Debunking the Calories In=Calories Out Theory

I’m sure you’ve all heard it. In order to lose weight we need to adjust the energy balance in our body: reducing calories in (food eaten) while increasing calories out (through exercise). This has been our way of thinking dating to the invention of the calorimeter (though many discoveries have happened since and yet this limited way of thinking still persists). Being able to measure food based solely on its energy value led to a practice called “New Nutrition” which treats the body as a machine. Input leads to output without a contributing middle step. If this were the case, a packet of sugar would be healthier than an apple because it has fewer calories. Diets would be almost non-existent if all you had to do was eat the foods lowest in calories. People would reduce their intake of food and immediately see a correlated weight decrease for the amount withheld. That would be amazingly simple. However, the $20 billion diet industry reaching over 108 million dieters tells me otherwise (1).

Which means the middle step is much more critical than the “Calories In=Out” theory can account for. There are multiple factors that play a role in how we collect and store fat, but essentially the whole process is controlled by hormones. Our body regulates itself by secreting certain hormones which will correct any internal process that has moved outside of equilibrium (our unique baseline) by adjusting it back to normal. Our metabolism (breaking down nutrients for energy) is monitored by a couple of key hormones, but I’m going to focus on the role of insulin specifically because it is the primary player affecting energy balance.

Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugars when they become too high in the body (usually right after eating). When insulin is detected, fat cells are alerted to start storing the energy broken down from food. Then when blood sugars are back to normal, insulin stops being produced, and the fat tissues release the energy to be used by the body elsewhere.

This is the case of a healthy individual eating a meal that is relatively moderate in carbohydrates (which is how blood sugars are raised). Now I know the mention of carbs will immediately bring pictures of bread and pasta to mind but all foods for the most part have carbohydrates. It’s an essential nutrient and it’s what gives us immediate energy. Obviously, certain foods have a greater proportion of carbohydrates than others and that’s where we start getting into trouble.

Sugar is a pure carbohydrate which provides little else in terms of nutrients (proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals). This increases the blood glucose significantly and causes the cycle I described above, but to a more intense degree being it is a more concentrated form. In order to deal with this assault, the body produces a surge of insulin to compensate. When this becomes more of a trend, the body consistently detects insulin. And just like you would react to a endlessly nagging coworker, the body starts to become insensitive to insulin’s presence and will start ignoring it. However, the fat cells are never told to quit storing energy so they continue on like busy worker bees, creating an ever growing store of energy that is never released. And what’s worse, this monopoly of energy kept by the fat cells deprives the other cells of the nutrients they need/were expecting from your meal. So they send a signal back up to your brain demanding their share and consequently you feel hungry once again.

At this point you may start to notice you’re holding on to a couple extra pounds, or you’re eating constantly and never satisfied. And this is where you’d be told by the diet industry, friends, or colleagues that you should only eat salads and ramp up the gym visits. <<< CALORIES IN=OUT!! >>> Don’t fall for the trap caused by bad science and ignorance, you know better now. You know your body and you know whether you’re eating too much. But now you also know when your body isn’t receiving the right nutrients. You know this storage of extra energy is not caused by an excess of food, but rather the type of food. So a calorie is not a calorie, as many marketing ads will like to preach to you.

Energy balance is much more complex than just eating as much as you expend. There is a whole system in which that food is converted and utilized, and suggesting that it has no role in the energy balance equation is pure ignorance. Obesity is not caused by a lack of willpower like the “Calories In=Out” theory implies. Simply reducing the amount of food eaten does not lead to immediate weight loss. Rather the specific foods that you put in your body can either assist favorable digestion or aggravate it to produce adverse effects.

My advice is always to be mindful about what you’re eating. Most simply, I like to categorize my intention for each meal into some of these categories: refuel/regenerate (proteins), short term energy (carbohydrates), long term energy (fats). Depending on what my day looks like I build a meal that is a bit heavier in some macronutrients and a bit lighter in others. Though I always rely on whole foods so I can be sure I’m always getting the proper amount of vitamins and minerals. I’ll be doing a few more posts coming up that will go into this a little bit more so watch out for those.

If you liked this post or have any comments/questions/concerns please let me know either in the comments or send me an email. I’d love to hear from you. And especially if you have any suggestions for future posts or any topics I can help simplify, I am always looking for ideas!

(1) – ABC News Staff, May 8, 2012


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