Weight loss certainly has been made a bit confusing over the past few decades.
Not only have you had to worry about if you're eating too much fat, now you have to worry if you're eating enough of the right kind of fat. (Olive oil was one of the good ones, right? But they also say vegetable oils are bad. Are olives vegetables...?)
More recently, you've been reading that you shouldn't eat too much sugar. But only certain kinds of sugar. Processed sugar is bad. (Which means like...bread and candy, you're pretty sure, but does that also count dark chocolate? Wasn't that supposed to be good for you?) And fructose is also bad. But fruits have fructose...so...what are you allowed to eat again?
Lately you've been reading that people need to make sure they're eating enough food when trying to lose weight. What does that mean? Are they talking about how you need to avoid going into "starvation mode"? So now not only do you have to balance eating the right kinds of foods, you have to make sure you're not eating too little on top of making sure to not eat too much.
Yikes. No wonder we all seem to struggle with weight loss.
It doesn't have to be so complicated
So the majority of those first two paragraphs is a mixture of bullshit and things you really don't need to worry about. Magazines, newspapers, talk shows and online publications have a LOT of space and air time to kill. To avoid talking about the exact same thing over and over, they tend to focus on generating a crap ton of small things that none of us would have to think about if we expanded our vegetable intake from shredded iceberg lettuce in Taco Bell tacos to broccoli and eggplants.
Have olive oil. Eat fruit. Eat some bread. Dip your bread into olive oil with a side of grapes. Relax.
But what about that last one?
Up until a few years ago, I was very confused about what people really meant when they would suspect out loud that maybe they weren't eating enough on their diet. And no wonder it confused me - it's doubtful that they really knew what they meant either.
Usually it's some notion of "you need to eat enough so you don't go into starve mode," and when you ask what starvation mode is, the answer is typically even more confused. Something along the lines of "if you don't eat enough your body thinks it's starving and won't let you lose anymore weight."
How true is that?
Starvation mode probably isn't what you think
"Starvation Mode" is really just a series of metabolic changes that happen when you lose weight. The changes are twofold:
- Your body resisting the fat loss - increasing your hunger, decreasing your subconscious activity levels (such as foot tapping, leg shaking, your motivation to find a really close parking spot - all referred to as NEAT)
- As you lose weight, your body just doesn't require as many calories to maintain itself. A 300-pound person will always have a higher metabolism than a 100-pound person if activity levels are similar
The steeper your deficit, it becomes more likely that you will down-regulate your metabolism faster than you should, but you will never reach a point where it is "impossible" to burn fat. You're not likely to get to a spot where you can't lose weight on 1,200 calories a day.
So how do people eat more to lose weight?
Because in the long-term, they're actually eating less.
Tell me if this scenario rings any bells:
Monday: My diet starts today! I've got my MyFitnessPal account set up. 1,200 calories a day and I'll be losing 2 pounds per week - I'll get this weight off in no time.
I went grocery shopping yesterday and bought fruits, veggies and lean meats - I did the math and bread and chocolate just have too many calories. I threw away all the junk food in my house despite my partner's protests. I'm serious this time. This time I really commit and make a change.
Tuesday / Wednesday: Man, my sugar addiction must have been worse than I thought! 3 days of veggies and meat and I'm DYING for some chocolate and pastries. But, I must teach my body that FRUIT is my dessert now! Time to sit down to some blueberries in non-fat plain greek yogurt! Tastes just like blueberry pie...!
...okay, no it doesn't...
Thursday: Today I looked at the instagram of a figure competitor for some motivation. Knowing that there are really hot people out there who eat mainly broccoli, sweet potatoes, and chicken breasts in tupperware containers makes this process more inspiring.
Friday: My girlfriends went out for dinner tonight, but I know that if I go out I'm just going to drink wine and eat too much bread. ...worth...it........?
Saturday: I was really depressed after not going out last night, so when my partner wanted to go to brunch this morning I couldn't say no. I got the egg white omelette, but he got the pancakes and gave me one. Ugh. Totally screwed up.
Sunday: Wow, I really fell off the wagon yesterday. It all went downhill after that pancake. I couldn't get enough - we went out for dinner and I got a huge dish AND dessert AND wine. Ugh, I feel so fat. I don't know how I ate that much in one day.
Monday: I went out to the movies yesterday and ate an entire large popcorn almost entirely by myself. On top of going out to eat twice. Time to get back on the wagon. I better only eat 1,000 calories per day this week to make up for what I did over the weekend...
Repeat week in, week out. Let's look at this in number form. Suppose your TDEE (the total amount of calories your body needs to maintain its weight) is about 2,000 calories per day.
