We’re going to step into the world of the Mudlife Crisis pet peeves today, and almost the primary one that really chaps my hide is this: calories in, calories out. That’s right, today we’re going to take on that very basis of modern “dieting” and just how it’s nearly the last thing you want to keep track of when you’re fixing your diet.
We’re going to talk about this at a pretty high level, because covering EVERYTHING that our food does for us and all the interactions in our bodies that food can affect and be affected by would make for an enormous post, to say the very least.
The standard thing you hear when you’re trying to lose weight is that protein and carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, and fat has 9 calories per gram, right? Everyone knows this. They even put the percentage of calories from fat on the products in the store, because that’s such an important rating. And that we should keep our calorie intake lower than our caloric output to lose weight.
Let’s start with this: what is a calorie, anyway?
A calorie is actually a measure of energy output – and is the amount of energy required to raise a gram water one degree Celsius. Pretty simple.
Actually, a calorie is not even a Calorie – the way it’s measured in most dietary matters is actually a “kilocalorie.” If you think back to your metric system class in school, the prefix “kilo” means 1000 of an item. So a kilocalorie is 1000 calories – or the amount of energy needed to raise 1000 grams (or one kilogram) of water 1 degree Celsius. But usually that’s what is referred to as a calorie in dietary matters (it’s also frequently called a “large” calorie or just capitalized to Calorie). So for our purposes, a calorie will be a kilocalorie.
Okay, semantics aside, one of the most common methods of dieting, or eating with the primary purpose of losing weight, is to track our caloric intake and then make sure that our caloric output in the form of exercise is greater than that intake. Sounds simple, right? And let’s face it – that is a marvelously simple way to track the loss of weight.
Well, it’s true. That is a part of successful weight loss. But it’s hardly the whole picture.
But it’s a simple one, and I’m going to throw out some ways that the food and exercise industries have used this to bamboozle people into doing things that aren’t healthy for them:
- People believe that their weight is due to a lack of willpower on their part alone (“you don’t get enough exercise and you eat too much”), and that stress makes them more likely to gain weight and keep it on long-term.
- Trainers and doctors and other professionals prescribe extreme amounts of cardio exercise in an attempt to get their clients to lose weight. And people spend way too much time at the gym on treadmills, exercise bikes, and more trying to burn off those calories, when they’re actually causing stress in their bodies, which causes more weight gain.
- Thousands of products have been created to help reduce the number of calories taken in while still allowing people to eat whatever they want – and they don’t work because they don’t understand how the body works.
- Thousands more products are created that are not good for you at all, but people justify their eating them with things like “Oh, I’ll just get on the treadmill and work those calories off later” – and even if they do exercise more, that frequently doesn’t solve anything.
What else is there to consider?
Let’s consider for a moment just some of the major things that happen to the food that enters our bodies. Food can be used for:
- Body repair
- Hormone signaling
We’ve covered the energy thing. Calories provide the energy to our bodies. Pretty simple. The problem is that the energy that enters and is not used is stored as fat.
Let’s get into some of the body repair factors. Every day, millions of cells in our bodies are created and millions are destroyed. Millions more are repaired. And what is doing that? That’s right, the food we eat is providing the nutrients to do those things. Protein is the most obvious one: different proteins (and the amino acids that make up the proteins) repair cells and build new cells.
The next is carbohydrate. Carbohydrates in our food are broken down into the three most basic forms of carbohydrate: fiber, glucose and fructose. Glucose helps to feed our cells and keep things running. Fructose is less helpful and can even be harmful, and we’ll get to that in a minute. Keep in mind that all complex carbohydrates are eventually broken down into glucose and fructose. Example: sucrose (table sugar) is equal parts fructose and glucose.
Most people think that fiber is used for “roughage” and to help move food through the intestines, keeping all that fatty stuff out of your system. Well, a little bit of fiber will do that, but most forms of fiber are actually used by the trillions of bacteria in our intestines as food. Those bacteria then release chemicals with beneficial effects throughout our bodies. A great deal of the food we eat would be useless without those bacteria. And some of the food we eat are supplying the wrong types of bacteria with sustenance, which can lead to weight gain and inflammation issues.
The surprise here may fat. Everything that seems to be healthy on the store shelves is frequently marked as low-fat, as if to imply that fat is bad. And it seems to make sense, after all fat grams have nine calories in them, unlike the four in protein and carbohydrates. And if we’re trying to keep our caloric intake below our caloric output, then avoiding fat seems like a great idea.
But fat isn’t just used for energy – it’s also:
- a repair tool for cells (the cell membrane, or the covering that holds a cell together, is primarily fat).
- used to create hormones. Example: cholesterol, a widely reviled fatty acid, is used to create Vitamin D in the body when the skin is struck by sunlight.
- used to cushion many of our vital organs.
- the primary substance used in the brain.
- a major part of helping our bodies use many of the various micronutrients in our food.
Wow…so protein and fat are doing a lot more stuff than just providing energy.
And if those two macronutrients aren’t being used as energy, then they shouldn’t count as calorie intake we’re using, right?
Wait, didn’t you mention hormones before, too?
Oh boy, now we’re getting into the thick of things!
Hormones, to put it very simply, are chemicals that various organs and glands in our bodies release to communicate from one part of the body to another. And our food intake can have a whole lot to do with this communication.
