The last few articles in this series we’ve been talking about getting prepared mentally, emotionally, and gaining knowledge so that we can set ourselves up for success. I hope it has been interesting and helpful to this point. I know, you’re chomping at the bit, want to get to the meat (and riced cauliflower) of the subject: HOW DO WE USE THIS, HOBBIT? Before we start hitting the practical application of this prep and knowledge, a little more science. I’ll try really hard not to go down a rabbit hole and string you along for another article. No promises, Hobbits can be a bit scatterbrained :). Nah, we will get to some good stuff once we do a little more learning :).
You see there’s no real ending
It’s only the beginning
Come out and play*
Yup, this is the beginning of the rest of your life. It will be what you make of it, so let’s make it the best we can. A little more science and then we will talk about applying it to how we set up our macros and calories. We’ve talked in the past about the hypothalamus – AKA Lizard or Primitive Brain – that controls our involuntary and life-support functions like hunger, hormonal release, thirst, metabolism, fight-or-flight instincts, basically, survival. Its sole purpose is to keep us alive, and by “us” I mean our brain. Everything it controls has the primary purpose of brain survival. Since it controls our food drive and how what we eat is partitioned for use or storage, we need to understand how it “thinks.”
The hypothalamus likes homeostasis – where everything is level and safe – a lot. I mean A LOT. Where its primary goal is to keep us safe, it doesn’t like threats – real or perceived – and since this isn’t the reasoning part of the brain (the part that says “hey, that really isn’t bad, it just looks\sounds bad because here’s the facts”), anything that disturbs the balance gets it all pissed off and wound up. For example:
Your phone rings. Caller ID says “BLOCKED.” That instant tightness in the chest, that sudden rush of anxiety? Hypothalamus. In an instant, it is going down the complete list of why this is not good: cops, bill collector, someone is hurt, what if they can see me and know I’m ignoring the call? What if they show up at the door? What if they keep calling? What if I ignore it, will I be in trouble? Nowhere in that list is “hey, it’s a goddamn robocall telling me I need to renew my car’s warranty that I don’t have.” That’s where the reasoning part of the brain steps in. But, even knowing that it is some scammer, you are still anxious, right? That’s because the hypothalamus is still saying “NOT GOOD! NOT GOOD! NOT GOOD! ANSWER IT DON’T ANSWER IT DO SOMETHING FORREST RUN FORREST RUN! DANGER!” and the reasoning part of the brain is over here “shush, it’s fine. Calm your booty. Chill, dude, chill.” In a few minutes, it will. Or not. Depends on your past trauma and chemical imbalance. The hypothalamus not only has its own set of rules on how it does things, it learns how to do things as well, based off past experiences. Since it can’t reason, all it can do is compare NOW to WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE. Typically, that is either the first time a situation like this happened, or if has happened more than once. If either of those two things are more “negative” than “positive,” then it is going to default to “THIS IS BAD! SURVIVAL AT ALL COSTS!” This how CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) can help. We teach the hypothalamus new results from previously-seen situations. It’s not easy, and it can be painful emotionally, but the end result can decrease anxiety and situational depression. This means a more peaceful life. This is good.
Fortunately, it doesn’t always have a hair trigger, it isn’t completely unreasonable, though being “primitive,” it can react with drastic – and undesired – actions. By understanding how it reacts like in the above situation, we can apply what we know about it to make sure that how we structure our eating, our activity, and our life works with the hypothalamus and not have it work against us. Right, make it believe there are no threats. Before we discuss how to do that, let’s get one myth out of the way that I see frequently tossed around the interwebs:
Starvation Mode: While this is a real situation, when this gets referenced in groups, blog posts, podcast, 99% of the time, it is incorrect. Starvation mode is a real thing, and when it comes to metabolism and energy usage, it is critical for survival. Starvation mode occurs in males at 6% or less body fat, females at 12% or less. Have you seen someone with those low numbers in your diet groups? Probably not. This is the point of when they body recognizes that it is not getting enough fuel – less calories in for an extended period of time than what it needs for basic body functions and it has almost run out of stored reserves (body fat) so it starts savaging what it needs from parts of your body, while shutting down organs and parts that it doesn’t consider critically needed. It will break down muscles for fuel. It will shut down kidney function. It will reduce energy usage to bare minimum. It is in full-on survival mode. These cases are rare – and usually associated with a) an untreated eating disorder or b) extended malnutrition – and is not the case if you are 5’2″ and 180lbs with 50% lean body mass. You’re body has plenty of fuel. You are not starving. You might have the body think you are crisis, that’s different.
