June 8th, 2016

“Unexplainable” Fat Loss Plateaus… Explained!

Fat loss plateaus and lack of progress are always frustrating. What makes it utterly maddening is when you feel like you’re putting in a superhuman effort in the gym and reducing calories, but still making no progress. At this point, I usually see two unfortunate things happen: The first is a knee-jerk “blame the fat on something else” reaction. Usually, bad genetics or a thyroid problem… but whatever it is, it’s definitely “not your fault.” The second is the tendency to deny the calories in versus calories out equation. “I’m hardly eating anything and I’m not losing weight, so it CAN’T be calories, it MUST be something else!” Carbs are the usual scapegoat.

dont_shoot_your_scaleWhy do so many people hit fat loss plateaus that they can’t explain, leading them to question themselves, their plan and even the basic principles of energy balance?

The frustrations and complaints about “inexplicable” progress plateaus come in many forms, but one question recently posted in the Burn The Fat Member’s discussion forums was an especially good summary of the way many people feel exasperated about this:

Dear Tom: “I always hear about the need for a calorie deficit for losing fat. But in my experience, that is not always true. I understand about calories in versus calories out, but when you are in real life with real people, sometimes things become more complicated than they are on paper don’t they? I just wanted to open a debate that at some point, the body will adapt to a deficit and the weight does not go down even if we are in a calorie deficit. And if this adaptation takes place, is it even possible for any person to get really lean like you, or at least in the 6-7% body fat range? What if his genetics are so bad that no matter what he does, the fat stays there, and at the end, there is no other way than to try things like liposuction? There are cases where women hardly eat anything and they still are at the same weight, even if they train. Why? This seems so unfair.”

It’s true that the theoretical (on paper) calorie math and your real world fat loss results don’t always seem to jive, but the fact is, you will ALWAYS lose weight in a calorie deficit. There are at least a half a dozen explanations for seemingly unexplainable weight loss plateaus. I will explain them all below…

Body composition improves but body weight doesn’t change much

First, it’s important to remember the difference between weight loss and fat loss, which can only be revealed with repeated body composition tests. With this distinction made, it would be slightly more accurate to say that a calorie deficit always causes energy to be withdrawn from body stores, but there may not always be an immediate and significant decrease in body weight.

You could lose body fat, which would show up visually and through body fat testing, but your scale weight may not change. This could be due to water retention or an increase in lean body mass (LBM). Sometimes you don’t notice or appreciate slow but steady improvements in body composition, especially when it’s masked by fluctuating water weight or increased in LBM.

If you’re focusing on the scale as your only criterion of success, that alone can be a great cause of confusion and frustration over short-term results.

Solution: weigh yourself and measure body composition over an extended period of time and track your results on a progress chart so you can see the trend over time.

Inter-individual variation in basal metabolic rate

Second, the calorie formulas we use to establish your basal metabolic rate (BMR) are estimations. I’ve found the Katch-Mcardle and Harris benedict equations for BMR/TDEE remarkably accurate and match up to real world expenditure the majority of the time.

However, BMR can vary from one individual to the next. According to a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition (Bader), the majority of the variance in BMR can be explained by age, gender and lean body mass (more LBM = higher metabolism), leaving only 19% of the variance unexplained. This unexplained variance is thought to be due to composition of the LBM (muscle vs organ mass), genetic factors and thyroid hormone.

One study showed up to a 25% variance in BMR that couldn’t be explained by body weight, body comp, age or gender. However, this finding was a rare exception. The body of research on the subject says that inter-individual BMR variability in healthy humans is small – usually in the range of a 3% to 8% difference from person to person (Donahoo).

If BMR could vary significantly from what we calculate using the BMR formulas, that’s another explanation for why the results don’t seem to jive sometimes. It also provides one more explanation for the naturally lean ectomorph and the naturally plumper endomorph. This doesn’t mean that calories don’t count. It means some people burn fewer calories at rest than others the same body size.

Calorie calculation formulas may be inaccurate for some populations and errors can made when using any calorie formula

Third, those same calorie formulas we use to establish BMR, we also use to establish total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Again, these calorie formulas are estimations. In fact, the activity multiplier you use to produce TDEE from BMR is very much a guess.

In some individuals, particularly overweight men and women, the calorie formulas may overestimate your TDEE by as much as 10-15%. Some experts have suggested that different calorie formulas such as the Owen or Mifflin equations be used to accommodate for this potential margin of error or that population-specific equations be used.

It would be nice to get an accurate calorie estimation right from the start. Fortunately, you can easily reconcile between theoretical (on paper) calorie needs and actual calorie needs with weekly progress tracking and a good feedback loop system as found in Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle (BFFM). This way, the skinny ectomorph can still figure out the appropriate surplus and gain muscle and the endomorph can still achieve a deficit and cut fat.

Under-estimation of food intake and over-estimation of activity

Fourth, almost everyone underestimates their food intake. The famous New England Journal of Medicine study (Lichtman) is the classic example, where women who swore they were “diet resistant” and had thyroid problems were actually underestimating their food intake by 47% and overestimating their calories burned by 51%.

Some of them were eating one thousand calories more than they thought they were! Ironically, it was these women who were complaining the most about being genetically or hormonally cursed! While some people have thyroid problems or other legitimate medical issues which can contribute to difficulty losing weight, in most cases, there are other, more mundane, yet overlooked explanations for lack of fat loss.

To avoid this calorie miscalculation conundrum, the best plan is to educate yourself about the calorie contents of foods you eat regularly, work off a menu on paper and weigh your food. Do this until you have a good grasp on calories and then do it again any time you hit a plateau.

For more information on counting / journaling vs guesstimating/intuitive eating see: From calorie clueless to calorie competent.

Reduced calorie needs after weight loss

Fifth, it’s true that your body adapts to caloric restriction – that’s the nature of the human organism – striving to maintain homeostasis and prolong survival during starvation. However, some of the decrease in energy expenditure during dieting has nothing to do with an adaptive decrease in metabolism or “starvation mode”, it has to do with having a smaller body after weight loss.

This will only click for you if you see an example with real-world numbers:

Kevin is a 40-year old active male, 5 feet 8 inches tall and 235 pounds. If you run his numbers through our calorie calculators, his maintenance level is about 3200 calories per day. With a 20% deficit, which is fairly conservative and should not cause undue metabolic slowdown, he would want to eat 2600 calories per day to lose weight.

Suppose he successfully loses 50 pounds and becomes a lean 185 pounder. But then Kevin wants to knock off the last 10 pounds so he can be “ripped!” Now that he weighs 185 pounds, if you run his calorie calculations again you see that…

The math equation has changed!

Kevin is a smaller guy now, so he needs fewer calories. At 185, his maintenance level is now only 2800 a day. He’s burning FOUR HUNDRED CALORIES a day less than when he started.

If he keeps eating the way he did when he was a bigger guy, he will hardly lose any weight because he doesn’t need that many calories to sustain his weight anymore!

Suppose Kevin also forgets to report a measly 200 calories per day – his deficit is gone! It’s not that he isn’t losing fat in a deficit – he LOST his deficit. So his weight loss stops, even though he hasn’t changed anything from his original diet plan.

Therefore, his “human nature” tendency is to blame it on the diet not working (moving on to the next “diet of the month”). Or it must be a hormonal problem, genetics, or this whole calories in – calories out thing is wrong.

The energy balance equation is always with us, but ENERGY BALANCE IS DYNAMIC! This means your calorie needs can change based on your body size, activity level and countless other factors. If you fail to adjust your caloric intake and expenditure in real time to accommodate for your continuously changing energy needs, you’re likely to struggle with plateaus and be never-endingly perplexed about their cause.

Metabolic adaptation to dieting (aka “adaptive thermogenesis”)

Sixth, when you’re in a calorie deficit, your metabolic rate can slow down beyond what can be accounted for by the reduction in body weight. This is called adaptive thermogenesis. Incidentally, this is only one part of the starvation mode. Other components of the starvation response include a spontaneous decrease in non-exercise activity (NEAT) and an increase in appetite (there are behavioral changes, not just metabolic ones).

Extensive research has documented the drop in metabolism that occurs from calorie restriction, especially if it’s prolonged and severe. Most studies say adaptive thermogenesis can account for an additional 5-10% decrease in metabolism. However, one recent study (Tremblay) showed a shocking 30.9% drop in metabolism.

This variation may be due to the severity of the diet, but might be explained at least partly by hereditary factors. It’s totally possible that some individuals, (and to keep this in tune with BFFM, we shall broadly call them endomorphs – those with not so great genetics for fat burning), might see enough drop in metabolism with dieting to really slow down fat loss a lot.

