“There’s nothing worse than to be watching your calories and exercising, but the scale just doesn’t budge…. You just feel like, ‘My efforts are for naught.’ That’s when people tend to give up.” – Thomas Wadden
Most nutritionists would have you believe that counting calories is the best way to lose fat. Here’s their theory, in a nutshell:
- Calories in vs. calories out determines your weight.
- Consume more calories than you burn and the rest turns to fat.
- To lose weight, you either consume fewer calories or burn more with aerobic exercise.
But have you ever noticed that the people who frantically count calories are forever overweight?
Here’s the problem: Your body is not a simple machine. It’s a living, sentient system with its own “intelligence.” It decides how to use the calories you consume. In fact, over the long run, what your body decides to do with calories appears to be more consequential than how many you consume.
Of course, some people just eat way too much. But for people making a serious attempt to lose weight, excess calories is not their problem (although most are made to believe it is). Let me explain how I learned this from my patients.
Bad Advice Only Caused More Weight Gain…
When I first started my practice, a young woman came to my clinic wanting to lose weight. “HP” was 5 foot 2 and weighed 170 pounds. She had been trying to lose weight for two years, but no matter how little she ate, her weight kept going up. What’s more, she exercised aerobically for about an hour five times a week and worked as a waitress.
I told her to cut her calories to 1,600 and see me every two weeks. She counted her calories diligently… and her weight went up by two pounds. I told her to lower her calories to 1,400 per day. The result? She gained four more pounds.
I cut her to 1,200 and then 1,000 calories. Again, she gained fat. Now she lacked energy, couldn’t make herself go to the gym, and was feeling depressed.
She still wanted to lose weight, so I told her to cut her calories to 800 and see me in two weeks… but I never saw her again. I can’t blame her. And if I could help her now, I would give her very different advice.
The Failed Strategy for Weight Loss
Conventional diets just don’t work. Five out of six people who try to lose weight fail. And more than 90 percent of those who do succeed in losing weight gain all the weight back within two years.
When you consider the flawed strategy these diets use, this is no surprise. You can’t achieve and maintain your ideal weight by starving yourself thin. Even if you could, it would be bad for your health.
Losing weight has been hard because you have the wrong tool for the job. If you drop your calories and go hungry – forcing your body to lose weight – your body will fight back.
This is your body’s built in “intelligence.” It reacts as if you are starving and will do everything it can to preserve your fat. And when you lose weight by starving yourself, you lose important muscle, bone, fluids, and even vital organ mass.
Your body has mechanisms for setting your weight where it wants it to be. It is similar to the way you set the temperature of your house with a thermostat. So the right tool for the job of losing weight is one that changes your body’s set point. Said another way, you need to change your metabolism.
Changing your metabolism is the key to long-term weight-loss success – NOT counting calories.
The good news is that you can change your metabolism with food or exercise or both. But not with the kind of diet and exercise you’re used to. It involves eating differently, not less – and exercising differently, not more. Let me illustrate what I mean with another patient’s story.
5,000 Calories a Day and Still Losing Weight…
During the time I was seeing HP, I was becoming more and more perplexed by why my patients were not losing weight on a low-calorie diet. Then I encountered TS, a patientwith the opposite problem: He wanted to gain weight.
TS weighed 170 pounds, and wanted to put on muscle. So his trainer told him to stop aerobic training and eat lots of protein. When that didn’t work, he ate even more protein.By the time he came to see me, he was eating protein six times a day but couldn’t gain a pound.
When I looked at his food log, I could hardly believe it. He ate a dozen egg whites a day. He ate 24 ounces of steak at a time, sometimes twice a day. He drank a 40-ounce protein shake twice a day. And between meals, he would scarf down protein bars and cans of tuna as snacks.
When I totaled his calories, he had eaten between 4,500 and 5,000 calories a day for the previous 12 weeks. And he’d lost 6 pounds.
TS had accidentally discovered the two most important principles of healthy fat loss: You must (1) over-consume protein and (2) train your body to store energy, not fat.
Why should you eat more protein than your body is going to use? Because it throws the “metabolic switch” and changes the way your body decides to store and use the excess calories.
