THE FUNDAMENTALS: Why Effective Fat Loss Should Never, Ever Suck – Understanding Your Real Metabolism

As long as I’ve understood metabolism and how to use it to get and stay lean, as well as in the training of hundreds of clients over the years, I still learn something new about it every year.

In January, I was lucky enough to get to have my metabolism measured via the ReeVue Indirect Calorimeter machine that Life University recently added in their Dietetics Program. The results were, quite simply, astounding to me.

Why I’ve Trusted the BMR Equations Before Now

I have always thought that most people follow pretty closely to what the equations for basal metabolic rate (BMR) predict. That’s because the literature – of which there is a vast amount – supports that position.

 

Why is BMR even important? Because you can’t control your body composition effectively without understanding it. It’s the magic that makes getting lean and preserving muscle doable. Use it to your Also, over the course of years working with weight loss clients and athletes, it’s been my own experience that when I set someone’s caloric intake based on the equations (and I pretty much use the Harris-Benedict Equation exclusively these days), very good things happen – they lose body fat, they don’t lose a lot of lean body tissue, they find that it’s fairly comfortable to eat the amount of food the equations allow.  That all adds up to excellent adherence to the programs I write for them.

Why I Had Some Doubts About BMR Equations

There have always been exceptions, however, and I myself have been one of them. I’ve always wondered whether I was one of the people who’s BMR was exceedingly high, much higher than the equations predict.

There are three reasons for my doubting the equations: One, I’ve always been very hungry when I restrict my calories to the degree the equations require.

Two, I’ve always found that I have a hard time holding hard training efforts when I don’t add in some very aggressive “re-feed” days.

Three, every year I lose a ton of muscle mass as my season progresses, training hard and restricting my calories according to the equations – even when I exceed the caloric intakes indicated by as much as 20%.

So, as applied to me, the Harris-Benedict Equation’s results have always seemed too low for me. I’ve been aware of that, but until I had the ReeVue test, I didn’t fully realize the extent of the discrepancy. I thought it was maybe a 20% difference – a pretty big difference. Turns out, I was wrong. I’ll explain below.

I’ve had numerous clients for whom I’ve had to really change the equations’ calorie allowances, too. I don’t have the data to tell what the percentage is, but it’s pretty small. Excluding myself, I can think of about 15 clients out of hundreds that were special cases.

These are cases where the equations predicted a much lower caloric requirement than the person actually needed to support their BMR plus activities and exercise. There are probably a few more that I don’t remember now. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep records on this issue, because I am just now coming to understand it.

We’re Talking About Exceedingly High BMR’s Here, Not Low Metabolism

I’m not talking about cases where the equations over-estimate caloric requirements.

That happens all the time, unfortunately, because so many people have suppressed metabolisms due to unhealthy eating, long-term bad eating habits, long-term bad dieting (i.e., restricting their calories too much over a long time trying to keep their weight down), and other lifestyle habits like drinking, smoking and not sleeping enough. There are also those who have thyroid issues and other medical problems that reduce their metabolic rates significantly.

These are not who I’m talking about when I say “special cases.” I’m talking about people – and they tend to be athletes, but not always – who have exceedingly high metabolic rates, and who don’t do well on the calorie ranges the equations predict.

When I say they don’t do well, I mean the same thing that happens to me – they are hungry, tired, weak, uncomfortable, and feel like they’re calorie-deprived. They also lose too much lean body tissue on calorie deficits of 500 to 1,000 per day.  Those are fairly conservative deficits – they shouldn’t result in excessive lean tissue loss, even for a hard-training triathlete.

How Burning Fat is Supposed to Feel

You shouldn’t feel like that when you’re in a healthy, effective calorie deficit, except maybe in the first week or two of restricted calories. You should have plenty of energy, even for hard training. You should only feel hungry just before it’s time for a meal, and even then, not all that hungry – just like you’re ready to eat.

 

If you do feel bad, one of two things is likely going on – either you aren’t eating enough or you’re exercising so much that your caloric deficits are too large. Either way, it boils down to the same thing – your body is telling you that you’re restricting too much.

If you’re eating a true 500 to 1,000 calorie deficit per day, you should feel pretty darned good most of the time – especially if you learn the arts of cycling your light days with regular “re-feed” days, and of carb cycling.

There are, of course, many other things that can make you feel hungry even when you’re getting enough calories. Perhaps you have a long-term dependence on food as comfort. Maybe you are addicted to sugar, and your calorie restriction has massively reduced your sugar intake. Maybe your insulin system is a wreck from years or decades of eating way too many refined carbs and/or sugar and not enough other nutrients, and eating a healthy, balanced diet just feels bad. There are many other scenarios.

All of those, though, require years of bad eating to develop, and they tend to resolve fairly quickly (like in a month or two, at most) when you get on a very good, solid, well-planned, balanced diet of healthy, high-quality whole foods.

