Old-school weight loss creed teaches us to think of the body as a calories-in vs. calories-out battlefield (like a scale, a teeter-totter, or a perfect mathematical equation.) If we reduce the amount of calories consumed OR increase the amount of calories burned, we’ll lose weight. We call this the calorie model of weight loss and it’s a popular approach. Most diets and weight loss programs preach some sort of calorie reduction. We also tend to think of the gym as a a calorie furnace, “Becky, we NEEEED to get on the elliptical and burn off this milkshake.”
This way of thinking isn’t wrong. Calorie counting can help you lose weight. But here’s the problem – calorie counting blows. Here’s why:
1) The most predictable foods, in terms of calories, are the most processed and should be the most avoided.
2) The most predictable foods, in terms of calories, are also packaged and should usually be avoided.
Teyr) The entire calorie/gram counting system is just an estimate anyway – even calorie labels on packaged foods are far from perfect.
4) It’s very easy to become obsessed with calories and for non-competition-life, obsessed nutrition is never a win.
5) The body does a remarkable job of balancing energy demands (and improving body comp) when you give it the right food.
6) Lions don’t count calories, why should we?
There’s also the fact that the body is a more complicated piece of machinery than a simple scale. Different calories have different effects on the body. For example, carbohydrates have a strong influence upon our insulin levels and insulin tells the body to store energy. The more carbs a meal has, the more energy we tend to store (not always a bad thing).
The body also loves homeostasis so it tends to quickly figure out a way to operate on fewer calories – completely defeating the never-fun point of eating less. If you decide to really tip the scales by dramatically reducing calorie intake, the body will hate you. First of all, you’ll become calorie-obsessed (translation: nobody will like you). You’ll become an angrier, slower version of yourself. You’ll get cold. You’ll have no sex drive. You may even lose your hair (in extreme cases.)
It’s enslaving and when pushed too far you end up unlikable, angry, slow, cold, sexless, and bald. Nobody wants that.
So if the calorie model is a bust, what’s a better way of thinking about weight-management?
Eighth grade biology class taught us that hormones are chemical messengers floating around inside of us which help one part of the body talk to another part of the body. What eighth grade biology class didn’t drive home is that EVERYTHING we do effects our hormones which, in turn, effect everything we do. Our happiness – totally dependent upon our serotonin levels. Stress levels – cortisol. Sex drive – testosterone. Our motivation – dopamine. Even our like-ability has everything to do with our hormones.
Hormones are the master puppeteers to our body and mind – they control our mood, our sleep, our strength, and yes – our body fat. So if you want to get shredded, let’s stop worrying so damn much about calories and figure out how to optimize our “lean” hormones.
The truth is, you could spend years studying endocrinology and still have a lot to learn. Even if your only concern is body fat storage, there is a myriad of hormones which play into the equation. Plus, hormones are exceptionally interdependent – a change in one hormone will undoubtedly effect other hormone levels. But let’s focus on a few that we have a lot of control over: insulin, estrogen, and testosterone.
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas which regulates carbohydrate and fat metabolism – it tells cells to absorb glucose from the blood and store it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because we need to be able to absorb glucose from our blood in order to utilize it as energy. However, too much insulin means we’re always in glucose-absorbing/fat-storing mode.
The best thing about insulin is that we have complete control over it (unless you have diabetes.) Our insulin levels are dependent upon the types of food we eat. Fat has no effect on insulin levels. Protein has little effect on insulin levels. Carbohydrates are the insulin commanders.
Smart science folk have figured all of this out and even catalogued how certain carbs effect insulin levels. We call this the insulin index. Bottom line, for most of us trying to stay/get/one day be shredded, the only time you want to spike your insulin levels is immediately after a workout. Other than that, avoid high insulin spikes.
Estrogen is known as the “female sex hormone” because it controls a lot of the magic that is the female reproductive process. It also encourages the body to store additional fat – especially around the hips, legs, and booty.
Estrogen dominance is becoming a common problem, especially amongst men (yes – men) because of stuff in our environment that our body absorbs and MISTAKES for estrogen. We call these xenoestrogens. Soy is a estrogenetic compound. Don’t eat it. Commercially raised beef, chicken and pork are common sources, as well as plastic water bottles, cosmetics (are you wearing makeup?), detergents, and even household cleaners. Check out the website EWG.org to review your products and to evaluate your exposure level. Using more natural products, cleaners, and household goods will help decrease your xenoestrogens exposure. Also, if you don’t already, switch to organic and “hormone free” foods.
Testosterone is known as the “male sex hormone” because it controls a lot of the awesomeness that is the male reproductive process. In addition to this, it encourages the body to increase muscle mass and bone density, decrease body fat stores, and improve energy levels.
Want to optimize your testosterone levels? Lift heavy weights. Get plenty of sleep – 8 hours per night is ideal. Eat meat. And consider taking a Fish Oil supplement. According to a recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Omega-3 fatty acid (the good stuff in fish oil) has been linked to an increase in lean mass and a decrease in body fat stores.
This crash-course in endocrinology only touches on the basics. If you’re looking for more solid information on the profound relationship between hormones, exercise, nutrition and life, stick around…cause it’s what I’m all about. In the meantime, control your insulin levels, decrease your estrogen, increase your testosterone and you’ll become one ripped USDA cut choice human being.
*Something similar to this article was originally posted on MensFitness.com on Feb 5th 2012.
Smith, G., Atherton, P., Reeds, D., Mohammed, B., Rankin, D., Rennie, M., Mittendorfer, B. Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation Increases the Rate of Muscle Protein Synthesis in Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. 2010. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 93(2), 402-412.
COMMENTING WILL INCREASE YOUR TESTOSTERONE BY 2%. IT’S SCIENCE.