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Do calories count? Where the calorie zealots & diet pushers go wrong

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.

For those who know Metabolic Effect, this statement may seem shocking. After all, we are the ones who go out of calories countour way to challenge the calorie counting zealots and diet pushers.

But if you pay close attention to that statement, you will notice I said energy 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 accounts 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.

This has 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. (If you are wondering where these stats came from this article will help.)

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.

Losing fat

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 (from plant and/or animals). 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, it’s not calories.

To understand how these things 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, and seems to work for more than a few in the short-run, these new ideas sound foreign and bogus to them. So they feel compelled to attack them.

Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

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 breakdown.
  • 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.

You need a caloric deficit to lose weight. But, to assure the weight you are losing is mostly fat, you need the hormonal and biochemical pieces in place as well.

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 require some form of transportation. Perhaps a plane, train, boat, a car, or even good old fashion walking. But the transportation alone will not get you where you want to go. You need directions. Calories are the car and hormones are the GPS navigation.

You can certainly jump in a car with no map and only a vague idea of your final destination and drive to “wherever”. Of course this will result in wasted time, frustration, and the increased likelihood of ending up in the middle of nowhere after you run out of gas worse off than before you started your journey. Sound familiar? This is how yo-yo dieting got its name.

You need something to direct the calories you burn, maintain your muscle, and control hunger, cravings and energy (HEC). That is where the hormonal component comes in. Knowing what to eat, when to 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.

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 muscle and control hunger, energy, and cravings so you can make this a lifestyle. Whether you realize this is occurring largely because of hormonal effects does not matter, just 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.

Some perspective

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 the Starbucks 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 a sail boat you have no idea how to use and by pure chance washing up onto 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.

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 (which can come from animal and/or plant sources) 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 (HEC). Keep your HEC in check as we here at Metabolic Effect like to say.
  • 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 the biggest block to achieving the results you want.