Recovering Your Metabolism: Do You Need to Increase Or Decrease Calories (Part II)
We’re going to dive right back into Lucas Serwinki’s article on metabolic damage. For those who missed Part I you can play catch up HERE.
There was some great discussion and commentary with part one, and I suspect the second half will be no different.
So, It’s the Carbs, Right?
I’ve actually been asked this exact sentence quite a few times and the answer is….sort of. Or maybe. Or it depends. All terrible answers to someone who wants a yes or a no.
If you have significant weight to lose, as in obese and/or insulin resistant, then carbohydrates are not your friend at the moment.
But is it the chicken or the egg?
Did over-consuming carbohydrates get you to your current state or just over-consuming calories? Science has actually found that obesity is more the culprit for insulin resistance rather than just carbohydrate consumption. That means, being overweight can lead to having decreased insulin resistance, not the other way around. Insulin resistance is ultimately an inflammation issue, and obesity causes LOTS of inflammation the way smoking, low-quality food and inactivity does.
So even if it was simply over eating total calories that got you into this predicament, you are ultimately faced with a decreased ability to tolerate carbohydrates, meaning they will most likely need to be reduced in order to restore metabolic function.
This is where it gets personal.
It is easy to say, “Drop the carbs, put your hands on your head and slowly face me”, when someone is slamming soda, cookies and chips. In fact, I know someone who has lost nearly 100lbs just from switching from Coke to Diet Coke. Now that’s a lot of soda and the poison is certainly in the dose.
What about the person who just eats one piece of Ezekiel bread at breakfast and a potato at dinner? Are they going to go ketogenic? Is that realistic and attainable for 99% of the population? This is where we need to look at someone’s food journal and see the following, as an example
Breakfast: One slice Ezekiel bread, one whole egg, one egg white
Lunch: Salad with no dressing, apple, 3oz chicken, black coffee
Snack: palmful of almonds
Dinner: 3oz ground beef,(85/15) baked potato, green beans, glass of wine.
In individual components, the food choices in this diet are good, but it is often the food combinations, heavier reliance on non-protein foods and low calories that are prevalent in so many of the individuals I see.
Many people still seem to think fruit is the best weight loss food, most likely because it is so light on calories. There are almost always not enough vegetables and WAY too little protein.
This is a sample meal plan that is nearly identical to some of the diets I see when clients have me review their food journals. Just for the sake of accuracy and for some visual representation, here is the calorie and macronutrient breakdown of the above foods, as taken from Nutrition Data.com.
Total Calories: 1177
Total Fat: 40.6 grams
Total Carbohydrates: 105 grams
Total Protein: 73 grams
Taken into context of Person B above (the leaner of the two above):
Basal Metabolic Rate 1561 calories
Daily Energy Expenditure from Exercise: 851 calories
Total Daily Calories Needed to Maintain Weight: 2420 calories
Again, simply crunching numbers, it would make logical sense that this person would be in a deficit of 1243 calories a day if they are exercising; but even a non-exercising individual would still be at 384 calorie a day deficit.
Now, don’t get me wrong, some people WILL lose weight this way and maybe they can ride it out long enough to make some progress, but we are really getting into the bottom end of calorie restriction here and it is not a fun place to be especially if you aren’t planning on doing some bodybuilding or figure competition.
Time and time again, though, this low calorie, low protein and commonly low-fat approach just doesn’t work, at least not for more than a few weeks.
Most of us aren’t super Type-A planners with ultra-adherence to life sweeping changes so I would not make all my recommendations at once. In order though, I usually just try to get people to increase calories/protein in the following order, to make it mentally manageable and give the body time to adapt.
- Increase protein at breakfast
- Drink more water daily
- Increase protein to near 1g/lb bodyweight (adjust if they are very overweight)
- Replace starchy carbohydrates with more greens, cruciferous veggies and/or root veggies
- Increase fat as needed…..usually a tablespoon of oil or small palmful of nuts per meal
- Add in fish oil, minerals, multivitamin or specialty supplements only as needed, such as sleep aids, adaptogens etc.
- Introduce meal timing as needed depending on person.
This sequence isn’t a hard and fast rule, but if you give people about a week to adapt to each change, they end up systematically making all the necessary and advantageous adaptations in what is a very simple and easy step by step process.
The reason I like increasing protein first only at breakfast is because people almost always instantly feel better (though that is a subjective term) and have better hunger management later in the day.
From there, they increase total water consumption, which can also result in a lot more energy and stress tolerance.
Once you are used to eating more protein at breakfast, it becomes a little more manageable to increase total protein because you have already experienced how great you feel on more protein at breakfast and it isn’t as scary to eat more total calories.
At this point, they have increased total daily calories and then we can start reducing them a bit just by switching starchy carbohydrates for cruciferous ones, which maintain fullness but at a lighter calorie load.
If necessary, fat may, and often does, need to be increased for satiety and energy. From there we may add in whatever small supplement change is needed to maximize overall health. Meal timing may be discussed when a person is already relatively lean and following all the components above.