This doesn’t mean the laws of thermodynamics are not operating — it means some people are burning fewer calories than they think they are. This could lead to a lot of frustration for dieters who don’t realize what’s really going on.

A diet break of 7 days (or longer) at maintenance or a carb cycling (re-feeding) strategy would help a lot to fix up the adaptive drop and get metabolism back up to speed.

Good nutrition practices in general such as those explained in the Burn the Fat, Feed The Muscle or the Body Fat Solution programs can help minimize this metabolic adaptation in the first place (conservative calorie deficits, proper protein intake to maintain LBM, training, etc).

The right question and the wrong question

If you were losing weight but your weight loss has stopped completely, you’ve lost your caloric deficit for one or more of the reasons listed above. The question to ask then, is NOT “what if a calorie deficit doesn’t work,” but “why did I lose my caloric deficit?”

I don’t mean to downplay how complex your body’s weight-regulating mechanism, metabolism and neuro-endocrine systems really are. Obesity is the simplest problem known to humankind when you consider that obesity is caused by an energy imbalance. But at the same time it’s the most complex problem known to humankind when you consider how many factors can contribute to that energy imbalance. Dozens? Hundreds? Maybe thousands?

There are many medical and health factors that can influence fat loss. These conditions are beyond the scope of this article and could be explored with a medical doctor or clinical professional. However, even in these clinical cases, you would invariably find that the energy balance equation is affected in some way, so in the end, it’s still calories in versus calories out.

For example, certain conditions may decrease BMR, exercise thermogenesis or non-exercise thermogenesis (energy output) or they may increase appetite (energy input). In the end, regardless of whether you suspect it’s hormones, prescription drugs, digestive disorders or a metabolic problem, it all comes full circle to thermodynamics anyway.

However, there’s one last factor to consider – nutrient partitioning – which refers to where energy is pulled from and where it is stored when you are in a deficit or surplus, respectively.

Beyond Calories in Versus Calories Out: Energy Partitioning

Suppose you DO have a calorie deficit. You are going to withdraw energy from body stores. But are you guaranteed to draw all that energy from body fat? No. If your hormones are out of whack, and you are stressed, overtrained and sleep deprived, or if you don’t have mesomorph genetics, you could lose much of that weight in muscle.

And, if you’re in a surplus, are you guaranteed to gain all the weight in muscle? Of course not. As we all know too well, excess food will go into fat storage. If you’re doing resistance training, then a small surplus will hopefully be directed into building some muscle. This partitioning process is influenced by many factors, including training, nutrition, lifestyle, hormones and genetics.

Mesomorphs are genetically gifted in the partitioning department – as long as the nutrition and training are in place, mesomorphs seem to partition all of the surplus straight into muscle tissue. Even with optimal training and nutrition, the endomorphs seem to partition half of the surplus right into fat!

By now, everything should be coming into focus. Fat loss is a complex neuro-endocrine process. Yes genetics and hormones are involved. Yes, body composition changes don’t end with calories in versus calories out – there’s also nutrient partitioning to consider, and that can affect not just whether you lose or gain weight, but what kind of weight you lose or gain.

People are making a huge mistake when it seems like the calorie numbers don’t jive, and they assume it’s ALL genetics, ALL hormones, ALL health problems or worst of all, that the calorie balance model of weight loss is wrong. Even though genetics, hormones, etc. are contributing factors, at the end of the day, the laws of thermodynamics and the calorie balance equation are always there.

Can anyone get lean or are some people stuck with genetically dictated body fat?

What are the implications of all this to a person’s ultimate progress? Is it possible for anyone to get “ripped” or for a guy to hit 6% body fat if the factors above are working against him?

I believe that anyone can reach their ideal body composition goals. I even believe that most men could get as lean as single digit body fat, and women could reach the low to mid teens in body fat, if that is their goal. But the journey will undoubtedly be harder for some than others. That may not seem fair, but who ever said life was supposed to be fair? Besides, for every inherent weakness, we have an inherent strength. For every weakness we overcome, we develop a new strength.

Excess body fat is genetically influenced but the good news is, genetics are only one factor. Obesity genes do not express themselves and hormones do not run amok unless you succumb to the”obesogenic environment” and eat excessive amounts of food, eat unhealthy junk, live a sedentary lifestyle and allow temptations and negativity to drag you down.

You didn’t get to choose your genetics, but you do get to choose your attitude and your behavior.

– Tom venuto, author of:
Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle

Want to Learn More?

plateau-coverIf you’d like to learn more plateau breaking strategies, and get more details on which strategies are ideal to use at certain times, then check out my newest program, 21 Ways to Break a Fat Loss Plateau.

If you’re a current member, simply log in to the Burn the Fat Inner Circle members area with your current username and password, and click on “audio coaching” to download the program.

Until next time,

Train hard and expect success,

Tom Venuto
Fat loss coach

PS. If you’re not a member of Burn the Fat inner circle yet, you can get the 21 Ways to Break a Fat Loss Plateau program by joining our community (audio coaching “essentials series” is included with membership), or you can purchase the program separately in the Inner Circle Store here: www.burnthefatinnercircle.com/products/item44.cfm

tomvenuto-blogAbout Tom Venuto

Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, fitness writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle: Fat Burning Secrets of Bodybuilders and Fitness Models and the national bestseller, The Body Fat Solution, which was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Oprah Magazine, Muscle and Fitness Magazine, Ironman Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine, as well as on dozens of radio shows including Sirius Satellite Radio, ESPN-1250 and WCBS. Tom is also the founder and CEO of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community for inspiration and transformation


Bader N et al. Intra and inter-individual variability in resting energy expenditure in healthy male subjects – biological and methodological variability of resting energy expenditure. Br J Nutr. Nov;94(5):843-9. 2005

Donahoo, W et al, Variability in energy expenditure and its components, Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care, 7:599-605, 2004.Dept of medicine, University of Vermont.

Doucet E, et al. Evidence for the existence of adaptive thermogenesis during weight loss. British Journal of Nutrition, 85, 715-723. 2001. Laval University, Ste-Foy, Quebec

Tremblay A, Chaput, JP, Adaptive reduction in thermogenesis and resistance to lose fat in obese men, Br J Nutr, 102(4): 448-492, 2009. Laval University, Quebec City, Canada.

Lichtman S, et al, Discrepancy between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects. New England Journal of Medicine, Vol 327, pg 1893-1898. Department of Medicine, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, New York, NY.

Müller MJ, Bosy-Westphal A, Kutzner D, Heller M. Metabolically active components of fat-free mass and resting energy expenditure in humans: recent lessons from imaging technologies.Obes Rev. 2002 May;3(2):113-22.

 Ravussin E, Bogardus, C. relationship of genetics, age and physical fitness to daily energy expenditure and fuel utilization, Am J Clin Nutr, 49: 968-975. 1989. National Institutes of Health and Arizona State University.

  • Facebook Share


Big Fat Lies! A Shocking Expose of the 12 Biggest Scams, Cover-ups, Lies, Myths and Deceptions in the Diet, Supplement and Weight Loss Industries!

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply

If you’d like a picture to show up by your name, get a Gravatar.

74 Responses to ““Unexplainable” Fat Loss Plateaus… Explained!”

  • scott

    Great article Tom! Very informative and prolix, as always. I also like the picture of the guy pointing the gun at the scale. Hilarious!I have never struggled to lose body fat, knock on wood. As long as I weigh and measure all my food, run my daily six miles on the treadmill and do strength training three times a week, the pounds and inches literally melt right off of me. There are times I will lose a full inch in my waistline by the end of a week following the above routine. However, even that kind of progress seems a little “slow” to me at times.I struggle with impatience more than anything. Because I tend to lose body fat fast, especially in the infancy of my program, I just expect it to continue in a linear manner. As we all know that is not the case.However, this pales in comparison to people that have hormonal, genetic or metabolic problems. If “impatience” is the worst thing I ever contend with in regards to fat loss, I should consider myself blessed.

  • Barb

    Hi Tom,Nice article. Interestingly enough I am currently reading a “hot off the press” book by Gary Taubes, titled “Why We Get Fat”.He presents some different ideas on energy balance. I’m curious if you have it yet?

  • barb: no, havent read it, but am familiar with the ideas the author promotes (carb/insulin ‘alternate’ hypothesis). And I disagree as my post above explains clearly. We get fat because of an energy imbalance: calories in exceeds calories out. Its the single most certain, and most scientifically verified cause and effect fact in obesity research today. the dynamic nature of the energy balance equation is complex, but its NOT carbs/insulin that make you fat… unless the carbs contribute to the energy surplus (which they often do).

  • mark

    Great post Tom!

