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How Not Enough Calories Can Make You Gain Weight

I know this may sound absolutely crazy but it’s certifiably true. Everything we’re led to believe about weight loss is focused on eating less and exercising more.

The reality is this combination does more to wreck your metabolism than just about anything you can do!

I recently met with a client who was working out with a trainer regularly but was actually gaining weight instead of losing it. She was understandably frustrated with the scale going the wrong way. With a quick review of her food journal I was able to spot the reason why almost immediately.

She wasn’t eating enough and her metabolism had down-regulated to a point where she was triggering a primal response to store fat instead of releasing it as a self-preservation mechanism.

I’ve seen this happen time and time again with clients over the past twenty years that I’ve been consulting on weight loss. The names and faces change but the story is the same.

I wanted to do a post on this subject to fully explain all the reasons why and help others who may be stuck and frustrated.

You want me to do what? Are you out of your mind?

The hardest part of my job as a coach is to convince someone that the way to break out of their weight loss plateau is to actually eat more!

This goes against every bit of logic that most people have about weight loss. I can promise you though it’s a natural response of the human body to store energy (fat) when there’s a prolonged restriction.

Here’s why this happens…

When you go for any length of time in a caloric deprivation state (eating less than 1000 calories a day) your body adjusts its rate of metabolism accordingly to slow things down. A series of hormonal shifts occur with the primary response being a decrease in the production of T3 by the thyroid gland.

Remember, this is a primal response built in for your own protection. If your thyroid didn’t slow down the secretion of T3, you’re metabolism would stay inversely elevated to your incoming energy.

The result would be you’d literally start to burn up your lean muscle tissue for energy. Obviously this would be a very bad thing and your chances for survival in a true famine state would diminish rapidly.

Eat less and store more…

As a natural response your body slows down your metabolism and starts looking to not only conserve precious body fat stores but also to add to them. This is why whenever you eat “normal” again you start to see the scale go up. It doesn’t have to be “bad” foods either. Any excess energy will be latched onto and stored as fat.

A typical way I see this happening is where a person will go through the work week and frequently skip meals or snacks. Then on the weekends when they’re not working, they eat normal again. It’s important to understand this doesn’t have to be a junk-food free-for-all or binge eating. You could just be eating normally from healthy foods and still gain weight!

Big fat weight loss lie!

We have to break this misconception that bad foods or excess calories are always to blame for weight gain. It’s all about the hormonal balances in your body. If said it before and I’ll say it again….fat loss is 100% controlled by the hormonal balances in your body.

Food and exercise are simply two ways hormonal balances are adjusted, either for fat storing or fat loss, depending on what you do.

Women pay special attention here….

Not to stereotype but there are several mistakes I see women making all the time. In all fairness the mistakes are made out of good intention, it’s just the strategies are all wrong. Women in general are far more dedicated and committed to losing weight than most men. Sorry guys, but it’s true.

The first thing you need to understand is what worked for you when you were younger will NOT necessarily work for you now.

For example, when you’re in your twenties you could probably lose weight simply by cutting back on calories and doing a ton of cardio.

As you get into your thirties, forties, and beyond, this strategy will fail miserably! The problem is your body has changed, especially with hormonal balances and the amount of lean muscle tissue you have.

As you age, hormones like testosterone start to naturally attenuate and there’s a gradual loss of lean muscle tissue every year after about the age of thirty. This is why resistance training is essential for women over thirty. More on that in a second.

If you try and cut back on calories or do marathon cardio sessions you only speed up the process in which you lose lean muscle and slow down your metabolism. You could get away with it when you were younger because hormone levels were higher and you were able to preserve lean muscle.

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Let me be perfectly clear…

If you’re a woman over the age of thirty you can do hours upon hours of cardio and starve yourself silly but you’ll only make things harder for yourself. It won’t work anymore!

Read that as many times as it takes to let it sink in.

If you want to change your body composition and more importantly keep the weight off you MUST take a three fold approach to keeping your metabolism elevated.

These three components work synergistically together and cannot be interchanged or have one or two pieces missing. Pay attention as this is the SECRET if there is one on how to lose weight over the age of thirty.

#1: Have a concern for muscle- resistance training

You absolutely MUST do resistance training to support the development of lean muscle and keep hormonal levels (like testosterone) from falling. The whole idea of doing resistance training to tone and firm is completely a secondary benefit. Sure the aesthetic benefits are nice as that’s what most women want, but the real reason you’re doing resistance work is to boost your metabolism and hormone levels.

While any resistance training is beneficial, the most effective type of workout is “burst training.” This is where you work in short bursts of all out effort, followed by brief recovery periods.

The workouts are short (typically less than 30 minutes) but the effort is all out and you must go hard. What makes these workouts so different is they have the ability to dramatically boost powerful fat burning hormones like adrenaline, growth hormone, IGF-1, and testosterone.

