When it comes to losing weight or altering body composition in any way, many may have the mindset that all you need to do is restrict your calories. The fewer calories you consume, the faster you lose weight, right? So you turn to dieting and impatiently watch the scale to see if the number decreases. When you don’t see the results you were hoping for, you double down on calorie restriction and maybe even increase the frequency and intensity of your workouts. You do all of this only to hit that dreaded weight-loss plateau.
This disheartening point in the weight-loss journey may compel you to restrict calories more, which is both physically and mentally exhausting. And despite all your efforts, you might even see the weight you lost creep back.
What happened? You are doing everything right according to conventional wisdom (calories in, calories out), and yet your health and wellness are suffering. Remember the mindset that not all calories are created equal? Well, it appears that this applies to caloric restriction as well. It matters how you achieve the energy deficit.
More and more evidence has emerged, showing that constantly limiting your calorie intake—also known as continuous energy restriction (CER)—may counteract your body’s metabolic and hormonal systems, which actually works against long-term fat loss. In other words, your body adapts to the calorie restriction and recognises it as the new normal. Over time, you will need fewer and fewer calories to sustain yourself, and to account for that, your body will burn fewer and fewer calories during the day and even during workouts.
When you experience an energy deficit and subsequent weight loss, the combination of an increased desire to consume calories with a reduction in the amount of energy you expend makes continuously losing weight extremely difficult. The more severe and long-term the calorie restriction period is, the more significant the effects will be. Furthermore, intense training while restricting calories can lead to unwanted muscle loss.
So, what do you do to lose the weight and keep it off? Rather than working against your body, you need to work with it. Research is mounting on this topic, and a recent study by Jackson James Peos et al reports that intermittent energy restriction (IER), rather than CER, may be a superior weight-loss strategy.
Let me explain: As we’ve mentioned in other articles, calories are a unit of measure to determine how much energy a given food provides to the body. To implement IER, you would restrict your calorie (ie, energy) intake for several days or weeks—this is termed “energy restriction”—after which, you would consume a normal amount of calories for several days or weeks—this is termed “energy balance.” This does not mean you go crazy and eat whatever you want during the balance phase. Continue to be smart in your calorie intake, but allow yourself to eat more healthy foods that may also be a little higher in calorie. In theory, this cycling between caloric restriction and caloric balance keeps your metabolism guessing, which will hopefully increase and extend your weight-loss journey.
Just as intermittent fasting has been shown to be beneficial, so intermittent feasting is also proving to be potentially helpful, especially in the presence of overall caloric restriction. Cycling in and out of energy restrictions may have several benefits:
1) The regimen is easier to adhere to because the balance periods allow you to eat more normally than a traditional “diet” would allow.
2) The periods when you increase caloric intake to return to an energy balance may minimise the body’s hormonal and metabolic adaptive responses that occur when you restrict calories.
3) IER regimens have reported higher rates of fat loss and muscle maintenance and lower rates of weight gain.
So what is the best way to implement IER?
Based off of research and personal experience, we have a few suggestions:
1) Avoid severe energy restriction. When drastically restricting calories, you risk down-regulating your metabolism and disrupting your hormones (like thyroid and cortisol) and losing muscle mass.
2) Keep your restrictive and balance phases at about 2:1, and longer time frames have shown more promise than shorter ones. For example, consider restricting calories for two weeks, then balancing for a week, then back to the energy restriction phase.
3) Focus on protein intake during the restriction phase. Protein is satiating, and you’ll be less tempted to overeat. You can enjoy a steak while losing weight!
4) Focus on lower fat and higher carb intake during the balance phase, as evidence suggests that an inadequate supply of carbs can decrease strength and endurance.
5) Resistance train! We always recommend adding some form of resistance, such as weighted exercises, to your workout routine. This will help with both fat loss and muscle maintenance, which is especially important during the balance phase.
Although the study we looked at did not recommend specific macros or foods, we always recommend following a paleo-primal template and eating the most nutrient-dense foods possible.
Whether you’re trying to lose fat or gain muscle, or both, finding the right way to fuel your body can be frustrating and overwhelming. Hopefully, these tips can shed light on how to achieve the best version of your health and wellness by working with your body’s natural functions rather than against them.
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Byrne NM, Sainsbury, King NA, Hills AP, Wood RE. Intermittent energy restriction improves weight loss efficiency in obese men: the MATADOR study. Int J Obes (Lond). 2018;42(2):129-138.
Peos JJ, Norton LE, Helms ER, Galpin AJ, Fournier P. Intermittent dieting: theoretical considerations for the athlete. Sports (Basel). 2019;7(1).