| Making Calories Count

Author / Hunter Waldman

5-7 minute read

Ask anyone what you should not talk about at the dinner table and collectively, everyone will say “politics, religion, and money.” I am adding nutrition to that list. “It’s all about calories” vs. “Nah bro, it’s only about hormones”. Keto vs. low-fat. vs. the weird plant-only or meat-only people. Look, I’ve been a Researcher in nutrition for well over a decade and I am here to set the record straight. Anyone that is telling you nutrition is black and white is missing the bigger picture, likely has their certified nutrition degree from the University of Google, and has the term “biohacker” in their Instagram profile. Calories definitely matter (basic thermodynamics – Laws 1 and 2), but calories also dictate hormone regulation (Female Athlete Triad– Heard of it?).

Basically, when it comes to energy balance, you’ve heard it’s about energy in vs. energy out, right? So why then, when you are attempting to improve your body composition (i.e., more muscle and less fat), can you not simply continue to decrease your calorie consumption, eat more protein, and lose all the fat you want? It’s because the hypothalamus, a part of your brain that runs the subconscious, is highly concerned with energy regulation. And, when calories drop, the hypothalamus starts to decrease everything else, including your metabolism. This is known as the, “Constrained Energy Expenditure Hypothesis (CEH)” (1) and is a fundamental theory to our understanding of how your body responds to a caloric deficit, whether that is through calorie restriction or an increase in energy expenditure via exercise. 

A Brain’s Focus on Energy Regulation

Briefly, the CEH states that your metabolism is tightly controlled by the hypothalamus to expend a certain amount of calories per day based on your body size, genetics, gender, physical activity level, and many other factors. Your body has genetically evolved to have a body-weight “set point” (± ~5-10 lbs) for the metabolically healthy person. In a sense, every cell in your body has a special enzyme (a metabolic clock and calculator if you will) that monitors the energy that is available each day and reports back to the hypothalamus (2). We know that when you drop below this energy threshold, your brain dramatically slows other energy consuming pathways down, like the speed at which you think (aka brain fog), your reaction time, and even the rate at which you blink!

Yes, the brain will reduce energy expenditure elsewhere when it’s underfed, because the body does not realize its 2022 and that Chipotle is down the road. It’s an ancient organ and responds in a primitive but protective manner. The brain is simply responding to the stimuli you are presenting it with, and right now, you are telling your brain you’re in starvation mode. In response, it slows your metabolism down (technically your basal metabolic rate) and it becomes very greedy with burning the most energy efficient source you have to offer (aka fat).

As a result, you cannot lose that stubborn belly fat no matter how much you reduce your caloric intake or increase your physical activity levels. In fact, rather than burning fat, you’ll likely start to burn muscle, as muscle is viewed as a luxury by the brain due to its high metabolic demanding at rest. Simply put, in a chronic caloric deficit, your brain will reduce muscle while holding onto body fat. This is not the result we want, especially if we are a hard charging Power Athlete. 

Metabolism and Progressive Overload

So where do you start and how do you apply this information? First, if you have not already done so, definitely check the recent nutrition podcasts from Power Athlete Radio linked at the bottom of this article. Power Athlete Nutrition Coach Rob Exline recently penned a blog (also linked below) with some easy tips on how to take control of your nutrition and caloric balance. Now, the cellular responses to nutrition are complex, but you don’t need to know those to reap the benefits of some simple rules for optimizing body composition as it relates to energy balance. Yes, weight-loss or gain definitely reflects calories in vs. calories out.

