Why Calorie Restriction is Never the Answer
It’s commonly said that 3,500 calories equals one pound. More specifically, eating 3,500 calories will cause you to gain one pound, just as burning 3,500 calories will cause you to lose one pound. Ergo, it’s a matter of simple math, right? If you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight.
But, as with most everything that greater society tells us to believe, I encourage you to question this “fact”— does this really make sense? How can something like calories, which is a unit of energy, be measured in mass? You can’t weigh a calorie. That’s like trying to weigh a sound wave. It simply cannot be done, because it isn’t made up of matter.
What we should really understand this to mean, is that it takes 3500 calories worth of energy output to burn one pound of body fat. The key words here are “energy output.” Movement. Physical activity. Muscle contraction. Digestion. Brain activity. Your heart beat.
So now you’re saying, okay I get that— which is why I have to exercise all this weight off! And if I exercise while also eating fewer calories, I’ll lose even more weight!
And it’s totally reasonable to think this way. But it simply isn’t that simple.
Let’s go back to our definition of energy output. If we consume fewer calories, we have less energy to put towards all our physical functions, both voluntary (moving our legs) and involuntary (our heart beat). Because our body is sooo wicked smart, and its only job is to ensure our survival, it will adapt to having a lower energy input (read: your metabolism slows down). First, it will take inventory of the energy reserves in tandem with what little is being ingested. Then, it will delegate energy towards those vital body functions that we need to get through the day (this is also known as your Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR). If you are doing absolutely nothing all day except sitting on the couch, you still burn calories just by being alive. If you add any sort of physical activity into your day, like a physically demanding job, your base rate increases. This is why the more active we are, the more calories we need.
Say you increased physical activity by doing a HIIT workout, but didn’t consume more calories. Now, your body has a smaller amount of energy to delegate towards those bodily functions because it had to give a large portion of your energy stores to the immediate tasks of burpees, squat jumps, sprints, etc. (Biologically, your body thinks that you are doing this in effort to escape from impending danger, so it puts all other functions on hold while it helps you escape).
Once you’re done with your workout, your body can only work with what it is given, which is not very much if you aren’t fueling yourself properly. This means less energy goes towards the cells and mitochondria that control brain activity, your reproductive system, your digestive system, liver function, muscle activity, all of it. Not only that, but your body is deprived of vital nutrients it can only get from whole food nutrition, so your cells have to pull those nutrients from the only other place they can turn to: your bones and muscle tissue.
So now where does this put us: tired from the workout, fatigued from lack of energy to the muscle system, brain fogged and sleepy from lack of brain fuel, with joint pain because of weakened bones, bloated because of low bile and stomach acid production, bitchy AF because hormones are all over the place, and unable to sleep it all off because “sleep?! At a time like this?!”— the body has to delegate its little remaining energy to allll of those things (plus others I didn’t get to mention) to keep you alive.
But if I’m already carrying extra weight, won’t my body just burn that instead?
To some degree, yes. But it’s not like those extra pounds are just sitting there waiting to be burned up at the next spin class.
Remember, all that extra weight is not in the form of calories, which themselves cannot be weighed. When you consume calories, that energy goes toward anabolic cell function— in other words, it builds up the cells in the muscles and organs with those nutrients. When you consume excessive calories, the leftover energy builds up fat cells to store it for later. That extra weight is in the form of muscle mass, adipose tissue (fat), and waste. It also comes in the form of water, which when mixed with fat-soluble toxins from a poor diet, the environment and stress, gets stored in that fatty tissue. But that’s a whole other rant.
Ultimately, it all comes down to our biological survival mechanism. Remember how I said your body’s only function is to keep you alive? Well, when you do any form of intense exercise, be it spinning or running or HIIT or boxing, your body thinks you are in survival mode. All your other bodily functions don’t matter if you don’t survive the next 10, 30, 60 minutes, so your body puts everything else on hold and finds the fastest form of energy it can. This is namely in the form of carbohydrates— yay! We looooove carbohydrates :)
Now if you don’t have carbohydrates readily available to use in the form of blood sugar, your body pulls from liver glycogen stores. When that’s depleted, we assume the next place your body looks for energy is in our fat cells. This is the last place it went to be stored, so it’s the most easily accessible, right? FALSE.
I know… I’ve just blown your mind, but this is seriously the biggest misconception ever. There is only one situation in which this is true, and I will get to that in a minute, but let me first explain why this is the biggest lie you have ever been told.
When your body is in that survival mode, that fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system response, your body cannot retrieve energy from your fat cells. It simply cannot access that energy fast enough. Instead, it must get it from your muscle tissue.
And it’s not only intense exercise that will cause this to happen. This is your body’s response anytime it enters fight-or-flight, which means anytime you increase cortisol, which means— you guessed it— anytime you are stressed. Whether you are running from a bear, running on a treadmill, running late to work and sitting in traffic, dealing with emotional distress, experiencing internal inflammation, or—and this is the big one for today— if you are forcing your body into survival mode because you are restricting your calories, your body is stressed. Cortisol will rise, and your body won’t reach for fat. It will go for your readily available blood sugar, then your liver glycogen, then pull from your muscle tissue, and mayyybe some fat as a last resort.
The only time your body will burn fat stores for energy is when it is an aerobic state, such as walking, moderate yoga, even sleep. In fact, sleep is when you burn the greatest amount of body fat, so if I haven’t mentioned why sleep is so important, there’s a pretty good reason for ya.
Hopefully now this is all making sense. Restricting your calories will not only not help you to lose weight, it is not sustainable. Any weight that you lose in the short term from cutting calories will largely be water weight, and likely a decrease in waste product as you’re consuming less food. But as we’ve seen, your body is a brilliant machine that will keep up with your restriction by slowing down the metabolism to conserve energy. You will soon find that you get to a point where you cut and cut and cut, but you don’t lose a thing. At which point, your slowed metabolism from all the restriction will make it even more difficult for your body to lose weight when you inevitably start increasing your calories again.
Counting calories will only result in a poor relationship with food. Restriction is never the answer. The only thing that should be restricted is restriction.
Phewph. That was a long one, but an important concept that I felt was worthy of a proper explanation.
So what does help to lose weight?
Wholesome, clean, plant-based nutrition. Cutting out processed food, limiting inflammatory foods like dairy, alcohol, meat, soy, corn, eggs, and gluten. Drinking plenty of water. Getting plenty of sleep. Moving your body in a way that feels good and fun, not rushed and forced. Finding joy and happiness, and working to eliminate stress in all forms. In short, honoring yourself every day :)