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Muscle for life

7 Diet Mistakes That Make It Damn Hard to Lose Weight, Build Muscle, and Feel Good

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7 Diet Mistakes That Make It Damn Hard to Lose Weight, Build Muscle, and Feel Good

If you stop making these diet mistakes, you’ll be able to lose fat and build muscle with ease, and actually enjoy the process.

 

If you want to get really confused about how to eat to lose fat, build muscle, and stay healthy, go read a few of the latest-and-greatest bestselling books on dieting.

And if you want to add some misery to the confusion, start following them. Eliminate every food you actually enjoy from your diet. Try eating like a caveman. Starve yourself with “cleanses.” Swear off carbohydrates, keep protein intake low, and eat all the nuts and oils you can stomach.

Go ahead. But when you can’t take it anymore and you’re ready to take the red pill, come on back. I’ll be patiently waiting with the good news…

When you know what you’re doing, “dieting” is an enjoyable lifestyle, not a miserable, masochistic period of self-denial. You can lose fat eating foods you like and without ever feeling starved or deprived. You can build muscle without eating obscene amounts of calories and piling on body fat. You can “cheat” frequently and guilt-free.

In this article, I’m going to share with you seven insidious diet mistakes I’ve made throughout the years and that millions of other people make every day, basically guaranteeing they’ll never achieve the types of physiques they ultimately desire.

Diet Mistake #1:
Thinking It’s All About “Clean Eating”

diet-mistake

Oh the joys of clean eating!

 

I’m all for eating a bunch of nutritious foods, but if you think that’s all it takes to lose weight or build muscle, you’re mistaken.

Sure, those fundamentals include providing your body with enough vitamins and minerals through nutritious foods, but they include a lot more if our goal is to build muscle, get lean, and stay healthy.

Let’s talk fat loss first. Losing fat over time requires feeding your body less energy (via food) than it burns every day. We measure both the energy burned and eaten in calories or kilocalories.

When you do this, you are keeping your body in a state known as a “calorie deficit,” because it’s short on energy (you’re putting greater energy demands on it than you’re giving it fuel for).

It has two options, then, to stay alive: get the energy from somewhere or physically shut down. And fortunately, it has a ready store of energy made just for these circumstances: body fat stores. It begins breaking these stores down into cellular fuel to make up for the deficit, and voila, total fat mass decreases gram by gram, day after day, so long as a calorie deficit is maintained.

Now, here’s what most “clean eaters” don’t understand: “clean” calories count just as much as “dirty” calories when it comes to gaining or losing fat.

When we’re talking body composition, the calories from peas are no different than the calories from a Snickers bar. Sure, the latter is more calorie dense than the former and doesn’t fit well into a proper meal plan, but people that think that eating a bunch of peas is, in and of itself, conducive to weight loss whereas a Snickers bar isn’t don’t understand the simple mechanism explained above.

“Clean eating” guarantees nothing in the way of weight loss. Feed your body too much of the absolute “cleanest” foods every day and you simply won’t lose weight. Period.

And what about when you’re focusing on building muscle? Many people are surprised to learn that total calorie intake affects your body’s ability to build muscle just as much as its ability to reduce body fat percentage.

This biological factor known as “energy balance” is the key. Think of energy balance like your body’s energy checking account. A negative balance is a situation where your body is burning more energy than you’re feeding it (it’s in the red as far as energy goes). A positive balance, on the other hand, is a situation where your body is burning less energy than you’re feeding it (it’s in the black).

Now, as you already know, when a negative energy balance is sustained over time, total fat mass decreases. But this comes at a price: it also impairs the body’s ability to synthesize muscle proteins.

What is means is when you’re dieting to lose fat, your body simply can’t build muscle efficiently. This is why it’s commonly accepted that you can’t build muscle and lose fat, which is generally true but not always the case.

So, what this means is that when you want to maximize muscle growth, you must ensure you’re not in a calorie deficit. Instead, you must ensure that your body is in a slight calorie surplus, or a positive energy balance.

Diet Mistake #2:
Eating Too Much or Too Little For Your Goals

weight-loss-diet-mistakes

Surprise, asshole! Bet you never saw this coming!

 

This mistake may sound simplistic, but it’s one of the most insidious pitfalls that prevents millions of people from reaching their fitness goals. And it revolves around one simple fact…

If you don’t plan or track your food intake, and simply eat according to your appetite, your weight is likely to remain the same.

This “programming” is a good thing, actually, and helps your body accomplish its goal of homeostasis.

You see, your body doesn’t want to get fatter or leaner–it wants to maintain its current state, and to accomplish this it uses a complex system of mechanisms to carefully regulate both hunger and fullness as well as metabolic rate.

Changing your body composition–losing fat and/or building muscle–requires conscious efforts to under- or overeat, which are often uncomfortable at first. When you place your body in a calorie deficit to lose fat, expect to deal with some hunger and energy issues for the first week or two. When you place your body in calorie surplus to maximize muscle growth, expect to feel over-stuffed at first and, well, like you’re overeating.

