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In order to lose weight and put on lean muscle, the formula is pretty basic: Follow a healthy and balanced low-fat diet, rid your program of processed foods and preservatives, control your portions, and adhere to a solid workout program that includes both resistance and cardiovascular training. It sounds uncomplicated, and in most cases it is—as long as you stick to the program you’ll receive the desired results you’re looking to achieve. However, what do you do when your body and metabolism have had enough and your system shuts down, and no matter what diet you follow, no matter how long and hard you train—you simply can’t lose weight and all progress has halted?
Whether you’re a serious athlete who has come off a long, intense preparation, an athlete who had to go into “system shock mode” and basically starve yourself to achieve your results, or if you’re an individual who has gone from one extreme to the other with your body and are experiencing a sluggish or what seems like a nonexistent metabolism—you can get back on track. In this article, I’ll lay out the necessary steps to recharge your metabolism to have it running more efficiently than ever.
The body is an amazing machine and it will learn to adapt to virtually any scenario—it can utilize the foods you supply it with to grow and build muscle, or if the body isn’t receiving enough nutrition or has been on a restrictive program for a long period of time it can “shut down” and slow weight loss and hinder progress as a mode of protection. Your body will adapt to the metabolism for any situation, but unfortunately if the body feels you’ve been on a restrictive diet for too long or have dieted too severely—the metabolism will slow down and stall as a survival tactic. You’re now left in a predicament—you have to both remedy the situation that put you in a metabolic standstill and then learn how to kick-start and invigorate your metabolism so you can get back to forward progress.
HOW DID YOU ARRIVE AT THIS POINT?
When experiencing a metabolic meltdown, it’s easy to place the blame on an underactive thyroid or getting older—as we’ve all had it drilled into our brains that once you hit a certain age, your metabolism just gets slower. In reality, the causes behind the problem arise from going to extremes with your diet, such as excessive calorie restriction or harsh dieting for lengthy periods of time, throwing your body into “survival” mode and either slowing your progress drastically, or stopping it altogether. The good news is that metabolic hedging in cases such as these can be corrected. You can revive a slackened metabolism at any age! Not only can you resolve the problem, but also, by implementing the appropriate nutritional program and training regimen, you can boost your metabolism and turn your body into the finely tuned fat-burning, muscle- building machine you’ve always wanted.
After seeing misleading before-and-after images plastered on television and magazine ads showing extreme weight loss of 30, 40, 50, or more pounds in a matter of a month or two, it’s easy to see how a person would become frustrated when they haven’t reached that same type of weight loss in the time stated on the ads. Deep down, you know that these ads are gimmicks to sell products, but you’re desperate to lose weight, build muscle, and get into shape—it’s easy to get caught up in ploys such as these.
If you aren’t losing weight on your current program, it’s easy to think all you need to do is just keep cutting away the calories and adding in more cardiovascular training until you do lose the weight. At first you’ll notice some weight loss, but the longer you put yourself into a restrictive, starvation-diet mode, your body will retaliate—and it’ll do so by slowing the metabolism.
Obviously, you’ve learned that excessively restrictive, lengthy diets will definitely kill your metabolism. My practice has always been to feed the metabolism as well as the body. By this, I mean that when you eat meals, you’re giving your metabolism fuel to burn. By giving your metabolism the correct amount at each meal and the correct amount of meals in a given day, you will consistently keep your metabolism running, and this will in turn help to burn fat and build muscle. The key is to knowing exactly how many meals and how much at each meal you specifically need to keep this type of forward progress.
CREATING YOUR PERFECT PLAN
How many meals? The first step to reigniting a stagnant metabolism is determining how many meals you’ll need daily to succeed. Start by looking at your daily schedule and establish the beginning and ending points of your day: What time do you wake up and what time do you go to bed? Between those times, you must now determine exactly how many meals you’ll need to keep you going from the beginning of your day to the end of your day. This time line is extremely important. If you’re a person who rises early, but goes to bed late—you typically will need more meals in your daily plan than a person who rises early and goes to bed early. Your plan must also be adapted to your work schedule, training schedule, and personal schedule. Most people will fall in the range of needing 5–7 meals daily.
You must also factor in your natural body type. For instance, are you a hard gainer? Do you have a tendency to put on muscle easily? If you’re a person who naturally carries a higher percentage of body fat, you will more than likely fall into the five-meal range. A competitive bodybuilder or person wanting to put on lean muscle will usually fall into the 6–7 daily meal range. Again, the amount of meals will depend not only on body type, but your personal goals and your daily schedule.
