Understanding Caloric Deficits for Weight Loss
Lots of people: “Eat less, move more.”
Me: “Shut the fuck up.”
This is NOT a denial of caloric balance. It is an undeniable fact that calories in – calories out (CICO) is the only reality that matters for losing weight, and any brainless fuckstick talking about some “obesity code” or that there are “good calories” and “bad calories” to allegedly game the hormonal system and violate the physical laws of the universe needs to fuck off. And go far away. Then fuck off some more.
Can we just stop with the CICO denial? Ignore those people. Anyone who denies CICO for weight loss has zero credibility and should be completely dismissed. If you insist I provide research about how, no matter the macronutrient ratio, calories are all that matter to weight loss, read this. If you’re convinced your low carb diet violated CICO, read this to learn what really happened.
This does not mean eat whatever dafuq you want. More on that later. First, let’s address the “eat less, move more” bullshit.
It’s not technically bullshit. Technically, it’s pretty damn accurate, with variations. You can just eat a lot less and move the same, or eat the same and move a lot more, or eat more and move a shit-ton more. Whatever creates the caloric deficit is going to work.
But as practical advice, it’s dogshit.
It’s canine feces because while the mechanism is simple, the integration of regular caloric deficits into one’s lifestyle is anything but. Last year I wrote a piece explaining this in detail, titled “Eat Less, Move More is Bullshit.” (That piece was named #1 fat loss article of the year by the Personal Trainer Development Center.)
But when it comes to understanding how caloric deficits work, it’s even more complicated.
A Calorie is a Calorie … Sort of
As a unit of measurement, a calorie IS just a calorie. What is being measured? A definition: “The amount of energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 g of water from 14.5° to 15.5°C.”
All calories are the same in terms of combustion and raising water temperature, but not the same in terms of energetic and metabolic effects in the human body. Here is an analogy:
“A mile is a mile. But walking one over flat ground when well-rested feels very different from climbing one up a mountain when exhausted. But the differences have to do with our condition, terrain and altitude — not distance.”
And so, despite the measurement being constant, some calories will metaphorically be like climbing a mountain, and others will be a stroll at sea level.
What does that mean? Let’s break it down.
A Better Understanding of “Calories In”
This is the big picture stuff of how calories vary and how it can affect weight loss and weight gain.
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
A percentage of your calories are freebies. But it depends on the food. TEF is the calories of the food that are burned via the process of digesting, absorbing, and assimilating food. This study breaks it down by macronutrient:
- TEF of fat is 0-3%
- TEF of carbohydrates is 5-10%
- TEF of protein is 20-30%
By the way, if you decide to go high protein and cut carbs to do so because you think it’s going to be some amazing boost in TEF, run the actual numbers on the macro percentages to find out just how many more calories get burned via TEF. It likely won’t be as much as you first guess. You might earn yourself an Oreo cookie or two via increased TEF, while in the process sacrificing things like health and performance.
Boosting TEF is not a good reason to alter your macronutrient percentages.
The general rule is, the more processed a food is, the more calories your body can access. The more well-done a steak is, as an example, the more bioavailable the calories are (and it’s a significant difference, which, unless you need those calories, is yet another reason why rare or medium-rare is the way to go. If you overcook my steak I will cut you instead of the cow). Cooking is like pre-digestion, where it breaks the calories down to make them easier for your body to access.
It is worth noting there are ways to game the system via weird cooking methods. From this article: “In 2015, Sri Lankan scientists discovered that they could more than halve the available calories in rice by adding coconut oil during cooking and then cooling the rice in the refrigerator.” Personally, I can’t be bothered with things like this, or fretting over the rate of absorption of resistant starch, but feel free to examine it on your own.
Looking at extreme ends of bioavailability, compare broccoli to ice cream. Ice cream is highly processed, and it’s easy for the body to break down and access those calories. Broccoli is fibrous, and a challenge for your digestive tract to break down. And so, your body is going to break down and access most of those ice cream calories, and poop out a lot of the broccoli ones.
At the macronutrient level, fat is the least satiating, carbohydrates are in the middle, and protein (in solid form) is the most satiating. There are the keto advocates who proclaim, “Nuh-uh! Fat is totes most satiating.” But that’s bullshit and I have exposed it as such.
How does this transfer over at the popular food level, here is a piece that lists a satiety index for some common foods.
