I grew up, like many of us, thinking my body essentially worked like a math equation. It was said that a pound of fat is made up of 3500 calories, and so to lose a pound of fat, all I had to do was make sure my intake of calories was less than what I burned doing activities every day (i.e., eating less and exercising more). And, furthermore, I should be able to figure out exactly how long that would take me (there are many apps available for smart phones these days). Example: I want to lose one pound of fat in a week. Therefore, if I burn 2500 calories per day and only eat 2000 calories, that equals a 500 calorie deficit every day…so by the end of the week voila! One pound of fat gone! Right? Except for some reason it just never really worked out like that. I always assumed that I must have figured something wrong along the way. Maybe I measured my food inaccurately, or maybe the treadmill “calories burned” calculation was wrong. I probably needed to eat just a little bit less. Shave off another 50 calories or so and that would get me there. Sound familiar? In hindsight I can see why this didn’t work.
First, our bodies are NOT math equations — as much as we’d sometimes like them to be. The three types of fuel we consume: fat, carbohydrates, and protein are all processed VERY differently. Each person has a unique balance of these nutrients that is optimal for them (more on what a “balanced” diet means in a later post). A big part of what I do is help my patients figure this out.
Second, is the assumption that by implementing a strategy that results in weight loss, we will lose a pound of FAT — because that’s what most of us want to lose. But just because that’s what we want, doesn’t mean that’s what happens. In fact, generally speaking, most initial weight loss comes from water. After that, for people who are significantly cutting calories, weight loss comes from muscle. Some comes from fat too, but it certainly isn’t the straight forward “negative 3500 calories equals a pound of fat” idea we had when we started.
Finally, when our bodies are in “deficit”, guess what happens? We are HUNGRY! This is normal and I don’t know anybody who actually likes the feeling of being hungry. And eventually most of us will start to compensate by eating more. But even if we are staying in negative calorie balance, if the TYPE of calories we are eating are turning off our body’s ability to metabolize fat, the weight we do lose comes from our hard-earned muscle. So then, what’s a person to do?
The human body has hundreds of chemical messengers relaying information about where fuel should go — whether to a heart cell to be used as energy immediately or stored for later in a fat cell. The current amount of available stored energy, medications, hormones, stress, sleep deprivation, genetic predisposition, and the type of fuel consumed are just a few of the things that influence these messengers. It is an exceedingly fascinating and complicated process. Inexpensive lab tests are available to give me clues about how your body specifically uses fuel. Wouldn’t it be nice to get some insight into those chemical messengers and use that information to help decide what and how much fuel your bodies need to function best before you try another miserable round of cutting calories?