Stop Counting Calories! – Rethinking the Calories-in, Calories-out Model

If you want to be healthy, you need to be fit. To achieve this, you need to pay special attention to the amount of calories you are consuming. Unless you want to be a huge monstrosity of a human being, then you need to absolutely make sure you are always at least taking the same amount of calories in as you are putting out or less.


This is what most weightloss and fitness programs have revolved around for the past 50 years. As long as you burn more calories then you are consuming, or you eat less calories than you are burning, you will lose weight.


This all sounds pretty depressing to me.


It kinda sounds like obsessing over counting calories is necessary. Or I am doomed to constantly be hungry forever and ever and ever and ever and ever…..


Obesity is on the rise in North America. In Canada, there are 13.5 million adults (over the age of 18) who are overweight. This is up 1 million people in only 4 years.


Most people who are trying to lose weight are on vigorous exercise programs; doing cardio up for 4 hours a day and eating as little as 1400 calories a day. Sure some of these people experience success and drop a substantial amount of weight. But how many of them actually keep it off? Apparently 1 in 100 people who lose weight actually keep off the weight.


As a teenager and young adult, I was always trying to lose weight. I was always trying to eat less and exercise more. I thought that was the only way to be skinny. And to be honest my weight yo yo-ed, a lot. I would be really good for a while but in the end I would always fall off of the wagon because I was just so frikin hungry.




I remember one time thinking to myself, “Is this the way it is? Damn you nature and your cruel cruel ways!” I really wished I could just eat the damn food.


Well these days I think differently. I no longer buy into this calories in/calories out model of weight loss and health for that matter. I  believe that society’s strong belief in this model is one of the main reasons woman are so malnourished. Too much attention is paid to the quantity of calories consumed rather than the quality.


Let me put this into perspective a little bit. Let’s say you are a 20 year old female and by the time you are 40, you gain 40 pounds, making you overweight or obese. How many extra calories a day would you need to eat in order to gain those 40 pounds in 20 years.


So to gain one pound of fat it is said that you need to consume 3,500 calories. So to gain 40 pounds you need to eat 140,000 calories extra over 20 years. That equals 19.2 extra calories a day.


This is ridiculous. You better measure every single little calorie cause just an extra 20 calories a day could push you into obesity. 20 calories a day is equivalent to eating one extra bit of an apple a day. Something is wrong here.


How many people do you know who are always trying to lose weight. They are constantly restricting, and constantly exercising and their weight loss is minuscule. And what about your buddy who just eats and eats and eats and never gains any weight. If this model were true in every case then your first friend would be skinny and your second friend would be overweight.


Remember the definition of insanity? Trying the same thing over and over but expecting different results? Hmmmm


The calories in calories out model is based on the first law of thermodynamics;

  1. In a thermodynamic process, the increment of internal energy of a system is equal to the increment of the heat supplied to that system, minus the increment of work done by that system on its surroundings.


Most people simplify this to “Energy is neither created or destroyed.”


This law is true. I am no opposing the laws of thermodynamics.


What I do not agree with is that the body is a perfect thermodynamic process, with no other variables involved.


This model assumes that calories can only ever be burned or stored. And if a calorie is in fact stored, than it can only be stored as fat. I disagree. As humans, we have three different categories of things we can eat; carbohydrates, fats and proteins. This model may work for carbohydrates. They are either immediately burned for energy (as ATP) or they are stored as glycogen. But what about fats and proteins? The same is not true as they have many other functions in the body.


Proteins may be used to regenerate tissue or build muscle. Fats are used to insulate cells, are used as building blocks for hormones, support neurons and lubricate the joints. Fats and proteins are special because they can be burned as fuel, made into something new or used as structural support.


We should not assume that calories are all created equally. A calorie from a piece of grass-fed organic beef is much different than a calorie from a can of coke. Different calories from different sources affect us differently. Different macro nutrients go through different pathways in the body


For example fructose from the coke is mostly digested in your mouth and then heads to the liver where is can be burned as glucose, stored as glycogen or converted to triglycerides.


The protein from beef is digested in your stomach and will require as much as 40% of those calories just for digestion. The protein is broken down into amino acids which can be used in tissue building or processes in the brain.


Another problem with this model is it does not account for individual metabolic rate. Although, a human’s metabolism is meant to fall in a small range (basal body temperature ranging from 97.8-98.2 F), most of us are actually colder. If you have a high metabolism, you use calories at a much faster rate than someone with a low metabolism.


What about the starvation response?


The term starvation response or starvation mode is generally misleading. If you type this into google, you won’t find much except many blogs claiming to debunk it as a myth. This term is a lay person term. The scientific term is adaptive thermogenesis.


The starvation response is a set of biological and physiological changes that reduce metabolism in response to periods of starvation.


All animals in nature experience feast and famine. The starvation response is a integral part of survival in times when food is lacking. An animals internal system basically slows down in order to prolong the periods in which energy reserves can be used for metabolism. Of course, all animals need this for survival.


Some of you might think of the Minnesota study to disprove starvation mode. This study used 36 men and gave them 1,500 calories a day over a period of 6 months. The men did indeed experience a drastic reduction in metabolic rate but they did also continue to lose body fat.


But some other interesting things did happen as well. While the participants did continue to lose weight, once their metabolic rate slowed so did the rate at which they began to lose weight.


The men also suffered intense psychological consequences including hysteria, depression, hypochondriasis. One participant amputated three of his own fingers with an axe. All participants noted emotional distress, decline in concentration, loss of sexual interest, social withdrawl. Some participants experiences edema of their extremities. All participants experiences a pre-occupation with food, similar to an individual struggling with an eating disorder .


