The diet conundrum (part 1)


This New Year, millions of individuals will set out determined to finally shed the fat and improve their health. Most people feel like they need something radical, or very different to what they are currently doing in order to see sufficient progress. The harder the effort and the greater the struggle the greater the outcome, right? Not quite!


Unfortunately most of us will look to dropping the weight by undertaking diets whose main component is to reduce and slash our total daily calorie intake to a very low level. For many individuals their total diet resembles that of an anorexic, prisoner of war during a famine, born without tastebuds. Every calorie is meticulously counted and any slight deviation is akin to murder.  This is doomed to fail from the start and here I hope to explain why.


The real key to fat loss is to position yourself so that you are eating as many calories as possible whilst simultaneously losing body fat and building/maintaining lean tissue. If you can afford to eat plenty of carbohydrates and plenty of total calories on top of a diet rich in protein, fibre and healthy fats, changing your body composition will be an easier and less challenging process.  There is much greater room for manoeuvre and capacity to make changes based on how you wish to look, feel and perform.


Our metabolic rate is governed by many factors, most notably from hormones secreted by the thyroid gland, leptin levels and muscle/tissue metabolism. If you were to half your current total calories say from 3,000kcal to 1,500kcal, it is dead certain that you would see a significant drop in bodyweight.  This weight loss would come from a loss of intracellular water, body fat and muscle tissue.


Calories in, calories out. That’s all that matters surely? If I eat less then I will lose body fat. Here is an example of how this is not correct.


Let’s take a middle aged woman (subject A) as an example.  Subject A is a 47 year old mother of two with an office job and a moderately active lifestyle.


Subject A: First day of the diet


Height: 5ft 4in

Weight: 14st

Body fat: 40%

Total daily calories required to maintain bodyweight: 2,349kcal


Currently daily caloric intake: 2,500kcal (an excess of 151kcal per day)


Let’s say that this lady started a typical western diet programme such as lighter life or weightwatchers.

Theoretically, if this lady were to drop her calories from 2,500kcal to 1,500kcal per day consistently for 2 months she would lose a considerable amount of weight and rightly so, as this is a major reduction in caloric intake. Let’s assume that this lady has at the same time decided to take up some moderate exercise consisting of three 1 hour dog walks and one aerobics class per week.  After 2 months her stats may look a little like this.


Subject A: 2 months into diet (moderate exercise) eating 1500kcal a day


Height: 5ft 4in

Weight: 13st  (a drop of one stone)

Body fat: 36%  (a drop of 4%)

Total calories required to maintain bodyweight:  1,800kcal   (549kcal per day less than day 1)


Weight lost: 5lbs of water, 5lbs of body fat, 4lbs of muscle


During these two months she was in an 849kcal deficit from her dietary changes and also burnt an additional 1,200kcal per week from her new activities (an extra 171kcal burned per day).

Her total daily caloric deficit was therefore 1,020kcal.



As you can see, this lady has made some good progress and she is likely to be very pleased with her results. However there are a few issues:


1)      Total caloric intake has dropped by 849kcal per day.  This is a big difference and will have been difficult and unpleasant to maintain.

2)      After just 2 months this lady now has to eat 549kcal less than she originally was every single day just to maintain her bodyweight. This is approximately 22% less food than what she was eating before the diet just to stay the same.

3)      The large reduction in bodyweight in such a short period of time will inevitably lead to lean muscle mass wastage.  This will result in her burning approximately 40-50kcal less every single day for every lb of muscle mass lost (i.e. in this instance 200kcal). The loss in muscle mass may also lead to a loss of stability and strength around the joints which could lead to joint pains, back issues etc.

4)      This lady still has much body fat to lose yet calories have already dropped considerably. She now has less manoeuvring space and it is inevitable that she will eat more on some days due to the significant increase in food cravings as the body attempts to rebalance the weight lost.

