Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Calories, Weight Loss & Weight Gain

Remember how I told you I was snowed in on Friday? Well it’s been exceptionally warm today, so as a result I’m at home dealing with a flooded basement. Awesome.

Somewhere in-between ripping up carpet and tearing down drywall I managed to check my email this morning and received a very interesting question:

“Have you ever met someone who was eating too few calories for weight loss and then when they ate more, they lost weight?”

In my opinion fitness experts are making a huge mistake telling people that you can actually eat so little that you stop-losing weight.

Only in the diet industry could people get away with making a statement like this that lacks so much common sense.

I think this misconception is caused by the articles you read in bodybuilding and fitness magazines and is a prime example of obsessive compulsive eating (OCE).

If you dig down into the history of this theory you will find that it comes from the idea that all we have to do is slightly cut our calories to lose weight at a super accelerated rate.

Let’s analyze the classic example of a man attempting to get shredded by reducing is calorie intake from 2400 down to 2200.

Firstly, it’s important to realize that none of us really know exactly how much we eat.

Sure, we can get a rough idea by using tools like, and we might be able to say we eat around 2400 every day, but we could be off by a hundred or so calories in either direction simply as the result of some bad rounding and incorrect estimating.

For instance, a food that is 100 Calories per serving could actually be 104, and the 2 servings you ate could actually have been closer to 2.5. These small little underestimations can all ad up pretty quickly.

Secondly, and here’s the kicker, we really have NO IDEA if 2400 was the right “maintenance” number to begin with!

Perhaps for the person in the example a true maintenance intake is actually 2332 Calories and the 2400 that he has been eating represents a very slow almost undetectable steady weight gain.

Now a reduction down to 2200 calories is barely a 4% reduction in calories. And, I guarantee that in this situation on any given day, 2200 could easily become 2300 and thus cause no weight change at all.

Hopefully by now you are seeing why over-analyzing your nutrition and focusing too much on numbers can cause “Paralysis by Analysis”. Things that should work on paper may not work in real life.

It may be true that over the long run even small changes like this can create big results, but it takes some serious amount of appraisal and adaptation to make weight loss happen at more drastic speeds.

So forget all of the numbers and equations and stick with what we know for sure-
If a certain amount of calories does not make you lose weight, then that amount of calories is the amount it takes to maintain your current weight at your current activity level.

To lose more weight you can either decrease the calories you eat, or increase the calories you burn. It does not matter who you are or what you do; this is the easiest most logical approach.
It also does NOT matter what person X eats or how much person Y exercises, it only matters how much YOU currently eat and if YOU are currently losing weight.

If you aren’t losing weight and you want to, then you must adjust your calorie deficit.
The idea that there is a dieting threshold and that dieting too much will actually stop weight loss is silly.

I think it is important to for us to look outside of health and fitness occasionally. A very harsh example of the effects of extreme caloric deprivation is people who suffer from anorexia.
These poor people reduce their calories to ridiculously low levels to the point where they waste away until they die.

They never hit a magic number where they stop losing weight. AND they see massive losses of muscle mass, so by the classic definition they would have 'slower' metabolisms, yet they still lose weight until they are a walking skeleton, and then unfortunately for many of them, until they are deceased.

I know this is a very harsh example, but it puts things into perspective, and corrects our myopic “health and fitness” view of how the body works.

People who advocate the idea of “eating so little that you stop losing weight” should Google image search anorexia just to remind themselves how ridiculous they sound. And, imagine how they must make families who have lost loved ones to anorexia feel when they say; “if you eat too little you won’t lose weight”.

Another, less tragic example are long distance runners.

These people eat a lot. And they eat a lot of Carbohydrates. But because of their training they still spend large periods of time in a caloric deficit.

This combination of intense exercise and not being able to make up for this level of training with the amount of foods they eat keeps their bodyweight and body fat at extremely low levels. It does not make sense that eating even less would slow their weight loss.

"Amy, you're looking a little thin, better start eating less so you don't lose any more weight"

Lastly the idea that eating more will actually cause you to lose weight, is just typical of the OCE confusion that they use to fill the fitness magazines and that over the years has managed to dig its claws into the dieting paradigm.

If a long distance runner started to eat more food, they would start losing more weight? Similarly, would an anorexic lose more weight by eating more? I don’t think so.

Now I’m not condoning extremely harsh low calorie diets (I think a 10-20% reduction from a true maintenance is ideal).

What I am advocating is careful appraisal of the progression of a diet, and logical problem analysis for logical solutions. Follow this paradigm and nothing about weight loss ever has to be drastic.

If you lower your calories you will lose weight. If you continue to lose weight you will eventually hit a new weight that your lower calorie intake can maintain. This means you will stop losing weight.

If you lower your calories slightly again you will start losing weight again until your body reaches the weight that your new lower calorie intake can support. These changes may be very minor, but they still need to be made.

I will admit that drug use may skew everything I just said, as would people who are attempting to get to super freaky levels of near death body fat for a real bodybuilding show.

