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Calories In, Calories Out; Maintenance or plateau?

A little infographic I whipped up, talking about Calories In / Calories Out, "maintenance" calories and weight loss plateaus.
It is a lot more complicated than people seem to think, too complicated to cover all the basis in a simple infographic but I tried my best.
Conventional thinking seems to be that if your weight is neither increasing nor decreasing, then whatever you happen to be doing now is "your maintenance" level of calorie intake. Whether that is working to / restricting to a particular calorie limit, or otherwise. If you're not losing & not gaining weight you're "at maintenance".
This can be problematic in cases where you have active people who are working to calorie limits and not seeing progress. Whether that is "weight loss progress" per se or whether they are already at around an appropriate goal weight but perhaps not at goal condition. The conventional (lack of) wisdom dictates that if you're not seeing fat loss progress, you're "at maintenance" and need to cut lower to get back into deficit.
Not necessarily so, and in my opinion, observations & experience not even the most likely explanation.
In actual fact, "maintenance" is not some pin point specific amount above which you'd gain weight and below which you'd lose fat. In actual fact there may be quite a wide margin between where (at the higher end of the spectrum) your intake is not high enough to gain weight, but is too high to draw from fat stores, and (at the lower end of the spectrum) your intake is insufficient to facilitate improvements in condition via prioritisation of lean mass, and your productivity & performance at training as well as your Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis is sacrificed in preference to drawing from fat stores.
Somewhere in between is an optimal range of calories where you can expect improvements in performance, energy & resources to be used to support increases in lean mass (at best) at the expense of fat stores or at least while not adding to them.
TL;DR it's like I've been saying for YEARS now and a few other people are starting to catch up to; you require an adequate but not excessive amount relative to your requirements as primarily determined by your amount of & level of proficiency at training, amongst other things. When you cease to see progress you must assess the situation accordingly rather than just assume that you need to eat less. And you do have options other than "bulk w/ fat gain via calorie surplus" & "cut w/ lean mass loss via increased calorie deficit".


What can we learn from fad dieting cults?

If there's one thing I'll say about the fad diet cultists on the internet, it's that they're annoying and stupid.

No I'm just kidding. I mean... some of them apparently do very well with whatever approach they're taking, but even the others will show up on pages run by people who've had more success than them, who's clients are seeing better results than them, or who are just plain happier doing something else...and they'll insist "no, you need to do your research and get up to date. This thing that I like is the only thing anyone should be doing and the only thing that anyone should be advocating, promoting or instructing".

Now... what we KNOW is that any approach will work if it involves a change in eating habits (and perhaps activity levels) which results in total energy intake going from excessive to not excessive. For SUSTAINABLE results, that change in habits needs to also be sustainable, and it is important that the new energy intake is "adequate". Going from excessive to insufficient won't be sustainable and is counter productive.

No matter WHAT the approach, that's what it comes back to.

However, diet cultists will insist "no, it is NOT about calories it is these specific food choices and you couldn't be successful any other way". Or the more moderate variety might say "well sure, it does come down to non excessive calorie intake but with any other set of choices or schedule you'd inevitably end up over eating" because fructose or insulin or whatever else. Which... as 9 times out of 10 they'll be arguing with someone who's actually doing several of the things they're saying can't be done, with a greater level of sustained success... it's really demonstrably ridiculous.

"Just try it though" they'll still insist. Even though you say you're happy and enjoying what you're doing now AND seeing great results... "just try the thing I like instead" as if you owe it to them to validate their opinion or something.

People are FANATICAL about these approaches and while my personal observation is that most of them don't seem to have a much better level of success than your average crash dieter of the conventional variety... there are some notable exceptions.

So... is it possible, could it be conceivable that there IS something more to it than just "more appropriate energy intake"? And if so what can we take from that and how can we apply it to what we do, promoting and practising non restrictive approaches? 

Here are the things:
  1. although the reasons are false, people have reason to believe "this really is the best way and the only way I'm likely to succeed". And you might even add "the only way anyone else deserves to succeed" as well according to some of them. 
  2. people become heavily invested in and identify with the approach. They join "the tribe". 
  3. at least in some cases, the people seem to believe that eating a certain way makes them better than everyone else. 
So in short, it has less to do with the specifics of the diet or the accuracy of the beliefs people have about the diet, and it is more to do with how they FEEL about & identify with the diet and the collective of other people following it, and how that may be conducive to consistent and enthusiastic adherence. Or perhaps in some case "strict and disciplined adherence by force of will". Screw that though in my opinion.

While we practice evidence based, individualised approaches to sports and general nutrition, the main thing we can take from the above is the importance of being heavily invested in the approach and the process, and beginning to identify with it. Not in the sense of being a conformist with a "tribe" mentality, but in the sense of people who are successful with a training goal or some other passion in life. It is just a part of who and what they are, to show up and train, to practice their instrument or their forms, to spend time in the workshop or the art studio. At a certain point training becomes a part of your identity and your nutritional habits while not being obsessive, restrictive or anxiety inducing are habits you have structured and developed in much the same way that you have structured and developed your training strategies. 

So, you're heavily invested in, you identify with, and you have solid reasons to believe "this is what will work best for me in meeting my needs to pursue my goals". And why? Because you set it up with that purpose in mind.

