By Naomi Rabon, NW Fitness Team Trainer
The word calories is maybe one of the most popular, misunderstood, overused and abused words in the English language. If only I had a dollar every time I said, heard or read the word. It seems in our society (or perhaps this is universal across the globe), calories have a negative connotation and have become something to avoid – eat as little as possible of and try to get rid of as much as we can throughout our day.
Even though I know better, I find myself looking at how many calories I burned during a workout, or how many calories I burned at the end of the day – yes, even when I am trying to build muscle and need to maintain a caloric surplus (taking in more calories than I burn). I grew up with messages all around me shouting “the more calories you burn, the better the workout!” and “the less calories in a food, the better the food is for you.” Even though I have been working hard to decondition myself of this way of thinking, I still find my focus drifting back to calories at times.
Well guess what? Focusing on burning as many calories as you can is not always an indicator of how good a workout is, and you shouldn’t always select the least caloric dense foods.
BACK TO THE BASICS
By definition, a calorie is the energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius. Calories are energy that fuel our bodies, just like gasoline fuels cars. Without an adequate amount of calories in our system, our bodies would not function. To simply get through the day, in general, we need around 1,000 to 1,400 calories to have enough energy to fuel key organs like the brain, heart, and lungs. Just to be able to fuel our basic daily bodily functions at minimum is called our resting metabolic rate (RMR). If you work out 5-6 days a week, both strength training and cardio on top of your RMR, you are looking at quite a large energy expenditure.
WHEN TO REEL IN THE CALORIE BURNING
What happens when the only focus of your workouts, for an extended period of time, is to burn as many calories as you can while staying in as much of a caloric deficit as you can? Eventually your body will catch on and your metabolism will start to slow down to match the rate at which you are expending energy. The human body is always striving for homeostasis, which basically means our body will always try to regulate itself in order to maintain a state of internal stability. If we stay in a severe caloric deficit for too long, our metabolism will eventually slow down. Eventually, we will overeat because we are starving from being in a caloric deficit for too long, which results in weight gain because our metabolism has slowed down.
Then we introduce a huge (or even a small) caloric surplus into our system and our metabolism stores much of the calories instead of burning them because it is in “starvation mode.”. This is why people who drastically lose weight in a short amount of time have a tendency gain more weight than when they started if they “go off their diet” or resume old, unhealthy habits. This is that all-too-familiar pattern of yo-yo dieting and exercising which can do some serious long-term damage to your metabolism, and takes quite some time to correct.
IF IT’S NOT BURNING CALORIES, WHAT IS IT ABOUT?
This answer will vary from person to person based on individual goals. The ultimate question here is, How do I:
1. Lose body fat
2. Without losing too much muscle or
3. Slowing down my metabolism
Here are five tips I suggest:
1. Be consistent with a good, solid weight-training program. Any type of weight-bearing or resistance-training program will help build a good muscle foundation, which will help contribute to a healthy metabolism.
2. While building muscle, don’t over-do it with your cardio. You need to keep those calories in order to build muscle. It is all about balance at this point. Varying from person to person, you want to find a daily caloric maintenance base, do minimal cardio, measure your muscle gains and fat loss, then adjust your calories and cardio according to your body composition changes. As you gain muscle – depending on your nutritional structure and food sources – you should also start to see a little fat loss simply because your metabolism is speeding up. But keep in mind this is a long process that takes quite a bit of time – sometimes 3 months, sometimes 6 months, sometimes a year depending on where you are starting from and your individual makeup.
3. Constantly adjust your weight training load in order to increase your strength and muscle mass.
4. Constantly adjust your cardio. If you are doing too much cardio and not seeing or feeling body composition changes over 6-8 weeks, you may still need to decrease your cardio, or even eliminate it all together for a short period of time to allow your body to build muscle.
5. Adjust your calories. This may be the trickiest part, but again, if you keep your calories too low, you may be preventing your body from building muscle and preventing your metabolism from speeding up. I tell my clients often if I know they are hitting their workouts hard and they go through a period of feeling hungrier than usual, that likely means their metabolism is speeding up and they need to increase their calories a little.
One of the best articles that will help you in your quest for finding the right balance of building muscle, potentially increasing your metabolism, all while burning fat and staying lean is Nicole’s article, A Guide To Staying Lean.
The human body was not meant to stay in a constant caloric deficit. And fat loss can only be a healthy, long-term process if your metabolism is healthy and the fat loss is gradual, which can happen by incorporating a healthy caloric surplus ratio to gain and build muscle over time, then a healthy caloric deficit ratio to lose fat over time.
Tip Me Tuesday: Muscles Matter Most
Tip Me Tuesday: Gaining vs Losing
Tip Me Tuesday: How To Work Out Better
Tip Me Tuesday: Become A Dieting Expert
Tip Me Tuesday: Trust The Process – And Your Trainer!
Tip Me Tuesday: Your Village Is The Key To A Healthy, Fit Body
ABOUT NAOMI RABON
One of the trainers on Nicole’s elite NW Fitness Training Team, Naomi is a certified Personal Trainer and Fitness Specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She is a NPC Figure competitor who has been involved in the health and fitness industry for over 12 years.