This should be the last big calorie-focused post for a while. Thanks for sticking with this so far. I hope it’s been helpful to pull back the curtain just a tiny bit on how the various types of foods we eat directly impact our fitness and how they can be managed on a deeper level than just the calorie-in/calorie-out approach.
While we back off from some of the formulae and calculations we can use, let’s address a common mentality that pops up among folks who make weight loss a fitness priority.
“The less I eat, the better.”
Here’s a writerly view of this. As writers, we need a certain “intake” in order to maintain our productivity. Writing is an exhaustive process. Writing a story can strengthen your ability as a writer, but your creative stores are being drained at the same time. How do we replenish those stores? By taking inspiration from life to fuel our imaginations. We have new experiences, meet new people, read new stories, go new places… We replenish our minds and souls. If we did nothing but shut ourselves off in a room and write, never actually living, we’d eventually wind up with little-to-nothing to energize our craft.
Back in a fitness and weight loss sense, what happens if you drastically drop your calorie intake for faster results? People do this all the time for a supposed figure quick fix. Yes, if you severely cut your calorie intake, you can rapidly lose weight. However, this can have numerous negative effects on you…on your body, your mind, your emotions…everything can suffer and be self-sabotaging. Going even more extreme and zeroing out your eating is called starving yourself (please note, this is different than fasting, something we’ll talk about later). People talk about starvation mode as being something you go into the instant you stop eating. In reality, it can take at least several days or a week of extremely low calorie intake (in proportion to activity levels) for your body to start taking drastic steps to…well…try and save your life.
The reality is, even if you want to lose weight, you still need to eat. You need to meet a minimum energy threshold to function. And in instances where you’re being more active, you actually need to eat more than usual to make up for the extra effort. Otherwise you can struggle with:
- Fatigue: Your brain and body aren’t getting the basic energy they need to handle daily stresses. “Running on empty” becomes a literal statement for you. Not to mention the stress of a low/no-calorie diet can also disrupt your sleep, furthering the whole exhaustion issue.
- Metabolic Slowdown: When you lack calories for a sustained period, your body adapts to this deficit and starts operating at a lower level, requiring fewer calories to keep itself going. That means you are naturally burning fewer calories both when active and at rest, which is entirely counter-productive to your goal. (People who are trying to cut weight through calorie deficits combat this by the occasional “refeed” period, basically eating as much or more than they need to keep their body from adapting to a low-calorie state)
- Muscle Loss: If you aren’t taking in new calories, your body is going to eventually start pulling from its natural stores to compensate. Some of this will be fat loss, yes, but some of it will also come from muscle, stripping you of strength—and lowering your fat loss ability as well because the more lean muscle you have, the more fat you burn!
- Rebound: Once you come out of a low-calorie regimen, you’re going to be craving all of those precious carbs/proteins/fats you’ve denied yourself and your body is going to be primed to hold on to anything you eat in case it goes through another period of severe caloric insufficiency. Any weight you’ve lost will be quickly replaced and it could be even harder to lose next time around, continuing the loss-and-rebound cycle ad nauseum.
- Systemic Damage: Low/no-calorie diets raise cortisol levels, a hormone directly linked to higher stress levels. Cortisol increases muscle loss by triggering protein breakdown. Blood circulation can be impaired. Your blood sugar levels becomes extremely out of whack, your libido plummets, and your digestive system loses a lot of the nutrients that keeps your gut healthy. High cortisol also is linked to lowered immune systems, making it likelier for you to fall ill.
So don’t be afraid of food. Don’t be afraid of fat. Don’t think that because a small calorie deficit will help you lose weight over time that a huge calorie deficit will work even better. Recognize that when you are aware of what you’re eating, how much, and why, it can actually be of great help in achieving your fitness goals. Starving yourself for drastic, quick weight loss is not only unhealthy, but it’s self-sabotaging and can cause long-term damage.
Have you tried to cut your calories to an unhealthy degree? How long were you able to maintain it? Did you, as most people do, see any losses (or “progress”) rebound the instant you started eating at normal levels again?