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Why You Can Increase Body Fat Even While Dieting And Doing Lots Of Exercise

If there’s one phenomenon associated with weight loss that tends to leave people thoroughly confused and scratching their heads, it’s how in the world they could have increased their body fat percentage while significantly reducing calories and doing lots of exercise?

This is no fluke occurrence, I’ve seen it countless times over the years with coaching my personal training clients. An individual who was following an exceptionally clean diet of whole foods, low in calories and carbs, they were doing more than enough physical activity, but yet body fat percentage and the scale mysteriously went up.

So what gives? In reality there’s a very good explanation for this which I’ll reveal to you today.

I’ll need to educate with some basic physiology, but stick with me as I’ll do my best to simply everything in the process.

More after the jump…

To understand how you could actually get fatter while dieting and doing lots of exercise, we need to begin with the following statement of fact.

Fat loss is 100% controlled by the hormonal balances in your body

You may have heard me say this before, it’s the gospel truth. The flip side of this statement is also true, fat gain is also 100% controlled by the hormonal balances in your body.

The mistake that many individuals make, including some fitness professionals, is assuming that body fat increases or decreases are simply a matter of calories in versus calories out.

Consume more calories than you burn and you’ll gain fat.

Burn more calories than you consume and you’ll lose fat.

The first statement is generally true, especially if the individual is sedentary. That’s pretty much common sense. However, as you may be able to personally attest to, the second statement is NOT always fact.

The same thing could be said for consuming fewer calories than your body burns for metabolic functions. Restricting calories doesn’t automatically decrease body fat. Sure for some individuals this works quite well, at least for a while.

There’s no question that “dieting” will promote weight loss, especially in the beginning and to what degree is largely tied into how much extra body fat you were carrying in the first place.

Someone who’s 50 pounds or more overweight will lose more weight with dieting, and typically faster, than someone who was only carrying around an extra 10 pounds or so.

Once again there’s a reason for this, it all goes back to physiological differences. What works for the significantly overweight individual to decrease stored body fat, won’t necessarily work for the more slender individual.

I’ve yet to see someone who was 50 or more pounds overweight GAIN body fat and scale weight while dieting and doing lots of exercise.

But I can certainly point to numerous examples with individuals who were much closer to their ideal body weight, GAIN body fat and scale weight while dieting and doing lots of exercise.

The reason?

Hormones and their interconnection with self-preservation mechanisms that our Creator has built in to this magnificent thing called the human body.

Simply put, as humans we’ve evolved to adapt with changing conditions. The end goal always one of survival and the continuation of the race. When food is scarce the body’s metabolic rate slows down, conserving valuable energy and fat stores.

During periods of restriction we are designed or programmed per say to store fat, NOT burn it! Naturally a lot of fat is used during a restricted state as needed energy, but the body is cued to store more fat whenever possible to survive the restriction.

From an evolutionary standpoint, restriction would be kin to famine, drought, a harsh winter, etc. In today’s world this is more likely to be a self-induced “diet.” The same principals apply though, nothing has changed with how we are programmed.

The long and short of this is the human body is FAR more efficient at storing fat than it is letting it go. After all for thousands of years survival of the species has depended on it.

You may understand this full well, and be like “come on Shane get down to the nitty gritty.” We’ll do that right now, I just wanted to make sure to cover this fact as a foundation for the discussion. Everything goes back to these built in self-preservation mechanisms.

How you could gain fat while dieting…

Ok, let’s get into the nuts and bolts. We’re going to get into some science here so buckle in and hang with me.

The following is what happens physiologically when an individual goes through a prolonged period where energy out was markedly higher than energy in. Such as the case with…

- a severe calorie restrictive diet (weight loss center type diet, or any diet less than 1000 calories per day).

- a low calorie and low carb type diet where the caloric totals were significantly less than what the body needed for metabolic functions.

- either of the above combined with excessive exercise which resulted in a much higher energy expenditure than energy intake.

So as you can see the “restriction” side of things could come from the diet, from exercise, or from the combination of the two. Typically it’s the combination of too few calories and too much expenditure with exercise that really dials in the metabolic slowdown.

It’s this metabolic slowdown that’s behind body fat increases which can occur with dieting and lots of exercise. Here’s what happens.

The key players…

- Hypothalamus
- Thyroid
- Adrenals
- Pituitary

The key hormones and chemical messengers…

- Leptin
- Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH)
- T3
- T4
- Cortisol
- Adrenaline

There are numerous others but for the purpose of this discussion we’re going to stick with the main players.

The hypothalamus is in essence the main command center for your body. It’s setting the tempo per say and regulates things like body temperature, metabolic rate, sex drive, appetite, and thirst. There are two main counterbalancing chemicals associated with appetite and hunger working from the hypothalamus.

CART- stimulates the hypothalamus to increase metabolism, reduce appetite, and increase insulin to deliver energy to the muscle cells instead of being stored as fat.

NPY- has the opposite effect, decreases metabolism and increases appetite.

