- Intro: Thousands of pages of academic research prove that the three most common fat loss concepts we hear about daily (Calories In – Calories Out, A Calorie Is A Calorie, and Calories Are All That Matter) are at best misleading and at worst wrong. In this post, Jane, Beth, and Sarah show how frustrating the Calories In – Calories Out myth can be.
Meet Jane. Jane weighed 130 pounds on her twenty-first birthday. Fast forward twenty years and three kids later. Jane is now forty-one years old and weighs 150 pounds. According to mythical manual calorie balancing, Jane gained twenty pounds over twenty years because she did not manually balance calories precisely enough. Specifically, she exceeded her calorie quantity quota by about nine and a half calories per day over the past twenty years (9.6 calories x 365 days x 20 years = 70,000 calories = 20 pounds of body fat).
If she had only cut her daily calories by three-fourths of a saltine cracker (nine and a half calories), then she would have avoided gaining any weight even after having three kids and getting twenty years older. False. If that were true then undereating by 100 calories per day would cause people to lose about 100 pounds every ten years. Biology doesn’t work like math.
“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” – Vladimir Lenin
Meet Beth. Beth is a thirty-five-year-old, 140-pound woman. Beth has no job, hobbies, family, or friends, so she is able to spend all her time manually balancing calories. Thanks to her hours of free time and careful calorie counting, Beth is able to trim a modest 400 calories out of the diet that has kept her at 140 pounds for the last ten years.
Four hundred calories per day for three years is 438,000 calories. According to the “metabolism is like math” myth, we divide 438,000 by 3,500 (the number of calories in a pound of body fat) and poof, Beth loses 125 pounds of body fat. She started out weighing 140 pounds and weighs fifteen pounds after three years of cutting 400 calories a day.
Simple. But sadly, silly. There may be fifteen pound thirty-five year olds in the fictional fat loss world, but there are not any in the real world.
“[Eating less] causes the condition it is meant to cure. The more that we endure cycles of dieting, the more our bodies become trained to seek out food, slow down vital functions, and conserve built-in energy in the form of body fat.” – Geoffrey Cannon, Author
Finally, meet Sarah. Sarah is a twenty-nine-year-old accountant. To ensure that she accounts for every calorie she eats, Sarah only eats food with those little nutrition facts labels on them. Sarah is happy because she is able to do “fun” accounting every time she eats and thinks she is keeping an accurate count of her calories. Sadly, Sarah’s calorie counting is not nearly as bulletproof as she believes because food labels are at best 90% accurate.
That does not seem like a big deal, but in the fictional fat loss world it is huge. Like any normal person, Sarah eats about a million calories per year. The 10% margin of error of the nutrition facts labels could cause her to massively mess-up her manual calorie balancing. Ten percent times one million calories per year is 100,000 calories per year. In the mythical “metabolism works like math” world, incorrectly balancing her calories by 100,000 calories a year means an extra twenty-eight pounds of body fat per year. So Sarah, who always counts every single calorie she eats, and who manually balances calories more precisely than anyone else in the world, could easily gain 280 pounds over the next decade because of reporting errors on nutrition facts labels?
Jane, Beth, Sarah, you, me, and everyone else who knows the facts of fat loss, does not need to think about eating too much. We need to think about restoring our fat metabolism system’s ability to burn body fat for us automatically by clearing our hormonal clog and lowering our set-point. If we focus on calorie quality and take care of our fat metabolism system, then it will take care of calorie quantity for us. Clear the clog and our body will do automatically what is practically impossible to do manually.
“Since obesity may be better characterized by diet composition [quality] than by energy intake [quantity], successful weight-loss programs should include diet [quality] changes in their regimes.” – researcher W.C. Miller, Indiana University
[i] Weigle DS. Human obesity. Exploding the myths. West J Med. 1990 Oct;153(4):421-8. Review. PubMed PMID: 2244378; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC1002573.
[ii] 3500 calories in a pound of fat times twenty pounds is 70,000. 20 years times 365 days is 7300 days. 70000 calories divided by 7300 days is 9.6 calories a day. & 100 calories x 365 days x 10 years = 365,000 calories / 3500 calories in a pound of fat = 104.3 pounds of fat
[iii] Cannon, Geoffrey. Dieting Makes You Fat: The Scientifically Proven Way to be Slim without Lowering Your Food Intake. Revised edition ed. None: Virgin Books, 2008.
[iv] Urban LE, Dallal GE, Robinson LM, Ausman LM, Saltzman E, Roberts SB. The accuracy of stated energy contents of reduced-energy, commercially prepared foods. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010 Jan;110(1):116-23. PubMed PMID: 20102837; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2838242. & Note: “there seemed to be a consistent bias toward underreporting, indicating that the inaccuracy was not random error.”Allison DB, Heshka S, Sepulveda D, Heymsfield SB. Counting calories—caveat emptor. JAMA. 1993 Sep 22-29;270(12):1454-6. PubMed PMID: 8371446.
[v] Friedman JM. A war on obesity, not the obese. Science. 2003 Feb7;299(5608):856-8. PubMed PMID: 12574619.
[vi] Miller WC. Diet composition, energy intake, and nutritional status in relation to obesity in men and women. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1991 Mar;23(3):280-4. Review. PubMed PMID: 2020264.