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Counting Calories, IIFYM and the one thing people don't talk about on eating

In one of my classes a few weeks ago, I was asked roughly how many calories does a class burn. Truthfully, I had no answer for it. It’s incredibly hard to judge for a number of reasons, not helped by the fact that I like to switch up my classes as much as possible. I don’t like having two classes in a month the same. Why? Because the more efficient the body is at something, the less it needs to work and therefore the less calories it needs to burn. If your exercise routine is always the same, you will hit a wall in terms of your progress. Now in every class I have a set number of goals I want to hit while training the class out of their comfort zone. I want to make sure nothing is too easy and hit the major muscle groups, focusing more on different ones on each class. I don’t spend too much time on arm exercises only as there is not as much ‘bang for your buck’ in comparison to the amount of calories you can burn doing leg exercises. 

To accurately judge how many calories you are burning, there are a lot of factors including: gender, height, weight, level of fitness, BMI, age and heart rate. With all these factors, it’s hard to buy into classes that claim they burn up to x amount of calories as a marketing tool to promote their classes. There’s way too many variables for that to even come close to applying that to a specific person. The Mayo Clinic suggests that there can be anywhere between 150-300kcal burned in a particular activity with an up to 5 stone weight difference. With additional weight, is it added muscle or fat? That could affect how efficiently someone can do a movement or activity. 

The more efficient some one is at doing an activity, the less their heart rate goes up doing the activity which will ultimately result in the less amount of calories burned. To casually swim a couple of lengths might be easy if you’re a really good swimmer, we’ll take Michael Phelps as an example. He might not burn that many calories. You put me in the pool and my heart rate will sky rocket, regardless of the fact that we are similar weight, as a flap around trying to float and move forward. I would burn a hell of a lot more calories trying to do the same thing as my body wouldn’t be as efficient as his doing the movements. To work on his endurance, Michael Phelps has to swim up to 50 miles a week which also allows him to seemingly have a 12,000 calorie diet. That's nearly 5 times the amount of the recommended daily average!

 Is this what 12,000 calories looks like?

Is this what 12,000 calories looks like?

Does counting calories work?
When asked about this, I actually said no. If you are in a calorific deficit, you will lose weight. So I was completely wrong there. But I didn’t mean the science behind it, I meant practically. Can you record the amount of calories you burn in your exercise routine accurately along with your food intake and then work out how to put yourself in a calorific deficit to lose weight. Maybe. But it’s a lot of time and effort that is just not practical and there are too many variables that can go wrong. It’s a stressful approach (stress in it’s self can be detrimental in losing weight with various effects)

I just don’t see how practical it is to find the number of calories being burned. To go back to my swimming analogy earlier. The key word I used was “casually”. Michael Phelps wouldn’t burn that many calories to swim a couple of lengths of a pool. But you get him to do that on the Olympic stage, it’s a different story. He’s going to burn a lot more calories. That’s where intensity comes into it. Only you truly know how much you are pushing yourself when you workout. 

Technology is catching up to these problems with products like FitBits. They track your Basal Metabolic Rate, BMR (your heart rate at rest) and the newer ones claim to track your intensity levels in exercise to give a more accurate measurement of calories being burned. At least this is a more individualised way of tracking calories burned. Your FitBit (Once again, not paid by a product I’m mentioning…) starts at 12am each day which explains your high number of perceived calories being burned when you wake up in the morning. FitBit claim that over half of your calories burned per day is while you are at your BMR. Which is an important stat to remember when you see the following memes pop up.

 What do you mean burpees suck?

What do you mean burpees suck?

After the initial ‘holy shit it’s that many burpees to burn off the fries?’, there’s a lot to take in. “Everyone’s favourite move, including mine” I usually say in a class or something to that effect with a silly smirk on my face which implies that the dreaded burpees are coming. But if 524 of them are necessary just burn off fries, Burpees can’t be that great of an exercise, can they? (Spoiler: Yes, yes they are!)

