Off the bat, I should say that I’m actually a fan of eating less. I’m on record as saying that my goal is to figure out how few calories I can eat and still thrive. Still, eating less isn’t always the magic bullet people will hope it will be. There are many ways that eating less can go wrong.
For weight loss, the advice to “eat less, exercise more” often doesn’t work like it “should” on paper. The weight-loss diet industry thrives on repeat customers who struggle to lose weight and keep it off. Dutifully following this strategy has led many people down the road to frustration and dejection, as they blame themselves for their failure to successfully lose weight. This is despite their best efforts to eat less.
From a health perspective, eating less is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, caloric restriction may promote longevity. It certainly does in many animal models. Human evidence is still mixed, but I’m betting that the same is true for us.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21677272/‘>2 It tries to tightly ration body fat in case you’re facing a prolonged food shortage.
Let’s back up. The “energy out” side of the energy balance equation comprises several factors:
- Basal metabolic rate – the energy your body expends in the everyday functions of being alive (breathing, circulation, generating new cells, etc.)https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S155041311830130X‘>4 It’s not so great when it comes to weight loss.
Moreover, the body responds to caloric restriction by dialing back activity. “Non-exercise activity thermogenesis,” or NEAT, is the term for the energy you expend through spontaneous movements like tapping your feet or nodding your head along to music. NEAT can vary up to 2000 calories per day between individuals.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17197279/’>6 and when they are dieticians.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21178922/‘>8 Another small study showed that individuals who were struggling to lose weight underreported their caloric intake by 47 percent and overestimated energy expended by 51 percent, on average.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5491979/‘>10)
Even if you’re diligently weighing and tracking your food, you’ll probably be off through no fault of your own. The FDA allows a margin of error of up to 20 percent for calories reported on food labels.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20102837/‘>12 https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/82/11/3647/2865985‘>14 In fact, it drops more than would be predicted by body composition alone.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3296868/‘>16 loss of libido, and infertility.https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/91/8/3232/2656790‘>18 That said, you can definitely have too much of a good thing. You don’t want to restrict calories to the point where you start experiencing symptoms of hypothyroid such as feeling cold all the time, unexplained weight gain, or fatigue.
When It’s Stressful
I’ve said it a million times: stress is the enemy of health and weight loss. As with so many things in life, calorie restriction can be an adaptive (hormetic) or maladaptive stressor. It all depends on how it’s applied and how your body reacts.
Restricting calories increases cortisol, aka “the stress hormone.”https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5813183/‘>20—and who subsequently struggle to eat enough. If they aren’t mindful, they can easily under-eat to the point they are getting enough nutrients.
If you suspect you might be under-eating, use an app like Cronometer to track your food for a few days. Make sure you are checking the nutritional boxes you need to stay healthy.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18589032/‘>22 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23446962/‘>24 Your calorie deficit should come from reducing fat and/or carbs, depending on your current diet.
What about Metabolic Damage?
Dieting forums are filled with dire warnings against dieting so long or so hard that you go into “starvation mode” and create permanent “metabolic damage.”
You might be familiar with the highly publicized Biggest Loser study, which followed contestants from the televised weight loss competition.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6694559/‘>26 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22535969/‘>28
Whether this constitutes permanent metabolic damage is a hotly debated topic. A recent paper called the notion into question. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15466943/
‘>30. It helps keep your metabolic rate up by protecting energy-guzzling muscles and organs. Protein also has a higher thermic effect than fat or carbs, further contributing to metabolic rate.
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Yesterday, I explained the potential benefits and drawbacks of intermittent fasting for athletes. Maybe yesterday’s post intrigued you. Maybe you’re curious about this whole intermittent fasting thing but don’t want to sacrifice your performance in the gym or on the field.
What are my specific recommendations for athletes who wish to explore intermittent fasting? I’ve got twelve…plus some details about my own fasting and workout routine.
1) Use Restricted Eating Windows Over All-day Fasts
Athletes who want to lean out or maintain strength and performance while lowering body weight might have more success with shortened eating windows than with all day fasts or “one meal a day.” Fast for 12-16 hours, train, and break the fast. Then have 8-12 hours to eat. This will give you a nice block of almost pure fat-burning with enough of an eating window to get the calories you need to grow and maintain muscle and to recover from your training.