Now none of this violates CICO, but it’s just another bit of information to file about how calories aren’t created equal. Some are going to be more satiating than others. In addition to protein, higher fiber content can be good. Requiring lots of chewing can also be good.
But there is also the issue of satisfaction and the way you consume those calories. Sitting down at a family meal at the dinner table, putting your utensils down in between bites, having a conversation that isn’t about food while eating and just enjoying each other’s company … these are all things that can add to satisfaction and make you say, “I’m good” that much sooner rather than mindlessly continuing to shove food in face hole while watching dumbfuck Kardashians usher in Armageddon on the glowing rectangle of colossal time waste.
Beyond that, sometimes you need to examine your own psychology. If you are thoughtful about getting the most satisfaction bang for your buck, it can mean eating something counterintuitive.
Cheese is high in saturated fat and high in calories, and adding lots of cheese to foods generally amps up the caloric and fat content without adding satiety. But sometimes, towards the end of the night, I want to nibble something. I could eat a 300-calorie bowl of cereal, and that would do it, but a 100-calorie chunk of sharp cheese will do it just as well. So, I reach for the cheese.
These are things that take self-awareness and practice to master.
The better it tastes, the more you eat.
There is a difference between food that tastes great and food that is “Holy shit that’s amazing!”
A mango is 130 calories, and when perfectly ripe, tastes great. Conversely, a large salted caramel truffle Blizzard from Dairy Queen has more than ten times the calories of a mango.
I know I can eat that entire Blizzard, but no way can I eat 10 mangoes.
The Blizzard is a careful mixture of sugar, salt and fat, combined with smooth and crunchy, to make taste buds and rewards centers in the brain go apeshit, leading to near uncontrollable piehole shoveling.
Health and Performance
Some foods, after consuming, make you want to collapse onto the couch and say, “Oog.”
Some foods fuel you up for kick ass exercise.
Some foods, when consumed regularly and at high volume, can lead to illness. Others are more nutritious and promote health.
CICO remains inviolate. This is just another way not all calories are equal.
Again, it’s not a violation of CICO, because nothing violates CICO. But getting an accurate portrayal of caloric content from reading labels is easier said than done.
Way more is unknown than known, but there is evidence to indicate gut microbiota affects both how much of ingested calories are harvested, and your metabolic rate. Again, no CICO violation taking place.
Calories in is only half of it. There is much metabolic fuckery on the burn side as well.
A Better Understanding of “Calories Out”
How many calories do you burn each day?
There are many equations, but I’m gonna link to this guy’s site, because it gives a good breakdown and jibes closely with my careful paper calculations. Before I link it, I recommend you leave it at “sedentary,” because I find it’s better to choose that then figure out additional calories burned on your own. Also, if you know your body fat percentage, great. If not, don’t sweat it. The above section on “Calories In” reveals there isn’t much hope of accuracy with number crunching. We’re just shooting for general figures here.
That’s how many calories you burn each day whilst sitting on your ass, doing very little.
What happens to calories out when you move that ass? The number goes up. How to calculate? Take that basal metabolic rate (BMR) result and divide by 24. You can round up just a little, if you like, because it’s really RMR we’re looking for. For example, my BMR comes out as 1,887, and divided by 24 that’s 78.6. But I’m rounding that up to an even 80 to get “resting” metabolic rate.
Dafuq am I talking about? Two things. First is that “basal” is lying in bed, and “resting” is lying around, like watching TV or something. I don’t spend all day in bed, so …
And the second is the reason why you divide by 24 is to know how many calories you burn each hour while sitting on your ass. I burn 80 per hour.
Activity in terms of caloric burn can be measured as a “metabolic equivalent,” or MET. My 1 MET is 80 calories. If I run at 4mph, it climbs to 5 METs. If I run at 6mph, it climbs to 10 METs. Here is a handy chart:
|METs||Sport, Activity or Exercise|
|2.5||Slow walking, approximately 2 mph|
|3.0||Weightlifting: Light effort|
|3.0||Stationary bike: Very light effort|
|3.3||Walking at 3 mph|
|4.0||Water aerobics (aquacize)|
|5.0||Aerobic classes: Low impact|
|5.0||Walking at 4 mph|
|7.0||Aerobic classes: High impact|
|7.0||Stationary bike: Moderate Effort|
|7.0||Swimming: Moderate effort|
|8.0||Circuit training, including aerobic stations, with no rest|
|8.0||Outdoor cycling: Approximately 13 mph|
|9.0||Jogging at 5.2 mph (slow)|
|10.0||Outdoor cycling at approximately 15 mph|
|10.0||Running at 6 mph|
|11.5||Running at 7 mph|
|13.5||Running at 8 mph|
|15.0||Running at 9 mph|
Adapted from Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning , 3rd ed., T. Baechle and R. Earle, eds., 495–96. (Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2008).
