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How To Establish A Calorie Deficit For Fat Loss With Exercise

Without question one of the most frequent mistakes I see being made by individuals who are stuck in a weight loss plateau is attempting to restrict too many calories from their diet and/or exercising excessively.

I understand the rationale as when fat loss comes to a halt it seems that the logical thing to do would be to cut more calories or try to burn off some more with additional cardio. The problem is this doesn’t work so hot and the combination of the two can actually make things worse.

The reason? As you may have already guessed it’s due to a down-regulation in metabolism. Once calorie deficits get below a certain point and stay that way for longer than a few days, the body adapts and kicks in self-preservation mechanisms to protect against starvation.

Among those changes are a series of hormonal shifts, most significant is a reduction in thyroid hormone production which lowers metabolism.

In short, the body starts working to preserve fat stores by slowing down metabolic rate, which is the exact opposite of what you want.

Now I’m sure you’ve probably heard this before, but the question becomes do you know how much of a caloric deficit is too much?

In other words, where’s the line you cross when a caloric deficit becomes too much and fat loss becomes inhibited?

More after the jump…

Having a general idea of where this line is at can make all the difference between seeing slow and steady fat loss or having things come to a screeching halt.

In the beginning of a weight loss program you can pretty much create a caloric deficit either by dieting or exercise (or both for that matter) and see the scale go down. Doesn’t really matter how you create the caloric deficit in the short-term, as either one will promote initial weight loss.

But as you may be able to testify, there comes a point where the scale stops moving or worse yet starts going back in the other direction. This is often the case with fad diets and quick-fixes.

Sooner or later the diet ends and when it does, without more lean muscle and an increased metabolism, the person will gain the fat right back.

For the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to assume that we’re talking about fat loss coming from a combination of exercise and diet manipulation, as that’s the only way to see long-term results from body composition changes.

So as I’ve just mentioned the numbers don’t mean all that much in the beginning of a weight loss program. Cut some calories and do some exercise and things will start moving in your favor. However, there’s going to come a point when you’ll need to be aware of just how much of a deficit you’re creating.

Where’s that point?

Well among several factors it will largely depend on how much weight you have to lose. I guess the easiest way to know is whenever what you are doing with calorie restriction and exercise stops working.

It’s been my experience that most individuals typically don’t have a clue on how much of a caloric deficit they’re really creating.

Sure they may know how many calories they’re eating on a regular basis, or how many are being burned with exercise, but probably not how much of a deficit this is off of their maintenance calories.

Your maintenance calories simply refers to the number of calories your body needs to meet metabolic functions and activity levels. Think about it as the point on the middle of a scale.

Consume more calories than needed to meet metabolic functions and you’ll gain weight. Consume less, or create a deficit with exercise and in theory you’ll lose weight.

This is generally true, but only up to a point. As we’ve addressed if there’s too much of a deficit and for too long, metabolism slows down and the body becomes stingy with giving up fat stores.

So how do you know what your individual maintenance calories are?

Well we could really pinpoint this with a metabolic profile assessment (a resting metabolic rate test), which is something we provide at Shaping Concepts. This would tell you how many calories your body burns at rest by measuring oxygen consumption.

While this can be a very valuable tool for weight loss programming, there’s a way to get a rough estimate.

To determine what your approximate maintenance calories are you can multiply your bodyweight by 15. This will get you in the ballpark.

Maintenance Calories

Example: 150 lbs x 15 = 2250 calories

Here’s why knowing this number can be so beneficial.

The bulk of the research I’ve looked at combined with personal experience over the years seems to indicate that exercise has it’s greatest impact on increasing fat loss when combined with moderate calorie deficits.

So yes, there’s a point or a line per say where once you create too much of a deficit through dieting and exercise, fat loss slows or stops.

While this will vary from individual to individual, a pretty good rule of thumb is to keep the total deficit to no more than a 1000 calories off of maintenance levels.

And here’s the important part…this deficit is the sum of calories restricted through the diet AND calories burned with exercise.

Let’s look at a practical example.

Say we’ve got someone who weighs 150 pounds and has approximately 2250 calories as their maintenance levels.

If there was to be a deficit of 1000 calories TOTAL, we’d want to look at calories restricted in the diet along with calories burned through exercise.