5)      Hunger levels will drastically rise as the hormone ghrelin increases. Constant hunger will trigger low level stress hormone release, which will increase systemic inflammatory markers and could typically increase body fat around the midsection due to glucocorticoid receptor density in the area and cortisol’s effect on the fat-storing lipoprotein lipase.  Muscle loss is also accelerated as a result

6)      The lady may begin to feel the cold more and feel more tired than usual as a result of a drop in thyroid levels


Despite a few issues and hardship, let’s assume that this lady has greater willpower and drive than most and continues to diet for another 2 months. Let’s take a look to see what happens:

Subject A: 4 months into diet (decided to drop calories from 1,500kcal to 1,000kcal and exercise everyday – 3 attending aerobics classes, 3 dog walks and a 1 hour jog at the weekend)


Height: 5ft 4in

Weight: 12st 4lbs (another 10lbs lost)

Body fat: 34% (another 2% down)

Total calories required to maintain bodyweight:  1,500kcal (another 300kcal less)


Weight loss: 3lbs of body fat, 7lbs of muscle


During these two months she was in an 800kcal deficit from her dietary changes and also burnt an additional 1,995kcal per week from her exercise activities (an extra 285kcal burned per day).

Her total daily caloric deficit was therefore 1,085kcal.



This lady has now lost a further 10lbs in the last 2 months but 7lbs of that has come from muscle tissue. This lady is now burning another 350kcal less per day because of this muscle loss. She is eating 1,000kcal a day (1,500kcal less than day 1!) and is hungry, tired and run down.


A few things now start to take place:


1)      Survival mechanisms up-regulate to preserve fat stores, whilst preferentially burning vital lean muscle tissue for energy. Stubborn fat depositions won’t budge!

2)      This lady is tired and run down and on some days resorts to binging on junk foods to rebalance peaks and troughs in blood sugar and appetite.

3)      Serotonin levels in the brain drop and she is likely to experience depression, low mood and poor motivation.

4)      Thyroid output halves and this lady feels incredibly tired, cold and lethargic. Various tissues which interact with thyroid function are also compromised. This can literally influence everything because every cell in your body can be bound to T3 and T4.

5)      The lack of total calories may lead to nutrient deficiencies so hair begins to dry out, nails crack and skin noticeably worsens. Concentration levels drop and general work productivity and drive plummets. Work becomes hard, days become long and drawn out and mood swings may occur.

6)      Insomnia may kick in so despite feeling tired all the time, sleep becomes erratic and of poor quality. Due to depleted glycogen stores this person is losing water and is regularly dehydrated, leading to headaches and fatigue.

7)      Exercise quality rapidly diminishes and the lady has started to develop inflamed joints, sore knees and a painful back. As a consequence of having little energy and less muscle she is now burning far fewer calories during her workouts

8)       She now has less sex drive than a 90 year old nun.

9)      The thought of continuing this way of living is becoming very hard. Many social occasions involving food become awkward and the idea of leading a balanced life seems impossible for fear of gaining weight.

10)  This lady notices that even small influxes in calories lead to weight gain. Her body is a skinnier, yet fat version or her former self as she has not only failed to gain muscle but actively lost it.


This lady is now in trouble and cannot drop calories any lower. She has cornered herself and has nowhere to go but up with her daily caloric intake. She still has much body fat to lose but cannot go lower without endangering her health. If she creeps her calories up she only has to go up a couple hundred calories (not very much at all!) and the weight inevitably starts piling on.



After another 3 months the lady’s stats may now look like this:

Subject A: 7 months after starting the diet she has inevitably increased her calories back up to an average of 2,000kcal per day. She can no longer exercise as she has picked up various injuries.


Height:5ft 4in

Weight: 14st 5lbs

Body fat: 44%

Total calories required to maintain bodyweight:  1,900kcal


She is now 5lbs heavier than day one and her body fat is up by 4%.  Her body also now requires 349kcal less to maintain her bodyweight.


This is now a worse position than when she started.  She is heavier and carries more bodyfat as well as less muscle mass. If she were to diet again this situation could get worse still and is likely to resemble that of the person who only has to look at a doughnut and piles weight on.  As you can see, the more crash diets you undertake, the harder it will become to achieve the body you want.

Any of this sound familiar?

How do we solve this situation? How can we fix somebody in this position? The good news is that there are ways in which to reverse this damage and there are many healthier alternatives which will lead to long term, sustainable progress.  You have to be smart!


Watch out for the part 2 or email [email protected] to arrange a consultation or session to discuss our nutrition and weight loss strategies and programming.