  • Mik

    That’s a very interesting read, after killing myself for so long now it all seems logical lol

  • Jim

    love the “shooting the scale” picture, LOL

  • Tess

    Thanks for the post Tom. Well written and well explained. But I was wondering, what are the rules and how do the dynamics of your metabolism change when your body gets less than 1000 calories a day with the addition of exercise? How does one’s body react to that? Obviously the body’s metabolism slows down as with any caloric deficit, but does it ever come to full halt or severely inhibit weight loss? Thanks for your help if you choose to respond. I really appreciate all that you do.

  • Mike Smith

    Tom,In your example for Kevin we assume that his LBM has dropped as well right? In BFFM, the Katch-McArdle formula is based on LBM, so if a person drops 20 lbs of bodyfat and LBM stays the same (which is my situation right now), but want to drop add’l 20 lbs of fat, then my calorie requirements should not change, correct?Mike

  • Maggie

    Thank you for the great article, Tom!In order to make sure that you are still in a calorie deficit, it sounds like it’s important to be able to compute your TDEE accurately, especially since being in a deficit doesn’t necessarily lead to obvious changes in weight, and it can take a while to notice body composition changes.What I’m wondering is if there is any way to get a more accurate estimate for the activity multiplier you use to produce TDEE from BMR. You say above that this factor “is very much a guess”, but is there any way to estimate it more precisely by measuring other variables like your number of steps you take per day and the number of hours you sleep? If not, is there a way I could figure it out based on a trial-and error method?Also, it seems like my TDEE should change on a day-to-day basis, based on whether I’m doing 0, 1, or 2 workouts that day. Would you recommend aiming for a different calorie intake on days with low and high workout volume? If so, what is the best way to calculate the number of calories that are required in each case?I would really appreciate any thoughts or suggestions you have on this topic!

  • Superb article! I’ll make sure to send it to my clients who can’t seem to lose weight and can’t figure out why.carl

  • tom

    tess wrote:I was wondering, what are the rules and how do the dynamics of your metabolism change when your body gets less than 1000 calories a day with the addition of exercise? usually i wouldnt recommend going as low as 1000 cals a day. even for small/ short / petite women, usually 1200-1400 cals a day is toward the low end. When you start going too much lower than that, ie 1000, 800 etc cals a day, it gets hard to stick with, hunger is an issue, theres increased risk of muscle loss and yes metabolism does slow down more with a severe calorie deficit.How does one’s body react to that? Obviously the body’s metabolism slows down as with any caloric deficit, but does it ever come to full halt or severely inhibit weight loss?no weight loss wouldnt stop. thats a misconception about what “starvation mode” means. it simply means that your weight loss would be slower than predicted on paper. For example, on paper you might expect to have a total daily calorie burn of 2100 cals, but in reality you might only be burning 1900 a day or thereabouts, so this metabolic adapation sometimes explains frustratingly slow fat loss.you would lose weight on 1000 cals a day, probably fairly quickly, but its simply wiser to use a conservative calorie deficit and lose the fat slow and steady.using a calorie/carb cycling strategy or “re-feeding” (higher calorie days) periodically helps keep your metabolism humming along. So does an occasionally full week’s diet break, as mentioned in the article.

  • tom

    hi maggie — activity factor is in fact just a guess. but if you use the suggested activity factors from BFFM that gives you a starting point — thats all you need is a good starting off point. do that for a week and you’ve established a baseline. one tip: if you err, err on the side of choosing your activity factor on the low side, since most people over-estimate calorie expenditure (and under-estimate intake)From that point on, you dont have to keep re-calculating calories, what you do is keep a progress chart – once a week – log in weight and body comp – and then make calorie adjustments in real time based on actual results – we call that the feedback loop method in BFFM. So if fat loss is plateaud, then for the next week/ 7 days, use either side — cut back on some calories, increase calories burned (or a little of each), then remeasure progress again the following week. its a simple, fool proof systemI know what you mean about calorie expenditure changing throughout the week – particularly having higher calorie burn on training days. for that reason, some people eat more on training days. I talk about this in my new program – holy grail body transformation system. However, you could also look at your calories in vs out on a weekly basis — as long as you get the deficit over the course of the week you dont have to worry about the day to day – some days will have a larger deficit than others, but the overall weekly result is what youre after.

  • mike wrote:In your example for Kevin we assume that his LBM has dropped as well right? In BFFM, the Katch-McArdle formula is based on LBM, so if a person drops 20 lbs of bodyfat and LBM stays the same (which is my situation right now), but want to drop add’l 20 lbs of fat, then my calorie requirements should not change, correct?actually your calorie needs correlate to your TOTAL body weight not just lean weight. Remember, just the energy cost of moving around a large body – lean or fat – is higher than moving a small body. large heavy people, contrary to popular belief – have much higher metabolisms than smaller people. when you lose a lot of weight – any kind of weight, lean or fat – your calorie expenditure drops.it that seems odd, then consider this simple analogy: if you put on a 40 pound weighted vest and then go for an uphill hike, you will burn more calories than without the extra 40 pounds right? But that 40 pounds isnt muscle, its just extra weight youre carrying around. larger body / extra weight = higher calorie burn. Small body = lower metabolism/ lower calorie burn. It actually makes it easier for overweight folks to get a large calorie deficit and harder for small folks

  • Zachariah

    Great article, Tom. I did my first re-feed last week and noticed my abs got slightly more definition. The cheat days/re-feeds seems so counter-intuitive…but they work. I suppose when the body has no idea how much you’ll feed it – it loses fat, right?

  • Tony B.

    Hi Tom. Great article. I’m sure that you’ve been exposed to your fair share of individuals that “overthink” fat loss through the combination of diet and exercise. I’m unfortunately one of those individuals.I am 31 years old, 6’1″ and 225 lbs. I have been a avid follower of yours for years but I always tend to over-complicate this entire process. I weigh my food, keep daily records of what I’ve eaten and even wear a heart rate monitor in the gym to get an idea of how many calories I am burning. My question is in regards to the activity factor. I am currently weight training intensely for 45 minutes a day, 3 days per week. Additionally, I perform 3 cardio sessions a week consisting of steady state running, HIIT and low impact cardio. So basically I am working out 5 days a week. I’ve calculated, based on this activity level and my stats that my TDEE is about 3380 calories. Once I’ve adjusted my calories for fat loss, should I be concerned about the number of calories that I am burning through activity per day, or should I just workout like I am and eat at the level of calories that the formula specifies? For example, if I lift for 45 minutes one day and burn 250-300 calories in that session and immediately follow it with 30 minutes on the elliptical machine and burn another 300 calories, is this a cause for concern that I burning too many calories and should step up to the next activity factor level?I really appreciate your help. You are the last hope for a overthinking/ qualitative person like myself. Thanks Tom

  • Jonathan Neve

    Hi Tom,Interesting article. I agree with you that a calorie deficit is the only way to lose weight. However, as you admit yourself in the article, the difficulty lies in estimating the calories used, since the body will adapt its metabolic rate and use various stagegies to avoid us losing weight (i.e., starving, from the body’s point of view).So, in response to your comment on Gary Taubes and low carb dieting, I would say this : yes, at the end of the day, all that matters is acheiving a calorie deficit, but depending on how you do that, it can be more or less difficult. Eating high carbohydrate foods, especially refined carbohydrates, has a tendancy to make your blood sugar spike, which will then inevitably cause a rise in insulin, and therefore, fat will be stored. The insulin then causes a drop in blood sugar, which makes one hungry, and tends to cause one to eat more a few hours later, even though theoretically, one might already have had enough calories for the day. If you do resist, you will force your body into starvation mode, causing it to conserve energy as much as possible, reducing metabolism…That’s the sort of thing that complicates calorie counting : yes, the principle is correct, but in real life, it can be very difficult to know how many calories your body is going to burn, and equally difficult to strictly monitor your intake, due to human factors that influence appetite and metabolism.That’s why I personally reckon the main thing is to focus on nutrition, and your body’s apetite regulation mechanisms will take care of the rest. I’m a bit wary of restricting calories because on the one hand, it’s depriving your body of nutrients it needs, and on the other hand, it tends to reduce your metabolism which isn’t helpful. But reduced metabolism just means lower energy, feeling more tired, and your body has less energy to do maintenance and repairs : not a good thing. So I do the opposite : I try to give my body an abudant supply of all the nutrients it could possibly need, and only restrict the empty stuff (refined carbohydrates, refined oils, etc). When my body’s had enough, I get full. Add in a bit of exercice, and I lose weight and put on muscle : I obviously must be creating a calorie deficit, but without meaning to, I just boost my metabolism with foods high in natural saturated fats and plenty of calories, and then increase exercise, and the result is the same.I agree that for fat loss, the calorie deficit is all that matters, but for vigor and energy and vitality, I’d rather have high calorie input and high calorie output and the other way around.