Many people mistake these discomforts as signs that something is wrong, and revert back to “eating on instinct,” and then wonder why they can’t lose or gain weight easily.

The key is trusting the process and staying the course, and the result always follow.

Diet Mistake #3:
Starving Yourself

starvation-diet

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The easiest way to see the scale go down is to simply starve yourself. And that’s why many people do it.

And by “starve yourself,” I mean feed your body less than 70% of the energy it burns every day (keep your body in a 30%+ calorie deficit). And the lower you go, the worse things get.

To put this in perspective, consider the following:

  • A 140-lb woman exercising 3-5 times per week will burn approximately 1,600-1,700 calories per day.

If such a woman ate less than, ~1,100 calories per day, she would be entering the problem area.

  • A 200-lb man exercising 3-5 times per week will burn approximately 2,500-2,600 calories per day.

Anything less than ~1,900 calories per day would be under-eating for such a man.

Many starvation diets have you eating anywhere from 30-50% of the energy you burn daily, and while they do induce weight loss, there’s a lot more to consider…

Much of the weight initially lost is water, which goes…and comes…very quickly.

When someone loses 6 pounds in a week, at least 50%, and as much as 75-80% of it is water, and could actually be gained back within 1-2 days of overeating.

You also lose muscle, and the less you eat, the more you lose.

As you lose muscle, your body not only begins to take on that amorphous “skinny fat look,” but your metabolism slows downyour bone health decreases, and your risk of disease increases.

You feel progressively worse and worse

Your energy levels plummet, you battle intense food cravings, you become mentally clouded and even depressed, and more.

 So, while severely restricting calories is great for losing weight quickly…it’s ultimately a bad way to go about losing weight.

Much better is to maintain a moderate caloric deficit of about 20% (eat about 80% of the energy your body burns every day).

By doing this, you’re able to lose 1-2 lbs of fat per week while preserving your metabolic health, energy levels, mental balance, and mood.

Diet Mistake #4:
Overlooking “Hidden Calories”

big-diet-mistake

“I’ll just do some extra cardio.”

 

A huge, killer diet trap that many people fall into is eating a lot of “hidden calories” throughout the day. Then they wonder why they aren’t losing weight.

Hidden calories are those that you don’t realize are there and account for, such as the following:

  • the 2 tablespoons of olive oil used to cook your dinner (240 calories),
  • the 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise in your homemade chicken salad (200 calories),
  • the 3 cubes of feta cheese on your salad (140 calories),
  • the 3 tablespoons of cream in your coffee (80 calories), and
  • the 2 pats of butter with your toast (70 calories).

These “little” additions add up every day and are by far the number-one reason why people fail to get results from what would otherwise be a proper dietary regimen. There just isn’t a large margin for error when you’re trying to maintain a moderate calorie deficit every day.

For example, let’s say you’re looking to maintain a 500-calorie deficit every day to lose about a pound of fat per week, but you accidentally eat 400 more calories than you should have, leaving you in a 100-calorie deficit instead. It’ll now take a month or longer to lose that pound of fat. It’s that simple.

It might seem paranoid to be careful about how many tablespoons of ketchup you have in a day, but if you watch your calories that closely when dieting for fat loss, you’re guaranteed to get results.

The best way to avoid hidden calories is to prepare your food yourself so you know exactly what went into it. For most people, this just means preparing a lunch to bring to the office, as they usually eat breakfast and dinner at home.

Diet Mistake #5:
Eating Too Little Protein

Whenever I talk about eating enough protein, I can’t help but think of this video:

And then I want a protein shake, hahah.

Seriously though–here’s a dietary guideline that you can take to the bank:

Eat too little protein and you’ll always have trouble building muscle, even in a calorie surplus, and preserving it when in a calorie deficit.

You may already understand the physiological reasons for this, but I want to give a brief summary just to make sure.

In the body, a protein is a special type of molecule that is comprised of substances known as amino acidsThink of amino acids as the “building blocks” of proteins–without the requisite amino acids, the body can’t create protein molecules.

There are many types of proteins in the body, and they perform a wide variety of functions ranging from the replication and repair of DNA, to cell signaling (insulin is a protein, for instance), to the formation of tissues and other substances like hair and nails, and more.

The building of “muscle proteins” (the types of protein molecules that our muscles are made of) requires a variety of amino acids, some of which must be obtained from food (these are known as “essential” amino acids).

When you eat a food that contains protein, your body breaks the protein molecules in the food down into the amino acids they’re comprised of, and then uses those amino acids to build its own proteins.

If you eat too few grams of protein every day, your body can become deficient in the amino acids it needs to build and repair muscle, and thus, muscle growth becomes impaired.

