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Calorie Confusion Part 1 - Why Dieting and Counting Calories Never Works for Lasting Weight Loss….and what Really Does

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We're constantly being told that successful weight management is just a matter of balancing the 'calories-in, calorie-out' Counting Caloriesequation. Apparently it all boils down to simply eating less and moving more.

Nice theory. And it logically makes sense.

But there's only one doesn't work.
(At least not for most people.)

It's definitely possible to lose body fat and keep it off by manipulating calories.
But dieting, restricting food, over-exercising, and trying to keep track of your personal calorie equation (calories in vs calories out) is simply not the way to do it.

In a nutshell, any approach to losing weight that's based around tracking and adjusting the number of calories consumed or burnt is doomed to fail right from the beginning.

So let's take a closer look at why this common, yet oversimplified and now scientifically outdated approach can't possibly work; and then review the evidence for what really leads to lasting weight loss success.

The calorie myth

You may have heard that in order to lose 1Kg of body fat, you need to burn about 7500 calories more than you consume. (Many people believe this is an exact figure. It's actually an estimate based on a number of assumptions and some pretty questionable already we are on shaky ground. Read more about this here.)

But assuming this statement is true; it would mean that by simply consuming an extra 125Cal per day for a month (which is about 1 banana), I would gain an extra 0.5Kg in weight. And so after a year I would be 6Kg heavier. After 10 years I would be 60Kg heavier. By the time I was 75, I would weigh 180Kg more than I currently do, just from eating an extra banana a day.

Hmmm. Really?

Likewise, do you think dropping 6Kg over the next year is as simple as removing 125cal from your diet? Hell, why not take out 500Cal and lose 24Kg?. In as little as 4 years, you would have lost 100Kg in body fat!

Does this sound rather absurd to you? Yeah, me too.

The body just doesn't function this way for one very simple reason:

Our metabolism is controlled by hormones, not calories.

When you restrict calories, your body detects that there is a shortage of incoming energy. In an effort to protect itself, your body will eventually take control over your energy balance equation itself. It will try and compensate for this energy shortfall by slowing your metabolism down (so you burn fewer calories) and by pumping out more hunger hormones driving you to eat (so you consume more calories). Unfortunately, it's impossible to fight these hardwired biological processes. Your body is just way too smart.

But let me make this very important point.

It's absolutely true that in order for your body to lose weight, more calories must be leaving it than entering it. Energy going out must be greater than energy coming in. This is a basic undeniable principle that no one can disagree with. It's a proven scientific fact based on the universal laws of physics. Period.

But...depriving your body of calories is not the way to achieve it. Your body will simply take charge and re-balance your energy equation itself.

So how can you create this negative energy balance required for weight loss, without triggering the same set of protective responses from your body?

Focus on calorie quality, not quantity

The same people who promote the oversimplified 'eat less, move more' approach to losing weight, also believe in the idea that all calories are created equal. They say that it's only the number of calories that matter; what foods they are coming from is of no significance.

So, for example, 200Cal of carbohydrate (from a sugary soft drink) would apparently be no different than 200Cal of protein (from a grilled chicken breast). A calorie is a calorie is a calorie they say. Yeah, right!

This may be true in the laboratory, but it's certainly not the case inside the human body. Let me explain.

In a test-tube there's no doubt that 200Cal of soft drink behaves in exactly the same way as 200Cal of chicken breast. Both would release 200Cal of energy (heat) when burnt. The laws of physics dictate this.

But here's the thing. The human body is not a test-tube. It's a hugely complex hormonally controlled metabolic machine with many variables at play. On one side we have energy in; on the other is energy out. What most people forget, however, is that there's a living, breathing human being (you and me) in the middle.

Calorie maths does not match biological reality

To see how this really works, let's continue with the soft drink / chicken breast example.

Firstly, we'll look at what happens after consuming 200Cal of soft drink which is essentially 200Cal of sugar.

The sugar will be rapidly absorbed causing a spike in your blood glucose levels. Your body will respond by pumping out a big dose of insulin (a hormone from your pancreas) which pushes the glucose out of your bloodstream (where too much is toxic) into your cells and tissues where it will be used for fuel.

Unfortunately this surge of insulin has other biological effects that prevent your body from burning fat. Your body is now forced into burning sugar as its main source of energy, which is not what you want if you're trying to lose fat. The excess insulin also mucks around with one of your hunger hormones (leptin) causing you to feel hungrier and eat more. And we haven't yet mentioned how the sugar hit has also probably lit up the reward centres of your brain, driving you to maintain the 'sugar hit' habit and drink even more.

