A couple years back, I was thinking about that show the Biggest Loser and got to thinking about calories. It’s been a long-held “scientific understanding” that if you burn (or use) more calories than you consume, then you’ll lose weight and vice versa – if you burn fewer calories than you consume, then you’ll gain weight. If they’re equal, then you stay at your current weight. But the show got me thinking – these contestants are losing up to dozens of pounds of weight per week… how is it that someone who’s obese can lose all that weight but professional athletes don’t waste away? I know the contestants do upwards of eight hours of exercise a day and significantly slash their caloric intake, but there has to be some sort of X factor involved in terms of how your body adapts to exercise. Where a professional athlete can do a day’s worth of intense exercise and not lose a pound, but someone who’s obese can lose ten pounds, what’s missing here?
Well, it turns out there’s a lot missing. For one, the athlete’s body and brain are primed for exercise. They have passed the adaptation phase, and their bodies have become very metabolically efficient. This means that the same exercise that the obese person is doing burns more calories than when the athlete does it. It simply costs the athlete fewer calories to do the same amount of work, because their bodies have adapted to exercise.
When you think about this in terms of our ancestors, this was a good thing. If we had to chase down the animal we were hunting fordinner, it didn’t cost us all of the calories in our systems to do so. Our body will do its best to defend its fat stores, because it’s what keeps us alive in survival situations.
Fast forward to modern times, however, and this isn’t the case. We have relatively comfortable lives requiring very little for survival, and exercise is generally for health or aesthetic reasons. Enter the modern-day metabolism problems and where the calorie myth comes in.
The calorie myth
The calorie-in/calorie-out ratio fails to incorporate many factors relating to metabolism. We’ve been told that the larger the caloric gap between intake and output, the more weight one will lose. There’s one big BUT, however. This is the fastest way to damage your metabolism. When you do lots of cardio and eat too little, your body will go into starvation mode. Essentially, it will horde as much body fat as possible in order to function properly. Your body will begin to resist weight loss at all costs despite a caloric deficit. This is how a lot of cardio bunnies often get themselves in trouble. They do more and more steady-state cardio, eat less and less and find their weight loss plateauing. Mathematically they should be losing tons of weight, but they aren’t. This is because they’ve damaged their metabolisms.
So, what do you do if you’ve gotten yourself in this position? You need to reset your metabolism. You’ll either need to eat less and exercise less or eat more and exercise more. You need to lessen the stress placed on your metabolism so that it will stop fighting the process. Even if you want to do more/more, you’ll need to adapt your exercise to involve classic weight lifting instead of cardio to allow your body enough rest time and relieve stress from aerobic exercise. Leisure walking/yoga/tai chi are also good activities to incorporate to help even out your hormonal balance that’s likely out of whack as a result of your damaged metabolism. (As an aside, a damaged metabolism can cause a litany of issues including digestive issues, food intolerances, fatigue, insomnia and more).
And what should you do to lose weight if you think your metabolism is healthy? Make sure you’re getting enough calories to feed your fatigued body and enough rest to repair your muscles. Some of the coolest success stories I’ve read involve people with broken metabolisms doubling what they eat and losing a bunch of weight relatively quickly. Your body needs enough energy to make a change. Otherwise, it’ll fight you every step of the way.
So, if fat loss is your goal, make sure you’re eating enough! Eating celery and carrots all day is not going to get you there in the long run. It’s just hurting your biggest weight-loss tool – your metabolism. You can’t keep a Corvette running without enough gasoline in the tank. All you’re going to do is make it stall out. Gas that baby up and let it rip.