Why do we care so much about calories? Because they matter, that’s why. To lose weight and keep it off, you need to create a sustainable caloric deficit over the long run.
The key phrase in that sentence is “the long run.” A short term calorie deficit will not cut it for sustained weight loss. In fact, going to extremes with calorie reduction (whether through food or exercise) is like putting your results on a metabolic credit card. You’ll get some results but pay steep metabolic penalties later with increased hunger, insatiable cravings and weight gain rebound. It happens to 95% of all dieters.
The Banana Effect
Let me tell you a story about how this works. It has to do with the banana. I used to fret about numbers. I wanted to know about calories and carb counts. I needed my carbs low and my calorie deficit high.
I personally loved and still love bananas. I would not eat them because they are “high in carbs,” roughly 23g for a small & 31g for a large. They also have calories. Between 90, for a small, and 120 for a large.
So, I avoided bananas. But then I found myself looking for other foods and after a few hours I would more frequently than not find myself snacking on crackers, or cookies or a doughnut from the local pastry shop.
So I avoided the 120 cal, 30g carb banana and as a result ended up eating the 40g of carb and 250 calorie doughnut. Not a good move.
This scenario was not just limited to me. I have seen this phenomena play out in thousands of my weight loss clients over the years. They avoid a healthy food that is not optimal in their mind, and as a result end up eating greater amounts of a more unhealthy food later.
I saw it so frequently I coined a term for it: “The Banana Effect.”
Calorie & Carb Effect
This plays out with calories and carbs too. The problem is not the foods but rather your human brain. We have all bought into ideas about calorie and carbs that have you confused and stuck in a rut (whether you realize it or not).
Let me highlight some of these ideas you might believe and live by:
- If a woman goes below 1200 calories she will “damage her metabolism.”
- If a woman eats over 2000 calories she will start storing fat.
- If you eat more than 100g of carbs a day you will not be able to burn fat.
- You need to eat more to lose weight.
These are utterly nonsensical statements and beliefs. I don’t mean this in a rude “I think you are an idiot” kind of way. I mean it more in a “I am being emphatic to get your attention” kind of way.
This happens almost daily
Let me tell you about an almost daily occurrence in my clinical work with weight loss seekers. The conversation goes like this:
Client: Dr. Jade I am losing weight and feel really good but I am a little worried.
Me: Well, that is great. What are you stressed about?
Client: Well, you told me to eat and not look at my calories. So I followed the outline you gave me and was doing fantastic. I had no hunger, no cravings and my energy was great. And I lost weight.
Me: I am not seeing the issue?
Client: I happened to check my calorie intake and it was unbelievably low. I mean I am only eating slightly over 1,000 calories. I am 130 pounds. I am afraid I am destroying my metabolism.
Me: So your hunger, energy and cravings are all stable and you feel good?
Me: No issues with sleep? No mood changes? No energy lows with exercise?
Client: No. I feel great.
Me: And you are losing fat?
Client: Yes, I have lost more weight and inches than I have in years.
Me: And you think your metabolism is damaged?
Client: Well it will be won’t it? I mean how can I sustain that amount of calories. It is not healthy right?
Ok, so you get the point. Let me explain a few things that I cover with clients like this. First, if your metabolism is out of balance you will know it. Hunger will be through the roof. Your energy will be in the toilet. Cravings will be uncontrollable.
You will also likely be dealing with mood issues, sleep issues and lack of motivation for exercise.
Now let’s take this 130 pound person. And lets say her resting metabolic rate is 1700. Where are the other 700 calories coming from to keep her metabolic engine going? Remember, she is only eating 1,000 calories per day?
Fat provides the calories
Her HEC is in check (HEC is an acronym I use for hunger, energy and cravings). She is losing fat like crazy. She feels great (probably because she has effectively liberated her fat stores, something few people are able to do).
The last thing on earth she wants to do at this point is start eating more. She does not want to eat any less either. She is in the perfect position and has achieved the two things required for sustained and lasting fat loss: a sustained calorie deficit and hormonal balance.
