If you want to lose weight you must achieve a caloric deficit. That is, you have to take in less energy than your body requires so that it is forced to use its energy reserves to make up the difference.
But if you pay close attention to that statement, you will notice I saidenergy reserves NOT fat reserves? People assume a caloric deficit means fat is lost exclusively. This is probably the most overlooked and obvious blind spot the calorie counting zealots have regarding body change.
If you achieve a caloric deficit, fat will definitely be lost, but people forget that sugar reserves (glycogen in the liver and muscle) and protein reserves (amino acids in the muscle) can also be lost. These too can be used for energy and often are, usually taking a ton of excess water with them (in the case of glycogen).
And not to get too off topic here, but the severely insulin resistant individual will have a very difficult time and tend to lose even less fat than the average person for a number of reasons. But that is covered in another blog.
So, to lose weight you have to have a caloric deficit in the body, but to assure that you lose mostly fat you need more than that. When you look at research on diets you see that from 20 to 50% of the weight lost can be something other than fat. And this has dramatic consequences for the metabolism. This is the second blind spot the diet pushers suffer from.
A January 2007 article from Sports Medicine (vol. 37 # 1) highlights this issue. Basal metabolic rate (BMR) accounts for over two thirds of the calories we humans burn when we are in the resting state. And the amount of muscle a person has account for more than half of BMR. There is a lot of talk about “speeding up metabolism” in the weight loss world, but what is not understood is that losing 20% of your muscle mass has severe consequences on metabolic rate. The above research shows metabolism declines by as much as 10-20% when muscle is lost.
And this has dramatic consequences for the long-term success of a body change program. Many are unaware that the long-term success rate of the standard dietary approach of calorie counting is 5%! Not only that, several reviews have shown that most people, sixty six percent, don’t just regain the weight they lost, but end up with more fat on their body than they had before they started the diet.
And this is not new information. More than twenty years ago this fact was highlighted in a New England Journal of Medicine article (Feb 1988 issue). A slowed BMR predicted the chance of fat regain. This effect was so strong that there was 4 times the risk of gaining 15 or more pounds over the next 24 months in those with the lowest BMR.
So here is a little take home in the form of a rhyme so you remember it. If you want your new body to stay, don’t let your muscle waste away
[pullquote align=”center” textalign=”center” width=”50%”]“If you want your new body to stay, don’t let your muscle waste away”[/pullquote]
To lose fat you need to be a little more directive. There are a few things research has shown you can do to minimize muscle loss. These include eating a higher protein diet. Low calorie diets that are higher in protein result in less muscle loss. Exercise has also been show to decrease the degree to which you lose muscle. Aerobic exercise can slow the loss of muscle, but weight training can completely reverse it resulting in exclusive fat loss.
Here is something to think about. It is not like these things are unknown. All smart fat loss coaches know this, but for some reason they still ascribe the effect to a calorie mechanism. This has always confused me. Ask yourself, are these two approaches, more protein and weight training, working because of calories?
Several studies have traded equal calories of carbohydrates for protein and seen this effect. And weight training burns only a fraction of the calories that aerobic exercise does? In other words, its not calories.
To understand how these thing work you have to go deeper down the rabbit hole and it is here that you start understanding why the calorie model is so pervasive and appealing. To understand how weight training and higher protein diets work you need to understand biochemistry and endocrinology (the study of hormones) and move past simple math equations.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of professionals in the field of health and fitness simply don’t have this understanding or training. And because the calorie model is so simple in its appeal, these new ideas sound foreign and bogus to them. So they feel compelled to attack them.
Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: [pullquote align=”center” textalign=”center” width=”50%”]“The less a person knows the more stubbornly they know it”—OSHO[/pullquote]
Weight training and higher protein diets do several things:
- They impact cell signaling molecules like AMPK and mTOR that signal the muscle to grow or at least not break down
- They impact metabolic hormones like HGH and testosterone that are implicated in fat loss and muscle gain
- In the case of protein, it supplies the amino acid building blocks the body needs for building muscle, or at least maintaining it, since the dietary amino acids can be burned for energy in lieu of robbing the muscle.
- And I am sure they do several other things science has not even worked out yet
So yes, you need a caloric deficit to lose weight. But, to assure that weight lost is fat you need a caloric deficit AND these hormonal and biochemical pieces in place.