The body has certain protein needs even if you don’t exercise. Remember that every day cells are dying and being regenerated, and this requires amino acids. When you do exercise, however, the body needs even more amino acids to repair damaged muscle fibers and, depending on what you’re doing, grow them larger.

Now, this all sounds good in theory, and we all know bodybuilders eat large amounts of protein, but what does the scientific research say?

Research shows that high-protein diets…

A low-protein diet, on the other hand, is great for accelerating muscle loss while in a caloric deficit.

The abundance of research available on high-protein dieting makes it very clear that it’s simply a superior way to diet for weight loss, and especially if you’re exercising as well.

How much protein should you be eating, then?

Research has shown that protein should comprise approximately 30% of your daily calories, but going as high as 40-50% is okay as well. For most people, that comes out to be about 1 – 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

(In case you’re wondering if a high-protein diet is bad for your kidneys, this myth has been thoroughly debunked.)

Diet Mistake #6:
Eating Too Little Carbohydrate

big-diet-mistakes

The low-carb diet feels…

 

Yes, you read that correctly. I’m advocating eating carbohydrate. And no, I’m not a neo-Nazi and I don’t sacrifice babies to Moloch.

Seriously though, despite its current popularity, low-carb dieting sucks and is not only unnecessary for most people, but downright counter-productive.

If you find that statement blasphemous, give me a minute to explain…

You don’t lose fat faster on a low-carb diet.

That statement is basically blasphemous these days, but the general advice of going on a low-carb diet to maximize fat loss is scientifically bankrupt.

There are about 20 studies that low-carb proponents bandy about as definitive proof of the superiority of low-carb dieting for weight loss. Thisthis, and this are common examples. If you simply read the abstracts of these studies, low-carb dieting definitely seems more effective, and this type of glib “research” is what most low-carbers base their beliefs on.

But there’s a big problem with many of these studies, and it has to do with protein intake.

The problem is the low-carb diets in these studies invariably contained more protein than the low-fat diets.  Yes, one for one…without fail.

In many cases, the low-fat groups were given less protein than even the RDI of .8 grams per kg of body weight, which is just woefully inadequate for weight loss purposes. Research has shown that even double and triple those (RDI) levels of protein intake isn’t enough to fully prevent the loss of lean mass while restricting calories for fat loss.

So what we’re actually looking at in these studies is a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet vs. low-protein, high-fat diet, and the former wins every time. But we can’t ignore the high-protein part and say it’s more effective because of the low-carb element.

In fact, better designed and executed studies prove the opposite: that when protein intake is high, low-carb dieting offers no especial weight loss benefits.

There are four studies I know of that meet these criteria and gee whiz look at that…when protein intake is high and matched among low-carb and high-carb dieters, there is no significant difference in weight loss.

The bottom line is so long as you maintain a proper calorie deficit and keep your protein intake high, you’re going to maximize fat loss while preserving as much lean mass as possible. Going low-carb as well won’t help you lose more weight.

You build less muscle on a low-carb diet.

When you reduce your carbohydrate intake, you reduce the amount of glycogen stored in the muscles. This, in turn, compromises your performance in the gym–you can expect a dramatic reduction in both muscle endurance and strength, which then limits the amount of progressive overload you can subject your muscles to in those workouts. (And less progressive overload in workouts = less muscle growth over time.)

There are other downsides to low muscle glycogen levels.

Research conducted by scientists at Ball State University found that when muscle glycogen levels are low, post-workout signaling related to muscle growth is impaired. This, by the way, is especially unwanted when you’re dieting for weight loss because a calorie restriction alone already impairs your body’s ability to synthesize proteins.

In athletes, a low-carb diet has been shown to increase cortisol and reduce testosterone levels. This too is particularly problematic when you’re restricting calories, which also reduces anabolic hormone levels.

So, we already know that a low-carb diet won’t help us lose fat faster, but as you now see, it’s looking pretty damn ugly for us weightlifters looking to get lean. It looks like all a low-carb diet does is make our workouts suck and speed up muscle loss.

This isn’t just theory, either.

study conducted by researchers at the University of Rhode Island looked at how low- and high-carbohydrate intakes affected exercise-induced muscle damage, strength recovery, and whole body protein metabolism after a strenuous workout.

The result was the subjects on the low-carbohydrate diet (which wasn’t all that low, actually—about 226 grams per day, versus 353 grams per day for the high-carbohydrate group) lost more strength, recovered slower, and showed lower levels of protein synthesis.

In this study, researchers at McMaster University compared high- and low-carbohydrate dieting with subjects performing daily leg workouts. They found that those on the low-carbohydrate diet experienced higher rates of protein breakdown and lower rates of protein synthesis, resulting in less overall muscle growth than their higher-carbohydrate counterparts.

All this is why I never drop my carbohydrate intake lower than about .8 grams per pound of body weight when cutting (and yes I get to 6% body fat eating this many carbs per day), and I’ll go as high as 2 to 2.5 grams per pound when bulking.

The bottom line on low-carb dieting.