2) Small Amount Of Protein Pre-workout May Help
Having a small bit of protein (20 grams whey or maybe 10 grams BCAAs) can help if truly fasted workouts are too hard.
3) Fasted Walks In the Mornings
Whether you skip breakfast or dinner, you’ll have a block of time in the mornings before eating anything. That’s when fat-burning will be upregulated, and brisk fasted walking is a nice way to enhance it.
4) Light Cardio After a Fasted Lifting Session
A heavy lifting session will get free fatty acids liberated from your adipose tissue, particularly if you’re fasted. Doing some very light cardio after your weights should in theory help you utilize all that mobilized adipose tissue. Go for a 20-minute walk, do ten minutes on the bike, or something similar.
5) “Train Fasted, Race Fed”
This is a more intense version of “train low-carb, race high-carb,” a popular and well-researched method of enhancing fat adaptation and increasing fuel efficiency in endurance athletes. Training in a fasted state “forces” the athlete to burn stored fat because, well, there isn’t a whole lot of carbohydrate available. Plus, fasting necessarily increases the circulation of free fatty acids, which can be burned for fuel. This applies to everyone, not just people “racing.” The trick is to train in a fasted state (if you find it helps) and compete (whether it’s CrossFit games, a basketball game, a lifting competition, etc.) in a fed state—as long as it seems to improve your performance.
6) Most Of the Time, Break the Fast Shortly After the Workout
If you’re skipping dinner and eating breakfast, try morning workouts. If you’re skipping breakfast and eating lunch, try afternoon workouts.
7) Every So Often, Continue the Fast After a Workout
This enhances secretion of growth hormone, which fasting already elevates. Don’t make this an every-workout habit, though. Diminishing returns and all.
8) Every Athlete Can Probably Benefit From the Occasional Longer Fast (24 hours+)
This will normalize inflammation, boost growth hormone, and upregulate autophagy, giving you all the necessary co-factors for rest and recovery. Tissues will heal, joints will recover. Do nothing more on these days than easy movement (walks, hikes, bike rides, swims). Time this fast away from competition because your performance may suffer. Do these once a week or every other week.
9) If You Have Joint Problems (or Want To Avoid Them), Take Collagen or Drink Bone Broth Before a Fasted Workout
Fifteen grams of pre-workout collagen or gelatin with a few hundred milligrams of vitamin C has been shown to improve collagen synthesis in connective tissue, and collagen shouldn’t disrupt the fast too much.
10) More Isn’t Better
I see this a lot, especially with endurance athletes who get into intermittent fasting. They start eating breakfast later and see their times drop and their body fat disappear. They feel lighter on their feet, faster, just better all around. So they push breakfast even later and maintain the benefits, even building on them. Pretty soon they’re skipping lunch, and their performance drops off a cliff. When trying to use fasting to improve athletic performance, less is more generally speaking.
11) Realize That Exercise and Fasting Are Additive
For the average couch potato to get the benefits of fasting, he or she might need to go 16 hours without food. The couch potato isn’t liberating body fat through training. The couch potato isn’t getting into ketosis through physical activity. The couch potato isn’t increasing mitochondrial density—the power plants of the cells which actually process fuel—with exercise. The athlete is doing all those things. For the athlete, many of the benefits of fasting will appear with smaller fasting windows.
12) Consider Sleeping Low
“Sleeping low” is an alternative to full-on fasting that actually seems to work well. This is how you do it:
- Afternoon workout. This should be something intense that depletes glycogen—sprinting, metabolic conditioning, high volume strength training, high intensity endurance workouts.
- Eat protein and fat at dinner, no carbs. You’re not refilling your glycogen. You’re reveling in your lack of glycogen.
- Wake up and do low-intensity cardio (walking, cycling, hiking, swimming) before breakfast. Eat carbs at breakfast.
When a group of triathletes followed this protocol, both their submaximal efficiency and supramaximal capacity. High submaximal efficiency means you get more power out of each stroke/pedal/step with less energy required. Your “easy pace” becomes faster and more powerful. High supramaximal capacity means you can last longer at your maximum power output.
It’s likely that full-on fasting could be integrated into this protocol. Maybe with a compressed eating window leading up to the afternoon workout.
