There’s a huge difference between giving your clients a diet plan that gets them lean, and actually teaching them how to maintain a lean body permanently.
Look, most of your clients have already successfully lost weight at one point... because anyone can commit to following a miserable meal plan for a few months, and lose some fat.
The problem is, 95% of people regain the weight post-diet.
So if your clients are constantly struggling to maintain their results, today's blog is for you.
The Prerequisite For Success
Now, I have to start this by saying... successfully maintaining a lean body composition requires that your client first take a smart diet approach to get there.
If you’re not sure how to create a periodized nutrition protocol for your clients, there’s no better way to learn than being coached through it yourself.
Today's blog is a deep dive into what the Practice phase of my 3P Fat Loss Model I use with online clients entails.
This system works incredibly well for my online clients... but only when it's applied properly. Using a smart nutrition plan to get you to the point where you're ready to maintain is essential to a successful Practice Phase.
Now that's clear, let's answer the biggest question you came here with...
Why Do Clients Regain The Weight?
Understanding a client's body fat fluctuations first requires an understanding of metabolism.
Specifically, a process called adaptive thermogenesis.
As you likely know...
→ Losing fat requires eating fewer calories than you burn in a day (Calories In < Calories Out)
→ Gaining fat requires eating more calories than you burn in a day (Calories In > Calories Out)
→ Maintaining fat requires a balance of calories eaten and burned (Calories In = Calories Out)
Calories In consists of the foods you consume.
Calories Out consists of your metabolism, which has four different pieces:
1. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) - The calories your body burns just to stay alive. Even if you lie in bed all day, BMR won’t change. It’s calories burned through things like breathing, your heart pumping, etc. Generally, the heavier you are, the higher your BMR.
2. Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) - Your body actually burns calories while digesting the food you eat:
- TEF of protein = 20–30%
- TEF of carbs = 5–10%
- TEF of fat = 0–3%.
3. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (N.E.A.T.) - All the calories you burn in your everyday movement outside the gym. N.E.A.T. is the most controllable variable of your metabolism, and seems to be the biggest difference in the metabolisms of lean and obese individuals.
4. Thermic Effect Of Exercise (TEE) - Lifting weights, cardio, etc. This is the smallest portion of your metabolism - exercise doesn't burn many calories.
These four pieces of your metabolism account for all the calories you burn in a day.
Adaptive thermogenesis is the way these four pieces of your metabolism adapts to a diet & weight loss (or lack therof).
On a typical diet, the process of adaptive thermogenesis will look something like this:
1. Your BMR drops as you lose weight - A smaller body burns fewer calories. This also applies to TEE, a smaller person will burn fewer calories during exercise.
2. TEF drops, since you’re eating less food - Some of this can be offset by increasing protein intake, but a decrease in calories still generally creates a drop in total TEF.
3. Calories burned via NEAT also drop - When dieting, you’re depriving the body of energy (calories). You’re more lethargic, resulting in less daily movement. Step goals and increasing exercise help, but a decrease in calories burned here is inevitable.
All of this equates to a metabolism that's slower post-diet than it was pre-diet.
But, don't let the phrase "slower metabolism" freak you out. Because really, it's a good sign of a succesful diet.
→ Clients are eating less, so of course they’re burning few calories during digestion. Clients couldn't lose fat without reducing calories to some degree.
→ Their body got smaller, so it burns fewer calories, both moving and at rest… but the whole point of the diet was to achieve a leaner, smaller body.
So don’t stress some metabolic slowing. It’s a must to lose weight.
From a hormonal perspective - as clients lose weight, their fat cells shrink.
Smaller fat cells produce less of the hormone leptin, which leads to an increased appetite (as leptin decreases, the hunger hormone increases) and decreased energy expenditure. This means that clients experience this excessive hunger signals and low energy post-weight loss.
From a psychological perspective - Losing weight is very motivating. Clients see the number on the scale dropping, clothes fitting better, and their bodies changing. It's easy for most people to commit to 12 weeks of being hungry, when such rewarding changes are happening.