Crisis mode: This is also a real situation, directly related to how the hypothalamus perceives things. Unlike starvation mode, this isn’t a real threat and it typically will not involve organ shutdown or muscle-scavenging. Typically not, but it can happen, especially the latter because of increase cortisol levels. This happens when you drop your calorie intake too low, for too long but still have body fat to use. In this case, the hypothalamus perceives a threat, and that threat is “if this shit continues, we are going to be in a bad, bad way” so it heads it off at the pass. Yup, it slows your metabolism down to conserve reserves. It can – and very may will – even try to store some extra. It has no concept of “I’m on a diet, I’m doing this on purpose so I can fit in that dress for my daughter’s wedding” or “I need to fix my insulin resistance.” Nope, it doesn’t reason like that as we know. Threat=response.
One last situation: Homeostasis. That’s a fancy word for “balance.” Homeostasis is when what is coming in matches what is going out. Ideally, we want homeostasis once we reach our healthy, best-life, looking-kick-ass in a bathing suit level. Unfortunately, many people do not plan their diet for that because they don’t understand all the little pieces that make up a well-designed, well-executed fat loss plan. Eat less, move more, with education. As I have talked about before, muscles use about 6kcal per pound an hour just existing, body fat uses 2kcal just existing. Your muscles exist to move you (and stuff inside you). If you have less of you to move, and you have not given the body a reason to think those muscles need to stick around anyway, you will lost them. That lost of muscles, along with the loss of your body fat, means you need less calories to exist. If you are using less calories a day just to be alive, and you are still eating the same calories you were when you were larger, you will reach homeostasis. If this balance point happens while you are still at a 40% body fat percentage, guess what? Yup. You “stall.” Nothing changes in your weight and size. You have hit your stopping point before your goal. We don’t want this to happen, so we not only plan, we are going to be constantly flexible. What we want is for the hypothalamus to feel comfortable and get what we are trying to do. For this, we need to make sure that we don’t threaten it, yet, let it know that what we are doing is good for us. We do that with a two-pronged approach: safe deficit and adding muscles. These two things will get that part of the brain thinking “I need to use up some reserves, but the direction we are going to is overall healthy, so I’m good with that. Carry on, Number One, carry on. I’ve got your back.” Building muscles and improving your metabolism are healthy moves. It knows it and will work with you, not against you.
Doing math and stuff: In order to properly set up our calorie intake for a safe but expedited fat burning process, we can’t go to low or too high. How do we know? We figure it out :). There’s two calorie need numbers we need to look at. Now, unless you have access to expensive testing, we are going to have to go ballpark on these numbers. Fortunately, if we can get in the approximate vicinity, we should be in decent shape. Now, I could go through all the complex calculations for you to do this yourself, but I’m all about working smarter, not harder, so take a trip over to any one of the macro calculators like IIFYM and start plugging in numbers. You’re going to have to make some educated guess on your activity level and estimated body fat level. Don’t fudge the numbers, be honest with the calculator so you are honest with yourself.
NOTE: if you not currently working out and are moderately to significantly overweight, it is completely acceptable to use your BMI (that chart at your doctors or this one right here) to get you in the ballpark for your body fat percentage. This will be the only time you will hear me say this. The BMI method, honestly, pretty much sucks, but since it is based off the standard American, it will get us close enough for government work, in the beginning. This will also give you a ballpark on what is considered your initial goal weight. We want to get to a healthy goal weight, but we want to really get HEALTHY, so this isn’t as much of a hard stop as it is an initial point of reference.
So armed with this information, we start plugging it into the calculator. Things we will use are:
Body fat estimate
Activity level for your lifestyle (if you have any doubts, pick “low” or “sedentary”)
Do you lift weights (move heavy things)
Speed of weight loss (pick Speedy & Sporadic)
Nutritional preference (low carb)
Answer the rest of the questions, basically marketing points and submit.
