To Burn Fat Don’t Go Tit-For-Tat

A while ago I posted a comment on my Facebook profile…

“Some advice: if you eat something bad, you CANNOT ‘burn it off’ by doing the equivalent kcal burn in the gym. Weight loss isn’t tit-for-tat”

I posted it after someone told me they were doing 500kcals on the treadmill to work off the box of chocolates they had eaten the day before. Since then, I have had several people ask about the comment and stare at me blankly when I offer up a quick explanation of weight loss not necessarily being about simply balancing your energy expenditure books. So, I thought I would try to explain it in a blog post. Here goes!

I am a fan of analogies. Sometimes I probably go too far into an analogy and lose the point altogether. I’m sure as I keep practicing writing, my ability to keep things clear will improve, but until then I can only apologise for the mess I may make of this post! For the sake of today’s post, I am drawing an analogy between fat loss and earning money.

Being lean is just like being rich. It’s tough to do and requires hard work, dedication and sacrifice. The majority of people don’t get rich. And unfortunately, the majority of gym goers never reach their fat loss goals.

If you’re trying to earn money, or burn fat the whole process is often simplified to:

Money in > Money out (for a long enough time) = RICH

or

Calories in < Calories out (for a long enough time) = LEAN

Simple, right? Why then, are we not all rich and ripped? These expressions of RICH and LEAN are far too simplified and don’t take into account a multitude of complexities hiding behind the equations.

Food/Money Going in…

We are ‘paid’ energy through what we eat and drink. Everything we consume can be given a numerical value based on its potential for producing heat when burned. The unit we use to express this value is calorie.

The first thing you must understand when looking at your nutrition is that all calories are not equal. A calorie is simply a unit of currency used to express the potential energy value of any given food. The way your body reacts to and then uses that energy is where the key to fat burning lies.
Analogy: Financially, a calorie can be the equivalent of £1 worth of currency. Every day you work you earn £500. On a Monday, you are paid cash in hand at the end of the day – 10 crisp new fifty pound notes. On a Tuesday, your wage is transferred directly into your bank account (which incidentally is a high interest account) and on Wednesday you are given your wage as £500’s worth of weapon’s grade uranium. How you react to, deal with and then use each day’s pay is going to be very different, although the ‘worth’ of each day’s pay is identical.

The same applies to calories. Every calorie has an identical ‘value’ (1 calorie is 4.184 joules) in terms of energy currency, but the way that currency is processed (both in how it’s processed and how it is then ‘spent’) is dependent on where that calorie is from.

All food is comprised of 3 main macronutrients; protein, fat and carbohydrate. If these nutrients are viewed simply as chemicals (rather than as x amount of calories) then we can comprehend that the effect they all have on the body is drastically different. I want to keep this post as simple as possible so I will be quite clear here that my next point is a gross simplification. It is however fairly accurate to a point. As units of energy currency the 3 main nutrients will be used as follows:

Fat: Slow and steady energy – should be used to fuel the majority of movements we perform throughout the day.
Your monthly pay, keeps your bank account in the black and covers most of your bills and other routine expenses

Protein: Rebuild and repair – will be used to build lean tissue which not only allows us to move more efficiently but also acts as a huge energy reserve. Point of note: lean tissue drives our metabolism. It actually costs the body energy from elsewhere to keep it.
Stocks and shares in a high interest account, they have the ability to earn you even more money in the long run, but it can be a bit of a pain having to cash them in if their value is instantly needed. You could also be penalised for doing this!

Carbohydrate: Instant and readily available energy – Ideal for when we need a big hit of energy (for hard, intense or explosive movements), or just a quick, no-nonsense source of fuel (in brain activity for example).
Some freelance work on the side – cash in hand work that you stuff into your wallet. Just pray you’re not paid on a day that you’re heading out on the town with a bunch of old mates as the consequences could be terrible (timing of carbohydrate consumption can be critical for optimum results).

The body reacts differently when processing nutrient. For example, some fats increase the body’s sensitivity to leptin (the hormone that makes you feel full). Protein has been shown to suppress the hormone ghrelin (the hormone that tells us we’re hungry). Carbohydrates produce more of an insulinemic response (insulin is central to energy metabolism in the body). Processing 100 calories worth of carbohydrate will leave the body in a vastly different state (in terms of fat burning) than processing 100 calories worth of protein.

To make it even more complex, each nutrient has several different forms, which will elicit different reactions from the body. Sugar for example is a very simple form of carbohydrate. It is digested and readied for metabolism very quickly. If it isn’t used the body must shuttle it away for storage via the hormone insulin. Insulin asks all the cells of the body if they need energy. If lean tissue doesn’t need energy for recovery, fat cells will always ask for the energy to be stored away as fat for use on another day. To put it simply, foods that promote insulin release (eg. Sugary foods) will also potential cause more fat gain than foods that don’t spike your insulin. Of course, this is just one reaction out of many that take place in the body when we eat so shouldn’t necessarily be viewed in isolation. But the point stands, different foods containing different nutrients and different types of nutrients are used differently when metabolised.

My advice is: protein and fat should be the key components of your diet throughout the day, with carbohydrate added when you need it to fuel and then recover from hard exercise.

