People really struggle when a I say that calories are pretty irrelevant when it comes to weight loss and health. They mistake our incredibly complex bodies for a simple machine where calories in and calories out determine our weight and fat stores.
This is understandable because:
- we need to simplify the information on health otherwise we cannot do anything about it
- all the information we receive from the media and government still focuses on calories
- business is heavily invested in the idea of calories for health and weight loss
- starving people are not fat
Let’s take the last one first. People in famines and concentration camps lost weight because of calorie restriction / starvation. Yes, but they had choice taken away from them over a long period of time. You have choice over very short periods of time. Our complex brain and body has evolved over 4 million years to become one of the best survival organisms on the planet. To do this our brains decide what to do with the calories we ingest. It is the situation our brain perceives us to be in which decides what to do with the calories including how to expend them i.e. deciding on our behaviour. This is ‘choice’ but choosing our behaviour is generally unconscious. Most of our behaviour is controlled or ‘chosen’ by embedding deep, complex knowledge of what to do into automatic behavioural patterns in our unconscious (emotions and hormones).
If you reduce calorie intake, mess with your blood sugar levels and give yourself sporadic calories your body panics and stores whatever calories it can, as fat, in the body to survive as long as it can without food. If I gave you £10,000 every day, you’d probably put a lot of it in the bank initially, but after a couple of years of receiving £10,000 every day you’d start to relax, chill-out about it and spend it more freely. On the other hand if, I reduced the amount and gave it to you sporadically, what would you do? You’d store more of it! Your body does the same with food.
Our incredibly complex and survival focussed unconscious brains choose:
- what we eat = cravings
- what energy we expend = feeling lots of energy or very lethargic
- where the energy is sent, whether it’s to the immune system, vital organs, heat regulation, stress response …
Studies have shown everyone has the SAME amount of willpower. If you give yourself all the right nutrients regularly you do not need to use will power to refuse a cake. If your blood sugar levels are low and your body doesn’t know when the next food is coming or indeed the quality of nutrients, can you really expect it to refuse the cake offered to it at 4pm in the afternoon?
Do you really want to be on a diet for half the year, every year, just to maintain weight? Will power uses up a lot of energy that could be used on having fun… or at the very least the immune system!
Back to the first point – ‘keep it simple’. Our unconscious mind (emotions and hormones) control most of our behaviour, but only understands simple stuff, so lets look at set points and future proofing.
Through your lifestyle over your lifetime your body comes up with a ‘set weight’ that it fights to maintain. This might be a healthy weight, seriously underweight or morbidly obese, but whatever it is, the body fights to get back to that weight.
A 6 year study of reality weight loss TV, Americas Biggest Loser Season 8 found that “most of the 16 contestants have regained much if not all the weight they lost so arduously. Some are even heavier now.”
“What was surprising was what a coordinated effect it is. The body puts multiple mechanisms in place to get back to your (pre diet) weight. The only way to maintain weight is to be hungry all the time.” Doctor Joseph Proietto.
From an evolutionary survival perspective, losing weight is unhealthy and gaining weight is healthy. Forcing your body to lose weight might win you the battle but fighting your biology will not win you you the war. Instead you need to work with your biology through ‘future proofing’.
Your mind and body chooses what to do with calories ingested according to what it perceives you will do in the future. It guesses what you do in the future will be a harder version of what you are doing now. Or at least similar to what you are doing now but, if it gets you ‘fitter’ you will do it more efficiently next time i.e. using less energy. The body always seeks becoming more efficient. This is survival conditioning through 4 million years of evolution. This is why aerobic exercise is inefficient for long-term weight loss as the body becomes more efficient, using less and less calories.
With this knowledge you can choose behaviours to help you goals. Which of the following two will be more efficient (less time consuming and healthier) at losing weight:
- Spinning class
- Obstacle course
Obstacle course because if you were lighter, it would be easier. If you were lighter for your next spin class it wouldn’t make much difference.
Which of the following two scenarios be lead to weight loss?
- Calorie reduction with sporadic bursts of quick release energy food
- Regular high quality nutrient dense food