The Many Problems with a Calorie Restricting Diet
A smart man once said “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” That clever quote came from Albert Einstein, all around smart guy who once failed math. Now, I don’t pretend to be on Einstein’s level, but sometimes I wonder if he was talking about restricting calories.
What comes to mind when you think about weight loss? Strict diets? Bland food? Complete and utter misery? I hope that these aren’t true, but I would be lying if I said people don’t assume these things at the mere mention of diet and weight loss. Most of us assume that cleaning up our diet means eating less, and for a lot of those people the notion that if eating less means losing some weight, then starving yourself will get you there even faster, right?
What if I told you that I have never met a client who ate enough? That’s right, I said it. In 10 years of working one-on-one with clients, I have yet to meet a client who overate. Sure, they ate junk food, fast food, and fast food combined with junk food, but they never came close to eating enough calories to lose weight. In a sick and twisted cycle, most people starve themselves in the hopes of losing weight but then make unwise choices when they do eat food. Maybe if they didn’t starve themselves in the first place they wouldn’t be in a state to make such poor decisions.
As clients get in better shape, some need to increase their food intake. Most thought I was crazy for suggesting this and declined my proposal with a polite “no way in hell am I doing that.” It wasn’t too soon that the struggles starting to pop up: their scale wasn’t budging, clothes fit the same, and they couldn’t handle their workouts.
I’ll sum up this article in this paragraph. If you want the finer details, then stick around. But here’s what happens when you cut calories. First, you slow down your metabolic rate, because metabolism mimics your calorie consumption (1). With your metabolism in the toilet, you’ll lose a bit of muscle mass. The scale may stay the same or might even decrease because you lost the muscle mass. After a while, you’ll say to yourself “this stinks, I’m hungry all the time and have no energy. Time to eat again.” However, since your metabolism is lowered, your body won’t be able to handle the food you eat and you’ll end up gaining weight. You’re also depriving your body of vitamins and minerals that it needs to repair itself for life’s stressors.
Accentuate the strengths, hide the weaknesses. This was told to me by a business man when asked about starting a business on a small budget, but it also applies to losing weight. Getting fit is all about getting your hormones under control, not just restricting calories. You want to use exercise and diet to promote the hormones that help keep your fat burning hormones going, while keeping your stress hormones under control. In a study done on calorie restriction, it only took 3 months to lower the metabolism of subjects who were put on a low calorie diet (2). Three months after that, the subjects who were exercising and restricting calories lowered their metabolism too.
The issue here is that a calorie is not a calorie. Twelve hundred calories seems to be popular for weight loss, but does it provide the right nutrients (fat, protein, and carbs) in the right amounts for your own genetic makeup? Maybe you need 1500, or more fat, or less carbohydrate. The point here is that you just can’t throw a number against the wall and hope it sticks. In a study done on bed ridden subjects, researchers found that restricting calories alone accelerated the loss of muscle mass even though subjects were staying in bed all day (3).
It’s all about survival and our bodies are designed to survive a lot more than just the battery on your smart phone running out of juice. If you restrict calories you make your body think that you’ve run of out food in your surrounding area. As a result, your body increases its fat storing hormones and reduces its fat burning hormones. This is because it wants to conserve energy in case you don’t eat again for a while.
Lastly, cutting calories just plain sucks. With your hormones all over the place and your energy levels in the gutter, you may find yourself passed out on the couch when you get home. When I work with clients who have come across mainstream dieting advice (which is always something extreme), I have to ask them how sustainable their choices are for their lifestyle. You want to get in great shape. You also have a spouse to be with, kids to take care of, a job to excel at, and a house to maintain. You need energy, and our energy is food.
I’m not suggesting stopping at your local IHOP and ordering a 10 stacker of chocolate chip pancakes. However, if you want to excel in the gym, then your body needs food – this means adequate protein, some fat, and good carbohydrate choices (don’t forget the vegetables). Yes, calories can be counted and all those fancy apps out there make you think you’re getting in shape. But as we learned, just because you can count calories doesn’t mean they count.
1. Berardi, John. Andrews, Ryan. The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition 2nd ed. Precision Nutrition. 2013.pp 208
2. Martin, C.K., Heilbronn, L.K., et al. “Effect of Calorie Restriction on Resting Metabolic Rate and Spontaneous Physical Activity.” (2007) Obesity (Silver Spring) 15;12, doi: 10.1038/oby
3. Biolo, G., Ciocchi, B., et al. “Calorie Restriction Accelerates the Catabolism of Lean Body Mass During 2 Weeks of Bed Rest” (2007) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 86;2, 366-372