The subject of calories can be a real tricky one, and I don’t intend for this blog post to be an in-depth exploration of the physiology of fat loss with respect to how much food we eat.
However, there are a few key points that I’d like discuss, as calories are a subject that (rightfully so) come up time and time again when discussing body recomposition.
Often, when I’m perusing Facebook groups or other online forums, somebody will share their frustration that they’ve been paying attention to how much they are eating, they are consuming a number of calories that is lower than their estimated daily energy expenditure, they’re exercising regularly, and yet they aren’t losing weight – or even gaining weight.
It’s not uncommon for these individuals to be women stating that they are eating somewhere in the ballpark of 800-1200 kcal/day, which is significantly lower than the energy most healthy adult women would be estimated to using each day.
They say they are tracking every bite, they are exercising – sometimes for hours – and the number on the scale isn’t dropping, or is even rising.
Inevitably, some bro will respond to these pleas for help by completely discounting the idea that this individual is gaining weight on such a low caloric intake, and insist that they must not be tracking their food properly.
This is often followed with the advice to eat less and move more than they already are.
Here’s the thing – our fat cells don’t have MyFitnessPal accounts and they don’t care what the treadmill says.
All our fat cells care about is what the hormones that interact with them tell them to do with the nutrients available in the bloodstream, and these hormones are affected by more than just how much food we eat and how much we move.
Obviously, eating habits and physical activity are often enough for many of us to turn the dials of fat loss, fat gain, muscle loss, muscle gain, and whatever else we might want to do in the context of manipulating body composition.
But they aren’t the only things that matter, and they aren’t independent variables.
For example, were you aware that poor sleep and high stress can promote fat gain?
Poor sleep and high stress don’t have any carbs, calories, or fat, but they can absolutely cause us to store fat through diverting whatever energy is available to that purpose.
Similarly, PEDs and other drugs used by sport and physique athletes don’t change nutrient intake or our training, but they damn well affect how our bodies respond to these stimuli.
Additionally, the body adapts.
Our bodies are magnificent creations and they want one thing – to survive and reproduce – and when we start sending our bodies the signal that food is scarce and we’re always running (literally and figuratively) from something, we have the potential to set up the hormonal environment that favors muscle breakdown and fat storage as a survival mechanism.
If we eat a low caloric intake for long enough, and exercise for hours per day for long enough, we may eventually start to utilize less energy in some efforts – lean mass maintenance, digestion, other cellular processes – and instead dedicate that energy to fat storage, often breaking down lean mass to do so.
Is this always the case?
Of course not.
Sometimes, these high stress conditions can exacerbate weight loss – but in an unhealthy way through loss of lean mass from muscles and other organs.
Also, people have used caloric manipulation to achieve changes in body composition for as long as this has been a concern of human beings – energy balance matters.
But simply eating less and moving more doesn’t always work for everybody – especially those who take this approach repeatedly (yo-yo dieters) or have high overall stress loads.
If you’re going to see long term success with your eating and training habits, you’re going to have to consider your overall stress load – including restrictive eating patterns and intense training – and factors other than food and movement.
It’s time we acknowledged that “eat less, move more” isn’t always the answer and can just as easily work against us as it can work for us.