A Few Words About My Routine:
A few people have asked, so I’ll give an overview of how I approach this topic for myself:
Every day, I do time-restricted feeding. This isn’t a formal declaration I make with myself every day. It’s not really a schedule. It just happens naturally. I wake up and most days I’m not very hungry for anything but a cup of coffee, so I “skip” breakfast and eat my first meal around one in the afternoon following a workout.
Most of my workouts are performed in a fasted state, and I usually keep fasting after the workout for a few hours. I’ll extend that fast after the workout to really take advantage of the increased secretion of growth hormone. I’m not really trying to “get big” or anything, I’m more interested in maintaining body comp and function and increasing longevity. Natural pulses in growth hormone help with that.
Before most workouts, I’ll do some Collagen Fuel. This doesn’t seem to impair my fast and it helps me keep my joints working well—an important part of aging.
Half an hour before my weekly Ultimate Frisbee game, I’ll also include a little Primal Fuel (my whey isolate powder). This just helps me perform better. I’m not going to lose. (By the way, I’ll talk more about protein types for different functions in an upcoming post.)
That’s it for today, folks. Have you tried any of these fasting workout tips? Have they worked? Do you have any more to add? Let us know down below!
Marquet LA, Brisswalter J, Louis J, et al. Enhanced Endurance Performance by Periodization of Carbohydrate Intake: “Sleep Low” Strategy. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016;48(4):663-72.
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To the average person, the idea of elite athletes skipping meals sounds like pure madness. Athletes are fine-tuned, well-oiled machines. Machines need fuel. You don’t see race car drivers running on empty to “promote training adaptations” in their vehicles. No, high performance requires high energy reserves.
Athletes need to eat, and eat well. Right?
But humans aren’t machines. We’re biological. The car doesn’t respond to training stress, but we do. We adapt, grow, recover, and build new capabilities in response to the stress we endure. You expose yourself to a ton of stress, recover from that stress, and end up stronger/fitter/faster on net. That’s training. And sometimes, high stress is exactly what we need to progress—a few heavy sets of squats, some rounds on the Airdyne, a killer CrossFit workout—as long as you can recover from it. A major modulator of our stress is the amount of food we have coming in. At least in theory, exercising in a fasted state could provoke a powerful adaptive response that athletes would find helpful.
So, does it stack up? What exactly can intermittent fasting offer athletes?
Benefits Of Fasting For Athletes
Increases In Growth Hormone
Growth hormone helps spur, well, growth. It improves immune function. It builds muscle, bone, and cartilage. Kids are swimming in the stuff, and they heal like Wolverine. Older adults who inject it enjoy improved wound healing and workout recovery. That’s why it’s a banned substance in professional athletics, and it’s why natural ways to augment growth hormone secretion can be very helpful to athletes of all stripes.
Fasting increases growth hormone, most likely as a way to limit harmful tissue degeneration and preserve muscle; so does exercise. Once or twice a week, I like to fast after workouts to extend and expand the GH release. That’s a slightly more extreme version of post-workout carb abstention, but it’s the same idea: withholding food and forcing your body to adapt. This increases growth hormone (important for fat burning and cellular repair) and speeds up fat adaptation.
Improvement Of Metabolic Flexibility
In experienced male lifters (5-year history of 3-5 days/week training upper and lower body, drawn from advertisements placed in bodybuilding gyms), fasting for 16 hours a day and eating for 8 increased metabolic flexibility.
Metabolic flexibility is the ease with which a person is able to switch between sources of energy—from carbs to fat and back again. For the average person interested in health and longevity, maintaining metabolic flexibility is an important way to live a healthy life. For an athlete interested in performance, health, and longevity, metabolic flexibility is absolutely essential.
If you’re metabolically flexible, you can burn fat for longer before switching over to carbs. You can burn carbs when you actually need them, right away. And afterwards, you can switch back into passive fat-burning mode to keep unnecessary carb cravings and insulin low and improve recovery.
Reduction Of Inflammation
To attain the training effect, an athlete must incur a big blast of inflammation (from the exercise) and then recover from that inflammation. Blunting the initial inflammatory response with drugs and even mega-doses of vitamins will impair the training effect. You can also reduce the training effect by training too soon after a workout, thereby stacking inflammation.
You need the inflammation, but you also need the inflammation to subside. Both sides of the coin matter. What fasting does is improve your natural ability to dampen inflammation. You get the big inflammatory response of a tough workout.
