14 Things I Got Wrong About Fat Loss

This is Day 21 in my 30-day blogging journey.

You can read more about my “why” on Day 1.

In celebration of our 14 year anniversary at RevFit, I’ve decided to take a look at 14 places where the information or guidance I may have given once upon a time with regard to fat loss was off base.

  1. The Low Carb Solution: In my first couple of years of business, I attended a nutrition seminar in Cleveland. The professor teaching the seminar had seen great success with a style of low carb dieting that looked something like this: 40% of the diet from protein, 40% of the diet from fat and 20% of the diet from carbohydrates. It certainly wasn’t keto but it was absolutely low carb. I asked my roster of fat loss clients if they had interest in trying it. Many did. Of that group, success rates were high. However, many of the successful clients regained most if not all of the weight back. The diet was just not flexible enough for their lifestyles. I’ve learned throughout the years that there are far too many variables to consider when looking at what diet approach can work in the short term versus the long term for clients. I never had a solution for those who couldn’t adhere to that diet plan or even a strategy for those who succeeded only to see the weight climb back on. Now, anyone can try a low carb style of eating if that’s what suits them. I just won’t ever be as dogmatic about any one style being better than another.
  2. Suggested Protein Intake: Depending on who you follow, some people push protein harder than others when it comes to fat loss. I’ll normally say it’s the second most important variable to focus on behind achieving a calorie deficit. Where I was somewhat off base was in how much protein I’d suggest for a person. I recall hearing something to the tune of: Take your goal weight and that’s how many grams of protein you should shoot for in a day. It “sounded” like a good idea. However, imagine a person who’s 300 pounds and they want to get down to 240. 240g of protein is not an easy thing to achieve. I average 130-150g a day and I’m not trying to lose weight. What I’ve learned since then is that this same person could actually do just fine north of 100g of protein per day. “Should” they do more? Well, possibly. Pushing protein higher can reduce feelings of hunger and increase feelings of satiety. That being said, too much rigidity around a high protein target can drop dietary adherence. I’m nowhere near as aggressive in pushing protein intake. I can help a client increase their daily amount but if they undershoot the goal, it’s not the end of the world.
  3. Calorie Tracking: One of the best things to come from COVID was the fact that in 2020-21, I wasn’t able to do as many body measurements for new clients. As a result, the software I had been using, which allowed me to get calorie and macro goals for my clients would be less accurate. As an alternative, I started utilizing more 24-hour recalls for food patterns and simply looking at client behaviors instead of calorie tracking. If I were the one trying to lose fat, I’d happily count calories and measure/weigh my food. But I am not like everyone else. Some people don’t need to count calories and as an extension of that, some people have absolutely zero business counting calories (especially if they have a history of an eating disorder). Calorie tracking is a tool. No more and no less. I don’t use it as often as I used to and fat loss success has not been negatively effected as a result.
  4. Is 1200 Calories Too Low? Ask any woman who’s attempted to lose fat about a 1200 calorie plan and you’re probably going to get a lot of negative feedback. Fact of the matter is: 1200 calories IS too low for a lot of women. It is also just right for many women and…wait for it…it’s too high for some women. What I didn’t understand years ago, which I understand much better now, is learning how and when it’s appropriate. Again, too much of a dogmatic stance can cause problems. Here’s where it can get someone in trouble. Let’s say you’re a woman who wants to lose fat and your maintenance calories are 1700 a day. If you wanted to lose one pound of fat per week, that’s a 500 calorie reduction each day. That takes you down to 1200. Will it work? Sure. However, what if you’re active? Should it be that low? Maybe, maybe not. What if you made a smaller deficit, say, down to 1400 or 1500 from 1700. Would that give you more energy for your workouts, keep your NEAT levels higher and give you better dietary adherence? This is where context matters. Years ago, I would have just blindly offered 1200 because it made the scale move. I know now that speed isn’t everything. I’ll talk more about that later.
  5. What About Menopause? I learned more about menopause in my first six months of business than I knew in all of my years combined prior to that. Most of my clients are female and within that demographic, the vast majority of those women are experiencing perimenopause or are in menopause. I understood that the body was undergoing a fundamental change of life but I didn’t quite grasp how that affected fat loss. Well, that stage of life can affect sleep quality, cravings, mood, energy levels, and there’s the added bonus of more abdominal fat due to changes in hormones. Now, does menopause *make* women gain weight? Not exactly. However, all of those aforementioned factors can influence how women eat. As a result, dietary adherence can decrease and weight can go up. Many women try to fight back with a further reduction in calories and chronic cardio. It’s generally NOT a good idea. Yes, you need to exercise (preferably some combination of strength training and cardio). No, you don’t need to kill yourself in the gym. Yes, you need some stress management skills. No, you don’t need more caffeine, more alcohol, and more Netflix. Be kind to yourself, ladies. It’s the only body you have. Treat it with respect.
