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Is a calorie deficit necessary for weight loss?

You've probably heard that a calorie deficit is needed for weight loss. But what does that really mean? This article explores calorie deficits, the role of different foods, the accuracy of calorie counting, and building muscle while losing weight.

Nicol Ingram
Nicol Ingram
Health coach
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Is a calorie deficit necessary for weight loss?

The concept of a 'calorie deficit' is a well-known principle in the world of weight loss.

It involves using more calories than we consume, creating a shortfall that forces our body to tap into its fuel stores for energy. However, despite its popularity, there is still a lot of confusion surrounding this approach.

The crucial question is whether this traditional weight loss method is effective in helping us achieve and maintain our desired weight loss goals.

In this article, we'll take a closer look at what a calorie deficit actually is, which types of food have high calories and which types have low calories, how calorie counting works, and whether you can build muscle in a calorie deficit. But first, let's understand how to navigate a calorie deficit in the best way.

How to navigate calorie deficits

Losing weight by being in a calorie deficit usually requires both increasing physical activity and reducing food intake.

One popular approach to achieving this is to count calories, both for food intake (calories in) and physical activity (calories out). Calorie trackers are often used to calculate the number of calories an individual needs to consume per day to lose weight. These trackers help to keep track of the calories consumed and ensure that the target is not exceeded. However, this process may not be as straightforward as it appears, and several important factors must be taken into account.

One major drawback of relying on calorie calculators and trackers is their inaccuracy.

These tools fail to consider individual factors that impact your metabolic rate and energy expenditure, such as:

  • Dieting history
  • Health conditions
  • Body composition

Additionally, the calorie information provided on food packaging or through tracking apps is often not entirely reliable. This is because the calorie count is typically determined in a lab setting, rather than in humans. Our complex digestive systems make it challenging to extract every calorie from the food we eat, particularly from whole plant-based foods.

Relying solely on food apps or our own counting abilities may lead to over or underconsumption of food, which can cause stress and increase the likelihood of developing unhealthy eating patterns. When we have limited resources, it can be challenging to make healthy food choices, which can lead to feelings of failure and a reliance on willpower alone.

This can create a sense of restriction and make it even harder to maintain a balanced diet

What actually is a calorie deficit?

To lose weight, it's essential to be in a "calorie deficit". Which means that you must consume fewer calories than your body burns.

This is based on the process of calorie or energy metabolism. When we consume more calories than our body needs, it stores the excess energy for later use. The stored energy comes into play when we are eating less than usual, or when we fast (like when you're asleep). However, if we consistently consume more calories than we need, our body will store the excess energy, leading to weight gain over time. 

On the other hand, if we maintain a calorie deficit, our body will use the stored energy, resulting in weight loss.It can be challenging to determine a safe and sustainable calorie deficit, and no health app is capable of doing this for us due to the many factors involved. People often make the mistake of creating a calorie deficit that is too large, resulting in significant weight loss in a short period. However, this approach can lead to complications and difficulties in maintaining the weight later on.

The best way to create a safe and gradual calorie deficit is by focusing on the quality of our diet. And being intuitive about what our body needs, and improving our overall relationship with food - which is something counting calories does not achieve.

Why am I not losing weight on a calorie deficit?

It is quite common for people to experience a slowdown or complete halt in their weight loss progress after being in a calorie deficit for some time.

In some cases, people may even regain the weight they lost and more. This is due to the body's defence mechanism, also known as metabolic adaptation, which slows down the metabolism in response to energy deficits. The basal metabolic rate (BMR) is reduced by around 15%, but this can vary depending on the amount of body mass lost.

In other words, the lower a person's weight, the slower their metabolism will be.

This happens because the body recognizes that fewer calories are coming in and tries to conserve energy from the body's fat supply to prevent starvation. Also, if we reduce our calorie intake drastically and lose weight too quickly, there is a possibility that our body may start using the energy supply in our muscles. This can lead to a decrease in muscle mass. 

And because muscle mass plays a crucial role in influencing around 80% of our metabolism, a decline in muscle mass can also contribute to a decrease in basal metabolic rate (BMR). It requires more energy to maintain muscle mass, and thus, a decrease in muscle mass can lead to a decrease in BMR. 

This reduction in BMR means that we now need less calories to maintain the weight and it’s easier to gain weight. 

So, it may seem right now that losing weight is an impossible task if we believe that a calorie deficit will lead us down a dead-end road. However, it's possible that we've been missing the point. Counting calories is often inaccurate and can lead to feelings of misery. Instead, a more mindful and sustainable approach is to prioritise the quality of our diet and focus on getting the necessary nutrients. 

Our body needs a minimum number of calories to function properly, but in addition to this, we also need a wide range of nutrients to maintain health and support growth and repair. Not getting enough of these nutrients can put our bones at risk, deprive our brain of important energy, disrupt hormonal balance (including appetite hormones), leave us feeling tired and put us at risk of other health conditions. 

These outcomes could then put us at risk of regaining the weight, making it harder to lose it again.

High-calorie foods and their role in weight loss

We are often faced with misinformation and scaremongering that can lead to misconceptions about certain foods.

For example, a common belief is that nuts, avocados, and olive oil are high in calories and therefore should be avoided. However, it's important to understand that not all high-calorie foods are equal. While an avocado may have the same number of calories as a slice of pizza, it's the quality of the food that really matters. Simply looking at the number of calories in a food doesn't take into account:

  • The other nutrients present
  • How easily it's digested
  • How many additives and preservatives it contains.

In fact, many of these high-energy wholefoods have a strong food matrix made up of a lot of fibre. 

