Have you ever cut calories in an effort to lose a few pounds only to find that… nothing changed? Or worse, you gained weight instead?!
It happens. Our best laid plans -with our latest calorie counting app and our carefully curated snack packs- can wind up being complete fails, as many dieters can attest to. It’s the same old story, but why?
In a food world that emphasizes calorie count over nutrient-density, we’re led to believe that this magic number is the bottom line to weight maintenance. This is the number that determines whether we’re going to feel like a rockstar at the beach or spend our lunch break doing burpees in the break room. And to help us out, numerous chain restaurants are now adding calorie counts to everything from black coffee (is 5 even a number in calorieland?!) to brownie sundaes. Thanks, but if I’m going down that road I’d rather not know...
Unfortunately, as I’ve discussed in blogs past, weight is not nearly as simple as calories in = calories out. Because while yes, a caloric excess will cause weight gain and yes, a caloric deficit will cause weight loss, there are factors beyond intake and exercise that determine that balance. Maybe our digestive function isn’t high and we’re not absorbing as many calories as we’re eating. In this case, we might lose weight despite a high caloric intake. Or maybe chronic inflammation is causing our body to hoard ALL the calories instead of burning them for energy. Hello, weight gain.
The truth is that while calories do indeed count, factors like hormones, stress levels, thyroid function, the microbiome, nutrient levels, and sleep can overrule all the equations on our FitBit any day.
Remember that scandalous reveal from a few years past that many of the winners on The Big Loser had gained most of their weight back over the following years? Some ended up even heavier than they were before the show began. Interestingly, when researchers dug into the numbers, they found that all had resting metabolic rates (how many calories the body burns at rest) significantly lower than the average baseline for their gender, age, and size. The usual calorie equations no longer worked for them. Eating and exercise regimens that would cause the average person to waste away was barely keeping their weight gain in check. It seemed that the combination of extreme calorie restriction and overexercising endured during the show had put their bodies in a chronic state of saving and storing. Talk about unfair.
Enter, set point.
“Set point” is a term that refers to a body’s homeostasis levels. It’s resistant to change and heavily moderated by hormones and neurofeedback. Set points are determined by years of information that the body gathers from the environment, diet, movement, and genetics.
Unfortunately its happy place might not be YOUR happy place. Dieting ensues. As Dr. Lee Kaplan put it, “how much [one] eats matters less than the fact that [one’s] body wants to hold onto those calories” (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/02/health/biggest-loser-weight-loss.html).
But shifting a so-called “set point” is not impossible. It takes time, and patience, and trust in your body. It can be counter-intuitive, sometimes requiring that we eat more and move less, or simple, like adjusting a macronutrient balance.
While lifestyle factors like stress, hormone balance, sleep, and toxins all play a major role in determining one’s set point, let’s talk diet (surprise!).
Mindset is the cornerstone to making the best food choices for our body and shifting our old set points. The key to fixing up our mindset involves shifting our idea of food from calories and macronutrients, to nourishment and energy. We get there by considering the nutrients within our food choices and learning how to optimize these for our health. It takes time to develop a new way of thinking around eating, but the more we focus on nutrient-density, the more this mindset will start to click. Remember, time and trust.
And hacks. Here's mine:
I've created a daily nutrition checklist that I use in my own life and for clients. It’s not a meal plan, doesn't restrict, and isn’t about the calories. Instead, it focuses on including specific types of foods known for their benefits when it comes to fighting free radicals, detoxifying our cells, supporting brain health, balancing hormones, and -you guessed it- healthy weight maintenance.
What I like about viewing nutrition in this way is that instead of fighting your food intake, you start to appreciate the benefits it offers. Instead of trying not to snack, you suddenly have an array of healthy options in mind to choose from. The mental dialogue moves from restriction to inclusion, and eating feels good. And does good.
Below is a basic example of a nutrition checklist that I use in my own life. Note that we all have different digestive function, nutritional needs, and sensitivities, so this is NOT a one-size-fits-all. Many people struggle with foods like legumes or raw fibrous vegetables. Some can't tolerate ferments and other can't enjoy dairy without paying a steep, steep digestive price. Experiment, adapt, and adjust.
And remember, this is not a meal plan. The goal with this checklist is to focus on the supporting nutrition- all the stuff that often goes overlooked in our quest for X grams of protein or carbs. You'll need to add plenty of clean proteins to your meals and enough carbohydrates to support your activity levels. Always cook with natural fats for maximum nutrient absorption. Our needs for these macronutrients vary depending on age, gender, activity level, and genetics so don't be afraid to experiment. Touch base with your energy levels, your blood sugar feels, your moods, and adjust.