I want to spend today talking about the “C” word – calories. There’s a really interesting phenomenon that has kind of seeped into the subconsciousness of women today when it comes to how we relate to food.
Over the last decade and a half now that I’ve been training, it seems like more women have developed almost a huge fear of calories, hence leading to a weird reliance on numbers going into their bodies, and what’s coming out (through excessive exercise in many cases – but more on that some other time).
The more interesting component of this equation is that women today seem to be continuously surviving on what I call a “perpetual caloric deficit” – meaning that despite what their goal is, these same women often aren’t even eating enough to see long lasting results or anything close to what their bodies actually need to be successful in their efforts.
So I wanted to take the time today to kind of address some of these fears, and to help you to strategize more effective ways to be able to reach your goal by way of FUELING and FEEDING your body. In order to do that I want to drive home 5 things that you need to keep in mind when it comes to your diet:
1. Understanding What A Calorie Is – And How Knowing That Can Release Your Fears
By definition a calorie is a measure for HEAT. Specifically, a calorie is the amount of energy, or heat, it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius.
As humans, our bodies need energy to keep us alive and to perform everyday tasks. The number of calories in a food is a measure of how much potential energy that food possesses. Therefore it measures the amount of usable energy for our bodies from the foods we eat.
Each macronutrient possesses a specific amount of calories (heat energy) per gram. Carbohydrates and protein have 4 calories per gram, fat has 9, and alcohol has 7. Now depending on what the food we’re eating is made of, caloric amounts will vary.
So “a calorie in and of itself is NOT the enemy” is the point I’m trying to drive home here. You can have 100 calories of a slice of chicken breast, and 100 calories of a donut, but guess what, they’re certainly not equal in the way the body processes them and uses that energy.
Each type of food, and what it contains, will have a greater effect on the body rather than the caloric amount in and of itself.
A 2300 calorie diet composed of lean meats, whole grains, fibrous veggies, healthy nuts and fats has a far different effect on the body than a 2300 calorie diet composed of fast food, candy bars, soda, and other junk foods that cause a host of issues, far more than simply gaining fat.
The hormonal effect of these two calorically equal diets have very different reactions in the body as explained below.
2. Your Metabolism Is Far More Complex Than Calories In and Calories Out
We’ve all heard this before, fat loss is all about calories in and calories out. But how many times have you attempted to eat less and less, yet exercises more and more only to see that you’ve hit a point where changes cease to happen?
In theory you should still see some kind of weight loss given that you’re working out a ton, and eating far less than you had before.
But guess what, there is a driving factor behind your eating called your metabolism…
And that metabolism is controlled greatly by hormones. To understand things further let’s talk about some of the things that happen to the body when you begin to manipulate calories:
What Happens To Your Body When You Diet
Ok so you’ve decided to jump into a new diet plan and go Gung-Ho with your workouts.
Everything is going great, and you see some amazing changes for a few weeks.
But after a while, your body seems to have stopped responding despite all of your efforts. The natural reaction for most is to lower calories further and to continue to train harder. However, that’s not always the best option.
Prolonged periods of dieting can actually lead to the slow down of the metabolism. Long periods of dieting down regulate hormones that are responsible for metabolic function.
Leptin, seen as the master hormone in relation to fat loss, gets severely down regulated the longer you diet. Less leptin in your system means stored fat is less mobilized.
Lowered levels of leptin increases other hormones (neuropeptide y and ghrelin) responsible for cranking up hunger making you want to eat more as the body signals it’s moving into starvation mode.
In general lowered levels of leptin actually sets off a chain reaction for the body to lower metabolism. In addition to the lowering of leptin, thyroid function also becomes downregulated.
A slower thyroid means a slower metabolism, and if you have any underlying thyroid issues (like subnormal hypothyroidism that’s gone undetected) you will have an even harder deal in achieving your fat loss goals.
Another physiological reaction to prolonged dieting is slowed adrenal function. Your adrenal glands are another main powerhouse source of metabolism (besides the thyroid). Long periods of dieting can lead to higher cortisol levels and the secretion of catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenaline).
High levels of these hormones sends your body into a constant state of stress and alarm. Stay in this state for too long and you may be looking at issues with adrenal fatigue down the line.
What Happens To Your Body When You Eat In A HEALTHY Caloric Surplus
Just as your body down regulates function during a caloric deficit, it increases metabolic function during a surplus that sets off a chain reaction that leads to muscle gain!
Leptin goes up, which helps the body to signal when it’s full (neuropeptide y and ghrelin decrease). Thyroid function optimizes which helps to regulate metabolism within normal levels.
Insulin sensitivity can increase especially when exercise is a component in your plan. Insulin sensitivity basically refers to how much insulin it takes to clear a certain amount of glucose from the blood. This in turn will allow the body to better utilize the nutrients you eat towards growth and tissue repair.
Growth hormone and IGF-1 also increase which helps the body to reach an anabolic (muscle building) state.
So generally, eating in a caloric surplus has the opposite hormonal response than eating in a deficit. In either case though, the quality of the calories coming into your body is important.
Just as you don’t want to severely under eat while trying to lose fat, you don’t want to severely over eat when trying to gain muscle. In both cases though the underlying driver to physical change has to do with HORMONES and OPTIMIZED HORMONAL FUNCTION. So to fear calories in either scenarios sets you at a huge disadvantage.
