To lose weight, you gotta cut calories, right?
No one’s going to argue that – it’s the basic laws of thermodynamics.
To drop body fat and see the scale go down, you MUST be burning more calories than you consume. This puts your body into a state where it hasn’t got enough energy coming in from food to sustain the energy you’re expending, so it taps into its stored energy (i.e. your body fat) to keep itself going.
While there are a lot of complicated mechanisms involved in fat burning, this is all any of us really needs to know.
It doesn’t matter how “clean” you eat, you simply will not drop body fat eating more calories than you burn.
If a reduced calorie diet is the answer for fat loss, then why don’t we just go super low on calories, get lean really fast, and save ourselves months of dieting?
Let’s do Some Math
This is about as technical and mathematical as this article will get, and thankfully, all the sums here are pretty simple. So here goes –
To lose 0.5kg of fat, you need a calorie deficit of 3,500.
That means you must burn 3,500 calories more than you consume.
As a side note, this is where that advice of cutting calories by 200 per day comes from and exercising 300 calories a day – a 500 daily deficit leads to a 3,500 weekly deficit, which equates to 0.5kg of fat loss.
But what if you want more than that?
0.5kg doesn’t seem like a lot, really, does it?
It’s doubtful you ever lift anything that light in the gym, and as a percentage of your total bodyweight, 0.5kg is hardly anything.
So what if we were to shoot for more than that – say 1 kilos per week, 2 kilos per week, or even 5 kilos per week?
A bigger calorie deficit would enable us to do that, so mathematically, it’s possible.
Read on though, not only can doing this sabotage your diet in the long run, it can seriously screw up your body and your health.
The Glitz and Glamour of Big Weight Loss
Programs like “The Biggest Loser” draw in millions of viewers, for one simple reason
– they’re so extreme.
Contestants are put on gruelling exercise regimes, trainers act like pit bulls on steroids, the weight loss that occurs on a weekly basis, is, quite frankly, staggering.
These guys and girls do often lose up to and above 5 kilos in a single week.
Even if you’re not starting as heavy as them, you’d think that losing perhaps half of this in a week is doable.
This is the same reason why fad diets, such as super low-carb ketogenic plans, fasting diets, detoxes, and the like all sell so well – they promise rapid weight loss.
The words “sustainable,” “moderation” and “healthy” don’t feature at all in the sales spiel of these. Those words aren’t sexy, and those words certainly don’t sell.
When it comes to weight loss, people want it quick.
The Perils of Low-Calorie Dieting
Before you get too caught up in the numbers, and start imagining the weight falling off you at a rate of knots, there are several potentially severe health pitfalls to look at.
Firstly, low-calorie diets simply are not sustainable.
There’s a reason why all those detox diets and shake-based plans are set up to only last a few days, or, at most, a couple of weeks – it’s because you simply cannot continue them for any longer than that.
Willpower and drive doesn’t come into it. From an energy standpoint, your body won’t function on that few calories.
You’ll feel like crap, and that’ll be the end of that.
The term “metabolic damage” has been doing the rounds in the fitness industry, and while the definition of the term is debatable, there certainly is a hell of a lot of truth behind the idea of metabolic damage.
Perhaps a better term, however, is “metabolic adaptation.”
Have you noticed, that when you diet, and your body weight goes down, it gradually becomes harder to lose weight?
You might lose 2 kilos in your first week, 1 kilos a week for the next couple, then it’s down to 0.5 kilos a week, and before you know it, you’re battling for every quarter of a kilo on the scale.
This is due to a couple of reasons.
As your bodyweight drops, you just require fewer calories to maintain your energy expenditure.
When working out your required calorie intake, you base it off your current bodyweight. For instance, if you take your bodyweight and an activity factor, you’ll get the theoretical number of calories you should eat daily to lose weight.
An example would be a woman weighing 60 kilograms.
If she was lightly active, she might multiply her bodyweight by an activity factor of around 22 to 24, giving her a required daily calorie intake of between 1,320 and 1,440 (this is a basic way of working out your metabolic rate).
Clearly, even if her activity levels stay the same, during the course of a diet, she’ll get lighter, therefore that calorie intake needs to drop.
The second reason, however, is due to adaptations in metabolism.
As much as calories matter, and we like to keep things simple, there are certain complexities involved in weight loss, and one of these is metabolism.
