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:
- The most predictable foods, in terms of calories, are the most processed and should be the most avoided.
- The most predictable foods, in terms of calories, are also packaged and should usually be avoided.
- 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.
- It’s very easy to become obsessed with calories and for non-competition life, obsessed nutrition is never a win.
- The body does a remarkable job of balancing energy demands (and improving body comp) when you give it the right food.
- 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?
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…
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 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 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 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*.
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).
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: