We're a capable species, right? We do science and other clever stuff. We can control so much of our environment... So why can't science tell us how to change our body weight?
Anyone that’s ever dieted will tell you that losing body weight is as easy to begin with. But we all know what inevitably happens a year, a month, or even a year later. All of that body fat we have spent so much pain and effort getting ridding of slowly decides that it misses us and comes back. We get told we fail because of our willpower or motivation, whereas actually the answer is far more complicated than that.
Settle yourself in for a quick science lesson to explain why dieting and exercise are shit at changing our body shape in the long-term.
TDEE - Total Daily Energy Expenditure
You convert the calories you get from food into energy to power your body. So, despite what many diet companies would have you believe, we do actually need to eat some… well, quite a few, because they don’t just fuel our body for exercise. We use them for far more than that. They are used for everything we do, from blinking, to walking, to making hormones, cells and thoughts.
This diagram shows what calories are used for. And it takes most people between 2000 – 3000 calories to maintain. Notice I didn’t mention any calories you’d need to exercise. If you want a gym session, you’re going to need even more calories.
It’s important to understand here, how much bodies LOVE a status quo. Where everything works in harmony and nothing requires much effort. You are evolutionary designed to be able to perfectly balance your calorie expenditure with your calorie intake. Cavemen could not afford to be wasteful with their energy. Too much was rarely an issue, but if they did they utilised that calorie energy with maximum efficiency.
NB: There is a tradition in the weight loss industry of comparing calories with money when describing how our bodies use them. And I will not be breaking that convention now. As much as I hate going along with the norm, when something works, it works.
And so with that said, welcome to the money analogy: To join in please imagine calories are like cash and your body is your bank account. To a status quo in your account your income would need to exactly match your outgoings. This creates a money environment which is easy to maintain and causes zero stress.
The amounts we earn and spend will be different across the population, we all need different amounts of money as each have different lifestyles to support. It’s the same as our caloric needs, we all eat and move in different ways and in different body types.
In your body this easy, stress free status quo is achieved when your calorie expenditure exactly matches your calorie intake. You eat and move according to the energy you have, and your body shape is unlikely to change. But that’s OK, because it’s effortless and feels good.
Dealing With Extra Calories
Say you get a pay rise. Happy days! You get to decide what you’re going to do with all the spare money you now have? Maybe you buy some fancy things like a new car. Maybe you start a family. Or you could use the money to repair your house, or put it into a savings account.
In your body, any extra calories you free up, through eating more or moving less, can also be used for different things:
- Repairing your body’s cells
- Building muscle
- Making you move more (either consciously i.e. you feel more energetic, or unconsciously i.e. you blink or fidget more)
- Increasing your libido
- Storing for future use as body fat
- And probably more options we don’t even know about yet…
Extra calories don’t always mean extra body fat. Using excess for as body fat storage is just one option out of many your body has to choose from. Some of us are born spenders whilst others are naturally more cautious and thrifty with their cash. Our bodies are the same. Some prefer to store body fat as a first option, whist others naturally tend towards fidgeting or building muscle as a way to spend the extra. Environments also play a part in the choice you make.
Not Enough Calories
OK, now imagine that your boss is a dick and fires you with no notice. You’ve are likely to have some savings, but only a finite amount, s you’d be a bit of a knob to spend them on luxuries like jewellery.
The sensible thing to do would be to save as much money as possible. Maybe you save some by not buying the fancy artisan bread. You may cancel your Netflix account. And the gym membership that you only used once would probably go too.
How much you cancel is likely to depend on how big your savings account was to begin with, and how stingy you are naturally with your cash. Change your cash back to calories and your body will do exactly the same thing.
The Weight Loss Industry has trained you to believe that if you’re in a caloric deficit – using more calories than you expend, whether that be created through eating less, or exercising to use more – that you will automatically use your savings account of body fat to make up for the deficit. They tell you that your body fat will be turned back into energy to make up for the shortfall.
But they don’t tell you that isn’t your body’s only option:
- It can break down your muscle for energy instead of fat
- It can make you want to move less (whether consciously or unconsciously)
- It can make you ravenously hungry
- It might cancel or downgrade your body’s subscriptions to things like your ability to regulate your temperature, or your libido
- It can stop repairing your cells, or halt making new ones, or it might give you less powers of immunity if you get ill
As an individual you get to decide what to do if your spending and income doesn’t match up. And your body also gets to decide how to get back to the status quo. A scientist cannot accurately predict how your body will make back the calorie shortfall, just like a financial advisor can’t tell which of us will make money with wise savings, and who gambles on the roll of a dice.
Key Take Away
Science says that to lose body fat you must be in a caloric deficit. But it cannot predict whether being in a caloric deficit WILL make you lose body fat. And that seemingly tiny semantic difference is everything.
Just because I could put my caloric money into a body fat savings account doesn’t mean I will. I might build a house of muscle instead.
And just because I could use my body fat savings when times get lean, doesn’t mean I will. I might sell my car and my flat-screen instead.
Your body just like your bank accounts has a status quo where everything is perfectly balanced – your Set Point Weight. And any deviation from that will set off a chain of events called Metabolic Adaptation that you have no control over. Its job is to get you back to your set point weight as quickly as possible. And for most people that normally means adding a little more cash to the body fat savings account then was in it before… just in case you get fired again.
The best thing you can do to care of your body’s finances is to respect your level of body fat savings, and learn to listen when the financial advisor that is your body tells you how to keep your caloric books perfectly balanced.