It has become a common refrain, ‘calories in, calories out’, meaning that the way to weight loss is a clear cut equation. Of course it is undeniably true, that to lose weight you need to burn more than you consume. However more and more research is pointing to what frustrated people everywhere already know; a calorie does not always exactly equal a calorie. How could this possibly be? If you’ve ever looked into weight loss at all, you’ve probably heard and read that to lose a pound a week you need to cut back by 500 calories per day (or 3,500 calories a week). Instinctually you may have realized that this isn’t always exact, as you dutifully cut back, and the weight either came off slower (or on occasion quicker) than the calculation would have predicted. You may blame it on your own shortcomings or just decide that losing weight isn’t worth the effort.
A little over a year ago, I heard a talk by Dr. Steven Heymsfield, about how the 3500 calorie rule is obsolete. He has done some interesting work in the field of weight loss and obesity (read “Can a weight loss of one pound a week be achieved with a 3500-kcal deficit? Commentary on a commonly accepted rule“). A lot of what he said really resonated with me, and what I have seen from people struggling to lose weight. There have also been quite a few studies in recent years, showing that weight loss will vary from person to person, (even when being fed identical weight loss diets) and also vary for an individual when consuming different foods (even when those foods have the same calories and macronutrients). Here is a condensed version of what to keep in mind when losing weight.
- The 3500 calorie “rule” was created based upon some small studies, mostly done on men, and during a time when measurements were not nearly as accurate as they can be done today. The majority of weight loss does not correlate to the early studies upon which this number is based.
- There are many factors that play into how our bodies metabolize, and either use or store the fuel we consume. Hormones play a very large part in this fuel usage and storage, and our feelings of hunger, and satiety. This is why weight gain can be the result of thyroid issues, as well as an imbalance of estrogen and testosterone or stress due to higher cortisol levels.
- Each person has a different metabolic rate based upon their body makeup (fat mass versus lean tissue), height, weight, activity level, and age. Getting an accurate metabolic rate is something that isn’t easily calculated without being metabolically tested. This will also change over time as someone is losing weight.
So what on earth can we do? Does this mean we are all doomed and should simply give up? No, of course not. The answer lies in a resetting expectations. Don’t expect that you will be able to lose a certain amount of weight by a certain date just because you have done the math. Very often we set our expectations too high, and feel discouraged when we don’t meet or exceed those unrealistic goals. Resetting goals (and our overall mindset) will go a long way towards ensuring success on the road to weight loss, and overall better health.
View dietary changes as lifestyle changes that you are willing to stick with for the long term. Chances are, if you are currently overweight it didn’t happen overnight, expect that it will take some time to dial things back in the other direction. There may be “diet solutions” that deliver large weight loss in a short amount of time, but if you don’t want to follow that restrictive diet for the rest of your life, you’ll just end up back where you started.
It may not be as sexy and flashy as the diet fads, but reducing overall intake, consuming lean proteins, and plenty of vegetables and fruits, and engaging in plenty of activity, is still the best way to go!