One positive thing that has come out of discussions on topics like “metabolic damage” and “starvation mode” is people are learning (even though they are often misguided) that eating for your energy needs is necessary for an optimal metabolic rate.
On the flip side, people are now under the impression that going into a deficit is a bad idea. Boy how fast does that pendulum swing, eh? I am frequently asked questions like…
“I should keep my deficit really small so I don’t crash my metabolism, right?”
“I was told by (enter guru) that I should never be in a deficit to lose fat.”
“I heard deficits make you store fat, not lose it!”
The deficit is becoming the Big Bad (Whedon reference) especially for those who have had any experience with disordered eating. People in these situations are often told that “diets are bad” and “deficits are triggers or gateways.” While there can be severe cases where diet monitoring should be under the aid of a professional, it doesn’t exclude the fact that a deficit is our only means to fat loss.
If you learn how to control the deficit and what it means, you can take back the power and understand its mystery.
How Energy Works
I’ve talked at length about energy expenditure and how it works. I will recap here by keeping this simple.
Every day you need to expend a certain amount of energy through the following means:
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) – Amount of energy for essential body functions
Thermic Effect Of Food (TEF) – Amount of energy to digest food
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) – Mostly subconscious activity expenditure (fidgeting, pacing)
Non-Exercise Physical Activity (NEPA) – Mostly conscious activity expenditure (low-grade walking, shopping)
Thermic Effect of Activity (TEA) – Formal or structured exercise
Every day you land in one of the following categories:
Deficit – Less intake of energy than required
Maintenance – Matched intake of energy required
Surplus – Excess intake of energy required
We see that everything from training to subconscious decisions determine our daily energy needs.
To that point, what we take in determines our daily energy status.
Meet the Adipose Cell (Aka: The Fat Storage Center)
For a long time, the adipose cell was thought to be this simplistic storage center offering up little more than extra storage space. This is similar to spaces you’d rent to hold your excessive collection of Christmas decorations. You know who you are.
But over the past several decades we have found out how fascinating and involved these storage facilities are.
Bare bone facts:
Types of Fat Tissue – White and brown. White is most common, therefore these stats will be in reference to white fat cells.
Creation – Most fat cells are created before adulthood. After that, the majority of people fill or empty their cells. Very rarely does an adult overfeed or gain fat in excess enough to create new cells.
The Cell – The cell is connective tissue (cells, fibers, fluid) with adipocytes containing things like nuclei, receptors, and those lovely lipid droplets of fat.
Size – A normal fat cell is 0.1mm but can fill or shrink depending on water and fat levels.
Lipid State – At body temperature, it is a thick liquid state.
Functions – Energy storage, insulation/warmth, endocrine functions, receptors, and more.
To sum up…
You have containers in your body filled with little cells. They have tissue, liquid/water, cytoplasm, nuclei, lipid droplets, and lots of receptors and signal senders that report on your health, body fat levels, and well being. That is an amazing little system and operation for being only 0.1mm.
Adding and Subtracting Energy Stores
Before you can take something from storage, let’s briefly understand how it got there. Intake of food will lead to the distribution and storage of energy depending on the macronutrient and your current energy needs.
Macronutrient Circulation and Storage in Fat
Fat – Has little circulation (or oxidation) value. Stored easily as fat.
Carbohydrates – Is used best in circulation (oxidation). Converted to glycogen and, if in large excess of need, then converted to fat storage. Still difficult to store as fat even with excess consumption.
Protein – Used well in circulation (oxidation). Hard to store period in any capacity though there are some exceptions with higher levels of training, but still small. Protein is nearly impossible to convert to fat.
Storage can still take place regardless of a surplus being present. In a day you can store and use simultaneously. Long-term storage will only take place in the event of a surplus and will stay that way until a deficit is achieved. Because macronutrient intake is rarely (if ever in free-living) based on one solo macronutrient feed, it is important to take all macronutrient intake into account. While transferring carbohydrates or protein into fat is difficult, if fat is present in circulation it will be stored versus being utilized for energy.
Pulling from Stored Energy (AKA: How Fat Loss Works)
Let’s say you are training and you’ve used all the circulating energy in your body. When this happens your body is going to turn to its stored energy sources. Depending on your training intensity, it is going to choose mainly from two sources—glycogen (stored glucose) or fat (stored fat). You can access stored protein, but it is much harder to do than people think. Protein makes up a small portion of stored energy usage unless you are experiencing true starvation issues.
If we are calling on energy usage and we have none circulating, we pull that energy from stores. If we do that enough, we start to pull more from storage than what is going in. You might think this is an “outdated” concept, but no matter what diet system you are using, this is how it works. This is the ONLY WAY A FAT CELL EMPTIES.
The Claw Machine
I love the claw machine. You know the machine with the stuffed animals in it and the “grab” claw that is supposed to grab the stuffed animals, but never does? Yeah, that machine. I have become the master of the claw machine. You want to know why? I am not greedy. I go for what I can get instead of the best toy in the case. By doing that, I end up getting the best toys in the case. That’s my claw machine tip. Enjoy.
