Eat less than you burn or should you? Finding another reason you are gaining weight may be simple.
I think the notion of "calories in vs. calories out" is ridiculous. Foods affect our bodies in different ways and go through different metabolic pathways as well as being treated differently in the gut. When we eat highly processed foods this further confounds these processes. Not only that, but the foods we eat can directly affect the hormones that regulate when and how much we eat. Therefore, the types of foods we base our diet around are more important than the number of calories we are eating.
What is a calorie?
A calorie is a measure of energy: "1 calorie is the amount of energy required to increase the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius."
The official measure of energy is Joule. 1 calorie equals 4.184 joules. What we usually refer to as "calories" is kilocalories (kcal). One kilocalorie, or one dietary Calorie (with a capital "C") is the energy required to heat 1 kilogram of water by 1-degree Celsius.
But what does "energy" mean? "Energy is the capacity of a system to do work." The human body requires energy to move, breathe, think, contract the heart, maintain electrical gradients over cell membranes, etc. On a molecular level, the body functions with an enormously complex set of chemical reactions. These chemical reactions require energy, which is where calories step in.
Bottom Line: A dietary Calorie is the amount of energy required to heat 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius. The body uses energy (calories) to drive chemical reactions.
What Does Calories in, Calories Out (CICO) Entail?
According to the "calories in, calories out" (CICO) way of thinking, obesity is simply a matter of eating too many calories. Proponents of this often say that the types of foods you eat aren't very important, that the caloric contribution of foods is the key. They say that the only way to lose weight is to eat less, move more and that it is any individual's responsibility to keep calories balanced.
A kg of fat is 900 calories If you eat 500 calories less than you burn every day, then after a week (7 * 500 = 3500) you will have lost a 300g of fat or so the calculation goes.
From this comes "a calorie is a calorie" - the idea that all calories are created equal, no matter what foods they come from. Even though it is true that obesity is caused by excess calories and weight loss caused by a calorie deficit, this is still such a drastic oversimplification that it is downright wrong.
Different foods can have vastly different effects on our bodies and go through different metabolic pathways before they're turned into energy. Just focusing on the calorie content of foods and disregarding the metabolic effects they have is a highly flawed way of thinking and tells us nothing about how the energy is used or stored.
Bottom Line: Proponents of the "Calories in, Calories out" way of thinking say that the only thing that matters when it comes to weight loss is calories, disregarding completely the metabolic and hormonal impact of foods and how they are stored or released.
"Too Many Calories" Doesn't Tell us Much
How much energy we eat and how much energy we expend matters. The first law of thermodynamics thinks big: it deals with the total amount of energy in the universe, and in particular, it states that this total amount does not change. Put another way, the First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only change form or be transferred from one object to another. If you eat more calories than you burn these calories will be stored as fat and vice versa.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics At first glance, the first law of thermodynamics may seem like great news. If energy is never created or destroyed, that means that energy can just be recycled repeatedly, right?
Well…yes and no. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can change from more-useful forms into less-useful forms. As it turns out, in every real-world energy transfer or transformation, some amount of energy is converted to a form that’s unusable (unavailable to do work). In most cases, this unusable energy takes the form of heat.
Although heat can in fact do work under the right circumstances, it can never be turned into other (work-performing) types of energy with 100% efficiency. So, every time an energy transfer happens, some amount of useful energy will move from the useful to the useless category.
What kind of system are you: open or closed? As it turns out, this is a physics question, not a philosophical one. You, like all living things, are an open system, meaning that you exchange both matter and energy with your environment. For instance, you take in chemical energy in the form of food and do work on your surroundings in the form of moving, talking, walking, and breathing.
All of the exchanges of energy that take place inside of you (such as your many metabolic reactions), and between you and your surroundings, can be described by the same laws of physics as energy exchanges between hot and cold objects, or gas molecules, or anything else you might find in a physics textbook.
In essence then you can both give and take energy from your environment. This creates a problem for the CICO model as it presumes that if you eat more than you burn you will store it as fat and vice versa but that does not seem to be the case. Athletes running long distances in the sun will often see no weight reduction and athletes swimming in cold water may see enormous weight reduction no matter how many calories they consume.
Bottom Line: Saying that weight gain is caused by excess calories is meaningless. It tells you nothing about the actual reason for converting what’s being eaten to fat.
Different Macro nutrient Ratios Affect Appetite
Changing your macro nutrients can affect your appetite in a dramatic way. The best example of this is seen in studies comparing low-carb and low-fat diets. Whereas people on low-fat diets must be calorie restricted in order to lose weight, people eating low-carb (and high fat and protein) can usually eat until they feel satisfied and still lose weight.
Studies clearly show that there's something about the low-carb diet that decreases appetite and makes people lose weight without having to control portions or count calories. In these studies, the researchers need to actively restrict calories in the low-fat groups to make the results comparable, but the low-carb dieters still lose more weight .