A useful analogy
Here is a simple way to think about this. let’s say it is not fat you are trying to lose, but instead you would like to take a trip somewhere. To do this you would absolutely require some form of transportation. Perhaps a plane, train, boat, a horse or even good old fashion walking. But is your chosen form of transportation the only thing required to get where you want to go? Of course not, you need to know how to use these pieces of transportation and you need directions. So it is with calories and their place in body change.
You can certainly jump in a sail boat with no map and no knowledge of how to sail the thing, letting the tides take you “wherever”. Of course you are likely to get nowhere or end up circling the globe aimlessly for months on end. And of course your chances of going down in a storm are far greater.
So yeah, you absolutely must have a form of transportation to go anywhere, but that is not what gets you to your destination. Can you see how this is analogous to the calorie argument? To lose weight you DO require a caloric deficit. But the caloric deficit is not enough to get you to your destination. In fact blindly following that approach can get you in trouble the same way jumping in a sail boat you don’t know how to use will (i.e. constant hunger, cravings, energy lows, loss of muscle, etc).
You need something to direct the calories you burn, maintain your muscle & control hunger cravings and energy. That is where the hormonal component comes in. Knowing what to eat, when to eat eat it, how to exercise and the impact sleep and stress have on your body is critical if you plan to be successful long-term. We at metabolic effect are known for saying: sleep and stress have zero calories and you can’t eat them, but they drastically impact what you choose to eat, how much of it you eat and whether it will be burned or stored once you eat it.
[pullquote align=”center” textalign=”center” width=”75%”]“sleep and stress have zero calories and you can’t eat them, but they drastically impact what you choose to eat, how much of it you eat and whether it will be burned or stored once you eat it.”[/pullquote]
And don’t let the term hormones confuse you. All I mean is that you need elements in place that make it so you lose fat, instead of a bunch of muscle and control hunger, energy and cravings so you can make this a lifestyle. Whether you realize this is occuring largely because of hormonal effects does not matter, just do use the tools. These tools direct your weight loss appropriately so you get where you want to go and are more likely to stay there (i.e. weight training and protein as two examples). This way you are less likely to end up being one of the 66% of people who blindly follow low calorie diets and end up fatter 2 years later.
And here are a few other things to keep in mind for perspective. If you look you can always find people who have had success. Jared from subway, the professor who went on the Twinkie Diet, The lady who did theStarbucks Diet. There are people who simply follow low calorie diets and seemingly get results (in reality when you look you will often see the hormonal pieces in place as well or they too will regain the weight). But their journeys can often resemble someone who is blindly bumbling and fumbling along and happens to end up in a successful place.
This would be like jumping in your sail boat and by pure chance washing up on to a tropical paradise. Or perhaps another analogy is a blind person who can adapt to get around on their own with a walking stick. These approaches work, but they are not nearly as efficient, reliable or predictable as having a map and knowledge of the wind or being able to see.
By the same token, this body change journey is different for everyone. Some people prefer to go by boat, others by plane. Some would rather walk. This is why you can see so many different approaches work for people. Vegetarian & vegan diets, paleo diets, fasting regimes, Atkins, Ornish, etc etc and on and on.
But again, if you look closely at those who have been successful you will not simply see a caloric approach to body change. They may think that is what it is all about, but when you look closely you will see, whether by accident or done consciously, the elements of hormonal and behavioral influence (exercise, stress management, sleep, mindfulness, support system, habits practiced over long periods of time, etc)
What to do:
- Realize it is not just about calories and taking a solely calorie centered approach is not smart. Many have tried and the vast majority have failed.
- Realize that fat loss requires a caloric deficit AND behaviors that address the hormonal component. So make sure you exercise, preferably weight train, consider some extra protein and work to manage stress and get your sleep
- Realize that you are different and stories about Jared, The Twinkie guy and other people may or may not apply to you. And for fun look to see if they are really taking only a calorie centered approach. (Jared has Subway behind him making sure he maintains his motivation and keeps his weight off. Plus he exercises daily)
- Realize that your approach needs to be suited to you. Don’t go out and try to find an off the shelf program to follow that you must fit to your lifestyle. Instead educate yourself and create a program that fits you.
- Work to eliminate the negative factors that make you more likely to not sustain the effort. Control hunger, cravings and energy.
- Understand that obesity can be contagious and so can leanness. So watch your surroundings, especially the people you hang with
- Finally, free yourself from the calorie trap. It is one component to this game, but thinking it is THE component may be perhaps be the biggest block to achieving the results you want.