  6. Genetics Loads The Gun Here’s the thing: You can’t pick your parents. If your parents struggled with their weight, there is a very good chance you’re going to struggle as well. Part of that is hormonal, part of that is environmental. It doesn’t mean you won’t succeed if you watched your family members attempt to lose fat and keep it off. It may mean that your path could be more difficult and it has little to do with willpower and motivation. In the industry, we say: Genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger. It’s true but it’s not the whole picture. I used to believe that lack of adherence could be laziness or lack of motivation or “Maybe they didn’t just want it badly enough.” Sometimes, sometimes, that’s true. But sometimes, that genetic link makes it near impossible for your hunger signals to shut off. It’s like you’re trying to feed a bottomless pit and it can’t be satiated. What I know now about genetic links helps me. What I understand about trauma-informed responses to eating helps as well. If you’ve tried every diet under the sun and you’ve struggled for decades to successfully lose weight and keep it off, talk to your doctor about GLP-1 agonists. They are NOT for everyone and many people who are finding ways to be prescribed the medications should not have been approved. But for the people who have found success with them, I doubt any of them would tell you it wasn’t worth it.
  7. Building A Better Food Environment: Perhaps you’ve heard of the “See Food” Diet? As in, if I see food, I eat it! This might be the best explanation of how our food environment influences our eating behaviors. If we have easy access to ultra-processed foods (think most candies, cookies, crackers, etc) then not only are we more likely to gravitate towards them but they are easy to eat (and overeat) without registering fullness. As mentioned in Point #6, genetics may play a major role in how our hunger signals and hunger hormones communicate with the rest of the body, but how strategic is our grocery shopping? Do we always keep these ultra-processed foods around because it’s “what the kids like”? I understood the importance of an improved food environment early on in my career but I didn’t put as much stock into it as I should have. How you shop, what you stock your house (refrigerator, pantry, freezer) with and what you keep within easy grasp can be the difference between success or lack thereof on a diet plan. Not to mention, it’s typically these snacks that become uncalculated calories for many people who are attempting to track their intake. The easiest thing for me to tell you is that if you don’t want to eat it, don’t buy it. However, I’m also a parent and, like you, my children like these foods. The next best things to accomplish are to buy variations of snacks that they might enjoy and my wife and I are less inclined to consume or just to keep them further out of reach. It’s not a foolproof strategy and it may constantly need tweaking depending on who eats what in the household.
  8. Privilege: Once upon a time, it was easy to talk to my clients about purchasing/consuming organic foods, whole and minimally processed foods, or to reduce time and frequency spent ordering through fast food establishments. It alienates a certain population because 1) Not everyone can afford a personal trainer/nutrition coach and 2) Sometimes the less expensive, ultra-processed foods are the most economical option. That forced me to change the way I coach nutrition. Can someone successfully lose fat on a diet that is arguably not a nutritious as we might like? Absolutely. Is it ideal? No, but that doesn’t make it impossible. In a “perfect” world, we would all have access to highly nutritious foods and our bodies would thank us for the time and care we put into our food choices. But those choices are a privilege and not everyone has access, capacity, or income to eat foods on the higher end of quality. Small improvements can help. Reducing fast food consumption from 5 days a week to 3 is progress. Ordering just the burger with no fries is progress (and cheaper). Every small step can add up. Shaming people over their food choices is a terrible way to provide guidance and support.
  9. Do Genders Matter? Let me say it like this: Fat loss for women is exponentially harder than it is for men. That’s not to say it’s easy for men. It’s to say that it’s easier by comparison. Women are often at the mercy of lower calorie intakes, less muscle mass, more cravings due to hormonal fluctuations and a societal disadvantage where (even in 2023 as I write this) thinness is still seen as superior to any degree of “fatness”. Men aren’t completely in the clear. There is still plenty of body dysmorphia amongst men and there is the constant nagging of comparison where you just can’t tell if that magazine cover model achieved that body naturally or with the use of drugs. Consider that a man may need 3000 calories to maintain his weight and if he wants to make a 500 calorie reduction for fat loss, he can still consume 2500 calories a day. His spouse, by comparison, may have 1800 calories for maintenance. If she wants to attempt to lose fat at the same rate, it pushes her down to 1300. That means that hubby can eat nearly double what his wife can and still lose fat at a good pace. It not only is a recipe for resentment in the household, it’s a perfect scenario for unintended sabotage. He can still have a slice of pizza and a beer on Friday night. She can’t. I didn’t have a great grasp on this early in my career. It took training enough couples to see the reality of these numbers. Suffice to say, support is crucial to success.
  10. How Important Is Fat Loss? It seemed easy to me. Someone comes into my studio and says they want to lose weight. Awesome. Let’s do it. What wasn’t always easy to discern was whether or not it was an appropriate goal. Not every client will tell you if they have a history of eating disorders. Not every client even knows that they suffer from disordered eating behaviors. And, I hate to break it to you, but your average personal trainer who tries to coach nutrition has absolutely ZERO skills in being able to work with this type of client, even if they have the best of intentions. It’s only been over the last couple of years of my career that I even have a grasp on how to work with clients who identify with eating disorders. That makes me far from an expert, rather someone who has slightly more tools in his toolbox than I ever did before. Let me clarify this for any coach who needs to hear it: tools like intermittent fasting and calorie/macro tracking are straight up kryptonite for clients who associate with eating disorders. The main priority is to get these same individuals to shift focus away from fat loss temporarily, help them find a qualified therapist, help them learn to appreciate moving their bodies and not putting as much value on body weight or leanness until their relationship with food has been healed. There is tremendous value in a weight neutral approach to food and training. Fat loss is not a helpful path for all people seeking it. Heal the mind, heal the body, focus on fat loss only if it is appropriate.
