With the New Year comes that resolution.
So, how is it that if looking great is such a priority that less than 20% of those who start a body transformation achieve their goal?
Most of the time failure can be attributed to just a fistful of reasons.
1 – You Suck at Math
It might sound odd, but I've seen people embark on a fat loss regimen only to get fatter in the process.
How the hell is that possible? I mean, training should help you lose fat, not gain it. The simple fact is that most people grossly overestimate how many calories they're burning during their workout, and they use that as a justification to overeat.
"I just lifted weights for 45 minutes and did 30 minutes of cardio, so I can eat that Big Mac without harm."
Well, I've got news for you: You might've burned 400 calories during your workout, but the Big Mac provides over 800. If the Clearasil king behind the counter convinces you to have fries with that, you're over a thousand.
Do that over the long run and don't be surprised if you're piling on fat despite training.
Also, I want to point out three things related to this topic:
- It's true that preceding a bad meal with an intense workout will reduce its negative impact. Training increases insulin sensitivity, which will somewhat decrease the amount of nutrients stored as fat. But it won't prevent all of the damage.
- The mentality of "having the right to eat bad foods because I worked out" is downright unhealthy. Even if your workouts were able to prevent fat gain, the negative health effects from eating crappy food still remain. Being healthy might not seem as important as getting big and ripped right now, but eventually bad health will catch up to you. Not to mention that an unhealthy body will always have a harder time gaining muscle and losing fat.
- A cheat meal, or even a cheat day, can be beneficial psychologically and physiologically. However, even on a planned cheat, it's better to minimize the ingestion of crappy food. Eating junk like pastries, candy, cookies, or fast food once a week will make it harder to stay on the plan because you'll constantly be reminded of how good it tastes.
2 – The Flat Tire Phenomenon
Your diet is going great. You've been solid for close to two weeks, and the results are starting to show. However, you're beginning to get cravings for donuts and cakes and cakes made out of donuts.
You do your best to maintain your composure, but you finally give in and eat two Krispy Kreams.
You choked. The ball was dropped.
So, how do you react? Do you go back on your diet as soon as possible? No! You continue to stuff your face with everything that doesn't fight back.
After all, since you've blown your diet, you might as well go hog wild and start again tomorrow on solid ground.
Big mistake. If you got a flat tire, would you go spike the three others with your trusty pocket knife? God, I hope you aren't that dumb!
Well, continuing to pile on the junk after one cheat is about as smart.
While I'm never proud of clients who give in to temptation, a small, isolated culinary incident won't completely ruin your efforts. At worst, it'll put you back a day or two.
But if you turn that one nutritional brain fart into an all-out feast, you're going to put a huge dent in your progress. After such a binge, it'll take you around two days just to get back into an optimal fat burning mode. And I'm not even talking about the fat gain from the binge itself. A big food fest can set you back one or even two weeks!
Unplanned cheats are like a flat tire: You don't want them, but they might happen (even to the strongest of wills). Just limit the damage by going right back to your regular plan.
3 – Misapplying Dietary Digressions
I'll start off by explaining the differences between the three types of dietary digressions: cheating, loading, and refeeding.
Cheating means eating a meal (or several) consisting of foods that are outside the realm of what's acceptable on your diet, and the centerpiece is usually sugary junk.
You have planned and unplanned cheats. I touched on the later earlier (eating some crap on a day you're not supposed to); these should be avoided as much as possible.
Planned cheats refer to giving yourself a moment in the week where you can eat the bad food you've been craving. This moment is always on a given day and comes at the conclusion of a week of solid dieting.
Loading, like cheating, means eating a meal (or several) consisting of foods that aren't a part of your daily plan. Contrary to cheating, though, loading uses clean, high-carbohydrate foods like yams, potatoes, rice, whole-wheat pasta, fruits, etc. On a loading day, you want to refill muscle glycogen, so your daily intake of carbs will fall between 200 and 600 grams depending on your size and goals.
Refeeds still consist of increasing your food intake for a day, but you do so by respecting your regular diet. You simply eat more of the foods that you normally ingest. A small amount of clean carbs (15 to 20 grams per meal) is also acceptable.
Now that we understand the difference between these three, let's explore the logic behind dietary digression days.
Such days serve three main purposes:
1 - To prevent the ill effects of dieting, mainly metabolic slowdown and rebound binging.
Calorie and carb restrictions decrease the release of the hormone called leptin. Leptin is important because it sends a message to the body that it's well-fed, so your body can keep up its metabolic rate.
If less leptin is produced, your body will likely think it's starving, and it'll react to the situation by slowing down your metabolism and increasing hunger.
As leptin drops, the risk of dietary failure increases.
It's been shown that increasing food intake drastically, even for a short period of time, will prevent the drop in leptin that occurs when dieting. This is especially important in the later stages. Unless you use a stupidly high energy deficit when dieting, your leptin levels aren't likely to drop significantly during the first few weeks. It's only after you've lost a significant amount of fat, or have been of the diet for several weeks, that it'll become necessary to prevent the underproduction of leptin.
2 – To reload glycogen stores.
