From gaining muscle, losing body fat, choosing the right diet and spot reducing; these are the questions that frequently get asked. So, I thought it would be a good idea to put hand to keyboard and answer them for you.

Here we go

1. Does ‘this’ diet work?

Yes, ALL diets work… for a period of time, assuming that total daily calories are controlled. But this isn’t the question you should be asking. The question you should ask is; why do diets fail? Dieting failure will inevitably lead to weight regain; here are the statistics:

  • 25-33% of weight lost will be regained within 1 year
  • 50% of the weight lost will be regained within 2 years
  • 75-100% of the weight lost will be regained within 3–5 years

Therefore the question remains; what factors lead to dieting failure? When interviewing clients regarding previous dieting experiences, here are some of the recurring issues raised:

  • Motivation
  • Adherence
  • Accountability
  • Rate of progress
  • Habit overload/Will Power/Burnout
  • Food restriction
  • Not picking the correct diet/method

If you can correct these issues, then you’ll find success when dieting.

2. Do I have to count calories, can I just eat clean?

Calorie counting and portion control definitely needs to be taken into account. In other words, the energy balance equation needs to be considered as calories in vs calories out are the main driver for fat loss and fat gain. You can argue that calorie counting isn’t precise due to; human error, calorie load changing when a food is being cooked, gut bacteria differences and its influence in the absorption amounts of a food. Finally, the FDA allow for a 20% variance in calories and nutrients on food labels.

However, if everything remains consistent, i.e. you consume the same foods from the same source, your cooking methods are unchanged, and you increase the precision of measuring food quantities – then it becomes far more reliable.

For example, if by consuming certain foods and measuring it in a certain way leads to a 10% inaccuracy, assuming that the method doesn’t change it’s always 10% inaccurate – this is consistent and reliable. Furthermore, calorie counting can be reliable as you can monitor and track calorie intake depending on progress. The goal is to aim for ball park figures, not calorie and macronutrient quantities to the nearest gram.

As far as ‘clean eating’ goes and not counting calories – Anecdotally I’ve seen individuals follow a ‘Paleo’ type approach and gain body fat as they perceived this to be a green light to eat as much as they want. Granted, it is far more difficult to over eat on chicken, sweet potato and vegetables as opposed to pizza, but the principle remains. It is possible.

I’m not advocating that you always count calories, but once you’ve got a good understanding for your portion sizes, can eye ball food intake well, and have sufficient education – then you can push the weighing scales aside. I can bet that if you weigh 200g of chicken breast 7 days in a row, on the right day, you’ll know what 200g of chicken breast looks like without having to use the scales.

3. Can I have a ‘cheat’ day?

If you NEED a whole cheat day, you’re dieting wrong. This is basic psychology – if you restrict and eliminate something that you really want, it will inevitably lead you to wanting it more. This is where balance and mindfulness comes into play with your food choices and your lifestyle. In other words, the more you restrict, the more you’re going to rebound.

If you’re restricting your intake far too much, you will more than likely fall off track by having a cheat day, leading into a cheat ‘few’ days and returning to your old eating habits……and you’re back to square one – another diet failed, and no progress is made.

Therefore, when it comes to cheat meals or ‘free’ meals, give yourselves a calorie allowance. Once your calorie goals have been set to facilitate fat loss, you can work cheat or ‘free’ foods into your day – Remember the 80:20, 90:10 rules? Whatever way you look at it, employ this tactic where 10-20% of your calories can come from whatever you like, assuming that 80-90% of your foods come from nutrient dense, naturally occurring and minimally processed foods. This is with the aim to cover your nutrient requirements in order to prevent deficiencies. Therefore, I don’t advocate or necessarily like cheat DAYS as it promotes binging and unhealthy relationships with food, however cheat or ‘free’ MEALS is something I do encourage, or at least have the option to have if needed.

Remember, it’s better to follow a good diet all of the time, as opposed to following the perfect diet some of the time…

4. Can I build muscle and lose body fat at the same time?

Yes, but it is very difficult. Especially if you’re a trained individual.

Setting realistic targets is always very important when goal setting where I would usually advocate focussing on one goal at a time as it appears to be more effective, I.e. fat loss phase, or a muscle building phase.

However, evidence presented by Longland et al (2016) 10 does provide insight on how this can be done. Participants were placed on a heavily restricted calorie diet (40% calorie deficit), following either a higher protein intake (2.4g per kilogram bodyweight) or lower protein intake (1.2g per kilogram bodyweight), whilst exercising 6 times per week ( 2 x Weight training , 2 x high intensity cardio, 1 x Plyometric circuit, 1 x medium intensity cardio).

