You: “I need to lose 10 pounds.”
Someone who has no idea what they are talking about: “Ok! I can help! You just have to burn more calories than you take in. Here’s what you do: Remove 500 calories a day from your diet. Since 1 pound of fat equals 3,500 calories, then at the end of 7 days, you will have lost one pound! Do that for 10 weeks. At the end of 10 weeks, you will have reached your goal!”
You: “Wow! That’s awesome! I think I can do that. I’ll get an app that measures my calorie intake to help.”
Someone who has no idea what they are talking about: “And if you want to accelerate this process, jump on a treadmill and burn 500 MORE calories per day. Then you will have a deficit of 1,000 calories per day, allowing you to reach your goal in just 5 weeks!”
You: “Yes! Sounds great! I’ll let you know how it goes!”
Here’s how it goes…
It doesn’t go.
It’s complete nonsense.
Garbage, in fact.
It has NEVER been proven. Ever.
The above recommendation is what people in nutrition and fitness have been preaching for years. It’s why we are a population OBSESSED with calories. It’s why you incessantly ask, “How many calories are in this?” It’s why Starbucks now publicly lists the calories of every item they sell. It’s why “100 Calorie Pack!” snacks exist. It’s also why the latest fitness bullshit trends tell you garbage like, “Burn up to 1,000 calories in an hour!”
We’ve been trained to look at calories in and calories out, and trained that the difference between those two values will determine how fat (or not fat) we are.
And I’m guilty of this! I did it too. I counted calories and told other people to count calories. It wasn’t until I started REALLY digging into the science that I realized that everything I thought I knew was actually unconfirmed, unproven, and most likely completely incorrect.
There are several major problems with the hypothesis that change in body weight is equal to calories consumed minus calories expended. After hours of researching, and listening to doctors, physicists, and neuro-physiologists discuss the topic of energy, I’ve pulled out the two most pertinent pieces of information that changed my viewpoint on how people get fat, stay fat, or lose fat:
(1) the ever-important role of carb consumption INDEPENDENT of calories; and
(2) the simple physics behind fat accumulation.
The following is the culmination of my research into the topic thus far. Hopefully, it succinctly shows that it’s well worth your time to examine how you manage your body fat, and to consider the fact that counting your calories might be a huge waste of your time.
Off we go!
One: The Ever-Important Role of Carbohydrate Consumption INDEPENDENT of Calories
The number of calories you consume has nothing to do with how fat or not fat you are. There. I said it. I’m going to throw out the obvious outliers like starving someone with 200 calories per day, or ballooning someone up with 20,000 calories per day. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about you deciding if you should eat 1,500 calories per day or 2,000 calories per day, and thinking that the variance between those two numbers has ANYTHING to do with fat loss/gain. It doesn’t.
The ONE THING that will actually determine how much body fat you have is your personal efficiency of fat storage. What the heck does that mean? Well, long story short, it means that the amount of body fat you have is directly caused by how efficiently or inefficiently you store body fat. What mechanism controls fat storage? Insulin. What is insulin? Well, no one defines it better than Dr. Scott Connolly, neuro-physiologist and founder of Progenex: “Insulin is the orchestra leader in an ensemble of metabolic loops that do one thing: CONTROL GLUCOSE.” Specifically, insulin promotes the STORAGE of glucose.
Ok. Got it. Insulin is the big dog in controlling glucose. But what exactly does that mean?
Well, every time you consume carbohydrates, your pancreas produces insulin. The insulin then stores the glucose found in the carbohydrate. Glucose is really freakin’ important, and that’s why we have the capacity to store it–we need glucose. Your central nervous system, for example, functions on glucose exclusively. Your brain takes 50% of your glucose to function. So as you can see, glucose is important.
But what happens when you have spillage? What happens when you eat more carbohydrate, and subsequently glucose, than is needed for these vital processes? Well, you HAVE to store it. Why do you HAVE to store it? Simple. Excess glucose is poison. So the amazing machine of a body you have does something remarkably important (even though seemingly irritating): it stores it as BODY FAT.
So let’s connect the dots: If increases in body fat are due to glucose spillage, then excess glucose (aka carbohydrates) is to blame for us being fat! YES! FINALLY! It all makes perfect sense! If you eat excess carbs, you will STORE BODY FAT!
Ok. We got it. But remember that thing I talked about a few paragraphs ago? I’m going to quote myself: “The ONE THING that will actually determine how much body fat you have is your personal efficiency of fat storage.” So how does this all tie together? What affects your fat storage mechanism’s efficiency?
Well, the efficiency is based on your INSULIN SENSITIVITY. Insulin sensitivity is your tissue’s responsiveness to insulin, or how successfully glucose enters the cells. For those who have optimal insulin sensitivity, after a super sugary meal, insulin rises sharply, pushes glucose into tissues rapidly, then dissipates. For those who have poor insulin sensitivity, however, insulin elevation is sustained because it can’t force glucose into muscle tissues.
