However, things are rarely this simple in a system as complex as the human body. When you change something, your body adjusts to compensate for what was originally changed, and you don't get the expected effect. Calorie restriction has been a miserable failure for long-term weight control.
Would you like to know the sad reality? Obesity is still at epidemic proportions and growing. 80% of people who lose more than 10% of their body weight gain it all back.
This level of failure shows how efficient the body is at maintaining a certain body weight and how difficult it is to throw it off course long term. Why is the calorie model so ineffective at controlling body weight?
Why Calorie Counting Doesn't Work
In one study, researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University placed monkeys that were accustomed to eating a high-calorie and high-fat diet, to a low calorie, low-fat diet. The monkeys were taking in 305 fewer calories than they were accustomed to. Based on the calculated calorie deficit, the monkeys should have lost around a pound every 10 or 11 days.
Guess how much weight the monkeys lost? None.
How is this possible? The researchers noted that once the monkeys started eating less, they became less active. They compensated for the reduction in calories by expending fewer calories.
All in all, it was a wash. They burned 300 calories less and ate 300 fewer calories. Their bodies became aware that there was less energy available and the monkeys dialed back their activity, along with the number of calories they burned.
Monkeys are different from humans though. You might decide to exercise to ensure that you actually do lose weight when you slash the calorie content of your diet.
To accomplish this, you do an hour of exercise each day and burn additional calories. You might even track every calorie you take in and burn with a tracking device.
But, there's still no guarantee you'll lose weight. Studies show that the compensations we make for calorie restriction and structured calorie burn are often unconscious. After your hour workout, you unconsciously sit more and move less, and you're not even aware you're doing it.
The Hypothalamus is the Control Central
It's hard to outsmart your brain. The hypothalamus is the portion of the brain most responsible for controlling body weight. The hypothalamus wants to keep your weight within a relatively narrow range to ensure you have enough energy available for health and survival.
The gland will counter major changes in calorie intake and calorie expenditure to maintain homeostasis. It has the power to do this since the hypothalamus controls the release of hormones that impact your metabolic rate and appetite.
If you eat too little, the release of appetite hormones, like ghrelin, that make you hungry and cause you to eat more rises, often without being aware of it. Ghrelin is a powerful appetite hormone and one that's hard to ignore. If you can't resist eating that donut, ghrelin may be to blame!
Plus, as with the monkeys, you unconsciously move less and expend fewer calories throughout the day. These changes are consistent with the “set point” theory, the idea that your brain monitors calories and calories and makes changes that help keep you around your set point weight, a safe weight where you're not in danger of starvation.
It's in your best interest, at least from the standpoint of your brain.
Not only are low-calorie diets ineffective for long-term weight control, they carry other health risks. If you drop your calorie intake too low, you risk nutrient deficiencies.
Plus, you don't learn healthy eating habits. Even worse, calorie restriction is linked with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
The Hormonal Impact of Food
Ultimately, you have to consider the effects of a particular food rather than just its calorie content.
For example, 200 calories of steamed broccoli will have a different hormonal impact than 200 calories of sugary candy. The latter causes a sharp rise in blood sugar and release of insulin.
In turn, insulin makes it easier for your body to store fat and harder for it to break it down.
The calories to avoid are highly processed foods and high-carbohydrate foods that lack fiber. Fiber slows digestion and reduces the blood sugar response to a meal. This, in turn, reigns in the insulin response. Plant-based whole foods are an excellent source of fiber and, if you're still focused on calories, low in calories as well.
Make sure you're getting enough protein too. Your body has to work harder and expend more energy to break down foods high in protein. Plus, protein is the most satiating macronutrient and the one most likely to keep you satisfied for hours.
In contrast, highly processed foods fail to suppress appetite and are bad for your metabolic health.
How to Lose Weight
Stop obsessively focusing on numbers and upgrade the quality of your diet. Check out our One Day Meal Plan for a great example on how to lose weight.
Calories come from food sources, and each food source affects the hormonal environment in your body differently. The type and quality of food you eat also impacts your appetite.
Maybe it's time to judge foods less on the calorie content and more on how nutrient dense they are. Calorie counting is becoming “old school” because it simply doesn't work.
- Avoid processed foods
- Prepare meals in advance
- Eat a good mix of protein, fat, and complex carbohydrates
- Keep it simple
- Stay active
- Remove stress
- Get enough sleep
Fine Tune Your Body
Losing fat and gaining muscle takes time and effort, but it isn't complicated or difficult. Having a positive mindset is the most important part of the equation.
If you're looking for motivation, you might benefit from a commitment to a formal fitness program. Accountability is a great way to stick to your plan and move closer to your goals.
Our most popular program, FF30X, is designed to help busy fathers lose weight without complicated gimmicks and calorie restrictive diets. Join thousands of other men who have decided to take life by the horns! Here at the Fit Father Project, we not only know how to lose weight, we're pushing to make the process as fun and enjoyable as possible.
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*Please know that weight loss results & health changes/improvements vary from individual to individual; you may not achieve similar results. Always consult with your doctor before making health decisions. This is not medical advice – simply very well-researched info on how to lose weight.