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**This post has been entered in Monday Mania at The Healthy Home Economist and Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop!**
Health and weight loss is a major topic in this country. Unfortunately, we are a country of extremes: many people are too heavy, yet have a goal to be what is ultimately too thin. We don’t know what a “normal,” healthy body looks like any longer. It’s important to achieve or maintain an appropriate weight in order to be healthy (and that weight may be lower or higher than we are told is “right”).
The basic answer we’re given about weight loss is this: “Simple! Just consume fewer calories than you burn off, and you lose weight!” But is that really true? Could it be so simple?
Fallacy of “Simple” Weight Loss
If weight loss were truly simple, then we wouldn’t have such an epidemic right now. If cutting calories was the primary or only thing that mattered, most of our population wouldn’t be overweight. But the calories you take in are not used in an efficient, homogenous manner. A person’s caloric needs can vary largely depending on a number of circumstances. Hormones and other issues not related to food intake also play a role.
How many people do you know who have tried every diet out there — and maybe it was you? Low fat, low-carb, low calorie, different supplements or pills, programs, meal replacement drinks…. And nothing works. We had a family member who ate very little (and most of it was fruits and vegetables) and walked several miles on her treadmill each day…and didn’t lose a single pound. In 8 months. She came to find out that her thyroid and adrenals weren’t healthy and when she addressed those issues, she began to lose weight — even though she was eating a lot more (including a lot more fat) and not exercising.
Weight loss just isn’t about “taking in fewer calories than you burn off!”
The Body’s Caloric Needs
The idea that all calories are the same and that you can lose weight simply by eating fewer is honestly ridiculous to me. Calories are just a measure of the amount of energy in the food. They are not, in and of themselves, good or bad. The amount of energy we truly get from food can’t “really” be calculated anyway, because our bodies aren’t looking solely for “energy.” They are looking for a balance of macro and micronutrients. If they don’t get what they are seeking, then they will signal you to eat more. Calories, in number, are basically irrelevant to the body (they are neither a macro nor micronutrient).
It’s also true that your caloric needs can vary widely from time to time. There is a base amount that you require simply to perform the functions needed to live — to keep your heart beating, your lungs breathing, and so on. Beyond that it can change quite a lot, depending on your activity level, your hormones, whether you are healthy or sick, etc. There is no way to gauge the true appropriate number of calories per day since it can change so often. Ideally, you do not count calories at all, but take in an adequate amount of healthy food and allow your body to decide when and how much to eat.
Taking in too few calories can lead your body to store more as fat. How many people do you know who begin restricted-calorie diets who initially see good weight loss — for a few weeks — and then plateau or even gain a little back? It’s considered “normal” in weight loss circles, but it’s not. This is a sign that you are eating too little. Your body is holding onto everything you eat and is more likely to store fat, because it is in “starvation” mode. They warn about this with eating disorders, but it can happen to anyone who goes on a seriously restricted-calorie diet.
There are other major issues with restricted calories, too, and you can read the entire post I wrote on low-calorie diets previously.
How to Handle Calories?
The simple answer? Don’t. Don’t pay any attention to the number of calories in a snack. When you are healthy, your body will regulate what you need naturally.
The problem is that if you are overweight, you may not be healthy enough for your body to self-regulate. The body should produce ghrelin to let you know you’re hungry and should eat, then produce leptin to tell you to stop, you’ve had enough. If you are not eating the right foods or something else is “off” with your body, then these hormones may not be produced properly, especially leptin. Insulin may be over or under produced. This is typically known as “metabolic syndrome” and places you at risk for diabetes.
The best place to start is to cut out all sugars and white flour or other refined grains from your diet, if you haven’t already, and cut back on grains in general. This will stop the crazy blood sugar spikes that lead to insulin issues, and start to get your hormones back to normal. It will take time.
In the mean time, eat meat, vegetables, whole dairy, some fruits and grains to satisfaction, but never to feeling “stuffed.” Don’t worry about how many calories this is or isn’t.
