Weight loss and fat loss are not the same thing. You can be burning calories and losing weight, but those calories and that weight may or may not be fat. In fact, the one-size-fits-all weight loss model of “eat less and exercise more” can result in muscle being lost as readily as fat.
The greatest health challenge of this century is the obesity epidemic. According to the 2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, close to 70 percent of Americans are overweight and over 30 percent are obese. And here is the bitter truth: The “eat less, exercise more” model of weight loss has not worked. The reason? Calories don’t control metabolism, hormones do.
Eat less and what happens? You get hungry. Exercise more and what happens? You get hungry. Anyone who has ever “prepped” for a Thanksgiving dinner knows if you want to come hungry, a good strategy is to skip breakfast and lunch and make sure you exercise. The very thing we are telling people to do — eat less and exercise more — is making it far more likely they will do the reverse.
This is why a report in the April 2007 issue of The American Psychologist showed up to 66 percent of individuals following the caloric model of weight loss end up fatter two years later than they were when they started the diet. Any other model, in any other discipline, with a failure rate this high would have been discarded long ago and labeled as useless.
Stopping obesity means understanding hormones, not just calories. Hormones are the messengers that tell the body to burn fat or store fat, remain full or feel hungry, have cravings or not, enjoy balanced energy or feel fatigued. Hormones even impact your mood and motivation to exercise. You can think of hormones as analogous to computer software. They give the body instructions about what to do with the information it is exposed to.
So which is more important, calories or hormones? It is not a simple answer because calories impact hormones and hormones affect calories. The impact cutting calories has on hormones is recognizable and pronounced. The body slows its metabolic rate and sets into motion a host of compensatory reactions that make you hungry, crave calorie-rich foods, sap your energy and slow fat loss. A “calories-first” approach leaves you at the mercy of your metabolism and completely reliant on willpower. Anyone who has ever gone on a diet knows it is almost impossible to win a long-term battle of wills against your physiology.
A “hormones-first” approach is different. It reduces hunger, controls cravings, elevates energy, and increases metabolism, which all leads to an automatic reduction in calories without even trying. This is the perfect scenario for body change: A low-calorie diet in the context of balanced hormonal chemistry.
Perhaps you are still skeptical about the primacy of hormones over calories? If so, I have two questions for you: How many calories does sleep have? How about stress? Silly questions right? You can’t eat sleep and you can’t eat stress, but there is no denying that they dramatically impact how much you eat and what you crave to eat. They do this not because they are loaded with calories, but because of their negative impact on hormones.
So how do you switch your mindset so you can design a diet that takes a hormones-first approach? Here are five pointers to get you started.
1) Think fat loss, not weight loss.
There is more than one destination for a calorie. Decrease calories and you may lose fat, but you might lose muscle instead. Increase calories and perhaps you will gain fat, but you could alternatively gain muscle. The type of activity you do can determine which occurs. This is why weight training is so powerful in turning weight loss into fat loss. It is the only form of activity that pushes extra calories toward lean tissue growth.
2) Think of food as information, not fuel.
A doughnut and a chicken breast have the same number of calories, but one food will give sustained energy, decrease hunger and blunt cravings. The other will provide less consistent energy and speak more to your fat cells than your muscle. Quality of food matters.
3) Every action has a compensatory reaction.
Meals are not separate and distinct. What you eat — or don’t eat — for breakfast will impact how much you eat and what you crave to eat for lunch, which will have the same impact on dinner. Your choices at one meal directly influence your decisions at the next meal, and this determines fat loss or fat gain. Don’t eat less, eat smarter.
4) Shades of Gray
Nutrition is not black-and-white, but gray. There are individual reactions to food that may apply to one person but not another. The choice to have a diet Coke because it has zero calories may or may not be a wise choice for you. For you, this practice may cause cravings later, but for someone else it could kill the desire for sweet. The weight-loss model completely ignores individual reactions to food.
5) Forget what you weigh.
Gaining weight does not always mean gaining fat. What if you are gaining muscle instead? Realize that a pound of fat and muscle weigh the same, but muscle takes up less space on the body. You can look 130 pounds but weigh 150 pounds when you have developed a lean, muscular physique. Skinny and flabby is the look of weight loss. Lean and tight is the look of fat loss.
Always remember, you are as different on the inside chemically as you are on the outside physically. The weight-loss game is a one-size-fits-all approach to a completely individual practice. It’s a game you can’t win, because it is not built for you. Instead of being the weight-loss dieter, become the fat-loss detective. Spend the time to figure out your individual metabolic expression, psychological tendencies and personal preferences. Do that and it is not a matter of if you will change your body, but when.