Do Calories Matter? (weight loss on a whole food lifestyle)
Hi folks! I want to talk about a touchy subject in the whole food, keto + paleo community. CALORIES!
Disclaimer: This post is being written by someone who is actively working to lose body fat, get fit and feel great. I feel like I’m accomplishing that, so I’m sharing. If you’re happy with your current health status and eating habits, this post isn’t for you.
Once upon a time I once was definitely in the calories don’t count camp. I thought that as long as I was eating unprocessed foods I could eat as much as I wanted.
In this post I will explain why when it comes down to the nitty gritty, having a sur plus of calories in your diet will make you gain weight. Why eating whole foods matters and why I don’t believe in tracking calories for the long run.
Before I get in to the science stuff, I want to give you the rundown of my personal experience, which while anecdotal, will always be my main source for learning. As always, I highly encourage all of you to be your own advocates and students of your body. Listen to it, it will tell you what it needs! I’m not a doctor, nutritionist or dietician. I’m a chef, a mom, a woman in her thirties with a history of obesity and autoimmune disease. I’m a woman who has worked my ass off to lose body fat and gain muscle, to feel better and to get healthy. I’m someone who has not had it easy, and I’m someone who decided to never give up. As long as it takes, I’m in it.
I have a history of overeating. I can admit that now. It took me a long time to see HOW MUCH FOOD I was consuming. My whole life, I would forget when I last ate, but not because it has been so long. I ate mindlessly. I would lie about eating food. It would graze all day and still eat meals too.
The big eye opener: my first Whole30 back in 2015. It had to overhaul my eating habits. Then I changed the way I ate, and since then it’s changed a few more times. In a nut shell, my body isn’t easily amused. Going paleo was a start, but it’s wasn’t enough for me to get the body I wanted. Going AIP really helped reduce inflammation. It’s crazy how much inflammation I was carrying around, and in that protocol, I did lose some weight. Started feeling a lot better. My autoimmune symptoms begaon to improve. I began to work out. Began lifting, spinning, hiking and Zumba. I gained a lot of muscle and my body changed; my thighs and butt leaned out, and bulked with muscle. I began to see definition in my arms. It’s been exciting and fun and empowering…. But months went by and that stubborn belly fat would not budge. Went lower carb, higher carb. More cardio. Less cardio. I racked my brain trying to think what I was doing wrong.
Got my hormones tested. Found those were out of whack. So I went keto to help balance them out. First I lost water weight… then I lost some body fat. Then the usual 4-5lb fluctuation began again, although my hormones were stabilizing, I felt great and I had energy… soooo what the actual fuck?? (That’s exactly what I thought to myself btw).
So I did what I always do when I need to clean up my diet and/or find out what’s going on… I did a Whole30! A keto version of the program, which I know is not condoned by the program itself. But when you’re on your 5th round…. ya know…. All the rules applied to a low carb, high fat, paleo template. No fat bombs, no treats.
There I found it… the hidden calories… the spoonful of nut butter, the unnecessary fat bombs… the overeating. I was doing again, but this time with small amounts of fat. But a few extra servings of fat a day add up to a whole lotta calories… So I kicked the fat bombs, I quit the nut butter (for inflammatory reasons too). I learned to focus on avoiding starches, getting enough protein and but being mindful with my dietary fat.
I do not track my macros or calories. But I do watch my portions. If I am going to load up my plate I eat extra veggies or protein. The only time I am liberal with my fat is when I’m fasting with butter coffee. What I have found is a diet that organically is lower in calories than I have eaten before. I am enjoying my food, I am satisfied, and I feel like for the first time in my life I don’t have to stress about when or what I am eating next. I don’t have anxiety about not having food or feeling like I have to eat when I am not hungry. I have cued into my bodies hunger cues and I’m truly listening. I realized how often I would eat when I wasn’t really hungry, just because it was “time to eat.” It has been freeing. I have found my food freedom.