However, this has to be done with a systematic and progressive approach, just like exercise. (Is this guy about to tie a Power Athlete principle into nutrition?). Insert, progressive overload. Just like you have to continually “stress to progress” those gains and movement patterns, your metabolism is in continual fluctuation. Your metabolism is dynamic, not static, and is ever changing. Therefore, based on your body composition goals, your calories must also fluctuate across the season to continually drive metabolic adaptations. If losing fat is a primary goal, then “calories out” must progressively increase by either reducing caloric intake or increasing physical activity. While keeping our focus on calories, a rule of thumb is to make small changes (~250-500 kcal reductions) and maintain this caloric deficit for at least 2-3 weeks. As long as you are continually losing weight, keep this deficit consistent. When weight loss stalls, reduce caloric intake by another ~250-500 kcals to continually drive weight-loss. However, this approach should never extend beyond 8-12 weeks max, or you risk metabolic dysregulation and thyroid/endocrine disruption. Even if you have not achieved your “ideal” body composition by this time period, you should immediately enter into a maintenance phase which includes adding some kcals (~250-500) back in every 2-4 weeks to your total caloric intake, as long as bodyweight remains stable. Make sure to track your bodyweight and when it starts to increase again, stop adding calories and keep that total caloric load consistent for 8-12 weeks. Your maintenance phase should reflect a similar duration as however long you were in a caloric deficit; this allows your body to establish a new “body weight set point” which you can now base your work on.  

Now, how you manipulate your calories across a season is highly dependent on you as an individual (enter the principle of individuality and blown minds). If you have never really attempted this before, reach out and connect with a Power Athlete Nutrition Coach. They’ll simplify this process significantly— or at the very least, consider purchasing one of the pre-made nutrition templates (e.g., the Leaning Protocol) where the guess work is already done for you. However, if you decide to attempt this yourself, definitely begin with an isocaloric approach (33% fat, 33% CHO, and 33% protein) for your macronutrients. Overall, if you are consuming sufficient protein (1+ g/lb of bodyweight), currently consuming sufficient calories (15-17 kcals/lb of bodyweight) and are metabolically flexible (i.e., not insulin resistant), then the above approach is a good starting point for optimizing body composition and performance from an energy balance standpoint.

Final Thoughts

I want to conclude with one final thought: as an individual focused on performance, the shift should change from losing fat to increasing muscle mass. The daily habits that are required for adding muscle mass generally lends itself to an improvement in body composition. Having worked with many individuals on their nutritional habits, I rarely had someone who reached their original body composition goals and were satisfied. Choosing to focus on performance, I found, was always a more rewarding path for everyone, instead of focusing on an “ideal” body composition or look.  Moving forward, if you want to find out more about the Power Athlete principles and how this nutrition information can empower your performance, head over to the Power Athlete Academy and sign up for the Methodology Course.

RELATED CONTENT:

PODCAST: PA Radio Ep 617 – Leaning Peak for Beach Week

PODCAST: PA Radio Ep 605 – Eating More and Leaning Out

BLOG: Tip The Scales In Your Favor by Rob Exline

BLOG: The Female Athlete Triad by Ben Skutnik

COACHING: Power Athlete Nutrition Coaching

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SOURCES

Pontzer H, Durazo-Arvizu R, Dugas LR, et al. Constrained Total Energy Expenditure and Metabolic Adaptation to Physical Activity in Adult Humans. Curr Biol. 2016;26(3):410-417. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.12.046

Waldman HS, Renteria LI, McAllister MJ. Time-restricted feeding for the prevention of cardiometabolic diseases in high-stress occupations: a mechanistic review. Nutr Rev. 2020 Jun 1;78(6):459-464. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuz090. PMID: 31774508.

AUTHOR

Hunter Waldman

Hunter Waldman is a former DII collegiate linebacker who found his passion in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology during his undergraduate years. After working as a Strength and Conditioning coach/personal trainer for several years, Hunter pursued his doctorate in Exercise Physiology while also serving as a Sweat Scientist for the Gatorade Sport Science Institute (GSSI) in Florida. Hunter is now a Professor of Exercise Science at the University of North Alabama, Researcher, Director of the Exercise Biochemistry Laboratory, and Power Athlete Block-1 Coach. Hunter's research area is in Nutrition and Metabolic Health/Performance, where his lab is attempting to understand how to increase cell stress resiliency via nutrition, supplements, and exercise.

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