The Sensible Middle Part #1: In Defence of Calories

Context… If I had to use a single word to describe the most formidable missing link in just about every nutrition and training claim, it would be “context”. Truth be told, context requires longer, more complex explanations and hence doesn’t sell very well, whilst bold proclamations, blanket statements and polarization does. Read about any hotly debated topic in the realm of nutritional and training and you get an either/or proposition – a dichotomous framework that oversimplifies at best and gives erroneous and false information at worse.  

My aim then is to dawn the neutral coloured goggles, sift through the murky waters and poop-slinging and provide some evidence-based and practical nuggets to take with you. Call it a “teach you how to fish” kind of series – instead of throwing information at you; I will attempt to guide you on how to think critically about these issues.

Without further ado, let’s get started on one of the more intensely debated topics in the world of diet and nutrition; the role of calories.

Scroll through the diet book section at your bookstore or surf the web for diet information and you’ll see it. I’m talking about a very prominent anti-calories sentiment. If we relied on these sources for our science knowledge we would all be convinced that calories don’t matter – or at the very least matter minimally when it comes to fat loss.

What People Want to Hear 101

Calories actually make a perfect target for diet book authors and gurus alike to play on the emotions of those who struggle with weight. The anti-calorie sentiment is craftily delivered in 2 parts: They author lulls you with an emotional hook – weakening your critical thinking abilities - and then levels you with a pseudo-scientific left hook to your deep limbic and prefrontal cortex. Here are a few of the “calories suck” arguments borne out of the minds of dietary zealots. Stop me if you’ve heard these before:

  • Advice to eat less and move more implies that you are gluttons and sloths.
  • Overweight people eat no more than do skinny people.
  • Counting calories doesn’t work: “Studies have proven this”.
  • Counting calories is obsessive (extreme, OCD, orthorexic, etc)
  • It’s the carbs/insulin that increases fat – not calories.
  • Focus on the QUALITY of food because QUANTITY is less relevant/irrelevant

In essence, counting calories is responsible for the obesity epidemic, obsessive compulsive disorder, the European debt crisis and maybe even Tom and Katie’s divorce.

Bashing the caloric model of course paves a nice golden path towards the guru’s nutritional Shangri-La.

Now before I delve into the why the anti-calorie rationale is mostly a giant pile of ostrich poop, I need to address one age-old question…

Is a Calorie a Calorie?

The answer to this question is a resounding ...“kind of, but not really”. I’m going to make this as mercifully short and un-nerdy as possible. Keep in mind the essence of my pro-calories argument isn’t that the caloric model is an exact and infallible calculation that will work for everybody under any circumstance. I make this disclaimer because invariably I get the “3500 kcal of Gummi Bears is different than 3500 kcal of salmon and cauliflower”. Yes I get that, thank you. Herein lays the asterisk beside the “calories in, calories out” theory.   Tis true that different macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat) have varying physiological ramifications – in this case, protein is more metabolically costly to handle.

This doesn’t mean, however that the calorie theory is incorrect, nor does it mean that calories are NOT the primary predictor of weight maintenance. So – the asterisk here is that protein intake needs to be adequate.

My thesis then is that calories matter the MOST when it comes to fat loss and fat gain. You cannot escape the fact that you have to be in a consistent calorie deficit to lose or a chronic caloric surplus to gain fat – regardless of your macronutrient composition (insert asterisk here).

Anti-Calorie argument #1: Quality trumps Quantity

I start here because fundamentally I don’t disagree with this concept. Let me be clear: Eating wholesome, minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods is the best way to ensure good health. It can also be a means of attaining fat loss – albeit not for the reasons you typically hear. Again it comes back to protein – the trump card in this equation. Eating adequate protein leads to… (wait for it)… EATING LESS. That’s right, you eat less food when you eat more protein. In this study by Weigle, subjects who ate double the recommended daily level of protein (30% vs 15%) reduced overall calories by 441 per day! This was WITHOUT CARBOHYDRATE REDUCTION.

As sensible and sexy as the idea sounds that eating “clean” will magically make you lose weight without eating less, it is simply the conduit to lowering calories. You CAN still gain weight eating unprocessed foods. Unsexy but true!

Anti-Calorie Argument #2: Calorie theorists think you are gluttons and sloths

This rhetoric is from Gary Taubes and seems to be parroted quite often – particularly in the extreme low carb world. This is nothing more than an appeal to emotion – implying that advice to eat less and move more is akin to calling someone lazy and greedy. We live in a world of hypersensitivity where people don’t want to hurt feelings and diet book authors have leveraged this to gain the trust of already-emotionally vulnerable and desperate dieters.

A few years back I reviewed Michael Pollan’s book: In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto. His now famous and simple advice; “Eat Food, Not too Much, Mostly Plants” drew the ire of some commenters – calling his “not too much” advice “pro-anorexic”… *Face..palm..repeat…* Telling someone (who clearly needs to) eat less is as likely to lead to anorexia is like telling someone to wash their hands will lead to obsessive compulsive cleanliness.