The problem is, post-diet, clients bodies aren't changing like this. When the rapid changes stop, people often realize... "Wow, I am really hungry."
Without the incentive of further body composition changes now that they've reached their goal, many people simply go back to how they were eating before the diet.
This is why helping clients achieve results they can maintain long-term is just as much about focusing on habits & behaviors, as it is physiology.
So the fact that clients are really hungry, moving less, have lower motivation, and are burning fewer calories with slower metabolism puts them in a situation where rapid weight regain is likely... if you don't have a plan post-diet (which is exactly why the Practice Phase of the 3P Fat Loss Model is so important.)
How To Speed Up Your Client's Metabolism
It’s key to understand that your client's Calories Out/metabolism is a number that changes a lot, depending on their current body size, food intake, and activity levels.
So post-diet, they’re NOT stuck at this metabolic rate forever.
Adaptive thermogenesis works in both directions - meaning that as you eat more post-diet, your calories burned also increase.
And like always, it all comes back to Calories In - Calories Out.
Post-diet, your client's metabolisms will “speed back up” due to changes/adaptive thermogensis in...
1. Basal Metabolic Rate - Again, the larger your body is, the more calories it will burn, both moving & at rest.
So post-diet, you can increase BMR by either...
a.) Adding fat.
b.) Adding muscle.
Adding fat will speed up your metabolism, but excess fat gain is really what we’re trying to avoid when we’re talking about long-term maintenance. So probably not the best option to focus on.
Muscle is metabolically active tissue - so adding extra muscle increases the calories you burn at rest. But, it’s not a huge difference maker (daily, you’ll burn ~6 calories more with each additional pound of muscle you gain).
Most of the metabolism boosting benefits of adding muscle come from the fact that moving a heavier body burns more calories.
2. Thermic Effect Of Food - Calories burned during digestion increases as you eat more.
So as we increase calories to maintenance levels post-diet, your TEF is also increasing.
3. Thermic Effect Of Exercise - When you eat more, you can:
a.) Train more - Eating more calories (to an extent) means better recovery, and therefore the ability to train more frequently with overdoing it.
b.) Train more intensely - More energy (calories) in also typically increases our ability to output energy (again, to a certain extent).
Both of the factors mean that eating more usually leads to more calories burned through training.
4. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis - People’s NEAT varies a lot with how it responds to increases and decreases in calories.
I’ve mentioned many times how we can usually split client’s metabolisms up into two categories:
a.) Adaptive Metabolisms - For these people, when you eat more, your body automatically increases NEAT to compensate. (Think: subconscious fidgeting, blinking, pacing, etc.) Their body adapts to higher calorie intake by increasing calories burned through movement - so weight stays the same, even with calorie increases.
b.) Rigid Metabolisms - These people see very little or no increase in NEAT as a response to overeating. Thus fat gain is a bit easier. But on the bright side, these people usually don't have to decrease calories as much to lose fat (because calories burned through NEAT doesn't decrease as much as it would for an adaptive metabolism).
So, as we go through the process of increasing calories post-diet, your metabolism is also increasing.
5. Hormonal changes - Over time, as your client’s body gets used to being fed more, and longer senses a scarcity of energy (calories), their body will remove some of it’s energy regulating/body fat preserving mechanisms.
Ghrelin (the hunger hormone) decreases and leptin increases. Testosterone & thyroid hormone increase.
This equates to your body essentially “taking the brakes off”. You’ll feel better, and naturally expend more energy.
All of this means that your client's maintenance intake (the number of calories they need to be eating for weight maintenance), is an increasing, moving target.
The problem is, most coaches don't take into account the fact that their clients metabolisms have slowed post-diet, which leads to excessive fat regain post-diet.
So to successfully maintain their body composition, a client's nutrition protocol must match these fluctuations in metabolism.
Within my nutrition coaching practice, the reverse dieting process is what we do to match this. (Note: how I prefer to reverse diet clients is much different than the traditional 50-100 calorie increases every 1-2 weeks over months until people reach maintenance.)
