Tuesday, 14 August 2012

How many calories is the right number of calories? (part 2)

So following on from the last epic blog post where the seemingly simple task of establishing how many calories should be consumed in a day turned into the longest post on this blog so far, we probably should now move on to look at how that information is used in conjunction with personal weight loss or fitness goals. (The first part of this post can be found here How-many-calories-is-right-number-of calories)
Some of what follows will appear to be "stating the bleedin' obvious" to some of you, but you would be amazed with the number of people I have met this year who's approach to losing weight or eating to provide fuel for sport is based on nothing more thought through than a vague notion to either just "eat less" or "eat more, but not carbs, because carbs make you fat" I have to admit that earlier this year I probably fell into both of these categories at different times based on whether it was when I simply wanted to lose weight or when I started to decide to get serious about getting fit. 

I think it's fair to say that whilst I made progress with both losing weight and getting fit again, I didn't really think about whether losing weight quickly would make the process of getting seriously fit more difficult or whether having no real strategy for eating to provide fuel for training would actually be holding me back or even causing a loss of lean body mass (muscle) On reflection I think at different times one or more of these things was happening, which undoubtedly made the road to increased fitness and lower weight more difficult than it needed to be. Hopefully the nutrition focused posts on this blog will help others to formulate a thought through approach to weight loss, increased fitness or both.   

So, you have established your maintenance level of required caloric intake per day using the guidelines in the previous post or one of the other available formula's, the next step is to adjust your calories according to your primary goal. The principles and calculations of calorie balance are simple: To keep your weight at its current level, you should remain at your daily calorie maintenance level. To lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit by reducing your calories slightly below your maintenance level (or keeping your calories the same and increasing your activity above your current level). To gain weight you need to increase your calories above your maintenance level. The only difference between weight gain programs and weight loss programs is the total number of calories required. See I said we would be stating the obvious!

A negative calorie balance is essential to lose body fat, note that we are referring to fat loss, not weight loss. Fat loss is what we want to achieve not muscle loss!

Calories not only count, they are the bottom line when it comes to losing fat. If you are eating more calories than you use or burn, you simply will not lose any fat, no matter what type of foods or food combinations you eat. Some foods do get stored as fat more easily than others, but always bear in mind that too much of anything, even "healthy food," will get stored as fat. You must be in a calorie deficit to burn fat. This will force your body to use stored body fat to make up for the energy deficit. There are approximately 3500 calories in a pound of stored body fat. If you create a 3500-calorie deficit in a week through diet, exercise or a combination of both, you will lose one pound. If you create a 7000 calories deficit in a week you will lose two pounds. The calorie deficit can be created through diet, exercise or preferably, with a combination of both. Because we already factored in the exercise deficit by using an activity multiplier when we calculated our maintenance calorie level, the deficit we are concerned with here is the dietary deficit.

Reducing calorie intake, How low is too low?

Cutting calories too much slows down the metabolic rate, decreases thyroid output and causes loss of lean body mass (muscle), which for anybody who is losing weight as part of a sports training programme is probably not going to be a good thing. So the question is how much of a deficit do you need? There appears to be a specific cutoff or threshold where further reductions in calories will have detrimental effects. The most common guideline for calorie reduction for fat loss is to reduce your calories by at least 500, but no more than 1000 below your maintenance level. For some,   lighter people, 1000 calories may be too much of a reduction. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that calorie levels never drop below 1200 calories per day for women or 1800 per day for men. Even these calorie levels are extremely low.

A alternative way to determine the safe calorie deficit would be to account for  body weight or calculated  maintenance calorie levels and Reduce consumed calories by perhaps 15-20% below maintenance could be a good place to start. A larger reduction may be necessary in some cases, but the best approach would be to keep the calorie deficit through diet small while increasing activity levels.

Example  A:
Your weight is 120 lbs.
Your maintenance calorie level is 2033 calories
Your calorie deficit to lose weight is 500 calories
Your optimal caloric intake for weight loss is 2033 - 500 = 1533 calories

Example  B:
Your calorie deficit to lose weight is 20% of calculated calorie maintenance level  (.20% X 2033 = 406 calories)
Your optimal caloric intake for weight loss = 1627 calories

Take care when reducing, or increasing, your calorie intake and try to remember to do it gradually

After calculating your own total daily energy expenditure and adjusting it according to your goal, if the amount is substantially higher or lower than your current intake, then you may want to consider adjusting your calories gradually. For example, if your determine that your optimal caloric intake is 1900 calories per day, but you have only been eating 900 calories per day, your metabolism may be sluggish. An immediate jump to 1900 calories per day might actually cause a fat gain because your body has adapted to a lower caloric intake and the sudden jump up would create a surplus. The best approach would be to gradually increase your calories from 900 to 1900 over a period of a few weeks to allow your metabolism to speed up and acclimatize.

What do you do if you do go to the trouble of working out your optimal calorie intake based on BMR and all of the other stuff in this and the last blog post, and you find you should be eating more than you currently are? Don't be afraid to eat more, if the calculations say you should eat more!

Speaking from personal experience I can honestly say that it is possible to continue to lose fat and eat the required number of calories to keep your body fit and healthy. You may find that you train harder because you have more energy and you may find that you become stronger because your body won't be eating into your muscle reserves, which will in turn allow you to train harder and the overall result will be a reduction in the weight of fat in your body.

Don't be tempted to continue eating to few calories, if you do, chances are you will be lacking in energy to exercise properly and any reduction in weight will probably be a reduction in the weight of your muscle mass which can't be a good thing can it?   

Of course if the calculations say you are eating to much, then I'm afraid there are only really three courses of action available;

  • Eat less, down to the calculated level
  • Exercise more and burn more calories until you reach the calculated level, or;
  • Eat less and do more exercise to bring net calorie consumption down to the calculated level.  

You will have to track progress closely to make sure that the calculated calorie target is the proper level for you. You will know if you’re at the correct level of calories by keeping track of your caloric intake, your body weight, and your body size (try monitoring waist, chest and neck size) . If you don't see the results you expect, then you can adjust your caloric intake and exercise levels accordingly. The bottom line is that it’s not effective to reduce calories to very low levels in order to lose fat. In fact, the more calories you consume the better, as long as a deficit is created through diet and exercise. The best approach is to reduce calories only slightly and raise your daily calorie expenditure by increasing your frequency, duration and or intensity of exercise.

The content of this post and the previous post are based on my experiences over the last eight months and research I have done over that period. I have shared them in the hope that the content will help to inform other peoples weight loss and nutrition for training strategies, however they should not be the only point of reference for somebody looking to inform their own weight loss programme. If you are in any doubt about what is right for you, please seek professional help and guidance, it will save you time and get you better results in the long run than an uninformed or misinformed nutrition strategy. 

As always thanks for taking the time to read more of the random ramblings of the Pixie and I hope you will be able to pop back again some time in the future.

Dha weles diwettha


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