There’s misconceptions about weight loss, health, and “diets,” and for some reason, it seems like some places in the keto community have some toxic thoughts. Not just toxic as in “that’s not nice” but toxic as in “this won’t help you and it might just hurt you, bad.” One of the biggest thing I noticed is people thinking they weren’t eat enough fat. Just the fat. No, the problem is they are not eating enough of anything. Period. Added to this, when people post the results of the keto calculator, many have questioned the calorie levels, they feel they are too high. This is another point of pain. I thought it would be good to discuss why the calories are set where they are, why the ‘too high’ thinking is flawed,
why going too low is a BAD idea, and how non-linear feedings (in other words, mixing stuff up occasionally is a good thing.
First, let’s discuss how the calories are calculated and why this is important. We have them set – regardless of your situation – as a SAFE deficit (reduction) from what is known as the TDEE – Total Daily Energy Expenditure – how many calories you will most likely burn on average in a day. TDEE=what you need to get through the day at your current activity level and not change your body composition. We also look at your BMR – Basal Metabolic Rate – which is a fancy name for “what you burn for calories just to stay alive if you never moved an inch.” Or, what calories you burn just supporting life. What we do is set the calories at an average between the two numbers. We call it a safe deficit because it is in a “safe” range. Now, you may think that eating below that level would mean, hey, I’m eating even less than I’m using! The body will get the energy from my stored fat!! YAY!! FAT LOSS! BUT! There’s a caveat to that.
It wants what is called homeostasis. Metabolic zen. A comfortable spot where it knows it has what it needs to keep you basically alive plus some backup in case of crisis. The part of your brain that controls all of this – hunger, heart rate, breathing, hormone and chemical release, sex drive, etc. is also the part of your brain that responds to threats. Right. The ‘fight or flight’ response. It is responsible for simple emotions – fear, anger, joy, sadness. Note those 4 emotions. 3 of them are not so happy ones. Why? Because this part of the brain is all about survival. Negative emotions at this level are emotions of action and in response to a threat. The other odd-ball emotion? Joy? It makes sure the reasoning part of your brain knows that getting yourself out of a threat is a good thing and you may want to retain that info for the next time. We call it euphoria typically. That crazy laughing you do when you realize the scream on the tv that just had you jump out of your seat isn’t real. The feeling you get after sex (yes, sex is in response to a threat at the most basic level – threat to the survival of the species). The feeling of satisfaction you have after a large meal. These are all emotional responses to a survival instinct to “train” you to continue to survive. What is key to know is this “communication” between the reasoning (and that other part, the complex emotions) part of your brain and the basic survival part of your brain is pretty much a one-way street. The survival part (you may see this called the “lizard brain”) is very comfortable SENDING information to the reasoning part of the brain, but it really doesn’t like being told what to do.
Want to test that? Let’s try it.
Clear your thoughts. Put your hand up to your face. Think about moving your hand fast towards your eyes, with the intention of NOT actually touching your eyes. Now, try it, move your hand fast towards your face.
You blinked, didn’t you.
Your reasoning part of the brain, the “thinking” part knows you aren’t actually going to stick yourself in the eye. The lizard brain? Hell no. It says “THREAT THREAT THREAT!! BLINK!!! DANGER WILL ROBINSON!” It doesn’t care what signal it is getting from the rest of the brain, it doesn’t trust it. Survival at all costs. So, what the hell does this have to do with macros??? Remember, just because the reasoning part of your brain says ‘I need to lose weight,’ that’s not the part of the brain that keeps you alive and controls your metabolism, the use of calories and nutrients, and just as important (if not more) when to burn what it has in storage. What YOU WANT and what IT WANTS can be two different things. So, how do we ‘trick’ it into doing what we want?
