No, Your Metabolism Doesn’t Hate You.
In the quest to put on muscle and lose fat, metabolism is often blamed for failed attempts. That ends today.
Today, you’re going to finally understand what your metabolism is, and you’ll learn how to use that information to your advantage.
Metabolism: Misunderstood and Maligned
Or, “No matter how much I eat, I just can’t gain weight!”
And my personal favorite, “I just think about food and I gain weight!”
You see, It’s almost accepted as fact that people who are naturally thin have “fast metabolisms” and people who have a hard time losing fat have “slow metabolisms.”
But is this true?
A few days ago, I assigned some calorie recommendations to a client who’s trying to add some muscle. After receiving his calorie recommendations, he sends me this message:
Notice how he assumed that he was absolutely eating at least 2400 calories every day already. He even wanted to add an extra 1000 calories per day because there was no way that 2400 calories were going to cut it. We see this a lot. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of metabolism.
Many people believe that their metabolism is why they can’t reach their goals.
What Is Metabolism, Anyway?
The term “metabolism” describes all chemical reactions involved in keeping a living thing alive (i.e.: you).
Metabolism is broken up into two categories:
- Anabolism: the synthesis in living organisms of more complex substances from simpler ones. This the process that turns food into muscle or fat.
- Catabolism: the breaking down in living organisms of more complex substances into simpler ones, with the release of energy. So this process relates to either losing fat (yay!) or losing muscle (boo!)
Anabolism and catabolism are both happening inside each one of us, right now. It’s the net of these processes that determine life and death, muscle gain or muscle loss, fat gain or fat loss.
Let’s talk about the metabolic process of fat loss specifically.
In 1958, a scientist named Max Wishnofsky concluded that the caloric equivalent of one pound of body weight lost or gained was 3,500 calories. Over time, we’ve seen that things aren’t that simple, but this is a good starting point.
So, 3500 calories – give or take – over the span of days, weeks, or even months, in excess, of what our body needed during that period will cause one pound of fat gain.
Here’s why this is important. As DJ Khaled would say, this is a major key.
Let’s say you went out with friends and you ate all of the things.
You feel terrible about it the next day. The last thing you want to do is step on a scale, but you want to see just how bad things got.
A gain of five pounds?! Ugh! Normally you’d feel terrible, but not this time.
That’s when you remember that sweet post from [CTRL-ALT-FIT] that said that 3500 calories are required to produce a pound of fat (that would be this one, here, right now).
There’s no way you ate 17,500 calories.
In fact, you probably didn’t even have a quarter of that.
Why We Lose, Gain, or Stay The Same
Going a little deeper, we can now talk about energy balance.
Energy balance is the relationship between “energy out” (calories being used in the body for our daily energy requirements) and “energy in” (food calories taken into the body through food and drink).
First, let’s talk about energy out. The demands placed on your body determine how many calories the body needs to maintain our current weight. Working a physical job like farming, for example, can burn as many as 2500 calories every day. Desk jockeys aren’t so lucky, burning only about 500 calories a day.
This means that people who have physically demanding jobs have more leeway with how much they can eat. The same is not to true for people with sedentary jobs.
If you remember high school physics, you might recall a guy by the name of Isaac Newton, who said that energy is never created nor destroyed, it’s only transferred between from one form of matter to another.
Where Food Goes
When we eat food, that energy is “transferred” as follows:
- Work: This is the stuff your body does, like:
- Breathing, circulating blood, regenerating cells, etc., all require calories (energy). This accounts for about 60-80% of the total metabolic rate.
- Non-exercise physical activity (NEPA), like walking, fidgeting, etc., and, of course, exercise like cardio or strength training. This accounts for 20-30% of the metabolic rate.
- Digestion accounts for about 10% of the total metabolic rate.
- Heat: losing some heat is always part of any energy transfer. It’s partly the reason why we sweat when we workout. It’s also the reason our bodies get hot after a big meal.