  11. How Fast Should You Lose Fat? Fast fat loss is almost always inspiring to see because it’s motivating to the client and it has the appearance of making the coach look like they’re very good at what they do. However, any one who has ever dieted knows that it isn’t just about losing it, it’s about keeping it off (not to mention, maintaining as much muscle mass as possible in the process). I’ll talk more about this in Point 14. Studies show that for many dieters, faster and more aggressive fat loss in the beginning of a diet plan can help with dietary adherence. However, some people need to work on other areas of their lives first. Maybe they need to make exercise more consistent first before they can tackle a calorie deficit. Maybe they need to focus on their sleep hygiene before they can even think about improving their food plan. When I was just getting started in this industry, I wanted fat loss results as fast as I could get them for my clients. The problem is: not everyone is “ready” for that. What may have looked good for my business may not have been what was good for the client. I’ve learned that any rate of progress is worth celebrating and sometimes, maintenance is progress. Each client brings a different set of challenges to the table as well as a different personal history with food. Learning how to celebrate and embrace slow fat loss, fast fat loss and the importance of maintaining weight can be game changing for both coach and client.
  12. Appreciating The Individual: Client A: “Intermittent fasting worked for me”, Client B. “I love the keto diet!” Client C: “Veganism changed my life!” Client D: “I’m alive today because of the Mediterranean Diet.” Take any one person and they’ll have a unique perspective on the dietary philosophy or style of eating that worked best for them. Dogmatic approaches to dieting rarely worked for me (see Point 1). It was also helpful to note that a good diet for achieving a calorie deficit may not be a great diet for maintaining an ideal body weight. Each diet is a tool. Some tools work for the long term, some don’t. It took time for me to appreciate “meeting someone where they’re at” and giving them the space to experiment with each tool to see what works and what doesn’t. What works for me might not work for the vast majority of my clients. I think too many coaches make the mistake of attempting to wedge their personal styles of training/dieting onto their client base. It’s not a good long-term strategy.
  13. More Cardio Or Less? I started my business in 2009, right as CrossFit was really picking up steam in this area. It almost made me second guess my style of training. I did try to adopt some degree of adding in more sprints and more focus on calories burned during a workout. However, it was a short-term solution. It didn’t help me gain more clients and not everyone could adapt to that style of weights mixed with sprint work. As my business has evolved, I let clients pick the type of cardio they want to do. Like running? Run. Like rowing? Row. Just want to walk? Go for it. If there’s anything I’ve tried to emphasize more over time is just making sure that the step count stays as high as possible with as little negative effect on overall feelings of hunger. Many people find that more cardio means more hunger. Not everyone experiences this. Sometimes, the increase in expenditure can have an appetite suppressing effect. Learning how and when to add more or remove more continues to be lesson in listening to the client’s needs and individual responses.
  14. Rebounding Lots of clients lose fat. Many will regain some portion of fat lost along the way. It’s just a reality of the process. Let’s assume a client wants to lose 50 pounds. They put in all the right work: appropriate diet, stress management, good sleep hygiene, consistent exercise and they reach their goal. And…then…life…happens. They revert back to previous coping skills and weight begins to creep back up. There are some important considerations to make. Was 50 pounds the most realistic place to take this person? Maybe they can live their best life within current demands on that life being down 30 pounds instead of 50. Does that make them a failure? The success of any client hinges not just on the work they do to achieve fat loss but to manage every other aspect of their lives PLUS fat loss. That means that patience, forgiveness, flexibility and a constant shift in prioritizing their needs has to be considered. Accept that some degree of rebounding is not only possible but normal. Finding a comfortable place to settle and maintain can help remove shame from the process. While I was never the type to shame someone for rebounding, it took several years of data and exploration to learn that some arbitrary weight loss goals aren’t possible to reach and maintain. Quoting Dr. Yoni Freedhoff: “Unless you like the life you’re living while you’re losing your weight, you’re probably not going to keep living that way. And as a consequence, that weight that you’ve lost will come back.” Pay attention to the way you diet, the way you train, the way you speak to yourself and develop a goal that allows you to live your best life.

With over 15 years of coaching and now 14 years of owning this business, it’s of great value to me that I help each of my clients foster the healthiest relationship with their bodies and with food that I can. There’s more to life than the scale. There’s more to life than the constant battle for leaner. Some degree of fat loss may be the best thing for a given client. But we also have to consider mental health, social health, emotional wellbeing as well as what’s happening with the physical body.

(Photo courtesy of Diana Polekhina)