  • Dani

    Hi Tom,This post was really interesting and it cleared up a lot of things in my mind.A lot of people post about weight loss plateaus giving wrong advices or wrong reasons,opinions vary of course but you have strong proof and are backed by some serious research to solidify your statements.Now I also have a question based on the fact that I eat between 1000-1200 cal daily,have a bigger cal intake on sunday and work out 5 days a week for 2,5h – 3h everytime.Could this affect my body? I’m doing group weight training 4 times a week 1h,then different kind of cardio:thaibo,running,HIIT,bike,walking on incline.I do feel sometimes tired but also I feel stronger and I worried that somehow could affect me in the future.I want to lower my body fat.Thanks Tom and keep up with the great posts.

  • Tom

    Dani wrote: I also have a question based on the fact that I eat between 1000-1200 cal daily,have a bigger cal intake on sunday and work out 5 days a week for 2,5h – 3h everytime.Could this affect my body? I’m doing group weight training 4 times a week 1h,then different kind of ardio:thaibo,running,HIIT,bike,walking on incline.I do feel sometimes tired but also I feel stronger and I worried that somehow could affect me in the future.I want to lower my body fat.as I mentioned in previous comment, 1000 cal a day is very low for any woman, but if you are short/petite, your calorie requirement WILL be lower than for men or larger women. its not uncommon for very small framed women to require only 1200 to 1500 cals a day for fat loss and that is actually the correct intake for fat loss for some people. if your energy is fine and your strength is fine, AND you are maintaining your LMB, those are usually good signs that you havent gone too low. But if youve been on very low calories for very long time, you may want to consider that re-feeding strategy or start using the calorie/carb cycling strategy to keep your metabolims in good shape

  • jonathan, thanks for your post – i agree with your comments: Calorie estimations are not a perfect science and calorie tracking can be difficult.Difficult and impossible are not the same thing however: It can be done and the way to do it is1. use a good calorie formula for a close estimation2. “count calories” by working off a menu on paper and3. weighing/ measuring your food… and4. tracking weight, body composition, measurments, appearance, etc every week and adjusting food intake or training according to each week’s results.you do this calorie calculating and counting in the beginning as a teaching / learning tool, then in the future you will be able guesstimate more intelligently.But if you try to just wing it or use “intuitive eating” right from day one, that usually doesnt work because its lack of planning or “intuitive eating” that got people into trouble with their weight in the first place.Howver, once you’ve gone through the calorie and macronutrient calculation and meal planning process at least once in your life, adjusting your portion sizes and activity levels weekly to get the results you want can become second nature. You can always come back to the written meal plan and counting any time you hit a plateau in the future.check out this article http://www.burnthefatblog.com/archives/2010/02/calorie_competent.phpwhether you count calories and youre in a deficit or you dont count calories and are in a deficit, the end result is the same, But its really important to understand and acknowledge how the calorie equation works – and how its dynamic (changes over time) on an intellectual level, even if you choose the non-calorie counting approach.Low carb is a perfectly viable approach for many people, arguably some types of low carb are superior for weight loss on many levels, possibly including for automatic calorie control without counting. doesnt mean calories dont count …, which is the one place that some of those low carb authors still go wrong

  • tony I do NOT recommend trying to calculate calories burned on every activity every day. that IS being too analytical, and its even more difficult to calculate than calories in, unless you want to use a bodybugg, etc. but moreover, its just not necessary. if you are using the harris benedect or katch mcardle calorie eqations then activity level is ALREADY calculated in the TDEE right??? you only need those calculations to establish a starting point. each week after that adjust your calories burned through exercise and or your calorie intake from food in real time based on your actual weekly results. Ie, if fat loss is too slow or you are stuck at plateau, eat a little less or burn more from your cardio. You do not have to know how many calories you are burning… if you simply add one cardio session, extend one cardio session , or push harder on one cardio session, that is the weekly adjustment and your progress will pick up for the following week even if you have no clue how many calories you actually burned. that said, using a body bugg or other electronic device for tracking your energy expenditure can be a very very enlightening experience and can give you some amazing feedback

  • Nice article Tom.I appreciate reading well thought out, scientifically-backed, common sense. There are too many eating disorders out there masquerading as “healthy” weight loss solutions. It may take a closer attention to detail, but knowing exactly what you put into your body and what you take out is key not only to achieving ideal body composition, but also good health overall.

  • Steve

    Great reminder Tom, though I’m clearly missing something in my regimen. I can get into high single digits fat percentage but can’t lose that last little donut of fat around my belly button, and right above my hips. So I wondered about age as a factor too.I’m an ectomorph at 50, and used to be down in mid single digits fat percentage as a triathlete. As I’ve aged I injure more quickly, heal more slowly and the fight to keep the fat off is harder. All in all I like the way I look and feel but would like to see those bottom two abs clearly again without that little jiggle of flesh around the middle. Back I go to counting my caloric intake again.

  • Robynne

    Thank you for your article. i did indeed have one of those moments of ‘ah ha’ when I read your article, we just needed to be reminded, as we all know this but don’t practice it.It’s the same reasons why if one is using a heart monitor, you need to change the settings when you do lose fat and have a higher LBM, as the calorific calculations will be different, so in turn you’re most likely short changing yourself when you can work harder!Thank you,Robynne

  • tommy

    GREAT article tom. just like your mail said, it definitely made a few light bulbs go off. It makes perfect sense. But i have to say, at the same time, it seems kind of depressing too. It seems to me like this means that the plateau is inevitable and that eventually as you keep dieting and keep losing weight, your weight loss is going to slow down no matter what.

  • Michael Smith

    Tom, I see your point, Makes sense. Based your reasoning though, the Katch-McArdle method doesn’t make sense to use for TDEE once you start losing weight as it only considers LBM and activity (assuming your LBM stays roughly the same). For example, I plugged in two people: Person A weighs 220 lbs with 18% BF, and B weighs 200 lbs with 10% BF who both work out intensely 5x/week. The TDEE for both is 3316 and 3319 cal respectively. Only a 6 calorie difference! Why? Because even though A weighs 20 lbs more than B, their LBM are the same.So, based on these findings, it would appear that the Harrs-Benedict calculator is a better method to use once you start losing bodyfat aa it takes into account one’s TOTAL bodyweight. Using the Harris-Benedict model you get a difference of 200 calories using the same scenario.

  • Tommy: yes, weight loss eventually WILL slow down over time if you lose significant amounts of bodyweight and stay in caloric deficit over time. The plateau is NOT inevitable though. you will plateau if you are under the impression that you can keep making progress on the same diet/caloric intake/daily calorie expenditure that you started with. The key is to make adjustments to keep progress coming. Our whole Burn the fat, Feed the Muscle system is based on this concept – a weekly feedback loop system with weekly corrections made anytime they are needed

  • michael – there are pros and cons of every calorie estimation formula. for every advantage of one formula, if you wanted to nitpick, you could find a disadvantage. For example, Katch mcardle doesnt use age, so couldnt that overestimate caloric needs with older individuals? This is why i dont worry so much about which formula to use — the major use of the calorie formulas is to get the best estimate possible of your starting point. You shouldnt be re-calculating every week with those equations anyway – you just use them to help you establish baseline. Then you make your calorie adjustments in real time each week based on real world results. The utility of the formulas is that you dont have any real world results to go on until after youve started. they help you find the most logical starting point. You can go back to the formulas and recalculate months down the road after youve had a major change in your body weight or when your goal changes to maintenance or muscle gain.

  • Hey Tom, very thorough explanation of all the reasons why our clients can’t lose weight. I experience that with my clients as well, the frustration with doing everything “right” and still getting no results. One of the first things I tell them to do is to start doing a food journal. More often then not, people think they are in caloric deficit but really aren’t. The food log keeps this right in front of their face. Also, sometimes they are eating a few things that really should be eliminated all together but they weren’t aware of it. Just brings really great awareness.:-)

  • jack deans

    Hi,how important is age in getting down in weight?I am about 195 lbs and 5-11 in height. I am trying to lose some bodyfat so that at last I can see my “abs”.I watch what I eat and mix cardio, aerobics and some weights, I go to the gym 5 times a week. I have copd which restricts me and I am almost 69. Any hope or am I trying for the impossible?

  • jack, age is a factor too. typically metabolic rate decreases with age. But no its not impossible! In fact, with weight training, you can stop or at least minimize that muscle loss and metabolic drop that occurs to sedentary people with aging. the progressive resistance weight training is a very important part of it with age… not just the diet.