To most consistently meet your requirements, it needs to be on the schedule that best suits you, with more of the foods that most appeal to you. Which is not to say that this can't evolve or needs to be rigid and unchanging, but why would you even consider trying something other than "what best suits my schedule to meet my needs with more of the foods that most appeal to me"? 

Crucially though is point #3.

Rather than doing something with the deluded notion that it makes us better than everyone else, our motivation should simply be to enjoy working to a strategy with a goal of being the best version of ourselves, according to whatever we've decided for ourselves that this would mean. 

Self development is the goal. Not to fit in and conform, not the approval or appeasement of others at the expense of your own ideas and individuality. Self development and self determination.

That's what I think, anyway.

Perform, Refuel, Recover, Adapt

You might have noticed this slogan on the new line of tanks & tees that me and some of the guys and girls who I coach have been showing off online and in the gym lately.

Perform, Refuel, Recover & Adapt. These are the things that Sports Nutrition facilitates, and which "dieting" only hinders.

When we talk about "dieting", the inference is on calorie restriction, or an arbitrary list of restrictions on the choices of foods you're allowed to have. What's rarely involved is any sort of system of estimating or determining your actual energy requirements; it is just arbitrary restriction and deprivation to ensure that you fall short of those requirements, usually with the misguided belief that fat loss will be the outcome.

These are the facts, whether people like them or not:

There are no "fat burning" or "fat storing" foods. Clean eating, paleo, low carb and other deprivation based approaches work because restricting food choices, and in particular the omission of energy dense choices, results in a "calorific deficit'.

If you've been in the habit of consuming an excessive amount of energy, you'll have gained weight. When you make dietary changes resulting in a less excessive energy consumption, you lose weight. Regardless of the choices of foods.

The exception to this rule appears to be when you have an extended history of extreme and erratic chances between excessive intake and overly restrictive, insufficient intake. Also known as "crash dieting", "yo-yo dieting", and so on. It seems apparent that at a certain point, the body just settles at a certain weight & condition and does not respond to short term changes in energy balance the way we would normally expect.

Regardless though, other than in the specific circumstance described above (and even then, not necessarily in every case of the above) it is generally correct to say that "any change in dietary habits resulting in a caloric deficit will result in weight loss, regardless of the choice of foods".

However... it goes without saying that we're not here to talk about "weight loss" dieting. While fat loss may be an aspect of our athletic performance, condition and related goals, a weight loss focused calorie restriction approach tends to end up in a that counter productive pattern of erratic shifts between excessive and overly restrictive dietary habits that we discussed earlier.

So while it is technically correct to say that a caloric deficit is required to ensure fat loss, a calorie deficit shouldn't be our only focus when determining our sports nutrition requirements, and contrary to popular belief, merely being in deficit does not ensure improvements in condition.

Perform, and Refuel.

It should go without saying that the human body requires fuel to be available in order to perform at training and sports. For some reason, many people seem to believe that it is necessary to restrict their energy intake to (or even below) their BMR or Basal Metabolic Rate in order to draw upon fat stores. Doing so actually ensures that NO energy is available to perform. Obviously the body finds a way to cope and you don't just instantly collapse in a heap upon exertion of energy... but this is far from an ideal situation.

When active people who have been chronic dieters or have otherwise been restricting to an insufficient level of energy intake begin to fuel more appropriately, they see rapid and significant improvements in sports performance benchmarks and increases in personal bests, simply because the energy is available in the muscles to facilitate such improvements.

An active person's energy intake can and in most cases should be significantly higher than their BMR, without becoming excessive or precluding fat loss. It stands to reason that we want to do this more than once, and having fueled adequately, performed at our best, we need to refuel in order to do it again.

Recover & Adapt.

You require energy in order to perform, and having put in your best effort at training, you need to refuel in order to do it again. Failing to do so is just running yourself into the ground, and has the effect of making training destructive rather than productive. For this reason a lot of people think "net your BMR", as in... keep track of the amount of calories burned at exercise, add this to your BMR, and then you have your calorie requirement. Also referred to as "eating back" the calories burned at exercise.

While this is better than falling short of your BMR, it is still insufficient. We need not to merely replace the energy we have expended while active, but we need to provide energy and resources in order to recover from the stress we have placed our body under, in order to make that a productive level of stress rather than a destructive level of stress. Recovery may have two meanings here as people often have a goal of recovering from eating disorder, recovering from years of dieting, recovering both psychologically and physiologically.

Further still though, our aim is not merely to expend and then replace energy. Our aim is to facilitate further improvements in performance, and to adapt to training with a stronger, leaner, more athletic physical condition. This can only occur when sufficient energy, protein, and other resources are available to support and maintain an increase in lean mass. Your level of activity and fueling can either put you into an anabolic state where your body is able to prioritise the creation of lean mass, or it can put you into a state where lean mass is squandered to make up a shortfall in energy provision. It is important not to make the mistake of believing that fat stores are always the only, or the preferred resource that your body will draw from to make up an energy short fall.

Sports Nutrition takes all of this into account. Conventional weight loss dieting and buzzwords like "eat clean", "calorie deficit" and so on do not.

If this sounds like an approach you'd be interested in, check out the Online Coaching or Personal Training pages for more information. You can order this or other designs on a tank, tee or hoodie via my webstore.

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