Despite my general distaste for low-carb dieting, I actually do recommend it in certain cases.

For instance, if someone is severely overweight, his insulin sensitivity is going to be poor, and his body may do better with a lower carb diet than I recommend above. If someone is sedentary (no regular exercise), he too would be better served by a lower-carb diet because his body simply doesn’t need the abundance of carbohydrate energy for anything.

That said, if you exercise regularly, and especially with resistance training, a low-carb diet will do nothing for you but slow muscle growth when “bulking” and accelerate muscle loss when “cutting.”

Diet Mistake #7:
Taking “Cheating” Too Far

cheat-meal

I EARNED THIS

 

Now that you know that “cheating” on a diet doesn’t mean eating a food deemed “unclean,” we can get at its real meaning:

“Cheating” on your diet has nothing to do with what you eat–it’s simply erasing your calorie deficit or adding to your surplus by overeating

And you can accomplish this by slightly overeating every day or by going buck wild one or two days per week, which can then add back some or all the fat you lost during the week (effectively reducing or erasing your calorie deficit for the week) or cause you to gain too much fat too quickly if you’re in a calorie surplus every day.

If you’re dieting for fat loss (maintaining a weekly calorie deficit), I recommend having a moderate cheat meal every week. It’s a nice psychological boost and, depending on where you’re at in terms of body fat percentage, it can help keep the weight loss going.

Notice I said cheat MEAL, though. And moderate. Not a cheat DAY or an all-out binge meal, because either can undo some or all of a week’s worth of fat loss (super high-fat meals with alcohol are the absolute worst).

If you’re dieting for muscle growth (maintaining a weekly calorie surplus), I also recommend having a moderate cheat meal every week, but I also recommend that you avoid dramatically spiking your calorie intake for that day.

The number one mistake that people trying to “bulk” make is simply using it as a license to eat more or less whatever they want, and the result is rapid fat gain that in turn impairs muscle growth, partially defeating the point of being in a calorie surplus in the first place.

When you’re in a calorie surplus and are cheating, you can end the day a few hundreds calories above your normal daily intake, but don’t go crazy.

If you need to, you can even reduce your carbohydrate and fat intake throughout the day to “save up” calories for the larger meal and thus keep your overall intake for the day in a reasonable range.

Stop Making These Diet Mistakes and Your Body Will Change

Like anything, proper dieting doesn’t require utter perfection to get results. It just requires that you do enough of the important things right.

There are, of course, many other potential diet mistakes you can make, but they’re inconsequential compared to the seven outlined here. These are the key, “make or break” factors of dieting that you simply can’t screw around with.

Stop making these mistakes and get these things right, and you’ll never fret over dieting again. You’ll learn to use it as a tool for changing body composition as you desire, and you’ll gain freedom and control over what and how you eat.

What are your thoughts on these diet mistakes? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

 

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I'm Mike and I'm the creator of Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics, and I believe that EVERYONE can achieve the body of their dreams.

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  • Hey Mike – how do you typically partition your calories throughout the week when cutting? How many more calories do you eat on training days than you do on off days? Is it ever a good idea to eat below your daily maintenance on a training days? A lot of popular sentiment these days says no, and that your entire weekly deficit should be achieved on off days, but that leads to pretty low intake on off days. Also, is it ever acceptable to eat at a larger deficit than like 20% on a single day of the week as long as your running weekly average is still around 20%? If you could clear this up that would be awesome.

    • Michael Matthews

      Hey man!

      I keep things isocaloric when cutting. Simpler and works just fine.

      I like a surplus/deficit approach for maintenance though, which I talk about in BBLS.

      Yeah slightly larger overall actually. Check this out:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/rapid-weight-loss/

  • Anita Hall

    As far as carbs go, I know you say to count vegetables and fruits of course, but apart from those, for muscle growth your probably meaning starchy carbs, if so, what do you think about cycling and timing these. For example I have my total carbs at 45%. I have my vegetables and fruit throughout the day & try to fit in my starchy carbs(roots, squash, rice, potatoes) after workout at night to restore glycogen, my exception is steel cut oats(which I’m not sure i should count as a starchy carb) with some protein powder for breakfast. On rest days I try to cut out all starchy carbs unless i’m planning to train the next morning, then I have a little at dinner. Do you know if any studies prove its necessary to structure this way or is just fitting it in the important thing?

    • Michael Matthews

      Starchy carbs are nice because they’re glucose rich and you can do it that way (load your carbs in your post-workout meal).

      You can eat starchy carbs on rest days so long as you stick to your daily numbers. This will help:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/healthy-meal-planning-tips/

  • Serge

    Unfortunately, last weekend I made this famous Mistake #7 – when I had my kid’s Halloween chocolate candy, I couldn’t stop after that. As a result, +10 lb. What an idiot…

    • Michael Matthews

      LOL you gained ten pounds in a couple days? I’m actually impressed!

