If you follow any form of fitness guru, health influencer or online coach on Instagram or Tik Tok, your feeds are probably flooded with cliche quotes, jaw-dropping chiselled abdominal muscles and mouthwatering images of Nutella drizzled on colourful granola bowls. You would most likely also be familiar with the phrase “calorie-deficit” which is plastered all over instagram and touted as the panacea of all our weight troubles. In fitness circles, someone need only to politely enquire how to lose those extra kilos of body fat for them to be met with screams of “CALORIE-DEFICIT” without so much as an explanation or elaboration. Of course it’s founded in truth that for us to lose weight we need to consume less energy than we utilise, however if it were that simple then personal trainers and online coaches would probably go out of business quicker than you can say the word “kale”. The problem with spouting that the only thing you need to do to lose weight for good is to eat less than your body needs to function, is that it is an oversimplification of the weight-loss process. It overlooks the multitude of factors that influences a persons weight, and provides little support for people beyond a basic understanding of calories-in/calories-out.
For people like myself who grew up being plagued by the media with new ridiculous diets each week, this approach to weight-loss is a breath of fresh air. Rather than demanding that we restrict key food groups, or abstain from consuming any food that isn’t in liquid form, the calorie-deficit approach promotes indulging in all sorts of food, so long as it falls within our calorie target. After estimating how many calories our bodies use up in a day, essentially the premise is that we reduce our food intake by a few hundred or so calories in order to drop those extra kilos. In principle, this approach to weight loss is particularly sound. In fact, you will find that thousands of dieters have used it is a means to lose weight effectively.
The one thing that all diets have in common, whether that be a vegan diet, ketogenic, juice-cleanse, paleo, no sugar, is that we are simply eating less calories. It is not a stupefying secret or confusing metabolic processes, but rather it is simply a mathematical equation of calories in vs calories out. Even diets purporting to be “low-carbohydrates”, “protein-based” or the terrifyingly dreadful juice cleanses are based on the premise of a calorie-deficit. So even if you’re brave enough to engage in a juice cleanse, or if you are annoying your friends and doing the ketogenic diet, ultimately they will be effective in helping you lose weight if you are consuming less food.
From a psychological perspective, there are many dieters and gym-goers who praise the calorie-deficit approach to weight-loss. For those that have been yo-yo dieting for years, riding the binge-restrict wave and feeling helpless on their quest to lose weight, the calorie-deficit approach can be life-changing. This is because the simplicity and unrestrictive nature of the “diet” means that it’s easier to stick to and incorporate into our daily lives without feeling as though we are indeed dieting. This approach simply requires us to reduce the amount of calories we consume to the point that our body is using up more energy then it is taking in. We have the freedom to eat what we like so long as it fits within our calorie target. This target can be set by estimating our total calorie expenditure per day, and ensuring the amount of calories we consume is less than this amount.
The premise of reducing our calorific intake to lose weight is sound, and there is no doubt that weight-loss will occur if you employ this approach. However, simply spouting that all that is needed to lose weight is to be in a calorie deficit and that is the end of the matter, is often incredibly unhelpful and doesn’t take into account the psychological factors that determine our ability to maintain or lose body fat. If it were really that simple, fitness instagram accounts would be ghost-towns and nutrition coaches would be relying on social welfare to fund their protein powder addictions. If it were really that simple, most of us would have no trouble losing weight. The issue is that our weight is the result of a complex combination of psychological, physical and biological factors, all of which impact our ability to be in a consistent calorie deficit. It’s essential that we understand these factors if we are to change our behaviour and remove the barriers that are impediments to us achieving our goals.
For many people like myself, psychological factors play a key role in determining the likelihood that we adhere to a set meal plan, a program which ultimately prescribes a reduced calorific intake. If we are experiencing significant amounts of stress or trauma, we may use food as a coping mechanism to help us persevere through a tough experience. We also might be completely apathetic towards how many calories we are eating if we are so consumed with anxiety about other aspects of our lives. So whilst eating in a calorie deficit is the mechanism in which we lose weight, it does not help us specifically target the cause of why we cannot eat in said calorie deficit. It might be necessary that you explore the source of your stress and inner turmoil, and why you use food as a means to provide short-term comfort. Indeed, you will most likely reach the conclusion that using food as a coping strategy merely perpetuates your cycle of anxiety, because the immediate comfort it provides is often replaced by increased levels of anxiety at how much food you just ate, and all of the physical discomforts associated with over-eating. Ultimately, if you do not explore the source of your stress or negative feelings, then focussing on eating in a calorie deficit will be unhelpful and ineffective as it will be a mental battle that you will usually lose.
