So I was arguing with morons on the internet the other day, (I find this more addictive than cigarettes and besides rage wakes me up better than caffeine) when the loudest moron described the calories in – calories out simplification of dieting as a ‘conspiracy’ to keep people fat and dependent on fad diets and furthermore that it was ‘fundamentally flawed’. Then a bunch of other, quieter morons chimed in to agree. I was, almost, rendered speechless. This is a relatively educated audience on a fitness website, more than half the people there have some degree of training in the field, everyone is at least interested enough in diet and nutrition to be researching it at 9:00am on a Tuesday morning and yet they have failed to grasp what is going on at this really fundamental level. So if this collection of meatheads and lycra-clad morons don’t understand whats going on what chance do you, people with much better things to do with your time, have of cutting through the bullshit that surrounds diet and nutrition? So with that in mind I thought I would explain some real basics here which should give you enough information to recognise when someone is trying to sell you what looks like a diamond but is actually a turd with lots of glitter.
What is a calorie?
Originally a measure of heat energy, it has fallen out of use in physics circles but in its kilo calorie form, kcal or Cal, it has become the standard (American) measure of heat energy in food. One Cal is enough energy to heat one kilogram of water by one degree. So a gram of fat, at 9 Cal has enough energy to heat one kilogram of water by one degree nine times. Alcohol comes in at at 7 Cal per gram, protein and carbs around 4. (And don’t give that aha but protein is blah blah blah, shut up and finish reading) Also commonly used is the Kilo Joule which is based on the amount of solar radiation falling on a meter square patch of ground in full sunlight. I am totally not making that up. Which ever standard you use, the point remains the same, a calorie is just a measure of heat energy.
What is Calories in / Calories out?
Take all the energy, in whatever form you consume, call it X and subtract all the energy you burn, call it Y. The basic theory says
X is less than Y = weight loss
If X is greater than Y = Weight Gain
Three things to note. First is that all energy spent is part of Y, metabolic process, exercise, the thermogenic effect of food, all of it. Second is that no good nutritionist would suggest that a slight caloric surplus automatically results in weight gain, it is a lot more complex than that. Thirdly is that the unit of measurement has zero bearing on the final outcome, your body doesn’t care if your slice of cheesecake has calories or kilojoules on the wrapper or that the step machine just told you that you burnt 300Calories.
But I read a book called ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories’ and the author seemed a lot smarter than you.
I have read the book too, and many more like it and yes, Gary Taubes is lots smarter than me. He is flying around the world wearing expensive suits and selling millions of books and I am ranting on the internet wearing nothing but a towel to give you just one example. However he is also lying. Talking about ‘good calories’ and ‘bad calories’ makes as much sense as saying ‘good centimetres’ and ‘bad centimetres’. Or ‘happy degrees of a sphere’ vs ‘nasty degrees of a sphere’, too many of those last ones and you end up with a, wait for it, vicious circle. Boom! Oh yea, geometry puns, whose the genius now huh? Anyway, I actually agree whole-heartedly with Mr Taubes dietary suggestions and observations, we do eat too much sugar, different sugars have profoundly different metabolic effects and some of those effects have a much greater impact than their simple calorie count would suggest. Nevertheless, Mr Taubes releasing and popularizing a book with that title and central theme contributes to the massive and ever growing pile of half truths, misinformation and outright bullshit that plagues this topic and nutrition in general. While Mr Taubes work has been scientifically scrutinized, the avalanche of nonsense that will follow its success will not be subject to such rigorous testing, increasing the amount of nonsense from misinformed people that I have to deal with at work.
What I am NOT saying
I am not saying that the only or the best way to lose weight is to severely limit calorie intake. In fact studies have shown conclusively that your base metabolic rate will drop by around 20% after only two weeks of sever caloric restriction. Which means a further 20% reduction in food intake is required to match the new expenditure levels which will further reduce metabolism and so on and so on till you end up eating two pieces of lettuce a day, getting fat if you breath in near food and feeling like shit all the time. Starving sucks, don’t do it.
I am not saying that the Calorie value of a specific food is an accurate representation of its nett energy effect upon your body. Protein in particular requires much effort to metabolise which means in some cases the nett energy from a gram of protein is negative! Also the guy that described all this, Wilbur Atwater did most of the work in the 1890′s, we’re talking about the time of top hats, waist coats and serious mustaches here, it wouldn’t surprise me if the calculations or measurements contain mistakes or inconsistencies.
I am not saying that being in a Calorie surplus will necessarily make you fat. The mechanics of storing food energy as fat are complex and not entirely understood even now but strong evidence indicates an occasional caloric surplus does not effect total fat levels in storage. Or to put it more accurately, excess blood lipids do not always create adipose tissue.
I am not saying you need to change what your doing or what your doing in necessarily wrong. Look, Calorie counting works great for some people, it was the basis for most of the historically popular weight loss programs like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers and as such has produced some great results for some people. It has also produced a whole lot of food neuroses and through popularizing ‘diet’ sugars and promoting a high carbohydrate intake Calorie counting has probably stuffed up the metabolisms of just as many people as it has helped. Being more or less Calorie conscious may work out best for you, it is really variable between individuals.
All I have tried to do with this information is help you dust off some of the sparkly glitter that covers every ‘revolutionary’ new fitness idea and let you get a better look at whats going on underneath the sparkles. Sometimes its a diamond and sometimes its just a very well-dressed turd. Either way, just remember that what ever path you take, if it gets you closer to where you want to be it is the right path for you.
See you in the gym, Mac