That means to maintain your weight, you need to eat 14,000 calories per week. If you want to lose weight, you need to eat less than that. Even if you go a little overboard on the weekend, you should still be losing weight, right?
- Monday - Friday: 1,200 x 5 = 6,000
- Saturday - Sunday: 4,000 x 2 = 8,000
- Total: 14,000
Suddenly no more deficit.
You may be thinking "there's no way in hell I eat 4,000 calories in one day!" Sadly, it's a lot easier than you might think:
- Breakfast: Starbucks Vanilla Frappucino (Grande) & Blueberry Scone - 800 calories
- Snack: Granola Bar - 200 calories
- Lunch: Subway foot-long Chicken Teriyaki with chips and a sprite - 1,090 calories
- Snack: Gas station slushie - 300 calories
- Dinner: 1/2 Rack Outback Baby Back Ribs, mashed potatoes, 1/3rd of a piece of chocolate cake & 2 glasses of red wine - 1,800 calories
- Total: 4190 calories. Whooooopsie.
It doesn't even have to be in concentrated meals. Maybe you eat the entirety of a tub of icecream over 2 days. Maybe it's a bag of M&M's you have beside you while you're watching TV. Maybe it's getting all the fixings plus a crap ton of dressing on your salad.
I've done this. I know the feeling of eating more than you ever thought possible but still finding room - and the motivation - to eat more. It's almost depressing.
But the solution for me wasn't to cut more calories during the week to "make up" for binges that I thought were just inevitable. My solution was to eat more during the week so that binges never happened.
"Eat more to lose weight" needs to be re-phrased
A more appropriate, but much less sound-bite-worthy phrase would be "eat more calories throughout the week instead of at huge deficits so that over the course of a week or two you are actually eating less overall."
Instead of shooting for a huge deficit, why not try a much smaller one? See if this week plan sounds better to you:
Monday: Today I'm going to make a lifestyle change. I'm not going to starve myself this time around - but if I'm honest with myself I really don't need as much food as I've been eating. I can reasonably cut my portions by a quarter or a fifth and lose weight. It won't be as quick, but I'm in this for the long haul.
Tuesday - Thursday: This is actually going a bit easier than I thought. It takes some conscious effort, but I think over the long-term I won't have to think about it so much.
For dinner, I am eating just a little bit less of my usual steak and potatoes. I usually crave sugar around 3 PM and cave into some Oreos, but instead I just added some chocolate squares or my favorite kind of granola bar onto lunch, and I found that the craving was gone.
Friday: I went out with my girlfriends for dinner tonight! I usually try to "save up" calories throughout the day when I know I'm about to go out to eat, but I decided to eat normally. I was able to stick to 1 slice of bread from the basket, and I wasn't starving so I was able to enjoy my steak without going overboard. I actually couldn't finish the whole thing.
Saturday: Went out to brunch with my partner. Got some eggs benedict and snuck a couple of bites of the pancakes he got! Wasn't super hungry at lunch after that, so I stuck to the 6-inch sub. Dinner was delicious - but the chocolate cake was so rich I could only stand a few bites. They were AMAZING though!
Sunday: Went to the movies and got a small popcorn. I basically always eat the whole thing while I'm there - I've heard mindless eating is a huge thing at the movies. But thankfully there wasn't too much in the small, and I wasn't as hungry for the rest of the day.
Monday: The scale didn't change too much. But it's only been one week, and I know I ate less than I normally do. And the best part is, this is the first week on any diet I've ever been on where I haven't been tempted to binge. I think I can keep this up. I'm proud of myself!
So taking our same person with a 2,000 calorie TDEE (14,000 calories per week) who is shooting for 1,800 calories per day. Hell, I'll even say on that Saturday she ate more:
- Monday-Friday: 1,800 x 5 = 9,000
- Saturday: 2,100
- Sunday: 1,900
- Total: 13,000
You've suddenly gone from a miserable week with no deficit to a fairly sustainable week with a 1,000 calorie deficit. It's not huge, but it's better than nothing and more likely to be sustainable in the long-term.
Eat more to lose weight means:
- Eating at a small deficit rather than a huge one. This is to avoid the intense hunger pangs and binging that lead to a halt or reverse in your weight-loss progress.
- Your NEAT activities won't decrease as much, meaning that your TDEE doesn't decline so sharply.
- You will have more level and sustained energy for your workouts instead of swinging from "no energy" on your low-calorie days to "too bloated to move" on binge days.
All of these things lead to a more enjoyable weight-loss experience - one that is more sustainable and successful over the long term.
I hope that this clears things up a bit - if you've got more questions or comments, leave them below or give me a shout on Facebook!
P.S. I'd feel remiss if I didn't mention Leigh Peele's book "Starve Mode" if you're interested in more details about the metabolic changes that can happen when you lose weight.