Macro Wars: Must You Starve to Lose Weight?

Article by Mandy Pagano | 04 Jul, 2021

Article originally published on on 9/28/18. It has been lightly edited for re-publication.

Editor's note: This is the second part in the Macro Wars series. Part one may be found here.

Calories In Versus Calories Out. Dr. Fung loves to call it CRAP, or Calorie Restriction As Primary. Our own Coach Mary Roberts has coined the phrase CICO-path to describe people who dogmatically insist that the sole way to lose weight is to eat a whole lot less.

Is it True? Must You Eat at a Deficit to Lose Weight?

I doubt even Dr. Fung, who notoriously called the first law of thermodynamics "utterly irrelevant" in regards to the human body, is going to make the claim that you can sit and eat all day, every day, and not gain weight. As stridently as he advocates against considering calories as the primary factor in weight loss and gain, let's be real here: he's also the same gentleman who is famous for telling people to not eat, potentially for several days at a time. Dude ain't preaching gluttony.

What he is saying, however stridently and maybe a touch hyperbolically stated, is that weight loss and gain isn't as simple as counting calories. If it were, no one would be fat. You would never encounter people like me, your humble author and editor, who once gained weight while eating 1200 calories or less and exercising two hours every day. No, the human body is significantly more complicated than a seesaw or an elementary subtraction problem. Our bodies have multiple systems, all working to keep us alive and healthy, and just about all of them overlap in some way.

So, the body is complicated, and a big part of Dr. Fung's message in his Aetiology of Obesity is that while how much you eat does matter, what is more important is what you eat and how it causes your body to behave. We are keto folks here, so it should not be surprise to those here when we say that when we eat carbohydrate dense foods, regardless of calories, our bodies respond in a specific way. When we eat fats, the response is different, and is different still when it's proteins we consume. These behavioral differences are largely due not to how much potential energy our food holds, but in the different hormonal changes that happen in response to the presence of glucose, fatty acids, or amino acids in our blood stream.

When we have a large influx of glucose (which can be toxic, by the way), the body deals with it by releasing insulin. Insulin tells the cells of the muscles and organs to open up, and the excess glucose is shuttled inside to be used to power the body. Insulin also tells our fat cells to open up and put away any fatty acids floating around for a rainy day (aka, you accumulate body fat). When there are amino acids taken up into the blood stream, insulin is also released, but as noted before, there also seems to be a mitigating glucagon response, which is the hormone that tells the cells to open up and give up some of their fatty acids for energy. In the case of dietary fat, there is some measure of insulin response, depending on which fatty acid is in play, but it tends to be much less in general, and so your levels of insulin should remain fairly low and steady when you're eating a well-formulated, very low-carb ketogenic protocol.

You didn't see the word calories in that last paragraph at all did you? That's because, as has been already pointed out, calories may "matter" in the sense that you can't do nothing but eat all dang day and expect it to have no effect, but in the bigger picture the macronutrient composition of the foods you're eating is more important than the calorie count.

So, What Does All That Even Mean?

Well, to begin, it doesn't mean you can eat keto foods continuously, to your heart's content, with zero consequences. In fact, we recommend against bad habits like snacking, or grazing. If the idea on keto is to keep insulin low and steady so you aren't storing body fat, eating continuously does the exact opposite of what is desired. Every time you eat, you release insulin to deal with the stuff that ends up in your blood stream. Eating all day long, or more than two or three times a day, keeps your insulin up all day. You will never have low enough insulin and sufficient enough glucagon to open your fat cells for storage release, and instead, you will essentially spend most of your waking hours in "fat storage mode."

Where Do Calorie Deficits Fit Into this Equation?

First off, let's clarify what we mean by the term 'calorie deficit'. Concisely, a calorie deficit is a state wherein one expends more energy in a period of time (usually a day) than one takes in.

Read that very closely and notice what it's actually saying. Expending more than one takes in does not necessarily mean you are starving yourself. It means you "burn" off more energy in a day than you eat. If your total daily energy expenditure (aka, TDEE; aka, all the energy you've used today) is 2500 calories, and you eat 2499 calories, you are in a caloric deficit. You burned 1 calorie more than you ate.

That is literally all it means. Seriously.

Now, the internecine disputes come in when we talk about what a useful caloric deficit looks like. In other words, is it better to have a bigger difference between how much you eat and how much you burn for fuel?

There are some people who believe this difference must be pretty substantial, or else you won't lose weight and may even put it on. There are others that believe having a caloric deficit that is very great for an extended period of time is damaging to the metabolism, and urge smaller differences between what you burn and what you eat in order to mitigate or avert any potential metabolic slowdown. And then there are some folks on the extreme end of the caloric deficit scale that think you need to basically starve. Those are the folks that tell you to find you BMR (basal metabolic rate, or how much energy your body is expected to use at total rest) and eat less than that.

Apologies if this offends people, but that last camp is wrong. Full stop.

There is seriously good documentation of the nasty physical and mental effects that occur when people are in states of starvation or semi-starvation. And yes, mental effects are included in that intentionally. It's well documented that, in addition to eliciting problems with physical health, severe caloric deficits may cause serious mental illness. As mentioned in the last piece, trying to starve yourself thin is a bad idea. Anyone telling you to eat less than your BMR on any kind of regular basis is someone you should run from, with all haste.

Where Does Ketogenic Success Fall on That Spectrum, and Why?

The advice of our coaches and admins can vary from person to person. Our coaches, especially, try to take the totality of each person's circumstances into account when making recommendations about how much is appropriate for an individual to eat. Generally, however, we tend to err on the side of caution, and make recommendations that entail a substantially smaller difference between expected daily energy output (calories out) and food intake (calories in).

In complete fairness and transparency, our methods probably yield weight loss that is slower than eating at a more aggressive caloric deficit. Barring severe preexisting metabolic damage, it is likely that you will lose weight faster by eating a lot less than you burn. And, in fact, this is a technique frequently utilized in the body building community to quickly shed excess body fat.

"Cutting" is temporarily eating at fairly severe caloric deficits. Most techniques involves tapering back your energy intake by a certain percentage every week, over a period of a month to a month-and-a-half. Important to note is that this process is temporary; it involves cutting way back over a pretty short period of time, in most circumstances will never include cutting intake under BMR, and is usually followed by a prolonged return to eating at or above TDEE. These techniques are great for people who are already very fit or are metabolically healthy. For yo-yo dieters, people who have lived under prolonged caloric restriction, and those who have other metabolic damage (like insulin resistance, for example), not so much.

Can I Use "Cutting" to Shed Some Quick Pounds?


However, as we've tried to make clear, this is a method for people who are already metabolically healthy and it's meant to be temporary. Trying to exist in a long-term cutting state is a very bad idea, and the consequences of doing so, in the considered opinion and experience of our team, outweigh, by far, the temporary gain of more rapid weight loss. The bottom line for us, is that when people eat at a higher and prolonged caloric deficit, they tend to experience more adverse side effects, like hair loss, nutrient deficiencies, and metabolic slowdown and damage. Thus, our approach is designed to be significantly more moderate in respect to caloric deficits, so as to allow for sufficient intake needed to avert these undesirable effects and potential damage to the body.

To be clear, we will reiterate once again that NO ONE at Ketogenic Success is ever going to tell you to gorge yourself.

No. One.

You are also not going to find anyone affiliated with us that will tell you it's OK to starve. Our approach is designed to provide appropriate nourishment to your body, while also harnessing the hormonal power that low carbohydrate and clean eating has to aid in weight loss.

Next week, the last installment in this series is going to answer the question: Why so high fat? Stay tuned, and stay keto!

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