This is where a fasted workout can really shine. When you’re fasted, you’re in a state of very low inflammation. And then you introduce the workout, and inflammation spikes. It’s a big response, a heightened response—and you must adapt to it. Oscillating between fasting, training, and feeding lets you hit those extremes, those margins where peak performance occurs.
Maintenance Of Energy Expenditure
There’s something revitalizing about going without food for a decent period of time and then feasting. You could spend the week restricting calories each day or use fasting to arrive at the same weekly caloric load and the effects will be different. Chronic calorie restriction enervates. Intermittent calorie restriction peppered with intermittent feasting energizes.
For an athlete, chronic calorie restriction spells doom. They need energy. They need to be able to expend energy when they need it. Luckily, studies show that intermittent fasting is one way to “reduce calories” without reducing energy expenditure. Perhaps the main reason is that IF doesn’t necessarily lower calories; it just changes when you get them. In the bodybuilder study, the athletes in both the fasting and the control groups ate about the same number of calories. But only the fasting group lost a lot of body fat, and they did this without suffering a drop in energy expenditure. Pretty cool stuff.
That said, you can overdo it. Too much fasting for too long will depress energy expenditure, as would happen with any kind of chronic calorie reduction. It’s just that fasting seems to stave off the drop in energy longer than other forms of “dieting,” especially if you maintain your calorie intake.
Concerns About Fasting For Athletes
May Reduce Testosterone
In the bodybuilder study, the group with the 8-hour eating window experienced a drop in testosterone. As T is essential for muscle protein synthesis, performance, strength, and general vitality, this could be problematic for athletes (particularly male ones). Despite the drop in testosterone, though, they still gained lean mass, lost fat, and got stronger—so it may not be practically relevant.
May Be Hard To Get Enough Calories To Gain Muscle or Recover
Athletes do need more fuel than the average person. A big draw of fasting for weight loss is that it makes it easier to reduce calories by erecting illusionary barriers that we nonetheless adhere to. If you only have an 8-hour eating window, you can’t eat outside of it. If you’re “fasting today,” you simply can’t eat. It makes things really simple for people who otherwise have trouble limiting food intake.
The flip-side is that it can make eating enough calories difficult, especially for athletes who do need more fuel than the average person. In a recent study, lifters who ate inside a 4-hour eating window had a 650 calorie daily deficit, lost a little bit of body fat but failed to gain any lean mass, while the control group—who ate more calories and protein—did gain lean mass. The fasting group simply wasn’t able to eat enough food or protein. Despite that, the 4-hour eating window group still gained upper and lower body strength, and they didn’t lose muscle mass. I suspect they could have gotten great results with a few hundred more calories of protein.
As is the case with every study that attempts to collate the individual experiences and results of hundreds of humans into “trends” and “averages,” there’s a wide variety of personal responses to fasting among athletes. The name of the game is experimentation—you have to see what works for you. This week I’ll give some specific recommendations for specific types of athletes, as well as my own experiences utilizing fasting in the pursuit of better physical performance.
For now, though, how has fasting worked for you and your athletic pursuits? Does it seem to help or hinder?
Moro, T., Tinsley, G., Bianco, A., Marcolin, G., Pacelli, Q.F., Battaglia, G., … & Paoli, A. (2016). Effects of eight weeks of time-restricted feeding (16/8) on basal metabolism, maximal strength, body composition, inflammation, and cardiovascular risk factors in resistance-trained males.J ournal of translational medicine, 14(1), 290.
Tinsley, G.M., Forsse, J.S., Butler, N.K., Paoli, A., Bane, A.A., La Bounty, P.M., … & Grandjean, P.W. (2017). Time-restricted feeding in young men performing resistance training: A randomized controlled trial. European journal of sport science, 17(2), 200-7.
The post Intermittent Fasting For Athletes: Benefits and Concerns appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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Last week, I explored the impact of all the various foods, beverages, and food-like substances people consume while fasting—and hoping to maintain a functionally fasted state in the post, “The Definitive Guide To What Breaks a Fast.” Does MCT oil break the fast? What about coffee, tea, or bone broth?
There were more than a dozen, and I even did a follow-up. Today I’m going to discuss whether commonly-consumed supplements break the fast.
