Friday, January 8, 2010

When to Use Calorie Counting (or Heart Rate Monitors)

This is the first of a two post piece on Calorie Counting and Heart Rate monitoring. Oh you know, there's such debate about whether calorie counting or heart rate monitoring is meaningful or not, it seems worthwhile taking a look at the roles of each.

The Counter Arguments to Measuring. With calorie counting the comments usually suggest - if you just eat good food who needs to count calories? Or if you just get your portion control happening, you don't need to count calories. Or as Chris at condioning research pointed to recently - reports of calories, at least at fast food joints - aren't even accurate. Ya don't say. I'm shocked. shocked that calories are inaccurately reported at fast food establishments. But even food packaging can be off. Heck if ya can't trust giant food companies who can ya trust. Supplement companies? We'll see this is not a show stopper for using Calorie counting.

With the heart rate monitor the arguments are similar: there's a delay in the heart rate monitor - a slight lag, so while you're going hell for leather (where does that expression originate) your monitor is actually lower than what you really are at (by about 2-3 bpm). And heck, what really matters is perceived exertion anyway. Learn how your body feels and go with that.

And i agree with all the above sentiments. Except when they don't work.

I agree, in terms of diet that it's really critical to get with good eating habits and to learn about food to know what good food is. For instance it may be a surprise that an avacado is remarkably high in fiber. But it's also really full of fat. Knowing both these things helps make some healthy choices.

Likewise it's important to learn about how one's body feels especially for understanding whether one is about to push too hard or whether one has taken enough recovery to succeed with the next step, or to get whether one is really pushing hard enough. Bravo. Important stuff.

But how do you know what's really real for you?
Well, cave people didn't have heart rate monitors and they did ok, one might argue. They were in way better shape than us, one might suggest. Yes, sure, until picked off by disease or animal or next of kin. And likewise, until the last 50 or 60 years, we didn't really have to worry about getting all fat either. Calorie counting wasn't needed because, for most folks, calories were not in such amazing abundance - that's one - and fast crap food hadn't been invented. Our circumstances have changed, eh?

And as said, it's great to want to learn about oneself and how one's own body responds to food or effort. But sometimes a great PART of that learning is to get an external reality check.

SO i'd like to offer a couple points where i find both calorie counting and heart rate monitoring to be helpful. In this piece, we'll look at a calorie counting strategy. In the next, we'll look at another for heart rate monitors.

Part 1. When Calorie Counting Helps:
When the Scale Doesn't Want to Move

Executive Summary.
Since the following article has become way longer in detail than anticipated, here's the executive summary. Details unpacking each point below:
  1. reality check sometimes a reality check on what we think we're doing and actually doing is a good idea if our progress feels like it's plateau'd or is going in a direction we don't want
  2. "reality" however is relative it seems to the measures we use
  3. calorie counting can be a good way to get an additional measure to unpack why the scale isn't moving the way we want.
  4. if we're going to use that, though, we need to base line what it's calculations say something is and what our reality is
  5. be prepared to take about two weeks to figure out how the calorie counting instrument measures up against the scale.
  6. once that's done, simply start to reduce from that level to go down or add to go up (the actual numbers become incidental; it's a trend)
  7. as this gets comfortable, be aware of macro nutrient ratios
  8. blend with other measures like girth and bodyfat% to see that whatever's happening is pro lean body mass.
  9. be consistent as much as possible in keeping up the records to get a rich picture for future ref of what does what to one's body
  10. it's something that need be done only for a period once in awhile if something changes - like a new workout or eating regimen happens

Details on each of these points below

I've written not infrequently about precision nutrition and why i think it's helpful for achieving one's body comp goals. Part of the starting point of PN is just to forget about calories and just get practice in order - get some good nutrition habits down about protein and greens and fats - get those right for a month of what's known as 90% daily compliance with those habits. That's a framework. But then ya know what? the individualization guide to be used after that to tune the program for each person does indeed talk about both calories and macronutrient ratios. And why not? If the goal is to cut fat one has to be in caloric deficit. Well how do you know if you are?

As an example, when i was getting my own nutrition house in order, and following the right habits, i wasn't losing weight. I was doing the "just eat clean" thing to a T, and one of the things i loved about PN was the de-emphasis of calorie counting. And then on the forum uk trainer Alex Gold suggested that when he'd stalled out, he did some food logging for a few weeks and things fell into place. I took his advice - reluctantly - got going with fitday and voila, the weight loss started to kick in. What happened?

Calorie Counting as Trend rather than Absolute Value
. The biggest benefit of calorie counting tools like fitday, in my experience, is that they offer a consistent set of measures that can be used to model trends.