The Reverse Dieting Process
Coming out of a deficit is a scary process for most people… especially if your client's weight has rebounded post-diet in the past.⠀⠀
Even for my clients that are coaches themselves, the fear of coming out of a calorie deficit is real.
This is the best time to again remind clients, it all comes down to energy balance.
If you’ve been losing ~1lb/week, you’re eating ~3,500 calories less than you burn in a week. So we know that to maintain, we can add back in ~3,500 calories to your diet on a weekly basis… or 500 calories per day, without worrying about fat gain.
Gaining even 1lb of fat would require eating ~3,500 calories MORE than your maintenance intake. Now, while this is SUPER doable thanks to all of the adaptations your body undergoes during a diet (as all of us who have rebounded before know), if you have a smart plan for the diet after the diet like we provide within online coaching, you don’t need to worry.
Here’s what the reverse diet process typically looks like for my online clients:⠀⠀
1. Return the client to 90% of their estimated maintenance calories.
90% instead of 100% just to be sure we don't overshoot maintenance, as clients generally want to take extra precautions here to avoid excess fat gain.
Most of the increase in calories here will come from carbs (which give you more physiological benefits, plus better training & recovery), given you’re already eating above ~.3g fat/lb of body weight daily (the “fat threshold” clients need to hit for hormonal health & preventing fatty acid deficiencies).
2. Watch how that impacts the client's weight & measurements.
One of the biggest mistakes people make post-diet?
They suddenly stop hopping on the scale and taking body measurements.
This is a huge problem, because this is the exact data we use to determine how the amount you’re currently eating is impacting your body composition.
Without this data, it’s easier to regain fat, as you're not sure how your body is changing.
Now, we're expecting the client to see a few lbs of weight gain due to increased glycogen storage and gut content. It's also normal to see an increase in the 2" below the navel measurement (most reactive to gut content) over Weeks 1 & 2 of the reverse diet, but we shouldn't see major shifts in any of these metrics.
3. Adjust nutrition based on the metrics.
After the first 1-2 weeks of the reverse diet process (where again, some increase in weight & measurements is normal), we’re looking to increase calories to start pushing the clients “maintenance calories” up.
But again, tracking metrics is key to knowing that what the client is doing with their nutrition is leading to maintenance and not gaining.
These are the measurements I have my online clients take (along with body weight 3x/week+ so we can see average weight).
With what you now know about adaptive thermogenesis, you realize that as we’re feeding clients more, they’re also burning more calories… meaning that maintenance calories are also increasing.
So, depending on the client, these calorie increases to “bump up maintenance” are usually 50-125 cals (usually 75% carbs / 25% fat), relative to the client's current body size.
NOTE: The degree to which we can increase a client's maintenance without fat gain is primarily dependent on how adaptive their metabolism is/how much they tend to increase NEAT as a response to consuming more calories.
For some online clients this process only lasts a few weeks, for others we can ramp maintenance up for quite some time.
4. When to stop reverse dieting
Two things to look for here:
a.) We’re looking for trunk measurements and weight to stay relatively stable (fluctuations of +/- .25 are normal) - So larger increases here indicate you've likely passed maintenance.
That said, realize that most clients will also be capable of building some lean muscle at maintenance. This is especially true for newer online client that have never spent an extended period of time eating more and following a smart training program like my online clients do.
So sometimes we'll see an increase in weight across the course of weeks. This is why it’s important that we’re also tracking body measurements.
See, most of your online clients will have a “trouble spot” they really wanted to focus on losing fat from during the diet.
This seems to be the last place that said client loses fat from their body. It’s likely that the end of this clients diet phase was finally shedding the fat from their “trouble spot”... after that, said client is content with their current level of leanness, and ready to focus on maintenance.
Conveniently, the last place we seem to lose fat from also seems to be the first place we regain it. (I have no science to prove this, only anecdote).