Traditional low-moderate intensity resistance training or aerobic workouts do NOT have the same effect. In fact, the longer you do cardio the more likely you are to decrease these hormones and get into what’s called a catabolic state. More is not better with exercise, especially when you age.

Bottom line is you must be doing resistance training 2-3 times a week and giving it everything you got when you’re doing the workouts. You don’t have to spend a lot of time, you just have to be willing to work hard when you do.

#2: Cardiovascular exercise

The real reason you want to do cardio has NOTHING to do with burning calories and everything to do with getting you better at transporting nutrients (primarily oxyen and fat to the muscle cells).

While any cardio is better than none in the beginning, you will want to commit to doing 20-30 minutes of cardio 5 x week for optimal fat loss. If you can only do 5-10 minutes in the beginning that’s ok. Research has shown you can get positive benefits from as little as 12 minutes of cardiovascular exercise.

Once again, the key will be progressing over time from doing low-moderate intensity aerobic workouts, to higher intensity interval training workouts. You’ll have to work up to the higher intensities but the nice thing is you’ll be able to shift from longer to shorter workouts over time.

Start with a simple fast pace walk then progress to short periods of walking then jogging. For example you could walk to for 2 minutes and then jog for 1 minute and keep alternating throughout your workout.

As you get in better cardiovascular conditioning simply look to increase the time you spend at higher intensities. The objective is to get to the point where you can do short bursts of all out effort for 20-60 seconds followed by 1:30-2:00 of recovery (walking). See my article on interval training for more information.

#3: Supportive nutrition

The last piece of the puzzle is feeding your body with the necessary energy and nutrients to support your metabolism and lean muscle development.

This means you’ll have to bring in enough calories to support not only resting metabolic rate functions, but also your exercise and daily activities. You simply cannot eat 1000 calories or less and accomplish this, it doesn’t matter who you are.

Don’t get so hung up on the exact number of calories. Simply eat when you’re hungry and only enough until you’re no longer hungry – not full. This is a big difference. In the beginning you wont’ be very hungry as your metabolism has down-regulated.

You still have to find a way to get your body energy and nutrients which is why I recommend protein or meal replacement shakes. It’s much easier to drink something than eat solid food when you’re metabolism is down.

This is going to take a commitment and lifestyle change on your part. Make no mistake about it, this all comes down to a matter of your priorities.

If you can’t take 60 seconds out of your morning or afternoon to drink a shake that will provide your body with essential fuel and nutrients to boost your metabolism, don’t expect to be very good at burning fat.

I can’t be any more blunt than that.

Simply eat whole, natural foods as much as possible and give your body true supportive nutrition. When you eat the wrong foods, or not enough foods, you signal your body to store fat through hormonal changes. There’s everything from insulin, ghrelin, leptin, thyroid, and other hormones that are directly impacted by your diet.

Download a copy of my “Lean Code Method Quick Start Nutrition Guide” to find out exactly the most optimal foods and meal combinations to eat for fat loss.

Bottom line…

I know it’s crazy frustrating to do exactly the same thing that you used to do to lose weight but not have it work anymore. You must accept the fact that your body has changed and you must adjust accordingly.

If you think the whole idea of eating more to lose weight sounds obscure, just try doing exactly what I’ve laid out here for two weeks and see for yourself. What do you have to lose?

Apply some common sense in all of this. When you step back and look at the fact that you’re either not losing weight or perhaps gaining weight while not eating that much and exercising, it defies everything you’ve been conditioned to believe.

When any weight loss strategy stops working you’d only be banging your head against the wall to keep repeating it.

I promise you the answer is not with some fad diet, pill, injection, or anything like that. Sure there are some of these things that will assist you in losing weight, but it won’t last for long unless you make true lifestyle changes.

If you apply the three main components for a body transformation that I’ve listed above, you’ll be able to re-shape your body and lose weight at ANY age. Not only that but you’ll dramatically increase your energy, improve your stamina, endurance, and be healthier for your efforts.

All other options are simply skirting around the real underlying problems and will only amount to a quick fix at best.

I’ve seen this method I’m sharing with you work with literally hundreds of people over the years. There’s nothing magical or special about it. Once you start working with your body instead of against it, you’ll start burning fat and get to your ideal bodyweight.

Will it take some hard work and effort? Absolutely, but I bet deep down in your heart you already knew that. If you’re not willing to change your lifestyle, habits, and routines, don’t expect anything different. Going through these changes takes time and patience so go easy on yourself.

Having the accountability, support, and direction from a personal coach who has a sincere interest in your health and happiness can make all the difference in the world. I’m always here to help if I can assist you in making that change.

Shane Doll is a certified personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Fitness Training Studios. If you’re looking for a personal trainer in Charleston, you can receive a FREE, no-obligations (2) session trial and consultation without risking a dime. Over 1000 Charleston area residents have transformed their bodies following our unique burst training workouts and simplified nutrition programs.

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