Please keep in mind, I’m only going to be touching on some of the very basic signaling going on – the hormonal process is extraordinarily complex and involved and you can spend a lifetime learning about it. There’s a whole field of medicine that deals with just these issues, Endocrinology. But there are some simple ones that you can use to help you out with your weight loss.
Let’s start out with a hormone called insulin. You’ve probably heard of it. Insulin responds to the presence of glucose in the bloodstream (from the carbohydrates in your food) and makes sure that it is used properly or gotten out of the bloodstream as quickly as possible. Massive amounts of glucose like we see in our diet today were not as readily available to us in the pre-agricultural years, and though glucose is a vital nutrient, it doesn’t take a whole lot to give our body what it needs in this regard.
Seriously, like a teaspoon is good for the whole body. And, if we don’t get enough glucose in our diet, then our bodies are really good at making it using excess amino acids from protein.
So if we get an influx of glucose – say caveman X found some wild potatoes or tubers or something – insulin rushes out into our bloodstream to deal with it. It moves the glucose to where it needs to be (the brain and the cells, primarily, where they’re used as energy) – and any extra glucose is stored as body fat.
Whoa. So fat is not stored as fat. Glucose is. And with the amount of glucose in our carbohydrate-rich diets, we have insulin constantly pushing more glucose into our fat cells as energy storage. If you’re living in the wild, and don’t necessarily know where your next meal is coming from, that’s awesome. If you’re eating regularly as most of us in our modern, food-rich society are, it’s not so great. And that’s just the first hormone.
Let’s talk about leptin, next. Very simply, leptin is a satiety hormone that is released by your body’s fat cells, and it tells your brain when you’ve had enough to eat based on whether your body has enough stored body fat to survive.
Sounds good, huh? Well, here’s the trick: the human body has cells that are called “receptors” – which are cells that basically know when a hormone is present and signal the other cells to act on the message from the hormones. So the body has leptin receptors, which do this with the hormone leptin.
The trick: carbohydrates (particularly fructose, which we didn’t get a lot of in our pre-agricultural days or even our pre-processed food days), can dull those leptin receptors. So we could have all this leptin rolling around in the body, and because of our high carbohydrate intake we our bodies wouldn’t know. And then the liver has to deal with the fructose or the insulin deals with the excess glucose, sending them off to be stored as more fat. And the fat releases more leptin and is frantically signaling to the body to stop eating, and our body isn’t getting the message.
Here’s the other part of it, though: people who don’t get enough calories get less leptin leaving the fat cells to signal! If there isn’t enough food entering the body, the body assumes it’s starving and does whatever it can to tell itself to eat more by reducing leptin in the bloodstream!
Told you it’s complicated. There’s a ton of other places where what you eat is more important than how much you eat – including the effects of the food you’re eating on those bacteria you’ve got in your digestive system, numerous other hormonal factors, and more.
Processed and carbohydrate-heaving food doesn’t contain the micronutrients – vitamins, minerals, and more – that natural foods like meat and vegetables do. Those lacking micronutrient levels can similarly signal the body to eat more so that it can get those vitamins and minerals. So even though you ate a quart of ice cream and you got a thousand calories, the low micronutrient value of the ice cream means that the body won’t be creating signals that say “Whoa, we’ve got enough of this nutrient!” and tell you to stop eating.
The point here is just to give you an idea of how many processes are affecting your weight, and it’s not as simple as the amount of food.
So calories don’t matter at all?
I didn’t say that. What I said is that it’s a minor piece of the problem. If you’ve nailed down all the other factors, have no hormonal receptor issues, and have figured out the optimal diet for you based on blood lipid levels, hormonal levels, and a host of other factors, then the calories-in-calories-out equation becomes more-or-less “what’s left” to concern yourself with with regard to weight loss.
Also, if your activity level is very high – you’re a high-level athlete and need the energy just to make it through the day – then you might consider eating more food, particularly healthy carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, yams, or rice. Just start with a small amount and work up till you’re eating enough to keep you performing well without a ton of weight gain.
So what have we learned?
- Calories-in-calories-out is a very incomplete measure of how our food affects our weight.
- The kind of food we eat has a major effect on our weight, much more than the amount.
- There are numerous factors that our food affects, and there are numerous ways that our food is used by the body. Not all of them have anything to do with numbers of calories.
So what’s the point? Should I just give up? This stuff is just too complicated!
Not in the slightest, no. I’ve tried to hit on a few of the major issues, but the overarching theme of “quality over quantity” means a lot. Eating lots of nutrient-dense foods, keeping carbohydrate intake low (under 150 grams per day at the very highest), and keeping the quality of food high (organic, pastured, grass-fed, and wild are all good keywords to look for when shopping) are all good for losing weight and gaining your health back.
I haven’t even hit on avoiding grains and foods with anti-nutrients in general in this article, and how those can disrupt the endocrine system. That’s a whole ‘nother post at the very least.
But hopefully now you understand why the idea of calories-in-calories-out is incomplete, and why you should think in terms of food quality. The more we get away from that mindset and toward one of eating healthy food, not making excuses to eat junk by saying we’ll just work harder later, and the like, the better off we’ll be.
Got questions? Want to know more about the various factors that cause weight gain and how to fight them? Comment below, and I hope you’ll share with friends and family! Or share your thoughts and questions on the message board!