Calories count and if you think they don’t let me explain something. You simply don’t comprehend one of the basic physical laws of life, known as the First Law of Thermodynamics. It states that energy can neither be created or destroyed but merely transferred or changed from one form to another. In regards to calories, they represent the energy or heat contained in a food item. When we ingest the calories (energy) it becomes a part of us in some form. We have lots to discuss.
Good vs. Bad
There’s no such thing as good calories or bad calories. Calories are a unit of measure; a calorie is a calorie. Take for example the distance of a mile. You can walk/run a mile, swim a mile, or bike a mile. One might be easier than another but that doesn’t change the distance. It’s still a mile. A food changes based on its nutrient composition and that can impact how much it will fill you up or how helpful it might be for your long term success for fat loss. A calorie is simply the amount of energy a food item contains. What changes is the nutrient composition.
Important Numbers to Know
Your metabolism (the chemical processes that occur within a living organism in order to maintain life) is a collection of numerous processes, not one single number. Here’s what goes into determining your metabolism.
Resting or Basal Metabolic Rate (RMR/BMR) – RMR/BMR is the number of calories you burn each day at rest, just to breathe, think, and live. This represents roughly 60 percent of your ‘energy out’ and depends on weight, body composition, sex, age, genetic predisposition, and possibly the bacterial population of your gut. In general, men and larger individuals will have higher RMR/BMR rates.
Thermic Effect of Eating (TEE) – TEE is the number of calories you burn by eating, digesting, and processing your food. (Yes, this requires energy.) This represents roughly 5-10 percent of your ‘energy out’. HINT: You’ll burn more calories digesting minimally processed whole foods compared to highly processed foods.
Daily Caloric Expenditure (DCE) – DCE is the calories you burn from purposeful exercise, such as walking, running, going to the gym, gardening, riding a bike, etc.
Obviously, how much energy you expend through DCE will change depending on how much you intentionally move around.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) – NEAT is the calories you burn through fidgeting, staying upright, and all other physical activities except purposeful exercise. This, too, varies from person to person and day to day.
Energy In vs. Energy Out
This relationship between ‘energy in’ and ‘energy out’ is known as the Energy Balance Equation, and it’s the most commonly accepted model for calculating a person’s energy balance and how much weight they’ll lose or gain over time. In theory: If you eat less energy than you expend, you should lose weight. If you do the opposite (i.e. eat more energy than you expend), you should gain weight. This equation at times can really frustrate people.The mismatch between expectations versus reality is not because the Energy Balance Equation is wrong, or a myth. Nobody’s body defies the laws of physics. It’s because the equation is more complicated than it sounds. For one, it is influenced by things like sex hormone levels, macronutrient intake (especially protein), exercise style / frequency / intensity, age, medication use, genetic predisposition, and more. “Eat less, move more” is a good start but that advice alone isn’t enough. Here are some of the reasons why
• The number of calories in a meal likely doesn’t match the number of calories on the labels or menu. Food labels can be off by as much as 20-25 percent.
• The amount of energy a food contains in the form of calories is not necessarily the amount of energy we absorb, store, and/or use. The food we eat has to be digested and processed by our unique bodies. The innumerable steps involved in digestion, processing, absorption, storage, and use — as well as our own individual physiological makeup — can all change the energy balance game.
• We may absorb more or less energy depending on the types of bacteria in our gut. Some people have larger populations of a Bacteroidetes (a species of bacteria), which are better at extracting calories from tough plant cell walls than other bacteria species.
Energy out varies a lot from person to person too. Energy out, energy burned through daily metabolism and moving you around, is a dynamic, always-changing variable. Our human metabolisms evolved to keep us alive and functioning when food was scarce. When energy in (degreased caloric intake) goes down, energy out goes down to match it. (I.e. We burn fewer calories in response to eating less). That’s how our bodies avoid unwanted weight loss and starvation. It’s how humans have survived for 2 million years. Therefore, trying “what used to work” for you, or relying on calorie counting, often won’t get you the results you want. As your energy balance evolves, so must your strategies for losing fat or maintaining your weight. Understanding energy balance means setting better expectations about body change.
What About Dieting?
Losing weight doesn’t “damage” your metabolism but because of the adaptations your body undergoes in response to fat loss (to prevent that fat loss, in fact), energy out for those who have lost significant weight will always be lower than for people who were always lean. Losing weight, and keeping it off, is accompanied by adaptive metabolic, neuroendocrine, autonomic, and other changes.These changes mean that we expend less energy — around 5-10 percent less (or up to 15 percent less at extreme levels) than what would be predicted based on just weighing less and can last for up to 7 years! THIS IS WHY DIETING DOES NOT WORK LONGTERM!!! Nothing really has been “damaged” but the body has adapted to the stresses put on it.
Real Strategies for Real Success
The physiology of weight loss is complicated, but the best strategies for losing fat and keeping it off don’t have to be.
1. Eat plenty of protein. Protein is essential when trying to losing weight / fat. Protein helps you keep that all-important lean body mass (which includes connective tissues, organs, and bone as well as muscle). Protein significantly increases satiety, which means you feel fuller despite eating less. Just by eating more protein you burn more calories, because of the increased thermic effect of eating.
2. Eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, quality carbs, and healthy fats. Vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, water, and fiber to help you fill up during meals, stay full between meals, keep you healthy, and recover from your workouts.The carbs will fuel training, boost leptin (a super important hormone), keep up sex hormones, and prevent feelings of deprivation. And the fats also keep up sex hormones, boost the immune system, suppress excess inflammation, and make food taste really good.
3. Adjust your intake as you plateau, or to prevent plateaus. As your weight loss progresses, you will need to lower your calorie intake further to continue to progress, as your smaller body will burn fewer calories, and your body is adapting to your diet. Be ready, willing, and able to adjust portion amounts.
4. Understand that this is complex. So many things influence what, why, and when we choose to eat. Too often, eating and body size / fatness are blamed on lack of knowledge, lack of willpower/discipline, or laziness. In reality, food intake and body composition are governed by a mix of physiological, biological, psychological, social, economical, and lifestyle influences, along with individual knowledge or beliefs. One of the simplest ways to make your decision processes easier is to create an environment that encourages good food choices and discourages poor ones.
5. Do a mixture of resistance, cardiovascular, and recovery activity. Resistance training helps you maintain vital muscle mass, burn calories, and improve glucose tolerance. Cardiovascular exercise improves the health of your cardiovascular system, helps you expend energy, and can improve recovery. Recovery work (e.g. foam rolling, walking, yoga) helps you maintain consistency and intensity with resistance and cardio training, making them more effective.
6. Find ways to increase NEAT. Even small increases in activity can account for hundreds of daily calories, and therefore make a big difference in fat loss efforts.
Some ideas: Get a stand-up desk or a treadmill desk; fidget; pace while on the phone; take the stairs; park your car farther away from where you’re going, etc.
7. Develop a solid nightly sleep routine and manage your stress. Sleep is just as important to your success as nutrition and activity levels. Don’t pretend that you can get by with less. It simply isn’t true.
8. Have some self-compassion. There are going to be meals or days where you don’t eat as you “should”. It’s OK. It happens to everyone. Recognize it, accept it, forgive yourself, and then get back on track.
Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.