Strong and well-defined shoulders are essential to a powerful physical appearance
There’s more to health and fitness than simply watching what you eat
It seems that everywhere you look these days, the words “calorie deficit” are plastered about in bold, italics or combined with other expletives. While this is all well and good to spread a message, it doesn’t half get old after a while.
Through coaching Joe Public as well as athletes and physique competitors for nearly a decade, I’ve seen a wide diversity of systems, symptoms and syndromes when it comes to health, wellness, fitness and performance. In my opinion, general population clients are by far the hardest to crack, as the majority don’t have the innate motivation that athletes and trainers hold, requiring a lot more coaching to adopt the results-based lifestyle that comes naturally to others. You’d be surprised at the number of trainers that need reminding that eating anything other than cereal or toast for breakfast can be (and usually is) absolutely alien to lot of non-fitness inclined people.
Herein lies the problem. Mary or Michael Muffintop that comes to you for help to lose some belly fat, fit into their jeans better and play with their children without clutching their chest, already know what (s)he should do. Shouting, typing and driving home “calorie deficit mate”, and “eat less, move more” really doesn’t do them any favours.
We know full well that to manipulate weight you must manipulate energy balance. That is, to lose weight you must sustain a negative energy balance and to gain weight, a positive. The key word there is sustain; biological changes occur via an accumulation of reactions over time, not day to day. We know this, as you don’t get abs by eating a salad, so underlying all factors is consistency of efforts.
You can either create a negative energy balance by decreasing input in terms of energy from food or by increasing output through expenditure. Input is represented by food calories: a calorie (kcal) is a measure of the thermal energy required to heat a kilogram of water by 1ºC. This energy comes from burning food in a laboratory calorimeter, or is released from the breaking of chemical bonds of macronutrients of food when digested, assimilated and metabolically processed within the body. Output, or energy expenditure, is measured by ATP (fuel) turnover within the body; in other words, the constant use and replenishment of energy that fuels physical and non-physical activity. If you need/burn lots of fuel, energy expenditure is higher and vice versa.
We’ve all heard of the afterburn effect, where high-intensity training can raise your metabolism for hours after you stopped training. This is due to the intensity of the exercise of demand of the activity requiring a greater ATP turnover, therefore expenditure is generally higher than if you were to create less of an energy demand through lower-intensity activity. Both have their pros and cons, though the question is — which one burns fat? Well, both, some and none at all (this is the theory of energy systems, a whole different ball game). You don’t actually “lose fat” in the gym — you apply the stimulus for change, growth and adaptation. You may well be using an energy system that uses fat (and oxygen) as a substrate to create fuel, but this isn’t adipose tissue, that belly fat that you’re trying to reduce.
It all sounds very complicated, so an easier way to create the negative energy balance and lose fat is simply restricting intake in the form of food calories, i.e. a deficit. This way, due to an increased energy demand by not having readily available substrates to create ATP, the body will use its stored substrate from adipose tissue and elsewhere. Calories equated (and protein), no single diet in the literature is more beneficial than any other in terms of weight loss in the literature. When calories and protein are equal, low-carb, high-carb, keto, Atkins, calorie cycling, three licks of a date and chicken etc, will all produce the same results.
You can then further this negative energy balance and optimise weight loss via fat loss, by exercise, strength training and other such activities. What many people misunderstand, however, is that energy deficit is only a part of the equation.
Did you know that if two twins of equal height, weight, activity levels, etc and perceived total caloric requirements have vastly different microbiome make-up, their actual requirements will be different? One may have more bacteria that yield higher calories from food, or have a lower diversity of microbes, generally linked to a more obesogenic and inflammatory profile.
It’s also worth noting that if you have a dreadful night’s sleep, your hunger hormone ghrelin rises dramatically, causing you to unconsciously eat more the following day.
If you are chronically stressed, enjoying the wonderful state known as sympathetic dominance, your digestive system will be impaired causing you to have a hard time doing anything useful with the foods that you do eat.
If you are continually focused purely on output and never stop for a minute to replenish the energy you expend through some input training, you run the risk of negative returns. I’m sure you’re aware of butterflies in the stomach from a loved one, or of your heart pounding after a shock or fright? There is scientific literature suggesting that we have a physical body and an emotional one; emotion systems prepare us to meet challenges encountered in the environment by adjusting the activation of the cardiovascular, skeletomuscular, neuroendocrine, and autonomic nervous system, and daily challenges can manifest physically through a stress response to emotions. Not giving back to the metaphysical can further that stressful state and put a big handbrake on weight loss.
At the end of the day, by adhering to a consistent calorie/energy deficit over a long period of time you will lose weight/fat. End of story. However, if you want to optimise your fat loss, life, health, emotional intelligence and brain function, work productivity, love life, family presence, and so on, by employing a variety of different methods in collaboration with your calorie-deficit diet, your quality of life will be dramatically different, and your end result that much more enjoyable and sustainable.
There’s a lot of of information here, so some quick tips to take away from this surface-scratching article:
- Work with somebody who can explain energy balance to you, who actually knows what your energy requirements are and who can coach you on how to interpret it. Don’t use an online calculator or remove food groups willy-nilly.
- Learn how to critically analyse the plate in front of you, through tracking, portioning or whatever means necessary for you to align your nutritional practice with your requirements. It takes effort, but after a while becomes easy and is key to success.
- Get some good sleep every night, aiming for an accumulation of 35 hours of quality sleep per week.
- Be active, not just in the gym but throughout your day, too.
- Take an active interest in the state of your digestive system. Poop problems, bloating etc are very common, but not normal; get this addressed and keep an eye on it.
- Learn how to train, not exercise, and learn how to train properly.
- For as much output as you create, maintain just as much input through yoga, meditation, massage, walks on the beach and spending time with loved ones… “You can only train as hard as you can recover” is absolutely true in terms of longevity, for the most part.
Focus on these pillars and watch your body, mind and life change for the better and stop listening to people on social media giving brash advice or belittling others, practices or giving absolute statements about nutrition and health; they usually don’t know what they’re talking about...