Why Calorie Restriction Doesn’t Work
Discover why calorie restriction doesn’t work and what to focus on instead.
Think that calories are the key to weight loss? Think again. Calories have been touted as the source of weight gain and the key to weight loss, however, that is truly not the case. In fact, the calories in vs. calories out model is fundamentally flawed and, in order to truly lose weight for the long-term, it is important to understand why calorie restriction doesn’t work.
We’ve all been there before. You decide you want to lose weight, so you put your information into an online calculator and it spits out a number. Perhaps it’s 1,500, or perhaps it’s 1,200, but whatever it is you decide that it is correct and use it as the number of calories to eat per day. You use an app on your phone to track everything you eat and make sure that you stay under this magical number that the internet told you to follow and it works, for a little while. You lose some weight, you start to feel better, but then it stops. You plateau, you get frustrated, and you treat yourself to the foods you were restricting for so long. You find 100 calorie bags of cookies and eat low-fat yogurt to save calories, but then your cravings come back, you start losing your willpower, and slowly the wheels start to fall off. You end up reaching for more treats and forget to track your calories and, over time, you end up back right where you started.
The calories in vs. calories out concept makes so much sense, in theory. Change in Weight = Calorie In – Calorie Out. Although this law of thermodynamics is completely true, it is 100% irrelevant to human health. Why? Because the human body is way more complicated than a simple math equation.
A Calorie is Not a Calorie
A calorie is a unit of energy, the energy released when certain foods are burned in a laboratory. The assumption that the calories in vs. calories out model works also makes the assumption that all calories are created equal, which is simply not true. Assuming that 100 calories from carrots is the same as 100 calories from chips, or that 500 calories from salad is the same as 500 calories from pizza is simplistic at best. By this assumption, it could also be assumed that what we eat has no effect on our body metabolically, aside from functioning like a bank account. Our bodies are not math equations, we are complex systems with thousands of chemical reactions occurring at one time. Calories, or energy, are used for cellular function, brain function, to heat the body, to pump the heart, to maintain blood pressure, to help us breath, for our nails to grown, to manage our hormones and so much more. Every time that you put food in your mouth you are setting off a chain of complex reactions across all systems of the body. A calorie is simply not a calorie. Food quality matters more than calories. Carbs matter more than calories. Protein matter more than calories. Fat matter more than calories. Vitamins matter more than calories. Minerals matter more than calories. And, most importantly, hormones matter more than calories.
Restriction is not a Long-Term Plan
Cutting back on calories is easy, at the beginning. You cut your calories which allows you to lose some weight, which gives you the illusion that you can continue this for the long-term. However, your body’s job is to protect you, and over time this restriction of calories is seen as a threat. The more you cut your calories the more your body will slow your metabolic rate, meaning that it will force your body to burn fewer calories. So, every time that you restrict your calories your body becomes more efficient at burning fewer calories, so in order to continue losing weight, over time, you are forced to eat fewer, fewer, and fewer calories. The problem with this is that you only have so far to go. If you begin by eating 2,000 calories and restrict to 1,500 and then plateau, and then restrict to 1,200 and then plateau, and then restrict to 800 and then plateau, eventually you will run out of calories to cut! Instead of continuously restricting calories, the goal should be to improve your metabolic rate and metabolically flexibility. That means paying attention to all of the factors that impact your metabolism, not just your calories, and work on making your body more efficient at utilizing the calories you ingest, from carbs, protein and fat, for the right functions, not just weight.
Regulating Calories Out is Hard
In the calories in vs. calories out model is it assumed that calories out are under our control. We assume that we can control our calories out by managing our exercise and that everything else is stable. However, it is important to understand that our total daily energy expenditure (i.e. calories out) is measured by the sum the calories used via daily activity and the calories used by our metabolic rate, which is not under our control. The majority of our daily energy expenditure (i.e. calories out) is used to generate body heat and other metabolic functions, and assuming that this is stable over time is simplistic at best. Our metabolic rate is influenced by our lifestyle habits (exercise, sleep, stress, etc..) and every system in the body, therefore, assuming that we can control our calories out is misunderstood and misleading.
All Systems Affect Calories, and Calories Affect all Systems
Every function in the body is regulated by a system. In fact, the body itself if one giant system that is regulated by 11 different systems and thousands of processes within each of those systems. However, when it comes to calories, we are told to believe that simply eating too much or eating less will result in weight gain or weight loss. Eat too many calories at a meal and they will get deposit as fat immediately after eating. Eat fewer calories at a meal and you will quickly use up those love handles you oh-so-want to get rid of. Believing that calories in vs. calories out is the key to weight loss is ignoring the role of all of the systems in the body and the role that hormones play in all of those systems. Yes, some systems may play a larger role than others in regulating calories and weight loss, however, all of the systems impact each other and play a role. Calories, or energy, are required across all systems and trying to simply restrict them to lose weight is going to affect every single system in your body. Calorie restriction is not only applied to one system it is applied to all systems and occurs across the board. So when you restrict calories in an effort to lose weight, you are restricting calories to every system and every function in the body. You are restricting calories needed for cellular function, brain function, to heat the body, to pump the heart, to maintain blood pressure, to help you breath, for your nails to grown, to balance every hormone in the body, and so much more.
Weight Loss is About Hormones, not Calories
The truth is, weight loss is not solely regulated by the amount of food that you consume, but by the way that the food affects the hormones in your body. Of course, eating too much food (in general) will make you gain weight, but it is the makeup of the food that you eat that affects the hormones in your body which determines your weight. Many people associate the word hormone with sex hormones, namely testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone, however, it is important to understand that there are many hormones in the body. Hormones are special chemical messengers in the body that communicate across our systems and control our bodily functions. When it comes to weight loss, some hormones are more heavily involved than others, but many hormones in the body can and will play a role. Hormones such as insulin and glucagon play a vital role in blood sugar management, and in turn fat storage, while hormones such as leptin and ghrelin play a vital role in hunger and satiety, and there are many factors that can affect these hormones, not just calories in, including lifestyle factors such as sleep and stress, which can affect additional hormones such as cortisol and thyroid. A shift in one hormone will cause a shift in another and another, much like a domino effect, and they will all have an impact on calories in vs. calories out and therefore on weight loss or weight gain. You can count your calories until you are blue in the face, but if you are not paying attention to food quality, sleep, stress and other lifestyle factors it will be very difficult for you to lose weight for the long-term.
The Bottom Line
Weight loss is not a simple math equation and calorie restriction is not the answer. If it were, thousands of people would be losing weight every simple day and reaching their health goals without any trouble, but that is not the case. Weight loss is not about calorie restriction nor is it a simple fix; it is about making metabolic changes from the ground up. It is about regulating hormones to provide allow for metabolic flexibility. It is about balancing insulin levels and managing blood sugar. It is about focusing on healthy lifestyle factors, managing stress and supporting sleep. It is about creating an exercise and movement routine that focuses around quality not quantity. It is about focusing on whole foods that support our body’s functions and systems, not processed foods that destroy them. If you truly want to lose weight for the long-term you don’t need to restrict calories, you need to chill out, slow down and focus on the big picture. Yes, that is a big project, but you are human and you are a big project.
Begin with the basics; stop counting calories, focus on real food, create balanced meals, eat less often, balance your blood sugar and focus on managing sleep and stress. No, this will not happen overnight, but if you make changes properly it will last a lifetime.