Updated: Oct 14, 2020
It's no secret that caloric restriction is a tool used to lose body fat. Think of 'calories' in terms of fuel for your body. If you take in less fuel than your body needs, it starts to tap into other available fuel sources (ie, like its fat stores).
You don't need to subscribe to a diet that bans certain foods or sets strict calorie or macro limits to feel and look incredible.
But calorie restriction is only one part of a bigger picture. There are other nutritional, metabolic, hormonal and lifestyle factors at play that interrelate and influence your attempts to lose body fat. And while some degree of calorie restriction tends to be the most direct path to fat loss, more is not better.
An all too common story
Picture this. Your friend Robin is keen to lose 5 kg so they start a popular diet and see initial results. Robin is excited and religiously preaches the benefits of this miraculous diet. But after a fortnight or so, Robin's results plateau. Robin decides to cut their calories again. This nudges things along for a little longer, although Robin's results continue to stall. In a moment of despair, Robin finds comfort in a delicious food that's strictly banned on the diet. Almost immediately, Robin feels guilty for breaking the rules. Robin tries to make up for that transgression and eats 'perfectly' from Monday to Friday. But then Robin is invited out to dinner. Robin indulges a little. Then Robin indulges a lot. Steadily, that dreaded number on the scales creeps up to the original figure - and then some. Robin feels defeated and to blame for 'failing'. They tell themselves, 'The diet is clearly effective. It works! It's just me - I'm not disciplined enough.' Three months later, they resolve to do better and try again.
Can you spot some of the problems? The rigid dieting, the food 'rules', the moral judgements, the blame and compensation. Yet this roller coaster diet of fleeting results, chronic depletion and negative self-talk is all too common. Sure, you can rig the game and drop your calories so dramatically that your body has little choice but to lose weight - whether it's fat, muscle, water, bone or other tissue. The 'instant results' can seem like a win. But it's ultimately futile if you can't sustain it.
Your body is the only one you'll ever have and there's no need to put arbitrary deadlines and demands on it.
For example, to compensate for the lack of fuel available:
Your body becomes more energy efficient. To do this, it suppresses your metabolism, and uses less calories than it normally would to complete basic functions. Due to its increased efficiency, you'll also expend less calories to fuel physical activity (like steady state cardio.)
You experience cravings. Cravings are a signal to your body that it isn't getting the nutrients it needs from your foods. If your body craves calories, you may find that you unintentionally binge on undesirable, calorie-dense foods. Ironically, today's high calorie foods tend to be nutrient deficient, so giving in to your cravings can back fire. Rather than quell your cravings, eating foods like soft drink, cookies, breads, pasta or high sugar treats can just add fuel to your cravings fire.
Your microbiome populates with bacteria that are able to extract more energy from the foods that you eat.
Your hormones adapt to promote fat storage - ie, cortisol increases, sex hormone production decreases, insulin sensitivity decreases.
Your restricted diet can even alter your body language and motivation to exercise, so that you subconsciously avoid any unnecessary exertion.
There's a common assumption that to lose fat, you must endure a strict diet of scant calories and bland foods, constant hunger and fatigue, and many hours of mindless training. That's not true. Fat loss does not require pain and suffering. There's nothing admirable about 'dieting hard' for long periods of time to sculpt your physique. Don't let the fitness fanatics that preach a 'go hard, or go home' mentality get into your head. The truth is that you don't need to subscribe to a diet that bans certain foods or sets strict calorie or macro limits to feel and look incredible.
Before you cut calories, here's four tips to consider to optimise your results.
1. Eat more, not less.
Keep your food as high as you can for as long as possible. This is incredibly important and underrated for fat loss. If your aim is to lose fat but you are already on a rabbit's diet, you may actually need to boost your calories first to allow your body time to rebuild and repair your metabolism. This will depend on your diet and body composition history.
If you only eat 1000 calories a day and you still can't shift that stubborn fat, it's neither healthy nor sustainable to continue to cut calories to push it. Accept that it may take time to accomplish your dream body. And that's ok, because your body is the only one you'll ever have and there's no need to put arbitrary deadlines and demands on it. Give your body some time to adjust. Be patient, nourish your body and the results will come.
2. Eat a high volume of nutrient-dense foods.
Fat loss isn't about eliminating foods. It's about eating a broad range of nutrient-dense, real foods. It's important to consume adequate nutrients to support a healthy and faster metabolic rate. For many, the solution to a fat loss plateau may be to restore missing nutrients. If you consume ample amounts of vital nutrients, this signals to your body that food is abundant. A nutritionally satisfied body is able to release and use its fat stores, rather than hold on to fat.
Sadly, common 'diet' food choices include processed and modified meals or food substitutes. This means that the standard Australian diet (or the 'SAD' diet) not only restricts calories, but also nutrients.
3. Respect your body.
A healthy body is a resilient and adaptable one. If you nourish and support your body while you lose fat, this will make it far easier to maintain your results and add flexibility to your foods in the longer term. Eat a variety of nutritious foods, move frequently, sleep deeply, laugh daily, rest often. If you respect your body, it will be far less likely to fight you!
4. Build muscle mass!
More muscle mass consumes more calories, produces health-promoting hormones and boosts your metabolism. You'll find that you look leaner if you carry more muscle mass, even if you hold some body fat. Would you rather have full, shaped muscles and an athletic shape, or a 'skinny fat' physique? It's vital to eat enough nutritious foods to build and sustain muscle tissue. If you're tempted to cut calories, remember that training is just the stimulus to build muscle - your body needs real food that contain the building blocks for muscle tissue to maximise your results. If you aggressively cut your calories, you may just under cut your training too.