Have you ever dieted and saw good progress in the beginning, but as you went on it got tougher and tougher to get to your goal? You did more cardio, ate less, worked harder in the gym, but nothing worked. The worst part is, you felt more fatigued and getting to the gym became something you simply did not look forward to. Or you lost a lot of weight, and then it quickly came back within the next few years.
When this happens, a lot of people think there’s something wrong with them and they just are not meant to lose weight. However, as we diet and get smaller, our body resists this change and is great at taking steps to ensure this process gets tougher and tougher over time. Unfortunately this is a mechanism that was useful thousands of years ago when food was scarce and you did not know when you would have your next meal, however times are different now, but our bodies are not. It’s not so useful today, with the abundance of calorie dense food and sedentary lifestyle most people live.
The good news is that there seems to be one particular part of the energy expenditure part of the energy balance equation that goes down more than we think (but it’s in our control, somewhat), and this could be a big reason why people plateau with their weight loss progress.
Before we get into which factor is a big culprit of weight loss progress and regain, it’s important we go over the energy balance equation. I’m sure many of you have heard that you just need to be in a negative energy balance or a calorie deficit to lose weight, but what exactly is a negative energy balance and calorie deficit? Simply put, its consuming less energy (calories) than you expend each day.
I think when most people hear this they just think of exercise and eating small amounts of food as the only ways to get into this negative energy balance. However, there are many other factors at play here. Lets first go over the energy in side of things.
Energy in is simply all of the food you consume on a regular basis, even those small handfuls of chips you consume periodically throughout the day still count as calories, unfortunately.
Energy out is a bit more complicated and is usually broken up into four categories. They are:
Resting metabolic rate (RMR), this is just the energy burned for basic bodily functions. One way to think of it is the amount of energy used when you are at rest. This makes up a large portion of this energy out equation, about 60-75% (going to vary from person to person). Things can make this higher: male, larger body mass, more lean mass, taller, genetics, age etc. Things that can make this lower are: female, smaller body mass, less lean mass, shorter, genetics etc.
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF), this is the amount of energy burned via absorption and digestion. Yes, the calories you consume require calories to digest and absorb. This makes up about 8-10% of the energy expenditure side. Protein has the highest TEF compared to carbohydrates and fats. So the less food you eat, the lower this will be as well (albeit a very small decrease).
Exercise Activity (EA), this is the activity that is deliberate exercise: running, weight lifting, sports, etc. This factor can have a high variability from one person to the next. So it is hard to put an exact percentage of how much of the energy expenditure side of the equation it affects. Someone who exercises 7 times a week is going to have a much higher percentage of energy out than someone who does not exercise at all.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), this is all of your movements that are not deliberate. Talking, blinking, fidgeting, walking to do everyday chores like going to the bathroom, cleaning etc.
Pictures taken from James Kreigers Weightology article. Left is for an active person, right is for a sedentary person.
These four factors make up the energy expenditure side of the equation. There can be a huge variability between two people (which is why there is no magic calorie amount to lose or gain weight). For example, an active tall male that has a good amount of muscle and genetically has an active metabolism uses much more energy than a sedentary female, who is short, does not have much muscle, and genetically has a metabolism that is much more efficient with its energy. This is why some people can eat 3000 calories per day and still lose weight, while someone could be struggling to lose weight on 1,200 calories.
As I mentioned earlier, when we diet and become smaller our body adapts to this. Your RMR, TEF (while dieting due to less food being consumed), and NEAT all go down. Unfortunately, we cannot do much about RMR and TEF going down. However, one portion of the equation that seems to go down more than the other three and appears to continue to go down with weight loss is NEAT, luckily this can be in our control to an extent.
Energy balance is energy in (calories consumed) – energy out (RMR, NEAT, EA, TEF). To lose weight we need energy out to be greater than energy in. NEAT seems to decline with weight loss.
Just to quickly summarize NEAT again, this is mostly activity that we do that we do not think about such as: blinking fidgeting, thinking, talking, and activity for daily tasks.
James Kregier of Weightology reviewed a 2016 by Rosenbaum and Leibel that looked at 17 weight stable and obese individuals and measured their RMR and NEAT levels at their beginning weight, then with a 10% weight loss, and then finally with a 20% weight loss.
They had some pretty interesting findings. RMR went down with weight loss initially, but then it stopped, it can potentially go down slightly lower BUT this seems to be due to loss of lean body mass (this seems like a good time for a resistance training and higher protein diet plug).
An example James Kreiger brings up is if you had a 50lb backpack on and then took it off. When you take the backpack off you simply burn less calories because you are not carrying around as much weight, and this is essentially what happens with your RMR. So it goes down initially, but once it reaches a certain level it does not seem to decrease anymore.
However, the patients NEAT levels continued to go down with weight loss and did not have a threshold for when it stopped, it just continued to go down, unlike RMR where it had an initial drop but then leveled off.
Another thing they found was that some people see more decreases in NEAT than others when losing weight. Some even saw a slight increase. So this just comes down to genetics at that point. Which once again, is why there is no magic calorie number and it’s going to vary from person to person.
Another study by Rosenbaum, Hirsch, Gallagher, and Leibel (2008) looked at people who lost 10% of their weight and kept it off for more than a year. During this study the participants were given a liquid formula diet and lived in a clinical setting throughout the study. They were also split into 3 groups:
- Subjects at their regular weight
- Subjects who lost 10% and maintained for 5-8 weeks
- Subjects who lost 10% and maintained for over a year
They found that:
Subjects who lost 10% of their weight had lower RMR readings than the weight stable subjects, around 72-139 calories per day on average.
