Tracking Calories In/Out…This Trend Has Run Its Course


Quick housekeeping note: did you know I’m hosting a more daily conversation of how to be ‘fit for real life’ over on this site’s new Facebook page? Writing big, quality, regular posts is tricky right now with running the gym & whatnot, so I’ve started the Facebook page as a way to curate & discuss anything & everything relating to living an optimally fit life. Check it out and join the conversation over there!

Fit for Real Life Facebook Page

Leggings as pants. Off-the-shoulder tops. The calories in/calories out method for weight loss. Some things from the 80s are back in a big way, and rightly so, they are even more awesome the 2nd time around! But some things from the 80s should never be allowed back in our world. For instance, equating weight loss to a sum of 3500 calories “burned off” each week – needs to finally die the death it should have died long ago.

I’ve had several people ask me if perhaps they shouldn’t do any post-workout meals because they’re trying to lose weight & it seems like after just burning off all those calories, the last thing you’d want to do is eat them back again. I have to say, I was flabbergasted each time I heard this question. Not because those people should know better, no not at all!, I’m actually super glad folks ask questions of me as it helps us all be better to walk through the science of optimal health together. I was just stunned that people still think that burning X amount of calories per workout is ‘the thing’ to focus on when working at weight loss as a goal.

To say “I burned X amount of calories so the next time I consume calories, they will replace those ones I burned” isn’t even INcorrect. It’s just not a part of the conversation when we discuss exercise, calories, and weight loss. It’s a moot point – it doesn’t pertain to the conversation and is a distraction from what IS actually important and correct in the conversation on exercise, calories, and weight loss.

(Be forewarned: the convo on calories gets big and gnarly, with MANY differing opinions in the academic world…I’m trying to pare it down here, but if you want to go nuts looking up weight loss info, check out Gary Taubes & Stephen Guyenet for 2 differing points on how we get fat/lose weight. And if you want to disagree with me on what I’ve got here, super cool, just do not source Biggest Loser as your reason for disagreeing with me about how one loses weight. That show has done more to fudge up the real conversation about healthy weight loss than anything else in this world.)

Ok, let’s break this down.
1) Your body is not some country store where the owner keeps a log of what you’ve purchased & how much you’ve paid/how much you still owe. It’s not keeping track of the 350 cals you burned at spin class, waiting to add more calorie deficits to it in order to show you a weight loss on the scale. It does not make a mini-hole in your thigh fat where those 350 cals “used to be”, & then replace that hole the next time you you eat food. Doing a “last-chance workout” in order to meet a weight loss goal, a la Biggest Loser, is just NOT how its done.

Exercising, like everything else you do with your body, sends signals to your brain and back out to your body about how your body should respond. Drink like a fish every day and you build up a ‘tolerance’. Become bedridden for a period of time and your body down-regulates how much muscle it needs to hang on to in order to function. Eat next to nothing for an extended period of time & your body searches elsewhere for fuel, and finds it in your muscle mass, eating away at the muscle you currently have.

Everything you do tells your body how to respond & adapt. Appropriate exercise done regularly up-regulates hormones that promote fat loss & muscle gain. But as you may have noticed in your career as a human, if you keep doing the same workout routine for too long, your body checks out and throws you into a plateau of no-more-results, because it’s *adapted* to what you were doing. It did its job! But you likely weren’t thankful for that job since you were going for long, continuous results in your fitness/weight, right? So you changed it up to SEND A NEW SIGNAL to your body & bust through that plateau, right?

When your body is at an optimal, healthy, fit weight/size/performance level for what you want it to be able to do-your bodies’ signalling system is in its’ sweet spot. It’s getting just the right amount of everything: sleep, stress, movement, proper fuel, & fun.

Will it always be the exact same formula for you to maintain that sweet spot? Nope. If you’re not sleeping as much because you’ve got a newborn, your workout and stress management will likely need to change. If you’re doing high-level sports conditioning 4-5 days a week, your fuel & sleep will likely need to change to support the uptick in performance output. Fail to ebb & flow with your body’s signalling system, and you’re running at a brick wall at an increasing rate of speed. Don’t run at brick walls, especially not at a high rate of speed.

2) Calories are super nebulous things to bank your weight loss on. Unless you are actually a bomb calorimeter sitting in a chem lab somewhere, we don’t actually know how calories work in your body, or what the hell a calorie actually *is* to your body. How do we know this? Well there’s super smart people out there doing way better work than me on this matter, but take this example: I’ve worked with clients who tracked the number of cals they burned at each workout, tracked the amount of cals they were eating, created a deficit that should be ‘just right’ ,ie not too much/not too little, to equal a 3500cal deficit in a week which – as everyone has had drilled into their heads – equals 1 lb. And they don’t lose weight. Sometimes they even gained weight. Ten years ago, this had me saying W.T.F. It’s supposed to work! Make the ‘equation’ work and the person is supposed to lose weight!

What I should have remembered was Day 1 of high school physics:

if it doesn’t work every time for every person, then the theory is flawed & can never be a ‘law’.

There’s so much more to this conversation but, I’m trying to write shorter, more concise posts these days, so I’ll keep it at that, what I think are the two most important points that hopefully get you thinking differently about weight loss & how it happens. And to wrap back around to the question that started this post – if you’re trying to lose weight, should you eat a post-workout meal? Yes. Probably you should. Do you need a binge-fest to reap the benefits of the post-workout meal? If you’re trying to lose weight, probably not. A post-workout meal sends the signal to your body to turn from the catabolic (breaking down) state it’s in when the workout finishes, back to the anabolic (growing) signal it needs to reap the benefits of the workout- ie getting stronger, gaining lean tissue, losing fat.

Some things are better post-workout than others, but it’s not that complex that you need to freak about it. A bit of sweet potato or regular potato is better than fruit post-workout as that fruit (or rather, the fructose in the fruit) has to go to the liver first before the muscle cells can uptake it, whereas glucose, found in potatoes, can go straight to the muscle cells and get stored there for future energy rather than being stored as fat on your body. Protein, of course, goes to your muscles to repair the little tears you’ve made in them, thus making them stronger & denser. And fat, no matter what your goal, really doesn’t have a big place in your post-workout meal. People who do studies on this stuff have seen that eating fat in that 60 minute window after the workout, signals to your body to store fat, so, best to leave it in the 3rd tier after protein & carbs. Liquid foods are absorbed quickly but, quick absorption also means that insulin spikes, and spiked insulin seems to signal to the body to store fat, at least in some instances, so if necessary because you can’t carry whole food with you, use it, but whole food is definitely top of the tier when it comes to post-workout fuel.

Finally, by all means, wear your killer 80s inspired leggings, but welcome yourself to the 21st century when it comes to looking at weight loss. Calorie counting/ tracking is *so* 1989.


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