  • Michael

    Tom, not trying to nitpick here (my analytical nature sometimes get the best of me). I agree with all of your points. Just saying that one might want to be aware of the differences. I understand that we all want our goals accomplished on a more “linear” basis, but doesn’t work like that in the real world.Personally, I liked using the Katch-McArdle as the baseline b/c it required a LBM calculation just to use it. This helped me focus on BF loss versus just weight loss. I focus more attention on adapting my workouts, but do like to “check-in” on my calories once in while when I drop 5 lbs or so of BF (for me about once a month so far). Sometimes I make an adjustment, but most times I don’t as long as I’m hitting my targets. I also found the zig-zag method you highlight in BFFM to be EXTREMELY effective. Seems that I can consume more calories zig-zagging than not. Funny things is, once you start down this road, you learn to “listen” to your body and make adjustments on the fly.Thanks for the quick reply and valuable info.Mike

  • tom

    mike — i also prefer the katch mcardle formula myself. I provide several options/methods though in BFFM; i find in some cases people dont have access to bf% testing and with the other formulas they can still calculate their calories.I also agree with you 100% on the zig zag method (aka cycling method) – and it is 100% relevant to this post – a great method to help reduce the metabolic slowdown and help avoid plateaus… plus just makes it easy to stick with the diet when you get to eat more at regular intervals. great techniquecheers!tom

  • HI Tom, I think you have it by George! Dynamic changes in caloric needs are based on weight and body composition. In my years of bariatric work I have seen plateaus over and over again and it always (unless a sneaky thyroid or adrenal condition shows up in the middle of a diet which I can count on one finger in terms of number of times that has happened in 25 years of experience.The law of thermodynamics always works. I use a device called a body gem and have compared it to the ironman type scales.What I have found is that the scales are OK as long as you use them the same time every day and factor in hydration status. The body gem is much more accurate for multiple measures during the day under different conditions but a scale will get you within 200 to 300 calories of ballpark. This could of course over a course of a week or two account for a plateau all by itself but generally the easy to obtain scale body fats are OK as are the metabolic rates under “same time of day” measures. Thye are not DEXA scans of course!Using these devices on myself and others I can always find a thermodynamic reason for plateaus (assuming the person is honest/accurate in their activity/diet self reporting.In addition to underestimating calories in here is a short list of typical plateau culprits not in any order.1) Lack of or overestimation of calories expended in exercise. Here is where HIIT helps as long as they can safely do it. I am sure your readers are familiar with EPOCH ad nauseaum so I won’t belabor the point. But in spite of old fashioned LSD aerobics being out of favor there is a limit to how much interval training most people can sustain and a 20 minute session usually raises my definition of RMR an extra 200 to 400 calories/day in addition to the actual calories burned during exercise depending on muscle and body mass (actually surprisingly for most non body builders is total body mass that is a bigger factor) and their definition of “Intense”> I use sustained bouts of 96% Max heart rate (Karvonen).2) Lack of sufficient sleep: nothing sabotages your overall metabolic rate faster. I list the common causes of metabolic slow down as : excessive dieting ( extreme calorie restriction), overtraining with insufficient recovery ( I know that sounds like redundancy but it implies you can try super hard as long as you recover and don’t hurt yourself) and sleep. They all cause very similar metabolic and hormonal consequences.3) Withdrawal syndromes from stimulants or steroids. I don’t see a lot of the latter in my practice any more but the latter is very common. People don’t like to fess up on it either.4) Excessive or insufficient calorie intake. Given that there really is no free lunch many people don’t realize that the appetite that comes after a hard session can sink your weight/fat loss progress. This is where nutrient timing and protein are so important. Again I think your audience probably knows about all that from you already.On the flip side cutting more than 500 calories a day for most is a fast way to a plateau unless you are using hormone or thermogenic manipulation to artificially raise your RMR.5) A high glycemic diet. The thermogenic effect of food is not all that great but if mainline glucose in your diet all of your fat storage hormones are turned on etc.6) OK here the one that usually upsets people: Excessive reliance on strength training alone in the early stages of body recomposition. I know that fat burns in the muscle and it takes more metabolic work to maintain a sky scraper than the shed in your back yard but in the initial stages of fat loss HIIT that focuses on large muscle groups has worked better for me as a person and mt patients than straight heavy lifting or even “cardio strength “training. To a sophisticated audience of lean hard working body building types this usually fetches the slop bucket and results in me ducking for cover, but in the general populace (now hovering around 60% overweight/obese) it is not the best strategy in the initial phase.7) It the person is capable I try to get them to do simple machine base HIT on something like an Airdyne which uses both arms and legs and will crank people’s heart rates up without creating local lactate accumulation in the legs (like say a versa climber often does) but is not likely to result in injury to the inexperience as sprinting might. Phil Campbell pre dated Tabata by about 2 years in creating his Sprint 8 program (Ready Set Go Synergy Fitness) and is currently repeating studies in HGH stimulation with this specific routine adapted from his early work in 2000 which showed significant HGH release. This would explain why sprinters have such muscular physiques steroid use aside. So while I love to see my people strength train and I start it as early as they will let me, if they are “I will only do one thing for now” types and are time crunched I put them on the Airdyne and have great success.8) Seasonal variation in thyroid status (its cold here!) and low Vitamin D or insufficient Omega 3 intake often both.9) As much of a PIA as it is measuring things for a short time usually points to the culprit and educates people as to how their body works. Once they “get it” it’s rare to have to make them do it again as they have the key if they slip up.Nice job, and All the best to you and your readers, Dave Woynarowski MD CPT, author The Immortality Edge, 6 Weeks to a Beach Body, Lengthen Your Spine Lengthen Your Life

  • Reka

    Muscle is supposed to be metabolically active while the fat just sits there, so if we suppose that Kevin lost 50 pounds of fat at no muscle (or, since this is impossible, let’s say 35 pounds of fat and 15 pounds muscle and water), why did his BMR decrease that much? Usually the most accurate BMR calculations use the persons lean body mass because the fat doesn’t actively use calories. So if we lose mostly fat and virtually no muscle, we only lose the dead weight. I know it takes less energy to move a lighter dead weight but I always read that BMR calculations overestimate the caloric needs of fat people because of their extra inactive mass.So, just to sum up my question: does losing just fat really create such a huge difference in caloric needs?Also, thanks for this great and motivating article! I love reading your stuff and your scientific approach!

  • samantha

    Man, my head is spinning from reading all these posts! You would think we were devising a cure for cancer or something LOL. It is incomprehensible to me how “difficult” people make the process of losing fat. Eat less, move more. That’s what it boils down to…Tom’s system is fail proof as long as you put yourself in a feedback loop. Weigh and measure all your food, do cardio on a regular basis and perform 3-4 strength training sessions per week. At the end of said week take some measurements and let the results dictate your approach. How is that so hard to understand? I’ll repeat, LET THE RESULTS DICTATE YOUR APPROACH.If your making progress don’t change a thing. If not adjust your intake or expenditure. Nothing esoteric here.Tom can only take you so far. The rest is up to you and will be revealed via a feed back loop. Nobody can argue with results. If you are making progress by NOT weighing and measuring your food, not doing any cardio and not lifting a weight, then keep doing it.RESULTS ARE WHAT MATTER, period!I bet Tom has a gargantuan headache after reading many of these comments. I know I do LOL.

  • hi reka, thanks for your post. well first, theres been a lot of research on fat cells in the last decade or so which found that it doesnt just sit there, its literally an endocrine gland of sorts. Also, while muscle is moremetabolically active, the figures that circulate about “50 calories for every pound” etc etc, have been shown to be large overestimation. Actually, in the total lean body mass, surprising to many people, its the internal organs that are the most metabolically active fat free tissue… But to answer your question, total body weight will correlate directly to energy expenditure regardless of the type of tissue, so when there is a very large weight loss, yes, the energy needs will drop.there are some interesting studies on this showing how overweight and obese have very high metabolisms: their energy expenditure is high.Energy Expenditure Is Very High in Extremely Obese Womenhttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15173405Energy expenditure under free-living conditions in normal-weight and overweight women.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC288263/energy expenditure falls as weight falls. simply stated, small people need fewer calories than big people and this DOES – partially – explain why the rate of weight loss slows down as you lose weightin a previous article i mentioned how this particularly affects short/petite women because they dont burn that many calories and if they still have fat to lose even though they are not overweight, its harder to achieve a deficit:http://www.burnthefat.com/how_to_fix_slow_female_fat_loss.html

  • Barb

    Hi Tom,I am really enjoying all of the feedback here… some excellent comments and questions are flying around here, great for those of us who seek knowledge!I have a question on the topic of carb cycling to prevent or break a plateau. I have tossed this out on the forums and get a lot of differing opinions, so thought I would take the opportunity to get your personal recommendation.Should a person begin carb cycling (or ‘zig-zagging’) right from the start, or should you wait to hit a plateau before starting the carb cycling?Inquisitive minds want to know!