  • Alec

    Hey Mike,

    I’ve just been reading your blog and loved your thoughts on building muscle,

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    A lot of our promo partners with blogs are doing the same and it’s really working well for them

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    Thanks for listening to my proposal and I look forward to hearing back from you.

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  • Juan

    Another excellent and detailed post, backed my scientific research. Thanks Mike!

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Juan! Glad you liked it.

  • Darren

    Just fantastic! So much valuable information. I do not know how you can make it clearer to people without holding their hands during breakfast, dinner and evening meal. Thats not an idea Mike, don’t try it hehe.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Darren. Hahah shit that was going to be my next service offered…

  • Ben

    Completely agree with everything written. Expecting people to perfectly plan their diets to get ensure they are sufficient in every single vitamin whilst having a healthy body fat percentage is unrealistic for the majority. Western society really needs to learn that weight loss is just a numbers game, there’s far too many people out there who have been lead to believe differently.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Ben! I totally agree.

  • frametheory

    Im eating 27% protein. About 126 grams of protein. Im bulking I weigh 140. Is that enough protein to build muscle? I know its not 1 gram per pound, but figured its enough.

    • Michael Matthews

      Yeah that’s fine.

  • Frank

    Mike you should come up with a Calorie tracker app! I was looking for a good one but don’t trust the ones they have out.

    • Michael Matthews

      I’m doing a workout app first but I will add a whole diet component to it as well.

      Check out MyFitnessPal. You can set custom macros on the site and it works well.

      • Alon Rosner

        Looking forward to the day it comes out. I would love to have the option to track my workouts in an app and customize the workouts it provides based on my goals. For example, people could start with the original BLS/TLS workout plan, or they could choose advanced training, which would automatically periodize your training instantly (with full customization: define your weak points and it adds a day to your workout week; distinguish between myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy)

        Mike, I see so much potential in that app and the value it adds to your company is worth the investment.

        Best,
        Alon

        • Michael Matthews

          Thanks Alon and yeah it’s going to get fancier and fancier over time. 🙂 I’m excited for it.

  • jrnyk

    Hello Mike I’m following your bigger leaner strong program i was skinny fat started at 138 I’m 5″5 only down to 132 thats 4 weeks is that a good rate for fat loss, i feel like I’m getting a bit stronger as well.

    • Michael Matthews

      Awesome man! That’s perfect. Keep up the good work and keep me posted!

  • LifeForMuscle

    hi mike! what an amazing article , i really enjoyed going through it! well done.

    i would say the deadly mistake is going on a diet , because when you say that you are on a diet that means one day you will be off the diet. it would be better if it is just a lifestyle change and to prepare your self mentally to understand that you will be doing this your whole life , and that you will enjoy it!

    i especially hate the Atkins (low carb) diet , its just plain stupid. i have friends who want to lose weight so they go into a low carb diet stick to eating salad for a week and then after that they give up and get back to their bad eating habits.

    though i have one question , how do you manage to count your calories everyday? i find it annoying as hell to count calories and macro nutrients. you told us a tip of preparing what you will eat the day before. that would be hard! what tips would you give to help me count my calories easily.

    as always. keep up the good work bro!

    sincerely, your biggest fan 😉

  • acirpr

    awesome article!!

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks!

  • Manuel Avaro

    Hello Mike, I am reading your BLS book and a question came to mind. On non training days, during bulking, is my protein shake schedule the same as training days? Same carb intake? Thanks for the GREAT book!

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks for reading the book! You can drop to maintenance on your off days. Some people like it better that way.

  • Paulo Ferreira

    I’m sorry, Mike, but I still can’t buy that “all that matters is the calorie deficit/surplus” theory. This week I added another reason not to.
    For the last month I had been on the toughest plateau of my life. I tried increasing work volume, added cardio, then more cardio at a greater intensity, and nothing happened. So last week I just decided to cut my wheat cereal and milk breakfast and eat oats with whey powder instead, Calorie levels and macros remained the same. Guess what? 1 kg and 0,8% body fat lost after seven days.

    Maybe it’s because I’ve some kind of lactose or wheat gluten intolerance, I don’t know, but that shows some people just don’t do well with certain kinds of foods, regardless of energy balance.

    • Michael Matthews

      I appreciate the comment but how did you determine you lost fat, and not water?

      Because I would bet oh…a lot of money…you simply dropped water, which could have been a result of the foods you were eating (a reduction in sodium would be the likely cause).

      • Paulo Ferreira

        Thanks for the reply, Mike, but… It wasn’t just water. I use both accu-measure and Hatfield’s formula to determine body fat percentage, and funny enough they read the exact same value. I lost 1 cm in my waist too. More accurate proof would require infrared or underwater weighing. 😛 Besides, remember I kept the exact same macro ratios and calories, so it wasn’t a simple case of “cut carbs/lose water weight”. I eliminated the wheat cereal and milk but added oats and white rice for dinner.
        Finally, after changing my breakfast I stopped having energy crashes an hour or so later, which is one more reason to believe I do better without those foods.

