If your car gets 20 miles per gallon and you drive 40 miles, how much gas do you need to keep your tank full? If you said 2 gallons, you are right! What if you only put in 1 gallon? You will be at a gasoline DEFICIT. And if you repeat that every day, what MUST be the result? You will run out of gas. What if you start putting in 3 gallons of gas every day but still only drive the 40 miles? Yep, you’ll have gas spilling out of your tank because you are putting in a SURPLUS.
If you come to me and say, Coach Wayne, every day I’m putting in 1 gallon of gas, driving 40 miles, and yet I have gas spilling out of my tank, then what is my response?? Simple! Either you are wrong about how much gas you put in your car, you are wrong about how far you drove, or you are wrong about the miles per gallon your car gets. You can’t be at a DEFICIT or your gas tank would be getting lower. It’s a simple law of nature.
The same goes for calories and weight. It may be a slightly more complex system, but it works the EXACT same way. We all have a daily calorie burn (how far we drive), we all have an amount of calories we consume per day (the gas we put in the tank), and we all have a weight that will be affected by how much we take in vs. how much we burn. If we take in LESS than we burn, it is a simple law of nature that our body will lose weight. If we take in MORE than we burn, it is a simple fact that we will gain weight. There are NO exceptions!
Now before we continue, you know that I hate using weight as a guide to our progress. We are not interested in WEIGHT. We are interested in BODY COMPOSITION (body fat vs. muscle). But with that said, there are some simple, physiological facts about weight that we can learn from.
So what then do I say to the person who says they have been running a calorie deficit and yet they have not lost any weight? Simple. They are NOT running a deficit! They may THINK they are, but they aren’t.
What could be the cause?
– Perhaps they aren’t counting accurately on their intake = They may be eating larger servings than they think. They may be snacking on small things and not tracking it. They may be overlooking supplements, cooking oils, sauces, condiments, etc. and not being totally honest with how much gas they are putting in their tank. My car doesn’t run on how much gas I SAY I put in the tank. It runs on how much gas I actually put in the tank.
– Perhaps their m.p.g. and distance traveled is wrong. If I make assumptions that are incorrect, I may think I’m at a deficit but actually am not. For instance, if a person thinks they are burning 600 calories during a workout, but in fact they only burn 300, that adds up. If they assume their base metabolism is 1500 but due to yo yo dieting they’ve slowed their metabolism way down, they may have a metabolism of less than 1000 cals per day. This factors into the daily calorie burn as well.
There are no ways around the simple laws of nature. If you are 100% certain that your daily calorie intake is exactly what you claim it is, and you aren’t losing weight, then you are wrong about how many calories you burn in a day.
I don’t say this to be rude, but I also can’t sugar coat it either. I get folks coming to me all the time, absolutely certain that they are at a calorie deficit, and yet claiming they have either maintained weight or gained weight. The simple truth is that they are wrong. They are not at a deficit or their body weight would drop.
Are there other considerations? ABSOLUTELY! There is measurement error – when you weigh, how hydrated you are, any monthly cycles that come into play, what you’ve eaten lately, when your last potty break was, etc. etc. Those can cause large variations from day to day. But if you are claiming to have been on a calorie deficit for several weeks and yet aren’t any lighter, something is going on!
All too often people will blame it on “starvation mode” and say that the answer is to increase calories. I’ve written about the starvation mode theory in my article “starvation mode” so check that out if you are interested, but study after study has shown that there is no such thing. Did you hear about the Army study where they did EXTREME calorie deprivation on soldiers who were already in good shape = These guys had about 10%-12% body fat when they started, and for several weeks they were rationed only 1200 cals per day while performing grueling exercise that burned over 6,000 cals per day. What happened? They all lost lots of body fat and weight (of course). None gained weight. None maintained weight. Also interesting was that none lost muscle mass either until they got below 5% body fat (blowing away the other common myth that if you run a calorie deficit you will lose muscle and hold onto fat because of “survival mode” or “starvation mode”). They didn’t start using up their muscle for energy until the body fat was in the lower limits that the body needs to function (“essential body fat” which is 4% or so in men and a bit higher in women).
If you run a calorie deficit long enough (over 6 weeks or so), the metabolism WILL SLOW DOWN, and this can make your body stop losing weight at a calorie level that used to be a deficit (because it’s no longer a deficit). The answer in that situation is to either drop the calories again to get to a deficit again, or to increase the calories to bump up the metabolism (although you will then need to either burn more cals or consume less cals again to get back to a deficit).
Another factor is the TYPE of calories you consume. Even if you eat junk food, you can lose weight if you eat less of it than you burn in a day. This leads to the lovely “skinny fat” look, where a person is soft, pudgy, and has zero muscle mass. They may look fine in clothes because they aren’t large, but they surely aren’t fit. This is what many dieters do when they don’t actually learn to fuel their bodies properly – they just eat less calories without exercising or doing resistance training. This is no good!
That’s why it’s important when learning to fuel our bodies (whether with a deficit for fat loss or a surplus for muscle building) to fuel it with the nutrients it needs to get the results we want. After all, it’s not truly about WEIGHT – it’s about BODY COMPOSITION. We want low body fat and we want good, lean, strong muscle mass to stay fit, healthy, and resistant to injury and aging.
So while I’ve written many times before about how the weight on the scale is just a number and not to focus on it, this article is necessary to help people realize that they can learn a lot about their intake / output by monitoring their weight. We can lie to ourselves, trick ourselves, and even make honest mistakes, but the facts are the facts. A calorie deficit ALWAYS leads to weight loss and a calorie surplus ALWAYS leads to weight gain.
Hope this helps gang! Keep bringing it!
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