Coach’s Corner: Calories Are Complicated

Because we live in a very harmful “diet” culture, I need to discuss calories.

The way most people understand it, weight loss is a matter of basic math: burn more calories in the gym than calories eaten and the weight will come off. I am here to say that this is inaccurate. If only the way your body utilizes calories was that simple—the reality is, the quality of the calorie and how your body responds to it have more to do with how efficiently that calorie is burned than how many hours you spend on the elliptical.

The amount of calories you consume affects how your body uses those calories.

Against your better or worse judgment, your body has mechanisms in place to ensure your survival in this crazy world, one of which is the ability to defend against starvation. When you eat too little, your body believes there is not enough and goes into a state of conservation. The brain tells the thyroid to slow down your metabolism, making you tired and sluggish in order to burn less fuel. You can see how this is problematic if you’re also exercising a lot. It also increases your appetite to get you to eat more and refuel ASAP.

When you exercise on a restrictive diet, the calories you take in aren’t enough to sustain the level of energy required to work out, so your body will tap into your muscles. This is not good at all because, to put it simply, your muscles are involved in many of the processes that make the body work, one of which is your metabolism. How can you continue burning calories if the main substance in your body responsible for burning those calories starts to burn off itself?

You might be wondering: “But what if I have a ton of fat to lose? That must mean I have enough fuel to last me for days—months, even.” Unfortunately, it’s not so straightforward. Your fat secretes a hormone called leptin. Leptin keeps your fat stores in check by letting the brain know when it’s ok to continue burning fuel and tamper down the appetite. At some point though, too much fat can back up the communication line and it breaks. The brain is unable to recognize that there is more than sufficient leptin—in fact, it believes there’s a deficit—and the body enters hyper-conservation mode: must. slow. body. down. must. eat. more. must. save. all. the. fat.

The quality of the calories you consume affects how efficiently those calories are used for energy.

The single best thing you can do to improve your health is to just eat real food.

Let’s define what I mean by “real food.” Real food is as Mother Nature intended, more or less—minimal to no ingredient list. Real food comes in complete packages that your body gradually digests and processes, enabling a slow release of energy. Food is broken down to its simplest components before your body can use it for energy and absorb the nutrients. The “energy” I’m referring to in this case is glucose or blood sugar. Insulin is the hormone responsible for taking glucose out of the bloodstream to use as either fuel or stored fuel. When there is too much glucose with no immediate energy demand, your body stores some in the liver for when you need the energy later, but the extra stuff goes straight to fat. While the liver has a cap on storage space, fat does not. Processed/refined foods are stripped of fiber and nutrients, and because they’re stripped down, your body takes less time to turn it into glucose so there’s a lot in the bloodstream at once–and what goes unused gets shuttled into fat. And that’s without considering what the chemical additives in processed food, meant to add shelf life and flavor, do to the reward centers of your brain…

So, forget what you thought you knew about losing weight by counting calories. The deprivation approach certainly produces weight-loss results in a short period of time, but those changes occurring in the body are a product of starvation and stress, which your body will desperately battle to reverse. All the weight lost will come back with a vengeance. The diet industry relies on yo-yo dieting to stay in business.

As your coach, I’m looking at nutrition and exercise as necessary parts of life—much like getting enough sleep at night and brushing + flossing your teeth—that will only work with consistency and building good habits. This requires a re-framing of how you treat food and your own body. Neither food nor exercise should ever be viewed through a lens of punishment and reward—rather, committing to health is a celebration of the one body you’re given and the amazing things it can do if you take care of it.