We know the calorie deficit is there because we can measure that and she is losing weight. We also know the hormonal/metabolic balance is there too. We know that because HEC, and other biofeedback sensations like mood, sleep, exercise performance and recovery, are there too.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is a misunderstanding about metabolism. The metabolism is not some static math machine that breaks if you go too low or too high. It is more like a boomerang, pendulum or see-saw. It is adaptive and reactive and is constantly changing.
Eating 1,000 calories a day and exercising like a mad person is a very different thing compared to eating 1,000 calories a day and not exercising at all or very little (which is approach I use at the start with new clients).
Suppose the 1,000 calorie a day client is doing nothing other than lots of rest and relaxation activities through the week? She does only two traditional weight training workouts and lots of walking and that’s it?
These are two very different scenarios. One is an eat less and exercise more (ELEM) approach. One is an eat less and exercise less approach (ELEL). One, the ELEM, will likely quickly cause metabolic compensation. The other, ELEL, can balance the metabolism for a long while before it compensates.
Can you see the difference?
The same goes for eating more and exercising more (EMEM). There is nothing wrong with this person eating 2500 calories a day if she is also working out like a freaking world class athlete day in a day out. If she does hit calorie excess, much of that is likely to go towards muscle growth.
Can you see the difference?
I have talked about this compensatory nature of the metabolism and the different metabolic toggles in past blogs. These two on metabolic compensation (HERE & HERE) and this one on the 4 Metabolic Toggles (HERE) will get you up to speed.
How to do it
Now that you get the misunderstanding you might be wondering how to do this. This is discussed in detail in our book Lose Weight Here but I will give you an overview here. For a more in-depth guided approach please grab the book.
Step 1: Start off with either an ELEL or an EMEM approach. These terms are admittedly vague & subjective. That is on purpose. The last thing you want to do is enforce a static defined approach on a system that is by nature adaptive and reactive. The metabolism changes,so you must too.
These terms are useful in the same way eat less, exercise more is. They provide a guiding framework. The particulars emerge with the individual.
So stop following an indefinite eat less, exercise more approach. It is ok to use it on occasion, but the ELEL and EMEM methods are more balancing to the metabolism. Start with them, get your HEC in check and then get ready to adjust accordingly.
Step 2: Once you get HEC in check, assess your results. Often a balanced metabolism will automatically result in less hunger and cravings and therefore an automatic calorie deficit. This is not always the case so get ready to adjust your calories and macronutrients up or down at this point. This is when calories and macronutrients are best attended too.
Some good first moves are to take a look at your calories? If your HEC is in check then you are safe to push your calories downward (usually through a reduction in fat and or carbs). While you do this you would be wise to make sure your fiber, protein and water based foods are adequate. That will likely keep HEC in check.
In this approach calories are used as a secondary “back-checking” method. They are the fine tuning dial rather than the big moving dial. That is a HUGE difference from how this is usually done. In this case HEC leads and then calories follow. In other words, balance the metabolism first and then attend to calories. This is far more likely to keep your hunger, energy and cravings stable than doing the reverse.
Step 3: Continue to tweak. ELEL and EMEM may be more balancing to the metabolism then either ELEM or EMEL, but the metabolism will always adapt and react eventually, be ready for it. You will be able to sense the change by tapping into HEC. Calories will tell you very little in this regard and can keep many people stuck.
Calories matter and hormones matter. You need to attend to both and get savvy with how the metabolism functions. Holding yourself to ridiculous rules about how many calories will or will not work based on arbitrary gym lore or even sophisticated equations is not smart. It chains you to a static approach that cannot possibly be a solution to a changeable system like the metabolism.
So stop the incessant focus on calories and macros. They are hugely important of course, and your body likely won’t change without them, but if you don’t view them in the proper framework they are likely to become a hindrance rather than a help.
Hope that is useful. See you at the gym.
***Last Updated 08032016***