  • hi barb. you wrote Should a person begin carb cycling (or ‘zig-zagging’) right from the start, or should you wait to hit a plateau before starting the carb cycling?Inquisitive minds want to know! yeah, thats a really good question. when you first start dieting in a calorie deficit, none of the “bad stuff” (metabolic, hormonal, behavioral) associated with dieting has happened yet, so theres really no need for the refeed days or zig zag approach in the beginning. youd be better to stay with mostly deficit days. If you wanted to, you could use the refeed method, but simply much less often – like 1 time every 2 weeks or so.Then later on down the road, to help prevent some of that adaptation and metabolic responses that lead to slower weight loss and contributes to plateaus, you start adding in the carb cyling and refeed days.the leaner you get and the longer youve been dieting, the more you’ll benefit from the refeeding method.

  • Barb

    Thanks Tom! Great advice on the carb cycling… I’ll take it!!

  • Dr. Dave – thanks for all your insights. by the way, not sure if you remember, but I met you in Tampa in 2003 (matt’s seminar)cheers!tom

  • Chris

    Dear TomFirst you mention the thyroid, but then you write:hormones do not run amok unless you succumb to the”obesogenic environment” and eat excessive amounts of food, eat unhealthy junk, live a sedentary lifestyle and allow temptations and negativity to drag you downThat’s not true and not fair.

  • Chris you wroteFirst you mention the thyroid, but then you write:hormones do not run amok unless you succumb to the”obesogenic environment” and eat excessive amounts of food, eat unhealthy junk, live a sedentary lifestyle and allow temptations and negativity to drag you downThat’s not true and not fair.

    Im not sure what your point or your question is. read the whole article so you can put that concluding statement into context.Of course some people have hormonal issues and medical problems that have a genetic component – but those conditions are tremendously exacerbated by the interaction with behavior and environment and lifestyle and those conditions only in extremely extremely rare cases can explain lack of weight loss.My article says that hormones do play a role in fat loss and body composition improvement, and thyroid in particular is very important player.But my post also says – and gives a well known research study example – that MOST people who say they are not losing weight because of a thyroid problem, do not actually have a thyroid problem – their plateau can be attributed to overestimating of activity and calories burned and underestimation of calories consumed. (they are often the WORST offenders at eating a HECK of a lot more than they say they are)heres the reference to the study I quoted:http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1454084also – UPDATE – the full text on this paper is now free at NEJM

  • Anne Howe

    WOW, I’m overwhelmed with all this info! But cuz I’m someone who seeks knowledge in this area, it seems always, this site gives it to me and then some! I seriously enjoy reading this blog and hope to dump 67 lbs of fat. The down side to seeking the fat loss knowledge is that I get confused cuz somethings “sound” good and then I try to pick my way through it. In the end your blog gives me insight that I keep forgeting is there! The one thing I’ve come to realize is it takes time to lose it> So that said, I’m looking to see in 3 months to have lost at least 15 – 20 lbs.

  • I think you would agree with me Tom, as a fellow Master NLP-er, that it is important to mention the relationship between people’s expectation vs. their actual performance, or the relationship of people’s beliefs and their behavior, (Albert Bandura, Psychologist, Stanford Univ.1977,1982)… this is especially germane to weight-loss.Peoples expectations about their future performance is a much better measure of their future behavior than their past performance. Their expectations of how they will do determine the meaning and impact of their performance, and thus, what they will do in the future as a result of it.People start to form expectations about the rate of weight loss they should be able to sustain. How long, for instance, can you continue a certain rate of weight loss before you need to allow your body to adjust… as you described on a scientific level. You can’t lose weight at the rate of 5 pounds per week forever… you eventually reach a plateau. And you might need to stay at that plateau for a while before you can start losing weight again.When peoples performance (the rate in which the weight comes off) starts to lag behind the expected rate of improvement, they reach the limit of their capability at that time…where their expectations start to surpass their ability to perform. They don’t compare their present performance of what they used to do but instead they compare it to what they expect to do.This “gap”, or the difference between expectation and behavior is greater than it was at the start. People begin to feel worse than before, they struggle with the idea that they SHOULD be doing better, and the “crisis” must be faced (the calorie equation must be re-evaluated as you describe) in order to progress. In short, a different set of capabilities needs to be activated to make more progress possible. The old pattern has to be replaced with a new one.For success to happen, the person reaching a plateau, struggles a little through the trial and error process of letting go of the old strategy that has been successful up until that point, and moves on to the new one, or the next level of skill.If the person is able to make it through the period of struggle and the new strategy falls into place… there is again, substantial improvement and sense of satisfaction as their performance comes back in line with their expectations.The important thing to be aware of when we hit a plateau, is understanding the difference between the belief identity level (“I guess I am just tempting fate. This isn’t really going to work. What ever gains I’ve made are only temporary. It isn’t possible to reach my goal” and on and on…) and the capability behavior level. It has significant implication for managing the process of continually re-adjusting calories in vs. calories out, which are behavior and development skills.When the expectations become lower, so does the performance… and for some easily discouraged individuals in weight-loss programs, they can become heavier than when they started.At the beginning of a weight-loss program a person is primarily concerned with whether or not it is possible to lose weight, and what he or she is supposed to do in order to make it happen. At the relapse point, the person knows it is possible and s/he is at least partially capable. The questions becomes more whether or not it is really desirable. They will ask themselves, “Do I really want it? Do I really deserve it?” It becomes more of an issue of beliefs and identity. It is totally different to wonder, “Can I lose weight?” than to ask, “Am I going to be a thin person for the rest of my life?” One has to do with short-term behaviors and capabilities, the other has to do with one’s identity and lifestyle. At the plateau, the issue becomes one of motivation and self-perception.To keep a full regression from happening, it is important to maintain positive expectations. When people are insecure about their ability, they attempt to fall back to a previous stage of stability and security. Social support as you have written about is often most effective for increasing positive expectations to get past the plateau.

  • Jackie Perkins

    When I decided to try out the program in BFFM, I was 46 years old. I have always weighed around 55 kg, but I wanted to see if I could reduce my fat from 18 or 19% to maybe 14 or 15%. As a young woman I never did any sport apart from walking to get to places or riding my bike until I was 42 and my body had changed over the past 3 years while my husband was courting me (I got married for the first time at 43) and thanks to wine and irresistible desserts I hit 63 kilos and 26% body fat for the first time in my life.When I started the BFFM program I already weighed my more usual 55 kilos, and had been going to the gym regularly 3 times a week for an hour and a half for 4 years. I had done private lessons with 4 different trainers, and despite having started at such a late, late age, had already obtained quite good results, reducing my body fat from 26 to 18%.Well, I learned quickly on that I was going to have to measure everything that went into my mouth EXCEPT for certain steamed vegetables (leafy green, broccoli, cauliflower and similar, only the ones that have 20-30 calories per 100 g and mixed green salads (before oil). EVERYTHING.At my age, height and weight (I’m 169 cm), 2% milk became a luxury. But once I started weighing and calculating religiously, it really became quite simple. I think that a lot of people simply don’t measure, read labels and calculate enough. For me, choosing between a skinless chicken thigh or breast was an issue. Checking out other things (if my software was giving me the same calorie count as the food label) often was an issue. Measuring grams rather than in cups was extremely useful and more accurate. I lost 2 kilos in the 8 weeks I followed the program, cheating ONLY with red wine in the sense that drinking an extra glass or even two in the evening always shot my carb levels up, though I always, always perfectly respected my calorie intake.that’s where I think people mess up, though you keep saying it over and over and over again. I think they don’t pay enough attention to what actually goes into their mouth, GRAM BY GRAM. As far as my fat levels, I’m not really sure what I lost because I monitored my results only with a body fat scale (weighing first thing in the morning before breakfast). So now you’ll laugh thinking “well, here she is saying how important it is to measure” and I’m not even sure exactly what my body fat was! But I could see and feel the results perfectly from the way my clothes fit. Two kilos is not a lot of weight, but a dress size is, and I dropped a full one. Not squeezing into it, fitting comfortably in. My “skinny jeans” that I’ve had for 18 years fit me better than the year I bought them!I would also add that I think people who hit plateaus should also measure gram by gram what goes into their mouths to take away being over confident. Though I got to be so good at it that I could take out 100 grams of spaghetti, feel it in my hand, put it on the scale and miss by 2 or 3 grams, I always weighed just to be safe. I never pour olive oil in anything without my spoon to measure and be sure.A pleasant side effect of the BFFM program was the effect that it had on my concentration levels and energy. I have suffered from ADD all of my life. I have come to believe that 70% of ADD is caused by nutrition, and another 25% of it is lack of mental and physical exercise over a lifetime that you don’t do/get because your energy levels are so down.I would love to know how much you actually spend calculating your own food and if you ever eat chocolate cake with vanilla ice-cream!