So I am writing this post to break down what I have learned, with the science stuff to back it up… and a little let’s keep our heads and hearts healthy in the process thrown in.
Let’s Be Honest… Calories Matter… But Our Caloric Needs Are Extremely Unique
Have you have been honest with yourself. Are you overeating? I think people like to tip toe around the subject because caring TOO much can lead to unhealthy food issues and even disordered eating. Which I don’t want to cause, this is where I believe re-sets come in handy. I don’t think keto, counting calories or ANY kind of restricted, weight loss protocol will work unless you’ve kicked unhealthy habits. Enter, RE-SETS (Whole30’s). I do them a few times a year! You really get to know what your baseline is. How you feel when you eat the cleanest…. And how to cue in to your body’s natural hunger cues. Forget the clock, when does your tummy tell you to eat!
There is a lot of science to back up the fact that if folks consume a surplus of calories a day they will gain weight. We all burn calories on a daily basis, even if we just stay in bed all day, our bodies use energy to breathe, to stay alive. This is your BASE METABOLIC RATE. Then there is NEAT; non-exercise activity thermogenesis is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. It ranges from the energy expended walking to work, typing, performing yard work, undertaking agricultural tasks and fidgeting (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12468415).
Most calorie calculators tell you your base metabolic rate based on your height and weight, then they ask you how active you are, that’s when they calculate your NEAT. This is the kicker though; our NEAT is different for everyone. Do you take the stairs or the elevator? Do you walk your dogs or have a cat? There are a million variations in how many calories your body expends in a day. How much do you work out? Is your job sedentary or are you on your feet all day… etc.
Theoretically, your NEAT would organically increase as your calorie intake does… but that’s not always the case. Point is, if you move more, even if it’s just fidgeting a lot, you burn more. Pretty basic right.
What You Eat Matters
This study showed that whole foods take more calories to chew and digest, therefore by eating them you’re body as a result has less calories to burn. Not that food itself in necessarily lower in calories, it just takes more calories to eat it. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17827047) Not just to eat it… but to prepare it… anyone else work up a sweat in the kitchen? I know I do! Anywho… I think this is where the notion of “whole food calories aren’t the same”… technically they are… but you also burn more calories preparing, chewing and digesting that food!
While yes, there are folks that for science, have lived off of 1800 calories of Twinkies for a month to prove that even eating garbage, a calorie deficit will result in weight loss and improvement in health markers…. One: GROSS. Two: I doubt that said scientist disclosed things like energy levels, digestive discomfort (read: diarrhea), sleep and other important marker of health.
I KNOW that eating whole foods nourishes our body on a cellular level and can help ward off and even reverse disease. I have experienced this first hand. So, eat real food.
How Come Some Folks Seem To Be Able To Eat Whatever They Want?
I don’t know about you, but have been guilty of comparison… which by the way is the thief of happiness, so quit that shit. But yes, I USED TO scroll through my feed, reading stories of folks who lost 75lbs (or more) in just a year. The “I went paleo and the weight melted off” testimonies… I would be jealous. I would wish I was seeing the same results. I would look at the pictures of these super fit women, these fitness spokespersons and their strength and abs and then be shocked that they would follow up their gym session with burgers and fries, or drink wine or eat pizza or smash giant, loaded sweet potatoes on the daily. I used to think…. How come I eat paleo and workout and don’t look like that?
WELP! The answer is CALORIES. Between their BMR (base metabolic rate) and NEAT these folks are expending those calories (read: energy). Especially those fitness gurus, their job is to workout. Don’t think it’s not possible to burn 5,000 calories a day? My husband is proof. He gets in over 10,000 steps at work daily, workouts three times a week doing calisthenics and then does long distance cycling 3-4 times a week. He expends SO MUCH ENERGY, it’s hard for him to keep up. He has to eat A LOT. He eats ice cream every day. But before he began cycling… well he carried around an extra 17lbs. Upping his energy expenditure, he lost 17lbs in 4 months.
