We have all heard fitness experts, dietitians, weight-loss “experts” and even doctors, touting the old “calories in vs calories out” theory.
“Weight loss is simple!” they say. “All you have to do is to make sure you burn more calories than you eat”.
Then they’ll throw out some talk about thermodynamics and how “3500 calories equals one pound of body fat, and if you cut 100 calories from someone’s diet (a few bites of dinner) they’d reduce their caloric intake by 182,500 calories over a five year period. If we put a male at 5’8″ who weighed 165 pounds on that diet, they’d lose 52 pounds over 5 years.”
Makes sense right? We can all do the math.
But here is where it doesn’t make sense.
We are consuming about 300 more calories per person per day than we were in the late 70’s. This adds up to over 3 million more calories per person over the last few decades. If calories in the body worked like math, this would mean the average American today would weigh over 1000lb. Now, the average American is pretty overweight, but not THAT much overweight. Clearly the body does not quite work in this way.
And this is because: BIOLOGY DOES NOT WORK LIKE MATH.
A calorie of sugar is not treated in the same way as a calorie of fat inside our bodies. We are a complex biological system wherein hormones are triggered in different ways depending on what foods we choose to eat. It is these hormonal systems that then play a crucial part in either weight gain or loss. Not simply the amount of calories we ingest.
I once had a friend ask me what she should have for lunch, whilst holding up her 2 options. One was a salad of lots of veggies and chicken, and the other was a bag of gummy bears. Yes, seriously. I gaped at her, stunned at what I was seeing, and she hastily explained “oh, I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry, they both contain exactly the same number of calories”. In her mind that meant they were mutually interchangeable because they would have the same effect on her waist-line.
It was one of those moments where I was rendered completely speechless:
As ridiculous as this may sound, this is not far off the principle of most popular diets these days. Eat whatever you like – as long as it’s within your allocated limit of calories (or points, in some cases). Sure, eat that muffin for breakfast, but just make sure you eat less at dinner time. You want that 500 calorie sugar-laden frappuccino? Fine, but make sure you skip lunch. And then there’s the Special K diet. Eat a bowl of this “food” (that is devoid of any nutrients) twice a day and you too can prance around looking thin in a red dress. Yes, because you are literally starving your body. Great advice Kellogg, great advice…
Now I’m not saying calories do not matter at all. Even if you are eating the healthiest foods, gorging on them in enormous quantities all day can eventually mean that you gain some weight. Conversely, if you only eat 500 calories per day, and those are made up of nothing but donuts, you will probably lose some weight. But you will be horrifyingly unhealthy because you will be getting no real nutrients, and this would be absolutely unsustainable over the long-term because you would, in effect, be starving yourself. Your hormones (those hormones responsible for things like fat storage, fat release, appetite, and your metabolism) will be so out of whack that you will likely feel weak and low in energy, have crazy cravings for things like sugar, put on weight at the slightest increase in calories, and feel hungry.
All. The. Time.
This is why these kinds of diets never work over the longterm. The second you reach your goal weight and go back to eating “normally”, the weight is packed straight back on, often more enthusiastically than before, because the body is so thrown off course.
So how do foods affect our hormones?
When you eat too many carbohydrates (esp things like grains and sugar) you raise your blood sugar. Since high blood sugar is toxic, your body releases insulin to remove the sugar from the blood. Your body can only burn a little of the sugar at a time, so the rest is stored as fat. Insulin basically tells your body to store fat. When you have a healthy metabolism, it only takes a little bit of insulin to bring your blood sugar down and then everything goes back to normal. But over time (and eating a consistently high carbohydrate diet, like the standard American diet) that can change. Cells can become resistant to the effect of insulin, thereby causing the body to produce more and more insulin and thus, to constantly store more fat.
Dietary fat, however, does not trigger these hormones. In fact, fat triggers hormones associated with satiety, so actually works in the opposite way, and can actually stimulate the body to burn more fat. Obviously this is when we eat fat from healthy sources (grassfed animal fat, coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, eggs).
The point is, different foods promote completely different physiological responses in the body. Just because 2 foods share the same number of calories, does not mean they are are used by the body in the same way.
If you want to prove this to yourself, try the following:
One morning eat a big bowl of cheerios with lowfat milk for breakfast (ugh I can’t believe I’m actually suggesting you do that, but this is in the name of science). Maybe add in a fruit smoothie just to make sure you have enough calories. Measure how many hours it takes you to feel hungry. Do you need a snack in between breakfast and lunch? How are your energy levels throughout the day?
Another morning eat 2 eggs, a piece of bacon or some sausage, and a few veggies for breakfast (make sure the calorie count is the same as for the cheerios). Now see how you feel for the several hours afterwards. I guarantee you will feel very different.
So is it possible to lose weight without counting calories?
Absolutely. What you eat is FAR more important than how much you eat. Eating the right foods will regulate your appetite and actually hinder you from over-eating. Eating the wrong foods will make it almost impossible NOT to over-eat, and will often leave you feeling constantly hungry and low in energy.
Eating the foods your body was designed to eat (nutrient-dense, whole, unprocessed foods) will trigger all the correct hormonal responses in your body. Your body will automatically burn more fat and efficiently use these foods for energy, and you will be very unlikely to store excess fat. You will also be very unlikely to over-eat because your appetite will regulate to the point where it is only triggered when you actually require more fuel – not every time your blood sugar crashes.
Personally, I never ever count or consciously limit calories. I eat until I am full and try to eat only when I am hungry. Occasionally, though, I eat way more calories than normal (hey, I’m human), but because I normally stick to eating food that balances my hormones, I don’t usually suffer too many adverse effects. My hormones are working correctly and so my body simply burns off the excess calories and doesn’t store them as fat.
My weight has remained constant and I still fit into clothes I wore 15 years ago, and I don’t feel deprived in any way. Will-power is rarely an issue for me, simply because I try not to initiate that cascade of hormones that leads to crazed hunger and cravings. But feed me refined sugar, and you’ll see a completely different side to me. Not. Good.
So which would you rather?
Constantly having to measure the quantities and count the calories of the food you eat. To perpetually feel slightly hungry and have to fight cravings in between meals? To have your energy levels fluctuate throughout the day and experience that afternoon slump where your blood sugar is through the floor and you NEED a pick-me-up in the form of a giant frappuccino?
Or to eat substantial meals where you eat to satiety? To enjoy not needing to snack in between, and to be able to indulge now and then in healthy treats knowing your body can handle it because your hormones are all in balance?
I can tell you which one is more sustainable, that’s for sure.
This is a great little article:
And this is worth watching if you haven’t already:
Slim is Simple