Updated: Apr 20
When we talk about metabolism what comes to mind inevitably is the mention of “Calories-in, calories-out” (CICO), particularly when it comes to any goal revolving around body composition alteration. It is as though we think that our bodies internal, organic mechanisms care about math equations. We hear or even participate in arguments about which matters more: calories or macro-nutrients. If you are asking these questions first, you are possibly setting yourself up for failure.
Metabolism? Where Do We Even Start?
Regardless of what your body composition alteration goal is, if you are starting with a CICO methodology and trying to figure out your macronutrient breakdown, you might be starting with the wrong plan. Starting a nutrition program with these questions or in this manner is like picking up a book with twenty-five chapters and starting at chapter ten. There's so much more opportunity to maximize metabolic functioning that the majority of us never address.
This is particularly true for those individuals who are trying to lose weight or body fat. Instead of starting with how many calories we should be eliminating from our diet, we should be figuring out a way to enhance the function of our metabolism before doing things that are actually going to create metabolic adaptations that might actually slow our metabolic rate down. You will also find that if you increase your metabolic response through health management, your results are likely to increase greatly.
The Metabolism Factors That Count.
The body's metabolism is an amazing, complex mechanism that will adapt to whatever we do to our bodies. Whether the outcome is positive or negative will depend on the conditions we create and the stimulus we apply. It is not just nutrition and training that is going to affect us here, it is also many of the lifestyle factors that we don't take seriously enough like sleep quantity and quality, stress mitigation, or our social and spiritual wellness. It seems like these things sit in the back of our minds, and we don't factor those variables in to our CICO equation. We want to be able to do simple math inside of a complex system, and it just doesn't happen that way. Or we simply choose to ignore them opting instead to do the things we think will give us an immediate result only to find that we have set ourselves back.
For our purposes here, we are going to hit on 3 factors that we need to assess before we start the conversation around calories and macros. 1) biochemical status 2) sleep 3) needing to increase weight or body fat. Yes, you read number 3 correctly.
1. Biochemical Status
Let’s start with the internal self-assessment piece. What areas of your bodies internal mechanisms are not functioning optimally? Is your internal environment conducive to supporting the changes you are trying to make to your physical abilities or appearance? I make all my clients submit a biochemical profile that includes lab testing of lipid markers, glucose, hemoglobin A1C, insulin, sex hormone panels, and a full thyroid panel. We also look for micronutrient deficiencies, anemias, dehydration, and assess major organ function. We are really taking an inside outside approach. It's very difficult for me to help someone drop body fat when we are working in the presence of elevated glucose levels and elevated insulin levels. We must address those internal biomarkers first before they are going to see physical results. It is no different for individuals who are trying to put on lean mass, particularly those who might work in the tactical space wanting to increase lean mass and just feel better. An increase in lean mass may also have to come with an increase (ideally mild) increase in body fat. We must take a look at sex hormone panels and cortisol levels to determine whether or not we need to address those before attempting to change physical appearance and performance through calorie or macro- coaching. When your internal endocrine, cardiovascular, or digestive systems are not working adequately it is like rolling a boulder uphill in knee deep mud.
We can also look at some of those lifestyle factors that are going to have the biggest impact not only on metabolism but quality of life and my number one is going to be sleep. Anytime one of my athletes reaches out to me and tells me that they have not prepped their meals, or they've missed workouts, or they've been working without making time to focus on their sleep, typically my answer is going to be you need to prioritize your sleep above all else right now.
We know that sleep debt has an extreme impact on physical and mental performance. Someone who chronically gets less than five hours of sleep a night would operate like someone who has a blood alcohol level of .08, legally intoxicated. That is a fact.
Can you imagine trying to improve your health your performance or your body composition when you are constantly walking around like you're drunk?? The poor decisions that we make when we are tired or the increase in risks from sleep debt very much resemble those we experience when intoxicated. Lowered inhibitions and poorer food choices; inability to train, lowered endocrine response, poor cognitive function.
And it is not just in regard to weight loss. Can you imagine trying to do movements during a power and speed program after you have had several drinks? This might be a little bit of a stretch you’re thinking, but I really don't think so. If you've ever tried to lift 90% of your 1-rep max on a strength movement after a bad night of sleeping, I think you can totally relate to this. Yet I come across so many people for not prioritizing this and for those that work in occupations where sleep can be more difficult to obtain, who are still actively doing things that are decreasing the quality of sleep that they do get. Remember that the release of growth hormone and removal of metabolic waste is also a key process during sleeping hours so if you want to maximize lean muscle growth in a sleep debt - forget about it.
3. Weight Gain (Seriously)
Lastly, I want you to consider utilizing the opportunity to improve metabolic functioning through weight gain or fat mass gain. Are we assessing weight gain or loss to determine our metabolic response to stimulus? What do I mean by that? Let us take weight loss for instance. When many individuals attempt to lose weight the first thing that they do is start cutting substantial amounts of calories out of their diet, and there are many individuals who are constantly dieting, cutting weight, shredding, trying to get lean or whatever you want to call it. Some of the most fit people that I come across in this category are also some of the unhealthiest people, and in extreme cases fit the clinical criteria for acute malnutrition even though they have “Abs”. Many people tend to always be in a weight loss state or dieting to lose weight and never take the opportunity to increase their metabolic response through increased calorie intake (hello thermic effect of food) or dare I say it by increasing their weight or body fat percentage. In many of the athletes I work with, especially those who have been traditional athletes in their younger years, often struggle with a reduced metabolic rate due to adaptations around low calorie diets or hormonal imbalances due to weight cycling for weight class sports and low energy availability. When they come to me and they have been trying for a long time to lose body fat with nothing seemingly working we may take the road less traveled. If they have been dieting for most of their life this might be an opportunity for them to not only shift their relationship with food but also start to see the changes that they want to see if I can get them to buy into the process. Small increases in calories, which may or may not increase weight, can help bring metabolic functioning back to optimum levels over time.
The body does not care about your timelines, and it doesn't care that you don't have patience. Real internal metabolic change occurs over time. Don't rush it, take some time to get to know yourself a little bit better and you just might find that your results will increase exponentially.
Susan Lopez is a Performance Dietitian who works with tactical athletes to improve their health, performance, and durability through nutrition and lifestyle optimization.