This means that in a case where your client is gaining a bit of weight, but you think it could be lean muscle not fat, it makes sense to look at measurement increases at the client's “trouble spot” as a sign that they’re potentially gaining fat (for 90% of clients it will be navel measurements, but occasionally hips).
If we start to see consecutive weeks of measurement increases at the trouble spot, it’s a good sign that body fat is being gained.
b.) Biofeedback is normal - We all have a certain body fat percentage “floor”.
Below this body fat percentage, clients will struggle with hunger, being food focused, low energy, poor hormones, & building lean muscle is very unlikely.
Many of your hormones are a product of the amount of body fat you’re carrying. No matter how much food you’re eating, you’ll still feel shitty below your “body fat floor”.
While you can dip below this “floor” for short periods of time (e.g. for a photoshoot), living below it is not healthy or sustainable.
So the reality is, occasionally clients will have to add back a bit of body fat in order to return biofeedback to healthy levels and quit feeling like a zombie.⠀
If a clients' biofeedback (weekly measures my clients submit for things like sleep, stress, motivation, mood, training performance, etc.) is still poor, they likely need to continue the reverse diet. Similarly, normalized biofeedback is a good sign you can end the reverse diet process.
On a side note, if your client's body fat floor is higher than they want it to be (they can't stay as lean as they want without feeling awful), check out Ryan Solomon and I's discussion on how to lower your body fat floor here.
Behavioral Keys To Long-Term Maintenance
Personally, I think that learning proper food selection is the most underrated successful fat loss maintenance selection for clients.
Behavior 1: Food Selection
The reality of the society we live in is, most of our foods are designed to make us want to eat more. Pair this with the fact that most highly-processed foods are also very calorie-dense and low on nutrients, and you have a combination that makes stay lean quite a challenge.
If you’re eating lots of hyper-palatable foods, it will always be a struggle to avoid overeating - you'll always be hungry, even at maintenance.
And while most of us can grind out 12 weeks of being super hungry on a diet, it’s MUCH harder to commit to a lifetime of being super hungry, just to maintain.
A huge part of what I focus on with my online clients is teaching them how to habitually choose foods that are very filling per calorie.
This essentially puts your appetite on auto-regulate, and makes it much harder to overeat.
In the simplest terms, 80-90% of your food should have either:
a.) Grown from the earth
b.) Had a face at one point
These foods are packed with nutrients that will make your body feel amazing, create more optimal hormones, and aid your training performance and recovery. They'll also keep you full much longer than their highly-processed counterparts.
Guidelines To Consider When Selecting Your Foods:
1. Build your meals around protein and fiber - Lean proteins and fibrous carbs especially have a lot of volume and are very satiating per calorie. Make these a big focus of your diet to keep hunger low and make fat loss easier.
So basically, make an effort to include at least 25-50g lean protein at each meal you eat. This is always your #1 focus when selecting a meal.
From there, make an effort to always include a fist-sized serving of fruit or veggies with each meal.
2. Don't drink your calories - Liquids will digest much quicker, meaning you’re hungry again sooner. If you’re using milk as a protein source, swap it for cottage cheese or greek yogurt. Go with zero calorie sodas, and energy drinks. Black coffee.
When it comes to alcohol, things like liquor & a zero calorie mixer (e.g. vodka water, vodka soda, whiskey diet, etc.) are smart if you're going to have more than a few.
3. Find lower calorie versions of oils, dressings, and condiments.
Swap olive oil for calorie-free cooking spray. (It still has calories, but less.) Find a lower-calorie BBQ sauce or use steak sauce. Swap high-calorie salad dressing for a fat-free vinaigrette.
Often a few easy swaps here (that you won’t even notice) can give online clients hundreds of extra calories to work with in a day.
4. Try to avoid foods that are high in multiple macronutrients.
Example: you could eat...
a.) 6oz ribeye for 493 calories (36 pro/39 fat)
b.) 8oz sirloin (51 pro/9 fat) + 1 large avocado (10 carb/24 fat) for the same amount of calories, but more protein.
