindset. And those who are truly lifting heavier and eating more would very likely experience great performance and strength gains, which is a very rewarding place to be after a long time in the "no-grow" low-energy diet zone.
But the reality is that even minimal weight gain, or the return to eating foods previously thought to be "bad" or "off limits," can scare many people back into a cut well before the 6-12 week mark, eliminating the potential benefits of maintenance eating - so this is where I call back my healthy-we
ight folks looking to lose some weight or improve composition:
Do it strategically. Have a plan. Eat your protein, lift your weights. And set an end date.
There's a big debate in the industry about whether to cut first or bulk first, and for women who have never tried to gain muscle in any meaningful way, the default is to cut first. I get it. But in order for a cut to have the impact you want it to have on your body composition, you need to set a timeline (6 weeks, 8 weeks, 12 weeks max), design an exit strategy (colloquially called "reverse dieting") and execute mindfully (dedicate yourself to tracking and training during the cut, not just "trying to eat better" or exercising "whenever, however").
This way, you prep yourself for the temporary nature of a calorie deficit (as intended!), familiarise yourself with what maintenance will look like, and start implementing the habits (progressive overload,
proper hydration, sleep and recovery) that you will continue no matter what "phase" you're in. Moreover, you can continue to work on your relationship with food not as friend or foe, but as a tool in your toolbox to leverage and achieve your wellness goals.
And as always - if you need help figuring any of this out, it might be time to consider a coach to help you
break free of the perma-cut and finally find your path to sustainable results.