However, the activity energy expenditure (NEAT) was a different story. The difference here between weight stable and weight loss was 366-383 calories per day!
When you combine the decrease in RMR and NEAT, subjects who have lost 10% or more of their weight could be expending up to 500 less calories per day than those who have not lost weight at the same height, weight, and body composition!
So not only can NEAT stall your fat loss progress, it also makes it much easier to regain the weight post diet.
The tricky thing about our NEAT reduction is that it is mostly unconscious, meaning we don’t even realize it. We also become more efficient with our movements, meaning we expend less calories for the same movement than we used to. James Kreiger mentions that 35% of the decrease in activity energy expenditure (NEAT) can be attributed to an increase in efficiency.
As you can see, NEAT reduction can play a huge role in why people find it so hard to continue losing weight and keeping it off. One caveat here, this assumes dietary adherence is being met. Dietary adherence should always be the first factor looked at when weight loss progress stalls or is being regained. You could be doing all of the activity in the world, but if there are constantly lapses in adherence, then weight loss will be much tougher.
People who lose 10% or more of their weight could be expending up to 500 calories less per day due to NEAT and RMR reductions.
Great so you are now aware that your NEAT reduction might be causing you to plateau or regain weight. What can we do to increase our NEAT?
- Seek out more activity.
In a 2006 paper, Phelan and colleagues found that those who were more active were better at maintaining weight loss. Some examples, park further away, take the steps instead of the escalator or elevator. Put things further away in your house so it requires some extra activity. Make sure you get up and move every 30 minutes or so. All of these small things throughout the day and week will add up over time. The main thing is that you seek this out, its not just going to happen on its own, in the beginning you may have to set reminders, but over time it will become more of a habit and a lifestyle.
2. Monitor your NEAT levels with weight loss, the more weight you lose the more important this becomes.
Continue to do regular exercise sessions, but start to track activity outside of the gym via an activity tracker (Fitbit, Apple Watch etc.) or a pedometer. Get a baseline, for example your first week keep activity relatively normal and take your average step count for the week. We want to take the average for the week because some days you could be more active than others, so getting a wider range of normal activity is key. If you are at 5,000 steps on average, then the following week look to get to 6-7k. Slowly increase from there, we want to limit how much we increase from week to week. Going from 5k to 6-7k is going to be more sustainable and easier than going from 5k to 15k in a weeks time.
3. Resistance Training.
Make sure resistance training is included in your weight loss and post weight loss routine. Resistance training not only has the power to change your body composition, increase muscle mass, strengthen your bones, increase strength, and reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, but it also may combat the losses of NEAT expenditure during weight loss and post weight loss.
Resistance training has been shown to decrease the efficiency of muscle, whereas aerobic training (long distance running, “cardio” etc.) increases the muscles efficiency over time (We had to be endurance based thousands of years ago to hunt food, so efficiency increase makes sense during times when food is scarce). Now you hear the word decrease efficiency and probably think that is a bad thing, however, lets think about this for a second. Would you rather burn 50 calories doing the same movement or burn 25 calories? Most of us would choose burning more calories per movement, so by becoming less efficient we essentially burn more calories per movement.
In a 2016 paper Hunter and colleagues showed that resistance training prevented a decrease in NEAT during very low calorie diets. In a 2000 paper Hunter and colleagues showed that resistance training enhanced NEAT by 120 calories per day in the elderly. Lastly, a 2015 paper by Drenowatz and colleagues showed that resistance training improved NEAT by 216 calories on non-exercise days, and aerobic training showed a 148 calorie decrease on NEAT levels.
Aerobic training can be great, but just realize that if your weight loss stalls that just doing more and more aerobic training will not change your body composition like resistance training will.
Just to reiterate, dietary adherence is going to be the most important factor when it comes to weight loss, so that needs to be checked. However, if you are compliant with the diet you should then look at increasing your NEAT levels. Another thing to look at is making sure you are staying accountable and consistent by hiring a coach. Sometimes a lack of weight loss is simply from a lack of accountability.
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Rosenbaum M, Leibel R. (2016). Models of energy homeostasis in response to maintenance of reduced body weight. Obesity. 24(8):1620-9.
Rosenbaum M, Hirsch J, Gallagher D, and Leibel R. (2008). Long-term persistence of adaptive thermogenesis in subjects who have maintained a reduced body weight. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 88(4):906-12.
Phelan S, Wyatt H, Hill J, Wing R. (2006). Are the eating and exercise habits of successful weight losers changing? Obesity. 14(4):710-6.
Kreiger J. IMPACT OF RESISTANCE TRAINING ON MUSCLE WORK EFFICIENCY AND NEAT. Weightology. https://weightology.net/impact-of-resistance-training-on-muscle-work-efficiency-and-neat/
Kreiger J. WHY IS IT SO EASY TO REGAIN WEIGHT? Weightology. https://weightology.net/why-is-it-so-easy-to-regain-weight/
Hunter G, Fisher G, Neumeier W, Carter S, Plaisance E. (2015). Exercise training and energy expenditure following weight loss. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 47(9):1950-7.
Drenowatz C, Grieve G, DeMello D. (2015). Change in energy expenditure and physical activity in response to aerobic and resistance exercise programs. Springerplus. 4(1): 798.
Hunter G, Wetzstein C, Fields D, Brown A, Bamman M. (2000). Resistance training increases total energy expenditure and free-living physical activity in older adults. Journal of applied physiology. 89(3):977-84