Are you one of the millions of people who have gone on a diet and lost weight, only to regain it again and find it is harder to lose it the next time? Dieting has been driving us into the ground and digging a hole even deeper than when we started.
How did we get here? You may have heard that one pound of fat is equivalent to 3500 calories. And it makes sense that Calories in – Calories out = weight loss. So in other words, consume less calories than you burn and you are guaranteed to lose weight. With this black and white view of weight loss, it is easy to assume that if you reduce your calories and create a deficit, the pounds will melt away. Unfortunately, we have been left in the dark about several other factors that are essential to long term weight loss.
Your Calorie Burning Engine
How many calories do you burn each day without exercise? The answer to this question is unique to each individual. Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the number of calories your body burns in a day to simply survive. It depends on many factors like your height, weight, age, and lean muscle tissue. The more muscle you have, the higher this number will be.
If you would like to get an estimate of what your BMR is, check out this BMR calculator online: http://www.bmi-calculator.net/bmr-calculator/
Now, remember, your BMR is what your body needs to SURVIVE. It is what your engine needs to keep your body moving. When you restrict your calories below this number, your body has no choice but to steal energy from somewhere else… your muscle tissue. So, while you may lose weight from restricting calories, some of that drop in weight is from lost muscle. As a result, your BMR is reduced, and you don’t burn as many calories each day. When you go back to eating a normal amount of calories, you will inevitably gain the weight back plus more. If you decide to go back on another diet, it will be even harder to lose the weight. Your engine just isn’t as powerful as it once was. This is the yo-yo diet cycle in a nutshell.
Your Metabolism is Hormonal
Restricting your calories consistently below 1200 per day can be detrimental to your metabolism and hormones. Your body goes into a state of stress and drastically impairs its ability to burn fat, because it is merely focused on survival – by holding onto that precious energy, your fat. It is important for you to be aware of some of the possible harm you could be doing by restricting your calories for too long.
There are a couple of key hormones that I am going to discuss as they relate to calorie restriction. They are leptin, cortisol, and thyroid hormones. This can get a little technical, so bear with me here.
Leptin is an important hormone for regulating your appetite and metabolism. When you eat enough, leptin is raised and decreases your appetite. It also boosts your metabolism temporarily to use up that energy. Conversely, if you don’t eat enough, leptin makes you hungrier, and decreases your metabolism to conserve energy.
Leptin is produced in your fat cells. So, the more fat you have, the more your body says “Ok, time to stop eating, there’s enough energy here to sustain you.”
You might think that if you are overweight, your leptin levels would be so high you would never want to eat. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way either. You can become leptin resistant, just like you become insulin resistant. Leptin resistance is caused by having too much fat (and therefore too much leptin), making it difficult for your body to discern whether or not that leptin is for real. When you are leptin resistant, your body doesn’t use leptin properly, so you are hungry all the time. In addition, your body slows down to ensure you aren’t using up too much energy, resulting in feeling lethargic.
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. It causes a fight for flight response in your body, whether or not you really are in a fight or flight situation (like being chased by a bear). Several things in life can cause an increase in cortisol including not getting enough sleep, injury, illness, stress at work, too much exercise, and… what we are talking about here, calorie restriction.
Cortisol is a triple threat to weight loss.
When cortisol is high, it decreases the activity of your digestive system, so that it can focus on fighting back. (You wouldn’t really be concerned about eating if a bear was chasing you, anyway!) As a result, you aren’t getting the proper nutrition from your food. Proper nutrition is essential to weight loss.
When cortisol is high, your body resists weight loss. The body is incredibly intuitive, and if you are restricting it, it will hold on to the energy that it has, by reducing your BMR. The yo-yo diet cycle continues.
Cortisol also causes an increase in abdominal fat in particular because there are more cortisol receptors in that area. An abundance of abdominal fat is very dangerous because it causes inflammation and insulin resistance in the body. In addition, more abdominal fat means more cortisol receptors, and another vicious cycle is created.