3. Starvation Diets Halt Fat Loss, And Sometimes Eating MORE Can Overcome Plateaus
As discussed above, eating in a caloric deficit for an extended period of time can actually lead to the slowdown of metabolic function. It’s imperative to understand this fact because with this you can easily manipulate the fat loss game IN YOUR FAVOR.
Now I’ve mentioned above how leptin is the master hormone when it comes to fat loss. And as you now know, leptin decreases the longer you diet. There is one strategy that can however increase leptin and that strategy is called “refeeding”.
During a refeed your goal is to raise calories to maintenance. You should be getting a majority of your calories from low fat carbohydrate sources, while keeping protein about 1xBW. Generally speaking, carbohydrates should fall around 2xBW, while fat is kept around 30-50g during the entire refeed.
Carbohydrates are the main drivers in the refeed as it’s the macronutrient that has the highest impact on raising leptin.
Keeping the fat grams low lessens the chance of dietary fat being stored and setting you back. However keeping enough in will allow you to have some flavor in your refeed and allow some room for “cheats” in the mix as well.
The beautiful thing about refeeding is that this temporary raise in calories actually HELPS the body to lose more fat over time.
By resetting hormones to a more baseline level (temporarily), you can create somewhat of a metabolic trickery that will aid you in your efforts without you having to resort to starving yourself to death.
And the truth of the matter is the leaner you get THE MORE YOU NEED TO REFEED. So in essence, EATING MORE can indeed lead to overall greater fat loss.
4. In Order To Gain Muscle And Increase Strength – You’ve Got to EAT (The Right Things)
Let’s go back to the other end of the equation once again – muscle gain. Many of you have the goal to put on some hard to earn lean mass, but you’re lacking the one ingredient that’s there to play to your advantage.
Yes, just as explained above with fat loss, in order to gain muscle you need to eat more than what your body needs to maintain your current state. But what you should keep in mind is that eating more doesn’t mean eating more junk.
I like to tell clients, and also follow for myself, that about 90% of my calories should be from your typical “clean” source, but there should also be some room for life’s indulgences. After all, balance is everything.
If you spend a majority of your time fearing raising calories anywhere above 1600 per day, you’re putting yourself at a huge disadvantage.
In essence, when it comes to figuring out the proper amount of calories to see muscle gain you would need to eat in a surplus above your baseline calories.
So for a 125 lb woman that trains regularly, she would find her maintenance calories by simply multiplying her bodyweight by 15 – this would total to 1875 calories just to maintain her current weight.
If she wanted to focus on simply gaining 1 lb a week, she would have to eat an additional 500 calories per day. So that would now set her caloric surplus to 2375 calories per day! Most women would freak out at seeing this number, but what you have to understand that if your diet is properly set up you will see less of this gain coming directly from fat.
Instead, you can expect it to be a good amount of muscle as well.
Another thing you must keep in mind is that with muscle gain comes fat gain to a degree. But unlike what most think, that fat gain DOES NOT have to be excessive.
In fact it can be quite minimal if you are as meticulous about your plan when training to build as you are when training to lose.
What you’ll find with this increase in calories will also come an increase in PERFORMANCE.
So your ability to train harder for longer will also be enhanced. This sets up a perfect storm since your body has plenty of resources (by way of nutrients and total calories) to fully repair tissue damaged during your workout.
The result: increased strength, increased power, and increased muscle mass.
5. Maintaining Your Body On Higher Calories Daily Can Allow You To Transition To Non Starvation Methods of Eating For Fat Loss
The final point I’d like to drive home in this calorie conundrum is the fact that if you eventually allow your body to function optimally at higher caloric levels, then you can still see fat loss while dieting on a higher amount of calories.
Let’s take our now former 125 lb trainee. She’s spent an entire few months putting on some hard earned muscle, so she’s now 135 lbs. Using our calculation above, her maintenance calories will fall roughly around 2025 calories per day (15xBW).
If we wanted to create a caloric deficit by way of both diet and exercise, and we wanted a net loss of about 1 lb per week, we would only have to lower her calories by 250, so that would leave her around 1775 calories per day to be able to see a good amount of fat loss.
Given the fact that she trains, we could even be a little more generous and count on the fact that she’ll be burning a ton of calories during her workouts, so the need to cut calories too low isn’t as crucial.
So we can even bump her back up to about 1800-1900 calories in the first few weeks, simply adjusting things as her body responds.
The truth of the matter is that she might find that as she’s continuing on her quest to alter her body, she may actually NEED to eat more simply due to the fact that her metabolic range is a bit higher than estimated from the calculations she’s used.
Taking this kind of approach will help to preserve muscle as she diets, and also save her metabolism and other crucial systems of the body as she reaches towards her goals.
In conclusion, I hope that this blog opens your eyes to the fact that a calorie is nothing to fear. Instead it is simply a scientific measurement of the amount of heat energy released from the foods you eat, once processed by the body.
I hope it also opens your eyes to the fact that calories are not the only things that are driving your training results. Hormones play an even bigger role in the grand scheme.
Understanding the relation of calories to overall hormonal function will put you at a greater advantage to achieving your goals no matter if it’s to lose fat, gain muscle, or to increase performance.
I’m VERY big on teaching my clients the proper way to diet and train, and make sure that they are eating enough to see their goals – without starving or going to extremes. If you want to stop the frustration and start taking a SMARTER approach to your methods, and finally get to your goal, check out how you can work with me directly. Click here for more info on my coaching services and Inner Circle Membership.