Check your email. Don’t buy anything!
While you are waiting for your results to arrive, do a couple of things:
Take pictures of yourself – front, left side, right side, and a booty pic if that pleases you :).
Look in your closet for outfits you want to fit into, and try them on. This is motivation at its best.
Get out a tape measure (fabric ones like you use for sewing are good for this, metal carpenter ones not so much).
Give the scale the stink eye, let it know you are onto its shenanigans and won’t be fooled.
Let yourself you are proud of you for taking this huge first step.
Let’s walk through a scenario. I went ahead and created a person, inputted the data, and got the information back. My human:
Body fat: 47%
Current weight: 250lbs
Goal weight: 120lbs (while this is considered medically “normal” for this height, depending on composition, it could be too high but for the sake of this discussion, we are going to use it. It’s not going to be too low.)
Sedentary lifestyle, no exercise
Speedy & Sporadic
What I got back are two numbers we want to focus on: BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate – what you burn just being alive) and TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure – what is estimated you burn total for the day). The rest of the stuff? We are going to ignore. Why? Because they aren’t ideal. The carbs are way too high, the calorie deficit is not going to work as we want it to for the long run, and that means we need to do math to get things right.
First, since we have a rough estimate of our body fat percentage, we can roughly estimate our lean mass. Go here and get a rough lean mass of 120lbs. Again, we are just shooting for ballpark, initial reference numbers. Yes, this number happens to be exactly what our goal weight is, and I know you are saying “HOBBIT, the hypothalamus is going to be mad!” No worries, we will make adjustments along the way. Right now we just want to kickstart the process.
Next, we need to figure out what our safe calorie point is. The IIFYM calculator is – in my opinion – too aggressive and you will hit homeostasis long before you hit your goal. Now, while we are going to adjust things as we travel our journey, the percentage of deficit isn’t going to change much, just the actual calories. We might move this up a little if we need to for certain situations, but rarely will we want to move it lower. I like 20% below TDEE. IIFYM gives me a BMR of 1955, which sounds close enough, and a TDEE of 2517, also close enough. So, math time:
2517 x .80 (80% or a 20% deficit) = 2013 (within a few either way) is our calorie target.
So what do we eat? We know that out of three macros, protein is a goal, carbs is a limit, and fat is a throttle. We will start with carbs since that is a number we know: 20g. Carbs have 4kcal per gram, so 20 x 4 = 80kcal max in carbs.
2013 – 80 = 1933 kcal for protein and fat.
Protein we calculate by lean body mass. We have 120lbs of lean body mass. This is a female, and we want to be safe but aggressive with protein, so our value we will use is .8g protein per lean body mass. 120 x .8 = 96g of protein, Since we know excess protein isn’t stored, we can go up a little on this to make sure we spare muscles, so I’m going to round it up to 100g protein. Protein is also 4kcal per gram, so that means 100 x 4 = 400 calories from protein. You can go over this (have less fat to make the calories work) but try to not go significantly under it.
1933 – 400 = 1533 kcal we have left for fat. This is a loose target. Not a goal, not exactly a hard limit. You can go a little under if you aren’t hungry (which is a good thing, that means your body is adapting) or a little over occasionally for a special meal. Actually, that little over occasionally can be what we call the throttle. This is when the hypothalamus thinks it is in even a safer place and for a few days afterwards – if you go back to what you were doing – it will burn more stored energy before requesting you to feed.
1533 kcal for fat. Fat is 9kcal per gram so 1533/9 = 170g of fat a day is our loose target.
So, let’s but this all together: we are going to start out by eating:
No more than 20g carbs
At least 100g protein
About 170g fat (unless not hungry)
and a total of ~2013kcal a day.
Welcome to Day One of the rest of your beautiful life :). Next time we meet, we are going to talk about moving heavy things, how this is the drive that will maximize success (and help with stalls), and why right now is the time to start. Stay tuned, same Hobbit time, same Hobbit channel. Oh. And love yourself. Be proud of yourself. You matter.
*lyrics by Shinedown – Her Name Is Alice.