        PS: I kinda need to buy a new power rack, so “a lot of money” would be most welcome. 😉

        • Michael Matthews

          The only way to know whether you’re losing sub-q water or fat would be something like IF or DEXA.

          Your metabolism isn’t a magical unicorn that works differently than the metabolisms of the millions of people studied over the last century.

          What you saw could be related to the thermic effect of food (if you swapped highly processed wheat for whole gains, this is possible), but it’s more likely just related to water retention. It’s very possible that your body has a legitimate issue with wheat, which could lead to IBS-like symptoms. It’s out there. Just not nearly as common/prevalent as the anti-wheat crowd wants us to believe.

  • Dave Hogan

    Hi Mike: In this article, you said that if a person reduces their calories they WILL lose weight. But in another article, you said that when a person reduces their calories, their body reduces their metabolic rate to preserve fat to survive–causing no fat loss. Both of your claims can’t be correct. Which statement is correct? (The online calculators say my BMR should be around 3200 calories). At 260 lbs (muscular and fat) I started a diet at 2800 calories, then reduced my calories to 2400, then 2100, then 1800, and finally 1500 (for one month each), and still lost NO fat during those five months! I am still at 260 lbs — after 5 months of very low & reduced calories–with NO fat loss! My 45″ waist stayed the same. The trainers at my gym have no clue why I am NOT seeing any results or changes. What is WRONG with me, or the “science” of fat-loss?

    • Michael Matthews

      If you drop your calories enough it will take a long time for your metabolism to slow down enough to reach homeostasis. Check this out to see an extreme example of this:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minnesota_Starvation_Experiment

      Practically speaking, if you’re a healthy person dieting for fat loss and you’ve plateaued and are exercising as much as you can without overtraining, it’s time to reduce calorie intake. You stop this once you hit BMR and then reverse diet:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/how-to-speed-up-metabolism/

      Your BMR is most definitely not 3200. TDEE maybe. If you’re very active.

      Something is missing from your diet logs because that’s physically impossible. How often were you going over those calories (cheating)? What were you eating? How were you tracking intake? Were you preparing all your own food or eating out at restaurants a lot?

      • Dave Hogan

        Yes, the 3200 cal figure is my TDEE (not BMR — my error) However, I have gone over my diet logs, repeatedly checking everything ( I am a math/science teacher!) Trainers at my gym have verified my diet macros (typical veggies/fish/eggs) I have NO cheat meals. I do carb-cycling (1200 cals OFF days, 1800 cals with moderate carb on gym days) I prepare all my food (No restaurants). My waist has STAYED at 45″ during the five months, and all my clothes
        still fit the SAME. I can pinch the SAME amount of fat at all areas of
        my body, and I look the SAME in the mirror. At 1500 cals, I should have
        lost about 36 pounds in the last two months, and should have lost an
        additional 24 pounds in the previous three months (at 1800-2400 cals),
        for a total projected loss of 60 pounds! But instead, I lost ZERO (0).
        I am certain that I am maintaining my muscle mass. By consuming 1500
        cals/day, the SCIENCE says that humans will have extreme difficulty
        building any muscle. You said that my numbers are “physically impossible”, but many people write on the web that they consume 1000-1200 cals and still can’t lose any fat either. I am extremely baffled by my diet mystery,
        which no one can figure out….but I MUST find out WHY I have lost NO fat, because I can’t continue to live with my 45″ waist and its extremely unhealthy amount of internal visceral fat–which will lead to heart attack, stroke, diabetes, etc, if not resolved!

        • Michael Matthews

          3200 is a high TDEE, too, unless you’re exercising 6+ hours per week. You’re probably using too large of an activity multiplier. Check this out:

          http://www.muscleforlife.com/healthy-meal-planning-tips/

          That said, if you’ve been on this low-calorie grind for a while, it may be time to focus on building your metab back up:

          http://www.muscleforlife.com/how-to-speed-up-metabolism/

          • Dave Hogan

            Hi Mike: My K-M BMR is 2400 cals. Multiplied by 1.35 gives a TDEE of 3200 cals (SAME as other online calculators). However, my weight has stayed at 260 lbs. for the last 4 months at 2400/2100/1800/1500 cals (ALL are BELOW my BMR!). The last two months have been around 50% BELOW my supposed TDEE. But with NO fat loss at only 1500 cals, can I assume that my TRUE TDEE is only 1500 cals — suggesting the calculators have a HUGE 50% margin of error? Or am I the first person in history to NOT lose any weight after eating only HALF of their calculated TDEE?
            I read your article about increasing metabolism. Tell me if I understand your plan correctly: To LOSE weight, I need to INCREASE my calories (from 1500 now) by 100 cals/week until I reach my TDEE of 3200 cals (a 17-week process–with NO projected fat loss during those 17 weeks?), then I need to reduce my calories by 20%, to start seeing fat loss? That’s four more months of NO fat loss? I’m willing to do that — but as a science teacher, it seems that I should find out the scientific reason WHY I am losing NO weight with a HUGE calorie deficit? Can you think of any metabolic / hormonal / endocrine reason why my body is not conforming to the “LAWS OF THERMODYNAMICS” ?