Finally, cortisol causes a decrease in muscle mass. When your body is in starvation mode, cortisol halts muscle growth, but instead causes muscle to convert into sugar for energy (so you can run from that bear!). For this reason, cortisol is linked to high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and immune system dysfunction.
Thyroid hormones control your resting metabolic rate, the breakdown of fat, and production of proteins. You have two types of thyroid hormones, T3 and T4. T4 is converted to T3 when it reaches the tissues in your body. T3 is what we really care about, because it binds to receptors on cells to regulate your metabolism. When you restrict your calories, your body converts less T4 to T3, but instead produces a hormone called reverse T3. Reverse T3 is not active, but it still binds to the same receptors, blocking active T3 from doing its job.
The result is a slower metabolism, and an inability to burn fat and build muscle. So, your metabolism slows down even further, making it even more difficult to burn calories. The only way to continue to lose weight is to continue to reduce calories, which is a vicious cycle that does not end well.
So, just to summarize, a few negative side effects (and keep in mind this is a very short list) resulting from consistent calorie restriction can include:
– Fatigue, irritability, depression
– Increase in hunger, even when you have eaten enough
– Increase in abdominal fat
– Loss in muscle mass
– Decreased resting metabolic rate
– Decreased absorption of nutrients
Become a Fat Burning Machine
I’ve identified a problem, but what is the solution? I’d like to give you some ways to make your body more efficient at burning calories. It’s time to start thinking of food as fuel. A fire burns much better when you constantly give it tiny bits of kindling, and that’s how metabolism works. Stop feeding your body, and you stop burning (calories that is).
- Eat More
Duh. It’s the title of this post. Like I’ve mentioned, the amount of calories you need each day varies depending on your age, height, weight, and activity level. But I can bet that it is at the VERY least 1400 calories. Focus on getting your calories from good sources to fuel your workouts and repair your muscle tissue.
- Eat Plenty of Protein and Complex Carbs
Protein is harder for the body to break down. Same thing goes with complex carbohydrates and whole grains. The thermal effect of these hard to break down foods actually cause your body to burn calories in order to do that work! So you burn calories just by digesting them. Not only that, protein and complex carbs will help you build the necessary muscle to raise your metabolic rate.
- Get Smart About Cardio
When it comes to cardio, high intensity interval training will also help you burn more calories, so you can eat more of them. Work as hard as possible for 1-2 minutes, and during your recovery time, your body keeps burning at a high rate. In addition, your aerobic capacity increases by doing high intensity intervals, which will allow you to work even harder (and burn more calories) the next time you work out. But beware of doing too much cardio. Long durations of steady state cardio will elevate cortisol and keep it there. This is just one more reason to do high intensity training instead.
- Move More
My next piece of advice is common sense. You might already do this, but I have to include it here. Get up more, walk more, and take the stairs every time. These little tiny things add up and make a huge difference. I once read that people that fidget burn more calories. Does that mean you have to start tapping your foot all day? Of course not, but the point is it all adds up.
- Change Your Workout Often
Our bodies are intelligent machines, and they learn to adapt and become more efficient. By being more efficient, it no longer has to work as hard, and therefore burns fewer calories. So when you change up your routine, your body has to start from scratch to learn a new movement pattern or work at a different intensity. Once you start to adapt again, change again… every 1-2 months.
- Lift Weights
And by lifting, I mean heavy. Lifting weights creates an after burn effect, in which you continue to burn calories for hours after you leave the gym. Your body has to work hard to repair the muscles and connective tissue. So the harder you work during lifting, the greater the after (calorie) burn. Plus, you can’t build muscle unless you first push that muscle beyond your comfort zone. So pick up those weights and prepare to get uncomfortable.
Remember, losing weight isn’t just about a number on a scale. It’s about feeling good from the inside out. It’s about living a long and happy life. Severe calorie restriction can only last so long, and since this is for a lifetime, consider trying to make nutrition and fitness part of your lifestyle.