Here is the deal. For almost all of us, dieting ALL THE TIME and always trying to lose fat is not the best way to go. This is why.
Your Dieting Runway Runs Out
Here is a typical dieting story. You decide you want to get fit and lose some weight so you start cutting calories and start exercising. You lose 10 pounds in the first three months then the weight starts to stall. So you cut out another 300-400 calories a day, lose another 5 pounds and then stall again. Then you cut another 300-400 and lose 2-3 pounds. Boom, stall. Then you cut another 300-400, and are now effectively eating 1 piece of kale, 1 dry chicken breast, and 2 almonds (its a cheat day so you get ), and now you stay here for eternity because well you look at a banana and you gain a pound.
That story isn’t quite as hyperbole as it sounds, its is fairly archetypal of what we see in a lot of people. As you remove calories and you lose weight you have to start taking away more calories to lose more weight. As you continue to remove food you unconsciously start to move a lot less and your body slightly lowers its metabolic rate*. As you lose a few more pounds this continues until you get to the point where you literally run out of runway and you can’t really cut anymore food. I mean living on 800 calories is a sad way to live.
There is a better way.
Eat More Do More Wins in the Long Run
The traditional model of weight loss is “Eat Less, Do More”, while good in theory, its often abysmal in practice. What usually happens is people eat less and do less.
It turns out Eat More, Do More is probably the best long term solution.
In a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition people who consumed more food and expended more energy actually saw a decrease in body fat after the 3 year follow up. This loss in body fat was greater than those individuals who ate less and moved less, despite having similar caloric deficits.
Let me repeat that. With similar calorie deficits, people who ate more and moved more had better body composition after 3 years than people who ate less and moved less. Not kidding. Here is the figure from the paper.
This leads in nicely to my next point.
Not All Calorie Deficits are Created Equal
We are all taught at some point in our nutrition journey that calories are king and that ~3,500 calories equals a pound of fat. So if you want to lose weight you simply need to do some math and find out a level of food intake and a level of energy expenditure that adds up to negative 3,500 calories and you will lose a pound**. That is true in one sense, yet misses literally the entire point. That point being, not all calorie deficits are created equal.
Imagine you are trying to lose that magical 10 pounds that you think will change your entire life (it will help, but it won’t solve all your problems.) so you draw up your ~35,000 calorie deficit as two different options.
Option 1) Consume 1300 calories a day and decide to be fairly sedentary so you only burn around 1800 a day. This gives you a negative 500 calorie balance, so over ~10 weeks you will lose 10 pounds.
Option 2) Consume 3500 calories and burn 4000 calories a day training your face off. This also gives you a negative 500 calorie balance, so over ~10 weeks you will also lose 10 pounds.
If you haven’t gotten the punch line yet, here it is. These two situations will give you drastically different results.
The former you will essentially just lose some body weight. Some will be fat, some will be muscle, your metabolic rate will drop a little bit, your strength will decline, your cardiovascular system will decline. In one sense of the word you will age faster.
The latter, you become a completely different organism. Your body loses weight, you likely trade some fat for muscle, your metabolic rate increases, you become stronger, your cardiovascular system improves, and your long term health is now miles ahead of where it was in option 1.
Diet Smarter Not Harder
Dieting down to be a smaller version of yourself misses a lot of benefits. As we mentioned above, exercise induces a whole host of changes that provide both short term and long term benefit. Here is just a list of a few of the benefits: improved cardiac function, improved muscle metabolism, improved metabolic flexibility, increased resting metabolic rate, decreased resting heart rate, improved heart rate variability, lower stress, increased bone density, etc, etc, etc.
Dieting doesn’t really give you robust results like that. I mean it improves some of those things to a small degree, but not to the same extent exercise does.
Dieting sucks because it gets abused. Most people would be far better off spending more time being well fed, and using that food to maximize training that improves their strength, power, balance, endurance, and conditioning and then using short, smart, dieting cycles to focus on fat loss. In fact, the more often you spend in a “normally fed” state the more effective short, intense, periods of dieting or cutting are. “Dieting” should be used in more of a controlled, pointed, manner to elicit a specific effect over a shorter time window.
Sadly, most of the time people just “diet” for years on end chasing some magical number on a scale and they miss a lot of the benefits from accumulating years of high quality training and being well fed.
*This is an adaption, it responds quite rapidly to increasing food intake so its never really broken, just adapted to lower calorie intakes.
**This is a crude approximation, not super accurate but for illustrative purposes here it holds.