I’ve spoken with many trainers who have very unique stories about top level athletes who are getting down to incredibly low levels of body fat and who have stalled in their fat loss. If you are trying to go from 4.5% body fat down to 4% you are way outside of normal human physiology and I admit I’m not an expert in this area.

In this unique situation things like “refeeding” days may actually be warranted. Again, preparing people to be on a stage, near death, flexing for an audience is not my area of expertise.

For normal people trying to lose weight, maybe even get lean enough to have a visible "6-pack" of abs, everything I just said is my educated opinion of the way things work.

There is a lot of confusion out there, but none of it is really logical.

This is why I hate Obsessive Compulsive Eating. It just doesn’t make any logical sense.

Its time we started thinking like children again. If you asked a classroom full of 8 year olds what happens if they eat too much they’d all yell out “we’d get fat”. Ask them what happens when they eat to little, they yell, “we’d get skinny”.

This is why I follow the Eat Stop Eat program. I simply don't beleive that equations, calculations and estimations are effective tools for weight loss. I like finding an amount of food that I can eat and maintain my current weight, then reducing the amount I eat so I lose weight. I just makes the most sense to me.


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Anonymous said...

Here, here!

Until proven otherwise, the Laws of Thermodynamics hold.

Nice post, Brad.

billy said...

I couldn't agree more. Nothing frustrates me more than hitting a weight loss plateau and having someone say "Are you eating too little?" The body can't fabricate energy out of thin air. If it could, we wouldn't need to eat.

That being said, you focus very much on calories. What are your thoughts on low-carb? Many people claim that by drastically reducing our carbs we can lose or maintain a healthy weight while eating more calories. Do you think there's any truth to this?

I have always watched calories and carbs, and that combination has worked well for me.

Brad Pilon said...

Hi Billy,

Nice to hear from you. I'm a calories kind of guy, but I'm not opposed to the concept that once you are in a caloric deficit, concentrating on lowering carbs/sugar may be of further benefit.

nothing drastic, but most of us could do with a little less calories and a little less sugar in our diets.


Brad Pilon said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks for the compliments


billy said...

I'm currently reading Taubes' book, so I'm in the middle of all this right now. Do you think sugar and white flour are equally bad, or is sugar the primary culprit and white flour not so much?

Also, let's talk about fat gain instead of loss. Do you think that once you are at a stable, healthy weight, that eating low carb would be less likely to make you gain fat, even if you ate, say above maintenance?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting discussion shaping up here.

Anecdotally, there seems to be something about going "lower carb/sugar" that works for a lot of people. [Not all "Atkins-Like", but just a moderate reduction in starchy, sugary, processed ingestable substances that some people call "food".]

However, as noted by Brad, it is soooo difficult to know exactly how many calories are ingested. More difficult, is to determine how many calories of energy are used in driving physiological processes (including the "thermogenic effect of eating").

Who knows about the "carb-thing". Maybe people who reduce/eliminate sugary/starchy foods just ingest less calories. Or, maybe there is something to the notion that higher protein/fat diets are associated with higher caloric expenditure (somehow). [Of course, there are a billion other things that could be happening regarding energy expenditure.]

Anonymous said...

...and hormonal responses or any other physiological reason can be "created".

Brad Pilon said...

Another great question Billy, and one I really don't know the answer to.

I think it would be healthier, I just don't know if it would prevent fat gain...

I think there are a lot of confounders with this type of question...including but not limited to inflammation and anything else that would cause the appearance of weight increases and reductions without a true change in fat mass.

Right now, I'd only be guessing at an answer..


Anonymous said...

Ok Brad. Leave it up to you to tell it like it is. I loved this post. It is so easy to get caught up with the eating too little myth. even after reading Eat Stop Eat I still started to believe it when watching Biggest Loser last night. Anybody else see that?
P.S Good luck with the basement.


Jordan said...

Brad, what do you make of the idea of "starvation mode"- that there's some mechanism in the human body that forces it to slow down weight loss in the face of deprivation?

Also, is it possible that an anorexic person's weight loss could slow down at some point, due to lower caloric intake, while (obviously) not completely grinding to a halt?

JC said...

Hey Brad, I just ran across your blog for the first time, subscribed, and bout to catch up a bit on the posts. I practice Intermittent Fasting according to Martin Berkhans LeanGains protocol.
look forward to reading your posts.

CR said...

"Until proven otherwise, the Laws of Thermodynamics hold."

Well not really, for a couple of reasons.

First of all it's not just calories in = calories out. It's calories in = calories out + calories stored. And some calories, in some biochemical situations (high insulin resistance) are stored more easily than others.

Taubes makes the argument that you don't fat from overeating, you overeat because you get fat. When you are in a fat-storing state, the food you eat tends to get stored rather than burned, (and stay stored due to high insulin) so you are more hungry, faster after eating and need to eat again.

I'm sympathetic to this argument, because if I eat very low carb, I lose weight or stay lean, and I don't have to pay any attention to calories. I have no idea if I'm eating less or more calories, I just know I eat as much low-carb and high-fat food as I want, am not hungry, and have plenty of strength. (My bloodwork is great, as well.)