If you fall into the category of poor insulin sensitivity, your personal efficiency of fat storage is not so good. You are inefficient. Your genes play a role in this too, of course (more on that later), but a major player is what you’ve been eating. If you’ve been eating excess carbs and have been consistently spiking your insulin, then your cells become insulin-resistant. In general, if you are NOT eating excess carbohydrate, but rather just the right amount to sustain healthy glucose levels and support your activity level, you have optimal insulin sensitivity, and therefore your personal efficiency of fat storage is quite good.
Your genetics play a role in all of this. When you are born, you are born somewhere on the spectrum between optimal insulin sensitivity and slightly insulin-resistant. Based on your genetics, your fat storage efficiency will be determined for you, despite how many grams of carbohydrate you consume. So if your parents, grandparents, etc., have eaten diets flooded with excess carbohydrate, you are STARTING LIFE on the slightly resistant side of the spectrum, unfortunately leaving you with the tendency to pack on excess body fat. Remember, though, that you can outrun your genes. You may need to more careful about the number of grams of carbohydrate you consume, but that doesn’t mean you are doomed to be fat. In fact, you are in control of your genes; if you start eating a diet rich in high-quality proteins, good fats, and lower levels of carbohydrates, you can slowly CHANGE your DNA. Within a few generations, in fact, you can shift the place where your grandchildren and great grandchildren sit on that insulin spectrum. So, while your genes certainly play a role in all of this, your diet will be the key to unlocking your success in maintaining optimal body fat percentages.
Two: The Simple Physics Behind Fat Accumulation
“Change in body weight = Calories In – Calories Out.”
Bah! Silly. “Change in Body Weight” is measured in mass. “Calories In” and “Calories Out” are measured in energy. Since when, in a simple equation, can you equate units of mass to units of energy? Every physicist will tell you that equating units of mass to units of energy is ridiculous. It sounds so perfectly marketable, but it’s nonsense. Just listen to part one of Dr. Scott Connelly’s lecture with Greg Glassman to hear more about how this equation is pure silliness.
And fine. OK. Let’s say we did use this equation to see the change in body weight. How on EARTH do you know how many calories go out?! Think about it logically: Our bodies are open systems. We aren’t perfect. We are constantly consuming (burning) energy all day everyday, even during sleep. These calories we burn to remain alive, ones we can’t possibly keep track of, are technically called “insensible losses.” It’s somewhat appropriately named because we can’t really sense when we’re losing (burning) them at all. Our body burns them during sleep, while breathing, while your heart pumps and even during the creation of the light perspiration that we can’t even feel! Do you know how many calories per day your heart needs to function? Or how many calories per day your kidneys need to work effectively? Or what about the number of calories that are burned due to inefficiencies in the system? Hell no! Of course you don’t know! Therefore, trying to balance “energy in” and “energy out” is ridiculous. At best, all you’re doing is guessing. (Side note- the next time you jump on that treadmill and it tells you you’ve burned 300 calories, you can laugh right in its metallic face. It has NO idea how many calories you have just burned. Seriously. NO IDEA. Do yourself a favor and ignore that dumb number.)
Conclusion: Time to shift your thinking
We’ve been told, as a society, to balance our calories–just exercise more and eat less. This is crippling information. You run your heart out on the treadmill, restrict your calories, and never see the body composition changes you’re looking for. And it’s not your fault. People we trust have been telling us this stuff for so long, and we have just been following the rules. And it’s REALLY annoying because hardworking, well-intentioned individuals are getting their asses kicked with this crappy information. People are going on juice fasts, spending two hours in the gym, going on semi-starvation diets, using calorie counting apps, and driving themselves MAD, because in the end, they never reached their goal. Or they reached it, but gained it all back in less than a year. And what is even MORE MADDENING is that while they were trying to get fitter and leaner, they potentially messed themselves up worse than when they started, because they went up and down in body fat in (lose 30lbs, gain it all back, lose 40lbs, gain it all back, etc.) messing up their hormones and pushing themselves farther and farther towards insulin resistance.
My hope is that I have brought a sense of curiosity to the subject of fat accumulation, and that you’ll start asking questions about what you are eating and how it is affecting your goals. Understanding your calorie consumption and expenditure is something you’ve probably spent enough time on; consider spending your time looking at the science behind why we get fat, and you’ll start to find the answers on how to reach your own metabolic and body composition goals.
Thanks to the following sources for bringing this information to light and allowing me to write this post:
Dr. Scott Connolly’s 2010 Lecture with Greg Glassman
Gary Taubes’ 2011 Lecture to the CrossFit Community
Dr. Barry Sears’ 2009 Lecture to the CrossFit Community
Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, 10th Edition
Greg Glassman’s 2007 Nutrition Lecture: Avoiding Disease