Semantics: The study or science of meaning in language, the study of the meaning of words.
We argue A LOT about nutrition, metabolism, and weight loss. To be honest, often times I feel like this is pretty much all we do.
On occasion these arguments are actually worthwhile debates that further our understanding of how the human body works. Unfortunately, MOST of the time these arguments are ones of proxy and semantics – essentially arguing the exact same point, but differing on the definition of terms. Other times, we are arguing polar opposite points, because we think we are using the same terms in the same way, but really we are not.
When you watch this from the outside, it often looks like two people arguing in two completely different languages.
Add in the fact that people really like to read what they want to read (as opposed to what is written) and you can see that debating nutrition and weight loss is usually a very unproductive activity.
Just recently I saw someone type:
“walking does not burn a lot of calories”
which was countered with:
“walking burns calories. Any statement to the contrary is ridiculous.”
…reading what they wanted to read instead of what was written. The first statement doesn’t say walking burns ZERO calories…it says “doesn’t not burn A LOT of calories”, but the term ‘a lot’ is subjective, so the second person chose to read it as saying ‘walking burns NO calories.’
This is why diet and nutrition is so hard to discuss with people. People hear what they want to hear, read what they want to read, and define words the way they want them defined. So rather than spend time arguing over who is right, I’d like to take the time to explain a couple key definitions from my point of view. This way when you read my work and my theories we’ll all be on the same page when it comes to the way I am using my terms.
Let’s start with eating at a calorie deficit.
From my understanding, by definition this means an amount of food that results in loss of body mass. By this definition you cannot be in a deficit if you are not losing body mass. You can be easing less, a little, not much, like a bird, and not lose body mass since these are all subjective descriptions of an amount of food, but if you are eating less food than is needed to provide the energy you require to power your daily activities then a loss of mass must occur. This loss may be masked by fluctuations in bodyweight caused by water or the weight of the food in your digestive track (at least for a little while), but make no mistake, it is the loss of body mass that defines the deficit, not eating below an estimated amount of needed calories. The Loss of Mass is what defines a Deficit.
Next is eating at maintenance.
The term maintenance can be confusing; it raises the question, maintenance of what? From my understanding eating at maintenance does not mean maintenance of body weight, but maintenance of function. When you eat at maintenance all of your body’s daily energy needs are equaled by the energy provided by the food and drink you consume. This includes the energetic needs for muscle growth since the energy needs of protein turnover are part of your basal metabolic rate.
In other words, if you were in some hyper-muscle-growth-mode induced by who knows what, the energy needs of that growth would be reflected in an increase in your metabolic rate. Meaning if you were not eating enough to cover these needs you would be eating at a deficit and loss of body mass would occur. A good way to think of maintenance eating is an amount of food that does not result in an appreciable loss of body mass or an appreciable amount of body fat gain, since a gain in body fat is how we define a surplus, and a loss is how we define a deficit.
As an example – If you are eating 50,000 calories a day and not gaining fat, congratulations you are still eating at maintenance. If you are eating 8 Calories a day and not losing body mass, congratulations you are also eating at maintenance. The amount of calories you consume does not determine if you are eating deficit, maintenance or surplus, the changes in your body does. Lack of a loss of body mass and absence of a gain of body fat defines eating at maintenance.
Finally we have Eating at a surplus.
Since a deficit is defined by weight loss, and maintenance is eating to cover all daily metabolic needs, then a surplus is defined as eating an amount of food that surpasses your daily needs (including protein turnover) and thus results in the storage of energy for future use (body fat). So a surplus (to me) is defined by the accumulation of body fat. If you are not gaining body fat, then you are not eating a surplus amount of food. If you are gaining body fat (and not just weight, which could be water etc) then you are eating at a surplus (regardless of the number of calories you are eating). The accumulation of body fat defines a eating a surplus amount of food.
Hopefully these definitions will help clear up some of the confusion in diet and nutrition. The key point being some random predetermined amounts of calories does not define whether or not you are eating in a deficit, at maintenance, or in a surplus, the resulting changes in your body are what define the term used to describe how much you are eating.