I don't want to be counting calories, and my experience is that if you eat low carbs/high fat, you maintain a hormone balance that will lead to leanness/fat loss (through increased burning for enerby), high energy, and no hunger.

People are all very different biochemically, however, so this may not work well for everyone. But I have found very few people for whom it doesn't. (I used to own a health food store, so dealt with a lot of people who were trying to lose weight.) I'm 56, 6-3, 200, and have been dealing with fat loss/gain issues myself since I was a fat kid.

I'm afraid I also subscribe somewhat to the idea that trying to reduce calories beyond a maintenance level does impair weight loss. It's been pretty well established that your body will lower the basal metabolic rate to match the caloric intake. As Taubes says,

"NO matter what technique is used to achieve a caloric deficit, whether eating less or exercising more, it will only serve to induce hunger and/or a compensatory decrease in energy expenditure."

I find if I don't eat enough, my metabolism will slow down, and I will start to store more than burn. I have seen this in others as well, but that's definitely anecdotal. But that's a level above a semi-starvation diet.

Sorry if this doesn't all apply...

billy said...


I have a question about fasting.

The way it seems that you recommend it is to eat normally, then fast for 24 hours 1 or 2 times a week.

My question is, what if I am already on a reduced calorie diet (2000-2300 KC/day), and I add one 24 hour fast per week?

I'm trying to blast off the final 10 lbs or so of fat I have left, and am thinking that adding IF to my program will help me boost my results.

Let me know your thoughts.


billy said...

Oh, another question, I am fasting today, but had 5g creatine and 10g BCAA's mixed with water this morning. Necessary? Helpful? Useless? Cheating?

Thanks again...

Brad Pilon said...

Hi Jordan,

My thoughts on "starvation mode" depend on which definition you are using.

The idea that eating to little causes your body to store MORE fat is completely inaccurate.

The idea that eating to little causes your body to burn less fuel is also completely inaccurate.

The idea that eating to little could cause you to lose muscle mass is plausible (given that you must also be inactive), and the idea that this loss of muscle mass could also reduce your caloric needs is also plausible.

Which leads me to your last question, yes I think when anorexics lose a considerable amount of muscle mass, they will have a reduced need for calories. However it's important to note that this is caused by the wasting, and not the caloric intake.

Reductions on metabolism are due to conditions of wasting.


Brad Pilon said...

Hi JC,

Nice to meet you. Martin's a great guy, and I'm sure you will find him a very useful resource.


Brad Pilon said...

Hi CR,

much like a math equation you can only ever be on one side of the equals sign.

No matter how you word it, you are either negatively or positively affecting a caloric balance.


Brad Pilon said...

Hi Billy,

When I say 'eat normally', I mean what ever maintains your CURRENT weight.

Seeing as your current weight is still very low, I would guess that 200-2300 is eating normally at your new weight.

Therefore I see no reason why you couldn't add in the fasts.

Judging by you last set of pics, I think 172-175 is going to look pretty lean on you!


Brad Pilon said...

Hi Billy,

Neither is Necessary.

I do think the creatine might be helpful.

I don't see a need for 10 grams of BCAA's, it's not entirely useless, I'm just not convinced you will see any benefit even at that amount.

I wouldn't consider either of them cheating..


John said...

Hi Cr,

Calories stored is simply the difference between calories in vs calories out if you're in a positive caloric balance.

The laws of thermodynamics have not changed and always apply.

Consuming more calories than you burn will always produce weight gain (storage as you pointed out), consuming less calories than you burn will always produce weight loss.
How you choose to arrive at your caloric deficit is up to you.

If you find eating a low carbs diet is the easiest way to achieve a caloric deficit and it works for your lifestyle, then no body can argue that.
From a practicality stand point carbs are the easiest thing to eat in excess and one of the easiest things to reduce, so it makes sense that it seems to work for many people as you stated.

As you stated you don't count calories and you don't know for sure how much you eat but it works for you. And I think that is the true sign of a diet that can last, something that doesn't stress you out every day.

This doesn't mean its the only way, but if it ain't broke don't fix it.

I personally use 2 fasts per week and I am maintaining a leanness and bodyweight that I am happy with. Before I started fasting I was around 225lbs, now I hover between 200-205lbs. I also don't monitor what I eat on my 'eat' days and I have whatever i like and i never gain a pound.

If I tighten up on my eat days at all I start losing even more weight ( dip below 200lbs when this happens). So for now I know that eating whatever I want on 5 days, with 2 fasts per week keeps me at the size I am now approx 200lbs. If I want to lose more i will add another fast or reduce calories on one of my "eat" days.

Works for me.


tom said...

hi, brad

i also talked to Martin b., you know the guy. what is your thought on pre-post meals and after meals. is it really necessary .

or can i workout on a 24 our fast day. i like to go eat only 2ce a day. is it better then to eat "breakfast" and "diner" or lunch and diner. and then do 24 our mini fast 2 a 3 times a weak i bought your ebook but i lost your email i thought it ws in there.