Maximum Fat Loss, Exercise, and Starvation Mode
1. True or False: It’s important not to eat less than 1200 calories per day because doing so will throw your body into “starvation mode” and stall your weight loss.
False. It IS important to eat at least 1200 calories per day, but this is because most people will find it almost impossible to maintain good nutrition when eating less than this. “Starvation mode” is a real concern, but the number of calories you need to avoid that problem is going to be based on several individual factors, including your current weight and activity level, and could be higher or lower than 1200 calories.
(See more below on ‘starvation mode’)
2. True or False: The best measure of whether your program is set up right is whether you see the results you’re expecting on the scale.
False. There are several reasons why the scale can be the least reliable measure of your progress and success. For most people, the goal isn’t really losing weight at all—it’s losing fat. It’s very common, for example, to gain weight or hold steady, especially during the first few weeks of a big change in diet and exercise, even though you are actually losing fat. Andyou can lose quite a bit of weight without losing much fat at all—a problem that often happens when you try to lose weight too fast. Likewise, your body simply doesn’t work like a bank account. Your daily calorie deposits and withdrawls don’t always affect the weight balance the way you expect, because your weight is affected by many other factors (like water retention, for example). The scale is just one of many things to look at, and usually not as useful as other things like bodyfat percentage, the fit of your clothes, how you’re feeling about the changes you’re making, and the progress you’re making in your fitness and health. One of the worst things you can do is let a disappointing result on the scale convince you that all your efforts are wasted—that’s just not the case.
3. True or False: There are limits on how much fat your body can use in a day to make up for the calories you don’t eat.
True. If your calorie deficit gets too large, your body won’t be able to make it all up by taking body fat out of storage and using it to replace the fuel it’s not getting from food. Instead, it will start cannabalizing muscle and organ tissue to get the energy stored in them, and shut down certain non-essential activities (like keeping skin, nails and hair in good shape) to conserve energy. There are a lot of “rules” that govern how your body uses energy, and where it gets the energy it needs in different circumstances. For example, many cells in your body can’t use fat for energy at all (your brain cells among them); and others, like muscle cells, will only use significant amounts of fat when they are working at medium intensity. This means that, if you want to lose fat instead of muscle and organ tissue, you’ve got to play by your body’s rules for using fat as energy. For most people, a goal of losing between one-half and two pounds per week, through a combination of moderate calorie reduction and increased exercise, will avoid problems and produce the best results. If you only have 10 pounds or less to lose, aim for the lower end of that range; if you have more than 50 to lose, you can aim for the high end.
4. The best way to include exercise in your weight loss plan is to:
a. Do as much high intensity cardio exercise as you can every day—the more calories burned, the better.
b. Keep your cardio exercise in the (relatively low intensity) “fat-burning zone” to maximize the amount of fat used as fuel.
c. Keep the cardio to the bare minimum required for heart health, and put the emphasis on muscle building, because muscle burns more calories all the time.
d. Find a combination of activities, intensity levels, and time spent on exercise that will keep you fit and healthy enough to do what you want to do, and that you find enjoyable and sustainable over time.
Answer: D. A combination of activities. Exercise plays several important roles in a healthy lifestyle. Cardio exercise burns lots of calories that could otherwise be turned into fat; higher intensity levels also help improve fitness and cardiovascular health, while they maximize calorie burning. But too much cardio and not enough strength training will also increase the amount of muscle mass you lose, and that’s bad for both daily functioning and for keeping the weight off permanently. To keep the weight off permanently and stay fit, you’re going to have to maintain the same activity level that helped you get it off, so a crash exercise program isn’t any better than a crash diet in the long run. There are many options you can explore to find ways to combine calorie burning, cardiovascular health, and overall fitness in your program.
5. Aiming to lose 2 pounds per week will be a good goal for you, if:
a. You include both increased exercise and calorie reduction in your plan.
b. You don’t get so hungry that you can’t stick to your eating plan.
c. Your current BMI is 30 or more.
d. You recognize that this is the amount you should lose on average over time, and that the actual amount you lose will vary from week to week.
Answer: C. Your current BMI is 30 or more. The other three answers are all important factors in picking a realistic rate of weight loss that you can live with, but studies have shown that aiming to lose 2 pounds per week will probably cause problems for people whose current BMI is less than 30.
Your body has lots of mechanisms designed to keep you as close to being in energy balance as possible, even when both your daily activity level and your calorie intake are constantly changing. There are also those pesky and unavoidable limitations on how much body fat you can burn to make up for any calories lacking in your diet, as mentioned above.
