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Why Have Your Weight Loss Efforts Backfired?

August 12, 2013 0 Comments

Seems like an easy question with an even easier answer. Confessions such as “I eat too many things I’m not supposed to”, and “I don’t exercise enough” are usually the excuses (ahem, answers) to that question. But what about the chronic dieter or the individual who really does pay attention to what they eat and stays moderately active but all to no avail? Without pinpointing all of the potential issues, there are some hard facts that those seeking weight loss need to understand. While the popular mindset is that in order to lose weight you simply need to eat less, it’s not that simple and in fact, not eating enough is usually a bigger problem than eating too much.


It is understood that 1 pound of fat is the equivalent of 3,500 calories. With that in mind, it is then hypothesized that in order to lose 1 pound of fat, you must burn an excess of 3,500 calories above and beyond what your body already needs, or what is more appropriately referred to as the basal metabolic rate (BMR). Burn 7,000 calories and you lose 2 pounds of fat! Sounds good in theory but it doesn’t work that way. First, understand that the BMR is a critical component to comprehend. Think of it as your body’s idle speed – the amount of calories it burns daily without even an ounce of thought. What creates the BMR? Organ functions, breathing, the brain, and lean tissue (aka muscle). BMR, like finger prints, is unique to each individual. Some are higher or lower than others naturally and others are higher as the result of training. (more lean tissue, the higher the BMR). When those needs are not met properly through the diet (i.e. calories) the body finds a way to naturally reinforce those demands on its own, and that’s where the fun begins.

A Slippery Slope

When dieting and weight loss comes to mind, most just think that cutting calories is the way to go. Not losing weight? Just cut the calories lower. However, not eating enough calories causes many negative metabolic changes. The body is the perfect machine and senses a large decrease in dietary energy. A large calorie deficit might work for a few days or even weeks, but eventually your body will wake up and sound alarms that it needs to conserve energy. It doesn’t want to just waste away. It needs energy to survive. So, what does your body do when it senses prolonged energy restriction? It breakdowns lean tissue and begins a chain reaction of survival mechanisms

  1. Decreased thyroid production – Your thyroid is responsible for fat, carbohydrate, and protein metabolism among other things. Your body has the ability to slow down thyroid output in an effort to maintain energy balance.
  2. Decreases muscle mass – Muscle is highly caloric intensive to maintain. In a prolonged extreme calorie deficit, it is one of the first things that your body looks to get rid of. Your body needs the fat, wants the fat, and the muscle can be spared. It breaks down the muscle tissue and uses it for energy.
  3. Lowers testosterone levels – An important hormone for both men AND women, testosterone is just one of many hormones that are affected with severe calorie restriction. Testosterone is anabolic to muscle tissue. Without it, it becomes that much harder to maintain, let alone put on muscle mass.
  4. Decreases leptin levels – Leptin is one of many energy regulating hormones. More importantly, it’s a “hunger” hormone that tells you whether to eat or not. High leptin levels signal that it’s OK to stop eating, while low leptin levels are a signal to eat more energy. Because of this, leptin levels decrease in calorie restricted environments.
  5. Decreases energy levels – There are many physical actions your body takes when you’re not eating enough calories to lose weight, but there are also some mental ones. Neurotransmitter production is limited, which can lead to a lack of motivation. It’s your body’s way of telling you to “slow down” – conserve your energy.

How Much Should I Eat?

The goal should be to eat as many calories as possible and still lose weight. Contradictory to what most people would think but let’s examine further. It’s not a license to eat whatever and how much you want, but you have to be able to feed the body’s biological needs first before you can even consider slashing its source of fuel. There is no perfect number. Everybody’s metabolism is different but any one of the calorie calculators found on-line are a good starting point. They can’t take into account all the individualistic variables but they will give you a more realistic starting point than some fad diet. And it’s better to err on the side of higher and then adjust down if necessary.

Why Weight Loss is Such an Issue

The problem is most people want the weight gone, and they want it gone now. Weight loss is a patience game. It takes time and consistency to make it work. Losing 1-2 lbs per week is desirable and contrary to what the media would have you want to believe. At this pace, it will ensure that the majority of your weight loss is coming from stored body fat instead of muscle.  So if your progress has stalled, but you think you’re eating the right foods and exercising intensely, more than likely your problem is that you’re not eating enough calories to lose weight. Eat as much as you reasonably can, get in as many nutrients as possible, and your weight loss will start moving forward.


Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.

About the Author:

Jeff Harrison is a fitness coach based in Pottstown, PA. He received a BS in Exercise and Sport Science from Penn State University and is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), NSCA Certified Personal Trainer (NSCA-CPT) and ACE Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist (ACE-AHFS). Jeff's articles have been published in peer-reviewed journals as well as consumer oriented websites and magazines.

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