Fish oil is pure fat. If you’re taking the average supplemental dose of 1-2 grams of fish oil, it’s not a problem. That’s not even a teaspoon. It’s about 9-18 calories.
You may burn slightly less fat than you would otherwise, but in the grand scheme of things, a few grams of fish oil won’t break the fast.
Cod Liver Oil
Cod liver oil is fish oil with extra vitamin D and vitamin A. As long as you keep the doses low enough, cod liver oil won’t break the fast.
Multivitamins do not break a fast. They are usually non-caloric. However, not all of their components will be absorbed very well on an empty stomach, so keep that in mind.
If you’re still not on board, note that in the older studies with really overweight people who fasted for upwards of a year straight, they usually supplemented with a multivitamin.
A popular one I’ve seen around—Alive, made from kale and raspberries—has just 2 grams of carbs per dosing. It’s not ideal, but it’s not a deal breaker—or a fast-breaker.
Gummy vitamins have the potential to be about 5-6 grams of sugar, a gram of protein (from gelatin), and a gram of fat (if including omega-3s) per serving, so they’d arguably break the fast. Plus, they taste like candy and are likely to stimulate cravings and make fasting harder.
Gummy vitamins break the fast.
Potassium is non-caloric and does not break the fast. In fact, it can help you handle the fast better by replenishing electrolytes.
Potassium doesn’t break the fast.
Creatine contains no calories and has no effect on insulin secretion (or glucose in the absence of calories).
Creatine does not break the fast.
Protein powder provokes an insulin response, which opposes autophagy, which means you’re breaking your fast. Plus, protein powder contains calories.
I’m going to say “yes, protein powder breaks the fast.”
If you’re strict and technical, then yes, collagen breaks a fast. There’s evidence that glycine—the most prominent amino acid in collagen—can inhibit autophagy, but it was a convoluted animal study where inhibiting autophagy with large doses of glycine after brain injury actually improved outcomes. It probably doesn’t apply to someone adding a scoop of collagen to their coffee. Besides, even if it slightly reduces autophagy, a little collagen won’t negatively impact ketosis, fat-burning, or energy intake.
I’m going to say “technically yes,” but “realistically no, collagen doesn’t break the fast.” Avoid if your main focus is autophagy, however.
Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs trigger an insulin response and thus stop autophagy…and the fast. That said, many proponents of fasted training recommend using BCAAs before a workout to help preserve muscle and improve the post-workout anabolic response.
I’m going to say “yes, BCAAs break the fast.”
Vitamin D is fat soluble and thus comes packaged in an oil carrier, but the dosage is so small that it won’t affect your fast.
Unless you find that 1/8 teaspoon of olive oil ruins your fast, vitamin D won’t break a fast.
Probiotics contain no calories and will not break a fast. However, they are best absorbed in the presence of food—the food protects them as they travel through the digestive system, and most probiotics occur naturally in food—so taking them during a fast is probably, mostly useless.
Probiotics don’t break a fast, but why take them during one?
Pure prebiotics will not break a fast, as they contain no digestible carbohydrates. Prebiotic-enriched foods will break a fast, as they do contain calories.
Adaptogens are compounds, usually herbs or herb derivatives, that modulate your stress response. They improve your ability to tolerate and respond to stressful situations; they don’t blindly inhibit the stress response if the stress response is warranted. They keep you honest and counter unnecessary stress responses. They contain no calories, unless you’re chowing down on a big hunk of maca or ashwagandha root. In fact, most adaptogens have traditionally been consumed in tea form, extracting the active compounds and leaving behind any calories. Have at ’em.
Adaptogens do not break the fast.
Medicinal mushroom extracts come from mushrooms, which are technically food. But the amounts you take are so low—usually no more than a teaspoon—that they won’t impact your fast or provide any significant amount of caloric energy. Four Sigmatic has those “mushroom coffee” blends you add to hot water. They can get up to about 30 calories per serving, but even that’s going to let you maintain most of the fasting benefits.
Mushroom extracts don’t break the fast.
I used to keep the old Trader Joe’s melatonin on hand because it was half a milligram, whereas most other melatonin supplements are in the 3-5 mg range. It was also sweet, tasting like those white Valentine’s Day mint hearts you used to get back in the day. I haven’t come across any sweetened melatonin supplements since Trader Joe’s phased those out, but that’s the only thing I’d worry about on a fast.
