“A Calorie is a Calorie” – and other dumbass diet dogma

If trying to lose weight weren’t hard enough, us fat people have to navigate through a maze of myths and misinformation.  Today I would like to examine 3 dieting myths that have served to confound my weight loss efforts.  And no, these are not “urban legends” that no sensible person would seriously believe, they are believed and taught by professionals to this very day!

Myth #1: A Calorie is a Calorie

I recently wrote about the research Dr Robert Lustig in “Fat People are Hungry – The Science“.  I am finding his insights particularly helpful at the moment.  Above all, I love how he debunks the myth that “a calorie is a calorie“.

As anyone trying to lose weight can tell you, it’s all about the calories!  As veteran dieters we spend our lives trying to figure out how many calories our food contains and many of us can list the calorie counts per serving for various foods by heart.  We might keep food journals or count every calorie, but still we fail to shift the extra flab around our middle. I sure got the message about calories when I went on my famous “energy bar and appetite suppressant diet”.  Being of above average intelligence, I understood that it really didn’t matter what I ate, even if it was donuts, as long as I created a nice big calorie deficit!  Because a “calorie is a calorie” I dealt my poor body a double insult – ate far too little to provide proper nutrition, and the calories I did eat were the worst possible kind: a nice little cocktail of hydrogenated fat, sugar and sodium!  But “a calorie is a calorie”, right? “So how’d that work for you?”  I can hear Dr Phil ask.  Not so well, to be honest.  Sure, I lost the weight but I felt like death warmed up and as soon as I started eating again the fat came back and brought some of it’s little friends along too!  I gained back exactly double what I had lost in no time flat!

In the strictest sense of the word it is, of course, true to say that “a calorie is a calorie.”  It’s just that this is a tautology and doesn’t really convey any useful information! It is the same as saying “a pound is a pound” – duh, thanks for the newsflash!   As we well know, a pound of iron weighs the same as a pound of feathers.  True, but I know which one I would rather let you drop on my head!

The problem is that when the diet industry, personal trainers and, more latterly, Coca Cola, say that “a calorie is a calorie” they are saying a lot more than that “a calorie is the unit of measure for energy contained in food.”  What they are actually saying is that total calorie consumption is the only factor in weight loss and weight gain, whether the calorie comes from broccoli or french fries!  In the Coca Cola add they spell it out so that we are left in no doubt:

“Calories count, no matter where they come from.  Including Coca Cola and everything else that contains calories.  And if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight.”

Nice one, Coca Cola!  You would have us believe that the calories from Coke are just as innocent as calories from brussel sprouts and that the only culprit is the idiot who ate and drank too much?

I would be extremely interested in a study in which 2 groups of people consumed an equal amount of calories in excess of their daily requirements.  Except in one group the calories came from sugar sweetened beverages and in the other they came from vegetables.  I am no scientist but I am willing to stick my neck and take a bet that not only will the ones who binge on veggies be a lot healthier, they probably won’t even gain weight from their excess consumption.  If you think I am wrong, do the study and get back to me, and if the results disprove my hypothesis I will be happy to post a retraction!

Myth #2: Calories in Calories Out

How about this one then?: “Its all about Calories In, Calories Out.”  Repeat this one enough times and eventually you will believe it.  It would be so convenient if this were true: eat more calories than you burn off and you will gain weight, eat the same number of calories as what you burn off and your weight will remain stable, eat less than you burn and you will lose.  Like everyone else, I believed that one with religious fervor and so when I started my weight loss efforts a few months ago I spent ages trying to calculate my basal metabolic rate, the calories I ate, the calories I burned through my workouts and therefore the rate at which my body would respond by simply melting off the fat.  I did this in an effort to calculate how long it would take me to reach my goal weight.  Because, as you know, when losing weight “we are on a deadline, people!”  Well that turned out to be a fool’s errand if ever there was one!  Not only did it require maths I can’t possibly do, it is based on a number of mistaken beliefs:

1) That the human body is a closed system.

2) When faced with a calorie deficit the human body will preferentially burn fat.

3)  All human bodies burn energy with the same efficiency.

4) Dieting myth #1 “A calorie is a calorie” and all calories have the same effect in the body regardless of their source.

To see all of the above debunked, please watch:

Myth #3  To lose a pound of fat you need a 3500 calorie deficit

To understand why this neat little calculation doesn’t work, see myths 2 and 3!  Again – tried this one, did all the calculations, charted every work out and calorie consumed and then got to hear my scale laugh maniacally at me every day as it showed me exactly what it thought of my efforts.

You’ve got to love those moments on The Biggest Loser when some hapless contestant gets on the scale and loses a “mere” 2 pounds for the week.  Camera pans to trainer, looking aghast who says: “I don’t get that.  That just doesn’t make sense!”  Or, if they really want to be dramatic, they accuse the contestant of “throwing the weigh in”  DUM DUM DUM. . .In all seriousness though, I can only conclude that the trainers a) are putting on an act for the sake of the show b) have such an ignorant and simplistic view of the human body that they should never be allowed within 100 meters of a fat person, let alone make a career out out of helping people to lose weight!  And since I own books by the trainers on Biggest Loser and I know that they have a lot of useful advice, I can only conclude that it is the former!

By the way, I am still waiting for the Biggest Loser to let us know that the woman getting on the scale happens to be premenstrual.  I once gained a whopping 4kgs in a single day shortly before my period.  That sucked, although it was fun when I lost it all a few days later!

If you watched the video on weight loss and thermodynamics like I asked, you should now understand that if you create a calorie deficit of 3500 calories it does not follow that you will lose a pound of fat. Damn!

So what should we do then? If all the maths and science does your head in, just remember this: Your body is a magnificent and complex system and you need to figure out how to work with it rather than against it if you hope to lose weight.  When you do your level best and your scale still gives the lie to all the diet myths you have been indoctrinated with, don’t beat up on yourself!  And when you decide what to eat, forget “a calorie is a calorie” and remember the “pound of metal vs a pound of feathers” analogy.  Some “calories” will drop on your body like a ton of bricks causing pain and injury.  And others will drift by gently like feathers, doing no harm and a lot of good!  If you eat 100 calories of refined sugar, expect zero nutrition, devastating sugar spikes, weight gain and a host of other problems.  Eat 100 calories of  almonds and you will get plenty of protein, fiber, vitamin E etc and none of the harmful effects of the refined sugar.  In other words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” (Michael Pollan), go for a brisk walk, and let your weight take care of itself!

Woman lying in bed of feathers

© Innershadows | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

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One thought on ““A Calorie is a Calorie” – and other dumbass diet dogma

  1. Pingback: More about calories: They do count, but not the way I thought | The Hunger Games

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