Refined, processed food has its own special place in my analogy. Processed food is that wad of monopoly-esque fake fifties ‘Dodgy Dave’ sold you down the pub. They might get you a few things, but eventually they will catch you out and you will end up BROKE. Avoid at all costs. If you insist on dealing with the devil and eating processed/refined foods then do so at your own peril. I can’t help you if this is the case. There may be someone out there who says they can, but I promise you they are spinning you a line. Much like the accountants you see in Mafia films, their methods will eventually go wrong and you’ll end up in a metaphorical prison, looking at a metaphorical bar of soap on the floor, hoping that the metaphorical gang of inmates around you are gentle. Basically, you’ll get shafted.

Food/Money Going out…

We expend energy through living, moving and adapting to our environment. All three of these processes use calories and can be given approximate values of their cost. The key word there is approximate. Unless you are in a scientific lab and hooked up to all kinds of machines, you never know for sure exactly how much you are burning.

How we burn calories is again subject to the ‘all calories are not equal’ statement. Travelling one mile on foot should burn the same amount of calories whether you walk, jog or run right? After all, you are expending energy to carry your body mass from a-to-b. Work done = force x distance. (This is how most gym machines and calorie counters calculate your calorie burn by the way). It is however completely wrong. In this example, running would burn more calories as it is a less efficient movement than walking – it uses more muscles and ‘wastes’ more energy. Think of it as driving 1 mile in first gear constantly having to brake for traffic lights compared to driving one mile on an open motorway at a steady 60mph in 5th gear. One way will waste a load of petrol, the other won’t.

You also have to take into account how many calories it takes to recover from your movement. Walking is easy for most of us – no recovery needed. Sprinting on the other hand will probably leave most of us shaking and sweating for at least 20mins afterwards. Add to that any adaptive changes your body needs to make in order to be ‘fitter’ for the next bout of exercise. Laying down lean tissue for example (in response to strength training) is quite costly.

With all this considered, is there any way you can ever know how many calories you are burning during a workout? There is no way you can effectively ‘balance the books’ if you never actually know how much is going out. Coming back to the financial analogy, you can spend money in lots of different ways. Paying for a TV with cash could work out cheaper than paying for it on a high interest credit card. The TV costs the same regardless, but how much you really pay is dependent on your method of payment. Your budgeting system would go completely wrong if you used a credit card on which you had no idea of the APR, or the limit.

Even if you did know for sure how many calories you had burned performing and recovering from exercise, you cannot be sure how your body decided to ‘pay for’ those calories. Did it burn fatty tissue? Or muscle tissue? or glycogen? To ensure fatty tissue is the primary fuel you have to go beyond the simple calorie equation and look at how you can optimise ‘fat burn’.

Keeping your body fat low and your physique lean is not simply about ‘burning’ more calories than you consume. You cannot balance the energy books by restricting yourself to one amount of calories and then burning off another amount. In the long term, going tit-for-tat is a terrible strategy to lose fat and keep it off. Burning energy is important to losing fat but less thought should be given to how much energy is burned, and more thought should be given to how that energy is burned. My tips would be:

Generally move more – fill your day with as much low intensity, easy movements as you can. For example, walk to the shops instead of driving.
Have a steady income that you can rely on.

Force your body to use energy to recover when you do exercise – whatever you do, work hard. At times, work harder than you feel comfortable doing. Give your body something to recover from.
Use high interest savings accounts whenever you can. Let your money earn you money.

Force your body to adapt – in terms of most people’s aesthetic goals, the best adaptation to force is one in which muscle tissue is either built or preserved, and body fat is burned. Resistance training with a focus on strength is absolutely the biggest driver of this adaptation.
Invest in your future. With the right strategy, your investments can earn you millions.

I am reaching my word limit but I could go on. I could easily continue with my terrible financial analogy and compare eating bread to getting a loan from Wonga, or going too low with your food intake being like getting a CCJ for not paying a parking ticket. I won’t though, I will spare you that.

Hopefully, if anything has made sense in this post it is that fat loss is far more complicated than balancing your energy coming in with your energy going out. I have only discussed the energy consumed and the energy burned. I haven’t touched on all the intricacies of what goes on in the body to express IN values as OUT values – to express what we eat as how we move, live and adapt. Luckily for all of us, we don’t need to consider all of this; our body does it all for us. We have an internal accountant who works to balance the books and keep us lean. The body wants to be lean. This control is only disrupted when outside factors influence the mechanisms that control everything. Poor quality food, highly processed food, a sedentary lifestyle, stress and alcohol are all things that distract our inner accountant and lead to a disturbance of our energy balance.

So, don’t go tit-for-tat. In the long term is just doesn’t work as there are far too many other things to consider. Trust your inner accountant to balance the books, just treat him well and he’ll do his job properly. Treat him badly and he’ll stash half your money in his own off shore account in the Cayman Islands. If things are really bad it may even be worth having a meeting with a financial advisor to figure out where it’s all gone wrong (financial advisor = PT in this done-to-death analogy).

Summary:

  • Don’t bother counting how many calories you burn through exercise
  • Only count calories you consume to learn portion control and hit certain nutrient targets you may have. Your body will soon take over though so don’t obsess over it
  • Eat fat and protein at every meal
  • Add carbohydrate when recovering from strenuous exercise
  • Move as much as you can every day
  • When specifically exercising, have periods at the highest intensity you can safely manage
  • Resistance training with a focus on strength is the best way you can burn energy

Feel free to ask as many questions or give as much criticism as you like, either in the comments or on my Facebook page! Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

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