No one wants to starve themselves, right? I mean, look at all the wonderful foods out there…wouldn’t it be great to be able to enjoy what you want, when you want (within reason) and NOT worry about your waistline?
The diet industry has told us for years that the only way to lose weight is to restrict calories. And, sure, 20-30 years ago, when no one was really sure WHY people were suddenly becoming overweight, this was a good first step.
Only, today, many, many weight loss programs only focus on calorie deficits to lose weight. This is the message I get from almost every personal trainer I know too – the best way to lose weight is to reduce calories, either through strict food intake or combining this with more and more exercise.
So…why isn’t this working for so many women?
Calorie Deficit: The Tip of the Iceberg
When it comes to losing body fat, calories are only a small factor.
Calorie counting diets are so focused on calories that it doesn’t seem to matter where those calories come from.
When all we do is focus on calories, it’s so easy to overlook the many other factors involved in a healthy body weight.
Plus, it’s easy to start eating a bunch of foods that really aren’t good for us, too.
Calories play a small role, for sure. And when you do follow a calorie deficit diet, you’ll lose weight, usually.
But the real problem happens when you stop counting calories, OR when your body plateaus.
Why You Can’t Keep the Weight Off
When I lost 40 lbs, I did it through slowly reducing calories over 6 months. I restricted a lot of foods, tried to eat a ‘clean’ diet, and tracked everything I ate and spent.
Sure, it worked, but the bigger issue was once I’d hit my goal – the weight wouldn’t stay off!
So, I tried going to back to restricting calories because that’s all I knew. Only this time, the more I restricted the more I gained.
It was frustrating and I felt hopeless.
The problem is that, when you restrict calories for a long period of time, you slow down your metabolism with every drop in weight and food intake. This means that when you go back to eating “normally”, your metabolism is super slow, and you regain even on a lower calorie, healthy diet.
Calorie deficit diets don’t take into account this drop in metabolism. They don’t help you understand how to eat to keep your metabolism running at a high level. Once you understand how this works, the whole idea of the calorie deficit is a very immature, basic approach to weight loss.
The Dreaded Weight Loss Plateau
So, then what happens when you’re losing weight steadily on a calorie deficit diet and suddenly it stops working?
Many of the women I talk with who hit this plateau will drop calorie intake further, creating a bigger deficit. Understandably, too, because most of us have been told that the ONLY way to lose weight is to drop calories.
Except, when you’re eating less than 1200 calories a day and NOT losing? There’s something much bigger going on here.
Calorie deficit diets are very stressful on your body. Not only do they grind your metabolism to a halt, but they put your body into ‘starvation mode’.
When you eat a diet that’s very low in calories, your stress response is triggered. Cortisol is released to try to keep your body safe, pulling stored energy from muscles, liver and other cells for fuel to keep you alive. Cortisol triggers an insulin release over and over, leading to insulin resistance.
All that fuel cortisol has mobilized gets shunted to fat stores for energy reserve later on…Hence, weight loss stalls and you can actually get bigger the less food you eat.
Factors Affecting Weight Loss
If counting calories has stopped working, consider that there are a bunch of other things tied to healthy body weight.
If your sleep is off in any way (less than 7 hours, you’re woken up frequently at night, you’re wired and tired at bedtime…), weight loss will stall. Good quality sleep is crucial for a health body weight. Lack of sleep triggers your stress response and cravings for sugar and junk.
Chronic stress is hugely related to stubborn weight, especially stubborn belly fat. We can’t get away from a lot of our stressors, but we can do a few things to reduce stress levels.
Ditching extreme dieting practices is one of those things. Avoid pushing yourself to exhaustion at the gym. Eat enough food. Stop obsessing over the number on the scale (especially if you want to lose 5-10 pounds – that’s a body composition issue, not a weight issue). Eat enough carbs, fuel up with healthy fats, and ditch the negative self-talk when things don’t suddenly fix themselves in 7-14 days.
Your body composition matters. The more lean muscle you have, the faster your metabolism. Use that to your advantage. Yup, it may mean your body weight will go up a bit but that’s why it’s more important to use pictures or body measurements to judge your progress.
These are just a few of the factors affecting weight loss…It’s not as simple as going into a calorie deficit.
Especially if you’re already stressed, obsessed with the scale, or exercising yourself to exhaustion.
Especially if your sleep is off and you’re constantly craving sugar and junk.
When you’ve tried all the mainstream diets out there and they’ve gotten you nowhere, it’s time to ditch the calorie deficit mentality.
Work on balancing the hormones behind stubborn weight, practice stress management, and for the love of all things, eat enough food to sustain your body’s natural functions.
Exercise in ways that make you feel good. Make sleep a top priority.
Calorie deficit diets may work for a while but, in the long run, they slow down your metabolism and make it very hard to keep the weight off if you want to live a normal life afterwards.
Unless, of course, you WANT to always avoid all the delicious foods out there?