In a world where 1 in 3 people are labeled as obese (US statistics), the old adage of “calories in vs. calories out” is no longer valid. Actually, it never was valid. The whole concept of a calorie was borrowed from physics because we didn’t know enough about what is purely a biological issue. Describing changes in weight as a consequence of the calories consumed vs. calories burnt ratio was just the easiest way to explain them. Back then.
Today, you should know better than to base your food (and drink) choices just on their calorie count. Here’s why.
First – what is a calorie?
Calorie is a heat unit used in physics to mark energy expenditure. It’s the burning rate of a material and the energy that process of burning would expend. You could also find a definition like this: “the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water through 1 °C” on wikipedia.
Being defined so loosely, a calorie could thus be used to also describe any material classified as ‘food’. Right?
Wrong. The biggest issue with navigating weight loss by focussing on calories is that calories account only for the energy they’ve been expressed as. Not the cause and effect of food and weight gain. What is being ignored, and what is actually the key to weight loss is the nutrients contained in that food and how they affect your hormones. It is the interplay of nutrients and hormones which can make people fat.
What is being ignored, and what is actually the key to weight loss is the nutrients contained in that food and how they affect your hormones. It is the interplay of nutrients and hormones which can make people fat.
It’s time you knew and understood this because too many illnesses that kill people these days are linked with being overweight. It’s illnesses like fatty liver disease, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. Unfortunately, too many ‘experts’ still push calories as the thing to focus on to lose weight or they tell us to get our ‘5-a-day’ without putting the 5 items into context.
The Real Reason We Gain Weight: Hormones and Macronutrients
To truly get a grasp of this, let’s first go through the exact steps (simplified) of how a person gains weight. In his book ‘Why We Get Fat‘, Gary Taubes outlines these 11 steps to weight gain:
- You think about eating a meal which contains carbohydrates.
- Your body begins to secrete insulin.
- This insulin signals to fat cells to shut down further release of fatty acids.
- You start feeling hungry or your existing hunger increases.
- You eat.
- Your body secretes more insulin.
- The carbohydrates you consumed are digested and enter the bloodstream as glucose, causing blood sugar levels to rise.
- You secrete even more insulin to regulate blood sugar levels.
- The fat from your meal is stored as triglycerides in the fat cells, as are some of the carbohydrates that are now converted into fat in the liver.
- The fat cells get fatter, and so do you.
- The fat stays in the fat cells until the insulin level drops.
You might get puzzled by some of the triggers included above, but bear with me:
I said earlier that it’s the interplay of macronutrients and hormones that’s making us fat. Here, the carbohydrates are the macronutrient (one of the 3 alongside protein and fat), and the insulin is the primary hormone responsible for weight gain.
Don’t get me wrong. The basic truth is still that people get fat because they overeat. However, this point about overeating isn’t linked to calorie count, it’s because they overeat the food rich in carbohydrates. Of course, not all carbohydrates are the devil, but the ones that are dangerous are those that are too easy for the body to break down. They convert into glucose almost immediately thus affecting insulin production and the stability of blood glucose levels.
These ‘devil carbohydrates’ are included in food items commonly used to make food taste overly sweet and, in the long run, they cause cravings in the long run. They are for example:
- High fructose corn syrup
- Processed grain and low GI products: bread, pasta, baked and sweet goods etc.
- Sucralose and processed table sugar
But Counting Calories Worked For Me…
Of course – I’m not saying that reducing calories will cause you to lose WEIGHT. It will. What I’m saying is that it won’t help you reduce FAT.
Back in the 90s the National Institute of Health led the Women’s Health Initiative, a series of studies conducted on 50,000 women in the US. These studies were intended to reveal whether a diet low in fat (one of the 3 macronutrients alongside protein and carbohydrates) could prevent heart disease, cancer and so on. Thus the women in the studies were allowed to eat only a low-fat diet, with fruit, vegetables and fiber.
What followed left the researchers astonished: the women unconsciously or consciously decided to eat less. In fact, they averaged a deficit of around 300-400kcal a day. In other words, they followed the typical protocol for fat loss you would try at home…
Now let’s look at the outcomes of the studies. After 8 years of research, the scientists found that:
- These women lost weight, but only 2 lbs each on average. Such small weight loss would go unnoticed.
- Their waist size, i.e. abdominal fat deposits increased – essentially they got fatter.
What this means is that in those 8 years of dieting in a calorie deficit while consuming a diet low in fat and high in carbohydrates, all these women achieved was to lose lean mass. Meanwhile, their body fat percentage actually increased.
In those 8 years of dieting in a calorie deficit while consuming a diet low in fat and high in carbohydrates, all these women achieved was to lose lean mass. Meanwhile, their body fat percentage actually increased
So What Can You Do to Avoid Gaining Weight?
There are multiple ways to approach this, and none of them include counting calories.
- Avoid the above listed sweet-tasting foods, foods with a high GI (the higher the GI, the more insulin your body will have to produce and secrete to stabilise blood sugar levels), foods that are refined or otherwise easily digestible and converted into glucose too quickly. Avoid at all costs, except when you actually want to gain fat.
- Choose better carbs altogether. Vegetables and starchy tubers such as sweet potatoes make for a good pick. However you should consume sugar rich food items for a reason, e.g. pre-workout and post-workout.
- Follow one of the low-carbohydrate dietary plans: paleo, ketogenic approach (see my free ebook for more info), the bulletproof diet, etc.
That’s it. Now that you understand how carbohydrates interact with insulin to make you fat, you never again need to look at the kcal marker on the back of a product. As I hope I’ve explained above – the calorie count won’t tell you how your body will respond to this food item.