Everyone knows that if you want to drop a few pounds, calories matter.
The calorie-obsessed diet industry wants us all to believe that it’s really that simple.
It was exactly one year ago upon writing this that I decided to get back on the health and fitness bandwagon, and calorie counting was going to be the way I’d finally get back into shape.
Last May 18th was day 1 of becoming totally addicted to using Lose It! — a really cool calorie and activity logging app that automatically counts and tracks everything for you from your phone, so all you have to worry about is achieving your calorie deficit every day by following the calorie budget the app calculates for you.
One year later, I’m down about 20 pounds overall, I’ve decreased body fat and increased my lean muscle mass quite substantially, I can finally do several real pushups without dying, and now I’m typing this blog post while I walk on my treadmill desk at a speed of 5 km/hr with a bit of an incline.
Sounds great for my year-long effort to actually make this a permanent lifestyle change, but just a couple of months ago, I was actually 10 pounds lighter than I am now.
What happened was that I got way too caught up in that god awful mathematical equation of calories in versus calories out, logging everything I ate and everything I burned through exercise as accurately as I possibly could in the app.
I was pushing too hard by restricting my food intake just a little too much, and ramping up the super intense cardio sessions for six days a week (with weight training too).
I wasn’t by any means roaming through eating disorder territory — I was eating between 1,600 to 2,000 calories a day, which I thought was totally healthy and even on the high side for women who diet — but the amount of exercise I was doing put me in a deep daily caloric deficit that just wasn’t sustainable.
Everything was actually fine for a few weeks and I dropped a bunch of weight really quick, which was awesome, but eventually my body figured out something was wrong.
It was like my hormones set off a massive siren, and for about a month I ended up suffering from the most extreme hunger, cravings, and anxiety I’ve ever felt in my life.
This hugely ties in to why so many people hit plateaus, and it’s exactly why fat loss can’t always remain so linear over the long run.
Big calorie deficits, hard exercise, and weight loss places stress on the body.
Our bodies don’t recognize “dieting” and instead just see it as starving.
That’s why so many people hit plateaus after losing a bunch of weight.
Our hormones and metabolic systems have to make all these adjustments so that the body can sustain itself on the small amount of calories its getting.
We have evolution to thank for that — a survival method humans developed for when food was scarce.
But diet-crazed fanatics who aren’t finished losing weight often see a big plateau as an invitation to push harder, or restrict more.
Eventually, you’re eating nothing but kale and doing two hours of cardio to try to get the scale to move again.
It’s a slippery slope that leads to metabolic meltdown.
Calories definitely still matter, but your metabolism and hormones matter more.
When you place stress on your body by dieting and losing weight, your metabolism tries to compensate by making you hungrier and causing you to crave stuff like carbs and fatty foods.
Like I said, our bodies don’t recognizing dieting, and that’s why our bodies fight back.
This is precisely what happened to me on a very extreme scale — hence the 10 pounds I gained back.
There’s a lot of weird metabolic/hormonal stuff that can get all out of whack when you go on a diet — the central nervous system, the adrenal glands, the thyroid, leptin, cortisol…
What I basically learned is that if my energy, cravings, or hunger feels kind of off, then something hormonal is probably out of balance — and when hormones get out of balance, obsessive calorie counting doesn’t matter anymore.
The best book I know that explains all this in plain, understandable English is The Metabolic Effect Diet.
Another good one to put on your reading list should be Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle.
Anyone who wants to lose weight or get into shape needs to learn how to master the art of metabolic balance before they can start getting too involved with calories.
The ME Diet really opened my eyes about how fat loss actually works, and why calorie counting isn’t the ultimate answer to reaching my goal.
The book also points out one very important and totally essential thing that I’d say most books and other products barely mention: always cycle the diet.
Like, with actual “off” weeks, where you just work on maintaining what you’ve got going.
We need to get over the “balls to the wall” take on pushing harder when weight loss stalls, and instead learn to work scheduled and sometimes prolonged diet breaks for a week or longer into our journeys to avoid metabolic/hormonal disruption.
If I had actually taken a few break weeks when I was going so hard and practically putting myself in overtraining mode, I might’ve been able to avoid such a dramatic metabolic backlash.
I’ve had to spend the last two and a half months recovering and I hate that I did this to myself when I should’ve known better.
It’s been one hell of an experience, to say the least.
I’m not saying that calorie counting doesn’t work — it certainly does — but not at the expense of your metabolism.
My calorie counting days are over, and I’m glad, because it really sucks to find yourself obsessing over numbers all day long.
Although the age-old rule of calories in versus calories out still holds, it should only come second after the health of your metabolism and overall hormonal balance.
Too bad I had to find out the hard way.
Photo via via jeffreyw
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