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Why "Calories in, calories out" is misleading and misguided!

Posted by Nancy Anderson on


Today's post is all about busting the myth around "calories in vs calories out"—the silly see-saw idea that weight loss is as "simple" as burning more calories than you consume. Spoiler alert: it's not. 

Listen, with all the advances in modern medicine and science I really don't get why this idea still has such a strong hold on diet and fitness culture, but here we are in the last few weeks 2019 still talking about it and....it just be like that sometimes I guess haha. 

I'll start with this: 

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it's okay for food companies to be off by as much as 20 to 50% about the number of calories listed on their nutrition labels. In other words, that 200 calorie package of pretzels could REALLY have as few as 100 calories on the low end or as many as 300 calories on the high end. Checking the math, that could mean HUNDREDS of missing or EXTRA calories amassed throughout the day! With that level of inaccuracy, why the heck would you bother counting?

To make matters worse, the FDA hasn't consistently done any random food sampling to check the accuracy of nutrition labels since the 1990s, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. What this means is that the FDA isn't great at  preventing food companies from printing false or misleading information.  And where does this lead us? Straight down a dubious rabbit hole of hidden calories and frustrating weight loss journeys. 

I know, I know. This may hit a nerve. Calorie counting is a popular "tried and true" weight loss technique that's been heavily marketed for decades. Heck, it's still touted by lots of *influencerzz* on the internet and some of you may even try it yourselves. But I have to ask: how's it working out for ya? Like, has cutting calories ever actually worked in the long-term? Does it make you feel good?  

The truth is, calories in vs calories out or “energy balance” is considered by many doctors, researchers, and health professionals (myself included) to be an outdated and inefficient way to look at health and specifically fat loss. Telling people, especially overweight or obese people, to "eat less and exercise more" isn't helpful and it doesn't support sustainable weight loss nor healthy lifestyles. I'm not trying to complicate things, but weight loss (and weight gain) is a lot more nuanced than just worrying about how many calories you burn vs. how many calories you consume. It really, really is. 

Now, if you want a too long/didn't listen summary for this podcast, let it be this: not all calories are created equal! Your body reacts in different ways to different TYPES of calories. What I mean by this is that calories from protein, fat, and complex carbohydrates have vastly different biological effects on your body than a calorie from refined sugar, for instance. 

Intuitively, we all know this. Broccoli is a carb. Cotton candy is a carb. If all that mattered was calorie count, then in theory consuming 500 calories of broccoli or 500 calories of cotton candy would have the same effect on our bodies. But that's not at all what happens. Here's why: 

A calorie of broccoli also contains vitamins, minerals, and importantly fiber that support overall health, enhance gut health particularly, and optimize your insulin response. As you may know, insulin is a hormone created by your pancreas which helps control blood sugar levels. It brings sugar out of the blood and into your cells, which your cells can then use for energy. 

Now, the fiber in broccoli slows digestion and prevents huge spikes in blood sugar (and therefore prevents huge spikes in insulin levels). Meanwhile, the refined sugar in soda is rapidly dumped into your bloodstream and thus dramatically spikes your blood sugar. This causes your pancreas to pump out a lot more insulin in order to try to lower the high levels blood sugar. Unfortunately, bad things happen when your insulin is too high. Really bad. I'm talking:

  • Increased belly fat storage
  • Increased inflammation
  • Increased risk for type 2 diabetes, where your body basically "stops listening" to insulin because there's too much of it hanging around, so both insulin and blood sugar levels remain chronically elevated
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Decreased levels of "healthy" HDL cholesterol 
  • Increased levels of unhealthy triglycerides, and 
  • Imbalanced sex hormones (including decreased testosterone in men and increased estrogens in women)

All this and more from eating certain types of calories that affect your body in a less-than-ideal way. Sheesh!

