But is it the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
The short answer is, no.
The last part of the statement above is true. You must be in a calorie deficit to lose weight and you must be in a surplus to gain weight. That’s just simple physics.
The problem comes when it is taken as a soundbite and looked at in such simplistic terms.
Whilst it may not be what many mean to project, the way this argument is take is, the less you eat, the more weight you will lose.
This is clearly how things have been interpreted by many and is the key to the success of the slimming clubs and calorie restricted diet books.
It is extremely common to see ‘plans’ (and I use the term in its very loosest sense) advocating intakes of 1200 or even 800Kcal per day.
Someone going from overindulging to this level of extreme dieting is bound to see a drop on the scale weight. That’s a given. But, if it was all about the lower calories then the level of weight loss, achieved in the beginning, would last indefinitely. And, pretty much everyone knows that is not true.
What causes a diet to plateau?
The thing that seems to get missed in the discussion is the fact that there are two sides to the equation.
Whilst it is straightforward enough (though perhaps not easy) to count the calories going in, it is borderline impossible to count what is going out.
Yes, there are calculations you can use to estimate how much you are burning based on your weight, gender, age etc. And you could use a fitbit, a heart rate monitor or an app to tell you what you are burning when active, either through the day or during your workouts.
These are all useful to see patterns and trends, but they are only estimates.
For many, these estimates, whilst unlikely to be 100% correct, will be fairly accurate.
However, if you have been starving yourself, yo-yo dieting, under undue stress at work, getting insufficient sleep, not hydrating well enough or missing vital vitamins and minerals from your diet, chances are your internal function is not operating as it should be.
Therefore, in the scenario where calories have been severely cut to cause weight loss, short term weight loss is likely. But then, because your body is not getting the nutrients it needs and is under stress as a result, it starts to compensate and adapt.
Non-essential functions are shut off or slowed down and your body will try to trigger signals to get you to slow down. You’ll feel lethargic and get slower during your day to day tasks. Any exercise you do will be at a lesser level. You’ll achieve less (or you’ll push to do the same amount, which your body is not capable of and either hurt yourself or make yourself ill).
In short, your body will do all it can to match its energy output to the energy you are giving it through eating.
Therefore, despite the lower calories, you end up getting stuck and unable to lose weight.
How do you know how many calories you are burning?
The truth is, it is impossible to know without getting yourself hooked up to some very sophisticated machinery.
All you can do is track both sides of the equation as best you can and measure the results.
You could use one of the many BMR (Basil Metabolic Rate) calculations to determine a starting point. Then either use an app or an activity multiplier to determine your likely caloric requirements to keep you as you are at the moment.
From there, create a small deficit.
Around 500Kcal per day is a good starting point.
Work on keeping to that, and the activity level you committed to when doing your calculations. Then, check your results and see if things have gone to plan.
Ideally you would use bodyfat testing (either via skinfold calipers or, if possible, a DAXA scan), but you could use other methods, such as waist measurements or simple photographs.
Scales are not advisable, unless you have a very weight specific goal (sports person working to a weight class etc) as these skew your results if you gain muscle or bone density, which are good things to happen.
If things are on track, you have found your sweet spot. If not, then adjust up or down accordingly.
Can upping calories cause weight loss?
If things haven’t gone to plan, the kneejerk reaction for most is to further cut calories, but that may not be the best option.
Surely calories must be reduced if fat loss is not occurring?
It depends on the specifics of your results.
The permutations are far too vast to get into, but if you were to be cannibalizing muscle more than you were losing fat, then that could be sign you need to consume more to fuel your workouts.
Similarly, if progress is fairly flat (you are not losing fat or gaining muscle), then it may be a better approach to try and increase your calories slightly in order to increase your energy and therefore output.
One thing to keep in mind is that, there is a thermic effect from digesting food.
When consuming proteins, you will use around 30% of the energy of the food consuming it. So, if you were to eat something with a 25g protein content, that would be around 100Kcal of energy from that part of the food. But you would only really be adding 70Kcal to your system, as you’d be burning up 30Kcal in digestion.
However, you would also be adding essential amino acids to your system as well as micronutrients and in the case of most quality protein sources, some essential fats too.
These all add to your overall well-being, are additional sources of energy to utilize throughout the day. Plus, the nutrients will be adding to the functional running of your internal system.
Your metabolism will be more amped as a result.
Therefore, your ability to burn energy and therefore fat, will be much greater.
And, for someone who has been severely restricting calories either habitually or on and off, for a long time, increasing your intake in a healthy manner is going to work wonders in re-setting your system for the better.
The longer you’ve been mistreating your body by depriving it, the longer it may take to re-set.
It’s still all about the calories
Just because, in many cases, an increase in calories can be a useful direction in the pursuit of fat loss, that is not an excuse to go wild and binge eat.
In the end, there is still that equation to be mindful of.
Calories in versus calories out.
To lose fat, you must still be on the negative side of that equation.
The critical thing is, not to take it too far.
Wherever possible, increase output before considering restricting input.
Ensure the quality of the food consumed is high to maximize energy and therefore allow for that increased output to occur.
And, if you are tracking your results, trust the data, not what you think should work.
Why weight loss is hard