Disclaimer: this post does NOT promote the idea that you can get fit by eating whatever you want, whenever you want and never exercise. It DOES promote the idea that fueling your body properly and incorporating strength and interval training into your routine is one of the best ways to care for it.
Most of us learn early on to correlate losing weight and being “in shape” with calorie restriction. The calories in vs calories out equation has been engrained in our belief system, and a quick talk with any average nutritionists or “expert”, you’ll likely hear that losing weight is just a simple equation of burning more calories than you consume.
I’m here to call BS on that equation.
It’s not that the “calories in/calories out” equation doesn’t apply, because it does to an extent. The problem is that biology designed our bodies to run systematically and it can’t be manipulated as easily as that equation would suggest. So if you set out to restrict calories and begin regularly eating fewer calories than your body needs, your body will automatically start burning fewer calories. It’s just how the body works.
The other issue at hand is that the calories in/calories out equation has convinced us that the only thing that matters when looking at food is the number of calories it contains, enforcing the belief that “low calorie” is the same thing as “healthy” (hint: it’s not).
The reality is that all calories are not created equal. If a “calorie was a calorie” was truly the case, we should see the same effects on our bodies from 100 calories from protein or fat. But that’s not the case, and when we try to simplify all food down to only a number of calories, we leave out the other (much more important) effects that a food has on our bodies.
Take for example 500 calories worth of broccoli and 500 calories worth of M&M’s. Most people intuitively know that the broccoli is better for us than the M&M’s, despite the fact that they have the same number of calories. This is an important point: the number of calories has no bearing on how healthy (or not) the food is.
The focus on calorie restriction for weight loss has perpetrated the idea that low-calorie foods are healthy and high-calorie foods are unhealthy, and this misconception is one of the biggest reasons that most people fail to lose weight and keep it off. We have been convinced to focus so much on the number of calories we’re eating that we completely ignore whether a food is actually good for us. So the problem becomes two-fold: when we set out to “get healthy” by drastically cutting calories, we aren’t giving our bodies enough food to function properly, and the food we are giving it is junk (I’m talking to you, 100-calorie packs of cookies).
It’s also worth discussing the less obvious but very real effects of restricting calories on our mental health. Often when people begin restricting calories, their life starts to revolve around what they can eat, what they can’t, how much they can eat, etc. They start to correlate food with something to feel guilty about, which often leads to an unhealthy relationship with food and even greater struggles with weight loss. Restricting calories can become an obsessive behavior and it is not unusual for it to lead to other eating issues.
So if calorie restriction isn’t the answer, what is?
The answer, like the problem, is two-fold:
1) learning to fuel your body with a balanced, nutritious diet and
2) performing workouts that help increase your metabolism.
LEARN TO FUEL YOUR BODY PROPERLY
When we restrict calories to too-low levels, our metabolism slows down, making us prone to gaining more unwanted weight over time. There is a minimum number of calories that a person needs every day just to carry out basic daily functions- for women, this is generally around 1,200 although it varies based on age, size, and a few other factors.
It can be tempting to cut your daily calories drastically in order to jump start weight loss, however cutting calories below the 1,200 bare minimum will tank your metabolism and can put your physical and mental health at risk. The length and intensity of your workouts should also factor into how many calories you’re eating. For those of us doing high intensity workouts 3-5 days a week, we will need more food to function on a daily basis than someone who is doing to little to no exercise.
Contrary to the popular belief that calorie restriction is the key to weight loss, the focus should be on the quality of the food we are eating (not the quantity). We need to eat a sufficient amount of food (eating too little can do just as much harm, if not more, as eating too much), and make sure it is good, quality food.
DO WORKOUTS THAT INCREASE YOUR METABOLISM
Instead of focusing solely on aerobic exercise to burn calories, focus on doing shorter workouts, but upping the intensity of each workout.
Rather than doing an hour on the treadmill, aim to do 30-40 minutes of high intensity interval training or strength training. You’ll get a more effective workout in less time and increase your metabolism: It’s a serious win-win!