Furthermore, simply advising that we need to be in a calorie deficit fails to provide information about the nutritional value of certain foods, and does not take into account the fact that some food is more dense and satiating than others. Of course celery has fewer calories than a peanut butter sandwich, but the latter is going to make you satisfied and fuller for a longer period of time, whilst a celery stick will have minimal effect, save for turning you into a grouch with no personality because you’re hungry and depleted of energy. Some meals may only have 300 calories in them, but you will quickly find that you are dissatisfied after consuming them, or that you are relatively hungry again only a short time after. Moreover, the food we eat is comprised of macro and micro nutrients that allow our body to function. By simply encouraging someone to eat in a calorie deficit and providing limited information about the nutrients contained within certain foods may mean the person is missing out on key nutrients derived from a well-balanced diet. This may affect their mood, overall health, and ability to adhere to a calorie-deficit meaning they are back to where they started anyhow.
Our biological factors and environmental upbringing also have a significant effect on our weight. Clearly there are a vast array of shapes and sizes and it seems that some people can eat truck loads of pasta and not put on an ounce of body fat, whereas others need only inhale a whiff of a pastry for them to experience weight-gain. Whilst this is an obvious exaggeration, it’s true that weight-loss is a much more difficult process for some people than others due to their biology, and there are certain metabolic conditions that preclude an individual’s ability to lose body fat. Moreover, some people may experience issues with their hunger hormones, causing them to over-eat because they don’t experience feelings of fullness that most other people do naturally. It’s unfair to simply educate these people on the mechanisms of a calorie-deficit, because simply conferring this knowledge does not target the issue at it’s core, which is always why the individual cannot sustain a calorie-deficit.
It’s almost impossible to divorce our eating habits from our environment, and to do so is neither realistic or helpful. Our parents’ eating-habits and how we were fed throughout our childhood and adolescence plays a significant role in our perception of food and also our ability to achieve our weight-loss goals. It might be that our parents were incredibly restrictive with certain foods which meant that as soon as you entered adulthood you allowed yourself to divulge in all sorts of fast foods which consumed in excess inevitably leads to weight-gain or poor health. Or perhaps you always had access to an abundance of food and your portion sizes were particularly large, and you carried this eating habit into your adulthood. Whatever your eating environment was like growing up, it’s likely impacted your relationship with food now, and may dictate how adherent you are to a calorie-deficit. If you analyse your relationship with food from an early age and what this was influenced by, it might be useful in 1. explaining why you are the way that you are; and 2. assisting in developing into someone with healthier eating habits that are more aligned with your current goals and values.
Ultimately the key to losing weight is eating less calories that our body requires to sustain itself throughout the day. This is the crux of the “calorie-deficit” approach that you see plastered over social media. Personal trainers, fitness influencers, nutritionists and health coaches alike appear to have simplified the weight-loss process and encourage us to simply eat less to lose weight. There are many dieters and gym-goers who praise the calorie-deficit approach in it’s simplicity and unrestrictive nature. So long as we eat within our calorie-target, then we should experience weight-loss. It’s a refreshing approach for those used to horrendous juice-cleanses or protein diets that make us feel so ill that we can hardly handle any food that comes our way (perhaps this is the tactic to help us lose weight).
Ultimately, even these diets purporting to be “low-carbohydrates”, “protein-based” or the terrifyingly dreadful juice cleanses are based on the premise of a calorie-deficit. Whilst it’s a great start for any weight-loss, and it should be commended for it’s simplicity and promotion of all food groups, it’s important to provide the complete picture of weight-loss, so people can understand why they may not be achieving their goals. For starters, weight loss has significant psychological aspects to it. It is affected by our self-esteem, mental health, and stress levels. Many of us know we need to be in a calorie-deficit, but that information is hardly useful when we are experiencing a bout of anxiety so severe and all we know is to use food to placate our stresses. We need to understand more deeply what our triggers are and how we can develop more effective coping mechanisms, so that we can adhere to said calorie-deficit.
Whilst psychology plays a large role in our food intake, so too does our environment and biology. Factors such as metabolic conditions, parental views towards food and our social environment all may need to be explored to help explain our habits around food. If we fail to look into these aspects, it is likely we will fail to change our health behaviours and our weight will remain the same Ultimately the calorie-deficit approach to weight loss is correct, but it might be necessary to consider these other factors when assisting people in their weight-loss journey. All of this is not to make it harder for us to lose weight. The key is simply to provide education to empower people as much as they can and give them the tools to effectively maintain a calorie deficit to ultimately achieve their goals.