This is us, Hi! Top photo was December 2015, bottom photo June 2017.
Like my husband, a lot of health and fitness role models out there can eat a lot more than you and I, and I consider myself very active… but I sure as hell don’t workout 2 hours a day. Some folks wake up, go for a jog or do yoga, walk their dogs, then head to work, and then go to the gym and sometime before bed squeeze in a tabata… like who works out that much? Not me. Not even close. Some people MOVE all day long. Delivery men, nurses, teachers, fitness instructors etc. Some folks sit all day, and then go move for an hour or two in the day.
SO MANY FREAKING VARIABLES.
Now let’s throw this jolly ol’ wrench in the system:
…the 3500-kcal rule predicts that a person who increases daily energy expenditure by 100 kcal by walking 1 mile (1.6 km) per day will lose more than 50 lb (22.7 kg) over a period of 5 years, the true weight loss is only about 10 lb (4.5 kg), assuming no compensatory increase in caloric intake, because changes in mass concomitantly alter the energy requirements of the body.”https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23363498
That’s right, as we workout, move and expend more energy our caloric needs change, and as our body changes, our caloric needs change.
SO HOW THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO EAT HEALTHY, NOT OVEREAT, WORKOUT ENOUGH AND FIND WORLD PEACE WHILE I’M AT IT BECAUSE IT SEEMS LIKE YOU ARE ASKING TO MUCH DAMN IT?!?!
Step one: Take a close look at your eating habits. Are you over eating? Mindlessly snacking? Too many non-real food items making their way into your mouth? Do a re-set… I’m partial to the Whole30 program, obviously.
Step two: After you’ve done a re-set and you’ve kicked sugar and are done mindlessly eating potato chips, it’s time to get idea of how many calories your body needs to thrive, including enough fuel for your activity level. I like this calculator: https://keto-calculator.ankerl.com/
To be really accurate, find out your body fat percentage, because let’s be honest: you don’t want to lose weight, you want to lose fat. http://www.healthcentral.com/cholesterol/home-body-fat-test-2774-143.html#healthyamount*
Step three: Track your calorie expenditure and intake for 2-3 weeks. Measure your food. Take note. Try and find ways to remember what these portions looks like (i.e. 4 ounces of protein might be the same size as the palm of your hand). Work on only eating when you feel hungry. Forget the clock or conventional meal times. Use your intuition. Weight yourslef once a month. Take body measurments, take selfies. The scale might not move, but your body fat percentage can change.
THIS IS WHAT THE KETO CALORIE CALCULATOR RECCOMENDS BASED ON MY INFO:
*From the calorie calculator with my body fat percentage and energy expenditure, it tells me I need about 1800 calories a day, some days I will not eat that much, that’s okay. Don’t eat when you’re not hungry. Alternately, the days I work out, or the day after I eat more. That 1800 isn’t some magical number. It’s a suggestion. Somedays might be 1500 calories days, some days might be 2100…. THINK BIGGER PICTURE. Think sustainable changes.
Step four: You and your body are one. You’ve really gotten the hang of portion sizes and what you need to feel satisfied. You have enough energy for your activity level and feel really good. Stop tracking. You don’t need to obsess over every bite. Once you find a grove, the natural ebb and flow of your eating habits you will see that it’s not about the meal or the day, you will see that in the larger picture, as long as you’re not chronically overeating, you fuel your body with whole foods and you stay active you will reach your goals.
Step five: Don’t get too cocky. Everyone needs a reminder every now and then. IF you feel like you’re falling back into negative habits, do another Whole30 or track for a day or two to make sure you’re memory of what a portion looks like is actually accurate.
BE HAPPY. LIVE YOUR LIFE. CONNECT WITH HUMANS. BE KIND. KNOW YOUR SELF WORTH DOES NOT LIE IN YOUR APPEARANCE, BUT YOU ARE WORTH THE WORK AND DEDICATION IT TAKES TO BE FIT, FULL OF ENERGY AND THRIVING.