In an effort both self-motivated, and in the interests of research, I have gone over to the dark side, readers. I am now tracking my calorie intake in an experiment to personally test the ‘calories in, calories out’ (CICO) paradigm, and better understand why so many bright and respected minds find success in conscious calorie manipulation if done ‘correctly.’ Folks like Amber of Go Kaleo, and Anthony Colpo, who emphasize the ultimate relevance of the calorie.
But first, a preamble. The issue of fat gain and loss, and bodyweight regulation is complex. It’s commonly oversimplified, and standard CICO advocacy often enough seems ignorant of the subtleties. By saying essentially, “Thermodynamics… bitches!” to CICO critics, they miss that neither side of that equation can be pinned down with the precision they presume. For one, calorie estimates on food labels are not necessarily reliable, not all calories are metabolized the same, and what we eat has an impact on how hungry we are (and thus how many calories we take in). Moreover, surplus calories do not automatically get shuttled to new fat cells. The body can also use those for more energy, to build/repair lean tissue, to increase basal metabolic rate and body heat, or can excrete more of those calories. It’s no guarantee that more calories–>more body fat.
Much of the criticism of CICO misses the point, too. Largely discredited these days, some low-carb advocates used to talk about the metabolic advantage of fat as fuel which caused spontaneous weight loss while on a low-carb diet. But similar effects are observed on lower-palatbility diets of all stripes, including low-fat diets, raw-food diets and unrefined foods-only diets. The mechanism appears to ultimately be the spontaneous calorie reduction, which bolsters the CICO crowd.
The more sophisticated critique of CICO has to do with unconscious bodyweight regulation. The bodyweight set point is very effective at keeping weight within a tight range over long periods of time without any conscious manipulation, and acts elastically to bring it back if we consciously stray too far from baseline for very long. These CICO critics also rightly point out the consequences of dieting and restrained eating, the long-term compliance struggles, the down-regulation of the metabolism, the inability of the reduced weight individual to auto-regulate compared to the naturally lean, etc. This has long been the basis of Matt’s critique of CICO, and conscious calorie restriction as a means of sustainable weight loss.
And yet, some people succeed at this. They exist. They may not be as numerous as those who go through the diet wringer and fail, but it is possible. Some have commented about the apparent hopelessness of the conversation around fat loss on this site. When Matt writes that everyone knows what’s best for a fat person, I get why some people see it as dour. But in my mind, it’s a reminder that people who have never gone through it may not understand how to guide someone else to their destination. For every success story with great before and after photos,there are bunch of unpublished failure stories of people who with the best of intentions attempted and failed at tracking calories for weight loss.
I’ve spent a long time wondering whether there’s a way to bridge these different understandings. Whether calorie management can have a positive effect on things like satiety, auto-regulation and stress levels in the long term. Many of the body’s systems work multi-directionally. Addressing stress can help reduce cravings for a diet of exclusively Twinkies and Mountain Dew, for example. And switching to a more balanced diet can enhance stress tolerance, and help unstick longer-standing issues. I’ve long presumed that calorie management is an unmitigated stress, that the best way through an unhealthy relationship with food is pulling off the brakes and then listening to what the body wants without the noise of orthorexia screaming in one’s skull. And that does work for lots of people, especially for metabolic recovery. But not everyone sees the fat fall off as a natural consequence of their increased metabolic rate and energy levels.
Is it possible that calorie management can be the instigator of a healthier relationship with food? That being mindful of balance in a numeric way would lead to a greater capacity to intuitively balance? Maybe that state is what long term success stories attain and become proficient in navigating?
I just can’t dismiss everyone who achieve sustained fat loss and body recomposition through calorie maintenance, and the many smart folks who advocate this approach. Some are all-informed, sure; but is there some kernel of utility there? And so I’ve started trying to do this the ‘right way,’ in accordance with the best of what we understand around resistance training, hormones and human biology. Small deficit, regularity day to day, re-feeds, food choice freedom within the context of macronutrient goals, smartly designed training program, designs for eventual lean tissue gain to bring maintenance calories higher than before, etc. It’s long-term in approach with sustainability as a core tenet.
Maybe I’m setting myself up for trouble. I could see rebound fat gain, long-term worsening of body composition, the loss of capacity to auto regulate appetite and energy levels while remaining weight stable, and increased disease risk. I could end up with a less healthy relationship with food, and with more stress and needless wear and tear on my body.
Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll come through it with improved health, and some useful insight about the process of fat loss and body recomposition for the long term. Maybe I’ll know more about how to bridge the warring worlds of CICO advocates and critics. We’ll see.
But I wanted to open the conversation and bring a new round of self-experimentation and discovery to 180, especially since safe, effective long-term fat loss is a struggle many deal with after metabolic recovery. What do you all think? Am I crazy? Am I turning my back on core tenets of 180? Am I setting myself up for metabolic doom? I’d especially love to hear from those like Chief and Billy Craig who have seen success with high calorie fat loss. Anyway, have at it, folks.