With the new year upon us, it’s inevitable that we’re going to be inundated with hundreds of commercials, talk shows, books, and articles dealing with weight loss. I just so happened to be perusing Yahoo the other day and came across a featured article by one of their health experts. In it, she explained that in order “to lose about one pound per week, you’ll need to eat about 500 fewer calories per day from your current daily intake. Weight loss of one to two pounds each week is considered healthy weight loss, meaning that you are losing more fat than muscle.”
(Picture me banging my head against the wall).
Out of curiosity I viewed the comments from various readers and the vast majority of them included:
“Thank you Captain Obvious, tell me something I didn’t know.”
“Why doesn’t anyone ever write something that we never heard before?”
I couldn’t agree more. Here’s my take on the whole “500 calorie deficit per day” nonsense, originally published at t-nation.com in an article titled “The Angry Trainer.”
The premise is simple. One pound of fat equates to approximately a 3500 calorie surplus. If someone were to subtract 500 kcals from their diet per day for a week (500 kcals x 7 days per week), they would elicit a 3500 calorie deficit for the week and shed a pound of fat.
Does this approach work? Yes. Does it work in the long-term? No. The main problem with this approach is that people take it too far. They subtract 500 kcals from their diet and will make decent progress, and then all of a sudden nothing happens. They go into panic mode and restrict calories even further, lose a tiny bit more, and then hit another plateau. And the vicious cycle continues. Before you know it, you have people taking in sub-1000 calories daily in the hopes of burning more body fat.
Your body is smarter than you. It doesn’t realize that when you restrict calories you’re doing so to look good nekid. It views the caloric deficit as going into “starvation mode” and it’ll take precautions to preserve energy by reducing many of the hormones involved with metabolic rate (T3, T4, leptin, gherlin, etc.).
As a result, the bulk of calories coming in will be stored and used for life sustaining functions such as heart rate, breathing, and CNS activity. The last thing on the “to do” checklist for the body is burning fat. On the contrary, it’ll try to keep as much body fat as possible to preserve energy.
Instead of using the cookie cutter approach of subtracting 500 kcals per day that most tend to advocate, people should just try to subtract 10-20% from their maintenance caloric intake. This way, larger individuals take a bigger “hit” than smaller individuals as far as cutting calories is concerned. For instance, take a 200 pound male and compare that to a 110 pound female:
Maintenance caloric intake for 200 pound male = 3000 kcals per day
Maintenance caloric intake for 110 pound female = 1650 kcals per day
* For simplicity sake, I used total body weight x 15 to come up with maintenance calories.
Subtract 500 calories from each and you get the following:
200 Pound Male = 2500 kcals. Still quite a bit a food and definitely “doable.” Take it a step further and subtract another 500 calories (which most people will inevitably do anyway), and you have 2000 kcals per day.
He’ll probably be hungry, but certainly not causing too much damage. And as long as he’s getting sufficient protein and still training with some intensity, he shouldn’t have to worry about losing much, if any, lean muscle mass.
110 Pound Female = 1150 kcals. This is a 30% drop compared to only 17% for the male above. Not a lot of food by any means. Subtract 500 more and she’ll be taking in 650 to 800 kcals per day, which is breakfast for most people.
I see this a lot when I analyze the diets of female clients. It never ceases to amaze me how they’re able to survive on such low caloric intakes for such long periods of time. Metabolic rate is going to plummet, lean muscle mass will be broken down/lost, she’ll probably feel like crap all the time (like we men need another reason to dodge a woman’s wrath), and she’ll be frustrated when she still can’t drop body fat.
So you can see why this approach just isn’t conducive for most people and how it places “smaller” individuals at a disadvantage. Now let’s look at my preferred approach:
200 Pound Male: Subtract 20% from maintenance of 3000 kcals = 2400 (deficit of 600 kcals)
110 Pound Female: Subtract 20% from maintenance of 1650 kcals = 1350 (deficit of 300 kcals)
As you can see, the male takes a much larger chunk (double actually) out of his caloric intake than the female, which makes sense because he’s basically double her size. With this approach, smaller individuals aren’t “punished” and take less of a hit as far as subtracting total calories is concerned.
Factor in caloric expenditure through training and/or NEPA (Non-Exercise Physical Activity) and you’ll soon realize that you don’t necessarily need to provide a huge deficit through restriction of food alone. Subtracting 10-20% off of maintenance is usually more than enough to get the process started.