This entire calories hoo-haa--cutting calories, counting calories, caloric deficit, eating less and exercise more, calories in and calories out--seem to be worming itself deep into our minds.
We've been told calories in, calories out.
Growing fat? Then eat less, exercise more.
We've been lied to all these while.
Calories, calories, and more calories
I mean, I am sure you have heard of eating fewer calories to lose weight.
But have you ever, before you charged ahead and ate less, wondered what’s a calorie?
Nah, don't worry. If you didn't, you're not alone.
I have never stopped once to think about that before I went ahead to eat less and exercise more, only to find myself so painfully hungry.
So after I decided to screw this whole concept of cutting calories, because it obviously wasn't working out for me, I began to wonder everything I knew about calories.
Here’s what I have lined up for you in this post.
Let’s get started!
What's a Calorie?
Or, according to Dr. Mark Hyman, in his book Ultra-Metabolism, “A calorie is simply a unit of energy.” (p20)
By the way, 1 calorie = 4.18400 joules
I know, I know.
If I were you, I will be cursing at me right now. ‘Coz I am pretty sure that definition by itself didn’t help much. Not like knowing the joules part help with your daily life; it doesn’t help mine either.
SO, let’s simplify and address the content that really matters, which many dieticians and weight loss fads have been trying to hide from you.
It simply means…
If you didn’t get that yet… let’s try this analogy.
Yeah sure, I am not an idiot.
BTW, I know I am oversimplifying the entire process, but it serves the purpose of illustrating how calories = energy!
Before I get too carried away, let’s move to the next point.
Eat Less, Exercise More.
Heard of this?
So if a calorie is basically energy… If we can eat fewer calories, exercise more, we can burn more calories right? Create a caloric deficit, that way we can lose weight right?
Before you think this still makes sense, let’s see what Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat & What To Do About It have to say about eating less and exercising more.
We get fat when we take in more energy than we expend (a positive energy balance, in the scientific terminology), and we get lean when we expend more than we take in (a negative energy balance). Food is energy, and we measure that energy in the form of calories. So, if we take in more calories than we expend, we get fatter. If we take in fewer calories, we get leaner.
This way of thinking about our weight is so compelling and so pervasive that it is virtually impossible nowadays not to believe it.
-p8, Why We Get Fat & What To Do About It
And by the way, for people who have been trying very hard to eat less, which is to cut calories, don’t be too happy to declare that it works.
Because your temporary weight loss will be met with extra weight gain when you can no longer fight your crazy hunger and start binge eating or when you resume your “normal” diet.
Yes, that’s because when you cut calories, you usually make a conscious effort to stay away from junk food and what you deem as unhealthy. But it is a sure-fail plan for the long term simply because you NEED calories, you need energy to function.
Instead, you need to consume enough good calories to stay lean and burn the fats automatically by triggering your metabolism.
But here’s why starving yourself doesn't work.
The problem is that calorie restriction almost always backfires. The reason? Your body thinks it’s starving to death and sets off chemical processes inside you that force you to eat more.
- p14, Ultra-Metabolism
Sure you can… but I am not sure if you can fight hunger pangs for good…
But I can still exercise my stored fats off right? Surely exercise should help us with weight loss by burning calories right?
We certainly don’t want to discourage people from exercising or underplay the importance of physical activity to health, but we are not going to exercise our way out of this obesity problem. Most people don’t have much time in their days.
- Dr. Margo Wootan, Director of Nutrition Policy, Center for Science in The Public Interest (Fed Up, 2014)
If I may continue Dr. Wootan’s quote, I would say that most people don’t have much time in their days to be exercising and burning the crazy caloric intake from our crazy frankenfood diets today.
But yes, exercise is important in obesity, but it has nothing to do with burning calories. Here’s why, from Dr. Robert Lustig’s lecture, Sugar, The Bitter Truth on Youtube (Dr. Robert Lustig is the Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco):
- Exercise helps bring insulin levels down, which means it triggers fat burning than fat storing.
- It reduces stress which reduces appetite.
So in other words, you can still lose weight by burning fats right?
But if you have been starving yourself, and your hunger signals are off the charts, chances are you will end up binge eating.
Or even if you continue eating those measly calories made of junk, you are still gonna put on weight no matter how little you eat.
by restricting calories and making the wrong food choices, two things happen: metabolism slows, and we starve internally (meaning we store calories in fat cells where they are locked up and become inaccessible). Together, these conspire to enable us to store fat, gain weight, feel constantly hungry, and do so while on a starvation diet!
- p40, Feed Your Brain Lose Your Belly
Do you still think it is feasible long term for you to starve yourself and exercise like crazy with the limited time you have in a day?
But if calories are just energy, to lose weight, shouldn’t it simply be calories in, calories out?
That’s an assumption that all calories are equal.
But, are they equal?
It's so obvious, isn't it, dieting? Calories in versus calories out, it ought to be as easy as putting the right amount of petrol in your car. And yet this isn't how it works – it baffles everybody, from medics to epidemiologists. The more determined you are to lose weight, the more you put on. Some 95% of people are heavier five years after going on a diet. (Source)
Let’s draw an analogy.
Well, are they all the same?
Do you think the calories from these different foods are the same?
Take a class of sixth graders. Show them a picture of 1,000 calories of broccoli and 1,000 calories of soda. Ask them if they have the same effect on our bodies. Their unanimous response will be “NO!” We all intuitively know that equal caloric amounts of soda and broccoli can’t be the same nutritionally. But as Mark Twain said, “The problem with common sense is that it is not too common. (Source)
If you’re still not convinced, I urge you to read this article on the Huffington Post written by Dr. Robert Lustig himself titled, Still Believe ‘A Calorie Is a Calorie’? to learn more about why a calorie is not a calorie.
Extracted from the article itself,
Nonetheless, "a calorie is a calorie" continues to be promulgated by the food industry as their defense against their culpability for the current epidemic of obesity and chronic metabolic disease. But it is as dishonest as a three-dollar bill.
- Dr. Robert Lustig
If you need more scientific and/or medical evidence, please read chapter two of FAT Chance: Beating the Odds Against SUGAR, PROCESSED FOOD, OBESITY, and DISEASE, A Calorie Is a Calorie -- or Is It? and let me know your thoughts.
But if what I’ve laid out suffice, let’s move on to Calories In, Calories Out. Eat Less, Exercise More. It's BS. (Part 2)