The topic I want to talk about with you all today is why skimpy low calorie eating won’t help you lose weight. The reason I want to cover this particular subject is because over and over again whether it be from friends, prospective clients that I have discovery calls with, or even family members – there is this ongoing believed dogma calories in vs. calories out, and the only legitimate way to lose weight is to simply eat less calories.
This belief is so far from the reality of the matter; the human body is too complex to function in such an rudimentary fashion. In fact, you'd be more accurate to think along the lines of calories in vs. calories stored.
I feel the only way to break this cycle of belief is to simply introduce accurate knowledge into the rotation.
You, and people like you who struggle with weight loss issues really deserve to know that there are more efficient, realistic, and sustainable ways to drop unwanted pounds that isn’t restrictive, that doesn’t tell you to just cut out foods, and also that educates you on the fact that more goes into healthy eating than just eating fruits and vegetables.
Therefore, today I’m going to walk you through the reasons why long-term low calorie eating is not good for a person trying to lose weight, and why it’s especially heinous for women. We’re also going to cover what sorts of problems crop up for people who aren’t intentionally trying to cut calories, but under eat in for the demands their lifestyle puts on their body.
Low Calorie Eating and Active People
Let's start by clarifying two things.
First, I want to make the connection that cutting your calories is not automatically linked to your body going into survival mode. This is a widely taught philosophy that simply isn’t true. I even used to believe this and would tell my clients to eat 5 and 6 meals a day to stop this process.
Survival mode is the line of thinking that basically if you skip a meal or drastically reduce the amount of calories you eat, your body automatically thinks,
“Whoa! I need to hang onto every single morsel of fat and calories you eat because I have no idea if/when you’re going to eat again”.
Secondly, Intermittent fasting (IF) is not eating low calorie or under eating. IF is defined as a period of time where food isn’t eaten alternated with a period of time when food is eaten. It can be in the style of fasting for a day then eat normally, alternating in that way, or it can be where you fast twice a week. This is all just to say there is more than one style you can fast in.
Caloric restriction on the other hand is a form of eating low calorie.
Caloric restriction is a diet in which total caloric intake is reduced to anywhere from 60-80% of you maintenance level of calories without a reduction in nutritional requirements.
A lot of people think they are practicing caloric restriction when they go low calorie, but unfortunately the last little piece of that, the “not reducing nutritional requirements” piece, gets thrown out the window with the bathwater, so to speak, because so often people have a hard time really dialing in their nutritional requirements on a day to day basis.
Things That Can Cause You To Not Feel Hungry
With that said there are some things that can cause you to not feel hungry and inadvertently eat low calorie.
- Emotional and situational factors like stress, anxiety, and depression can cause neurotransmitter issues which signal to your body hey I’m not hungry - I’m not in need of any nourishment right now.
- Eating extremely low carb and low calorie simultaneously.
- A robust gut flora. Having a robust gut flora is awesome at monitoring the right hunger signals. This could mean that if you have a healthy gut flora population it can cause you to under eat because it’s looking at fulfilling your needs at the current time and send the signal that you’re not hungry.
Now with that said I’ve haven’t met very many people with a healthy gut flora population...
- A very active lifestyle. A person who walks a lot to and from class or work, people who Crossfit 5 and 6 days a week, people who are just active in other ways under eat because they haven’t found the balance between the calories they’re putting into their body in correlation with the amount of energy their body requires to fuel their activities.
I know firsthand what this feels like.
When I first started Crossfit I was eating very much so a low carbohydrate higher fat diet. It’s part of the Primal Blueprint model of eating that was working very very well for me.
I didn’t have energy crashes, I had no brain fog, I felt stimulated without the need of coffee, I was well rested when I woke up in the mornings, I didn’t have a hard time going to sleep, etc.
This worked well when I was only doing things like my own personally programmed lifting routine 3 days a week and going on long walks, with the occasional mountain biking day. Essentially, a few intense lifts each week with a lot of low and slow aerobic movement.
But when I decided to take up Crossfit, the cardiovascular demands put on my body were a shock to the system, and the way I was eating at the time didn't support it. So it pretty much felt like I’d run face first into a brick wall.
The first few weeks of the workouts during the metcon portion I felt pretty inadequate.
A bit of that had to do with the fact that I was pretty de-conditioned for Crossfit. I felt like I’d go from super strong during the first round of an AMRAP to feeling gassed after the second or third round of a 10-minute AMRAP.
After a workout I felt completely drained. I had a hard time recovering – meaning I felt sore for multiple days after a session – much longer than I was accustomed to feeling.
It all really boiled down the fact that I needed to up my caloric intake as well as the amount of carbohydrates I ate; going from eating roughly 90 grams of carbs a day to eating about 160 grams of carbs a day.
My simple cup of butter coffee for breakfast morphed into cooking up a few eggs, some bacon, and a side of paleo hashbrowns if I wanted to feel physcially prepared for a 9am Crossfit class.
