What it really takes to achieve long-term fat loss.
NOV 23, 2023 | LINDSAY MUNDY
If I’m being honest, the idea of writing about fat loss gives me pause. It can be very triggering for people. On social media, you can come under fire at the mere mention that you support someone losing fat. But sometimes, losing fat means gaining health and when that’s the case, it should be prioritized. And what about when losing fat means gaining confidence? When it means feeling good in your own skin? When it means coming back to yourself? When it’s actually the result of healing emotional trauma? There are many reasons fat loss should not be demonized. Fat loss isn’t the issue; “diet culture” as it has come to be known is where toxicity rears its ugly head—people and brands glorifying fat loss and unrealistic results, pushing agendas fuelled by profit that can lead to disordered eating patterns and body image issues. When someone begins to determine their value by the number on the scale, that’s when we need to start asking questions; however, there are many reasons why fat loss is a perfectly reasonable and worthy goal, but it’s often not an easy one to achieve. So what are the predictors of fat-loss success?
I think, first and foremost, there needs to be consideration around emotions tied to weight and food. One of the primary reasons that people lose weight but gain it back, especially when it’s a large number, is because there were underlying emotional and psychological issues that were never addressed in the process. It wasn’t a matter of discipline or not having the right tools available; it was more than that. For example, some people use food to numb emotional pain, or to fill a void. Others struggle with their worthiness and will self-sabotage or search for comfort in eating. This can be a difficult pattern to break because, for one, there needs to be an understanding, acknowledgment and acceptance that it exists and many do not have the capacity for this. Secondly, deep inner work needs to be done to overcome these issues, and that work is hard. So, of course, many who face weight challenges rooted in emotion will struggle to heal. If you know fat loss is about more than food and exercise, I urge you to start asking questions about why that is and where/when it began. From a place of curiosity, exploration and self-love, you can begin to heal and build emotional and physical health.
Beyond emotional healing, let’s talk about the secret sauce of fat loss (and it’s not going to win me any popularity contests). Ready? Here it is: consistency. Real, sustainable fat loss is not attributed to any specific diet or style of eating. Many will argue with me, but keto is not better than intermittent fasting and low fat is not better than low carb. You may prefer one of those camps more than another, but there is no “best” way to lose fat, regardless of what the media tells you or the success that your friend had with a diet. And I have yet to see any quality literature say otherwise. It’s about understanding the basic mechanisms of fat loss (being in a calorie deficit, primarily) and figuring out how to meet fat loss requirements in a way that you can maintain for an extended period of time. Beyond that, you have to figure out an eating style that will allow you to maintain a particular range of body fat percentage (depending on your goals and comfort levels). Particularly if you are overweight, you absolutely can not dive into a fad diet because it’s popular and expect it to work for you, long-term. I am a big believer in slow and steady. The last thing we want is for a calorie deficit to be painful! You can slowly move yourself into a deficit and lose fat. In fact, I’m a big fan of 0.5 to one pound a week. This is dependent on individual circumstances, of course, but generally speaking, aiming for a weekly loss in this range can be done relatively painlessly (up to a certain point). So, what is the diet that is going to be easiest for you to adhere to, longterm? You should do that. If you can’t see yourself eating like that for the rest of your life, you need to rethink your game plan. Consistency is king.
"What is the diet that is going to be easiest for you to adhere to, longterm?
You should do that."
Another major bonus of consistency is that it will stop you from always chasing fat loss. Many people are always toggling between trying to lose fat and 'falling off the wagon'. A healthy approach is finding a style of eating that you are comfortable with and that allows you to slowly lose fat, if that’s the goal, followed by a maintenance phase, where calories are brought back up. At some point, you may even decide you’d like to enter a (gasp) growth phase, where the goal is increasing calories in order to build muscle (through strength training fuelled by more food). Generally, I like the 6-8 week range for a fat-loss phase, eating in a consistent deficit before bringing calories back up to maintenance for a couple of weeks, helping to move through inevitable weight-loss plateaus. It’s a nice little re-set for the body and may allow calories to remain a bit higher while still allowing fat loss to continue. It’s important to remember that our bodies are extremely adaptable. The more fat you lose, the fewer calories you will need in order to continue lowering body fat. Alternatively, expenditure could be increased through additional activity. You want to ensure you have levers to pull for as long as possible. Constant fat loss or a more extreme approach (such as an aggressive calorie deficit) diminish your power quickly when it comes to seeing results and doing so relatively comfortably. There are caveats to this and in order to fit into one, working with an experienced professional is recommended.
"Many people are always toggling between trying to lose fat and 'falling off the wagon'".
So why isn’t the concept of consistency for fat loss all over social media? Why isn’t it a buzzword you’ve seen thrown around? The fact that sustainable fat-loss comes from staying consistent is really hard to sell. It’s not glamorous. In fact, it can be pretty hard and slow. Usually, people aren’t looking for “hard” when they’re ready to lose weight. And companies in the weight loss business know that.
I would be remiss if I did not include the importance of adequate protein intake to achieve an ideal body composition. Calories-in versus calories-out is just too simplistic in nature. Eating enough protein ensures the least amount of muscle loss. More muscle equals more shape and sculpting, as well as stability and balance down the road. Muscle loss is not the reason you want to see the number on the scale going down. For most, holding on to muscle should be a priority for overall body composition goals, but also for overall health and strength. As a general rule, aim for 0.8 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. If you haven’t focused on protein intake in the past, simply one day of tracking your food intake will likely highlight that you aren’t eating enough–particularly if you’re a woman.
Some professionals or formerly obese individuals will talk about “killing off” a past version of themselves in order to find long-term weight loss success. Sometimes, letting go of who you used to be, your past behaviours around food, and healing underlying wounds is what is necessary in order to discover a higher version of yourself–one that doesn't attach emotion to eating, or use food as a crutch. This often involves multiple layers of work and takes time.
Fat loss is an incredibly complicated topic with many, many nuances and individual scenarios. We know this, or it wouldn’t be a struggle for so many, nor would it be a profitable industry; however, for most, sustainable fat loss comes when emotional food ties are acknowledged and healed, when they let go of past beliefs about themselves that may not be true, when an individual identifies a style of eating they can maintain consistently, and when there’s a basic understanding of calorie deficits, as well as adopting periods of maintenance calories for optimal results. And, finally, knowing and accepting that all of these steps take time. It may not be glamorous, but for real, sustainable fat-loss results, patience, a real desire for change and trust in simple principles is key.