The low-carb dieters automatically start eating less calories, because their appetite goes down. These studies show that there is no need to consciously focus on calories in order to eat less of them. This can happen automatically, simply by changing the types of foods you eat.
Bottom Line: Being aware of your calorie intake is NOT necessary to lose weight, as long as you eat in a certain way. Cutting carbs while increasing fat and protein is proven to lead to automatic calorie restriction and weight loss.
The Metabolic Rate (Calories Out) Can Change Depending on What You Eat
Another thing to keep in mind that long-term dieting will reduce your metabolic rate. If you were to cut calorie intake by 10%, it would only work for some time until your metabolic rate would adapt and you would stop losing. Then you would have to cut calories again, then again...
The body tries desperately to maintain its fat mass. This is called the body fat setpoint and is regulated by the hypothalamus. If you don't change your diet, only the amount of foods you eat, then your set point won't change. If your weight goes below your set point, your brain responds by decreasing your calorie expenditure (calories out) and increasing your calorie intake (calories in).
Bottom Line: The body tries to resist changes in body fat levels by increasing hunger and reducing calorie expenditure.
Maybe We've Got Things Backwards
Most people believe that the increased calorie intake is driving the weight gain. But what if we've got things backwards and the fat gain drives the increased calorie intake? When a teenage boy grows rapidly in height, he eats more calories than he expends. Instead of turning into fat, the calories are used to build muscle, bones, skin and organs.
It is not the increased calorie intake that is driving the growth, but hormones, growth factors and physiological processes that are causing the growth and the growth drives the increased calorie intake. That makes sense, right? What if obesity is similar? What if calories are a consequence of the weight gain, not a cause?
In the same way that a teenage boy's muscles and bones grow because of hormones, an obese person's fat mass may be growing because of hormones. One example of this is drugs like some antidepressants and birth control pills, which often have weight gain as a side effect.
Bottom Line: It is possible that we are confusing cause and effect. Perhaps it's not the increased calorie intake that drives the fat gain, but the fat gain that drives the increased calorie intake.
Eating Behavior is Largely Subconscious
Humans aren't robots. We don't walk around and make decisions about our behaviour based on mathematical calculations. It is against our nature. We make decisions based on our emotions, how we feel and what we want to do. The "logical" part of our brain often doesn't have much control over the part of our brain that is regulated by emotions.
Some might call this weakness; I call it human nature. Changing behaviour based on logical, rational decisions can often be impossible. Ever made a decision not to drink coffee after 2pm? Always do homework right after school? Only sleep in on Sundays?
Making these kinds of changes in your life is often very difficult and the same applies to eating behaviour like making the decision to eat 500 calories below your maintenance every day.
Even though some highly motivated individuals are able to control their food intake completely (like athletes and bodybuilders), this really isn't representative of the general population.
This is very difficult for most people and especially for people who have a tendency to gain weight. Let me use breathing as an example of how it is difficult to "control" a physiological function that is regulated by the brain. Breathing is almost completely subconscious, although you can control your breathing for a short amount of time if you manage to focus on it.
If you made the decision to skip 1 in 10 breaths, then you could probably do it... but only for a few minutes. Then you'd get distracted and start doing something else. This is only possible while you're consciously focusing on it... and even if you did, you might unwillingly compensate by breathing a little heavier in the other 9 breaths, or you'd start to feel uncomfortable and stop doing it altogether.
If you think this is a ridiculous example and not applicable to eating, then you're wrong. Eating is controlled with the same types of homeostatic mechanisms.
Some people may be able to consciously eat less calories and manage it with portion control and / or calorie counting. But they have to stick with it for life.
Bottom Line: Eating behaviour is largely subconscious, controlled by hormones and neural circuits. It can be downright impossible to control these sorts of behaviors in the long term unless it becomes a new normal.
What do we know?
Saying that weight (or health for that matter) is simply a function of "calories in, calories out" is completely wrong. It is a drastic oversimplification that doesn't account for the complex metabolic pathways that different foods go through, or the effects that foods have on our brain and hormones.
Each one of us has a carbohydrate tolerance and this carbohydrate tolerance is reflected by our triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of fat (lipid) found in your blood. When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn't need to use right away into triglycerides. The triglycerides are stored in your fat cells. Later, hormones release triglycerides for energy between meals.
Observation has shown us that we can see how much carbohydrate you have consumed over the preceding two weeks by measuring your triglycerides. A high triglyceride level has been linked to a higher risk of coronary artery disease and fat accumulation. Triglycerides higher than than 1 millimoles per liter (mmol/L) when measured in a fasted state indicates consuming carbohydrates above the level that the individual can tolerate.
Where triglycerides are elevated, we also observe a higher than desired fasting blood sugar level as well as low HDL and higher LDL.
Just monitoring calories even if they are presumably below your daily output could still elevate triglycerides and lead to fat storage. To have your triglycerides checked fast for 10hrs and have a full serum lipid panel and Hba1c blood panel done.
Charles Lubbe is the author of The Big Breakfast and 7 day Meal plans.