When you combine all these factors, the bottom line here is that, if your total calorie intake consistently falls too far below what you would need to maintain your “ideal” weight, all those energy balancing mechanisms start kicking in and causing problems (like cannibalizing muscles and organs for energy instead of fat, and letting your hair fall out). This is what’s meant by the notion of “starvation mode.”
To avoid this, and still lose as much fat as possible, you have to keep your calorie intake lower than what it takes to maintain your current weight, but not more than about 250 calories lower than what it would take to maintain your ideal weight. Obviously, the more weight you have to lose, the bigger the difference between these two numbers will be, and the larger your calorie deficit can be without pushing you below the minimum you need to avoid problems. But once your BMI falls below 30, reducing calories by the 1000/day necessary to lose 2 pounds per week is probably going to put you below that minimum. You’ll need to set your goal date so that you’re aiming for a loss of about 1 pound per week (or even half a pound, once you’re within about 10 pounds of goal).
6. True or False: When it comes to losing fat, it all comes down to the numbers: calories in versus calories out. It doesn’t matter what you eat as long as you maintain a calorie deficit.
FALSE. It’s true that people won’t lose weight if they eat more calories than they use up, even if those calories come from fruits and veggies. But it’s also true that a healthy, balanced diet and smart planning make it easier for your body to shed fat. Your body has many complex chemical processes and interactions that determine when energy gets put into and taken out of storage, and most of these are directly affected by what and when you eat, as well as how much. To make a very long story short, dividing your daily calories into smaller meals eaten every 3-4 hours will usually work much better than fewer large meals. And whole, minimally processed foods and nutritionally balanced meals will usually work much better than foods or meals that are high in refined sugars, sodium, and/or processed grains. It’s much harder for your body to turn lean protein, fruits, veggies and whole grains into fat than it is to turn sugar and refined foods into fat.
7. True or False. Since all physical activity burns extra calories, it’s a good idea to record most or all of your daily activity on your exercise tracker.
FALSE. All physical activity does burn calories, and the more of it you can include in your daily life, the better off you’ll be. But there are several reasons why you should use the tracker only to record actual exercise that gets your heart rate up to at least 55-60% of your maximum for at least 10 minutes at a time. For one thing, your recommended calorie range already includes an allowance for a moderate amount of daily activity, so adding in things like your daily chores or all the steps you take during a day will mean that quite a few of your calories expended are being counted twice. Likewise, the number you get from the cardio tracker includes both the calories you spent on that activity, plus the calories you would have burned during that time if you were just sitting in a chair. Those chair-sitting calories have already been included in your recommended calorie range, as part of your BMR, so they’ll get counted twice too. This won’t matter if you’re tracking 30-60 minutes of high intensity exercise, but it will cause a big problem if you’re tracking 3-4 hours of housework or 8 hours of walking on the job. So, to make sure you’re not overestimating how many calories you’re burning, the best bet is to use the tracker to record only the extra, higher intensity activity that you consider exercise.
8. True or False. As long as you are sticking to your calorie intake and exercise goals, you should lose the amount of weight you expect to lose each week.
FALSE. Weight and weight loss fluctuate all the time due to factors that have nothing to do with your calorie intake or your exercise. You should expect that your average weekly weight loss will be as expected over a substantial length of time, but your weight change in any given week can be higher or lower than expected, even though you do everything “right.” You might even gain weight some weeks, or go several weeks without a significant change.
9. The most common reason for not losing weight as expected is:
a. Not eating enough to support your activity level (starvation mode).
b. Calorie counters on exercise machines and on-line trackers often over-estimate your calorie expenditure.
c. You’re not tracking your food intake or exercise accurately.
d. Your metabolism is slowed down due to medication or some medical problem such as hypothyroidism.
Answer: C. Inaccurate tracking. All of the things listed above could cause problems, but by far the most common problem is that people underestimate how much they’re actually eating, and overestimate how many calories they’re burning every day. It’s very easy to be off on your portion sizes, or to forget a few little things you popped into your mouth during the day. It’s also very common to assume you’re working hard enough at exercise to burn calories at the rate of 600-700 per hour, or even more, when you’re not. For most people, burning 10-12 calories per minute will leave you huffing, puffing, and wanting to be done very soon—an easy session on the elliptical isn’t going to do that. So, if you’re not getting the results you want on the scale for several weeks in a row, the first thing to do is go back and double check your food and exercise tracking to make sure your numbers are right.
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