In my last post, I explained why the simple “eat less, exercise more” approach doesn’t work for everyone. I laid out how several different hormonal systems of the body regulate and control metabolism and appetite. Severe calorie restriction diets often don’t work, certainly not for the long term, because these hormone systems are designed by nature to decrease our metabolism and to store fat as a way to survive if the amount of food going into our bodies is too low. Many of the patients I work with in my practice have metabolic dysfunction. Their hormones and endocrine system are all over the place from years of stress and chronic illness. Because of this, I encourage them eat freely of a healthy, Paleo-type diet, the type of diet that will allow them to begin healing the metabolic dysfunction by stacking their diet with the most nutrient dense foods available. Their first priority is to heal the metabolic dysfunction.
But what about the healthy person who just wants to get fit, lean out and maybe drop a few extra pounds of fat? Or what about the person who has been following a Paleo diet for a while, but would like to make some progress on some aesthetic goals? For people with this sort of goal, monitoring calorie intake and maintaining a calorie deficit is what they will probably need to reach their goals.
It’s OK, and even useful to count calories if:
- You are generally active and healthy and just want to drop a few extra pounds of fat.
- You have been following a regime of healthy, whole food eating for some time (I would say at least a year.)
- You have a history of disordered eating and have not learned to eat according to actual physical hunger.
The key to making a calorie restricted diet effective for the long term is to keep the calorie deficit mild. If you are say, a moderately active 140 pound woman with TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) of approximately 2,100 kCal a day, suddenly dropping calories to 1,200 calories/day may trigger some of these hormonal mechanisms that will slow your metabolism and make weight loss difficult. It also means that when you return to “normal” eating you are more likely to gain back all of the weight you lost. So if you are going to go to the trouble of counting and monitoring caloric intake, use the following strategies to insure that your hard work and effort pays off and that you can maintain your new, HEALTHY body for the long term.
- Gradually increase your caloric deficit. If you are aiming for a 500 calorie/day deficit, start with 100 calories one day, then 200 calories the net and so on. This is less likely to flip off the “warning bell” systems in the brain.
- Consider keeping calories from food constant and burning more through exercise. An extra 10 minutes of cardio at the gym, doing errands on bike or by foot where possible, and playing outdoors more are all ways to increase your calorie a burn a bit more each day without feeling like you need to ‘refuel’ more to keep your energy up.
- Lift weights. When people say they want to lose weight, they usually mean they want to lose fat. When dieting alone, the body will burn fat, but it will also burn some lean muscle tissue as well. Lean muscle tissue is very metabolically active and the more lean body mass we have, the more calories we burn at rest, so its important to preserve as much of it as possible. The research is clear. When restricting calories, people who lift weights while dieting lost less lean muscle tissue then those who simply restricted their calories. Since the amount of weight each group lost was similar, this means the group that lifted weights lost more fat tissue then those who did not. The other bonus to lifting weights and maintaining your lean body mass is that when you return to ‘normal’ eating, your BMR (basal metabolic rate, or the rate of your metabolism at rest) while be higher, meaning you’ll burn more calories at rest then if you had lost lean muscle tissue. This helps to prevent the rebound or ‘yo-yo’ effect of dieting.
- Get some sleep. Several studies have shown that when people are deprived of sleep, they eat more calories and make poorer food choices the next day. This seems to be related to cortisol and stress mechanisms that protect the brain. Getting enough sleep also helps you recover from exercise and may increase you metabolism by boosting levels of growth hormone and testosterone release, both of which help to boost your metabolism.
One of the reasons that the Paleo diet helps so many people lose weight is that they decrease inflammation and subconsciously decrease their caloric intake as well (usually). Whole foods are nutrient-dense, but not as calorically-dense as processed foods. In many cases, this creates enough of a calorie deficit that many people will lose weight, especially if they increase their activity level a bit. However, if you are eating a whole-foods diet, have cut out all the junk and are still having trouble losing weight, it may be time to go over your diet with a fine tooth comb, count up the calories and see where you might be “leaking energy” or unconsciously taking in more calories then you need. I did this recently and discovered I was probably taking in way more healthy fats then I needed to be. With this awareness and a little work to maintain the calorie deficit, you can be on your way to reaching your aesthetic goals in a healthy, effective manner.