You Are Not a Humvee

It's true that 3,500 calories equals the amount of energy contained in one pound of fat. Americans spend 45 billion a year (not counting gym memberships) on various diet plans, diet pills, diet programs, most of which are designed to reduce caloric intake. And yet we get fatter and fatter.

One reason is the calories = fat assumption is too simplistic. The diet and weight loss mantra that “A calorie is a calorie,” meaning that no matter what macronutrient you eat – fat, carbohydrates, protein – will turn it into fat if you eat more caloric energy than your body consumes due to the first law of thermodynamics. So it’s easy to conclude from this that they best way to lose fat weight is to restrict caloric intake.

But it ain’t necessarily so. The simple calories in model leads to a lot of useless information like the average female between the ages of 23 and 50 needs between 2,000 and 2,100 calories a day, and the average male needs between 2,700 and 2,900 a day. This really doesn’t tell you anything. Who's average?

The problem is assumes that your body is a +mechanical, closed loop energy system, like, say, a Humvee. You can put a gallon of gas in a Humvee and pretty much predict road how far it will take you down a flat road (not far). However, your body is more complicated because of metabolism, that is, how energy is used to keep you alive and functioning.

Your metabolism has two parts. The first is your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), which is the amount of energy used to maintain basic bodily functions when you are inactive, such as breathing, beating your heart, digesting, thinking, seeing, growing hair. (There's a measure called Basal Metabolic Rate, which is when you are in deep sleep and is 10-15% below your RMR, but most of your life you are awake). Just being alive uses about 70% of your caloric energy.

The reason is this simple calories in-calories out approach doesn’t fit well is because many factors contribute to what happens to an ingested calorie. You are infinitely more complex than a Humvee. Genetics has an effect, as does age. Any TOJ will tell you that as we age, our metabolism slows. The state of your health makes a difference. For example, an under active thyroid slows down metabolism, as do many medications such as anti-depressants. Geography makes a difference; still a mystery to scientists, persons living in tropical climates have higher RMR's. And – surprise – so does the amount of your fat mass; feeding fat already in the body requires more calories, which is one reason it’s so hard to get rid of it.

The secret to fitness and weight loss is to elevate your Active Metabolic Rate (AMR). AMR is the energy you use when you engage your skeletal muscles and move, whether working, walking, doing chores, running, or lifting weights. On the Web, you can find tons of sites that give you average calories burned doing a particular activity. Increasing your AMR will help reduce unwanted fat.
Your weight will remain steady if the calories you eat equals the total of your RMR and AMR. It is true that over time, if you consume less calories than you use when these two are totaled day in and day out, you will lose weight.

But here’s where it gets tricky and why so many weight loss schemes may work in the short term, but don’t in the long term, and why it's counterproductive to get too focused on calories. If you cut 300 to 500 calories a day, and some diets cut more to the point of starvation, your will lose weight. However, your body is very habituated to its weight and food patterns, more than you know, and tries to maintain itself just as it is.

If you cut calories too much, your body will store the fat you are trying to get rid of and, instead, cannibalize your muscles to produce the energy. That’s why when you see the  pictures of people who are starving, they have no muscle. To add insult to injury, your body automatically lowers your RMR to preserve energy, making it even harder to lose weight.

A wiser approach to fat loss is to focus on your body composition, that is, increasing lean body mass -- the non-fat in your body. It is well known that if you increase lean body mass, you also increase RMR. The easiest non-fat mass in your body to increase is your skeletal muscle. It’s no coincidence that fit athletes have high RMR's. They also have a high AMR's because they exercise a lot.

So how do we average people who want to lost pounds mimic athletes? The best way to increase muscle mass is with strength training. Aerobic exercise, such as walking and running, have terrific benefits for your heart, but when it comes to weight loss you need to perform resistance exercise. Any resistance will do – elastic bands, body weight, dumbbells, gym devices - take your pick. Slowly make your resistance exercise progressively harder with more reps, sets or weight. With more muscle, your RMR remains elevated 24/7.

Resistance training must be combined with eating good food – protein and fresh vegetables. The protein will provide the amino acids to build the muscle while the vegetables will make you feel satiated because of their high fiber content and also provide phytonutrients (anti-free radicals) to reduce inflammation resulting from your workouts. You will get the fat off faster if  you also reduce or eliminate all simple carbs and wheat-based foods.

If you focus on improving your body composition rather than calories, the fat disappears with no calorie counting required. Forget spending money on expensive diet schemes. Just eat right and sweat.

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