It’s the oldest weight loss advice in the book: consume fewer calories than you expend, and you’ll lose weight. While this stands true for the short term, eating too few calories, and depriving yourself of certain food groups or macronutrients, can, in fact, sabotage your longer-term weight loss goals – and harm your health and mental state, too.
While your body might initially respond to a drop in calorie consumption and increased exercise by losing fat, this only leads to a false sense of security. The human body is a dynamic, adaptable and complex machine, with survival as its top priority. In order to feel safe and manage change, it constantly – and miraculously – regulates what goes on internally in response to its environment and how we treat it. Here are a few things you need to know:
Risks associated with eating too little
Our intention in highlighting the following health risks is not to scare you – rather inform you on why eating more (and eating better) might be a smarter and more sustainable means of losing weight and allowing you to achieve your body composition goals than by drastically reducing calorie consumption.
When we cut too many calories from our diet or fail to adequately refuel ourselves following rigorous exercise, survival mode kicks in and our bodies respond by assuming these changed circumstances are the new norm (i.e. every day to come will look the same). In turn, it slows our metabolism down and holds onto the limited calories we give it. Not to mention:
reducing active thyroid and sex hormone production;
raising adrenal stress hormones like cortisol, potentially leading to insulin resistance (an unhealthy hormone state that promotes body fat and water retention and causes long term health issues);
lowering blood pressure and reducing heart rate to unhealthy levels;
hair loss and brittle fingernails;
loss of menstrual periods in women;
trouble concentrating, issues sleeping and potentially depression.
It’s important to shift our focus from solely weight loss and external appearance, and to instead consider what – and how much – we eat as it relates to our broader health now and into the future. Our focus should be on adequately fuelling our bodies in a way that is sustainable. Hint: slow and steady wins the race.
How much and what to eat to support body composition change – sustainably
In evaluating our individual dietary needs, we need to consider both what we eat and how much we eat. The amount of food our body needs depends on gender, height, age, general state of health, activity levels, genetics and body composition.
It’s not as simple as calories in versus calories out when it comes to maintaining, losing or gaining weight healthily. The substance from which the calories are taken is integral. This is where macronutrients (“macros”) come into play. The three main components of the foods we eat are carbohydrates, protein and fat, the calorific values of which are different: 1g of both carbohydrates and protein contains 4 calories, while 1g of fat contains 9. However, rather than focussing solely on calories we suggest taking this one step further and thinking about the food components calories derive from.
Eating more and eating better
There are some general things worth knowing when shifting focus from calories to macronutrients:
Foods high in energy but low in nutritional value (e.g. doughnuts – yum!) provide empty calories. Our advice is certainly not to cut these foods out. After all, the goal is to adopt sustainable habits (and it’s going to be near impossible to avoid doughnuts for the rest of your life!). Instead, we recommend thinking about ‘empty calorie’ foods as occasional foods.
There is a benefit in re-evaluating the ratio of your carbohydrates versus protein consumption – higher protein diets better support a ‘lean’ body composition, not to mention accelerated muscle recovery. Interestingly, your body uses more energy during the process of digesting proteins versus other macronutrients. Bigger muscles also require more energy to move – meaning you can burn more calories during the day without trying!
Don’t you dare cut out fats entirely – instead, learn the difference between fats: saturated, monosaturated, polyunsaturated and trans; some of which are healthy, some of which are not. Foods high in healthy fats such as avocado, nuts and salmon should be included in diets to support weight loss – foods high in unhealthy fats (e.g. fast food) should be limited.
Fibre and sugar are worth thinking about too. High fibre diets (aim for around 25g per day) support healthy digestive systems, reducing bloating and water retention. Further, eating too much sugar throws your blood sugar and insulin levels out of whack, wreaking havoc on your energy levels throughout the day.
Micronutrients including calcium, sodium and iron (particularly for women) should be prioritised in healthy diets too. Tip: eat the rainbow. Generally speaking, the more colourful the food (we’re talking naturally coloured – fruits and vegetables, not candy), the more packed with micronutrients.
If you want to be a leaner, healthier version of you, the easiest thing to do is to eat more whole, single-ingredient foods (insert: fruits and vegetables, lean animal-based proteins, grains, etc.). These foods are naturally filling, and you can eat substantial amounts of them without blowing out your calories. It’s very difficult to gain fat if most of your diet includes food your grandparents would have eaten as children.
At the end of the day, your focus should be on nourishing your body instead of depriving it. Satisfy your hunger, treat yourself every now and again, and maintain focus on your longer-term health goals. Quick weight loss through calorie deprivation might allow you to lose weight ahead of a holiday or special event, but what’s the fun in a life of yoyo weight loss? None. Time to break the cycle.
Speak to a nutritional professional about eating more but eating smarter. Then, once you don’t have to stress about food all the time, you can focus on other things! Yay!
Article by The Method themethodnow.com.au