What i mean by consistent values is that we get all sorts of numbers from all sorts of places about what *should* work for us. For instance, there are Base Metabolic Rates calculated on age, weight, gender and then there's an activity level and that tells you how many calories you supposedly burn in a day just from living your life.

That also means that that is the number of calories you could eat in a day and not lose or gain weight. That's maintenance.

By that logic, you should be able to plug foods into fitday or other calorie counting software and eat to that number and the next day not gain weight. Or lose it. Ok, let's be fair and say over the period of a week.

Does that calculated number for Maintenance Meet the Reality? For myself, according to these calculations i should be able to get away with eating about 300 more calories to maintain my weight than what has turned out to be the case. What's also very useful is that i can track macronutrient ratios - i can see if it makes a difference to how i feel or to my progress to look at the usual ratios of carbs, fats, protein.

By tracking my intake for say two weeks, and watching the scale, i find my own truth relative to that scale/software.

Trends rather than absolutes.
Now while the calories add up in fitday to about 300 less than the BMR+Activity level calculation does, of course it might just be that the caloric amounts assigned to the foods i'm eating are not right, or the amounts i'm using are not exact. In other words, the calculation might be fine and my measures or reported calories or whatever are where the error is. Or maybe it's a combination.

But that doesn't matter.

What matters is consistency, and i'm consistent. and so is the error in the system. I consistently measure the same way, and generally eat the same kinds of food. Thus, what i get at the end of the two weeks of eating pretty much the same, at the same levels of input, are trends. So whatever the Absolute Reality is of the Platonic Calorie for this food, i know that when in this software i'm at this putative caloric level, i'm gonna maintain. And likewise if i drop it down, i'm gonna lose.

In other words, i'm calibrating against the system. It's sorta like zeroing a scale if you want to measure stuff in a bowl. You put the bowl on the scale first, zero the scale so that the weight of the bowl is removed from the readout, and then put the stuff in the bowl and remeasure.

Taking time to Set the Level

If you take nothing else from this post, take this: give yourself time to set the level of whatever system your using. Once you get that, your success will accelerate; until you get that, you may flounder in a sea of frustration.
Generally speaking it takes me anyway about two weeks to get the level set if it's been awhile from using calorie counting. I need to relearn what the level is with my current work outs and life practices.

The end result is that i zero myself against the system, and then i'm really good to go. It's really important - at least i've found this so for myself - to allow myself this time just to get the data, to do the level setting as it were. And then, bam, i'm wired. It's almost freaky how easy it becomes ONCE that level is dialed in.

Plugging In to Related Feedback Measures.
Calorie counting of course is not the goal. The scale is. Well ok, i'll reframe that. Usually it's body fat % and girth. That's then using one measure (calories) against three others: weight on the scale, body fat % and girth (hips, waist, arms, neck, thigh, chest, etc).

Why these other measures are important to me is that if i'm trying to cut fat, i don't really want to lose lean mass or muscle particularly. Just the fat, please. If i watch only the scale, all i get is absolute weight loss. I don't know if that loss is fat or just water or ick, bone mass and muscle tissue. By using other measures i calibrate the success of knowing how to eat to get my weight down with other measures to make sure that that weight loss is associated wtih fat cutting more than anything else.
Aside Lean Mass Gains while Cutting Fat And for folks who think that fat cutting inevitably leads to muscle loss too, especially in experienced athletes, here's a recent study that was just brought to my attention:
Paper was presented at the American College of Sports Medicine (2009).

Is It Possible To Maintain Lean Body Mass and Performance during Energy-restriction in Elite Athletes?
Ina Garthe1, Truls Raastad1, Per Egil Refsnes2, Jorunn Sundgot-Borgen1. 1The Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, Oslo, Norway. 2The Norwegian Olympic Sports Centre, Oslo, Norway.

Many athletes in sports that emphasize low weight and leanness attempt to reduce their weight in order to enhance competitive performance. The strategy recommended is a gradual weight-loss due to moderate energy restriction promoting a weekly weight-loss of 0.5-1 kg. However, a decrease in body mass due to energy restriction can lead to loss of lean body mass (LBM) and thereby impair performance.
To compare the loss of fat mass, LBM and performance in two different weight-loss interventions promoting loss of 0.7% versus 1.4% of body weight per week in elite athletes.
30 male and female elite athletes where randomized into two groups, “slow reduction” (SR, n=14, 23.5±3.3 y, 72.2±12.2 kg) and “fast reduction” (FR, n=16, 22.3±4.9 y, 72.2±11.2kg). All athletes followed a 6-12 week energy restriction period depending on the intervention and desired weight loss. Diets were recorded by 4-day weighed food records and each athlete followed an individualized diet plan promoting weekly body weight-loss of 0.7% or 1.4%. All athletes continued training their sport as usual (14.6±3.5h per week), and in addition all included four resistance-training sessions per week to emphasize muscle hypertrophy. Measurementsdonepre and post intervention were: body weight (BW), dual energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA), 1 RM tests (squat and bench press) and vertical jumping test.
There were no significant differences between groups in any of the measurements pre intervention. BW was reduced with 5.6±3.0% in SR-group (p<0.001) p="0.4)." p="0.1)" p="0.001)" p="0.05)">

