Ponder, if you will, a few phrases:
“Create your deficit with exercise.”
“Train hard, to eat more and lose fat!”
“These fat loss workouts will fuel your metabolic fire so you can eat more food while still dropping the fat!”
“Diets slow down your metabolism! If you want to lose fat you have to eat more food and exercise more!”
I have seen so many phrases like this in various forms. Sounds great on paper, right? You get to eat more food and all you have to do is exercise more at the same time. According to the sayings, you can go from eating less calories to eating more calories while burning more fat! I mean, who wouldn’t sign up on that sales page? I would. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it is and it isn’t. Let’s dissect the potential problems and errors of this burning more, eating more, and losing more theory.
What Creates a Deficit?
Every day you have an activity level. No matter what you do (cleaning, training, sleeping, or sexing), you burn calories (energy). You can’t exercise a deficit because it is about the ratio of diet to movement. Do you call laying in bed and not eating exercising a deficit? People need to know and understand that caloric burn isn’t static and anything you do affects it outside of training. In the simplest of terms, diet is not another word for exercise.
If you are apprehensive about me making those statements, I understand. Why shouldn’t you be confused? It is said everywhere from the “trainer tips” on the Biggest Loser to the “real deal no bs guru.” You have dished out hundreds of dollars and trust people who, for better or worse, don’t know what they are talking about.
I can’t just tell you I’m right, so you will have to keep reading and decide for yourself.
The Goal Is to Eat More, Right?
There is an interesting misconception, it’s origin unknown, that someone, somewhere along the way said…
“It is better to be in a deficit at higher calories, than at lower calories, even if the deficit percentage is the same.”
Meaning, if Jane is eating 2,000 calories and burning 3,000 calories per day, she is better off than Sarah who is eating 1,200 calories and burning 2,200 calories per day. By all accounts, it seems like Jane is on a healthier diet and training program. Is this right or wrong? Well, let’s look at some common sense and research based arguments.
Will Higher Calories Ensure Essential Nutrients?
In the Fat Loss Troubleshoot, I discuss essential nutrients, and recently I’ve updated it with the formula for determining the calories and macros you would need in a day. It even takes into account allotting capacity for carbohydrates (which isn’t technically an essential nutrient). The stats were determined by how much intake would be needed to secure essential amino acids, fatty acids, and vitamins and minerals.
The fatty and amino acid profiles also take into account a higher amount based upon the assumption of training, the female reproductive system, and more. In conclusion, a man who weighs 170 pounds and gets an adequate amount of exercise would be exceeding it at a mere 900 calories per day. It is important to consider the term essential. This is not a discussion about optimizations. When you add other factors, that same person should complete a “health number” at 1,700 calories per day. This is assumed with a moderate activity factor and an argument over what health means.
My point is, with essential caloric recommendations reaching upwards of 4,000-5,000 calories according to some experts, it leaves you wondering where they came up with those numbers. It certainly isn’t the case that people need extremely high caloric amounts without high activity.
More Stress Needs More Repair
When stress increases on the body, so does the need for higher amounts of nutrients. This is why we need more food when we expend more energy. We expend less, we need less; we expend more, we need more. This is why the practice of “do a lot more, take in a lot less” leads to problems. Sadly, driving yourself into the ground is a popular training system.
The standard training plan you come across is usually devised from the following three things:
- The author pulled it completely out of thin air.
- The basic principles are based off previous research and results with athletes.
- It comes from years of research with their own clients and based upon their “in the trenches” work. This may or may not be a good thing.
When I write my programming, I write it based off a mix of mostly #2 and some of #3. If you take something like mobility or foam rolling as an example, all we really have is #3 because there hasn’t been a ton of research done on this topic. The little research that has been done and real world results show recovery and overtraining are very real things. The methods of recovery cause a lot of discussion (e.g. active or passive recovery), and I won’t go into that right now, but what I will say is that most formal testing is done on athletes in maintenance or, at the very least, those in minimal deficits. In those cases, recovery is extremely important in comparison to demand on the body.
