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Fat Loss: Is It Really As Simple As Calories In, Calories Out?

If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve surely heard that when it comes to losing some unsightly body fat, it really boils down to calories in, calories out.

This means if the number of calories you burn is greater than you number of calories you ingest on a regular basis, your body will result to utilizing stored body fat as a means for energy production. When this happens, you start to look a little sexier and feel better about yourself. So simple!

Seeing as how you now know the golden rule about fat loss, does this mean you can nutritionally run amuck, eating anything you want as long as portion sizes are appropriate? Not quite, champ. While you will lose weight by adhering to the ‘total calories matters most’ rule, this doesn’t mean you can just eat whatever the hell you feel like it as long as total calories are kept in check.

There are a few things to consider about how your body responds to certain foods and what it actually does with a calorie once it’s eaten. So before you dive into that deep fried Oreo sandwich because “it fits your macros”, consider the following factors when it comes to burning fat while simultaneously feeling awesome.

Inflammation = bad for fat loss.

In-flame (verb): to set on fire.

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Inflammation is a natural and completely normal physiological response within the body. It’s a vital part of the immune system’s response to injury and infection. It can signal to the immune system to repair damaged tissue, like after an intense strength training session, or help fight off infection.

Without inflammation, wounds would never heal, infections would run rampant, and you’d probably die a lot sooner than you’re supposed to. So despite the bad rep inflammation has gotten recently, it’s not all bad.

The problem we’re running into as a society is that inflammation is occurring all the time, instead of periodically to help heal the body. When you experience chronic inflammation, tons of health related issues can arise. I mean, think about it. The word “inflame” literally means to set on fire. Is it any surprise that constantly living in a state of “being on fire” is bad for your health?

Take inflammation in your gut for example. When inflammation is running rampant in your gut, it can actually affect your vagus nerve, or the main nerve that connects your brain to your gut. Research has shown that your vagus nerve communicates feedback about the amount and types of nutrients available to you.

Now depending on if you eat like an adult or like an asshole, the vagus nerve can actively stimulate or inhibit the absorption of calories. Why is this important? Because inflammation can totally disrupt this process, resulting in higher calorie absorption. So yes, if your gut is constantly inflamed, you can actually be digesting and storing more calories as fat.

Inflammation can also cause damage to your liver, which is crucial for helping manage thyroid hormones. This is pretty damn important because the thyroid is basically in charge of keeping your metabolism is check. When this is disrupted, your metabolism can potentially fluctuate by several hundred calories. Yiiiiiikes.

As if all that wasn’t enough, inflammation can occur in your nervous tissue as well, resulting in damage to your blood brain barrier. But good news, the BBB is only responsible for protecting against circulating toxins that can cause brain infections, while at the same time allowing vital nutrients to reach the brain… so you know, not that important.

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And if you haven’t guessed by now, a crappy diet filled with processed foods, highly refined grains, sugar, and junk food is one of the main causes of inflammation within the body. Turns out your body doesn’t respond well to foods made by scientists and corporations. Who woulda thunk?

So how do you go about reducing inflammation in the gut? Without turning this into a dissertation, the simple fix is this: decrease consumption of highly processed foods, increase the consumption of whole, real foods.

Your body can convert whole, real foods into short chain amino acids, which have been proven to help reduce inflammation in the gut. So ditch the Twinkie and swap it with an apple. Mother Nature knows best.

Thermic effect of food.

You may have heard of this before, but you might not know what it means.

The thermic effect of food basically means how hard your body has to work to break down and digest food certain foods. As you may have guessed, not all foods are the same. And when it comes to thermic effect to foods, there is most certainly a hierarchy… and sitting at the top is almighty protein.

Protein’s thermic effect is about 25-30%, which means if you were to eat 100 calories of pure protein, your body will use about 25-30 of those calories just to help break down and digest those same hundred calories. So even if the nutrition label says you’re eating 100 calories, you’re actually only absorbing around 75 of those calories.

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Numerous studies have shown that when compared to someone else eating the same number of total calories, an individual eating a higher protein diet will almost always have greater success in weight loss and improvements in body composition. Let’s repeat that.

If two people eat the same number of calories, the person eating more protein will almost always see more results when it comes to fat loss.

Out of all the macronutrients, protein by far as the highest thermic effect. By comparison, carbs have a thermic effect of 10-15%, and fat has one of 0-3%.

Aim to have protein at every meal, making it the focal point of your breakfast, lunch, and dinner. By doing so, you’ll absorb less calories, keep yourself fuller and more satisfied, as well as provide your body with the amino acids needed to help build and repair various cells throughout the body.

You’re a snowflake of digestive abilities.

Your fingerprints are unique to you. No one else has them. And believe it or not, your digestive abilities are the same way.

The digestive enzymes in your gut, how much stomach acid you produce, bile production, and even the length of your digestive tract will impact how many calories you absorb. And no two people are alike.

You are, in fact, a special little snowflake. Just like Mom said!

Any one of these factors can impact how you break down food and absorb calories. A disruption in the production of certain digestive enzymes can screw with your ability to digest certain foods. A longer digestive tract can result in a higher calorie absorption simply because food has to travel further before its excreted.

And what’s even crazier to think about is that your digestive abilities can even change from week to week! Your gut is home to TRILLIONS of various bacteria, working to break down food and carry out numerous functions. The type of food you eat, how much of it you eat, and the nutrients provided to these bacteria can either cause them to thrive or struggle, thus affecting your digestive abilities.

So if your diet has been lacking in nutritional goodness for a while, your gut microbiota might be kinda pissed at you. In retaliation, you might start to notice things like bloat, discomfort after eating certain foods, and yes, even a disruption in calorie absorption.

The fix? Be sure to include lots of fiber rich, whole foods like vegetables, fruit, oats, legumes, and beans in your diet. Your gut bacteria THRIVE off these foods, but perhaps even more importantly, they thrive off a diverse selection of these foods. 

Different bacteria thrive off different nutrients. So if your diet only consists of broccoli as a vegetable, you may be doing your digestive abilities a huge disservice. Aim to include as many types of veggies, fruits, seeds, and yes, even grains in your diet to help your little tummy flourish.

And remember, everyone is different. You may not tolerate grains, but Bob from accounting may do just fine with them. Experiment in small portions and take note of how you feel after eating certain foods!

So tying everything together, what does this all mean?

Don’t get us wrong, despite all these facts, total calories absolutely does matter when it comes to fat loss, perhaps above all else. Ensuring you’re taking in the correct number of calories while factoring in gender, activity level, age, etc., is vital to see success when it comes to fat loss. If you eat more calories than what’s needed to maintain your current weight, you’ll gain weight. If you eat less, you’ll lose weight. These are just facts.

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This in no way, shape, or form means you can start chowing down on Lucky Charms for dinner on a regular basis. The wrong foods (processed junk food) will wreak havoc on your body, disrupt bodily functions, cause inflammation, and alter your gut bacteria. When all is said and done, all of these things can actually impact how you absorb and process calories.

So realize calories do indeed matter… but not at the expense of quality nutrition.

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