Your body likes stability, and so will often fight to stay at its current weight, resistant your attempts to lose fat. One of the ways it does this is to regulate your metabolism.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this is a bonus, as during times of famine, having an adaptive metabolism helped us survive. For fat loss though – not so much!
As you diet, metabolic hormones, such as leptin and T3 can begin to lower, essentially meaning your metabolism slows, and fat loss becomes more challenging. The way to stop this from happening is to keep calories higher, either through re-feeding, or strategic over-eating, or by just not going stupidly low with calories in the first place.
The Problem with Progress Plateaus
Perhaps the biggest issue with low-calorie dieting is the progress plateaus.
Hitting the odd wall or stumbling block is part and parcel of the dieting process – it is going to happen, it’s normal, and it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong.
99 times out of 100, this plateau can be put down to an eradication of your calorie deficit. (Either from you eating more than you should, or, hopefully, the fact you’ve lost weight, and simply aren’t burning as many calories.)
The way around these plateaus and to continue your fat loss journey is to reinstate that calorie deficit by cutting calories.
This will be a simple, small tweak of perhaps dropping 50 to 100 calories per day. Over time though, this can add up. Through the course of a diet where you lose 15 pounds, you might hit five plateaus, meaning you end your diet on 250 to 500 calories fewer than you started.
The person starting their diet on a higher calorie intake, therefore, is clearly going to have an easier, more enjoyable time of dieting than the person who starts too low with their intake.
How many people do you know who’ve lost weight quickly, then rapidly re-gained it post-diet, often at a faster rate than they lost it, and, many a time, actually ending up heavier than they were when they started the diet?
If you’re anything like me, you probably know quite a few.
This rebound occurs because the person cut their calories too drastically to begin with.
The first reason is to do with the metabolic adaptation mentioned earlier, because they’re more susceptible to fat gain after low-calorie dieting.
The second (and more common reason) is because a period of such restriction inevitably leads to binging and over-eating once the diet’s over, as the person simply cannot control their urges towards high-calorie foods, and so goes to town.
The Seriously Ugly
Want the ugly truth?
Very low-calorie diets will make you feel like garbage and result in a lack of energy. Not ugly enough?
You’ll lose your libido, find it hard to concentrate, and not feel like doing anything. More?
Try hair loss, brittle nails, bad skin, and missed cycles.
This really isn’t pretty, but this is the cold, hard truth of restrictive calorie dieting.
Why You Want to Diet on As Many Calories as Possible
The idea of dieting on a higher number of calories scares the bejesus out of a lot of women.
You’re constantly being bombarded by the media with notions of restrictive, low- calorie diets, absurd plans that limit your intake to 1,200, 1,000 or even 800 calories per day.
Not only are these diets unsustainable and unhealthy, but you’ll end up in worse shape following them.
Let’s put it in perspective –
A woman who weighs 70 kilograms can probably lose weight eating 1,800 to 2,000 calories per day. The course of her diet, taking her to 60kg, eating roughly that, might look something like this –
- She drops a kilogram or so each week for the first month.
- This drops to 0.5kg in month 2.
- She hits the odd plateau through months three and four, but simply cuts her calorie intake a little each time, feeling good, and enjoying the foods she eats while living life.
- By month 5, she’s at her goal weight of 60kg, eating 1,650 calories per day, putting her in a great place to maintain, or build some muscle.
Now, if the same woman were to go straight in at 1,200 calories –
- She drops 2 kilos per week for a couple of weeks.
- At week 3, this goes down to 1 kilo.
- Weeks 4 through 6, nothing happens, so she slashes 200 calories.
- Another couple of kilos come off, then another plateau occurs.
- That 200 calorie drop comes around again.
- She reaches 60kg, but only eating 800 calories per day.
This poor girl would probably find she’d maintain her weight for no more than a week or two, before succumbing to post-diet temptations. The negative mental and physical consequences of drastic dieting would mean that in a couple of month’s time, you could bet she’d be back at her starting weight (or heavier) without actually eating that much on a daily basis, but unable to control her binge eating.
Eat Those Calories
The best bit of advice I can give is to eat as many calories as you should to theoretically lose weight.
If that means eating 2,400 calories per day, do it!
It might be the case that you do need to go a little lower, but it’s always best to start high, and reduce only when you need to.
Start too low, and not only will dieting be miserable, but it will almost certainly damage your health, your sanity and your relationships.
Result Based Training