So, what this article is about – and what I and a few of my clients have experienced – is continuing to feel like crap on a long-term healthy, balanced diet with calories restricted to the levels predicted by the science. When that happens, it’s time to look for another answer.

How My Own Metabolic Rate Test Came Out, and What It Means

In my case, the stunning revelation from the ReeVue test was that my metabolic rate seems to be 30% higher (2,851 kcal/day) than the Harris-Benedict Equation predicts (1,991 kcal/day). Even more significant, ReeVue estimates my additional daily burn from lifestyle and activity (ADL’s, excluding exercise), at an additional 855 calories! Combined, that’s a BMR plus ADL’s of 3,706 calories per day.

That’s a hell of a lot of calories. I don’t usually eat above 3,200 calories even on heavyre-feed days. In terms of percentage, 3,706 is 36% higher than the 2,389 calories the Harris-Benedict predicts for my BMR + ADL’s. Now add in another 1,000 calories a day for training, and, according to the machine, I should be eating just shy of 5,000 calories per day just for maintenance.

No wonder I burn off so much muscle tissue when I’m on a fat-burn program. Last season, I set my calories at 2,200/day to burn an estimated 1.5 pounds of fat per week – and that was significantly higher than the 1,800 calories the year before.

Last season I went from 205 pounds in January to 181 pounds in July – but my body fat percentage only dropped 5%, from 14% after the holidays in January to 9% at the peak of my race season in July. In other words, of the 24 pounds of total body weight I lost, only about 12 pounds was fat.

The rest – the other 12 pounds – was lean body tissue. It was precious stuff like muscle, tendon and ligament mass, organ tissue, and maybe (probably) even bone mass. Go to the store some time and gather up 12 pounds of lean steaks – that’s a scary amount of mass to burn off.

I knew it was happening, too – I watched as my power dropped, my energy receded, my desire to train dwindled away, and my joints started getting achy. I started to look skinny and gaunt, rather than athletically lean. If I hadn’t broken my leg mountain biking two weeks before my first race, I wonder whether I’d have made it through the season without some other kind of injury.

I don’t care how old you are (and I’m pretty old at this point) – you cannot afford to tear that kind of mass off every year and stay healthy, strong, active and injury-free over the course of decades. And that, my friends, is (or should be) why we do all this in the first place!

What I’ve Learned From This One Simple Test

So, why did I do it like that – I, who knows better; I, who preaches constantly to my clients and athletes not to let this happen; I, who admittedly watched it happen and didn’t change anything?

In part, it was because I really didn’t think I could have a BMR that was so much higher than the Equation predicted. In part, it was because I didn’t listen to my brain when it told me I wasn’t eating enough – I thought I was being weak, that my mind was undisciplined, that I needed to suck it up and stick to the plan.

A big part of it, I fear, was because I put too much emphasis on losing weight, and doing it fast and on a particular schedule, than on losing fat, and doing that fast.

And, in part, it was because I’m a self-coached athlete – the worst kind. As I’ve said many times before, even the best coaches need a coach if they want to train effectively and correctly. So many lessons learned from one single test!

What I want all of you to get from my experience is this: There is a safe, and even a correct, way to burn fat, keep muscle, maximize your training and recovery, and come into race season lean, light, strong, durable, and fast. To do it, though, you have to understand some things, and though they’re not really all that complex, there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle.

Most of us, myself included, can’t do an outstanding job of managing that puzzle for ourselves – we need someone who’s on the outside, who’s not caught up in what we’re doing, but will impartially, even coldly, analyze it.

What I’ll Do Differently This Year

I’ve already changed my eating habits. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve increased my average daily intake to over 2,500 calories.  That’s still below my measured BMR, though.

If the ReeVue measurement is accurate, I’ll lose a little metabolism eating at that level and should start seeing weight loss, both from fat loss and muscle loss. I’m going to try upping my calories over time, and see if that allows me to continue upping my miles, intensity and overall training. If the ReeVue is right, I should be able to eat more, and have the energy to train more (and harder), to create the caloric deficits needed to burn fat.

At this point, I haven’t figured out the schedule, but I will as I experiment with increasing calories over the next few weeks. I can tell you right now that, since I took this test and have done the analysis above, I’ve already added 500 calories per day.

My Early Base training is going incredibly well, I have no joint pain, I don’t feel like I’m pushing my body too hard, and I’m rapidly gaining fitness. I don’t feel like I’m at risk for injury at all. I’ve been in extreme fat-burn mode now for two weeks, am already down 3% body fat (8 pounds), and have only lost a little muscle.

The only thing that’s been hard is finding a way to eat all the calories – I’m so full all the time that I can’t seem to eat much more. I’ll continue increasing both calories and training as fast as I can, and report the results back as I get them. Until then, stay lean, my friends.

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