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Calorie Restriction Longevity: Is Less Calories Better?

The quest for weight loss and fat shredding is all about balance.

Being aware of what you eat and maximizing nutrient value can make or break a diet. And doing all you can to supply your body with the energy it needs is key to a successful, new and improved physique.

Restricting calories is important for fat loss – after all, you can’t eat everything and expect to develop a great physique.

But is less calories better?

Does it mater how low you go when it comes to energy restriction?

In this article we take a look.


Calories and Fat Loss

You can’t escape the word calories. You see it on food labels, you hear the fitness models talk about them, and of course you read about them in articles.

As a unit of food energy, a kilocalorie (kcal) is the amount of energy needed to heat 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius.

A long time ago, various researchers tested different food groups and found out that when they were burned in a machine called a bomb calorimeter, different foods raised the temperature of water to different levels. They had different energy values.

Although the actual science behind this machine is complex, all you need to know is that it is a strict lab test. A sample of a food is placed in a small container surrounded by a larger second container full of water. The food is then ‘burned’ and the heat from the combustion then warms the water in the second container.

From there, the calorie value of the food can be determined.

Here’ what science knows about calorie value of foods:

  • Carbohydrate – every gram gives you 4 kcal
  • Fats – each gram is worth 9 kcal
  • Protein – as with carbs, every gram gives you 4 kcal
  • Alcohol – although it has no nutrient value it still gives you 7 kcal per gram

Calorie Intake and Expenditure – How You Burn Energy

Although your body is a dynamic, living organism it still obeys the principles rules of physics – in particular, thermodynamics.

This means that although you aren’t closed system lab experiment like a bomb calorimeter, calories are still the most reliable predictor of weight and fat levels.

The only way to obtain energy is through eating either carbs, fats or proteins (and of course alcohol). However, the energy you expend each day is slightly more complex.

It is made up of the following:

  • Basal metabolic rate – this refers to the calories your body burns just to stay alive. It includes the energy needed for your heart and brain to function and any non-activity muscular work. It accounts for 60-70% of your total daily energy needs.
  • Movement and non-activity thermogenesis – every time you move, twitch, tapping your knees or clean your house you expend energy. It is classed more as activity than exercise as it is light in intensity. It accounts for up to 30% of energy burned each day.
  • Exercise – when you go to the gym, play sports or go for a run you’re burning calories. It accounts for a surprisingly low 15% of daily energy loss though.
  • Thermic effect of food – every time you eat, your body needs to digest food. This requires energy – only around 5% of daily expenditure though.

The difference between input and output

The total number of calories you eat from food in a day is called your calorie input.

And the number you burn (when basal metabolic rate and exercise etc. have been taken into accountant) is called your total daily energy expenditure, or TDEE.


Dark-haired woman athletic and muscular in the gym lifting dumbbells

Calories and Energy Balance – The Key to Fat Loss

Whether you lose fat or gain weight is all down to how many calories you put in your body and how many you burn off each day. This is called calorie balance.

Positive energy balance results in weight gain

If you eat more calories than you burn off each day you’ll slowly begin to store more fat. This is called positive energy balance or a calorie surplus and is the reason why people become overweight (except for some medical conditions).

This is because your body has taken everything it needs from food, topped up its energy stores and has no other option but to store the excess in your fat cells ready for a rainy day.

Because stored fat is high in calories, your body sees this as being a good long-term investment. As far as it’s aware, you’re still a hunter-gatherer, unsure where your next meal is coming from, so by storing excess as fat on your body you’re less likely to starve to death if you can’t find food.

Maintenance 

If you match the number of calories you eat with your TDEE, nothing changes – you fuel your body just enough to feed your muscles, power your heart and energize brain, but don’t leave any spare to store as fat.

So if you’ve not lost or gained weight for a while, chances are you’ve been eating maintenance calories.

Negative energy balance and a calorie deficit to burn fat

If you’re here because you’re wanting to shred fat then this is the important bit for you.

When your TDEE is greater than the number of calories you put in your body each day, you trigger your fat cells to make up the difference or deficit.

With only restricted energy coming into your body you tell your fat cells to liberate the energy it stored for a rainy day and use it – because the rainy day has come.

Once they’ve been emptied they shrink down. And over time you begin to lose fat.


a range of foods high in vitamin B6 - meat, eggs, cereals, potatoes

Is Calorie Restriction the Best Way to Lose Fat?

You can’t cheat physics. In order to empty out your fat cells and dump out that excess fat for energy you have to be in a calorie deficit.

But is a huge restriction better than a smaller one?

Calorie restriction is the process of reducing calorie intake. By taking your food intake below the level of maintenance, you trigger a calorie deficit and lose fat. 

Although the exact amount that you should reduce calories by can differ from person to person, it is typically by 10-30% of maintenance.

This can be calculated using online calorie calculators such as the one at the bottom of this article.

For many people it works out at around 500 kcal, although this could be too low for smaller individuals.

Is calorie restriction a case of ‘less is more’?

If a small deficit leads to a small amount of fat loss and a bigger deficit leads to greater fat loss, then it kind of makes sense that the bigger the restriction, the more fat you’ll lose, right?

That’s true to a certain extent. But not a solution to your diet problem.

The key point here is that energy isn’t lowered to the point where the dieter is at risk of malnutrition.

If you take calories down to low you run the risk of illness, reduced physical and cognitive performance, poor health. You’ll also more than likely miss out on a number of fat burning nutrients that optimize the way in which your body works when in a calorie deficit.

So no, less calories isn’t necessarily better.

The chances are that if you take calories too low you’ll not adhere to your diet for long. It’ll be harder to adhere to and the eventually you’ll fall off the wagon.

It’s hard to maintain a calorie restricted diet

If it was easy to maintain a negative energy balance there’d be no obesity epidemic.

As you restrict your body from the energy it needs, it begins to fight back. After a while you find your appetite gets greater and greater as your body craves high-calorie foods.

Pitching your deficit between 1035% helps you find a perfect balance between triggering fat loss and keeping you on track.


Young woman hungry looking at a salad leaf on a fork

Focus on Nutrient That Support Weight Loss

We’re designed to be able to live on a calorie restricted diet for prolonged periods of time. It’s an inbuilt evolutionary mechanism that allows you to hunt for food and survive long enough to find your next meal.

But it’s not meant to last forever.

One of the best ways to prolong the length in which you can remain in a deficit is to focus your attention on foods or supplements that support weight loss. Ensuring the bulk of your meals are based around fresh vegetables, lean meats and grains helps to keep you fuller on less food volume.

A restricted diet isn’t an opportunity to fill your limited calories with foods that don’t fill you up for long.


Summary

The key to healthy weight loss is the combination of a well-measured calorie deficit with a focus on nutrients that support fat loss.

For long-term dieting, finding your maintenance calories is a natural starting point; and from there you can decrease overall energy intake by up to 30%. If you go any lower than this then you run the risk of malnutrition and adherence issues.


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