High levels of insulin also increases your appetite. Yes! Eating certain types of calories - shocker - can actually make you feel hungrier!! It turns out that insulin suppresses another hormone called leptin. Leptin normally tells your body when you're full. If your insulin is too high from eating empty calories from sugary and processed foods, then leptin becomes chronically blocked and your brain stops getting the "I'm full" signal. In other words, you become "resistant" to leptin. So, instead of realizing you're full, your brain thinks you're starving, which activates the brain's pleasure-based reward system, which drives you to consume even more food, especially sugar.

On the other hand, when you eat calories from fat or protein or even a complex, more slowly digesting carb, your blood sugar simply won't spike as much. And this means your insulin levels won't spike as much. And when our insulin levels are nice and low and steady, our bodies tend to use stored body fat for fuel (because there's less sugar in the blood). PLUS we stay more responsive and sensitive to the "I'm full" signal sent to our brains by the hormone leptin, so we stay more in tune with our body's chemical messaging systems.

Whew! All right. So far we've learned that counting calories is hard to do when we can't even know for sure that the number of calories listed on a nutrition label is accurate. We've also learned that not all calories affect your body the same way, primarily because of their effect on hormones. So, the idea that all you have to do to lose weight is focus on your calorie intake is hopelessly misguided. It completely overlooks the hormone factor. 

Importantly, this hormone factor also explains why creating a caloric deficit may actually make you feel HUNGRIER.

For example, a 2016 paper published in the journal Obesity found that people who diet by restricting calories are ultimately driven to consume about 100 EXTRA calories per day for every two pounds of body weight lost. Weird, right? The reason is that the human body sees dieting as a stressor. Basically, dieting feels a little too much like when your ancestral homeboys were starving for food back on the plains of Africa. In other words, as far as your body is concerned, caloric restriction looks and feels like famine. (This is DIFFERENT from intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating, by the way, which I’ve talked about in an earlier podcast if you want to check that out).

Now, in response to a sustained caloric deficit, your body increases the production of a hormone called ghrelin, aka the "hunger hormone." Ghrelin tells you to eat more, which your body wants you to do when you're dieting because it's worried about famine and survival and getting its next meal. And just like what happens when you eat too much refined sugar and your insulin gets too high and blocks leptin, a sustained caloric deficit also suppresses leptin, the "I'm full" hormone. So now, because of cutting calories, your body has LESS of the hormone that says "I'm full" and MORE of the hormone that says "I'm hungry." This is NOT sustainable! 

Another reason why "eat less exercise more" doesn't work in the long-term is that your body WILL slow down its metabolism in response to a caloric deficit. This is to conserve energy, and it's another example of a biologically driven self-protection mechanism rooted in years and years of human evolutionary history when food wasn't always readily available like it is today. With a slower metabolism, you won't burn as many calories at rest, which can make it harder to lose weight and keep it off.

NOW to add gasoline to the flame. Remember how I just said that cutting calories is a stressor to the body? Well, when your body is stressed out it releases yet another hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands and provides energy to your cells by converting protein from the liver into glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis. I know that's a lot of information—basically just remember that stress makes cortisol, and cortisol makes glucose, aka blood sugar. 

Now, you WANT cortisol to make blood sugar in acute stressful situations because it supplies your body with energy for the flight or fight response. BUT, if your cortisol levels are CHRONICALLY elevated—which can happen, ding ding ding, during a prolonged caloric deficit—then more and more sugar can build up in your bloodstream, which causes higher levels of insulin, which increases your risk of both insulin resistance AND leptin resistance, and all translates to increased appetite, increased weight gain, and increased inflammation. 

Is this making sense? Bottom line: if you’re trying to lose weight and the only thing you’re focusing on is "eating less and exercising more", you will not see the success you want, or at least not in the long term. A "diet" that asks you to semi-starve yourself will inevitably fail for three main reasons: 

  1. Your hormones will go out of whack and cause you to feel even hungrier, because your body is trying to get you to eat more,
  2. Your metabolism will decrease, because your body is trying to conserve energy, and 
  3. You'll end up feeling tired, cranky, crappy, and stressed out....which drives weight gain, inflammation, and even more food cravings, especially for sugary stuff.