You see, your body has choices. It can use that energy in a nearly infinite number of ways. It could, for example, decide to use extra calories for something like building bone or repairing damaged tissues.
Doctors, nutritionists, and the media all miss this point. They still cling to the idea that your body always stores excess calories as fat. Surprisingly, this has rarely been considered in clinical research. Yet when studied, the results back me up. For instance, a study published in Obesity Research found that people could lose weight independent of calories consumed when the ratio of protein and carbohydrate changed.
The trick is to change your metabolism. By throwing your metabolic switch, you can accomplish these two important goals of sustained fat loss:
- Increase the calories you use for maintenance and repair.
- Decrease the calories you shunt toward fat deposition.
Tell Your Body to Invest in Fat Loss
Your body makes its decisions about its energy reserves for the sake of survival. It’s an instinct that goes back to caveman days, when a drop in protein and calories signaled the body “These are bad times. So to survive this famine/plague/winter, we’d better store as much energy as possible.” And when protein and calories were up, the signal was “Times are good, so we can burn that energy.”
During good times, your body “invests” in procreation and fat loss. It uses the extra protein to boost levels of growth hormone and sex hormones and burn fat stores by lowering insulin. Having sex and babies requires lots of energy, and your body makes these adjustments only when “times are good.”
If your body senses that times are bad, it decides that this is not a good time to have children. So the production of growth hormone and sex hormones is suppressed. And to protect itself against the threat of starvation, it boosts insulin to promote fat gain.
In our modern environment, excessive stress and a nutrient-poor diet can cause your body to think times are bad. This puts your metabolism in a perpetual state of preparing for the worst. The result? You not only gain weight, you also feel sluggish and tired.
If you want to burn fat, you have to stop starving your body. Forget about tofu burgers and whole-grain breads. The good news is you can start eating the hearty foods you’ve been denying yourself – like steak and eggs. These are the foods we used to think were healthy. (My father said they would “put hair on your chest.”)
These days, the best source of red meat is grass-fed animals. It’s more expensive… but the benefits far outweigh the extra money. Grass-fed beef pumps up your muscles and wipes out body fat at the same time.
Imagine eating a big, juicy steak to get thin! I can already hear the pundits screaming their protests. But just try it and you’ll see.
With a little planning, you get naturally lean by eating the foods you enjoy. Start by eating at least one gram of protein per day for every pound of lean body mass. You can find your lean body mass by having your body composition measured. (Ask your doctor or the trainer at your gym for help with this.)
Here’s an example: If you weigh 180 pounds and have 60 pounds of body fat, your lean body mass is 120 pounds. That means you should get at least 120 grams of protein a day. When you consider that an egg has about 6 grams of protein and a quarter-pound of T-bone steak has about 20 grams, 120 grams is far more than you get from the standard American diet.
To further shift your metabolism away from storing fat, cut your carbs. Your ancient ancestors never ate grains, and you should keep yours to a minimum. Take a scientific approach to this by using the glycemic index to determine how much insulin various foods will stimulate based on the carbs they contain.
Lastly, to maximize your fat loss and boost your lean body mass, exercise in ways that burn lots of energy fast. This is important because fat is a slow-burn fuel. So if you ask your body for higher energy output than it can get from fat, it will get the message to stop shunting calories to fat. Instead, it will store more energy as glycogen in the muscles.
The kind of exercises that burn lots of energy fast will feel like a short sprint and leave you panting after you finish. You can do this with calisthenics, weight training, or routines that focus on your legs, like running or biking uphill. (Start off easy and gradually increase the intensity of the exercise as you become conditioned.)
[Ed. Note: Dr. Sears is a practicing physician and the author of PACE: The 12-Minute Fitness Revolution. He is also a nutritional expert, a fitness expert, and is certified by the American Board of Anti-Aging Medicine. One of Dr. Sears’s patients, Rik Pavlescak, was able to lose 48 pounds of fat and build 24 pounds of new muscle after just three months on the PACE program. Find out how Rik (and dozens of other people like him) did it here.]