So if this individual was to consume 1200 calories from their diet and burn an additional 400 calories through exercise expenditure, the total deficit would take them down to 800 calories.

At this low of a level, down regulation of metabolism is inevitable. Can you say fat loss plateau?

In this particular case if the individual was going to do exercise that expended 400 calories they’d want to keep their calories at closer to the 1500 mark. Granted, fat loss may be enhanced by dropping to around the 1200 calorie level for a short period of time (no more than a few days during the week), but then they should be brought back up to avoid metabolic slowdown.

I should note however that while 500-1000 calories off of maintenance levels is a pretty good rule of thumb, research indicates that when calories are taken below 1000 per day, metabolic rate slows down in a hurry.

This is important because if your maintenance calories are 1800 and you cut 1000 calories off of that, this would put you too low.

Generally speaking you want to keep above 1000 calories most of the time while dieting (regardless of body weight) in order to avoid metabolic slowdown. Now I know there are clinical weight loss programs, HCG diet, etc, that involve 500-800 calorie diets, but there’s no way these could incorporate exercise so we won’t even get into that subject.

Here’s what I know doesn’t work when exercise is involved and it’s something I see quite frequently.

An individual who’s eating 1200 calories or less per day and doing lots and lots of cardio for enhanced fat loss. The more you restrict calories or burn through exercise is NOT always better.

More often than not this is what I find, especially with female clients, who are dieting really hard and grinding it out with cardio, but find themselves stuck.

The excessive deficit (from both dieting and exercise) has simply created metabolic slowdown. It’s important to understand that from a physiological standpoint, the body will respond in the same way to either excessive caloric deficits through dieting or excessive expenditure with exercise.

Thyroid production lowers, cortisol levels increase, lean muscle gets sacrificed, and fat loss slows.

Not as much caloric restriction, less cardio, and more weight training is typically what I’ve found to work best for restarting fat loss.

It’s certainly not trying to break through the plateau by doing MORE cardio and/or more calorie restriction.

Bottom line….

There is a caloric threshold for exercise to improve fat loss. A calorie deficit of more than 1000 calories per day will eventually slow metabolism in most individuals (except for those who are obese). Further increases in energy expenditure past that level does NOT increase fat loss.

Remember this general rule of keeping things within a deficit of 1000 calories or less includes diet restriction AND expenditure from exercise. Meaning that if 400 calories were being burned with exercise, no more than 600 calories should be restricted in the diet on most days.

Again you can restrict more calories for short windows of time, but dance too long there and metabolism will slow down, not a matter of if but when.

From an exercise standpoint, the best combination of caloric expenditure will come from a combination of resistance training and moderate amounts of aerobic exercise. More cardio is by no means more effective.

All things considered, if I only had time for one, I’d recommend doing resistance training as this will have more impact on body composition. In the hierarchy of importance for fat loss (and weight management in the long term) resistance training comes above aerobic exercise.

You may find this surprising as weight training doesn’t burn as many calories as cardio, but all I can tell you is I’ve found it work better.

The reason I believe is the indirect effect of weight training on metabolism. When higher intensity weight training is performed, more total calories from fat will be burned AFTER the workout due to a host of metabolic and hormonal factors.

Also as lean muscle is developed there’s a corresponding increase in metabolic rate, while not a huge increase in metabolic rate is seen, it does make a difference over time. There’s also factors such as improved blood sugar regulation with the development of muscle.

Therefore, the best fat loss solution in terms of accessing stored body fat as well as maintaining at a leaner body, is found when there is moderate (not extreme) reduction from maintenance calories done in combination with regular resistance training.

Aerobic exercise can be included and may provide additional benefit so long as it’s not overdone. You certainly don’t need to be spending an hour or more on the treadmill.

Don’t cut calories too much, do regular resistance training, and throw in a little bit of aerobic exercise.

If you’re stuck, take a look at what you’re doing both in the type of exercise and the duration along with how many calories you’re cutting from your diet.

There’s a good chance you may be creating too much of a deficit or doing too much cardio. A more moderate reduction in calories and more emphasis on resistance training would be a good place to start.

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts. Personal training in Charleston with a specialty on weight loss and body transformation using 30 minute burst training workouts and supportive nutrition strategies. Experience the Shaping Concepts difference for yourself today.

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Category: Fat Loss.