That lizard brain is going to survive, and in case this part was missed, ITS survival is its only concern. All survival functions are to support the brain. It makes the heart beat so the brain gets blood. It protects the eyes so the brain has input. Get into some sort of nutritional crisis? It’s going to make sure the brain gets what it needs first. So, what we want to have a significant deficit to burn fat, but not that big of a deficit to put the metabolism into crisis or conservation mode. When it hits that state, several things happen: – Increased cortisol production which results in fat storage and muscle breakdown
– Lower mental clarity
– The suspension or reversal of fat burning
– Lower physical energy levels
Being ketogenic, you will automatically burn a few more calories a day over a non-ketogenic state as it takes more work (energy) for the body to produce and process ketones over glucose. That means you are technically in a larger deficit in keto than a non-low carb diet. Dropping below BMR for an extended (remember this part – EXTENDED) is going to make the lizard brain not that happy. You can think that you want, you NEED to lose weight. You can tell it that:
YOU: Hey, I wanna lose weight.
Lizard brain: Pfft. Whatever. I’ve got body stuff to do.
YOU: I’m going to eat less so I can look good.
Lizard brain: I’m sorry, the party you have reached is unavailable. Please hang up and try again later.
Lizard brain: I’m not listening. What part of “I’ve got body stuff to do” do you not understand?
YOU: So I’m going to stop eating so much so I can fit into my clothes.
Lizard Brain: Sorry, this number has been disconnected. No further information is available. Goodbye.
Extended periods of low calorie intake is viewed as a crisis by that part of the brain. It says “Damn. This is going on longer than it should, I need to do something about it in case this is how things are going to be over the long haul! Ok, since I’m only getting XXXX calories and I really WANT XXXX, I’m going to have to change stuff up to keep me going. First, I’m going to slow down the speed of calorie conversion. I’m going to not give anything that is not in direct support of ME ME ME less so I can have enough to keep going. Hair? Not important. Nails? Not important. Soft skin? Not important. Teeth and gums? Nah, I can use a straw. Build and maintain arm muscles? HELL NO. I have legs! Wait. Legs. They can do without a little too. Hormones for reproductive organs? Pfffft. You don’t need THAT much estrogen! Eh, you can do with a little less nutrients for that uterus and other stuff down there. You will get your period…well…sometime. Oh. And it’s gonna be a bastard too because I’ll be damned if I’m going to ramp up endorphins, immune system, nutrient replacement when I need that stuff for ME! Hmm. What about if this gets worse?? I shouldn’t use what I have stored. Noooo. Save that. Just in case this idiot decides to eat even LESS. I’ll hold onto my fat. While I’m at it, I’m going to kick up that cortisol to store more. Heal insulin resistance? NOT NOW DAMNIT! JIM, SHE CANNA TAKE MUCH MORE!!!” So, that means we need to make it feel comfortable. Give it enough calories so that it says “oh, ok. I can live” and have it understand it is ok to tap into the reserves. Pull from body fat. Make it feel like the rainy day finally came and it can use what it has been saving up for a long time. That is the median calorie deficit. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay that simple. The lizard brain really wants to stay happy and SAFE. That means after a while it is going to see this median reduction as a long-term situation. AGAIN. So it’s going to slow stuff down. AGAIN. So, what do we do then? We trick it. We give it a little MORE than what it is comfortable with. Now, I know, you are thinking “but this means it has more than what it needs so it will store it!!”
It’s going to be happy. A happy lizard brain is fast and free. It says “oooooooh, a little extra! Lizard brain is going to get new shoes!” Ok. So not shoes because lizard brains don’t give a damn about Louboutins. But it does care about taking care of its support system. That’s right, it’s going to channel that extra to the immune system for healing. Muscles for more strength. And one other thing? It’s going to think that any crisis is no longer an issue, so it is going to mobilize even MORE fat burning. Until it gets comfortable again. Then we need to drop down a little. Kick start it again. If you keep the lizard brain off-balance, it will work with you, not against you because it really wants to be comfortable. This is why so many people hit their goal and end up blowing past it even though they are ramping up the calories to find maintenance. The lizard brain is still having too much fun. This is also why intermittent fasting works so well. It keeps the lizard brain off-balance and productive. It cycles through depleting and re-feeding, creating a natural rhythm of repair, deplete, replenish. Intermittent fasting is a SAFE AND POWERFUL TOOL not only for weight loss, but for the reversal of insulin resistance, other metabolic disorders, NAFLD, hormonal issues, etc. Oh, and I’m going to leave this right here. Women. Intermittent fasting is NOT DANGEROUS to you. I have no clue who started that but it needs to stop. Sorry, small tangent but it is an important one. IF can be your throttle to health if done correctly. Hook up with Karen Ogilvie if you have questions. I’m going to repeat myself – GOING TOO LOW ON CALORIES for an extended period IS COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE.