Conclusion: Despite a weight-loss of ~5% of body mass it is possible to increase LBM and performance during a gradual weight-loss in normal-weight athletes. The magnitude of weekly weight-loss seems to be one of the factors that influence loss of fat mass versus LBM and performance.
It's interseting to note that the best results in actual lean mass gain were from people who did the smaller caloric restriction. The weight loss may be a bit slower, but the other gains certainly are worth considering in terms of considering a slower cut.
Measuring Is Not Single Factor. So calorie counting is not done just for the heck of it. It's part of a creating a picture of one's practice. We have to be able to connect it with our other measures - and they relate to each other too. For instance, if i'm eating so that i'm losing a lot of weight, but have no energy to do my workouts, or i stop making progress on my lifts or times, or am feeling really nasty and acting the same way, perhaps there's something going on. Likewise if my weight is going down, but my bodyfat measures aren't showing a change on the fat side, do i need to rethink my strategy? Or if my sleep seems to have gone out the window or i feel tired - what's the relationship?

The Value of Learning What's Normal. In athletic training, a staple of practice is a log of one's workouts. Some folks consider the log as a motivation tool, to see how progress is being made. But another role of the log it seems to me, is to understand simply what's normal? That can't be understood with just a record of sets and reps. That would need to be coordinated with what else is going on in one's world - has work changed? eating changed? some other stressor changed? It's rather difficult to know that without some history to show what's normal.

For example, i know that when i'm doing X kind of training, to feel energized i just can't do a Y workout the next day. At best i can do Z and then i'm ready to do X again. Now if i were to find myself too pooped even for Z consistently for a couple weeks, i'd be going Hmm. And wanting to see what's changing? Maybe i need to try putting that recovery drink back in for instance, or hit the sack sooner.

Without some kind of record of muliple factors, i'm just hacking around, guessing. With logs, i'm still guessing, but the time it takes to narrow something down is usually less. And it seems when i keep better logs the variations happen less. This effect might be down to Attention. The act of recording something puts it in our Attention, and by making something deliberate, we become more aware of it.

Measurement Support for the Big Picture. If you're not familiar with how to measure these other components - fat especially - this again is something that makes the precision nutrition package a worthwhile investment. It has a fabulous measurement guide as part of it.

Of course you can poke around the web to find stuff, but it's nice to have the whole shebang in one place with accurate info at each page, as well as examples for men and women. It goes through how to track a whole fleet of related measures for progress.

  • body weight measuring and calibrating a decent scale,
  • doing body fat measures with callipers, where the sites are for measuring, the equations to use,
  • what girth measures are,
  • what strength and performance measures are,
  • recovery measures (really critical),
  • what blood measures are,
  • how to take photographs

When to let go of the Rigerous Tracking: When the practice Registers
. Somehow we've moved from calorie counting to help get weight loss (or mass gain) happening, up to the forty thousand foot level ofthe Big Picture - well being. Let's get back to calorie counting, then, and when we can stop - especially after i've just said how useful keeping logs can be.

Once i get into understanding my current caloric intake (as reflected in the system i'm using) where i've got the level that handles my workouts and nutrition and has me on a reasonalbe (.5 to 1lb a week loss) fat cutting pace and most especially, that reflects a consistent trend, i keep tracking that for about two weeks to make sure that i get some practice with those asssumptions. That way, i can validate if i'm right. Which is pretty easy to see: those next two weeks the trend heads DOWN. Happy happy joy joy. Once that's established, i'm usually pretty comfy with knowing what portion sizes are in the zone and what i have to be careful with (like dipping bread into olive oil and balsamic. dam).

Once i' drop the rigerous calorie counting, i keep up with the other body comp measures of girth and calipers, and that on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. That regular recorded feedback helps me tune my practice and adds a little more awareness and attention without being a burden. IF something goes unexpectedly out of line in that period, i have these other strategies to dip back into, like calorie counting for a week just to see what's REALLY going on.

Relative to Other Measures
And that's the main thing here: calorie counting can be a reality check. We may be happy that we're eating clean, but if we're gaining weight when we want to maintain or drop fat, and our body comp measures show that that gain is not just muscle, then it's pretty hard to deny there's an issue.

