Almost all of us struggling with obesity would have tried calorie restriction to lose weight, this includes me too. After all, weight loss literally means calories in vs calories out right? A lot of times, my online coaching induction calls starts with people saying ‘I don’t know why I am gaining weight, I barely eat’. With that logic and science, it only makes sense that people on a 1200 calorie and lower diet should continue to keep losing weight. Then why is it that inspite of ‘extreme dieting’, most people just don’t lose weight. In this blog, I am going to attempt to explain the physiology of obesity and how calorie restriction alone cannot contribute to long term fat- loss.
With the rise of calorie- counting apps in the market and more and more ready- to- eat foods carrying the macro nutrient breakdown labels, we are slowly becoming obsessed with measuring what we eat. I am not going to lie, if you follow me on any of my social media channels, you have often seen me measuring raw ingredients on a kitchen measuring scale myself. Most people who do not particularly like counting calories but are fitness enthusiast would still track their protein intake and try and reach the 80, 90, 100 or- what- not grams per day. There are pro’s and con’s to counting calories. Especially when you are on a fat- loss program and have a very strict time line, such as competing for a bikini competition or have an event such as your wedding, you want to look your best on stage and calorie counting makes your life easier. But a major con would be trying to do this with half- knowledge.
For example, without the supervision of an expert, you really have no clue what calories you should be eating as per your goals. The information you might get with your self- done research might not be the most accurate. For instance, I use the app MyFitnessPal to track my calories when I do track them. Now, when I enter my basic goals and body stats such as height, weight on MyFitnessPal, it spits out a random number of calories I should eat to lose weight. This is a computer generated number and in my case it says 1200 calories to lose 0.5 kg/ week and eat 50% carbs and remaining fats and proteins. Note here, I put my activity level as active. But in reality, considering my nutritional choices, the type of training I do and my activity level, I can achieve the same results eating even 1800 calories per week with about 60- 70% calories coming from carbs. In fact, if I were following the 1200 calories diet, I would honestly give up in week one, lose a lot of muscle mass and go into guilt mode for not being able to stick with a plan.
Second major flaw with calorie counting is that most people think they are being accurate but are really not. Let me give you an example of a client of mine who told me that she had been counting calories forever and eating 1200- 1400 calories but not losing weight. I asked her to send me a screenshot of the app on which she was counting calories and she sent me this:
Look at the calorie content of some of the items here: Soya Biryani= 28 calories. Even if 1/4th cup meant 4 tbsp, I can certainly say that calorie count is wrong. In fact, with most dishes, the calorie count is randomly entered by non- dietitian who make the dish at home and ‘assume’ a whole- lot. So you might be thinking that you are only eating 28 calories, when in reality that might be close to a 100. So imagine how much total it adds upto for the whole day. This way, you neither enjoy the full cup of soya biriyani, nor are on track. But believe the whole time that you are on track and become guilty for not being able to lose weight, eventually, your entire life circles around body image issues and you declare that you have tried everything but nothing works.
Now let me show you an image of calorie counting that I do. This is again for biriyani and a real screenshot from the app I use:
I measured every single item individually (brand specific, since brown rice of different brands have different calories), actually measured all veggies on the scale, used multiple sources to make sure I got the exact calories of each item since sometimes even the apps have wrong entries, and only then entered it. Even then, I can 100% assure that there is a 10- 20% error up and down since carrots in India are marginally different from carrots set as the gold standard for calorie counting. But even with the 20% error, as long as I measure every single day and eat, I get the results I want. Though obviously measuring everyday for every single meal is a long and tedious process (why do you think I charge what I charge to make a sample meal and fitness plan for clients!).
But 20- 30 years back, there were no apps and the generation was definitely much more healthier, so is all this calorie counting necessary? Here is where the physiology of obesity part of the blog starts:
The human body WANTS more than anything to maintain an ideal body weight. It is not genetics or a stubborn body why you are out of shape, it is plain and simple, you are deliberately trying to go away from letting your body heal itself. In almost all cases with obesity, there are hormones within us that have got out of hand and the key is to fix that. Gherlin for instance, is an hormone that the system releases signaling your brain that you are hungry. It is this that causes the stomach to rumble when you have not had food in a while. Once you start eating and have had enough, the body releases another hormone by the name Peptide YY. This is what signals satiety. The increase in blood sugar after a meal also triggers your pancreas to release insulin, which suppresses your hunger.
There is one more hormone that suppresses hunger. It is called leptin and is produced by your fat cells. When energy from your fat cells is depleted (people with very low fat percentage), it signals your brain to eat more. However, in the case of obesity, people develop a resistance to leptin, which triggers you to continue eating and not feel satisfied.
Now people on a very low calorie diet or one’s who are only dieting to lose weight without adding any physical activity, overtime develop resistance to leptin hormone. Read this study that also shows that people who lose weight solely via eating a low- calorie diet have constantly elevated Gherlin levels and suppressed peptide levels. This effect stays in the system for longer than a year after dieting! So imagine not being able to say when you are full and constantly feeling hungry even when you are not. Eventually, you will gain all the weight you lost back on and then feel like nothing works on your body.
This is a MAJOR reason I avoid the topic of calorie counting with my clients who are overweight. Your body knows when to start and stop eating and it is absolutely essential to listen to your intuition. Also a major reason why I am against parents force- feeding kids and letting kids use technology when eating. You are teaching kids to ignore signals of hunger unintentionally by doing so and this will lead to obesity (vs many other lifestyle diseases) later in life. Instead, focus on calorically dense and nutritious meals to help them avoid craving for empty- calories and junk.
Adding physical activity will anyway help you get in shape by increasing insulin sensitivity and signaling you to stop eating more than the body requires. Create a calorie deficit by exercising, not eating less. That being said, if you want to lose weight below your ideal BMI for asthetic purpose, calorie counting will help you lose that last 5 pounds. But till you get to the last 5 pounds, you will do more harm than good for your body by letting a measuring scale tell you how much to eat.
So what should you do to be intune to your body signals. Many things, but here I am going to discuss two:
1) Focus of whole- foods dense in micro- nutrients:
Look at the image below:
Your satiety hormones release when your stomach elasticity and volume increases. Whole- foods (the one closest to its natural form and not processed) fill you up and release these satiety hormones much faster than eating food that is highly processed such as oil’s/ dairy and meat. Think about it, even though I am very in tune to my body signals and have been consciously working on listening to my body, I could eat 500- 1000 calories of vegan desserts and feel like I have eaten nothing. Vs, if I had just one bowl of rice- daal and a side of salad worth 300 calories total, I would be full. Try and include one side of veggies or fruits every single meal. Also stay away from oil’s/ dairy and meat to better listen to your body.
2) Focus on eating, when eating: Stay away from gadgets and technology when you are eating your meal. In fact, even stay away from talking and heated arguments. Initially, your body signals are going to be very subtle and you will miss catching them. Given yourself that 15 minutes of time- out when eating your meal and chew enough to release digestive juices from your mouth to your gut. You know why you mostly cannot overeat when you cook for yourself? Because the whole process of cooking and smelling the ingredients to hand cutting them is subconsciously preparing your body and releasing digestive juices in your stomach, preparing it for the work to come ahead. The same effect is not there when you make a phone call and 20 minutes later someone rings your doorbell with a pizza.
There is so much more I would like to talk about but maybe for another blog post. I truly hope this article helps you make small lifestyle changes and look at fat- loss a little differently. Low- calorie diet’s are traps and I highly suggest staying away from them.
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