Melatonin does not break a fast.
Final Note: Most supplements are okay to take on a fast, though the lack of food may make absorption more difficult. If you have any other questions about supplements on a fast, drop them down below. Thanks for reading, everybody.
On a related note, with supplements on my mind this week I thought it would be a good time to offer one of my favorite deals—just for the MDA community: 20% off my full supplement line, plus Primal Fuel and Collagen Fuel. It’s a great time to stock up on favorites or to try something new. Offer ends 4/24/19 midnight PDT. Use code WELLNESS20 at checkout. (Offer doesn’t apply for autoship orders.)
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Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.
This week how to stop avoiding exercise, GMO is now “bioengineered” at the USDA, and the FDA resumes limited food inspections.
Next week’s Mindful Meal Challenge will start again on Monday. Sign up now to join us!
Too busy to read them all? Try this awesome free speed reading app to read at 300+ wpm. So neat!
Links of the week
- From Couch Potato To Fitness Buff: How I Learned To Love Exercise – This story reminds me of my own so much. A reframe is so powerful. (NPR)
- U.S. lettuce industry, wary of E. coli, wants FDA back on the job – Same. Apparently some inspections have resumed, but this ridiculous shutdown is affecting all of our safety. (Washington Post)
- Goodbye GMO, Hello Bioengineered: USDA publishes labeling rules – LOL. (Food Politics)
- Daily Movement — Even Household Chores — May Boost Brain Health In Elderly – Doing stuff is also more fun than not doing stuff. (NPR)
- Fasting diets are going mainstream — ahead of the science. Here’s why. – Good summary of the state of the fasting research. Please note that I do not recommend fasting for anyone with a history of chronic dieting (unless you have a specific medical need, like cancer therapy). (Vox)
- How to get the most out of your exercise time, according to science – A similar summary on the science behind High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). (Vox)
- Are All Calories the Same? – Take all of Mark’s science analysis with a grain of salt (he doesn’t have any real training and cherry picks studies), but I like the way he stops and makes you think here about all the factors that are involved in how you metabolize a specific meal. (Mark’s Daily Apple)
- The Weight I Carry – A very profound essay on what it’s like to be morbidly obese. Very much worth the read. (The Atlantic)
- How workout buddies can help stave off loneliness – What a great idea! I imagine this would be particularly beneficial for senior groups. (Washington Post)
- Dorie Greenspan’s Spatchcock Chicken with Za’atar & Lemon – I’ve never tried to spatchcock a chicken, but this makes it seem extremely doable. (Alexandra’s Kitchen)
What inspired you this week?
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As you and millions of other people embark on new dietary journeys, you’re going to hear a ton about calories.
“Calorie counting is everything.”
“If you aren’t counting calories, you won’t lose weight.”
“Just eat less calories than you expend.” For one, it’s “fewer.” Two, that’s not the whole picture.
These statements aren’t wrong exactly, but they offer an overly simplistic picture of the relationship between weight loss and calories. They ignore context. And context is everything, especially when you’re talking about calories and weight loss.
Most people (even many scientists) believe that the body composition challenge is a relatively simple equation: to lose weight you must reduce calories (either eat less or burn more), to gain weight you must add calories (eat more or burn less), and to maintain weight you keep calories constant (eat and burn identical amounts). Calories in over calories out.
Right away, it sounds preposterous. Are people really maintaining perfect caloric balance by dutifully tracking and comparing their intake to their burn? Are they walking six fewer steps lest they lose an extra ounce off their midsection?
Are All Calories the Same?
The truth is, it’s more like a complex equation where you have to factor in many other very important variables:
- Am I getting calories from fat, protein, or carbs?
- Am I getting my calories through whole foods or refined processed foods?
- Are my glycogen stores full or empty?
- When’s the last time I exercised?
- Am I insulin-sensitive or insulin-resistant?
- Am I trying to lose “weight” or lose fat?
- How’s my stress level?
- Am I sleeping enough?
The answers to all those questions (and more) affect the fate of the calories we consume. They change the context of calories.
