The idea that calories in equal calories out and that counting calories matters will not die, no matter how much evidence and basic science is available to the contrary. There is typically not a day that goes by that I don’t hear someone reference balancing calories like their body is their checkbook.
YOUR BODY IS NOT A CHECKBOOK.
Gary Taubes, a Harvard and Stanford trained investigative journalist, has spent years researching and providing evidence behind busting this myth. He has written a few phenomenal books that I think everyone should read if you have any questions or concerns about this topic. The first book, Why We Get Fat And What To Do About It, is an overview of the physiology behind fat gain. The second, Good Calories, Bad Calories, is a more in depth, journalistic look at the obsession of culturally counting calories. Buy them, read them.
Recently, Taubes founded the Nutrition Science Initiative, hoping to provide new and up-to-date research on health and nutrition. To promote his new organization, he wrote an article for Scientific American that briefly describes the fallacies of the energy balance equation leading to fat gain so well that I think it deserves some discussion. He has done all of the dirty work here and deserves all of the credit for this information.
Let’s go over some main points and discuss his excellent article.
REASON #1 – COUNTING CALORIES DOESN’T WORK
The reason to question this conventional thinking is equally self-evident. The eat less/move more prescription has been widely disseminated for 40 years, and yet the prevalence of obesity, or the accumulation of unhealthy amounts of body fat, has climbed to unprecedented levels.
This point is critical. Although everyone seems certain of the truth behind the ubiquitous conventional wisdom of the calories in, calories out hypothesis, it is clearly not working. If the solution to fat gain was as simple as eat less, exercise more, there would simply not be the staggering climb of obesity rates worldwide. There is a clear need for a paradigm shift in how we approach fat gain and loss.
SUMMARY: THERE WOULDN’T BE SKYROCKETING RATES OF OBESITY IF FAT LOSS WAS AS EASY AS (A – B).
REASON #2 – YOUR BODY HAS HORMONES
The prime suspect or environmental trigger of this defect would be the quantity and quality of the carbohydrates we consume. Under this scenario, one fundamental error we have made in our thinking about obesity is to assume that the energy content of foods whether avocado, steak, bread or soda is what makes them fattening, not the effects that these foods, carbohydrates in particular, have on the hormones that regulate fat accumulation
For some reason, this way of thinking is something people have a hard time grasping. Most people who think they have a good understanding of nutrition believe there is a basal metabolic rate that burns x amount of calories, and this is what we use in the day. Theoretically, any other calories will lead to fat gain.
This logic fails when you consider that the body uses energy to create tissue other than fat. Muscles, organs, skin, etc. all have repair and build mechanisms that require energy, just as fat cells do. What regulates this? Hormones. How are storage hormones regulated? More or less, macronutrient (fat, protein or carbohydrate) timing and consumption.
SUMMARY: YOU ARE NOT WHAT YOU EAT. YOU ARE WHAT YOUR HORMONES DECIDE TO DO WITH WHAT YOU EAT.
REASON #3 – SCIENCE ALWAYS TRUMPS ASSUMPTIONS
Given how often researchers refer to obesity as a disorder of the energy balance, one might assume that the concept had been rigorously tested decades ago. But a proper scientific vetting never actually happened. The experiments were too difficult, if not too expensive, to do correctly.
Basically, the energy balance hypothesis came, not from basic human physiology, nor scientific research, but merely as an extrapolation of a law of physics to the human body. Most in the fitness industry quote the First Law of Thermodynamics as a seemingly obvious explanation of the energy balance hypothesis. Simply put, the law states that energy in a closed system must be used or stored, hence if we don’t use calories, they will be stored as fat. Hint: humans are not closed systems. Our bodies are not a linear path of heat or stored energy. There are thousands of pathways where energy can be used and leak out. Think of this like filling up your car with gas. Do you always get x amount of miles per gallon? No. Sometimes you drive faster, sometimes you’re going uphill sometimes you need an oil change. Many different factors determine how much energy you are getting out of your gas.
SUMMARY: YOUR BODY IS NOT A BEAKER. WOULD YOU EXPECT TO GET THE SAME EXACT GAS MILEAGE EVERY TIME YOU FILL UP YOUR CAR?
