The first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy can not be destroyed, it can only change form. So if the energy that is entering the body is greater than the energy leaving the body, then it will be stored - either as fat or muscle (remember, a calorie is simply a unit of energy). Weight will be lost when there is a net negative energy balance. Note, this is weight loss.. not fat loss. If you're not eating a proper diet, you're just as likely to lose muscle as you are fat when losing "weight".
So, what's your goal? To lose weight - any weight, at any cost? Or to lose fat in a healthy, sustainable way?
If it's the former, then basically a calorie = a calorie. Get yourself in a net calorie defecit - either by eating less or exercising more. So if you need to eat 2,000 to maintain your current weight, either eat 1,800 (so 200 under) or eat your 2,000 but exercise 200 cals away, putting you at 1,800. By the law of thermodynamics you'll lose weight.
If it's the latter, and you care about optimal health and performance, then calories are not equal. Take for example, 750 calories from two very different carb sources:
- 750 calories worth of Coke - roughly 1.8 litres. The nutrient profile here makes for pretty grim reading... 198g of sugar. That's it. No protein or fats. No vitamins or fibre. Nutrient void.
- 750 calories worth of broccoli would weigh over 2.2kg. This mammoth pile of broccoli would be made up of 61g protein, 57g fiber, a tonne of vitamins and minerals & 33g sugar.
Calorie-wise, they're equal, but do you think the body will respond to and treat these 750 calories the same? No. The coke will cause biochemical chaos, spiking your insulin levels massively and assaulting your liver with fructose, promoting fat storage & dozens of other hormonal responses. The spike in blood sugar blocks the production on leptin, which signals to the brain that calories have arrived, and so you'll keep consuming more. I could go on, but you get the message...
As for the broccoli... well, you'd struggle to eat over 2 kilos of it. Your stomach would get full, sending signals to your brain to stop eating. What you do eat would cause little-to-no insulin spike. The nutrients would carry signals that optimise metabolism, lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation & boost detoxification. Broccoli, amongst other things, contains high levels of vitamin C and folate - which can protect against cancers & heart disease.
So this is an extreme example, but still compares two foods that are considered "carbs". We know, from previous articles, that macronutrients have different functions, and so aren't as comparable calorie-wise, but you can try to draw comparisons to the quality of foods that make up each macro when choosing what makes up the majority of your diet.
At a basic level, if you're struggling to lose weight, consider the points below:
1) Are you eating more calories than you think? A client recently told me they were healthy because they ate a lot of nuts. It's true that nuts are incredibly healthy, but they're also calorie dense. Turns out their snack was coming it at nearly 500 calories! Aesthetics and health aren't mutually exclusive so you can carry weight and still be healthy. However for the majority of people, the goal is to feel good and look good. Guzzling handful after handful of almonds definitely comes with health benefits, but could very well be something that puts you in calorie surplus, causing weight gain.
Of course, if your lifestyle requires you to eat in surplus - active lifestyle, training or looking to put on mass - then you don't need to worry about this. But if you're looking to cut fat, put the energy balance in your favour by eating less. Make sure the bulk of your calories come from whole, nutritious foods.
2) Are you undereating? I've had people come to me who essentially starved themselves. Initially, the pounds fell off them, but weightloss stalled and they didn't know what to do. "I'm eating 1,000 calories a day and not losing weight". Either it was a case of them not realising that they were actually eating more (not realising the calorific value of the food they were eating or subconsciously grazing) or..., they've damaged their metabolism. If you undereat for a prolonged period of time your body will take measures to stop you from losing any more weight, because it doesn't want you to starve! Your metabolism will slow down, hormone production and other basic functions will be reduced. Even your "non-exercise activity thermogenesis" (NEAT) - things like fidgeting, tapping your foot, nodding your head - will cease as your body does everything it can to conserve energy.
If you've found yourself in this situation, the solution is to slowly "reverse" out of the defecit you've put yourself in. Start by adding ~200 calories. After 2-3 weeks, add 100 more. Track your progress, see how your body responds & act accordingly. Whether it's gaining or losing weight, the key is to do it slowly.
Many people get overwhelmed, confused or simply can't see the woods for the trees. If you need help or have questions, get in touch.
If you're somewhere between the two.. your diet is "OK" and you're not overly concerned with performance in the gym, then try this... Count your calories for a week or two. (Article on how to track calories) Get the baking scales out and famiiarise yourself with what 100g of rice looks like and what the nutritional value of it is. Weigh out a "handful" of nuts and be aware of how many calories you're getting in. Once you've educated yourself on your day-to-day foods, try this: for every meal, fill half your plate with veg. Whack on a decent protein source and keep your grains and starches to a minimum - a small spud or a handful of rice. Eat until you’re satisfied. If you're still hungry, add more veg or protein. Carbs aren't bad by any means - but if you live a sedentary lifestyle then you probably don't need to eat a whole lot of them.
If your goal is building muscle, performance or something more specific and you need some advice - contact me.
To close - be mindful of what you're eating, build your diet on a foundation on healthy, whole foods. And treat yourself from time to time - life's for living!