Ideally, all that complexity is handled under the hood. That’s how it works in wild animals. They don’t calorie count. They don’t think about what to eat or how to exercise. They just eat, move, sleep, and somehow it all works. I mean, they die, often violently, but you don’t see obese, metabolically-deranged wildlife—unless the obesity and metabolic derangement is physiological, as in bears preparing to hibernate. Somehow they figure it out. They’ve delegated the complex stuff to their subconscious.
This is generally true in “wild humans,” too. Hunter-gatherer groups by and large did not and do not show any evidence of metabolic derangement, obesity, or the other degenerative trappings of modern humans living in civilization. They are fully human in terms of physiology, so it’s not that they have special genetic adaptations that resist obesity. They’re living lifestyles and eating diets more in line with our evolutionary heritage. They’re moving around all the time, not going through drive throughs. They’re eating whole unprocessed foods that they have to procure, catch or kill.
What they don’t have is the ridiculous concept of calories and macronutrients floating around in their heads, informing their dietary choices. They don’t even think about food in terms of calories, or movement in terms of calories expended. Metabolically speaking, they consume their calories in the proper context.
But you? You might have to think about context. You might have to answer those questions and create the proper context.
Most people do not think about context. They home in on the number of calories the food database claims the food they’re eating contains, plot it against the numbers of calories the exercise database claims the exercise they’re doing expends, and then wonder why nothing’s working. That’s why “dieting doesn’t work”—because, as practiced in accordance with the expert advice from up high, it doesn’t. Almost invariably, the people who see great results from strict calorie counting, weighing and balancing, those types who frequent online weight lifting forums and have the freedom to spend hours perfecting their program, have the other relevant variables under control without realizing it.
They’re younger, with fewer responsibilities—and less stress and fewer disruptions to their sleep.
They’re lifting weights and training religiously, creating huge glycogen sinks and maintaining optimal insulin sensitivity.
They’re eating a lot of protein, the macronutrient that curbs hunger and increases energy expenditure the most.
They’re eating mostly whole foods.
They’ve had less time on this earth to accumulate metabolic damage.
Not everyone is so lucky.
Fat burning, glucose burning, ketone burning, glycogen storage, fat storage, gluconeogenesis, and protein turnover—what we do with the calories we consume—do not occur at constant rates. They ebb and flow, wax and wane in response to your micronutrient intake, macronutrient intake, energy intake, exercise and activity habits, sleep schedule, stress levels, and a dozen other factors. All of these energy-related processes are going on simultaneously in each of us at all times. But the rate at which each of these processes happens is different in each of us and they can increase or decrease depending on the context of our present circumstances and our long term goals. All of these processes utilize the same gene-based principles of energy metabolism—the biochemical machinery that we all share—but because they all involve different starting points and different inputs as well as different goals or possible outcomes, they often require different action plans. We can alter the rate at which each of these metabolic processes happens simply by changing what and when we eat and addressing the non-dietary variables. We can change the context.
But don’t controlled trials demonstrate that a “calorie is a calorie”?
People hear things like “in controlled isocaloric trials, low-carb diets have never been shown to confer a metabolic advantage or result in more weight loss than low-fat diets.” While often true, they miss the point.
People aren’t living in metabolic wards with white lab coats providing and precisely measuring all their food. They’re living in the real world, fixing their own food. Free living is entirely uncontrolled with dozens of variables bleeding in from all angles. In the lab situation, you eat what they give you, and that’s that. The situations are not analogous—real world vs. controlled lab environment.
In real world situations…
Why a Calorie Isn’t Just a Calorie
The macronutrient composition of the calories we eat alters their metabolic effects.
The metabolism of protein famously increases energy expenditure over and above the metabolism of fat or carbohydrate. For a given caloric load, protein will make you burn more energy than other macronutrients.
Protein is also more satiating than other macronutrients. Eat more protein, curb hunger, inadvertently eat less without even trying (or needing a lab coat to limit your intake).
Protein and fat together (AKA “meat”) appear to be even more satiating than either alone, almost as if we’re meant to consume fat and protein in the same meal.
The isocaloric studies tend to focus on “weight loss” and discount “fat loss.” We don’t want to lose weight. We want to lose fat and gain or retain lean muscle mass. A standard low calorie diet might cause the same amount of weight loss as a low-carb, high-fat diet (if you force the subjects to maintain isocaloric parity), but the low-carb approach has been shown to increase fat loss and enhance muscle gain. Most people who lose weight with a standard approach end up losing a significant amount of muscle along with it. Most who lose weight with a low-carb, higher-protein-and-fat approach lose mostly fat and gain or retain most of their muscle.