At the end of about a month, Person B may very well end up eating the following daily:
Total Calories: 1700
Total Fat: 92 grams
Total Carbohydrates: 75 grams
Total Protein: 135 grams
This person may even end up eating more than this on a daily basis, but it is a reasonable starting point, is actually way more food and fiber (from veggies) than before, doesn’t go too low with carbohydrates and is almost always more filling.
In fact, most people are surprised how much they are eating when following guidelines like this despite still being in a calorie deficit. If this was a man, or just a larger person overall, you could easily expect the calories to be in the mid 2000s, which doesn’t feel like dieting at all…….which is the point.
My goal here would be to get someone to eat as many total daily calories possible while still losing or maintaining weight. So, we may end up increasing someone’s portion sizes even a little more to find that spot where they are just below maintenance.
If we crept this person up to around 2000 calories a day and maintaining weight, then this is almost 900 calories more per day than they were eating before without gaining any bodyfat and having better energy, recovery and wiggle room to adjust diet as needed.
The reasoning for this ideal is that dropping calories too low results in significant decreases in total daily energy expenditure. There is an adaptation that occurs when calories are dropped too low, too fast and acts as a protective mechanism to keep the body from burning too many total daily calories so as not to cut into necessary bodily functions.
One study in particular had subjects either reduce overall daily calories by
B. Reduced to just below 1000 calories/day or
C. Reduced calories by only 12.5% but adding in weekly exercise.
With the very low calorie as well as the 25% reduction groups, there was a significant drop in total daily energy expenditure; 6% greater than would be expected even when factoring in fewer calories. This means that the individual’s metabolisms had adapted to the sudden drop in calories by lowering the average amount of calories burned daily.
However, the group that only reduced calories by 12.5% but added in exercise actually saw a slight increase in total daily energy expenditure over baseline. So, in addition to reducing calories enough to be burning bodyfat, the subjects still had an increase in total daily calories burned, furthering their fat loss.
In relation to Person B above, if we restored some metabolic function to get them eating 1700 calories a day and then decreased by 12.5% as in the study, and included exercise, they would STILL be eating more than they were at the onset.
There is quite a bit of research, number crunching and hypothesis to consider here. However, studies back up the claims that low calories, low protein and inadequate hydration and nutrients really hinder your progress. Furthermore, find me a person who wouldn’t want to heal their metabolism and improve their performance and fat loss by eating more and I’ll eat my size 13 shoe.
Getting healthy should always be the first goal.
If you had poor internal shoulder rotation and some impingement, you wouldn’t keep bench pressing to fix your shoulder, even if you wanted a bigger bench.
You’d need to take a step back, improve soft tissue quality, mobility and correct imbalances and then most often, performance improves after correcting these issues even without benching during the healing process.
No matter who you are, if you are at the point where your energy, performance and overall zeal for life has decreased I would encourage you to compare your dietary numbers to the recommendations above. If you aren’t anywhere close to eating maintenance calories, protein or nutrients and feel and perform below expectations, then the answer may be taking some time away to get your metabolism back on track.
And yes, sometimes eating more is the answer.
Note from TG: I think Lucas would agree that this is just the tip of the iceberg. For those interested if digging a little deeper into the rabbit hole on metabolic damage, I highly suggest checking out Leigh Peele’s Starve Mode.
Bray, G., Smith, S., et al. Effect of Dietary Protein Content on Weight Gain, Energy Expenditure, and Body Composition During Overeating. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2012. 307(1), 47-60.
Barr, S., Wright, J. Postprandial Energy Expenditure in Whole-Food and Processed-Food Meals: Implications for Daily Energy Expenditure. Food and Nutrition Research. July 2010. 2(54), 144-150.
Astrup, A., Pedersen, S. Is a Protein Calorie Better for Weight Control? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2012. 95, 535-536.
Danforth, Elliot., Horton, Edward S, O’connell, Maureen, Burger, Albert G, Ingbar, Syden H., Braverman, Lewis and Vagenakis, Apostolo G. Dietary Induced Alterations in Thyroid Hormone Metabolism during Overnutrition.
American Diabetes Association, New York, 15-17 June 1975 (Diabetes. 24: 406).
Leanne M. Redman, Leonie K. Heilbronn, Corby K. Martin, Lilian de Jonge, Donald A. Williamson, James P. Delany, Metabolic and Behavioral Compensations in Response to Caloric Restriction: Implications for the Maintenance of Weight Loss Published: February 09, 2009 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004377
Lucas Serwinski is a Strength and Conditioning coach and nutritional consultant for athletes and weekend warriors alike. Lucas holds a Bachelor’s in Strength and Conditioning from UCONN as well as an Associate’s in Culinary Arts from NECI,and is currently coaching at Bodylogy Fitness Studio, located in Hamden, CT.
Lucas has interned at Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA, worked on low-carbohydrate research for fat loss and health,and trained and competed in powerlifting.
He extensively studies the roles of digestion, sleep, nutritional habits and homeopathic medicine to help people of all walks achieve greater health. Lucas has also worked in multiple award-winning restaurants, including Arrow’s which was named 14th best restaurant in the country by Food magazine. Lucas incorporates knowledge and skill from cooking experience into creating a comprehensive plan for those he works with. Lucas has also worked as a social worked for years and takes mental and emotional considerations into each person’s plan and goals for success. You can visit his blog HERE.