Glycogen (the carbs stored in the muscles and liver) is the primary fuel source for intense physical work. When your glycogen stores are low, you won't be able to train as hard as when you're fully loaded.
The main purpose of weight training when dieting is to preserve (or even gain) muscle mass. If you can't train hard, it'll be difficult to prevent muscle loss. For that reason, it's a good idea to periodically give the body a shot of carbohydrates to keep glycogen stores at least somewhat full.
Your body can actually produce glucose (and then glycogen) from amino acids via a process called gluconeogenesis. But this might lead to muscle loss if your calorie deficit is too great, so a weekly carbohydrate load can be a good way to prevent the eating away of your muscle to produce glucose.
3 – To give yourself a psychological break.
One of the toughest aspects of dieting isn't so much the deprivation, but the fact that you know that you won't be able to satisfy your cravings for weeks. A lot of people stop their diet in the first few weeks because they can't see themselves being deprived of the foods they love for such a long period. For these people, having a once-a-week mulligan can help them maintain the diet over the long run.
But it's a double-edged sword. While it can provide you with some much needed mental relief, it can also increase the frequency and intensity of your cravings. If you can get through the first few weeks without eating any forbidden foods, your desire for them will gradually fade.
But if you constantly remind yourself of how good these physique wreckers taste, you'll always have to fight craving attacks.
So, yes, it can help if you're able to shut the door for the whole week once the cheat is over. But if you can't, it'll ruin your efforts and make your life miserable.
If we look at the three benefits of getting off of your diet for a short period of time, we can decide whether a cheat, load, or refeed is beneficial or if it'll screw up your progress.
Cheats, loads, and refeeds all have a positive impact on maintaining leptin levels. They also have an impact on glycogen storage. Generally, the loading strategy has the greatest impact on glycogen stores. Cheats also have a positive effect on glycogen stores, but if the carbs are mainly from high-fructose corn syrup, you'll store much less than if they were from another form.
Additionally, the high glycemic load of the cheat food versus the cleaner carbs can increase the amount of carbs stored as fat.
Refeeds can also work for glycogen loading, but since you'll normally be consuming no more than 125 to 150 grams of carbs, you won't be able to get a supercompensation effect.
When it comes to the impact on leptin, at an equal caloric intake, all three strategies are fairly similar. I'd like to tell you that eating clean foods in excess is more beneficial in this regard than eating bad foods, but it isn't so. The total amount of calories and carbs is more important than the quality of the food when it comes to leptin manipulation.
This doesn't mean that you should eat crap, simply that for the purpose of leptin manipulation, crap will be as effective as other items.
As far as the psychological aspect is concerned, we have a pretty variable response to all three strategies. Some people love fast food, others crave sugar and pastries (like me), and then there's those who are attracted to things like pasta, breads, and fruits. So, the food that'll give a dieter some mental relief is really dependent on personal preferences.
In an ideal world, our cravings would be for yams, potatoes, pasta, and fruits. Eating those on your dietary digression day will be superior to pizza, burgers, and donuts. But some people need their crap. As I mentioned earlier, if cheating opens the door to falling off the dietary Radio Flyer, avoid it.
It should be fairly obvious now that you don't need to cheat. Loading and refeeding with quality foods will do the job just as well. The only time cheating with bad food is superior is when you absolutely need a fix to stay on your diet.
Remember, your body has absolutely no physical need to eat junk. It's only our psychological side that's a slave to this.
So, my rules of digressive eating are:
- As much as possible, opt for clean alternatives.
- You don't need to load or refeed every week. Unless you're excessive, leptin won't be a problem until after several weeks of dieting, and glycogen stores can be kept relatively loaded even when dieting. You should have a loading or refeed day when your metabolism is starting to slow down (your morning temperature drops by one or two degrees) or when your glycogen stores are low (you'll feel flat and have problems getting a pump).
- The leaner you are, the more often you'll need to load or refeed. When you're getting leaner, you're producing less leptin, thus continuing to drop fat will become harder. Furthermore, the leaner you are, the better your response to excessive eating. Because of better insulin sensitivity, you'll store more of the nutrients in your muscles and less as fat.
- Once your load, reefed, or cheat is over, go back to your regular diet ASAP.
- Don't go overboard. Go with the minimum amount needed to do the job. You don't need two pizzas, three burgers, and a dozen donuts to refill glycogen stores, boost leptin, and give yourself some mental relief. (Remember the flat tire analogy?)
4 – Getting Screwed by Hidden Calories
This is the Achilles' heel of disciplined dieters. You may have all the will and dedication needed to succeed, but if some of the foods you're eating contain more than you bargained for, you're screwed.
Some examples of these hidden nutrients are "no sugar added" and "low-impact carb" products, drinks, and even protein bars.
The no-sugar added denomination can lead us to believe that these products are low in calories and carbs. Some dieters even see them as "free foods."
"No sugar added" simply means that they didn't add any sugar to the recipe. They can still be high in carbs, and they're generally much higher in fat than their regular counterparts to give them better palatability. Not a good mix.