- Storage: any surplus gets stored, and gets used for energy later. And we store excess energy as, you guessed it, fat.
We all have unique calories needs. Some people have very physically demanding jobs and others don’t. Some people fidget a lot, some people don’t. Some people simply have to move more than others for various reasons.
For example, a person who lives in the Greatest City on Earth, New York, walks anywhere from two to five miles per day, because they have to walk from train stations and bus stops to their ultimate destination. Compare that to someone who lives somewhere like Los Angeles, who drives everywhere, from door to door. Obviously, these two people are going to have different energy needs.
But My Skinny Friend, tho…
And, yes, some people do have faster metabolisms than others.
And, no, I’ve haven’t just confirmed what you’ve known all along: your metabolism is slow and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Notice the graphic. It’s a bell curve that shows the predictable metabolic rate of a 150-pound, 32-year-old woman, showing us how many calories they’d burn in a day.
The ends or tail of the bell curve is where we find the outliers. These individuals have medical conditions like hypothyroidism (metabolism is too slow) on the left, and hyperthyroidism (metabolism is too fast) on the right, and they should go see a doctor.
As we move to the center of the bell curve, notice the calorie range where 80%, the majority of people, are found–the slowest on the right and the fastest on the right. The difference isn’t negligible; it’s a difference of about 20% or a variance of almost 300 calories.
But in practical terms, it’s just a slice of pizza.
See, you’re skinny friend can’t just eat whatever she wants. And for the skinny bro who says that he can’t gain weight no matter what, there’s still hope.
But more importantly, this is why people fail to reach their fitness goals. It’s why attempts to cut soda, go Low-Carb, Low-Fat, or Organic fail to produce the desired results. It’s because these approaches don’t take into account a person’s individual calorie needs.
I know you’ve heard your entire life about you had to eat healthy foods. And that’s true because whole foods are full of nutrients and they’re good for you. But eating those foods won’t automatically make you lose fat.
It’s not what we eat, but how much we eat, that mostly determines how we look.
Quantity Over Quality
Ever heard of the Twinkie Diet?
“On his ‘convenience store diet,’ he [Dr. Haub] shed 27 pounds in two months.”
“What about his health, tho?” you may ask.
“Haub’s ‘bad’ cholesterol, or LDL, dropped 20 percent and his ‘good’ cholesterol, or HDL, increased by 20 percent. He reduced the level of triglycerides, which are a form of fat, by 39 percent.”
“Yea, but what about all that sugar?”
To answer that here’s a thought experiment, courtesy of our boy Adam Ali over at PHYSIQONOMICS:
“Calories don’t count, it’s sugars that cause fat gain.”
“Ok, eat nothing but one Snickers bar per day, for a week, and see if you don’t lose fat/weight.”
The big takeaway from all of this is: food is our fuel and that fuel gets processed to create energy. When we take in fewer calories than needed, we are in a deficit of our individual energy needs. That is when weight is lost. Only calories in excess of our individual energy needs get stored.
Without taking this into account, any approach to losing fat will be haphazard at best. Even those who have successfully lost weight on Trendy Diet™ (Atkins, South Beach, Not Eating After 6 PM, etc.) only did so because of the caloric restriction.
CICO Isn’t Psycho
While we would never say that weight loss is as simple as “calories in, calories out (CICO),” there’s no need to worry about the parts of metabolism that aren’t fully understood yet. Having even a basic understanding of what our body does with food will help you get closer to your physique goals.
This knowledge will also help you never fall for fad diets that don’t take your individual caloric needs into account.
In fact, taking your specific calorie needs into account is exactly what we do with our clients.
Remember our client we talked about at the top of the post? We checked in on him a week later…
After trusting our advice for just a week, he now has a better understanding of his specific dietary needs and his average daily calorie intake.
OK, So What Now?
I’m sure you’re wondering, “Yea, but how many calories do I need?” If only there was a way where you could figure out how to customize your own nutrition for your specific needs.
Well, you’re in luck. In the next article, we’ll discuss how to do just that.
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