  • Lauren, thanks for your post – you are so right about expectations and thats one of the reasons i am NOT a supporter or fan of rapid weight loss programs and shows like the biggest loser which create utterly unrealistic expectations about how much a person can and should losehttp://www.burnthefatblog.com/archives/2009/09/the_biggest_loser_pros_and_con.phprapid weight loss often does occur in the beginning when one is overweight. And rapid fat loss is quite possible: see:http://www.burnthefatblog.com/archives/2009/02/the_2_pounds_per_week_rule_and.phpbut in line with our discussion above, the rate of weight loss and fat loss eventually tapers off and requires changes in approach – food and or training – to keep the progress coming even at a modest rate.But when people expect to continue losing at the same rate they did when they started, they are setting themselves up for frustration and exasperation.Its so important to understand the nature of the progress plateau and how to respond to it both physically and psychologically/ emotionally. and also critical is the skill to set well-formed goals, understanding that initial weight loss goals and end-stage fat loss goals can be very different, as can the optimal approach –the first 10 pounds and the last 10 are certainly not the same…. and even more important – lifelong maintenance requires doing things a heck of a lot differently than it did to “maintain” a heavy weight

  • Jackie – thanks for your post. men have a lot more leeway(margin for mistakes) than women because most men have higher calorie needs and can more easily create a large calorie deficit. so your experience is not uncommonyou wroteI would love to know how much you actually spend calculating your own food and if you ever eat chocolate cake with vanilla ice-cream!My advice is that everyone must understand the calories in versus calories out equation at least on the intellectual level, even if they choose not to actually count calories literally, in the way of daily journaling or weighing/ measuring food.I advise that everyone should keep a journal and or work off a printed menu with all the macro and calorie calculations at least once in their lives for a period of at least 4-12 weeks or you will never truly understand this stuff on a real world levelI suggest that anytime you are stuck at a plateau, if you are not counting calories, journaling/ tracking food intake, weighing and measuring food, that you begin to do so at once, and you may instantly find the cause and cure of your plateau.I believe that once youve got a knack for calories and portion sizes that its fairly easy for most people to guesstimate more intelligently and calorie counting is not an absolute requirement — good eating habits and making weekly adjustments become habitual and you can become an unconscious competent.For me personally… Although im pretty meticulous when i compete in bodybuilding, most of the time – im not counting weighing or measuring anything – dont need to – after years of number crunching, weighing and measuring, I’ve long been in the “unconscious competent” realm with food – but I do know exactly what i eat and how much I eat every day (the portion size)., Being mostly the same every day makes it very easy to track and I know how to make those weekly adjustments in portion size or calories expended to get the results I want.I almost always have a printed menu or two and I follow whats on the menu more or less, substituting whenever I want and enjoying “cheat” meals a couple times a week – eating anything I want – yes Jackie, even chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream… in fact had some just a few weeks ago!

  • Matt

    Tom,Excellent article. Thanks for the in-depth analysis and discussion on this.Keep up the good work,Matt

  • You had me at “Not Your Fault” 😀 HA! How many times a day do I hear that line being pitched at me? Too many, that’s for sure.Planning and tracking are two of the most important keys to success. As you mention, it provides us with a constant feedback loop and allows us to make minor adjustments, which will improve our results .The trouble that I find is that some people are not very honest in assessing their feedback loop. As you mention in this post and in articles in the past, there are a great number of people who overestimate their activity level or calories burned during a workout and they underestimate what they consume. That’s why being honest with your tracking is so important. It provides you with more accurate feedback.Transforming your physique is hard work and there are always times when it’s more difficult than others, but it’s always worth it. I believe that it’s one of the greatest journeys of self discovery that you could ever take part in. You discover that you can achieve goals that you once thought were impossible. You discover that you can overcome setbacks and challenges. You discover self-empowerment. You discover that your potential is much greater than you previously imagined.You’re on fire with your articles buddy. Keep ’em ROCK’n!

  • Hi Tom I do remember you well. You were sitting 2 or 3 seats to my right at the Wingate in New Tampa at Matt’s seminar. Those were fun and exciting times no? My how you grown ( you biz and your expertise I mean) Congrats on all. Doc

  • E

    There is some evidence of the body being able to burn ~31cal/lb of bodyfat per day (see research work by Lyle McDonald on the subject). This explains why fat loss slows down when a person becomes leaner and why losses from LBM start to occur if the deficit is too high from food and exercise when a person is already lean.

  • I think you’re referring to the Alpert study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15615615) which suggested that there is a physiological limit to how fast you can burn/lose fat. Beyond that youd lose LBM. actually that shouldnt cause a weight loss plateau though – only change the composition of the weight lost. this suggests that if you try to force it with huge deficits then beyond a certain point, the composition of the weight loss would shift to more LBM and less fat. I think this was a theoretical paper, so i dont know if its absolutely always true, but it supports the idea that the overweight and obese can safely use a larger deficit and lose more fat while the already lean who want to get leaner need to lose fat more slowly or they risk muscle loss

  • J Caricati

    After having success more than 10 years ago dropping 40 pounds my weight has bounced back in a big way. My first problem was that I never adjusted my calories for reduced weight. I have since tried to lose weight with morning cardio, metabolic rate testing and six small meals and food journals but I have not had any success. It seems that I fall into the energy partitioning part of this. If this is the case, how do I correct this?

  • Tina

    One of my clients asked me if the calorie deficit works like a storage unit. For example. Day 1-5, 200 def, day 6- approx. even and day 7, over by 200. Would this individual still be at a def, if she was calculating precisely? How does this apply over one month? Do your fat cells remember that “deficit” while eating “even” and then pick back up and add (or subtract, I guess) from where you left off? I took at guess at “not really,” but would love your response as it sparked quite the discussion!

  • Gym

    These plateaus occur because it’s a biological inevitability when you continue to constantly restrict calories.The less you eat, the more and more your metabolism starts to slow down. It’s a survival mechanism. Your body thinks that food is becoming scarce so in an effort to survive it starts to use energy more efficiently (a fast metabolism burns through energy -calories- quickly, if it goes slower, you can live of less for longer). As a result of this your fat loss requires an even further caloric restriction. So you eat even less… prompting your body to slow your metabolism down yet again repeating the cycle. This is where yo-yo dieting comes from.I would suggest caloric cycling. Eat low cal 5 days a week, 1 day moderate, 1 day high and then back to low. This way, your metabolism stays primed, and you will be in a general caloric deficit (over the course of the week). You get the best of both worlds… and no more plateaus!

  • Daniel De Peña

    Amazing article, lots of useful information, thanks a lot!!!I was wondering if you could make a comment or article about a medicine called metformin (Glucophage is the commercial name). My mum takes it because she has tyroid issues and she sees that Ive been having a hard time loosing weight so she practically wants to shove it down my throat. She claims that is going to have a good effect on my insulin levels and glucose absorption.I decided to look for information but Ive been finding all sorts of claims and studies and got myself very confussed with so much information so I wanted to ask you if you think this could help me out.thanks for everything

  • “People are making a huge mistake when it seems like the calorie numbers don’t jive, and they assume it’s ALL genetics, ALL hormones, ALL health problems or worst of all, that the calorie balance model of weight loss is wrong. Even though genetics, hormones, etc. are contributing factors, at the end of the day, the laws of thermodynamics and the calorie balance equation are always there.” Well said Tom.I have seen people suffering with Prader Willi drop 40% of their initial bodyweight. PWS individuals have genetics that make it hard to drop weight. Yet, when all their food is regulated and they eat a diet low in cals they drop weight. In the Group Home where I worked staff had complete control of their (PWS residents) dietary intake. Their diets consisted of mixed meals that were low in cals. No low carb, low fat, food combining, just basic mixed meals containing prot, carbs and fats.As Tom and I have discussed on numerous occassions, there are many considerations when discussing eating behavior and nutrition, but none of these factors curtails the importance of the calorie theory (it’s not a hypothesis).