So according to this you can indeed starve yourself and lose weight. Of course, you must do this at the expense of your health, mental well-being and possibly your fingers.


What are the longer term consequences of constantly reducing your metabolic rate? This is something that needs to be considered. In the past I have restricted calories and in fact lost weight but I was very hungry, had intense cravings, felt exhausted and in the end I always gained the weight back, plus more. As I continued to attempt to lose weight the same way in the future, it became harder and harder to do so.


Millions of other people are having the exact same experience. So maybe this study shows that it is in fact possible to starve yourself and lose weight, but it also clearly shows that it is not a safe thing to do.


Do you ever watch the Biggest Loser? Those participants are put on a low calorie diet (1500 calories a day) and perform intense, long duration exercise. I recall hearing that they are in a 3,500 calorie a day deficiency. We always see these people at the end of their weight loss, all skinny and happy. But what about a year down the line? Are they still skinny?


Another thing to note is that participants experienced a preoccupation with food. All deprivation diets will cause this and eventually you will binge. Because the truth is you are not actually starving, there is food everywhere and your biological urge for nourishment will take over. When your biology shuts down impulse control, no amount of willpower can prevent binging.


Studies noting the adaptive thermogenesis phenonmenon have been around since 1902 when German Scientist, Neumann, coined the term “luxus consumption” to describe the adaptive increase in energy expenditure in response to overfeeding.


Many recent studies have measured and confirmed the existence of adaptive thermogenesis


A common misconception is that once you are in a state of stavation, you will cease losing weight or in fact gain weight. This is not always true of course. We can look at starving children in Africa to know this. The point is a calorie restricted diet will affect your metabolic rate, your ability to lose weight in the future and make your cravings do intense, you just can’t resist.


Your body is a system that seeks equilibrium. If you have been around a certain weight your whole life, this is what your body believes to be normal. This is called your weight set-point. Starving yourself for weight loss may cause you to lose pounds but your body will strive to get you back to normal. This explains why almost everyone who loses weight this way eventually gains it back.


And what about how calories from different macronutrients affect your appetite?


Carbohydrates are digested quickly and will have immediate affects on your blood sugar. Processed or refined carbohydrates will cause a quick spike in your blood sugar and then a quick drop causing you to be hungry almost immediately. Starches, from root vegetables, will do the same but at a slower rate.


Protein and fat is absorbed very slowly and will not have the same effect on your blood sugar. In fact, these macronutrients will stabilize your blood sugar and cause you to be full for much longer.


In this study, there is a low-carb and low-fat group. The low-fat group is calorie restricted, and the low-carb group is allowed to eat to fullness. It shows that the low-carb group experiences significantly more weight loss eating to fullness than the low-fat calorie restricted group.


Why Do We Still Believe This Craziness?


Well, I’m sure it doesn’t help when the well respected, Time Magazine, publishes an like this one in 2012. The title, “It’s the Calories, Stupid: Weight Gain Depends on How Much – Not What – You Eat.


Well, Time Magazine, I think you’re stupid too considering you completely misinterpreted the results of this study and reported it to a world of overweight and obese people who are literally starving themselves and destroying their metabolism using this method.


The article was based on this study, which aimed to look at how over consuming different protein diets affected total weight gain and lean body mass. All protein diets contained the same amount of calories but varying amount of protein. Low, medium and high.


Check out this figure pulled directly from the report;

study graph


It says that the low protein diet gained less weight (due to less muscle mass) than the other two diets, even though the calories were the same. All calorie intakes were identical but participants gained unequal amounts of weight.


I have no idea where Sora Song, editor of Time Magazine, is coming from. These results completely disprove the title of her article. Stupid.


I could ramble on about this stuff for days and days but I am sure many of you are wondering what you actually need to do to lose weight.


First keep in mind that calories do matter. It matters where your calories comes from. Think about quality, not quantity.


Choose real food. Get rid of the nasty processed, refined, artificial food.


Maybe consider a lower carbohydrate diet since it is the only macro nutrient in which calories-in, calories-out may actually apply to. Any weight loss diet should always cut out sugar and refined carbohydrates.


Eat a diet rich is healthy fats (butter, coconut oil, avocado oil, lard, tallow, olive oil) and lots of high quality pasture raised protein. It will keep you full for longer and be well used in your body.


Eat to appetite. Overeating is never good for you. If you have problems with overeating then you should look at what you eat and how it affects your future hunger. Refined sugar will make you crave more sugar. Anything that spikes you blood sugar will make you hungry faster.


Exercise but don’t go crazy. Focus on long walks, sprints, jogs, yoga, swimming or anything that makes you happy while you are doing it. If exercise makes you miserable, then I doubt it will have much positive affects. Do things that are fun.


Stop counting calories. Most food labels are out on calories by as much as 20%. Who cares how many calories is in your avocado. That avocado is good for you and is going to do amazing things in your body. Eat that avocado!


Are you in a metabolic rut?


You can determine this by taking your morning body temperature. You should be within the 97.8-98.2F range. If not than are struggling from a slow metabolism which means you will struggle to lose weight. Continuing to restrict calories in a metabolic rut will damage your thyroid. I recommend checking out Matt Stone’s blog, and maybe consider reading his book, Diet Recovery. It’s a crazy program but has helped many people get out of the metabolic rut and into weight loss by rebooting the metabolism.


Take Home Message


Just because your weight falls within a healthy range does not mean you are healthy. And saying that your weight is simply a measure of calories is an insane oversimplification. Focus on health, not weight and your body will find it’s balance naturally and keep it that way long term.

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