These, like the "low-impact carb" club, can also be based on sugar alcohols like maltitol, glycerol, mannitol, and sorbitol. Because of a legal trick, companies can make you believe that products loaded with sugar alcohols are good for dieting because of their "low-impact carbs."
For example, a protein bar can have 35 grams of carbs, two grams of sugar, five grams of fiber, and 28 grams of sugar alcohols, and the company can claim that their product only has two grams of impact carbs. Slap on a "low carb" label and call you gullible.
While it's true that sugar alcohols have a reduced impact on insulin compared to regular carbs, it still has an effect, especially in individuals with poor insulin sensitivity (which is most people who start a body transformation). Moreover, sugar alcohols do provide energy and can lead to fat gain. For example, each gram of sugar alcohol normally provides three calories; sugar provides four. Yes, it's lower, but it's not a huge difference.
Plus, sugar alcohols are hard on the digestive system. In excess, they'll leave you bloated and gassy. They also reduce the efficiency of the digestive system.
It's clear why the "no sugar added" and "low-impact carb" products should be avoided if you're serious about changing your body. And I'm saying this from personal experience.
A few years ago, I decided to do a bodybuilding contest. As I mentioned earlier, I'm a sugar bug. The first six weeks of the diet went well. But as I got leaner, I started to have huge sugar cravings.
I would've been able to control myself, but I found a website that sold those "no sugar added, low-impact carb" products. Chocolate bars, candy, jujubes — everything I was craving. And it was all okay to eat them, or so I thought.
As soon as I began eating them, my fat loss stalled. Then I started to gainfat. It took me a while to realize what the cause was. When I finally figured out that it was these supposed "free foods," I was well into in my preparation and ended up losing a lot of muscle trying to make up for the lost ground.
My advice to you: Avoid those death traps!
Another place for calories to hide is in drinks. While technically not hidden, when you read the label, it's easy to see that most juices, soft drinks, energy drinks, and the like are loaded with sugar. A lot of people don't realize how many calories they pour into their head each day.
One of my former football coaches suddenly blew up to a hefty 400 pounds. And he wasn't even a big eater.
However, at a team supper, I saw him drink a gallon of soda. I asked him if that was something usual.
"I drink that with every meal."
That's over 5,000 calories per day from soft drinks! While I'm not a big fan of calorie counting, that's a pretty big load. Had he simply switched to diet soda he would've cut 35,000 calories per week, which represents roughly ten pounds of fat.
Few people are that extreme, but many guzzle enough calorie-containing drinks to screw up their dietary efforts.
When you're improving your body composition, limit yourself to water, coffee, tea, Crystal Light, diet soft drinks (in moderation), and calorie-free energy drinks like Spike®.
Don't forget that the closer a food is to its natural state, the less likely it is to have hidden calories and nutrients.
5 – Doing Too Much Too Soon
Body transformation is an emotional issue. We desperately want that killer body, and we want it yesterday. Our desire for fast results will often lead to bad decisions, including doing too much too soon.
Dan John, a guy for whom I have nothing but the deepest respect for, once said that fat loss is "an all out war," and that you go as hard as you can for a short period of time and get the hell out.
I have to disagree.
In most cases, those who have the greatest success are those who can stay on the program for the long run. Not only do they have a greater success rate, but they're more likely to maintain their progress than the quick hitters.
An initial fat loss blitz can be useful, though. I often start off a body transformation program with a one or two week blitz (the dropout rate exponentially increases by the third week). Some people can handle four weeks, but few go past the point where they're excessive in their efforts.
And even those who can sustain manic effort and deprivations for more than four weeks will see their returns greatly diminish.
You see, the body is built for survival, not to look like a fitness model. When you starve and overwork yourself, your body will adjust itself so that this amount of deprivation becomes normal. At that point, usually around week six, your fat loss will stop.
When progress stops, you need to increase the stimulus by expending more energy or diminishing your energy intake. The problem is that if you're already doing as much activity as you can handle, and barely eating enough food to stay in working order, there's nowhere to go. You can't train more without risking an injury or chronic fatigue, and you can't eat less without suffering severe muscle loss or going mental.
Basically, by trying to progress too much too soon, you kill your chances of long-term success.
The best approach is to do just enough for an optimal weekly fat loss. As progress slows down, gradually increase your activity level first. When you need a second shot of renewed progress, decrease your food intake or add a powerful fat loss aid like Hot-Rox® Extreme to your regimen.
A lot of people ask how they can maintain their physique when their body transformation is finished. Really, you shouldn't have to do anything special.
Those who ask are likely those who deprived and overworked themselves and don't see themselves maintaining that regimen over the long run. Those who take the smart approach can actually maintain their body transformation lifestyle simply by keeping up their regimen while being a bit more flexible.
I know that I can maintain 90% of my peak condition without feeling deprived. From that point, I simply need to tighten things up a bit for a couple of weeks to get back in peak shake. But the point is that I look good year round without killing myself because I never had to resort to extreme measures.
Do It Right This Time
I may not know everything (just ask my wife), but one thing I know is body transformations.
Get on a solid training program, eat a quality diet, and avoid the five pitfalls presented above, and you'll be among the 20% who succeed.