Let’s say the claw machine and the toys represents fat cell storage. The animals are your lipids, your stored fat. The machine is your container or cell. If the machine overflows and can’t close, the stuffed animals will have to go to another machine. If the machine is filled to its capacity but stable, it’s ready to produce an animal when you put in your dollar.
Ready to lose fat? You have to remove those little stuffed animals (lipids) one-by-one to empty out that cell. Once all of the stuffed animals are gone, you now have an empty fat cell.
As a side note: It sure would be a shame to empty out all those animals only to fill them back up again (if your goal is fat loss). Keep that in mind when you are having too many “fun” days in a row. As an exercise, visit a local arcade and waste a couple of bucks on the claw machine to get some perspective.
But Doesn’t a Deficit Destroy My Metabolism?
Deficits are perfectly fine and when used properly can elicit the body fat removal you need to achieve your aesthetics, health, or weight class goals.
The issue isn’t the deficit. The issue is the time and severity of the deficit. Even with extreme deficits there are safe ways to handle them, especially with the aid of professionals. When people talk about “crash dieting” and “ruining the metabolism” it is only part of the story. I will get into that in another article.
While adaptive thermogenesis and metabolic adaptations are real things, they are also reversible (depending on how much fat loss has taken place).
There are many reasons to dislike deficits. The best reason is that they don’t feel good. You are purposefully robbing yourself of nutrition to achieve a goal. That goal may be vanity or health, but your body doesn’t care. Like a greedy bank, it wants what you stored to stay there. Granted, the more “endowed” your fortune is, the easier it will (usually) let it go. But make no mistake, it is in survival mode. It doesn’t want you doing what you are doing. You aren’t crazy to think otherwise.
But it doesn’t “destroy” your metabolism.
But Diet Is Only One Part, Right? I Can Get the Same Results Training?
No. It’s every part. It’s everything. Look back at what I said about energy expenditure. It doesn’t matter what column the energy comes from: BMR, TEF, NEAT—it all goes into the pot. The adipocyte or fat cell is not going to give up its lustrous beads of energy just because you are having a really good workout and “stoking your metabolic fire.” It’s only going to release its reserves (because that is exactly what they are) when you are out of circulating energy.
Without that deficit you will never achieve the result of lower body fat. Now, how you choose to go about that deficit is open for a lot more personalization. Adding training to support metabolic activity or alter body composition are fantastic things. But that deficit, yep, it still has to be there.
Update: Due to the popularity of this article, I have received a few questions specifically about muscle loss, alcohol, and special diet populations. I am working on these additions and will add them sometime in the next week. Thanks for your interest.
Update #2: You can see the answers to these questions below.
Questions – What about alcohol? Is alcohol stored as fat?
Alcohol is a toxin (technically). It can’t be stored, so it is only oxidized. The body tries to metabolize it quickly to eliminate it. It also has a high TEF (15-20% of 100 calories consumed). You can’t get fat on alcohol because it can’t be stored or converted. It’d be like trying to get fat off of the filling used in stuffed animals. Your body is going to reject it and metabolize it out of you.
What that doesn’t mean is that you can drink all you want and not get fat or ill. First, most people don’t drink pure alcohol, they drink beer, wine, or mixed drinks. The other ingredients in those items can have other macronutrients. Keep that in mind.
Second, unless you want to drink only alcohol and die from poisoning and dehydration, you are ingesting other macronutrients in your meals. Alcohol will be metabolized before most things and essentially any fat or carbs that can, will be stored/converted to fat. Therefore, energy balance still matters.
What about special high fat diets (ketogenic)?
This article assumes a balanced macronutrient diet and general training recommendations. Still, no matter what diet you are taking part of, and no matter how it alters TEF or the other aspects of energy usage, fat is still pulled and used from cells in the same manner.
It should be noted that carbohydrates or insulin specifically are not needed to store fat. So yes, on a high fat diet you can still store fat. There is nothing wrong with a high fat diet, but it doesn’t really change much in the game other than fat is oxidized or used more for energy. Excess fat intake above your need for daily calories will still be stored as fat.
It seems like this article is suggesting muscle loss doesn’t take place in a deficit. Is it?
I noted it took place, I just didn’t note it was high on the scale of energy usage—that is a correct statement. Atrophy or muscle wasting is a very complex subject and an even harder one to measure. You may see a lot of anecdotal or even research claims about large amounts of muscle lost during dieting episodes, but these claims are often misleading. Water and glycogen make up lean mass measurements and muscle size. In a deficit, we lose or dehydrate in various spots and in muscle as well. Most lean mass lost in a deficit is short-term (i.e. not permanent). If lean mass and strength return within a very short span of time, that is nothing more than rehydration—not muscle regeneration.
Actual muscle is a poor choice for energy usage, and while the body will take some during a deficit, it is small especially if the individual is partaking in even modest protein intake and doing general lifestyle activity. If the individual is taking in moderate to high protein along with resistance training, then muscle losses in a deficit are small relative to the loss of water, glycogen, and fat storage.