I hate to break this to people, but most self-labeled athletes are doing it wrong. Professional athletes aren’t starving themselves for years, doing rigorous training all week, and depriving themselves of carbohydrates. They take part in de-loads, active and passive rests, and maintenance nutrition. With all that, they still deal with overuse, injuries, and health issues.
So knowing all of that, do you really think it is the best idea to push yourself to the max while trying to maintain a large deficit (even if it is higher calories)?
Are You Even Hitting the Numbers Anyway?
A quick point I want to highlight is that most people aren’t even hitting the high burn anyway, they just think they are. Do you realize how hard you have to workout to achieve even a 500 calorie burn in one session? Also, if you can actually train that hard it means your conditioning is higher, thus making reaching that number even harder because of efficiency. My point is, for a woman of 140 pounds and average conditioning, it would involve staying at nearly 9 kcal burned per minute to obtain a 500 calorie burn. That is a minimum of 8-8.5 of RPE effort for 60 minutes straight. If you have a sedentary job, it would take two full hours of that level of training to be lucky to hit a 3,000 calorie burn per day.
If you are pushing your body to that level, don’t you think you are going to need all the calories you can get? Screw a deficit, you need every drop.
As you can see, there might even be an argument against the “burn more to eat more” method. At least at the lower numbers you aren’t as likely to be creating as much physical need for repair. Still, I don’t want to come across as completely paranoid. If you take part in smart exercise and nutrition manipulation you can push things pretty close to the edge. All you need to know is what to do and how to pull back. I just find it ironic that most of the systems that advocate this form of dieting do so with restriction of carbohydrates and rest days. Shame.
While you think you are doing good for your body, you are actually breaking it down. The model that makes the most sense is a moderate deficit (no greater than 30%) with moderate training. This is looking at it strictly from a health benefit; it does not take into account various macro manipulations or psychological effects. No one model is perfect for everyone.
For people who achieve a higher caloric burn naturally with little effort and also take part in general training, it makes sense for your deficit numbers to be higher. However, overly stressing your system isn’t needed to eat a few hundred more calories per day, especially considering your body may require more for repair than you are giving it.
My Final Point to Convince You…
I see the biggest lack of linear fat loss progress in people who try to follow that model (next to those who hit hard and don’t eat at all). Most people aren’t ready for that model. Please make sure you aren’t one of them and that you know what you are getting into.
Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Intakes for Individuals, Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies, 2004, http://www.iom.edu/Global/News%20Announcements/~/media/Files/Activity%20Files/Nutrition/DRIs/DRISummaryListing2.ashx, retrieved 2009-06-09
WHO Press. http://whqlibdoc.who.int/trs/WHO_TRS_935_eng.pdf. – page 150
Fürst P, Stehle P (1 June 2004). “What are the essential elements needed for the determination of amino acid requirements in humans?”. J. Nutr. 134 (6 Suppl): 1558S–1565S. PMID 15173430. http://jn.nutrition.org/cgi/content/full/134/6/1558S.
Whitney Ellie and Rolfes SR Understanding Nutrition 11th Ed, California, Thomson Wadsworth, 2008 p.154
Kruger MC, Horrobin DF (September 1997). “Calcium metabolism, osteoporosis and essential fatty acids: a review”. Progress in Lipid Research 36 (2-3): 131–51. doi:10.1016/S0163-7827(97)00007-6. PMID 9624425.
“National Academy of Sciences. Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes: Elements”. US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library and National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. October 2009.
“National Academy of Sciences. Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Guidance: DRI Tables”. US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library and National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. October 2009. http://fnic.nal.usda.gov/nal_display/index.php?info_center=4&tax_level=3&tax_subject=256&topic_id=1342&level3_id=5140
Andersson, H., et al. Neuromuscular fatigue and recovery in elite female soccer: Effects of active recovery. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise. 40(2):372-80, 2008