Take the 2004 study that placed overweight men and women on one of two diets: a very low-carb ketogenic diet or a low-fat diet. The low-carb group ate more calories but lost more weight and more body fat, especially dangerous abdominal fat.
Or the study from 1989 that placed healthy adult men on high-carb or high-fat diets. Even though the high-carb group lost slightly more body weight, the high-fat group lost slightly more body fat and retained more lean mass.
Both describe “weight lost,” but which is healthier?
Whether the calories come in the form of processed or whole food determines their effect.
We even have a study that directly examines this. For two weeks, participants either supplemented their diets with isocaloric amounts of candy (mostly sugar) or roasted peanuts (mostly fat and protein). This was added to their regular diet. After two weeks, researchers found that body weight, waist circumference, LDL, and ApoB (a rough measure of LDL particle number) were highest in the candy group, indicating increased fat mass and worsening metabolic health. In the peanut group, basal metabolic rate shot up and neither body weight nor waist size saw any significant increases.
Your current metabolic state determines the effect of calories.
In one study, a person’s metabolic reaction to high-carb or low-carb diets was determined by their degree of insulin resistance. The more insulin resistant a subject, the better they did and the more weight they lost on low-carb. The more insulin sensitive a subject, the better they did and the more weight they lost on low-fat. Calories were the same across the board.
In another study, insulin-sensitive obese patients (a rarity in the general population) were able to lose weight on either low-carb or low-fat, but insulin-resistant obese patients (very common) only lost weight on low-carb.
Whether you exercise determines the effect of calories.
If you’ve just finished a heavy lifting workout followed by a sprint session, your response to a given number of calories will differ from the person who hasn’t trained in a year.
Training: Your muscle glycogen stores will be empty, so the carbs you eat will go toward glycogen storage or directly burned, rather than inhibit fat burning. Your insulin sensitivity will be elevated, so you can move protein and carbs around without spiking insulin and inhibiting fat release. You’ll be in hypertrophy mode, so some of the protein you eat will go toward building muscle, not burned for energy.
Not Training: Your muscle glycogen stores will be full, so any carbs you eat will inhibit fat burning and be more likely to promote fat storage. Your insulin sensitivity will be low, so you’ll have to release more insulin to handle the carbs, thereby inhibiting fat burning the process. You won’t have sent any hypertrophy signals to your muscles, so the protein you eat will be wasted or burned for energy.
How you slept last night determines the effects of calories.
A single night of bad sleep is enough to:
- Give you the insulin resistance levels of a diabetic. Try eating carbs in an insulin-resistant state and tell me a “calorie is a calorie.”
- Make the reward system of your brain light up in response to junk food and dampen in response to healthy whole food. The more rewarding you find junk food, the more your brain will compel you to eat more of it.
- Reduce energy expenditure. Your “calories out” drops if you sleep poorly.
And those are just a few important variables that determine the context of calories. There are many more, but this post has gone on long enough…
The Take-Home Message
If calorie-counting works for you, great! You’re one of the lucky ones. Own that and keep doing what you’re doing. You’ve clearly got a good handle on the context of calories.
If calorie-counting and weighing and measuring failed you in the past, you’re not alone and there’s a way forward. Address the variables mentioned in this post that need addressing. Do you need better sleep? Do you need to manage stress better? Could you eat more protein or fat, eat more whole food and less processed food, or get more exercise, or lift more weights, or take more walks?
Handle those variables, fix those deficiencies, and I bet that your caloric context will start making more sense. The trick isn’t to increase the number of variables you plug into your calories in/calories out formula. It’s to make sure all your lifestyle and dietary ducks are in a row so that the caloric balance works itself out.
By understanding how these metabolic processes work, and knowing that we can control the rates at which each one happens through our diet (and exercise and other lifestyle factors) we needn’t agonize over the day-to-day calorie counting. As long as we are generally eating a PB-style plan and providing the right context, our bodies will ease into a healthy, fit, long-lived comfort zone rather effortlessly.
So, what’s your caloric context looking like? Thanks for reading today, everyone.
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***This article was substantially revised from the original version, which you can read here.
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