Granted, there are other approaches to check out what's going on. One could simply reduce the overall portion size at each meal for two weeks and see if that sorts out the issue. Absolutely. But sometimes we may *feel* like we're doing that and see no shift, and so that extra bit of information and rigour of a short term stint with calorie logging can be a way to make a breakthrough. And then let go and let those good nutrition habits take over.

Infrequent but Useful. Personally, i haven't used calorie counting for two years. I've recenty used it again to do exactly this reality check against my goal to put on some muscle mass and make sure i'm feeding the muscles rather than the fat. It's been just the feedback i've needed to tune what i'm doing.

If you want to try Calorie Counting. Here are some steps i've found useful in getting a reality check to tune my nutrition practice for my body comp goals.

  • Get a program you like for recording your food intake (if it records your workouts for showing energy used in a day that's great too. I personally like FitDay - indeed i like it so much i run a PC emulator on my mac pretty much just to use it. The site is free to use, but i find the food entry on the software more convenient than the website. The main attributes are that the software records food, exercise and has a daily weight log.

  • Give yourself time to set a level. This is the toughie if you want to lose weight right now. Allow yourself to take a week or two to get a clear picture of what your usual daily practice is. Do your calories vascilate wildly? do the ratios of fat, carb, protein, go all over the place from day to day? As you record these facts against your DAILY weight log, you'll be able to see how your body responds over a decent amount of time like 10-14 days. The first task may then be just to get more consistent - like trying to get to what maintenance or below maintenance is calculated to be and see if that's right for you; or too high or low. But you can't know that without staying consistent for awhile.

  • be rigerous - using a calorie log can be a pain in the butt. like really. but it doesn't really work unless you really count everything. Like the milk in my tea. That adds up to at least a cup of milk a day. That for me is not nothing. I actually don't mind when i'm into it doing the recording, and maybe it's part of that Awareness through Attention - that as i record these things i learn more about heh this is way high in carbs and not enough in protein. What would happen if i up my protein with a bit more in my recovery drink?

  • weigh yourself daily; track your girth and bf% weekly - you don't have to weigh yourself daily, but i find that by doing this i can see the trends in my body for wieght to vascilate. Then i can get a sense of when i might be putting on water, or when perhaps i ate later so there's just more food in my gut when i step on the scale. This is just more data. The given day is less important than the trend. And the more points of data, the clearer the picture of the trends. After having done this awhile i find i can look at the scale with more equanimity. Oh it's up a bit today; tomorrow it will be down. Likewise, and perhaps this is a result of more practice, seeing the number be lower is equally amorphous. It may be a bit up the next day, but the trend says it's all good; it's all going down. Tracking bf% and girth weekly will definitely reality check the scale to show the trend on all the things that count is heading in the right direction - or that something within the trend needs tuning.

A Note about Intermittent Fasting & Calorie Counting
Some folks are drawn to Brad Pilon's Eat Stop Eat for intermittent fasting. For Pilon, he suggests that just not eating once a week - a bit more if you want to lose weight - is a great way to lose weight because you just eat normally the other days of the week. THis approach, i've found, takes care of weight loss about as well as "just eat clean" or "just reduce the portion sizes for a couple weeks." While these strategies can be very successful, and do work in principle, personally, i find that if i'm starting into what i want to be a body comp change period, there's practical benefit to finding out what Normal is. For me, one sure way to do that is calorie counting for a couple weeks. Then, you bet, i have a trend to work against, a personally validated normal, and then if IF is what i want to do, i have a way of validating that, too.

To Count or not to Count.

Your mileage may vary. You may be very successful at losing weight or gaining mass when you want without these kinds of additional feedback measures. If you are, you likely haven't read down to here and bailed out much earlier. Good for you.

This post is really for those of us who do find having these extra measures helpful, and if so, how they might be used for success.

Big Take Aways for Calorie Counting:
At least in my experience and with some of the folks whom i coach:
  • calorie counting is about trends, not instnaces
  • cc'ing is not single factor; it's part of one measure against a recommended set of measures like girth, body fat%, weight, etc
  • it needs time to find the zero point to start using it effectively
  • it doesn't need to be used all the time, but as a tool to help get in the groove of what you want your body comp/well being practice to be

Hope this is helpful, and all the best for your body comp goals. Heart Rate montoring next.

Body Comp Coaching. IF you'd like to explore online coaching for your nutrition & bodycomp goals, email me. I take on a very few clients right now, usually for 16 week blocks. Included, Precision Nutrition including the PN Forum and online tools, personal assessment of where you're at now and what your goals are, bi-weekly assessment guides, live bi-weekly coaching and nutrition ed sessions, email support. £375GBP for four months, guarenteed you'll know yourself and nutrition, make great strides in your body comp goals, know what works for you, and how to achieve your goals, learn how to trouble shoot nutrition challenges, moving at your own pace and with a nutirtion plan that is designed for you and works for you.

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