Negative Adaptations of Dieting

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By Lauren Killey

“How do you feel?”

This is one of the first, and most important, questions you should be asking your clients weekly or daily when they are checking in. Why? When dieting, or eating in a deficit to drop body fat, the body can experience what is known as negative adaptations in response to the lower calorie intake, potential increase in training output and cardio and the shift from homeostasis (balance or maintenance) into a deficit and ‘survival’ state.

The body will want to return to a ‘set-point’ or the place it feels most comfortable, which may be a particular body fat % or weight. When your client begins to drop calories and body fat, they will begin to experience physiological changes in response to this. This is their body’s way of fighting the loss of stored energy (fat) to try and regain it, quickly.

Very common negative adaptations experienced when dieting in the initial stages are:

  • Increased hunger
  • Decreased satiety
  • Impacted mood
  • Decreased energy

When dieting long-term, client’s may also begin to experience:

  • Impacted Sleep
  • Drop in libido
  • Drop in training motivation or capacity to recover
  • Metabolic adaptation (maintaining on lower calorie intake)
  • Decrease in NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis)
  • Loss of period for women
  • Drop in lean mass

As a coach, you should aim to mitigate, or at lease postpone, these negative adaptations for as long as possible to ensure better compliance from your client, but also to prioritize overall health! Including biofeedback questions in your check-ins will allow you to monitor these adaptations and work proactively to postpone or mitigate adaptations as best as you can, to ensure your client is receiving the best possible coaching experience and results.

Questions you should be asking are:

  • How did you sleep?
  • How are you managing stress?
  • Have stress levels increased?
  • Do you feel hungrier?
  • Do you feel less satisfied after meals?
  • Is digestion off?
  • Is your energy, mood and/or libido dropping?
  • How is training motivation?

By tracking biofeedback markers, you will notice a slow decline or the beginning of adaptations occurring, for example, if you client is just beginning to notice an increase in hunger, and has noted a very slight drop in energy levels. These are the physical indicators that the body is experiencing negative adaptations to dieting. If you remain in a deficit long-enough, these changes are inevitable. Though this is not ideal, it does provide clarity around what you need to do with your client’s calories and macro break-down and overall programming, to help your client achieve their fat-loss goal and maintain focus on health.

Once you notice adaptations occurring, you can implement refeeds, diet breaks, deload phases in training etc. Though not a permanent fix, using these protocols will help to mitigate long-term and drastic negative adaptations which can be caused by aggressive and long-term dieting, without ‘breaks’.

When it comes to dieting, time is key. Allowing longer for fat-loss will enable you to use more diets and refeeds with your client, to allow for breaks when needed and to use a less aggressive drop in calories to achieve your client’s goal. This will mean results will be more sustainable long term and the phase post-diet, when your client is reverse dieting to return to their maintenance point, will not be as challenging as biofeedback markers will, ideally, be more balanced and manageable.

Want to learn the science and physiology of the body leading to more education application of nutrition programming, diet recommendations and coaching to each client’s individual needs?
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Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athleteEric T Trexler,1 Abbie E Smith-Ryan,1 and Layne E Norton2 – Metabolic adaptations to weight lossKevin D. Hall, Ph.D.

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