You can use this chart to get an idea of how various activities ramp up daily burn. If it’s not on the chart, compare the relative intensity. IMPORTANT! Don’t forget that you need to consider extra calories burned. I burn 80 calories doing nothing for an hour. I burn 800 running for an hour. The “extra” is 720. I didn’t add another 800 to my daily burn, I added 720.
All of this is if you fit into some view of “normal,” or whatever. To get that total daily burn you should already realize from the calculator it’s dependent upon age, gender, weight, height, and fat free mass. But there is more affecting it.
Medication and Medical Conditions
A book can be written on this subject, so I won’t bother listing details. But here are generalities:
- Some medications increase metabolic rate.
- Some medications decrease metabolic rate.
- Some medications increase appetite.
- Some medications decrease appetite.
- Some medical conditions increase metabolic rate.
- Some medical conditions decrease rate.
- Some medical conditions increase appetite.
- Some medical conditions decrease appetite.
There are psychological aspects as well. I had a good friend in grad school who is bipolar. During a manic phase, he wrote an insightful thesis in a short time (and aced his defense), all while whipping his body into amazing shape via hours in the gym. Conversely, depression can make it impossible for someone to get out of bed.
None of it violates CICO.
There are a variety of genetic markers for both leanness and obesity, but at the same time it’s worth pointing out that prior to the 1970s, overweight and obesity were far less common. There was a rapid shift in BMIs due to a quickly changing environment that slightly decreased our levels of physical activity, and dramatically increased our daily caloric intake. (Caloric intake went up by about 500 calories per day, whereas average caloric burn went down by only 100 calories per day.)
The story of genetics is that you’re stuck with what you have, so do the best you can. Genetics still don’t violate CICO.
Improved Economy of Movement
A new runner flails and gyrates like they have a scorpion in their underpants. If they’re in poor physical condition, their metabolic rate additionally spikes higher than a trained person. Heart and breathing rates also stay elevated longer.
And so, the uncoordinated and untrained runner burns far more calories per mile than the trained runner who glides along the pavement using an efficient gait. This doesn’t just apply to running, but to all movement. The more you move, the more efficient you become at it, whether you like it or not.
The good news is, training builds up endurance. A trained person can do a lot more activity, and therefore burn more calories.
- Reduced thermic effect of food: When you restrict calories to lose weight, TEF of course goes down and this affects total daily energy expenditure.
- Reduced body weight: When there is less “you” in need of supporting, the overall daily burn goes down. What’s more, if you lose 50 pounds, that’s 50 pounds less you must carry through every step, every stair, every squat … and that means fewer calories burned.
- Caloric restriction will cause a reduction in daily energy expenditure. It doesn’t mean metabolism comes to a stop, but it still has an effect. More details and supporting research here.
- Adding muscle mass via resistance training doesn’t do a whole lot to boost metabolism. It helps some, but boosting metabolism shouldn’t be on the radar screen as a reason to lift. Aerobic exercise does more for caloric burn, but at the psychological level, lifters seem to pay more attention to diet. Read this article for more details.
- Just FYI, interval training is not some holy grail of fat loss. It doesn’t cause mega caloric “after burn” the way some allege.
- Eating six small meals a day doesn’t boost metabolism either. Choose a normal meal pattern that works for you.
So, How the Fuck Do You Lose Weight?
This piece should explain that, while CICO is inviolate (in case I haven’t made that clear), it’s damn hard to do the math. The equations are anything but simple and there are potentially a shit-ton of complicating factors.
Still, you can try. I’ve heard a lot of people have success with My Fitness Pal. One pro tip is to input the food before you eat it to keep you honest, because honesty with caloric intake is a big problem.
Beyond that, if you’re looking for behavioral approaches to eating that don’t involve much math, many people have had success with my Caloric Deficit Cheat Sheet.
And never forget: CICO is inviolate.
James S. Fell, MBA, CSCS, is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com, and a contributor to Men’s Health, Women’s Health, the Guardian, TIME Magazine, and NPR.