For the last 50 years, the focus on treating weight gain has been almost entirely on calorie counting. If we consume too many calories, we gain weight, simple right?
To lose weight all we need to do is keep cutting calories. The standard advice for weight loss is ‘Eat Less, Move More’. It sounds perfectly sensible. But, over the last 50 years global obesity rates have tripled. In this article, I will share some of the assumptions of the Calories In versus Calories Out approach to weight loss and why my approach with clients is different.
In the book ‘The Obesity Code’ Fung describes a calorie as “A unit of food energy used by the body for various functions such as breathing, building new muscle and bone, pumping blood and other metabolic tasks. Some food energy is stored as fat. Calories in is the food energy that we eat. Calories out is all the energy expended for the various metabolic functions”.
Conventionally, obesity has been thought of as the outcome of how people process calories, a person’s weight is then thought to be be predicted by a simple equation:
Calories In – Calories Out = Body Fat.
Fung also highlights that as this equation is so uncomplicated and intuitive, it is rarely questioned, however it us built on 5 false assumptions:
A dependent variable is something that depends on other factors. Caloric intake and expenditure are actually closely dependant variables. Experiments have shown that decreasing Calories In actually triggers a decrease in calories out. For example, A 25 percent reduction in calories intake results in a 25 percent decrease in calorie expenditure. So, the less you consume, the less you might actually burn.
Measuring caloric intake is simple, but, measuring the bodies total energy expenditure (how may calories you burn) is more difficult. The assumption is that energy expenditure remains the same except for when you are exercising but this is not the case.
Total energy expenditure of the body is actually the sum of the basal metabolic rate, thermogenic effect of food, none exercise activity, thermogenesis, excess post exercise oxygen consumption and exercise. Total energy expenditure can go up or down depending upon caloric intake as well as numerous other factors.
There are many overlapping hormonal systems which influence the decision of when to eat and when to stop. We make the decision to eat in response to hunger signals that are mostly hormonally controlled. We consciously stop eating when the body sends signals of fullness that are again, mostly hormonally controlled.
So you can see body fat regulation as being somewhat under automatic control, like other automatic processes such as breathing or our hearts beating. We do not have to remember to breath or beat our hearts as they are controlled by what is known as homeostatic mechanisms. Since hormones control both Calories In and Calories Out, obesity is thought to be a hormonal not caloric disorder.
Every single system is regulated; how tall we grow, when we reach sexual maturity, our blood sugar and our temperature. The Calories In versus Calories Out model assumes, that growth of fat cells is essentially unregulated. Simply eating, without any restriction from any hormones, will result in fat growth.
In contrast to this idea, Research has actually shown that new hormonal pathways in the regulation of fat growth are being discovered all the time.
‘A calorie is a calorie’ suggests that the only essential variable in weight gain is the total caloric intake, and as a consequence, all foods can be reduced to their caloric energy. But does a calorie of extra virgin olive oil cause the equivalent metabolic response as a calorie of white sugar? No, it doesn’t. Just like a calories of dairy milk, will not cause the same metabolic response as a calorie of broccoli. These foods have many differences.
Sugar and dairy milk will increase the blood glucose level and provoke an insulin response from the pancreas. Olive oil and broccoli will not. When olive oil or broccoli is absorbed by the small intestine and transported to the liver, there is no significant increase in blood glucose or insulin. The two different foods induce massively different metabolic and hormonal responses. All calories are not equally likely to cause weight gain.
The arguments above show that Calories In versus Calories Out is perhaps not the simple weight loss solution it claims to be.
There’s no doubt that people can get short term success from calorie restriction and calorie counting programmes but I believe that the key reason is that that they cause people to be accountable for what they eat. It is easy to eat a whole packet of biscuits without really pausing to think and counting calories does help raise awareness around our eating habits.
The reality is though, that there’s more to it than that and why as a personal trainer, I work closely with my clients to create tailored nutrition plans and identify potential hormone imbalances that could be impacting on their weight loss efforts.
Establishing what is right for you when it comes to nutrition can be hard, especially with the conflicting information out there. I’m here to simplify the process, help you to implement small incremental changes to your eating habits that will last you a lifetime and deliver sustained results.