Lets say that this meme means an additional 500kcal a day, taking out the facts that eating these fries, you still could be within your targeted calorie intake for the day or that you start burning the calories as soon as you eat them (back to your BMR). You just decided to have this on top of whatever meal you usually have. Lets look at that 524 number. There are a lot of memes to suggest this number is true. But anyone who has read my blogs in the past know my thoughts on memes. So where did this 524 burpees come from. When I put 524 burpees into google the search suggestions says “it takes 524 burpees” so I assume a lot of people are thinking this as well! I found the exact same table on a couple of websites (Here and here for example) that claim this number is from a 130lbs ‘individual’. So height, gender, BMI, age and level of fitness are not taken into account at all as well as the large fries being 460kcal instead of the 500kcal that’s on most images (well, in Ireland anyway. Portion sizes in America is a different story!) To sum up this paragraph, it's a statement that can not hold water due to way too many variables. 

There’s so many variables into counting calories, especially when there’s a potential for so many inaccuracies that I don’t think that it’s sustainable to follow. If you haven’t gained or lost weight in recent weeks, your body is efficient at the weight you are at. Providing you are eating a balanced healthy diet, slightly lowering the calories and increasing the intensity in your workouts can help lead to losing some body fat. One way of increasing the intensity is varying your workouts so you’re not too use to one type of workout only. There’s no such thing as the best exercises for weight loss (except for your favourite move and mine of course) but you will see improvements in doing the workouts you’re not currently doing. Athletes do this through periodising their workouts while some also do cross-training (nope, not CrossFit), and studies have shown that varying programs can increase fitness

There is no magic number of calories you should be consuming either. Your body learns to be efficient with the amount of calories you consume weekly for energy. Changes to that will affect your weight as will your activity over time. If you do start counting your calories, make gradual adjustments. I always advise clients to take notes or keep a diary of what you are eating, when you are eating and when you train. Also take notes on your energy levels each day as well. If you are feeling tired all the time but are getting results, is that really a good thing. Energy levels are rarely mentioned when talking about calorie counting. It's always weight loss.

I mention in one of my previous blogs that a man went on an ice cream diet. 50% of his calories on ice cream and he lost significant weight. What’s not usually talked about was how bad his energy levels were on this diet. And if eating ice cream makes you apart of the “most miserable dieting adventure” then that’s no diet I want to be apart of.

 Lose weight, eat ice cream. If only it was that simple!

Lose weight, eat ice cream. If only it was that simple!

Gradual changes to calories, focusing on eating better and maybe slightly smaller portion sizes can be enough to see changes along with a good fitness program that challenges you. One size fits none in this industry. The culture of #IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros, seemingly) is one that seems to be gaining more attraction on Instagram. I think flexible dieting can work and I'm sure it has worked for a lot of people. But whatever the initial intentions of IIFYM, it seems pretty clear to me that more people are taking it as eating junk food constantly, affecting their energy levels and mood. And we all react differently to different foods. Eating unhealthy food can usually make us feel like crap. People may still look great on the diets but how they feel might be a different story. The problem is there's no good nutritional value in junk food. That's why eating the large fries at McDonalds as part of your calorie intake is not great. Not the perceived amount of burpees they take to burn off while illustrating them as extra to your daily calorie intake. (It's an extreme example, but Morgan Spurlock felt 'depressed' after eating McDonalds for 30 days straight). To make true long term changes, you need to figure out the food types and amounts that are most beneficial to you for energy levels and help you see progress. Document your progress. Looking back on it can help keep you on track and also help you discover what agrees/disagrees with you. An occasional ice cream or McDonalds is not going to kill you. Constantly eating junk food just simply can not be good for you. If you feel good and you're making progress on your health and fitness goals, why not eat some ice cream from time to time and have a little less than normal in one of your other meals. And throw in a few burpees. 

On a side note to this blog post, especially since the word 'depressed' has been used in the last paragraph, I am in no way saying that eating healthy and exercise is the only cure for issues with mental health. The examples are there to illustrate how food can affect our mood. It is obviously not the only factor and the solution is not always as simple.