This means that many of the calories are not absorbed because they are not digestible, and the digestion process itself uses a lot of energy. So, it's not just about the number of calories in a food, but also its overall nutritional value and how it affects our body.

It's important to understand that it's okay to include high-calorie, less nutrient-dense foods like cakes, crisps, and chocolate in a balanced way. Over-restricting these foods can leave us feeling out of control and increase the likelihood of bingeing later on. 

Pairing these foods with high-fibre and high-protein options can:

  • Improve their nutrient profile
  • Slow down the release of glucose
  • Prevent sugar spikes
  • Help us feel in control.

This will also help us improve our relationship with food.

The role of low-calorie foods in your diet

If we pay attention to the quality of our diet, we will notice that most of the foods we eat have low energy/calorie density.

This is particularly true for plant-based foods, which are usually low in calories and have a dense food matrix. The high thermic effect of this matrix means that our body requires a lot of energy to break down the food. By choosing these types of foods, we not only consume a variety of essential nutrients but can also eat larger portions with fewer calories, which can help us lose weight and control our hunger.

Over time, consistently following this behaviour may lead us to naturally maintain an energy deficit that is personalised for us without tracking and restricting our food intake. This will likely result in sustainable and healthy weight loss. Studies show that it is often fibre intake, regardless of total calories or type of diet, that leads to a healthier weight - whatever that looks like for us.

This is because our gut microbes are linked to our metabolism as well as regulating appetite.

Can you build muscle in a calorie deficit?

It’s possible to build some muscle while consuming fewer calories than our body burns. But it’s not the best approach for maximising muscle growth.

To build muscle mass, our body needs energy, which can be obtained from stored energy reserves, such as body fat. While a calorie surplus is not mandatory for muscle gain, it is required to optimise muscle growth. However, if we create too large of a calorie deficit, it could be counterproductive for muscle growth because our body may turn to other energy supplies - like muscle mass - to fuel our workouts.

Our nutrition plays a significant role when it comes to recovering from a workout and making progress.

Our body requires a variety of nutrients both before and after a workout. For example, it's crucial to replenish the glycogen stores (carbohydrate stores) in our muscles by refuelling with carbohydrates. Additionally, it's essential to consume sufficient amounts of protein to repair and build muscle. 

While protein needs may vary from person to person, generally, consuming 20-30g of protein per meal is recommended.

 It's important to remember that recovery should not only focus on macronutrients (protein, fats, carbs) but also micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). We should aim to reinforce our immune system with antioxidant-rich foods, such as colourful fruits and vegetables, not only during the post-exercise period but also throughout the day.

After taking into account various factors, it is evident that being overly meticulous in planning and controlling every meal to an exact gram and limiting our food choices will not lead to a nourished mind and body or the desired muscle gain. As our daily activities and workout routines vary, our caloric and macronutrient requirements change as well. Restricting our food intake disregards the essential micronutrients that are crucial for optimal health and wellbeing.

Our approach to mindful weight loss

In summary, it is essential to understand that losing weight is achieved by being in a calorie deficit. 

However, the way we achieve it is crucial to determine its sustainability. Counting calories and restricting food intake to levels where we deprive our bodies of vital nutrients harms us more than it does good, leading to a vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting. Therefore, it is essential to take a mindful approach and discover what works for us, as everyone's needs are different. Tuning in to what our body wants and needs takes time, but it is a necessary journey for a healthier body and mind that will likely aid weight loss. 

Prioritising nutrients by adding foods instead of taking them away and gradually incorporating more movement throughout the day is a good start. 

This journey does not have to be taken alone. Our health coaches at Embla work with you to create a personalised health plan that does not involve restricted plans and rules.

References:

Beigrezaei, S., Yazdanpanah, Z., Soltani, S. et al. (2021) The effects of exercise and low-calorie diets compared with low-calorie diets alone on health: a protocol for systematic reviews and meta-analyses of controlled clinical trials. Syst Rev https://doi.org/10.1186/s13643-021-01669-7

Benton D, Young HA. (2017) Reducing Calorie Intake May Not Help You Lose Body Weight. Perspect Psychol Sci .https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5639963/

Celia Smoak Spell, (2016) There’s no sugar-coating it: All calories are not created equal. Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/theres-no-sugar-coating-it-all-calories-are-not-created-equal-2016110410602
Kim JY. (2021) Optimal Diet Strategies for Weight Loss and Weight Loss Maintenance. J Obes Metab Syndrhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8017325/

Manninen AH. Is a calorie really a calorie? (2004) Metabolic advantage of low-carbohydrate diets. J Int Soc Sports Nutr https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2129158/

Slater GJ, Dieter BP, Marsh DJ, Helms ER, Shaw G, Iraki J. (2019) Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Front Nutr.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6710320/

The Gut Health Doctor (2022) Calorie Counting. https://www.theguthealthdoctor.com/calorie-counting

The Gut Health Doctor (2021) Why you need to say NO to calorie counting & YES to nourishing your GM! https://www.theguthealthdoctor.com/why-you-need-to-say-no-to-calorie-counting-yes-to-nourishing-your-gm

Trexler, E.T., Smith-Ryan, A.E. & Norton, L.E.(2014) Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. J Int Soc Sports Nutr https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-7

Chika Anekwe, MD, MPH, (2022) Exercise, metabolism, and weight: New research from The Biggest Loser. Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/exercise-metabolism-and-weight-new-research-from-the-biggest-loser-202201272676

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Nicol Ingram
Nicol Ingram
Health coach
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