Addressing the Issue: Fat Loss and Calorie Counting

Its a pretty common goal of many people seeking personal training. Lose weight. I hear this statement at least once every week from someone new. It’s not uncommon for many of us to feel like we should shed a few pounds. Maybe you want to get ready for beach season or fit into an old pair of jeans. Perhaps you want to impress your significant other with a 6 pack or hourglass shape. What do we do? We hit the gym and eat grass. We’ve all heard it before. Exercise and diet to lose weight. Well, here’s the issue.

I must first point out that I really dislike the term weight loss. When the average person says “I want to lose weight”, I cringe. That to me means they justify results by looking at the scale and that’s wrong. If I put someone on a strength program, they will build muscle and gain mass. The additional muscle requires more fuel to function meaning fat stores are utilized. Now, does this reflect on the scale? Typically not how the client would like. Let’s be clear, it’s fat loss. If after a month you hop on the scale and get upset, I urge you to consider this possibility. What if you actually put on some muscle and burned some fat? Possible? Of course! That’s more likely the case! To be clear, FAT loss is the goal, NOT weight loss.

When many people consider how to lose fat mass, it has become pretty stereotypical to say things like “just hop on a treadmill for a bit” or “cut back on your calories a little”. Again, it goes back to what people have either seen on TV or read online that influences their perception of weight loss. A very common trend is counting calories. This is the most common method of quantifying a plan to lose weight through diet for the majority of the population. But is it really that effective? The answer can be described as two-fold.

First off, a calorie is a unit of measure. A single calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of water by 1 degree Celsius. Calories in equals Calories out. Right? That’s what people tend to agree to. It would make sense on paper. The amount of energy put into your body must be used to be expended. If not enough energy was utilized, it would be stored until needed. The fact is, Calories in and Calories out is simple physics. We cannot argue that. However, I urge you to consider this. Is every Calorie equal? For example, would you consume 500 Calories of pasta before going for a workout or 500 Calories of chicken? It is in that example lies the conflict. Yes, the physics of Calories is correct, but that is on the assumption that every Calorie is equal to another. What I mean by this is to take into consideration another factor called the Thermic Effect of Food. This put simply means that the food you consume requires energy for it to be processed. Some foods, such as proteins, require more energy to process. Other foods, such as carbohydrates, require less energy for processing. It’s pretty neat to think that the calories you consume are actually used to process the calories you just consumed.

So what does this mean for the average person attempting to lose fat mass? It means DO NOT count calories, but instead consider what TYPE of calories you are consuming. Food products such as simple sugars require very little energy for processing meaning you have to utilize the energy for it to be burned. Now, is the Thermic Effect of Food going to shed all your fat mass for you? No. Not on it’s own. Like any effective fat loss program, a combination of improved nutrition and an effective strength plans will give you your best shot. If you tend to have a higher Basal Metabolic Rate, that’s a plus as well (for all you lucky genetics out there). A well planned diet with appropriate food balances is more beneficial than one with forcibly starved calories.

I strongly support that the human body is extremely efficient. If you are hungry, you know there is a clear cut reason. If one decides to cut calories, yes, you will lose sufficient weight, for now… but at a point your body gets smart. It realizes that you are starving and require energy to survive. What does it do? It retains as much energy as possible by slowing down your metabolism and decreasing function, similar to a power saver mode on your computer. Without enough juice, you can’t function properly and are forced to survive with the minimum.

My point is this. A) Consider what you educate yourself with and dig a little deeper. And B) DO NOT COUNT CALORIES! Unless you are an elite performer and have a plan where Calorie counting is being used to peak, then disregard what I am saying. Calorie counting CAN be effective, but only to a certain group of people, usually athletes who have experience and most times a dietitian. But for everyone else, consider WHAT calories you are consuming, not HOW many. Save the math for your accountant.