          • Michael Matthews

            Trust me–your body works the same as the rest of ours. Something is funky.

            Were you exercising at all or just restricting calories? Are you dealing with any disease or dysfunctions?

          • Dave Hogan

            Mike: I have been a “gym-rat” from age 20 to 53, and also do HIIT (bike and stadium stairs) 2 x 30 min./wk. My only known dysfunction is a hypo-thyroid, but I take medication. I wish I could tell you why I have lost NO weight in 4+ months, but I am completely befuddled by my metabolic syndrome — which is a very serious problem — WORSE than smoking & alcoholism! The only causes I can think of are high cortisol / insulin, dairy estrogens, or the most likely cause — FATTY LIVER DISEASE. I ate healthy my whole life, but probably too much carb (brown rice, beans, oatmeal, yogurt) which caused high insulin, and gradual fat storage in my abdomen — and liver? The web experts say that fat loss is IMPOSSIBLE with a fatty liver, even under a HUGE calorie deficit, because the liver CAN’T secrete adiponectin to burn fat. (the body will burn its muscle before fat, to get glycogen). But I am maintaining my weight/strength and NOT burning muscle! I have LOTS of energy, am rarely hungry, and feel healthy, at only 1500 cals (90 carbs), but I CAN’T lose a single pound — so I still think that my (TRUE) TDEE is only 1500 (or LESS?), not 3200 as “calculated”. Is it “possible” that my (TRUE) TDEE is around 1500 (at 260 lbs and exercising 4-6 hours/week) ? Should I call “Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not”, (OR) go see an Endocrinologist ?

          • Michael Matthews

            Very interesting. I rarely see thing like this and in every case I have, a simple reverse diet fixed it.

            You can absolutely lose weight with FLD. In fact weight loss is the main treatment.

            Do you know if you have MetSyn or are you guessing? (High triglycerides, high blood pressure, low HDL, etc.)

          • Dave Hogan

            I’m fairly sure I have MetSyn (Insulin resistant, visceral fat, high trigs, low HDL, etc). I’m skeptical of trying reverse dieting, because it makes “NO sense” to gradually MAKE my body burn 3200 cals, when it appears to be burning only 1500 TDEE? (To LOSE weight as you recommend, I would need to eat double my current amount, and buy twice as much food!) (???) That’s like saying, “To reduce air pollution, we need to burn lots more coal!” So I plan to continue with my 1500 cals, (along with Green Tea and Milk Thistle to repair my FLD) for three total months. If I still see NO fat loss, I will assume my TDEE is around 1500, and will also see an Endocrinologist. Thanks again for all your input! I’ll update you at the end of the three months…

          • Michael Matthews

            Understood on all points. Reverse dieting actually works really well but your metabolic condition may get in the way. I’m not sure as I haven’t specifically done a reverse diet with someone with MetSyn.

  • Esther Mozo

    Hi, Mike! With so many diet books out there, it’s hard not to get confused. Thanks for clearing things up and keeping it simple. Following a meal plan filled with food you like eating isn’t hard, but the weekend eat-outs undo me. Is it possible to eat out and still lose weight, or should I resign myself to packing my lunchbox wherever I go?

    • Michael Matthews

      Yup it really can get confusing.

      Eating out is tough because you just don’t know what goes into the food, calorie-wise. Restaurants add butter and oil to just about everything to improve taste.

      Check this out though:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/cheat-meal/

  • Alvaro Salazar

    Very informative post! Good thing that you back all your statements on science. That gives more credibility to all this. Keep on the good job!

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks!

  • Ken

    It’s interesting how vague the concepts of high carb and low carb are and get thrown around as if everyone knows what that means. You make a very compelling point about not going “low” carb but then you say you never go less than .8 gm of carbs per pound of body weight. when cutting. For me that an amount of carbs is strongly within the “low carb” range and according to the study you cite from Rhode Island would put you in the “lost more strength and recovered slower and showed lower levels of protein synthenis” category. Based on other stuff of yours I’ve read, I know that that is the inevitable side effect of eating within a caloric defecit. I don’t fundamentally disagree with your points at all, just seems like the idea of “high carb” and “low carb” are dangerous because of the relative nature of the words don’t really mean anything.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks for the comment and you’re absolutely right–what constitutes “low-carb” really depends on the study being reviewed.

      That said, most low-carb diets provide 0.5 grams of carb per pound of body weight or less, and when we consider all the research at hand, the rule of thumb for us intense weightlifters almost becomes “the less carbs you’re eating, the more your performance becomes impaired.”