How long between meals? Once you’ve determined the number of meals you’ll need to consume on a daily basis, you’ll now need to calculate the spacing of your meals. As an example, let’s say we’ve decided upon six daily meals—the next step in the process is to arrange the spacing, but how long should you go between meals? I’ve found that in most cases, no matter what body type a person is, approximately three hours between meals works very well, and I’ll tell you why.
Although your food almost instantaneously reaches your stomach once you’ve chewed and swallowed it, the body has not yet initiated the breakdown and digestion process. Once your food enters the stomach, it usually remains there between 2–4 hours. During this time, the breakdown process begins, readying the body for the digestion and excretion process. Factors such as portion size of the meal, fat content of the foods eaten at the meal, and the types of foods eaten will dictate exactly how long your meal stays in your stomach, but with the norm ranging between 2–4 hours, placing your meals three hours apart is a sound estimate. I also like to tell my clients they should begin feeling like they could eat again within 30–40 minutes of the next meal. For instance, if you eat your first meal of the day at 8 a.m., around 10:20–10:30 a.m., you should begin feeling like you could eat again and the onset of stomach emptiness should occur around that time frame. With this in mind by 11 a.m., you should be ready to eat your second meal and stay on track with your schedule.
If you find that at the three-hour point you still feel full, or that you could wait longer to eat, you’ll more than likely need to adjust the portion size of your meal. If you take in too much food at any certain meal, not only will it throw off your eating schedule, but you’ll begin overlapping meals in the stomach—as it’ll take longer to break down excess amounts of food, and this will slow down the digestion process, as well as your metabolism.
If altering your portion size still leaves you feeling like you could use more distance between your meals, you may naturally have both a slower-acting digestive tract and slower metabolism. As previously discussed, you definitely don’t want to continue decreasing your portions, as this will quickly take you back to starvation mode. As long as your portion size isn’t too large, I suggest spacing your meals around 3½ hours apart—but no more than four hours apart. In the beginning this may be better suited to your schedule and your stomach. However, once you’re on this schedule for a while and your metabolism begins balancing back out, you may find that you can decrease the time between meals to three hours. Just as with your physique, tailoring your nutritional program and schedule is a constant work in progress, so it may take a bit of tweaking here and there to find the right balance.
Back to how many (calories—daily and at each meal): I’ve always been good with numbers, and as a prep coach and nutritionist, I pride myself on having been blessed with the ability to utilize that skill along with being able to “visually” size up a competitor or individual. It’s always been quite easy for me to set up caloric intakes and breakdowns for the individuals I work with. However, for someone who doesn’t work with numbers and nutrition on a daily basis, putting together the proper amount of calories needed day in and day out to not only rekindle your metabolism, but also help you reach your goals can be a bit tricky. Again, each person is different and there will be some trial and error, but here’s a guide of how to successfully construct your caloric intake to fit your daily meal plan.
If you’re determining this on your own, it might be helpful to enlist the services of a nutritionist to help you. You can utilize this assistance in a couple of ways: You could consult with a nutritionist to work out the caloric intake for you, then take the information to run the program yourself, or you could simply hire the nutritionist to determine your caloric intake and diet and work with you throughout your entire program. No matter which course you decide, here’s a little background on caloric intake:
MEN: For men under the age of 40, a good average to go by is between 2,500–3,000 calories daily, divided among however many meals you need throughout the day. This number could vary a couple of hundred calories below 2,500 or a couple hundred above 3,000 depending on your build, age variance, and level of daily activity—more for a highly active male or athlete and less for a more sedentary individual.
For men between 40 and 50, that caloric intake number drops approximately 200–300 calories depending on age, build, and activity level; and for men over 50, the number would drop again, depending on those same variables. Of course, these are averages and what you may actually need is determined by trial and error—but this will at least give you some type of standard to begin with.
WOMEN: For women, the scale is much different—a woman from her 20s to early 30s, depending upon her actual age, build, and activity level would need an average of 2,000 per day and could be a couple hundred more or less, also depending on those variables. From middle 30s to 40s, when a woman’s body begins changing due to age, child birth, or possibly the onset of perimenopause, that number drops again to around 1,700 or so daily—going up or down a couple of hundred again depending on their bodies and activity level.
Once a woman is 50-plus and has hit menopause (the average age for menopause being 51)—that number would be cut again to around 1,500 daily—more or less could be added or taken from depending on age, activity level, and also considering where a woman may be in menopause—some women could hit it as early as their late 30s or early 40s while others don’t hit menopause until their 60s. Again, these numbers should be used only as a guideline to help you find the amount that works for you.