Let me use an analogy to see if this helps.
It’s December right now and we live in northern Maine. So, let’s say I have only so much wood stacked up inside that I can use today to heat my house. I have two options:
1) Crank the heat up high as it can go, burn all my wood at once
2) Use a steady amount of wood throughout the day
If I use option one, it’s going to get warm in here, maybe too warm. That’s a waste of wood for one, for two, I’m going to run out quickly. The house will get cold. I will be wrapped up in blankets and 4 pairs of wools socks. I’m not going to want to move off the couch. At all. I’m going to stay inside, under the covers and do absolutely the bare minimum I can do. I’m going to do what I need to do – as little as possible – to try to stay warm and survive. That includes going outside for more wood. No one got time for that. Too damn cold. I’d rather be moderately uncomfortable than really damn uncomfortable. Option two, I keep the fire going, keeping it nice and warm but not too warm. My wood burns out at a nice, steady but conservative rate. I’m walking around in sweats and tshirt. I’m super productive all day because I’m comfortable. Not only am I comfortable, I’m not worried about freezing to death so I go out and collect more wood because I have the energy, I know that I can get warm again easily, and life is good. Oh, that extra wood I collect? I can burn that too at the same rate I am now. It’s ‘bonus’ wood. Body fat wood. I’m not worried about running out, I’m comfortable. I don’t need to conserve. I don’t need to stockpile for tomorrow. If I get a little chilly one night, or if the temp REALLY drops for a few days, I can toss a few more logs on and I have ZERO concerns of running out. Life is good. You know what else is good? I can leave for the day and not worry about if the fire goes out. So what? I have plenty to burn when I get back. I’m good. Hell, I might just burn a little extra when I get back just because Hobbits hate
being cold!! Option one – severe deficit. It works for a little while but then you STALL. You could go out for more wood
but you don’t have the energy. And, what happens if it gets even colder??? You can make it with the blankets and socks, you better wait on getting more wood just in case things get even worse. All you can do is survive at the lowest level of activity possible. This is what happens to your metabolism when you are at too severe of a deficit for too long. It stops burning fat, slows you down, and keeps you right in the same spot.
Option two – a safe deficit. It works and sustainable. You know you won’t run out of wood soon, so if you need to toss an extra log or two on the fire, you can. You are functioning at a higher level. You have some reserve and aren’t afraid to use it because you know you can get more if you need it. You not only burn as much as option one, you burn MORE because you are comfortable and not concerned about if it gets worse, you have that covered. Your body does the same thing. Make sense?
So, how do we do this? First we use the calculator. We be HONEST. We don’t fudge our height, weight, or activity level. We trust the numbers, even if they seem too high. We are going to recalculate them every 3-4 weeks because our body – and therefore needs – are changing. We FOLLOW these macros. We focus on keeping carbs down to keep ketosis happening. We focus on protein because we don’t store that in excess. We eat fat for necessary essential fatty acids, keep that lizard brain tricked into thinking everything is all cute basset hound puppies and unicorn kisses. How do we know we’ve tricked it?
As simplistic as the lizard brain appears to be, it isn’t stupid. It has things like serotonin, dopamine, leptin, ghrelin to tell it when it has enough for the immediate time. It’s the other part of the brain that isn’t so bright.
We need to listen to the information the body is telling us and STOP EATING. Eat until full. Not eat ALL THE FAT AND UNTIL WE ARE SO FULL WE WANT TO PUKE. Just eat until full. Make sure you get your protein in, then enjoy some tasty fats if it fits in ok and you are not satiated (happy tummy). Pssssst. Here’s another thing – if you want to have a little “extra” treat on date night? Do it. If you have figured out what I’ve been saying to this point, you now should get that this isn’t a bad thing or counter-productive as long as you don’t go overboard.
Work smarter, not harder.