Client: “I want to lose (insert arbitrary number) of kilos by X date”
Coach: That’s great. How do you plan on achieving this goal?
Client: “Ahhh, follow (insert popular FAD) diet and be stricter with my eating behaviour”
Coach: “Well, that approach hasn’t worked the last 20 times you tried it, in fact, just on boarding a new diet without any planning or forethought has left the majority of avid gym goers spinning their wheels for decades. Any other suggestions…”
Unfortunately, this is the all too common dialogue when folks decide to pursue a weight loss goal and improve their body composition. Restriction of macronutrients, food groups, time restricted diets, calorie counting etc are many of the methods adopted to control calorie and drive changes in body weight and fat mass. But focusing only on the dietary approach hardly constitutes adequate planning for long term body composition improvements.
Such a shortsighted approach to diet will often see short term results. When a new goal is set there is a transient spike in motivation and thus high compliance in the early stages of the plan is high yield instant results. However progress generally comes to a grinding halt after a few weeks and months.
Fortunately for my clients and athletes, I realized a while back the answer to long term diet sustainability and body composition improvements lies not with a magical nutrition protocol, motivational tactic or compliance/accountability method, but with the concept diet periodisation and its underlying tenets – planning and organisation.
Many of you may have heard the term periodization in the context of resistance training and sports, but few coaches or fitness enthusiasts have transferred this idea into the realms of diet, especially for fat loss.
In this article, I will discuss how we can use periodisation theory in the context of nutrition and body composition, as well as outline practical ways you can improve organisation and planning of diet variables for own or your client/athlete’s nutrition.
1.Periodisation Background & Definitions
Periodisation has no universal definition, thus leading to a lot of polarizing and contrasting views and opinions on the topic. As research on periodisation is still in its infancy, much of the extrapolation of the periodisation theory stem from theory, which has its limitations.
Before going any further, it’s important to address the ways in which we can view and define periodisation:
- Normative: how it should be defined;
- Teleological: what it aims to achieve; and
- Descriptive: how it is used in practice.
Semantics only matter so much as they help us in practice, and in my opinion all three are important in ascertaining a framework for understanding what it is we mean when we refer to periodisation.
That being said, there are a lot of common themes amongst the definitions and application of periodisation via it’s derived models – linear, undulating and block for resistance training.
These similarities in the objective and applications of all models can help paint a picture of what it is periodisation aims to achieve, how it is used in practice and how we should probably define it:
What it is:
- Planning and organisation
- Non-random manipulation of key variables
- Structuring and sequences phases based on key time frames
What it aims to achieve:
- Maximise adaptations
- Minimise risk of injury/burn out
- Peak performance at key time frames
Criticism of periodisation has surfaced in recent years, with many questioning the efficacy of the theory due to its foundations resting upon rigid planning structures and the fact that a central concept of traditional theory is premised upon an outdated model of stress.
Those objecting to the utility of traditional periodisation suggest that a framework for planning must adopt a multidimensional assessment of stress/adaptation to accomodate the large variance in individual response to training. Thus, they contend that planning and organisation is limited by the wildly varying inter-individual differences and acute fluctuations in stress tolerance and adaptive potential of the athletes undergoing resistance training.
Nonetheless, important classifications within periodization models that relate to the planning and organization of phases are:
- Macrocycle (long term – years)
- Mesocycle (mid term – months)
- Microcycle (short term – weeks)
- Individual Sessions (short term – days)
Classifying time frames allows for the organisation of training in a bid to achieve a specific objectives at certain times within the annual plan, relative to competition and key dates.
Thus, the distinct time frames provides a framework for planning the deliberate manipulation of training variables.
With this in mind, we can identify the underlying objectives of each phase to devise a model for planning that is transferable to other domains of ‘fitness’, such as nutrition.
This is a very basic and foundational analysis and overview of periodisation. As you can see, at its core, periodisation aims to optimise performance through logical planning and structure of training variables relative to competition. Which in my opinion, is a great idea for any process that aims to manage imposed physiological and psychological stressors if positive adaptations and sustainable progress are to occur.
Most pertinent to the discussion of diet periodisation is utilising this conceptual framework to help better plan and organise diet for fat loss.
