Why Reducing Your Caloric Intake Is Not The Answer to Long-Term Weight Loss
Losing weight equals consuming fewer calories than you burn right? Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not that simple. You have probably been in a situation where you wanted to get rid of some extra pounds or kilos. Where you decided to reduce your caloric intake so you would burn more energy than you were consuming. Chances are that you actually didn’t end up losing weight or experienced a weight loss plateau. On the contrary, it is likely that you even gained weight, and got fed up with this so called ‘diet period’ since you achieved the complete opposite result compared to your initial goals.
So what is happening here? Why are these so-called crash diets or low-calorie diets not working? And what if I tell you that reducing your caloric intake is not the answer to long-term weight loss? Let’s dive into this topic!
While reading the book The Obesity Code from Dr. Jason Fung, I got so inspired and fascinated by this topic that I really wanted to share the most essential information with you.
First of all: a calorie is not a calorie, and being overweight is not a caloric imbalance
To get right to the chase: of the many nutrition myths that are out there, the saying that a calorie is a calorie is probably one of the most damaging ones; not only to our weight loss goals, also to our long-term health. The idea that each calorie is the same, and that the source doesn’t matter as long as you consume less than ‘the amount of calories you daily need’ is just completely unacceptable.
Although it is true that a each calorie contains the same amount of energy, the way your body processes energy from different foods is not simple nor equal. Your body is a complex mechanism, so it breaks down ingredients in its own specific way. Even more essential information is the given fact that different foods and ingredients trigger different hormones, and metabolic responses. These hormones have a big effect on your levels of hunger and satiety and therefore your eating behaviour. For example, compare eating an avocado of 322 kilocalories with eating a type of cookie that contains the same amount of energy. Which one do you think your body would be more grateful for? Consuming a product high in healthy fats results in a way slower release of energy compared to converting quick sugars into energy leading to blood sugar spikes. Let’s not even start on the hormones that are being released in the latter situation such as ghrelin, and insulin. Both hormones that increase feelings of hunger and fat storage. Especially insulin plays a major rol in increasing fat storage. The cause of being overweight is not a caloric imbalance, but a hormonal imbalance!
Eating less calories means burning less
For if you have never heard of it before: your body is always trying to find balance, and compensate. This is called homeostasis which is regulated by the negative feedback loop. This happens in almost all different physiological functions, such as your body’s temperature, cholesterol levels, and you probably guess it: weight maintenance. It is a crucial mistake to think that reducing your caloric intake will automatically lead to weight loss. They are dependent of each other, and therefore a reduction in your caloric intake leads to a reduction in your energy expenditure. So when you decide to consume 200 calories less than what your body actually needs according to your weight, gender, height, and activity level you also end up burning 200 calories less. The end result? Minimal weight loss.
Calories in minus calories out is therefore not a measurement of losing body fat
Dr. Jason Fung compares this process of weight maintenance with your income versus your expenses, and I love this analogy. Let’s say you earn 50.000 euros per year, and you also spend the same amount of money. What if you would start earning 10.000 euros less (for whatever reason)? Would you still be spending the 50.000 each year? Don’t think so! It’s exactly how it works with calories.
More hungry when eating less? This is why!
Another thing when drastically reducing your caloric intake, is increased feelings of hunger. Again, your body is smart, complex, and is always aiming homeostasis. When it receives less calories than it needs for its primary functions, it is going to send out hormonal signals to minimize the effects of not having enough stored energy. Therefore, it releases hormones that increase your feelings of hungers and fat storage.
In the end, you are not losing the weight you were hoping for plus you have these constant feelings of hunger! You try to fight it, and have conscious control over what you eat by eating even less. Ending in less energy expenditure, and therefore a slower metabolism. In this vicious cycle of under-eating your hormones will finally win the game.
In addition to this: when you hop off your low-calorie diet, and get back to your previous eating pattern, your body is happy to store these extra calories. All the time it has been in a so-called starvation / survival mode, so it is now more than grateful for receiving the increased amount of calories!
Increase your Total Energy Expenditure
And that is so much more than just reducing your caloric intake. The Total Energy Expenditure is not just the amount of calories that you burn throughout the day with exercise.
It is a sum of:
Basal Metabolic Rate: the energy that your body needs to maintain its metabolic vital tasks
Thermogenic Effect of food: the energy expenditure when processing food for use and storage
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis: the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise such as work-related tasks.
Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption: the energy expenditure after a high-intensity workout.
Since not one day is the same in terms of activities, these factors that contribute to your total energy expenditure are also not constant over time. Unfortunately, many people actually think it is since everyone, and every brand is telling them!
In conclusion, when it comes to long-term weight loss, focusing on reducing your daily caloric intake is not the way to go. Instead, it is much more important to focus on ways to increase your total energy expenditure, and eating high-quality foods that don't constantly raise and spike your blood sugar, and insulin levels. In the end, being overweight is a hormonal, not a caloric, imbalance.
Quality over quantity for long-term weight loss
Long-term weight loss is all about focusing on eating high-quality fatty foods that are naturally low in carbs, and don’t trigger an insulin response. Consuming 1800 kilocalories a day consisting of processed high-carb foods might help you lose weight in the short run, but in the long run you'll actually gain weight. Plus, you tremendously increase the risk of developing health conditions such as insulin resistance and Type 2 Diabetes. Focus rather on ways to increase your overall Total Energy Expenditure instead of on ways to reduce your total caloric intake.
Only then is it possible to have a mindful approach to your weight loss journey, and staying away from the vicious cycle of undereating and gaining weight.
Fung J. The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss. Scribe Publications. 2016