Your body can also only store a limited amount of glucose (as glycogen in your muscles and liver). And once you've reached your storage limit, any excess glucose will be stored as fat. So now we have a situation where this soft drink is not only preventing your body from burning fat; it's making you hungrier, and also causing your body to actively lay down new fat tissue around your belly. (Note: these biological effects are neither noticeable nor harmful for someone with a healthy metabolism drinking the occasional soda. But problems will arise when consumption is more regular).

As you can see, over time, the metabolic and hormonal consequences of regularly consuming the 200Cal soft drink are significant; and weight gain is inevitable.

It's not the number of calories that is the issue here, but rather where they are coming from.

So what happens to your metabolism after eating the 200Cal chicken breast (which is roughly 160Cal of protein and 40Cal of fat)?

Well for a start, the protein and fat won't have the same effect on your insulin, which means your body's fat stores will remain available to be used for fuel. Likewise, your hunger hormones won't be adversely affected either; in fact the extra protein and fat will likely keep you fuller for longer.

Quite simply, unlike calories from refined sugars, those from lean proteins and healthy fats won't wreak havoc with your hormones or metabolism.

The bottom line: Not all calories are created equal.
The same number of calories from different foods will have completely different consequences on your hormones, your metabolism, and your weight.

Food doesn't just contain calories.
It also carries nutritional information that sends a complicated set of instructions and signals to your body and metabolism – signals that will ultimately impact your health and weight.

What this means in practice: Stop dieting and counting calories.
Start paying more attention to your food QUALITY and quit worrying about exactly how many calories you're consuming or burning.

The real key to fat loss

Okay, now that we're hopefully all on the same page, let's get back to answering the question I posed above: How can you create the negative energy balance required for weight loss, without restricting calories and triggering the same set of protective responses from your body?

Whether or not your body burns fat or stores it is largely determined by the hormonal signals it is receiving from your dietary, exercise and other lifestyle habits.

If you're struggling to lose weight, it's a sign that certain metabolic changes and hormonal imbalances are making it difficult for your body to access and burn your fat stores for fuel.

For example, if your insulin levels are chronically elevated (because you're eating too many processed carbohydrates), or if your cortisone levels are way too high (due to poor sleep or because you're always stressed), then your body will prefer to store fat, rather than use it for energy.

When you are overweight or obese, you obviously have significant stores of fat that need to be burnt. But your body simply won't be able to use them if your metabolic hormones remain unbalanced.

The absolute worst thing you could do in this situation would be to restrict calories through dieting. Your body can't meet the energy shortfall by eating away at your fat stores, because metabolic imbalances prevent it from being able to access them. And so your body's only response will be to reduce your metabolic rate and increase your hunger in order to restore energy balance. With a slowed metabolism and constant hunger, it's not likely you'll be losing much (if any) weight.

The only way to create the negative energy balance that'll drive your body to burn fat is to correct the hormonal and metabolic irregularities that are locking up your fat stores in the first place.

In practice this means addressing your:

  • food choices (looking at the quality of food you're eating is the best place to start);

  • exercise habits;

  • sleep habits; and

  • stress-management habits.

Here are the facts

To recap, here's where we're at:

  • Simply eating less and moving more won't always result in weight loss.

  • Dieting and restricting calories forces your body to compensate by slowing metabolism and increasing hunger. Weight loss is therefore minimal and short lived.

  • Your metabolism is controlled by hormones and not by calories.

  • Fat loss can only occur when your metabolic hormones (e.g. insulin, cortisone, leptin) are balanced.

  • Not all calories are created equal. Calories from different foods impact your metabolic hormones (and your ability to lose fat) in different ways.

  • Given the right conditions, some calories signal your body to burn fat. Others signal your body to store it.

  • What foods your calories are coming from is more important than how many you're actually consuming.

Okay, hopefully you can now understand how the traditional approach to weight loss using the 'calories-in, calories-out' equation cannot possibly be the recommended approach to losing weight. But believe it or not, this is still not the full story. In part 2, I'm going to discuss the other reasons for why calorie counting is a waste of time and effort.

If you're still a little unsure of the concepts I've tried to explain in this article, here are some other trusted online references that you might find helpful:
Kris Gunnars
Dr Chris Kresser
Dr Mark Hyman
Dr Peter Attia
Zoe Harcombe (and her book 'The Obesity Epidemic')

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