Talk about a vicious cycle! And anyway, what do you expect to happen when the diet is "over" and you go back to eating a regular diet again?  Like, are you supposed to be in a caloric deficit indefinitely? That sounds like NO FUN, thank you very much. 

Now, I'm not saying calories don't matter at all or that you should never pay attention to them. For example, it's reasonably true that if you’re overeating or eating too much, you need to eat fewer calories. Like, if you're constantly consuming a surplus of calories and not moving enough to burn them off, then these calories will get stored as body fat, so you want to avoid that. But this doesn't mean you should strive for a "negative energy balance" and swing the pendulum from too much to too little. 

Simply put, if you’re not eating enough calories to support physical exercise and the basic energy costs of being alive, then you're shooting yourself in the foot and making it harder to lose weight—if anything you're increasing your risk of weight gain for the reasons we just talked about. 

Logically this all make sense, right? Like, just imagine what would happen if you put your car into a "gasoline deficit," didn't fuel it enough, and then tried to drive around all day. I know the human body is more complex than a car, but it's a fair comparison, and it just sounds cuckoo doesn't it? 

My point is, when it comes to fat loss or even just health overall, quality matters. Portions matter. Macros matter (macros tell us what TYPE of calories we're consuming and helps us ensure we're getting all the raw materials we need for a healthy gut, brain, and body). Timing matters. MOVEMENT matters. And sure, I think calories matter TO A DEGREE...but I think it’s incredibly misleading for fitness industry folks to value and emphasize calories over everything else. 

This is why you don't see me talk about calories in my nutrition programs, which include the 30 Day Slim Down, the 10 Day Detox, my Move Your Bump meal plans, and the Bible "Diet" (which really is a lifestyle and not a diet in the traditional sense). Decades of research and nearly 16 years of my own professional experience tell me that the most effective way to support a healthy body is to start seeing your food choices as a way of life, not as a balance sheet between calories in vs. calories out. Care about where your food comes from. Care about your relationship with food and how it makes you feel. Care about long-term health and sustainability, not crash diets and numbers. Care about your physical and well-being...and I promise you, falling in love with nourishing foods is one of the best ways to do this. 

The good news is you don’t have to make your eating and nutritional education super complicated in order to help you lose weight, establish healthier eating patterns or even to be able to see quick results. For real!

On Monday October 21 I’m kicking off a Halloween 10 Day Detox where we will be leaning out, ridding inflammation, promoting gut, hormone and overall health while not counting one SINGLE calorie. Check out from of my clients recent transformations here  You sign up for the challenge by downloading the digital plan right here  The community is open, coaching has started and we are prepping for kickoff on Monday. Lets roll into Halloween (and really the start of the holiday season) on track and feeling our best. 

Xo, 

Nancy  

sources:

https://www.berkeleywellness.com/healthy-eating/nutrition/article/can-you-trust-calorie-counts

https://cspinet.org/news/gao-says-fda-fails-ensure-accuracy-and-truthfulness-food-labels-20081010

https://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08597.pdf

https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/111609p38.shtml

www.webmd.com/diet/news/20161014/how-your-appetite-can-sabotage-weight-loss

https://chriskresser.com/why-its-so-hard-to-lose-weight-and-keep-it-off/ 

https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/calories-thermodynamics-and-weight/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hib3ZM4mAuI

https://podcastnotes.org/2019/01/16/fung/

https://drhyman.com/blog/2014/04/10/calories-dont-matter/

https://drhyman.com/blog/tag/calories/

https://drhyman.com/blog/2015/02/13/focusing-calories-misses-bigger-picture-weight-health/

noting the error in the calories youre "coutning" are you even coutning them? who says they are correct? https://www.instagram.com/p/B1CEvNXhVKh/

https://demystifyingmedicine.od.nih.gov/dm17/m01d17/reading02.pdf 

https://www.precisionnutrition.com/problem-with-calorie-counting-calories-in


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