  • michelle

    I’ve been on 1600 calories for about a month now and, after considering any weight fluctuations, have only lost about 5 lbs. (Hard to tell because my weight fluctuates just that much.) I have been on a ~23% deficit with a daily goal of 140g protein, 140g carb, and 53g fat, but I always seem to be a little short on protein (more like 130g) and over on carbs or fat. Would you suggest 1500 calories a day, or even 1400? I lift weights 4x/week, followed by 25 min. cardio, but other than that I’m pretty sedentary.

    • Michael Matthews

      5 pounds down in 4 weeks is perfect. Your macros look good. Let’s leave everything as is because it’s working.

      • michelle

        Great! Also, this morning, I fit into my smaller sized pants that I haven’t been able to wear in months ^_^

        • Michael Matthews

          Congrats! 🙂

  • phoenix

    I’ve always eaten good and stayed away from unhealthy foods but for some reason getting a bulking plan going nutrition wise with meals I can easily follow is proving harder then I thought.

    • Michael Matthews

      Yeah it can be tough because you need a lot of calories but get sick of stuffing yourself haha.

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  • Joe

    Excellent article with references. But my question is if I adhere to your recommended protein and carb intake the only way to remain in a calorie deficit would be to cut most of the fat out of the diet. So that’s not a problem? Because the usual advice one reads is that low fat equals low testosterone.

  • Nikki

    How would you get off of a carb cycle? Ive been doing a carb cycle and im sick of having to change it every single day…I’m not even sure what my maintenance is anymore… I’m 5’4 125lbs female. I lost 18 pounds on a carb cycle and I had been maintaining my weight at 1800cals previously…

    Also I was wondering if unnatural athletes do better on low carb diets?

    • Michael Matthews

      I would probably just reverse diet back into a normal carb intake:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/how-to-speed-up-metabolism/

      (Slowly add them back in, adjust fat down to keep calories where they need to be.)

      That’s a good question actually and I’m not sure. Most guys on drugs I’ve spoken to eat absurb amounts of carbs because they can really make use of them in the gym.

  • Michael Matthews

    Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

    Feel free to comment below if you have any questions. I do my best to check and reply to every comment left on my blog, so don’t be shy!

    Oh and if you like what I have to say, you should sign up for my free weekly newsletter! You’ll get awesome, science-based health and fitness tips, delicious “guilt-free” recipes, articles to keep you motivated, and much more!

    You can sign up here:

    http://www.muscleforlife.com/signup/

    Your information is safe with me too. I don’t share, sell, or rent my lists. Pinky swear!

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  • Juliana Deuink

    I’ve been overweight for 10 years and tried so many things. Different things work for different people and I was lucky enough to find one that worked for me. I lost 25 pounds in one month without any exercise and it has been a life changer. I’m a little embarrased to post my before and after photos here but if anyone actually cares to hear what I’ve been doing then I’d be happy to help in any way. Just shoot me an email at oceanflowers82@gmail.com and I’ll show you my before and after photos, and tell you about how things are going for me with the stuff I’ve tried. I wish someone would have helped me out when I was struggling to find a solution so if I can help you then it would make my day

  • howtotakebloodpressure.net

    Wow amazing tips. Thank you

  • Lorenzo

    Hi Mike, I was able to reverse the Metabolic Syndrome (Insulin resistance, high ldl, low hdl, visceral fat, high tryglicerides etc) and high blood glucose. Now that I’m weight training following your programs and many other tips on nutrition what not, I’m a little concerned about when I reach my BF % that I want might affect me going reverse diet. I know you mentioned in the comments below that your not to familiar with the MetSyn topic. The only thing I can think of is continue to check my blood analysis every 3 months and monitoring my glucose to see what spikes it. I’m not diabetic but I was prediabetc so I’m just very diligent with my diet. Thanks in advance again.

    • Sorry but I don’t quite understand your question. Can you elaborate?

  • Lorenzo

    My bad Mike. There is no specific question sorry. The question is how to deal with carbs when they are very important specially when weight training and keeping a low carb diet has helped me pretty much I would say to reverse my MetSyn?

    • Oh okay if you need to be low-carb for health reasons that is what it is. What’s your body comp like?

  • Lorenzo

    I will measure with calipers for a more accurate reading. Talk to you soon and thanks again for what you do for us I can tell you love what you do and enjoy it as well which makes it even better.

  • Jenny Hudson

    Very true info. Look here 4 very speedy and healthy weight loss. http://www.amazingaus.com/whats-the-best-way-to-lose-weight/

  • Kelvin Christopher Ker

    Hi Michael, my resting metabolism is at 2000kcal (round down) and I’m looking to lower fats. I’ve been putting myself at 500-700kcal deficiet and I don’t see much changes in my body physique. I exercise daily too. I’ve been minimizing my carbs intake as per I’m trying out intermittent fasting. Are there any other articles you can suggest for me to read up on to help me improve on my fat lost journey?

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