2. Diet Periodisation
Nutrition periodisation is typically used to describe changes in nutritional intake in response to certain periods of training. Athletes generally alter their energy intake and composition of diet based on the training phase. For example, athletes will increase carbohydrate and energy intake when training with high volumes and intensities or when performance based outcomes are a priority.
In reality, there is often little planning when it comes to nutrition and limited integration of training and nutritional practice for fat loss, muscle growth and weight management.
That is not to say that periodisation of diet is non-existent for physique enthusiasts. When looking to the dietary patterns of bodybuilders, there are clear differences in their diet during the off season and the contest prep diet when preparing for a bodybuilding show.
From this, two key phases can be identified and are traditionally known as:
- Cutting; and
Within cutting and bulking phases, the most common nutritional strategy implemented to achieve desired body composition is continuous energy restriction (CER) much like block periodisation models by:
– Reducing intake relative to maintenance to achieve weight loss; or
– Increasing intake relative to maintenance to achieve weight gain.
In recent times, athletes have utilised various methods of intermittent calorie restriction (ICR), which are similar to undulating periodisation training models, to alter body composition and preserve training performance, such as carb cycling. This undulation of calorie intake and macronutrients has also been observed in physique competitors who have reported using periodic increases in calories via carbohydrates to maintenance requirements via re-feeds or cheat meals to mitigate metabolic down regulation, preserve lean mass as well bolster dietary adherence.
Whilst it seems that periodisation theory has entered the dieting realms, the application of periodisation is rudimentary at best and lacks coherence in the planning and organisation of dieting phases and the subsequent alteration of diet variables within each phase.
Altering the classification of time frames for nutrition:
In contrast to sport, body composition goals do not require a ‘peak’ in performance of a specific physical quality (strength/power/endurance) on a specific day. Rather, fat loss, muscle growth and weight management are aesthetic ideals that are primarily influenced by energy balance, physical activity and progressive increases in mechanical tension via resistance training.
When looking to transfer any concept to a novel field, especially one that violates its intended use, it is critical to recognise the differences that exist between each domain. When comparing training and diet and the impact they have on physiology/psychology, we must identify and distinguish the unique characteristics and properties of each. Without digging into the weeds, there is significant overlap between training and diet in how they alter physiology. However, they are completely different vehicles, driving distinctly different changes in our neurobiological make up.
Reductions in fat mass are ultimately determined by net changes in energy balance whereby a caloric deficit is achieved through increases in daily energy expenditure and reductions in calorie intake.
In contrast, muscle hypertrophy is achieved primarily through resistance training whereby the imposed mechanical stress is increased over time with sufficient exposure to the stress, resulting in a growth signal that alters protein synthesis. Diet plays a secondary role in promoting muscle growth, and merely augments training adaptations provided there is a surplus of energy combined with sufficient protein intake.
Evidently, there are stark differences between the role that nutrition plays in altering body composition and the role of training to optimise and peak performance in sport. This warrants periodisation frameworks to be viewed and applied through a unique lens for nutrition.
Despite the intricate properties of human metabolism and the complexities of nutrition for weight management, planning and organisation can help optimise the process of altering fat mass and muscle mass and improve the management of diet variables to account for the neurobiological changes and adaptations when input (calories) and output (energy expenditure) are varied.
In our recent Optimising Body Composition Seminars, my good friend Danny Lennon from Sigma nutrition eloquently demonstrated how a diet specific perspective of periodisation can be achieved by changing the terminology of each time frame. This allows us to better conceptualise and apply a model of organisation for nutrition.
If you missed the seminars, you can download it online HERE.
Macrocycle –> Long term approach & goals
Mesocycle –> Focused phases
Microcycle –> weekly plan & targets
Individual Session –> Daily actions & behaviours
Instantly, we are afforded a much more appropriate framework for nutrition. Additionally, this more appropriate model helps explain why so many individuals fail to achieve their long term weight/physique goals. Poor planning, incoherent organisation of diet and drastic and extreme modification of behaviour/actions in a bid to achieve rapid results, a recipe for stagnation and frustration.
