Old-school weight loss creed teaches us to think of the body as a calories-in vs. calories-out equation (like a scale, a teeter-totter, or an engine.) 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 training programs preach some sort of calorie reduction and treat the gym like a calorie furnace.

“It’s okay Becky. We’re going to get on the elliptical tomorrow and burn off these french fries.”

This way of thinking isn’t wrong. Calorie counting can help you lose weight. But there’s a substantial list of downfalls to the calorie counting method:

  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.
  3. The entire calorie/gram counting system is an estimate at best. Our body does not treat all calories equally and even calorie labels on packaged foods can be pretty far from accurate. 
  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. There are more effective methods.

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 on 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). Protein, on the other hand, is highly thermogenic. That means it’s costly for the body to metabolize. Because we have to work harder to utilize protein calories, we can’t store as many of them. 

The body also loves homeostasis so it tends to quickly figure out a way to operate on fewer calories. When there’s less gas in our tank, so to speak, our engine runs more efficiently – completely defeating the never-fun point of eating less. Plus, if you decide to really tip the scales by dramatically reducing calorie intake, your body will hate you. First of all, you’ll become calorie-obsessed (read: nobody will like you). Your metabolic activity will slow down so you’ll become a slower, colder version of yourself. Your body will be more concerned with survival than reproduction, so you’ll have no sex drive. You may even lose your hair (extreme case.) 

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? 

Enter  hormones

Eighth grade biology taught us that hormones are messengers floating around inside of us that help one part of the body talk to another part of the body. What eighth grade biology didn’t drive home is that our routine effects our biology and our biology then helps inform our routine…

Instagram Quote - hormones

Our happiness – closely associated with our serotonin levels.  Stress levels – cortisol.  Sex drive – testosterone.  Our motivation – dopamine.  Even our likeability has everything to do with the delicate balance of our hormones.

Hormones are the master puppeteers of our body and mind. They control our mood, our  sleep, our strength, and yes, our body fat. So if we want to get shredded, let’s stop worrying so much about calories and figure out how to optimize our hormones.

Lean Hormones 101 

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 that play into the equation. Plus, hormones are exceptionally interdependent – a change in one hormone will effect other hormone levels and how they function. To begin, let’s focus on a few of the key players that we have some control over: insulin, estrogen, and testosterone.  

Insulin

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. For most of us trying to stay/get/one day be shredded, we want to avoid high spikes in our insulin because we’re not trying to live that energy storing life. Low carb diets prevent large insulin spikes and help improve our relationship with the hormone. After we reduce our carb intake and get lean, our relationship with insulin improves and we can gradually reintroduce carbs in a thoughtful way.

Estrogen

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 we don’t eat enough cruciferous vegetables (which help us manage our estrogen levels) AND there’s stuff in our environment that our body absorbs and mistakes for estrogen.  We call these xenoestrogens. Soy is a estrogenetic compound. Commercially raised beef, chicken and pork are common sources, as well as plastic water bottles, certain cosmetics, 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, eating organic and “hormone free” foods is a really good idea.

Testosterone

Testosterone is known as the “male sex hormone” because it controls a lot of the awesomeness that is the male reproductive process. It is the most potent androgen (andros meaning “man” and gennan meaning “to produce.”) Testosterone increases muscle mass, bone density, and sex drive, decrease body fat stores, improves our energy levels and vitality, and makes us want to smash beer cans on our forehead*.

*anecdotal evidence

Physical stress is a stimulus for the body to produce testosterone, so lifting heavy weights will improve your T levels. Compound lifts that involve a lot of muscle fibers are associated with higher levels of endrogenous T release. That means the big business lifts like squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, presses, and O lifts should be at the foundation of your training program.

Sleep is also closely correlated with T levels because we produce androgens when we get enough shut-eye. Testosterone can drop by as much as 15% after only one week of sleep restriction of five hours per night (1).

Testosterone is produced from cholesterol. That’s right, cholesterol – the stuff that doctors and vegans warn you about. A diet that includes high quality sources of animal protein, and in particular red meat, will benefit T levels.   

Zinc and fish oil supplementation can also have a positive influence on our T levels because they help aid in the testosterone production process (2, 3). 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 (4).  

A Summary

This crash-course in endocrinology only touches on the basics. Hormones are complex little creatures that are constantly in flux. But using our hormone profile as a road map to improve our choices, we can work with our biology instead of against it. 

We can manage our insulin levels by monitoring our carb intake; we can maintain an ideal relationship with estrogen by increasing our veggie intake and reducing our exposure to certain chemicals; and we can increase our testosterone by lifting heavy weights, getting plenty of sleep, eating meat, and being thoughtful about our supplement protocol. Bottom line: calorie counting is out, hormone counting is in. Improve your hormone profile and you’re well on your way to becoming one ripped USDA cut choice human being.

For full training, nutrition, and supplement protocols that take all of this into consideration: 

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Works Cited
(1) http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1029127
(2) Alteration of the Lipid Composition of Rat Testicular Plasma Membranes by Dietary (n-3) Fatty Acids Changes the Responsiveness of Leydig Cells and Testosterone Synthesis; Elena Sebokova, Manohar L. Garg, Antoni Wierzbicki, Alan B. R. Thomson and M. Thomas Clandinin; Manuscript received 13 July 1987. Revision accepted 27 November 1989
(3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8875519
(4) 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. 
*This article was updated on July 14th, 2016. The original version was published by Rob Sulaver on MensFitness.com.

