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Pulling Apart the Idea That "I Just Need to Eat Less"

Christina Schroeder

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Each of us carries any number of stories around in our head about the way things are or should be. That’s no different when it comes to our beliefs and opinions about health, fitness and nutrition.

I just need to eat less; that’ll make me lose weight.

I have kids and I can’t monitor all of the food in the house – they won’t eat what I have to eat.

I’m not a gym person.

I can’t, because…

It’s hard, because…

Any of this sound familiar?

Now, this isn’t to say that committing to your health isn’t hard at times, doesn’t involve work or doesn’t require a change in habits from what’s convenient – that’s the reality of making any sort of change (not just in your health).

What I am saying is that the things we tell ourselves – the stories in our heads – have a huge impact on whether or not we make that commitment consistently. Every bite is a choice. Every workout is a choice. If we succumb to the negative stories in our heads, though, we lose our sense of power and responsibility over making that next choice that helps us grow.

For today, I want to focus on one of the most common stories people tell themselves (and others) when it comes to getting healthier. On the surface, this story doesn’t necessarily seem all that bad. However, when taken to extremes, it can hold us back from reaching our goals.

The story I want to debunk is…

“I just need to eat less; that’ll make me lose the weight.”

Calories Aren't Just About In vs. Out

Chances are you’ve heard something along these lines: All you need to do to lose weight is burn more calories than you eat. Easy peasy.

Riiiiggghhhttt...

While it’s true that a caloric deficit is required to lose weight, eating in too extreme of a deficit over too long of a period of time will lead to complications and reduce your body’s ability to function efficiently.

Here’s your Public Service Announcement for the day: 1,200 calories = the daily caloric maintenance requirement of a toddler. It’s nowhere near enough to maintain the activity and cognitive needs of an adult – and yet I see people cutting back to these levels all the time in order to lose weight.

This misconception that weight loss is simply about creating a caloric deficit can:

  1. Create a roadblock to progress because cutting that many calories can feel intimidating or overwhelming,
  2. Lead to frustration because people feel like they’re constantly hungry (cutting calories) and yet seeing no weight loss, and
  3. Can lead to undereating.

While undereating has been glorified and simplified as “calories in vs. calories out,” there’s more to it than the 30,000-foot view has to offer.

Let’s dig into it at a deeper level.

The Role of Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)

Your BMR is the number of calories your body needs simply to keep your organs and brain functioning – no physical activity included. This number is calculated based on several factors – including height, weight, age and gender – and is different for each person.

Here’s what can happen to your BMR when we oversimplify the calories in vs. calories out story:

If you eat too few calories (aka toddler-level calories), your BMR will actually drop – you’ll burn fewer calories naturally. Think of it as your body’s way of protecting itself – it doesn’t trust you to feed it, so it has to slow the operating systems down and live off of what you’re giving it. This actually SLOWS your metabolism – which, as a result, stalls weight loss.

Hence, if your BMR is 1,500 calories and you’re only feeding it 1,200 calories, it may be true that you’ve got more calories going out than coming in – but your body thinks it’s starving and is going to hold onto those calories with everything it’s got.

Instead of starving your body, identify what your general BMR is, make sure you’re meeting those needs, and then work from there. Which brings us to…

Layering in Your Activity Level

After BMR, it’s time to add in your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). If BMR is what it takes just to keep you functioning with no physical activity, TDEE is what gets layered in when you walk, run, hike, bike, lift weights and so on and so forth.

TDEE is what happens when you take a normal day (BMR) and add movement to the party. And what’s the best thing about parties? The food!

To limit brain fog (i.e., protect your cognitive/brain function) and maximize performance inside and outside the gym – you have to eat enough to fuel your TDEE.

Here’s what that might look like:

  1. If your BMR is 1,600 calories and your TDEE is 600 calories, your caloric requirement per day just to maintain the status quo is 2,200 calories.

  2. If you’re looking to lose weight, a caloric deficit can be made through a few different approaches:
    1. Cutting calories consumed
    2. Adding activity
    3. Both together.

If we continue with the example above where your BMR is 1,600 calories and your TDEE is 600 calories, you might cut your caloric intake to 2,000 calories per day and add a workout that burns 300 calories. This creates a deficit of 500 calories per day or 3,500 calories per week. Not only does this put you on track for a 1 lb.-weight loss each week, but it also keeps you at about 1,700 daily net calories – safely above your BMR to keep all systems go.

If It Sounds Too Simple – It Just Might Be

Want to lose weight? Earn your body’s trust by feeding it first. Get all of your systems firing and then decide how you want to create your caloric deficit.

Far too often, we see people touting a “lose weight fast” approach and calories in vs. calories out is just one version of that. While there is a nugget of truth in there – that’s the part that makes it believable – there’s also a lot of nuance, like BMR and TDEE, that should be taken into consideration.

If you’re looking for even more guidance on how to develop a plan that’s best for you, consider working with your physician, a personal trainer, nutrition coach or nutritionist/dietician. You can also sign up for my health- and nutrition-focused Office Hours session on July 18, where I’ll be answering common questions and debunking the stories we have about this area of life! (Note: This session is complementary for those registered for Level 2 or 3 of the #thrivetoday Fitness Challenge.)

In order for your body to work at higher levels, you’ve got to feed it what it needs. Don’t let the story in your head or an over-simplistic belief system keep you from taking the most appropriate steps toward your goal. Everything is a journey – give yourself the time and attention to figure out yours.

 

This article is a part of our #thrivetoday Fitness Challenge. Visit our website to subscribe to email updates and be a part of future challenges!

 

***

In addition to her work as an MJST Success Coach, Christina Schroeder has been actively coaching in the fitness and wellness community for 7 years. Her certifications include: CrossFit Level 1, CrossFit Level 2, Stages Cycling, and Precision Nutrition Level 1. She'll also be beginning her Precision Level 2 certification training in the near future. She is based out of Omaha working for Mark Jewell Speaking & Training and Nerve Health and Fitness.

Note: Please work with your physician or other qualified health professional when addressing your unique fitness, nutritional and health needs. Have questions? Check out the fine print here. 

Photo by Lily Banse on Unsplash

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