Eating less and moving more is actually sensible (albeit vague and incomplete) advice - the financial world equivalent to “buy low, sell high”. The solution, then lies in finding individual strategies – both nutrition/exercise and mindset/emotional on how to accomplish these objectives for long-term success.  

Anti-Calorie argument #3: Fat people eat no more than skinny people

For years this was simply assumed based on observation, anecdote and poor science. We’ve all seen and heard the lamentations of those who “barely eat” and can’t lose an ounce while their skinny friend eats baconators for breakfast and never gains. Studies appeared to substantiate our observations when subjects were asked to record their food intake…that is until they actually decided to see for themselves and monitor them more closely. And guess what? Overweight people are prone to underreporting food intake – to the tune of up to 47% in some studies!

So for someone claiming to eat 2000 calories was actually consuming almost 3000 calories. At the risk of sounding obvious – that’s a pretty big difference.

Again this plays into the “it’s not your fault” warmth and fuzziness that Gary Taubes and others are so fond of. To quote my friend and colleague Leigh Peele – you WANT it to be your “fault”. It doesn’t mean dwell on it, beat yourself up over it… it means you are in control and can do something about it.

Anti-Calorie argument #4: Counting Calories Doesn’t work

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A recent, very prominently shared/retweeted article by Jade Teta that appeared in the Huffington post suggests that calories lead to more hunger and we ought to focus on hormones. In the opening paragraph he proclaims that counting calories leads to hunger, and is responsible for the prolific failure rates of dieting. To quote Samuel L. Jackson in the timeless classic film “Snakes on a Plane”:

Everyone knows when you make an assumption, you
make an ass outta you, and umption”
.

Now I could give Teta credit for actually citing a study rather than just playing the “everybody knows” card, however the study he cites makes no mention of what models participants were using to lose weight.

In a similar vein, well known performance and nutrition guru Charles Poliquin suggests in this video that calorie counting is for “certified morons” . To which I posted a video response of my own. Poliquin uses the same rhetoric as the others – citing irrelevant and extreme examples that aren’t grounded in science or practicality.  *Spoiler alert:  You shouldn't eat only oreos...ever*

The simple truth is diets have a high failure rate...PERIOD. Whether it’s counting calories, carbs, fat, intermittent fasting or subsisting on cabbage soup, grapefruits or twinkies. To suggest that counting calorie counting is unanimously responsible for our dietary failures is as short-sightedly as it is ludicrous.

Let’s put research aside for one second and just apply some common sense. I am by no means endorsing Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig, but do you honestly think that these long-running programs would be successful as they are if they didn’t work? Clearly it does work for many.

To back this up with science, take a look at the long term data on weight loss diets and you’ll find that 4 popular diet programs (that range in carb, fat, protein intake) yield similar results when participants cut 750 calories from their diet.

Anti-Calorie Argument #5: Calorie Counting is Obsessive, Extreme, Orthorexic

File this one under the “appeal to emotions” category. Gurus conjure up images of obsessed dieters pulling out scales and measuring devices that would confuse Walter White. This bears repeating: Dietary obsessiveness does not discriminate. Let that sink in… and while you’re marinating on that, I will ask you to ponder the irony of those calling calorie counting obsessive while they meticulously avoid anything that didn’t exist more than 10,000 years ago or voraciously scan ingredients lists to make sure there are less than 3g of carbs per serving.

Anti-Calorie argument #6: Hormones drive fat gain (insulin – blood sugar – carbs = carbs make you fat)

The brunt of the hormone model of fat gain falls squarely on the shoulders of carbohydrates. Avoid carbs and you will be blood sugar controlled, fat burning maniac! Unfortunately for the carbophobes, it’s not that simple or accurate. Insulin has many roles in the body – only part of which is suppression of fatty acid mobilization in transient situations.

I think lower carb approaches work well for many and if it is sustainable and they feel good with lower carb approaches – have at ‘er! But let’s be honest about why you are losing the weight – your dietary shift towards less carbs will invariably increase protein intake – which fills you up faster and hence you shove less food in your pie hole.

For a fantastic critique on the role of insulin and weight, do yourself a favour and check out James Krieger’s 5 part series:

The death knell in the carbs-make-you-fat and you don’t need to eat less calories mantra are metabolic ward studies – the most tightly controlled studies available and the gold standard when it comes to scientific rigour. As you can see, with scant exception – weight does not waiver based on macronutrient composition.

What to do with this information

Just relax! And while you’re relaxing, experiment and find the best approach for you. The best diet is the one that gets you into a caloric deficit and one you can sustain. For some, lower carb approaches do just that – for many others, more dietary variety and works best. Rest assured, however that you will need to be in a deficit to lose. So even if you don’t “count” calories per se, you need to be keenly aware of them. And even if you don’t use them as a front-line strategy, you should at the very least look at your total intake first should you stall in your fat loss efforts.

As long as you are hitting your protein/calorie targets, feel free to eat things that don’t confine to somebodies definition of “unclean” foods.

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