 

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  • Like most people I started off with calorie counting thinking it was the only way to help me lose weight. I always wondered why I wasn’t getting the results I wanted. Now I’ve educated myself on healthy foods and eat what I want (which I choose to be nutritious food), when I want. It takes a lot of the stress out of things.

    And wait, you touched on the stress hormone cortisol as well. More stress avoidance = awesome as well. It’s like win-win.

    • BandanaTraining

      Totally agree Shane. It’s easiest to manage stress that never happens in the first place. Definitely a win. …glad you’re having success, brah.

  • JP

    How do you eat when u go out? Honest question … I always loved the idea of going all natural and organic but … 180-200g of protein of nothing but chicken is too much … So a shake is definitely needed … Most supplements are considered processed, how do I fight that? Even fish oil caps have some sort of processing to them

    • BandanaTraining

      Generally speaking, I eat a variety of fresh vegetables & meats. But 200g of protein in one meal is a butt-load of chicken.

    • BandanaTraining

      As far as processing, I know whatcha mean. There’s a certain degree of processing for most of the foods we eat. Generally speaking, unprocessed tends to be better. Unfortunately, you can’t always speak in generalizations. In fact, sometimes processing is a good thing. For example, because of ever-increasing water-polution, there’s a HUGE heavy-metal concern with our fishy supply. The processing of fish oils helps to address that issue – can’t be mad at that.

  • Ben Johnson

    I’ll take the 2% increase… Also, question. I know you often say no carbs but from veggies after breakfast. I was curious if you would put corn under the vegetable umbrella or grain. I feel like it is generally accepted as a veggie, but its technically a grain isn’t it?
    Also, would you say potatoes should be avoided as well? Just considering how much of an insulin spike they can cause. Obviously sweet potatoes are a better option but would you still recommend them for one trying to avoid insulin spikes?

    • BandanaTraining

      Good question. I usually recommend non-starchy vegetables. So yes…that means no potatoes or corn.

      • Ben Johnson

        that was my assumption. thanks a bunch.

  • Excellent article as usual. Recommendations on estrogen reduce supplement? such as DIM ?

    • BandanaTraining

      I’m a fan. Especially if you’re looking to do an estrogen detox.

  • electron killer

    Science! Anyhoo, what do you think of GMOs? Are you actively avoiding those?

    • BandanaTraining

      Yea. I am. Don’t mess with my food, Mr. Scientist Guy.

  • Huh. This post came at a very good time for me. After my injury I haven’t been able to work out, so I’ve been counting calories to try and stay on top of everything. I’ve actually lost a few pounds, but I think it has more to do with muscle loss than anything else. Any tips? I know this is a little off-topic.

    • BandanaTraining

      My two cents: if you focus on eating natural + vegetable rich then calories / quantity will self-regulate. The body is remarkable at managing its energy influx when you feed it the right stuff, chu know?

  • krista

    Another awesome article! Link says ewg.org but goes to ewg.com @least it does on my phone.

    • BandanaTraining

      Good looking. I’ll get this sorted out.

    • BandanaTraining

      Boom. Sorted.

  • Maria

    So insulin is a big deal to be slim, right? I eat really natural; lots of fruits, veggies and nothing refined/processed. I sleep well and do cardio like four days a week, nothing crazy. Do you think having oatmeal in the morning and whole-grain brown rice pasta at lunch spikes insulin levels enough to trigger fat storage? How much should carbs be limited, you think? I am 5’2 so I am pretty small, and I usually eat those two carbs a day in the portion recommended in the package. Whadya say? Too much carbs for a small girl?

    • BandanaTraining

      I’d encourage you to experiment. It might be beneficial to move your carbs to your post workout window (so have one of those options as the first meal AFTER your workout.) I’d start there and make adjustments based on progress.

  • Joe Byrne

    Any thoughts on being a vegan? I am lifting heavey and taking 100% creatine. The creatine has helped make some major improvement in my gains and in the way my body feels after a work out. Should I be taking anything else?

    • BandanaTraining

      LOVE that you’re taking creatine. I’d also add zinc to your protocol and if you REALLY want to level up your game, you can supplement with 2000 grams of red meat. *knee slap*

  • ITStephen13

    I try to stick to non-processed carbs aside from a PBJ after workouts, but have a serious ice-cream problem. A pint a week isn’t uncommon (in one sitting) but I’ve been known to go higher than that. Any time of day that I can slake my ice cream desire and not mess with my gains? Dropping the processed crap got me beach ready, trying to stay there!

    • BandanaTraining

      Your body is going to utilize those carbs in a more effective way after a grueling workout. So if it makes sense with your schedule, first do some high intensity training (lifting or HIIT) then indulge. How much and how often you indulge will still (obviously) affect your body comp, but you might as well use nutrient timing to your advantage, cha know? Stay swole, my friend.

  • Its amazing to see how many fitness professionals have jumped on the hormonal bandwagon lately (not really a bandwagon when its true). And yet nobody can hold a candle to your no BS comedic writings.
    What are your views on caffeine in the body and its hormonal influence? I’ve always found cortisol to be my biggest bug bear for progress.

    • BandanaTraining

      Appreciate the kind words Maverick. I’m a pretty big fan of caffeine, but I do think we need to be thoughtful about it. For example, lots of peeps get coffee AFTER a workout which is backwards (cause that’s when we want to manage our cortisol levels.) I don’t do any caffeine after 3pm and in order to keep my sensitivity in check, I cycle off caffeine a few times per year. Then I start back on coffee at a low dosage. Simple rules make a big difference, cha know? Keep crushing, my dude.