  • Mia

    Tom, have you read the book “The Cortisol Connection” by Shawn M Talbott? Its an absolute must read for just about everybody I think but especially those with weight problems. Its basically about the affect of stress on the body and specifically how cortisol promotes weight gain i.e. adipose or abdominal fat. One of the findings is that some people are more genetically pre-disposed towards weight gain as a result of the way a particular enzyme (HSD) works within their fat cells to mobilise cortisol and encourage fat storage so that even when stress levels are normal, a person may still have a high level of cortisol in their body. It explains at a biological/chemical level why it is people who are overweight have a much harder time not just shifting weight but keeping it off. Anyway, its a truly enlightening book and I would recommend that everyone get hold of a copy. 🙂

    • Tom Venuto

      I read it a long time ago so I dont recall specifics. Many people under stress and with high cortisol in fact, lose more weight. Please correct me or put me in check if I am mistaken, but if i recall correctly, this was one of those books that, while it did contain useful info about cortisol, was actually a promotion tool for “cortisol suppressing supplements” as a ‘cure’ for belly fat or body fat. cortisol can definitely affect body composition, but its not a legitimate cause of plateaus in and of itself. For the long answer, I wrote this report and included all the scientific documentation regarding cortisol specifically as it relates to belly fat, body fat and supplements that claim to help you lose fat by suppressing cortisol: http://www.burnthefat.com/Cortisol_Answers.pdf

  • Years ago, my “ex” was a Dietition who ran several “Weight-Loss Clinics”. The Company name was “Diet By Design”, and each client actually got a diet plan each week that was ‘designed’ specifically for them, based on the previous week’s results and the consultation session. Naturally, she ran into this “problem” with almost all of her clients at one time or another. Some were pretty easy to figure as “cheating” or at least some poor ‘documentation’. But some seemed to be pretty legitimate.
    At the time, I was a volunteer Certified EMT/ParaMedic. I observed many cases of the body reacting to the various forms of ‘Shock/trauma’ by ‘shutting down’ all but the MOST CRITICAL body functions, as it went into ‘survival mode’. I was also aware of such issues as ‘water retention’ becoming WORSE when you reduce water intake, as a ‘protective measure’. So I discussed with my wife that the same ‘MAY’ be happening with calorie intake. If the body perceives a ‘normal’ level of calorie intake, but is rapidly reduced from that level, it may ‘perceive’ a potential “starvation” situation, and begin to ‘shut down’ functions in order to ‘budget’ calories…
    So…she introduced “Plateau Buster” weekends, where a client could eat a more ‘normal’ diet for a couple of days. {Though still restricting things like salt and high-fatty foods, and only SMALL portions of sweets like ice cream and pastries.} I am not sure, to this day, if it was physiological or psychological, but it was VERY successful with her clients! We tracked the results, with about 50 clients, and almost every one of them had a renewed pattern of wieght loss in the following weeks!
    Over all, her ‘system’ was quite successful, because it was all about “RE-TRAINING” the clients’ eating habits! They did NOT reach a certain goal wieght, then “go off the diet”. Instead, they had a whole new eating pattern that was a ‘lifestyle change’ that had, over the length of the counselling, adjusted their choices, preparation, and portions to maintain their desired wieght—as well as for their FAMILIES!

    Floyd Burdett

  • Another Barb here…lol. Anyway, this is what I’m wondering, and I’ve just about drove myself crazy with it; I am 48, 5′ 5″, and last weigh-in, 132 lbs. I was 126 at the beginning of the Holiday Challenge and out of shape compared to now, but still have a few lbs. of fat to lose, which are stubbornly clinging on. I am working out with weights, every other day, walking or running 3x a wk, and just plain staying active while also staying around 1600 cals. daily. Nothing lost, although I’m gaining lots of muscle. My question is this, could this difficulty stem from my past; first going from being anorexic/bulimic in my teens/twenties, to healing and getting healthier, having my four kids from ages 30-40, (but losing all the baby weight each time) and then going through a rough time as a single mom, being on welfare, food stamps, not eating more than 500-1000 cals a day (to make sure the kids had food to eat) for the last few years. Now, I’m remarried to a wonderful man, who makes sure we all have plenty of healthy food. I still see food as fuel, but it’s available and there’s lots of it. I am not a binger anymore nor a junk food junkie or do I eat more than I think I need. What should I tweak? More exercise, or less food, or both?

    • Tom Venuto

      hi barb. sounds like you have a solid plan in action. 1600 cals is very typical on BFFM (for women BFFM averages 1400-1800 cals a day)… its easy to get more than we target for in our plan, so be sure to your calorie # diligently and hold her steady… and with your cardio at 3X cardio a week, you could bump that up a bit and see how how much that accelerates your progress. Usually we’d consider 3X a week for maintenance and health/fitness and 4-6 X per week to really ramp up the fat loss. Keep after it, its a slow process sometimes, so aim for “progress not perfection”… if you do decide to pull back on the cal intake a bit, hold your protein intake steady and drop the cals just a bit, targeting any sugar or starchy carbs first. oh, and nothing like a good challenge to fire up your motivation on all cylinders.. summer burn the fat challenge is coming up soon!

    • Thanks for telling it like it is!

  • People underestimating their calorie intake all the time. I’ve explained to my patients they need to not only change their eating habits but to change their entire lifestyle. That’s why our practice has a yoga, fitness studio, plus counseling to help address all of our patients’ needs.

  • Definitely makes sense. But shouldn’t we consider in your example the muscle Kevin may have gained?

    If he was doing resistance workouts and building muscle, his caloric reqirements to fuel his body would not have decreased as much.

  • glennapesteguy

    just wanted too say thanks for all the great info,been following your advise for three years now,lost 131Lbs so far!! 315 down to 184 and fairly ripped! I am almost 48 yrs old and sure feels great gettin into shape after 25 yrsof being out of shape
    !!with all the crap out there its nice too see someone giving honest advice!! thanks for keeping it real!!

  • Regina

    I have lost and maintained about 120 pounds over the last 5 1/2 years through diet and exercise. However, I still need to loose about 34 pounds of fat and was having difficulty doing so. I bought your book which has led me to, start a strength training program, tighten up on my eating, eat more often, etc. I am using your primer strength training plan 3 days a week and do 45-60 minutes of cardio (7-8 intensity) the other 4 days a week. I know that you emphasize more cardio to loose fat quicker but my problem is consuming enough calories. I am 38, weigh 200 pounds (lost 3 pounds the first week) and am 68 inches tall. Impedance test said LBM 126.5 lbs. BMR is about 1610 best I can figure and there are days when it is difficult for me to net that many calories. Adding more cardio means that I have to eat more so I have been hesitant to add more. Do you think 1610 net calories is sufficient? Do you think I need to add more cardio.

  • Mr. Shannon M. Simpson

    I firmly believe people who blame genetics and other bs sources for their lack of fat loss simply do not measure properly.

    This video by Leigh Peele shows what people commonly do : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVjWPclrWVY

    If people would invest $20-30 on a quality digital scale, and measure all food, they would find out they eat 200 or more calories daily they don’t take into account. This failure to measure properly is why they don’t lose what they think they should.

  • Mark

    Gee….that was some article. I feel educated further on the subject. Now if only the masses would read this.

    • Mark

      apart from BBe’rs and pro’s what male wants to get down to 6% B.F.? No offence but as you get older i don’t think it’s what most men want. It looks like you spend all day in front of the gym mirror. Most busy working men simply do not have the time/inclination to achieve that look. Think more James Bond than BBer’s look.

      I think 10-12% is more than enough to get down to, you look fit, wear a suite great and it looks practical.Not that 10-12% is fat or easy to get down to for most men.

      • Tom Venuto

        They may be in the minority, but some men DO want to be 6% body fat and it’s difficult to achieve. 6% is extremely lean – ripped or getting close to it. close to a contest peak condition – “peak” being the key word. most competitive bodybuilders don’t walk around at 6% body fat all year long. its more likely that even serious competitive bodybuilders walk around closer to 10% in the non-contest season, then cut down to 4, 5, 6% to compete. 10-12% might not be easy for someone who struggles with body fat, but it’s attainable for the regular man. It also doesnt require that you are in the gym all day long (in front of a mirror or otherwise). Also its always worth re-emphasizing that the NATURAL, steroid-free and drug-free bodybuilder look IS in fact a look that many regular men would like to have and a look I wish the whole industry would embrace more rather than these bloated, stuffed-sausage physiques that are what pro bodybuilding has now become. IT used to be about physical culture with strength and health; muscularity was just one part of it. Best regards, T.

  • For average folks (no real deadline for weight loss), I find experimenting with the calculations to suffice.

    For example: I recently “thought” I was in a calorie deficit, but the scale didn’t budge. No worries though; my overhead press was up 20# in a month and my squat was skyrocketing as well.

    But, I chipped away, week by week, until I found a nice 2# drop each week. I’ll recalculate every 2 weeks or so, but sometimes it’s as simple as cutting 1/2 cup of rice/day.

    Knowing how your own body works is crucial in this regard, because those calculators probably don’t represent YOU. They give a nice place to start, but finding your energy requirement at a certain weight and training intensity also has a “feel-factor” as well.

If you’d like a picture to show up by your name, get a Gravatar.