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More Support for Ditching the “Calories In, Calories Out” Concept

The calorie balance equation may very well be the most repeated piece of weight management misinformation there is. The majority of supposed public health “experts” consistently go on the record suggesting the obesity problem we’re faced with in most of the developed world is a result of people eating too many calories and not exercising enough. They say we consume too much and expend too little. Put another way, we’re gluttons and sloths. Many people would be surprised to find out there is little actual research to support this idea.

Taking this concept a step further, it becomes the basis for many weight loss programs. Use a very old equation based on many assumptions about the human body to determine how many calories an individual burns during the day. Then make assumptions about the number they burn through activity and exercise and they get a very inaccurate assumption of how many calories that individual should eat.

From there, these people diligently count the calories they consume each day, weighing and measuring foods or using the printed calorie information on the back of food packages. They faithfully eat just enough to guarantee they’ll lose a couple pounds each week, only to be disappointed when they weigh in after a week or two. Sometimes it works for a few weeks, sometimes it doesn’t. Unfortunately, the most frequently cited reason for the lack of success is that it’s assumed they can’t stick to the plan.

This situation isn’t new. In fact, you may be surprised to find out that as far back as 1950, the calorie balance equation was found to be significantly flawed. A physiologist, Ancel Keys, completed a study on very healthy and lean men. They were put on a calorie-restricted diet and lived under the watchful eyes of the leaders of the study. Not only did the men lose far less weight than the calorie balance equations suggested, they caused significant damage to their metabolisms. Their resting metabolic rates fell significantly, they became depressed, lost desire to do anything and became obsessed with food. Even though they had significant support when coming off the calorie-reduced diet, they also gained back more weight than they started with.

Why doesn’t calorie restriction work the way it’s supposed to?

Much of the research on calorie restriction has been done with standard diets, which are typically on the high side in terms of carbohydrates. When people eat enough carbohydrates, it elevates insulin levels and shuts down the ability to use the fat stored up in fat cells. Even though these people may not be eating enough calories for their daily energy needs, they can’t access all the stored fat in the fat cells. The energy needs must either be met through a different means, or the body must reduce the energy it expends.

One way to meet energy needs is to break down muscle tissue and convert it to glucose. Obviously no one wants that to happen, but it’s very common on low-calorie, high-carbohydrate diets. The scale shows a lower weight, but the individual’s body fat is still high. They’re often called “skinny fat.” The body would prefer not to use up its own lean body mass, so it also turns up cravings for energy-dense foods. Unfortunately, these foods, often high in carbohydrate, provide a limited amount of short-term energy from the carbohydrates that can be used right away. Once they’re used and the body needs more energy, the rest is locked up in the fat cells, and the cravings begin again.

Those with more willpower may be able to overcome these cravings. They’ll use strategies like drinking more liquids, chewing gum, going for a walk, or eating a lot of high-fiber food. However, none of these strategies provide the energy the body is looking for. After a little while, the body can resort to another means of making up the energy gap it’s faced with. It reduces the energy it burns in general. Resting metabolic rate drops. The body produces less thyroid hormone as a way to conserve energy.

As these changes take place, the individual becomes frustrated. She may see her family physician and find out she has low thyroid, which leads to a prescription. Or she may just give up on the diet and gain more weight back than when she started.

You see, the body is pretty smart. It knows when it’s getting enough fuel and when it isn’t. It makes adjustments in how it produces hormones, regulates energy expenditure, adjusts your food cravings and even shifts your attitude from wanting to be active and feeling energetic to making the couch your favorite place to be. These aren’t issues of willpower or motivation. They’re driven by real changes in ones metabolism that take place as a result of dietary choices.

The Study

Researchers looked at a group of individuals on a calorie restricted diet to determine how far off their calorie balance equations would be from the reality of those on a weight loss program.[i] They found that individuals only achieved a weight loss of 2/3 what would have been expected from the equations. That means, if the equations suggested individuals would lose 15 pounds, they only lost 10. Yet, these equations are often spoken about as though they are a law as true as the law of gravity. What happened?

In the first month, resting metabolic rate dropped an average of 11%. That’s a pretty significant drop. It’s much higher than would be expected based on having a slightly lower total body weight. In addition, the researchers pointed out that the thermic effect of food was lower. Protein, fat and carbohydrate each burn varying levels of calories in the process of digestion. More than 25% of the calories from protein get burned during breakdown and digestion. The values for carbohydrate and fat are significantly lower at less than 8% and 5% respectively. Reducing the total calorie level, while keeping protein low to moderate, results in a lower thermic effect. An easy way to avoid this drop is making protein a larger portion of the overall calorie intake, but few weight loss programs do this (even though it’s consistently shown to work in research).

Yet another way weight loss is sabotaged is that when people are on low calorie diets, they move less. The body knows it’s not getting enough fuel, just like the men in Ancel Keys’ study. It makes simple chores seem like insurmountable tasks. If you move less, you’ll save the body some energy.

Making Up the Energy Gap

All of these adaptive mechanisms of the body are well known. That’s why people are encouraged to exercise for longer and longer periods of time, or told to take the latest thermogenic stimulant, which may help increase the number of calories one is able to burn during the day. There are a variety of tricks people can try, but after a while, the body learns and adapts once again.

It kind of sounds depressing, doesn’t it? If you can’t outsmart the body, what can you do?

A Better Means of Weight Loss

In the end, the calorie balance equation is really insignificant for designing a good weight loss strategy. When you provide the right kind of fuel to the body, it builds muscle, it stores the glycogen it needs for supporting your exercise program, and it helps to burn off the rest. That doesn’t mean you can consume 10,000 calories a day if you pick the right foods. However, when you create the right environment for your body through proper nutrition, exercise and lifestyle strategies, you can eat far fewer total calories than you may imagine, and have all the energy you need. However, that still doesn't mean the solution is counting calories in and calories out, as this habit puts the focus on the calories, not on the types of food consumed and how that food impacts your ability to use the fuel you have available. 

When the body is able to tap into its fat stores, it has an almost unlimited supply of fuel. That’s why we talk so much about the idea of “making your body a better fat burner.” When you limit carbohydrate intake, train at the proper intensity, manage stress and get enough sleep, your body can tap into those fat stores on your love handles, thighs, back of your arms or covering up those long-sought-after abdominal muscles. The only other thing that could hold you back is a dysfunctional metabolism, which requires a comprehensive blood test and interpretation to address, something I recommend for anyone over the age of 30 to do each year.

Fill at least half your plate with non-starchy vegetables, add quality protein and some healthy fats, and some nuts and seeds or berries. Your body will tell you when you’ve had enough to eat and you’ll be surprised by the ease with which the weight comes off.

[i] Byrne NM, Wood RE, Schutz Y, Hills AP. Does metabolic compensation explain the majority of less-than-expected weight loss in obese adults during a short-term severe diet and exercise intervention?

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