That simple change in carbs and calories on the front end of my day made all the difference. My body immediately adjusted to this increase and I was able to perform well again.
What Happens When You Go Low Calorie
My initial Crossfit flop leads me into my first point about why low calorie eating is a disservice to your health.
You’re susceptible to crazy moods. Basically when you don’t eat enough, your frontal lobe, the part of our brain that performs the functions of rational thinking and decision making – goes completely out the window.
For instance, have you ever heard of the term hangry?
It’s an urban dictionary term that refers to when you’re easily angered or are extremely irritable because you are hungry!
Being hangry is a consequence of your frontal lobe not being able to function properly because of hunger.
Think of the last time you were starving while grocery shopping, and it seemed like every item in the store had made its way into your cart. Again, your frontal lobe wasn't allowing you to exercise self control. It’s the first cognitive function that bottoms out when we allow ourselves to get hungry.
Stalled Weight Loss
Another issue that comes up when you go too low with calories is your weight won’t budge...which is kind of sad if weight loss the main reason you decided to eat low calorie in the first place.
Why does this happen?
Your body wants to maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis is when your body looks for a balance between what you put in and what you need to function. If you didn’t know this already, your body doesn’t like large drastic changes. It will do all that it can to make sure this doesn’t happen, such as modify functions like your thyroid, adrenal, and sex hormones to reduce your overall output if your input is not adequate enough to fulfill your needs.
These changes all result in the the increased likelihood of your weight stalling and you storing more body fat, along with a lot of other negative side effects on your health that go beyond weight loss.
Most people don’t understand the correlation between low calorie eating and not getting a good night’s rest. One of the most common reasons for waking up all hours of the night, tossing and turning, and not being able to fall asleep and stay asleep is because not enough blood sugar in place to do the work it needs to do during the night.
While you sleep your blood sugar level naturally drops. For you not to fall into a hypoglycemic coma your liver must release glycogen, the stored form of glucose, to keep your blood sugar level steady until the next morning when you eat your first meal.
If you’re constantly not eating enough and along with performing calorie demanding workouts, your liver just won’t have the glycogen it needs to keep your blood glucose levels stable. So in order to fix this problem, your body releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline in order to create its own glucose via a process called gluconeogenesis.
If those stress hormones get high enough in order to carry out gluconeogenesis they can actually wake you up in the middle of the night. Hence, why many people have a hard time getting good sleep while eating low calorie.
This point is specifically about why going low calorie is especially heinous for women; missed periods. Or if you prefer the more scientific term, hypothalamic amenorrhea.
What’s worrisome about having missed periods caused by chronic caloric deprivation is that it can leak into bigger issues like struggling to get pregnant.
I’m so happy to say I’ve never had a client who struggled with this particular issue, but it is a prevalent problem especially in women who have a history of dieting for weight loss.
How Much Should I Eat?
One thing that I very strongly stand behind is not having clients get bogged down with counting calories. More often than not when clients simply clean up their eating with healthy foods, eat when hungry, and stop eating when satisfied, that’s usually more than enough to satisfy their needs.
But for the sake of being thorough and clear about what’s not eating too little and what is not eating too much, I will give you some guidelines to go by.
First lets cover overall calories.
The easiest way to figure this out is to take your current weight and multiply it by 10-12. This should give you a rough range estimate of the overall calories you should be eating in a day minimally, to maintain homeostasis, to fuel metabolic functions, etc.
The next thing is protein intake.
Take your lean muscle mass and multiply it by the range of 0.7-1.0. This will give you the number of grams of protein you should aim to eat on a daily basis. This will help you to maintain the current muscle mass you have.
Eating 100-150 grams of non-fibrous carbohydrates (i.e. safe starches) a day is ideal. This is the essential bottom if you’re a woman who is active and not perpetually overweight.
Remember, in not all situations is cutting carbs going to benefit you. If you’ve tried it in the past and it didn’t work out well, give increasing your carb intake a go.
You all need to know I love fat. It’s such a major component in a healthy diet, weighing in at a calorically dense 9 calories per gram.
To get an understanding of how much fat you need it’s best to think of it as the gap filler between the amount of carbs and protein you eat in a day. Once you’ve figured out how much protein and carbs you should have, it’s really easy to figure out the percentage of fat you should eat.
On a given day as much as 55% of my calories comes from fat, and that works really well for me, but it may be different for you so please do your due diligence of figuring this out for yourself.
Allow me to end this by clarifying that eating low calorie when your situation allows it isn’t a wildly bad thing. It is a part of practicing caloric efficiency. Eating low calorie especially when you’re an active individual and doing it for the sole purpose of losing weight, on the other hand, is a plan that very likely will backfire.
Finally this is a reminder to not nit-pick about your eating, but to take a more well rounded account of your eating habits, and then make adjustments where you see fit – taking notice of the issues I’ve described here in your day to day life.