Generally avoiding foods high in multiple macros will make eating lots of food volume (think: size of food per calorie) much easier, which in turn helps you feel more full on less calories.
Behavior 2: Planning
The reality of having both a flexible lifestyle and a lean body you feel supremely confident in is, it just takes some planning ahead. I always encourage my online clients to look planning as the "rent" you pay for being able to enjoy your lifestyle and feel amazing in your body.
1. Meal Prep - Being prepped ahead nearly guarantees you'll be successful at sticking to this style of eating 80-90% of the time. You'll never "not have the right food available" or "run out of time". This doesn't mean the every meal you eat for the rest of your life has to be prepped, but most of us just won't ever have the time to cook food that aligns with our goals 3-5x/day.
2. Flexible Dieting Tools - When guiding online clients through the practice phase post-diet, I'll literally encourage clients to go out to restaurants, bars, etc., if that's something that want to be a part of their life in the future.
We need to practice for events like this, to make sure the client has a good handle on how to manage these situations and maintain their progress.
Now, while this could be a whole blog in itself, it essentially comes down to educating online clients how to use some flexible dieting tools like...
a.) Intermittent Fasting - On days clients know they'll be going out and/or eating a high-calorie meal later in the day, they can offset this a bit by fasting until noon-ish.
Black coffee and other zero-calorie drinks are perfectly fine. But outside of that, avoid calories.
A lot of my online nutrition clients always fast on Saturdays to allow for more flexibility in the evenings.
b.) Eat a meal of protein + high fiber carbs before drinking - The enemy here isn't alcohol itself. The enemy is drunk you who wants to eat an absurd amount of Taco Bell at 2am.
The best strategy to prevent this is to drink on a full stomach.
We already talked about how protein is the macro that keeps you full, longest. Fibrous carbs are the second most satiating these + lean protein is a solid pairing to keep you full for a long time. The carbs will also "soak up the alcohol", making your hangover less terrible.
As you drink, inhibition lowers and you'll be much more likely to eat lots of calories later, which is what we're really trying to avoid here. Think of this pre-drinking meal as damage control.
c.) Pulling or Pushing Calories - Ever eat too many calories on a Saturday and think…⠀
“Well, my diet screwed"?
I know I have.
This usually leads eating TONS of extra calories the next few days with the “F it” mindset.
In reality, what clients do with their macros on a daily basis makes very little difference. What you do on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis makes much more difference.
A single day of over eating is easily correctable.
If a client's weekly intake is on point, they have a lot more room to play with daily intake. As long as your weekly deficit is the same and you’re hitting your protein goal daily, you should get VERY similar results.
I like to call this pulling or pushing calories.
Basically, you’re saving up calories ahead of time or eating less in following days to allow your calories on point.
This approach is amazing for online clients, because it gives them a lot more flexibility within their diets. For many clients, I simply build higher calorie intake on the weekend into their nutrition protocol for more sustainability and adherence.
c.) Macro Planning - Planning ahead is always the key to staying on track with nutrition.
This is why I encourage all my online clients to plan their days out in MyFitnessPal the night before.
Weekday or weekend, when clients go into the day with a good idea of how to need to eat to both enjoy life and hit their goals, they'll be much more likely to succeed.
Behavior 3: Movement
Like we've talked about, many of our clients will see a big variance in NEAT (movement outside of the gym) as their body changes.
One of the biggest differences we see between the metabolisms of individuals who are naturally lean, and those who have lost a large amount of weight, is their NEAT levels.
Post-weight loss, levels of NEAT will naturally be suppressed for most. If unaccounted for, this can (and often does) lead to weight regain.
This means that maintaining a consistent movement goal post-diet is very important for long-term maintenance. Personally, I assign my clients a daily step goal.
And that is how we help clients finally break the yo-yo dieting cycle, and finally achieving a lean, confident version of themselves they can maintain long-term.
If you need more expert guidance achieving this yourself, click here now to apply for online coaching with me.