5 Reasons You're Not Lean(er)
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Let's get straight to the point: you could be a leaner and closer to your goal but maybe your focus is on the wrong things. There may be some very obvious points but I just want to make them clear to everyone in hopes that you will self-assess your own actions. Besides, it's all about getting better, right? There's a difference between losing weight and losing body fat which is why I used the term "leaner." Most people want to get leaner or at least maintain their level of leanness for obvious health and physical performance reasons.
Perhaps you've had some trouble getting to a desired level of leanness despite your efforts of "eating clean," going to the gym a few days a week, and taking the latest supplements that Dr. Oz is promoting on television. But first let me explain...
1. You Eat Too Much or Don't Eat Enough
Calories count. It's just science. If you have a net positive energy balance in terms of caloric consumption, you will gain weight and vice versa. Some of that weight will be body fat, some may be muscle but that also depends on a lot of other factors such as the macronutrient composition of your daily diet (proteins, carbs, and fats), mode of preferred exercise, your current health status, and any metabolic factors. While it is very common to under-report food intake by as much as 47% (1), I'd still recommend keeping a highly detailed food log while being as precise as possible. Apps like My Fitness Pal are very comprehensive and best of all, it's FREE! Just tracking food intake alone has been shown to increase awareness of decision-making when it comes to choosing healthier foods. Often times during a consultation, people tell me they've noticed a gain in total body weight over the span of a few months. Since diet is the number one factor that effects body composition, it's a fair assumption to say your food intake has likely increased to your proportion of overall activity. Conversely, you can severely under eat and lose weight rapidly (at first). I see this often times with female clients that have eaten this way for an extended period of time. They get to a point where the weight loss ceases and then become discouraged. While establishing a caloric deficit is absolutely necessary to losing any amount of weight or body fat, you can also set a very drastic deficit as well. In doing so, the consequences may be higher. You may drop weight rapidly in the beginning but at what cost? The longer you diet while in a severe deficit, the more rapidly your metabolism slows down. Your weight may not change much at this point because you have to remember there are other tissues in the body that rely on sufficient amounts of fuel to perform optimally. Exercise performance, recovery, and intensity typically suffers from large caloric deficits which also means you're likely losing muscle. This is no bueno. During prolonged periods of weight loss or caloric restriction, your metabolism slows down. The lighter your total bodyweight, the less energy your body expends during rest and physical activity. This is when dieting and exercising can be counter productive because you have to support your own energy demands from day-to-day and week-to-week. When combined, too much of a calorie deficit and too much activity can be detrimental to your metabolic processes and your progress. Depending on how fast a rate of weight-loss or fat-loss you want will determine how much of a deficit you should create. Experiment with these VERY general calculations to find what works best for you: Calorie Requirements for Fat Loss: Multiply ~9-13 calories x bodyweight. If you're significantly overweight, try using your lean body mass instead of total bodyweight (your total weight minus all body fat). Also, if you are less active, use the lower number. If you are more active, use the higher number.
Calorie Requirements for weight Maintenance/Recomposition: ~14-16 calories x lean bodyweight.
Calorie Requirements for Weight/Muscle Gain: ~16+ calories x lean bodyweight. Again, these are very general calculations but feel free to give them a shot and make adjustments as necessary.
2. Not Enough Exercise
Notice I didn't say physical activity. Exercise is something that is planned, structured, and routine in nature. It is typically accompanied with some set of goals, sometimes realistic, often not in my profession. This is where most people get in trouble because they don't expend enough energy via vigorous or even moderate effort exercise for several or more hours out of the week. Burn more energy than you consume, you lose weight. If you're someone that refuses to track their food intake, try adding more exercise into your daily routine for a week or two without changing your diet and monitoring all changes in your body composition. Call it a self experiment. Track the results. If no changes, go back to the drawing board. If you saw positive changes, you're on to something. KEEP GOING!
3. Not Enough Activity
This is kind of a caveat to number two. Maybe you make it into the gym regularly and have a pretty good grasp on diet BUT you're missing that little extra activity to offset your weekly energy output.
This is where most people run into trouble. You do a phenomenal job all week of staying on point with logging your food and exercising but then fall off during your "rest" days or on the weekend. Maybe your weekend intake outmatches your weekly output.