Planning & organisation:
What we do know about periodisation is that it’s fundamental tenets are grounded in deliberate planning and organisation of processes to improve outcomes, achieve sustainable progress and minimise the adverse side effects associated with imposing a stress. In applying this to nutrition for weight loss, as mentioned above, many dieters and coaches rarely plan long term and thus compromise their results. When energy intake is restricted for prolonged periods and weight loss occurs, the onset of adaptations such as hunger, lethargy, metabolic down regulation, decreases in energy expenditure as well as mood disturbance all pose serious threats to diet sustainability and in many cases bottleneck long term progress. If these adaptations persist without intervention, psychological burn out, non compliance and weight rebound are likely to occur.
After determining the long term approach and goal setting, focused phases of varying energy intakes is required to mitigate the aforementioned side effects of continuous and chronic attempts to restrict energy intake. Hence, periods of energy equilibrium to maintain weight as well as time in energy excess are necessary to not only to improve physiological states, but to allow for psychological relief. With this in mind, we can identify three key focused phases for nutrition:
- Hypercaloric dieting (energy surplus)
- Hypocaloric dieting (energy deficit)
- Weight stabilization (diet breaks and maintenance phases)
The duration and design of each phase will depend on a multitude of factors, of which won’t be discussed in length in this article. Instead, I would like to highlight the common approach adopted by folks with a weight loss goal.
The individual sets a target weight, body fat percentage or look and immediately jumps into a hypocaloric diet (energy restriction via decreased calorie intake or increased activity levels or both). This will yield weight loss in the short term, no doubt.
Eventually, the rate of weight loss slows down, motivation plummets and the high degree of neuroticism, cognitive effort and associate psychological tension associated with dietary restraint (using either a flexible or rigid approach to restraint) proves overbearing and the individual reverts to old behaviours and falls off the wagon. Hence, the problem most individuals face is not losing weight, but weight maintenance after a period of energy restriction.
Thus planning is critical and setting dedicated phases of weight loss, weight maintenance and even weight gain are essential to long term body composition enhancement.
Of equal importance to incorporating phasic approach with varied energy intakes is to determine ‘when’ to implement each phase. Assessing the individuals needs and context will ultimately dictate at which time points periods of energy restriction, maintenance and surplus can be logically and pragmatically applied. Factors such as motivation, environment, goals, physiological and psychological state as well as the individuals life circumstances must be considered when allocating a specific phase, and will underpin the success of that phase. Hence, planning is pivotal.
For example, if client X has a beach holiday in 6 months time and wants to lose 10kg, it might not be a wise idea to attempt to focus on energy restriction for the entire 6 months.
Instead, breaking up the 6 months into periods of fat loss and weight maintenance will not only make the diet more manageable and sustainable, but likely allow the individual to achieve their goal weight/look at the right time.
If instead you decided to go all out from day one, you’ll likely rebound and look worse than you did before starting the diet!
See below for my guidelines for the sequencing, structure and time frames for weight loss goals of losing >10% of BW and <10% of BW.
Non-randomised manipulation of key variables:
Piecing together a process to achieve an intended outcome must consider the key variables that are the vehicles driving progression towards their target as well as the tools utilized to control, measure and assess progress.
When it comes to nutrition, our vehicles driving change in body composition are:
- Energy balance
- Macronutrient intake
- Food composition
- Meal frequency, timing and structure
- Activity levels (although not specifically a nutrition variable it will impact fat loss and is worth mentioning)
As for our tools to control, measure and assess progress:
- Dietary approach (quantitative vs qualitative)
- Scale weight
- Girth measurements
- Progress photos
Each focused phase will dictate how each variable must be implemented and the appropriate use and expected progress in our measurement tools. See below for guidelines as to how you can alter the variables within each phase to optimize outcomes.
Hopefully this article has helped shed light on the importance of
periodisation in the context of nutrition for fat loss. In my experience and observations, transferring the key tenets of periodization theory from its traditional application in sports and resistance training to diet for body composition goals can yield significant improvements in outcomes both in the short, mid and long term.
If you would like to learn more about diet periodization, I recently presented a lecture on the topic for Stronger Experts, an online educational platform for coaches and athletes. You can check it out HERE.