Do You Eat Too Few Calories?
I have a bad habit, personally. I make sure my kids eat all day, but I’m usually doing chores while they’re “tied up” at the table, so I don’t sit down and eat with them. Therefore, I often don’t eat enough in general.
I haven’t lost all my baby weight yet (I know, it’s only been two months) and I suspect the reason is that I’m not eating enough, so my body won’t let go of the bit of additional weight I still have. Biologically, I need that fat to continue to produce milk, and if my body is worried that I am not eating enough to sustain myself and produce quality milk, then I will not lose weight. Therefore, my plan to lose my baby weight is actually to eat more.
The average woman, around 150 lbs. with low to moderate activity needs a minimum of around 1600 calories a day just to perform her basic functions. She needs probably 2000 to maintain her activity levels. Add pregnancy or breastfeeding or any additional needs? 3000 isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.
This is far more than we are told is appropriate. But, it is true. And again, this can change depending on the number of macro/micro nutrients the body needs at any given time.
Are You Getting Your Nutrients?
The basic reason why people are so heavy these days is that they are malnourished. When people eat foods that contain very few micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), their bodies do not have what they need to function. So, the body encourages you to eat more, in hopes of getting the nutrients it needs. Ultimately, people take in a lot more calories, sugar, carbs, etc. than they need but still don’t have enough nutrients. The situation is even worse because many of these processed foods actually draw nutrients out of the body for digestion and detoxification, upping your nutritional requirements. Worse still, many of the nutrients that are in these foods are supplemental, added during processing and they’re not well absorbed by the body.
It’s very common to be deficient in some nutrient…or several nutrients.
- Vitamin A Deficiency — Night-blindness, infertility, frequent infections, poor growth (children), genetic disorders, anemia
- Vitamin B Deficiency — Fatigue, weakness, anemia, bleeding gums, diarrhea, constipation, loss of balance, depression, dementia, dermatitis, mental disorders, high or low blood sugar, neural tube defects (in babies whose mothers are deficient), irritability, nervousness, dizziness, frequent headaches, cancer, infertility
- Vitamin C Deficiency — Anemia, bleeding gums, frequent infections, long healing/recovery times, dry hair and skin, bruises easily, weight gain, painful joints
- Vitamin D Deficiency — Rickets, muscle weakness, frequent infections, osteoporosis, psoriasis, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure
- Vitamin E Deficiency — Ataxia, muscle weakness, poor vision, frequent illness
- Vitamin K Deficiency – Lack of blood clotting, easy bruising, loss of bone density, bleeding gums, heavy periods
- Magnesium Deficiency — Constipation, nausea, weak bones, frequent infections, high/low blood sugar, high blood pressure, leg cramps/restless legs, fatigue, weakness, seizures, abnormal heart rhythms
- Potassium Deficiency — High blood pressure, muscle weakness and cramps, fatigue, anxiety, acne, poor sleep, constipation
- Zinc Deficiency — Loss of appetite, frequent infections, impaired growth (in children), impotence, delayed healing, mental lethargy
- Calcium Deficiency — Back or neck pain, easily broken bones, numbness, weakness, bruises, seizure, chest pain
- Copper Deficiency — Anemia, impaired growth (in children), weight gain, frequent infections, poor motor control, low energy
This is not an exhaustive list. And it’s important to note that many of these symptoms overlap and can also signal other things not noted here. If you suspect that you may be deficient in something, please see a health professional to get a test done.
If it turns out you are deficient in something, it is either because you are not consuming enough of that nutrient in your diet, or because your body cannot absorb and use the nutrient efficiently. If the latter is the case, a healing diet like GAPS may be in order (which should also lead to weight loss).
What if I Can’t Lose Weight?
If you’re struggling to lose weight, check all of the issues above. Are you eating enough? Are you deficient in any nutrient? Are you eating too much sugar or too many grains? Are you eating processed foods and industrial fats?
