The cycle usually starts slowly. You start off eating with too much of a deficit from what your body needs and what you take in. Your hungry, and the process isn't fun but the weight is coming off. Your metabolism isn't firing at its best, but since you have a calorie deficit, the weight slowly comes off. Then after a little while losing weight you hit a plateau. The first instinct (and probably the worst advice that gets offered by so many people) is to eat a little less. At this point you're now getting ready to make things worse. Less fuel means less of what your body needs to function properly so it slows your metabolism even further to put you into "preservation mode". Your body also starts burning more muscle to get the fuel it needs. This in turn makes things even worse as your muscle mass is the source of a lot of expended calories. The result... You are hungry, miserable, and the weight isn't coming off anymore.
Ultimately this kind of behavior leads to binges as both your mind and body are functioning poorly. In this state it becomes easy to give up because your hungry all the time, you’re not thinking as clearly as you could be, and you're not seeing results!
I'm here to tell you that it doesn't have to be that way. It is possible for you to lose weight without starving yourself all the time. The method isn’t sexy and it requires some patience, but once you start on the path you may be amazed at how many calories you can consume and still lose weight. I myself can consume 2500 calories each day and still lose 1-2 pounds a week!
Know the Equation
The first thing you need to understand is how the weight loss equation works. The equation is really very simple:
Calories Lost = Calories Expended – Calories Consumed
3500 calories lost is about equal to 1 pound. So if you consumed 14000 calories and you expended 21000 calories, you would lose about 2 pounds.
The Easy Part
Most people ignore the calories expended part and start out with calories consumed because that’s the easy one. They set a target value based on a book or whatever conventional wisdom comes their way. Each day they add the calories up from what they ate, and as long as they don’t exceed their quota, they feel they will keep losing weight. While knowing how many calories were consumed is important, it is only half the equation.
I want to stop here for a moment and just make a comment that there are many people out there who have done exactly what I just wrote and were perfectly successful at losing weight. Those people are few and far between though and many of them may have just been lucky that the calorie target they selected was actually right on for their situation. My goal here is not to debunk some myth that highly restricted calorie diets are bad. My goal is to show why the intake part of the process is only half of the equation.
The Missing Piece to the Puzzle (RMR)
The second and equally important piece to the equation is the calories expended. This piece is often ignored because it is not easy to figure out. One of the most common misconceptions out there is that exercise makes up the biggest portion of your calories expended. The truth is your body expends a whole lot more energy maintaining itself than it does during a measly 30 minute workout. Everyone has what is called a resting metabolic rate (RMR). This is basically the amount of calories your body needs each day just to maintain itself. That’s a good start to figuring out how many calories you expend each day. How do you figure out your RMR? You could go to a doctor and they could measure it for you (the most accurate method) or you can estimate it based on one of several formulas that have been derived over the years (see my post on How to Determine Your Calorie Needs for several of the most commonly accepted formulas).
Now here’s the catch… your diet and lifestyle both have an effect on your RMR. Your RMR is not some fixed number that never changes; how you live determines how your RMR changes. If you starve yourself, your RMR will drop. If you don’t get enough sleep your body doesn’t perform to its fullest and your RMR drops. If you are dehydrated your body can’t function properly and your RMR can drop. Genetics also plays a role, but we can’t really control that (not yet anyway).
Increasing your activity level
Once you know what your RMR is, you can then add additional calories for your activity level. Note this isn’t just your exercise time, it includes ALL of your activity from the marathon you just ran all the way down to the energy you expended to pick up the remote and change the channel. Unfortunately there is no real precise way to determine this value but there are calculations that can give you a pretty good approximation (again see my post on How to Determine your calorie needs)
In the beginning of this post I mentioned some of the worst advice offered for people that have hit a plateau is to eat a little less. More bad advice I’ve read about breaking through a plateau is to try to add a little more time to your exercise routine. I’ve already noted above, your activity level is not just the amount of time you exercise. Your activity level is based on everything you do all day long. Now think about this for a moment. If you exercise 30 minutes a day and then you spend the rest of the day sitting on the couch, how much will your activity level change if you increase your workout time by 15 minutes? Not very much! Your activity level is based on your whole day, not just a few minutes each day when you choose to exercise. On the flip side, how much would your activity level change if you switched jobs from one behind a desk to one where you are on your feet all day long? In this case, your activity level would probably change considerably.
It is actually pretty hard to make a significant change to your activity level (hard but not impossible). If you really want to increase your activity level, you need to look at your overall day and see where you can get more activity throughout. Can you walk or bike to work? Do you use an elevator a lot and if so could you take the stairs? When you get home do you sit at your computer for 4 hours before going to bed? If so can you cut that in half and do something else that requires exertion? You are not going to be able to make 1 change and get a big boost to your activity level. Instead you are going to make a lot of small changes that result in a big increase in your overall daily activity.
Putting it all together
With your RMR and the calories expended based on activity level, you now have a good estimate on how many calories you expend each day. Most people are surprised at the value they see. Depending on the calculation used I expend approximately 3500 calories each day!
With your calories expended you can now determine how many calories you need to consume in order to lose the weight you want to lose. If you are like me and burn 3500 calories each day you can eat 2500 and still lose 2 pounds in a week.
After reading this post you are either thinking I’ve lost my mind or that it’s just impossible to eat more and lose weight (or maybe a little of both). The biggest drawback to this type of eating plan is that it takes a little patience to see the results. Your body is smart and it reacts to how you treat it, but not immediately. If you’ve been highly restricting your calories and you switch to eating more, you will gain weight. Your RMR will not react instantly and start burning more. It may take a few weeks or even a month for your body to realize that you aren’t going to go back to starving yourself before it starts revving your metabolism. This is why most people who try this give up quickly. As a society we have become accustomed to instant gratification. If it doesn’t work right away, the instinct is to start eating less which in turn puts you right back where you started.
The second problem is that typically the numbers you start with are not the ideal numbers for you. This isn’t an exact science; everyone is different. The formulas are just starting points. Some people inherently burn more and some burn less and so how much you can eat and still lose weight is largely dependent on you. Over time it becomes necessary to tweak the numbers as you learn more about yourself. This is not a process that can be done in a week.
Part of my own journey includes sharing what I know. One thing I’ve learned over my years is that you do not have to starve yourself in order to lose weight. Now you might have noticed, I did not offer any suggestions for how much is too much or how much is too litle in terms of calories. I did this purposely because the answer is different for every single person out there. I've always said that I believe the best diet you can be on is the diet you create for yourself. Don't just listen to some book on how many calories you can eat. Take a little time to figure out out how many calories you should have for your own circumstances. Good luck to everyone out there. Stay Strong!