Why You're Not In A Calorie Deficit (Even Though You Think You Are)
Metabolism is a tricky subject.
It varies by the day and even by the hour, with many variables affecting it.
Even by tracking your nutrition and activity, there are factors that can push your calorie balance in the wrong direction even when you feel like you’re doing everything right.
But before we go into that, we first need to define what being in a deficit means and why you would want to be in one in the first place.
To clarify, in this article I’m not going to be referring to food quality or nutrient density. I’m strictly talking about calories, not macros, not vitamins and minerals or anything else.
No matter what type of food you’re eating, if you are in a calorie deficit you will lose weight. If you are in a calorie surplus you will gain weight.
If you combine this with resistance training then the weight you lose will be fat, and the weight you gain will be muscle.
The problem is that this “calories in calories out” balance is more difficult to decipher than it looks.
“Calories in” is the simpler of the two. As long as you accurately track your intake over the course of a day, you’ll have a pretty decent picture of this side of the equation. I say only pretty decent because food preparation and serving size can affect calorie counts. (I prefer ranges over strict number goals because of this variability.)
“Calories out” is where we get a little muddled. It is extremely difficult to even estimate how much we burn on a given day because there are so many factors that go into it. (How active we are, our current weight, what we did the day prior, how we slept, how stressed we are and so on.)
With that out of the way, I’ll now go into 3 ways that your calorie balance can be thrown out of whack and how it can make you feel like you’re in a deficit even though you aren’t.
The first error you want to correct is a tracking problem. If you have a calorie range goal, it is imperative that you correctly input your food.
Some easy to miss items include:
- Additions to coffee like milk, sugar and creams
- Sauces and dips
- Oils and butter used to grease pans
These items, while small, can add up quickly to your total calorie count. And it’s often easy to forget them.
Serving sizes are important to get right as well. Don’t underestimate just to artificially decrease your total. You’re only cheating yourself.
For those that don’t necessarily track their food by the meal but feel that they eat healthy, I warn about the affects of bingeing. One weekend worth of bad eating can throw off your average daily calories and undo all of your hard work during the week.
Moderation is key. I’m not for restricting yourself of any foods. Rather I tell clients to enjoy what they like in moderation as long as they stay within their calorie goals.
There are many hormonal and metabolic issues that can affect how many calories you actually burn. I’m referring to things like menopause, thyroid issues or anything similar.
If you believe any of these are holding you back, talk to your doctor about solutions. That’s outside of my scope.
But one major way that the average person can throw their metabolism off is to severely cut their calories.
It makes sense in theory to believe that you can lose weight faster if you cut your calories more drastically. We’re tempted by impatience and fast-tracking our results.
Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that.
There’s a reason why most people prescribe a rough deficit of 500 calories a day if you’re trying to lose weight.
Once you start going much further than that, your body sounds the alarm. Remember that our bodies don’t know that we want to lose fat. It sees this deficit as a threat to its life and will try to counteract your efforts.
Our bodies do this by moving the goalposts. Our metabolism slows down, our energy drops, and fat is preserved as a lifeline while muscle and bone density become expendable among other things. Your body does whatever it can to keep itself out of a calorie deficit.
Not only is this extremely unhealthy, it is counterproductive to losing fat. You’re essentially starving yourself.
So next time you think of going on a Kim Kardashian crash diet, run the other way.
THE BIG PICTURE
The easiest way to track your calorie balance is to look at both your weight and fat percentage on a weekly basis and make adjustments based on the changes.
Has your weight and fat increased over the course of the week? That means you were in a surplus and need to adjust accordingly.
Did you lose weight and fat? That means you were in a deficit.
Did you gain or maintain weight but lose fat? That means you put on lean muscle and lost fat. This is the most positive change you can have and the extra lean muscle will only boost your metabolism further.
Make changes based on evidence. Use the data from the previous week to shape your decisions for the next week.
Only by keeping diligent track of these important measures will you reach your goals and have a long-term template to maintaining them.
To your good health,
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