I get it. Sometimes the weekends get the best of you due to unexpected situations or events. This is where planning ahead comes into play to keep you ahead of the game. It could be something as simple as going for a brisk walk, riding your bike, taking the stairs into work everyday, jumping rope between sets at the gym, or getting up out of your desk and doing some light exercises at work every hour on the hour (hint) just to move around. Every bit goes a long way in the grand scheme of things. Make a move.
4. Not Lifting Weights Often
Everyone wants to be leaner but some aren't willing to put in the extra effort to get there. Muscle definition doesn't just appear overnight. It is forged through weight-bearing activity in a repetitive, progressive, and structured manner. This is how you "trade" body fat for fat-free mass especially if you are new to weight training (I didn't want to say muscle so the ladies wouldn't think "bulky" or "toned"). Example scenario: you're a 5'6" female weighing in at 150lbs and you get your body fat percentage taken and the results read that you are 30% body fat. This means your lean weight or fat-free mass is approximately 105lbs...yes, roughly 45lbs of that is body fat. The question to now ask is, "How do I reduce that body fat percentage?" The answer: YOU NEED TO LIFT! Seriously though. Nutrition will always be number one but the benefits of weight training will be far more rewarding in the long run. Set some realistic short-term goals and get after it. Get your nutrition dialed in and follow a structured exercise program at least 3-4 hours per week for starters and watch the pounds drop and the body fat percentage decrease!
5. Not Regarding Macronutrient Intake
This is arguably just as important as finding the appropriate amount of calories to consume on a daily basis. If you're not familiar with macronutrients, I'm referring to food items that are considered to be sources of protein, carbs, and fats. If you have any sort of aesthetic, performance-based, or health improvement goal then I would strongly suggest establishing macronutrient target ranges to hit on a daily basis. We discussed the first step earlier when establishing your caloric target. That's step one. The next step would be to set your daily protein intake based on your body weight. If you're a leaner individual, aim for around a gram per pound of bodyweight. If you're a heavier individual, try to figure out your lean bodyweight and base your protein needs on that number. If you don't know your lean bodyweight, use your target bodyweight as a point of reference. Remember, that for each gram of protein, it is equal to roughly 4 calories. The research that's available suggests that a range between 0.8g/lb of lean bodyweight up to ~1.5g/lb of lean bodyweight tends to do the trick. However, this range largely varies depending on type of activity you engage in, duration of activity, intensity of the activity, and severity of your caloric deficit. To be more clear, endurance athletes should be putting more of an emphasis on carbs and fats so they would fall toward the lower end of protein requirements.
The average person trying to improve their physique via weight training should lean more toward one gram per pound of lean bodyweight although I like to go slightly over just to make sure no muscle loss is occurring from dieting and to remain satiated.
If you are in a severe deficit from being in the last stages of dieting for a bodybuilding competition, then you'd likely want to aim for the higher end of that range. Again, this is all case dependent. Next in the hierarchy is establishing your daily fat intake. Fat is the most energy-dense macronutrient weighing in at around 9 calories per gram. Most mainstream textbooks will suggest a range somewhere between 15%-30% of your total daily calories come from fats. You need dietary fat for functions that are far beyond the scope of this article such as cellular processes and hormonal balance. I'll leave it at that. You should have a fairly balanced mix of all types of fat from various sources such as monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fat. Trans fat is tolerable in small amounts but you should definitely make an effort to avoid it due to the fact that chronic overconsumption has detrimental effects on health. Once you've figured out your target protein and fat, the only thing left is to fill in your remaining calories with carbs. For each gram of carbs, you need to multiply 4 calories per gram.
I recommend a variety of tolerable carb sources from beans, fruit, veggies, pastas, rice, cereals, and breads. Try to make sure to include fibrous sources of carbs since fiber is also a contributor in the world of weight loss due to its satiating and thermogenic effects. Use these 5 Steps as checkpoints or reassessment tools to keep yourself accountable and make continued progress. Are you lacking in one area or more of the aforementioned areas? Let me know how I can assist!
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Lichtman S.W., Pisarska K., Berman E.R., Pestone M., Dowling H., Offenbacher E., Weisel H., Heshka S., Matthews D.E., Heymsfield S.B. Discrepancy between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects. N. Engl. J. Med. 1992;327:1893–1898. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199212313272701. - DOI - PubMed