I was having a conversation over the holidays with an old, old friend of mine who recently took up a new diet and was going to the gym almost every day. She's struggled with losing "the last fifteen pounds" for the last fifteen years. At 48 years old, this was her last attempt. "Claire, if I can't do it now, I'm done. I'm just going to eat whatever I want, because no matter how hard I try nothing is changing."
She was really upset about three things:
People (women in particular) have been told for years that the only way to lose weight is to enter into extreme caloric deficit... a.k.a. starvation. And, add in a good dose of cardio every day for good measure. The enemy in this scenario is The Calorie. Calories are bad... to be restricted and watched very carefully when they are around.
There's only one problem with that approach... calories are the things that fuel our bodies. Without them we literally don't have the energy to do stuff, we get "hangry." And your body isn't stupid, it learned years before you were even born (way back when humans were hunting and gathering) that when energy is not plentiful, the body will hold on to whatever it has... translated into modern concerns: you won't lose weight.
So what are calories then? They are the literally the little energy units that keep you alive. We consume them through food, and there are three basic macronutrient forms: protein, carbs, and fat. [There are micronutrients too, but that's for another day.] We need all three of those kinds of energy for our bodies to function. Even when you aren't doing anything at all your body is burning calories because you are breathing, your heart is pumping, etc. The more you move, the more you need to keep going.
If you are a moderately active person (working out 3 to 4 times a week), and have a job that requires you to move around, or kids, or an overly active dog, or anything like that... you probably need more than 1200 calories to get through your day without feeling like crap. So, how do you know?
There are four things to consider here:
1. How active are you? Not just working out, but other stuff like I mentioned above.
2. What is your body type? There are three kinds: endomorph, mesomorph and ectomorph (see below).
3. What is your goal? Are you trying to lose weight, maintain, or gain muscle mass?
If you know these three things you can calculate your true caloric needs, and how they are best achieved. Wait? What? Yes, calories are calories, but depending on our body type, how much we move, and what our goal is, there is an optimal ratio of those macronutrients I talked about above that will get you there fastest.
Again, macro-nutrients are protein, carbs and fat. We eat them to make energy (referred to as kcals). It's good to note that every gram of protein and carbs you eat yield 4 kcal (calories) of energy; fat yields 9. Yes, there are different kinds of fat and some are better than others, but that's for a different day... we're talking calories here. Depending on your body type and your goals, you need to eat a different mix of those three things to optimize performance and reach your goals... aka live your life and look the way you want to.
So, if you are an endomorph - you carry weight, have a slow metabolism, and tend to be "thick"; and your goal is to lose weight- your body will do better with restricted carbs, and more fat and protein. That's cool. Only eat one slice of bread, but put double the meat, a slice of cheese and a bunch of veggies on it.
If you're like my friend, a mesomorph who is athletic, moves a lot and wants to build muscle AND cut down on fat then you need closer to 30% protein, 40% carbs, and 30% fat. Have a second roll.
That's the basics of it. You don't need to figure your macro-analysis out yourself... I'll do it for you (it's even FREE in January!), and I can develop a meal plan around that, and we can check in on progress. Or you can download an app that will do it for you. I use My Macros+. It won't build your meal plans (or make your food), but you can figure out your macros and track them there. It's the best interface I've found... and I look at these things a lot.
However, you do it... or don't do it, the point of this blog post is that calories are not the enemy. Food is not the enemy. You need food... protein, carbs AND fat in some combination to keep living. Reflecting on who you really are right now, and where you really want to be are the first steps to really understanding how to develop the very personal macro-mix that will work for you.
This is an act of self-compassion and self-care. Love yourself enough to nourish your body with the things it wants and needs. Calories are the compassionate friends your body needs to be the true you. You’d be surprised. Sometimes the answer to the elusive question “why aren’t I losing weight or getting stronger,” is that you aren’t eating enough.