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Why eating less isn't always the answer

Weight loss, or more accurately, fat loss, isn't as simple as eating less food than you need. In fact, our unhealthy obsession with 1,200 calorie diets can actually be doing more harm to your metabolism than good.

Think of your body as a campfire. Your goal is to burn the big logs but if you were to stack them all in a big pile and throw in a match, you're going to be very hungry and cold because they won't burn. A good fire starts with a base of kindling - a collection of little twigs and dried grass that are easily combustible. You start with a base of kindling, and then build up your fire with progressively bigger and bigger logs.

Your body is the same as the campfire. Those big logs are the calories you want to burn, but your body can't access them efficiently without kindling to get the fire, or your metabolism, going.

This is one of the most common mistakes I see my clients making, including my athletes looking to decrease their body fat for competition.

Calorie restriction can actually significantly affect the amount of energy that your body has available to it for day to day activities and exercise. So whilst in the early stages you may feel like you are losing weight, the risk is that you're losing muscle rather than fat.

But why would my body break down muscle?

Your metabolism is largely determined by your lean muscle mass. Your muscles require energy to work. So when you are in too great a calorie deficit, your body says "hang on a minute, I don't have enough energy to get me through the day, I better change my energy needs to meet what I'm actually being given." And that means breaking down muscle to slow down your metabolism, not burning fat.

So how do I know when I'm eating enough?

The people best at knowing how much they need to eat are actually young children. Still unbiased by "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts", they are all about fulfilling immediate needs. So they eat when they are hungry and stop when they aren't. Somewhere along the way, as we progress to teenagers and adults, we forget how to listen to our bodies. I'm all about helping my clients relearn how to listen to their body and pay attention to those cues. Those cues vary from person to person. Some of the cues to look for could be:

  • craving sweets during the day
  • headaches
  • stomach cramps
  • feeling moody or emotional
  • feeling unusually tired
  • no weight loss despite "being really good"

Athletes can be a slightly different story

It's not uncommon for endurance athletes to tell me that they aren't actually hungry or that eating more makes them feel unwell so this notion of listening to your body doesn't always work here. But even in these instances, strategies such as incremental increases in food can go a long way to achieving goals.

Think realistically about your goals, and most importantly, be kind to and listen to your body. Rome wasn't built in a day.

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