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Mini Pause #20: Caloric Deficits Are Ruining Your Gains. There. I Said It.

TL;DR (too long, didn’t read)

Constantly being in a caloric deficit will eventually eat up your muscles, your performance in the gym, and will castrate your happiness. Need I say more?

WHY

I am so tired of this persistent idea that women need to be small and skinny. So many women tell me that they’ve been on one diet or another for most of their lives.

Think about that for a second. Think about how colossally f**ked that is. For women to be on an eternal quest to be small.

I’d like to make a strong (pun intended) case for eating to build muscle as the place to start (and dare I say, stay) so that you can fuel your growth. Not only your body composition growth but your mind as well. Your brain needs good energy. Stable and consistent energy for your metabolic and hormonal production, and just to think.

Strong over skinny.
Resistance training over reduction.
Speed training over starvation.
Anabolic over catabolic.

And if that fails to land, just remember that people don’t write songs about abs. There are, however, numerous songs about big juicy glutes. So there’s that.

WHAT

When embarking on a fitness journey, I’m invariably asked: “Can you build muscle and lose fat?”

There is a long and a short answer to this. Technically you can, but the progress on both goals simultaneously is likely going to be so slow that you might be inclined to erroneously conclude that something is wrong with you, rather than the approach you are taking.

Imagine if you had an important meeting at work and you were about to close the deal of a lifetime. And you brought along your playful dog, your inquisitive child, and decided to scroll on Instagram during this meeting. Could you focus on all of them? Probably. Could you focus on all of them WELL? You know the answer here, friend. And if you are not sure, check out this study [*].

My preference is to separate these two goals, and I prefer to start with muscle building.

Starting with muscle building means typically figuring out what your current maintenance calories are, and looking further at your macronutrient composition (how much protein, fat, carbs) and your hunger patterns.

If you are someone who’s been trying to lose weight forever and restricting calories, this becomes harder the longer you are in a deficit because your total daily energetic expenditure also lowers [*]. Meaning, that you naturally move less, your digestion slows, and your metabolic rate slows, too, as your wily body begins to conserve energy and calories.

When you want to build muscle, you need to eat. Muscles need substrate (food!) to build and grow, and it becomes difficult to grow muscles in a restricted state. It also compounds for women in perimenopause and menopause because you are naturally–as a function of aging [*]–more resistant to muscle growth.

You also, around the age of 40, begin to see a degradation of your muscle fibers and total loss [*] of volume of muscle fibers.

So when you’re not consuming enough calories because you (and every other woman on the planet) have been told that you need to be as small as possible AND you’re working out, lifting heavy, you’re simply not going to have enough energy to support your physical goals. You won’t have enough energy for your bones, organs, or your hormones either.

AND you’re putting yourself at risk for injury.

So while I completely get the appeal of trying to be “good” and eat under your caloric requirements, it’s simply not serving you in the long run.

HOW

Determining how many calories you are consuming relative to your energy expenditure is going to become important.

Exercise is not just the time you spend in the gym. It’s time spent walking, cleaning up the kitchen, and your general movements like hand gestures and toe-tapping. The first step is always getting a sense of how much energy you’re taking in to support not only the gym but also your life.

If building muscle is the goal, you typically want to set the protein target around 1g of protein (the methionine kind I mention in Mini Pause #19) per ideal pound of body weight.

Then, figure out what your maintenance calories are. I find women fall into two groups: 1) chronic caloric deficit (which is the focus of this issue), or 2) they think they are in a deficit but are eating way more calories than they think.

In either case, getting a sense of your caloric intake is essential.

Calculating how many calories you need at maintenance is the next step. I quite like this calculator [*] to help do this.

Now that you have a sense of your maintenance (and how shocking this number might be for you), this is the springboard from which to develop meal planning for muscle building and, if there is interest down the line, caloric restriction for an event or a transient amount of time.

It’s also an option to eat at maintenance without the need to bulk or cut. Shocker, but it’s true! This is truthfully where I am most of the time. Eating a normal set of calories without looking to cut.

NOW

  • Track your calories as they are now for one week (including weekends).
  • Figure out your calories using this calculator [*] and contrast with the data set from the above action item.
  • Take stock of the difference: are you eating too many calories? Too little? How long has this been going on?

Whether you have been over- or under-consuming calories, there can be a slow calorie shift towards your maintenance calories as you are simultaneously working toward building muscle.

Question of the Week

Q: Is exercising in the morning (cardio) going to affect your cortisol and hormones?

IG follower nomad_ad asks a question many women grapple with.

The short answer here is yes, exercising–irrespective of whether it’s resistance training or cardio–will affect your cortisol levels. Exercise any time of day–not just the morning–will do this.

Cortisol along with other catecholamines are released for your performance during activity, and come back down after the activity is finished.

Cortisol is not the big bad hormone it’s made out to be online with influencers who don’t understand basic physiology. It’s those same people teaching you that glucose spikes should never happen, insulin is the root cause of all your problems (not just one but ALL of them), and the reason you cannot lose weight is you have a “broken” metabolism.

Exercising, in addition to “spiking” cortisol also will cause:

  • a transient decrease in thyroid hormones
  • a downregulation in immune system activity
  • an increase in blood pressure and heart rate
  • transiently raised blood lipids
  • a spike in blood glucose.

Does that mean you should never exercise?!

It’s easy to make something look inherently bad if you don’t fully understand it. Many people who have demonized glucose spikes, cortisol, and insulin are simply scientifically illiterate. Either that or they are peddling some magic supplement to quell said evil glucose spikes, cortisol, or whatever they are demonizing.

Here are some great things cortisol does in the body:

  • Helps provide your muscles with energy by increasing the availability of glucose.
  • Decreases your perceived exertion, which will positively improve your ability to stay with your endurance activity of choice.
  • If you are lifting weights, cortisol decreases the perceived load and allows you to lift heavier weights for longer.
  • Helps to regulate your sleep-wake cycle.
  • In short spurts cortisol is ANTI-INFLAMMATORY. I apologize for the all-caps, but this is worth noting. Sure, long-term chronic stress does the opposite, but in the short term, cortisol decreases inflammation. It is what corticosteroid creams and injections work to mimic.

The kicker of course–with respect to exercise stimulus–is your recovery. The transient stress catalyzes change, but you must allow the body time to adapt to the change before you go at it again.

So should you do HIIT training for 45 minutes 5x/week? Probably not. It’s because of the lack of recovery and runway for adaptations that’s causing the dysregulation. If you were to cut the frequency of the HIIT in half and double your recovery, there wouldn’t be an issue.

Cortisol is your friend–when you balance her with your other bestie: recovery.

Forward this to someone you love, and let’s fall back in love with what cortisol helps us with.

YOUR TURN!

I’ll be answering your questions every week right here in the Mini Pause! Let me know what’s on your mind. I’ll be checking for both questions and feedback at support@drstephanieestima.com.

Hey There!

I’m Dr. Stephanie

I’m part geek, part magic and it’s my mission to be a voice for women who just aren’t getting the answers they need about their health - whether that’s from their friends, their family or their primary health providers.

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