REASON #4 – YOU HAVE OTHER TISSUES THAN FAT TISSUE
Why do fat cells accumulate fat molecules to excess? This is a biological question, not a physics one. Why are those fat molecules not metabolized instead to generate energy or heat? And why do fat cells take up excessive fat in some areas of the body but not others? Saying that they do so because excess calories are consumed is not a meaningful answer.
If you were to cut off a pound of body fat, place it in a bomb calorimeter and trap every bit of heat, you may reach around 3500 calories in equivalent energy. Intake of 3500 calories in the human body does not equal one pound of body fat, as we are not one closed system converting energy purely to create fat cells and nothing else.
Not all energy intake from food is even used in the hormone driven dynamic utilization for bodily processes. Plenty of what is ingested is not digested, broken down or utilized by your body. Just as if you could burn a pound of fat and measure a specific amount of heat from stored energy, so could you with the leftovers of your daily morning trip to the bathroom. Where is that energy accounted for in the calorie counting equation?
SUMMARY: YOUR BODY USES ENERGY TO DO OTHER THINGS THAN MAKE FAT AND IT USES OTHER TISSUES WHEN IT NEEDS TO METABOLIZE THEM FOR ENERGY
REASON #5 – THE HISTORY OF COUNTING CALORIES
Until World War II, the leading authorities on obesity (and most medical disciplines) worked in Europe and had concluded that obesity was, like any other growth disorder, caused by a hormonal and regulatory defect.
Believe it or not, the calories in, calories out hypothesis is actually rather new. Full history of thoughts on fat gain (they are not what you think) can be found in Taubes’ most recent book, Good Calories, Bad Calories.
SUMMARY: IF COUNTING CALORIES IS SIMPLE AS IT SOUNDS, IT PROBABLY WOULD HAVE BEEN RECOMMENDED BEFORE WWII
REASON #6 – THE HORMONE HYPOTHESIS AND INSULIN
Insulin is secreted in response to a type of carbohydrate called glucose … Insulin tells muscle, organ and even fat cells to take up the glucose and use it for fuel. It also tells fat cells to store fat for later use. As long as insulin levels remain high, fat cells retain fat, and the other cells preferentially burn glucose (and not fat) for energy.
Although a separate post could be written entirely on the hormone insulin (and probably will be), it is important to know a brief overview of this complicated hormone and the role it has in the body. When you eat carbohydrates, they spike blood sugar (glucose). A high level of blood glucose, often due to excessive carbohydrate intake, causes insulin secretion. The insulin delivers the glucose in your body to cells.
All cells in your body contain stores of glucose that your body can readily use for energy. When these cells are topped off, the rest of the glucose is stored as body fat. If your cells are constantly being topped off with readily usable energy, they can never use the stored energy (burn fat) that you have. This readily usable energy that the body runs on also explains the hunger and/or crash that often happens 90 minutes after a traditional standard American high carbohydrate meal.
SUMMARY: FAT DOESN’T MAKE YOU FAT, CARBOHYDRATES MAKE YOU FAT
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
To lose excess body fat, according to this view, carbohydrates must be restricted and replaced, ideally with fat, which does not stimulate insulin secretion.
Translation: Fat does not make you fat. Carbohydrates (and processed food and inflammatory fats and lack of sleep and exercise) make you fat. If your goal is to shed body fat, the recipe with this plan is quite simple – limit carbohydrate intake. Hormones control energy use in your body. Modifying macronutrients in your diet is a good place to start controlling the hormones. Increased dietary carbohydrates = increased insulin secretion = increased body fat. However, if rigorous exercise (triathletes, CrossFit) is your goal, you are going to need more carbohydrates to meet the demands of your sport.
Taubes’ article in Scientific American also highlights his recent endeavors in founding the Nutritional Science Initiative, which has been backed by hundreds of public sources for over $40 million in future research comparing the energy balance hypothesis to the hormone hypothesis. Hopefully, with new definitive research pouring out over the next several years, we will have a shift in thinking, back to the more scientifically sound approach.