As the participants were placed on a calorie restricted diet, both groups reduced body fat which was to be expected; with the higher protein intake resulting in greater losses, 4.8kg Vs 3.6kg. The aim of the study was to test if muscle mass could be maintained on a higher protein diet; the unexpected part was that consuming a higher protein intake actually resulted in gains of muscle mass by 1.1kg. What was also unexpected was that the lower protein group did not lose any muscle, despite consuming insufficient amounts of protein to support muscle growth. So, the next time you start dieting and think that you’re losing muscle on your arms; it’s probably just fat loss.

Finally, following a maintenance calorie intake; does further increasing protein intake from 2.3g to 3.4g of kilogram bodyweight yield greater gains in muscle size whilst resistance training? In 48 resistance trained individuals following a body part bodybuilding split for 8 weeks; No, both groups gained an equal amount of muscle mass (1.5kg). Interestingly, the higher protein intake did further increase rates of fat loss; 0.3kg Vs 1.6kg).

What can be taken from this?

  • Higher protein when combined with resistance training, can result in muscle gain, even in a large calorie deficit.
  • More protein doesn’t necessarily result in better gains once intake is sufficient.
  • Consuming higher calories, i.e. not in a calorie deficit results in better muscle gains.
  • Consuming fewer calories resulted in greater rates of fat loss.
  • Once calories have been set, following a higher protein intake appears to be favourable for fat loss.
  • Both goals can be achieved at the same time; however calorie intake largely influences rates of fat loss and muscle gain. This is why I advocate choosing one goal at a time as greater results will be seen.

5. I can’t stick to a diet — why is this?

Changing habits and adhering to something completely new is always going to be a challenge. However, research 1 has provided an insight to what factors are required in order for a diet to be successful. These success factors are:

  • Greater initial weight loss when starting a diet.
  • Reduced frequency of snacks (If not controlling calorie intake) – The problem with ‘eating clean’ and not tracking calorie intake.
  • Flexible control over intake. Having the ability to understand the principles of nutrition, as you can change the approach taken as your scenario and settings change.
  • Self-monitoring. Adjusting food intake depending on current rate of progress.
  • Coping capacity; capacity to handle cravings and sustain restraint. It’s easy to adhere to a habit when everything is going well, but it’s the ability to adhere to a habit when life stressors take over is what will make the difference in the long run.
  • More confidence; more proactivity.
  • Stability in life and social support. Does your social life support your goals? I’m not suggesting that you find new friends or move job, however it is very important to acknowledge balance so you can get the best of both. At times it may be a case of tracking more rigorously, where times it may be a case of partially tracking your food intake. This is where you need to set realistic goals and expectations – Prioritise what’s most important to you at any given time.

6. Can I spot reduce body fat?

Spot reducing; training a specific muscle in order to lose body fat localised in that area, most often than not, this is why people do abdominal exercises.

It makes sense; exercise a specific body part, and the muscle will use the stored energy around it to fuel exercise performance….It does, but primarily by using the stores within the muscle itself (muscle glycogen and intramuscular triglyceride’s) and not from the stored body fat lying underneath the skin.

Sorry to say, but you can’t expect to lose body fat from a specific area by exercising that muscle. Spot reduction doesn’t exist!

To back this up, Vispute et al (2011) looked at this concept of spot reduction. The study prescribed individuals with 7 abdominal exercises (2 sets of 10 repetitions) where they exercised 5 days per week, for a total of 6 weeks. The control group (comparison) didn’t train their abdominals; however both groups followed the same diet that would favour no change in bodyweight. Therefore if a change in fat mass around their abs were to be expected, then it would have been from performing the abdominal exercises.

As expected, neither group lost body fat, especially around their mid section, EVEN after doing 4,200 repetitions of abdominal exercises. HOWEVER, what they did find was that the group who performed abdominal exercise improved their abdominal strength and endurance compared to those who didn’t…

If you want to train your abs, then that is absolutely fine in order to strengthen them – but don’t expect to lose body fat by doing them!

There you have it, that’s the top six questions that I have been most frequently asked. If this blog didn’t answer any of your burning nutrition related questions for fat loss; comment below, on social media or via email at info@chrislowenutrition.com I look forward to your questions and comments!

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