If you’re doing all the right things and you still are not losing weight, consider that the diet you are consuming may not be the most appropriate for you. Although traditional foods are superior, and we should avoid modern, processed foods, the exact diet that you consume can vary quite widely. Some eat primarily protein and fat from animal sources. Some need a much higher percentage of fresh produce with only a small amount of animal products. Try out different ratios until you figure out a diet that is more appropriate for you.
If nothing is helping, seek the advice of a medical professional. It may be that your hormones are out of balance you need supplements or other help getting them back in line. If you have an underlying thyroid or adrenal condition, you may be unable to lose weight. If you have heavy metal toxicity or muscle weakness or any number of other conditions, this may affect your weight loss, as well.
It is important to seek the advice of a professional who understands the body and can run the appropriate tests to see if any of your levels are out of balance, then help you re-balance them so that your body can lose weight.
What is an Appropriate Weight?
We don’t know what’s “healthy” anymore with regards to weight. It’s clearly not healthy for a woman who is 5’5″ (average) to weigh 300 lbs. Neither is it healthy for her to weigh 85 lbs.
It’s important to understand that BMI is not accurate, either. The BMI, or Body Mass Index, is a formula to “guess” how much body fat you have. It can be off quite a lot, especially if you are young, on the short side, or especially muscular. A better idea is to get a test done to see how much body fat you actually have. The “ideal” for women is 18 – 24% during child bearing years, which is more than we’re told we should have. A lot of women really need to carry extra weight in their hips, thighs, and butts! Wide hips are a sign of fertility for a reason!
Every person’s body has a “set point.” There is some evidence to suggest that some people are meant to be what we consider overweight (not morbidly obese, though). Once you have figured out any health issues you have and have begun to lose weight, your body will eventually settle naturally where it should be. This may be different than what you expected or wanted. Accept it.
On GAPS, I lost 30 lbs. (post-baby) and got down to around 112. I’m 5’3″ with a rather curvy figure. I started to slowly gain weight again until I settled around 126 for awhile (only then did I actually get a normal period, it had been really abnormal until that point, which is not typical for me). I gained a few more pounds, settling in around 130 — and then I got pregnant again. That seemed to be where my body was healthiest, even if I was a bit “bigger” than I had been or might have liked to be.
It is important to adjust our expectations and to begin with a mind on what is truly healthy, ignoring the world’s definition of beauty. Those frail-boned, stick-thin, hollow-cheeked women are not beautiful! They look sick and malnourished. All the make up in the world can’t change that. I’ve taught my daughter already that it’s important to be healthy, and that these women are clearly not. It’s taken me a few years to change my own thoughts and standards on beauty; I don’t want her to ever contend with that.
A Note on Baby Weight
I’m trying to lose the weight from my third pregnancy — I’m familiar with this subject!
First, be patient. In my experience, unless you were overweight to begin with, it will take at least three months for the weight to come off. Breastmilk production stabilizes around 12 weeks postpartum, which is when your body may be ready to shed the last of that weight. Don’t expect to lose those last 5 or 10 lbs. sooner than this. (I keep reminding myself of this.)
Eat enough. If you’re not consuming enough food to meet both your own nutritional needs and your baby’s, you will not lose the weight. This is likely why some women say they can’t lose weight while breastfeeding. Your body is ensuring it can continue to produce milk so it holds onto the extra fat. There is some evidence to suggest that if your baby is having “seedy” poop (which is really just undigested milk curds), your milk contains enough fat. I check this frequently to make sure my diet remains adequate in this area!
Finally, realize that your shape may simply change somewhat, and this is okay. Buy some clothes that fit you properly and be proud that your body can carry babies! I’m still working on the “clothes that fit” part, but Ben’s actually helping me shop (so much fun!) and he doesn’t seem to mind at all that I’m a bit different…lol.
What do you think? Do calories really matter in weight loss?
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