As you can imagine when you’re dieting and doing lots of exercise, NPY levels rise while CART levels drop. Your metabolic rate drops, body temperature goes down, and appetite goes up.

The body is working to conserve energy as best as possible, hence the lower body temperature and metabolic rate. If and when fat can be stored it will be.

The means for reducing body temperature and metabolic rate is the job of the thyroid. The anterior pituitary in essence tells the thyroid what to do. During periods of prolonged restriction and/or excessive caloric expenditure from exercise, thyroid hormone production drops.

To make matters worse, when excessive exercise is combined with caloric restriction, the body perceives this as stress. In response the adrenal glands increase cortisol production.

Cortisol increases pose a couple of significant problems…

#1. When cortisol receptors on the pituitary gland are activated, they reduce production of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which is the messenger to tell the thyroid to ramp things up.

#2. Cortisol interferes with the conversion of T4 (the thyroid hormone the circulates in the blood) to T3 (the metabolically active form of thyroid). It does so by creating an enzyme inhibition with the enzyme responsible for this job (5′-deiodinase).

This T3 impairment is often referred to Euthyroid Sick Syndrome. No your doctor probably won’t talk to you about this as it’s not classic hypothyroidism like you’d see with a autoimmune issue.

This is reduced thyroid production due to prolonged low calorie dieting and too much expenditure with exercise, something they won’t want to talk much about since it’s not a “disease” or medical condition.

The typical medication issued for hypothyroidism (Synthroid – which is in essence T4) won’t do a thing to help as remember there’s a conversion problem here due to cortisol.

All while this is going on we’ve got more bad news. The hormone leptin which is a protein secreted by stored body fat plummets rapidly. The stimulation of leptin under normal conditions works to tell you that you’re full, shuts off hunger, and stimulates you to burn more calories by stimulating CART.

So here’s what we’ve got…

Leptin levels drop…

Cortisol levels rise…

Thyroid levels drop…

NPY signals for a decrease in metabolism and an increase an appetite while CART stays at home.

All the cards are completely stacked against you!

More willpower won’t work, more cardio won’t work, further cutting back on calories won’t work. Can you see now you’d only be fighting against the biology of your body?

You’ve set conditions “right” for fat storage and NOT fat burning! So what do you think happens when your body has even the slightest opportunity to store fat? Yep, it’s going to do it.

In this case it’s NOT about completely blowing your diet and eating MORE calories than your body uses for metabolic functions, it’s about having even a moment (a meal or two) where there was excess energy the body could store as fat.

Hopefully this is making sense. Normally you’d need to eat more calories than your body needed to store fat, but not when your body thinks your starving! In this case it’ll store fat at will very efficiently.

So all the while you’re setting the conditions right hormonally to store fat, there’s also the increased risk of losing lean muscle tissue. Start scavenging muscle tissue to provide energy and thyroid hormone production will further drop.

So what’s the solution to avoiding this trap or getting out of it?

#1. Stop restricting calories so much

#2. Cut back on the caloric expenditure with exercise (stop doing those 60 minute cardio sessions!)

#3. Rotate between periods of restriction and periods of feeding.

The best way to reset your metabolism and boost back up hormones like leptin, thyroid hormone, growth hormone, etc…it’s one word.


That’s right don’t be afraid of taking a diet break as that’s exactly what your body needs to set the conditions right for fat burning.

I realize this sound counter-intuitive since I’m telling you to eat more to lose more body fat, but in this situation it’s exactly what you want to do.

The closer you get to your ideal body weight, the more you need to look at keeping things in short blocks or windows of time. If you’re going to restrict energy intake or really ramp up expenditure with lots of activity, only do this for a short period of time before bumping calories back up.

This is often referred to as rotation or cyclical dieting. Fundamentally is the optimal way to “diet” for fat loss as it works in line with the physiology of your body. We evolved by adapting through periods of restriction and periods of plenty. Think how our hunter-gatherer ancestors typically went through phases of famine and feast as they searched for food.

There’s a lot of potential in things like intermittent fasting and rotational type diets as they avoid the pitfalls that plague traditional dieting….metabolic slowdown.

I won’t go into detail on these subjects as this has become a beast of a blog post and I need to wrap it up. Hopefully, if nothing else you’ve got a better understanding of just how it’s possible to actually gain body fat, even in the midst of a super clean diet and lots of exercise.

It’s not all about eating the right or wrong foods, it’s about energy balances and hormonal levels. Sure the quality of food matters, but not when your body perceives you as starving.

Feel free to leave me any comments or questions. This is an open forum blog which is open for discussion.

Shane Doll is a certified personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Fitness Training Studios. If you’re looking for a personal trainer in Charleston, you can receive a no-obligations personal training trial and consultation without risking a dime. Over 1000 Charleston area residents have transformed their bodies following our unique burst training workouts and simplified nutrition programs. Experience the Shaping Concepts difference today.

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Category: Fat Loss.