Trying to "lose weight"? Stop counting calories. PLEASE.
Counting calories is a surefire way to screw up your metabolism and develop a terrible relationship with food. I want you to go to the wedding buffet and eat THE WHOLE THING. Because that's what I'm going to do.
YES, a caloric deficit DOES result in lower "weight", and ultimately that is how "weight loss" works, BUT there are much, much, much better ways to do this than to try and outrun your diet, which is the method that's STILL being taught by some fitness schools and STILL largely promoted by the fitness industry.
You see, here's what happens when you try to do this. (I'm going to use common examples that I STILL see people using on a regular basis - this model might not apply exactly to you.)
Let's say you are currently eating 2500 calories a day and you want to "lose weight", so you start eating 2000 calories a day and then are doing a "workout" (I've ranted about this word before) that burns 500 cal (also, good luck doing that daily without burning out). Now your body learns to live on fewer calories than it's used to, and you're expending more energy daily, and it needs to use everything it has as efficiently as it can....so it does this by SLOWING YOUR METABOLISM DOWN AND STORING MORE OF WHAT YOU EAT. Now, if you're doing some form of steady state cardio in order to burn those calories - let's say running - here's what happens when you start doing steady state cardio regularly. Your body gets better at it. Win! Your body gets more efficient at using the limited fuel you're now giving it. Win? When your body gets more efficient at it...it uses less energy...also known as burning fewer calories. So, now you're eating 2000 calories a day and your body is trying to learn to live on less so it stores more, AND instead of burning 500 cal during your daily run, you're now only burning 250 cal, because you got better at it.
This cycle continues to perpetuate and becomes a catch 22.
THERE ARE BETTER WAYS.
I'm not saying you shouldn't pay attention to what you eat. I'm also not saying you should eat at A&W or the buffet every day, every second day, or even a couple of times a week. I am saying it's okay to do it once in a while and feel totally glorious (not justified - that's a different conversation) while doing so.
I'm also saying that instead of focusing how the amount of food you eat, focus on the quality and nutritional value of what you eat.
Yep, you could just "eat less and move more", but, reference my opening paragraphs, that only holds up for so long. Need I also reference the myriad of weight loss reality TV shows which had people doing just that, which gave short term success, but long term misery when all the participants gained all the weight back and then some?
What you think is nutritious might not be as healthy as you think.
- Fruit is NOT a substitution nor is it on an equal footing as legumes and leafy greens. There is a reason diabetics have to be careful with fruit consumption. It's a sugar.
- Bread and grains - even whole grains - don't need to be consumed in huge quantities.
- You need complete protein every four hours, roughly 20-30g PER MEAL.
- Dairy is NOT a "food group" and is a poor protein option. Every single person I know who relies on dairy as a protein source has trouble losing midsection fat.
- Power bars and energy bars are not an appropriate long-term solution. Yes, I know I did a whole article about them. Some days you need to choose your poison, but please - do not rely on any kind of store-bought power bar or energy bar as part of your long-term nutrition strategy.
- Honey, agave, and maple syrup are all still forms of SUGAR, and in some cases, have MORE sugars per tablespoon than refined or brown sugar.
Instead, let's start looking at just a few of the many other factors involved in improving body composition (ie. losing fat and gaining muscle).
- Muscle mass.
- This one is promoted by the fitness industry a lot. And while it's true that more muscle = a higher metabolism, it's honestly fairly negligible. There are many other very good reasons to increase functional muscle mass, but put "higher metabolism" low on the list.
- Metabolic response following strength training.
Protein synthesis happens for up to 48 hours following the right kind of resistance training. I say "the right kind" because doing a few push ups, a few crunches, and some air squats isn't going to do much for your metabolic response. You need a program that works all your big muscle groups and makes you tired after 3-5 repetitions of the same exercise. If you don't know where to start, take a look at my 6 Weeks 2 Strong course, or contact me to chat about what kind of training would be best for you.
- Insulinemic response.
This is a big one, and is the premise behind the GI (Glycemic Index) and Slow Carb Diet. In full disclosure, I've never done the GI diet, but I slow-carbed for 4 straight months in 2020, and it was f.cking fantastic. Because here's the thing. Insulin secretion helps the body to absorb glucose, and thus...causes fat gain. Insulin is secreted when you eat sugars, including "carbs" (bread, simple carbs, sweets, sugars), fruit, and starches (potatoes). With this in mind, the Carbohydrate-Insulin Model has been theorized to be overly simplified. However, it still appears that reducing sugars (simple carbohydrates) really does make a big difference in overall health and in body composition.
To be clear, there are A LOT of factors outside of nutrition and exercise that play into both weight loss and weight gain, including but not limited to stress, age, sleep, and a multitude of hormones. I'm not going to dig into those in this particular post.
What I DO want to get across is if you are still firmly attached to the CICO (Calories In/Calories Out) method, I encourage you to consider that there are better, safer, and more effective ways to manage body composition and "lose weight".
As an example of what people are still believing...I send my Concierge clients for a BodPod scan at the beginning and end of their training package, and after one new client had gone for her first one, she came back very excited.
"The guy at the BodPod told me that if I only eat 1200 calories a day, I'll be sure to make my weight loss goal!"
My response was something along the lines of this:
"You've told me expressly that you don't eat breakfast, you often skip lunch, and then dinner is nachos. Calories aren't your problem. Nutrition is."
In all truth, she probably wasn't even consuming 1200 calories a day. We cleaned up her nutrition rather than focusing on calories, got her eating breakfast with 25 grams of protein in it, and got her on a strength training program, and sure enough, she started to see some differences.
It hurts my head that this industry STILL widely promotes what I have observed to be an ineffective and unhealthy practice in helping people manage their weight. While excess weight, especially in the midsection, is still linked to a myriad of serious health problems, my modus operandi as a personal trainer and health coach is to work with clients to improve their overall health. And that starts with a healthy mental conversation and a willingness of the client to let go of old beliefs on what works and what doesn't. Following that we improve overall nutrition and build in an achievable fitness training program based on their goals.
Are you convinced yet?
If not, I would encourage you to try a few simple changes. Swap out the potatoes, rice, and bread at lunch or dinner for mashed turnips, steamed cauliflower, or roasted broccoli, and include a fist-sized amount of salad with the meal. Do this for a week. See how you feel.
References & Supporting Evidence*
- Insulin translates unfavourable lifestyle into obesity (Dec 2018)
- Suppression of insulin secretion is associated with weight loss and altered macronutrient intake and preference in a subset of obese adults (Feb 2003)
- Drop in both insulin and leptin needed for fat burning to occur (Jan 2018)
- How Insulin Blocks Fat Burning
- Eat More To Burn More For Body Composition (Aug 2021)
- Carbohydrates, insulin, and obesity (May 2021)
*I have a few gripes with all of these studies, and the biggest one being that none of them make a distinction between simple carbohydrates (fruits, sugars, starches, flour) and complex carbohydrates (legumes, vegetables), which I firmly believe makes a difference in how your body responds and how you'll feel.
One of the best sayings I've ever heard about the health industry is "50% of what we know isn't true. We just don't know which 50%." Scientific studies are always done with a certain interest in mind so take even the best ones with a grain of salt. And be open-minded to considering that what you learned about food, nutrition, weight gain, weight loss, and overall health is probably different now than it was 5, 10, and 20+ years ago. Also be open-minded to the fact that the government was long on paid partnerships with certain agricultural groups to promote certain foods, and even when the Canada Food Guide was promoting the Four Food Groups in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, there was supporting evidence for what has only recently been promoted by Health Canada regarding macronutrients.