More about calories: They do count, but not the way I thought

When I started caring about calories, I was unprepared for how complex, and at times confusing, my exploration would become!  Yesterday I wrote about some myths (or at least gross oversimplifications) around calories and weight loss.

I was particularly hard on health professionals that perpetuate these myths.  In their defense, I know that the real experts do understand the complexity but are faced with the challenging task of trying to modify behavior in their clients, and therefore find oversimplifications like “calories in, calories out” a useful starting point. And this may work well for some people.  I just haven’t met them yet, and I am definitely not one of them!   Instead of starting me down the road to health and lean living, this dictum is apt to send me round and round in circles, chasing my tail until I inevitably end up collapsing in a heap under a great big pile of food!  My problem with “calories in, calories out” is that it sounds like a judgment-laden injunction to simply try to “exert a cognitive inhibition over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute of every day of every year. ” (Dr Robert Lustig)  I have finally had the sense to realize that, for me anyway, this is: Just. Not. Possible!

I am not looking for an easy way out of this, believe me.  In fact I would LOVE it if there was a simple formula for me to follow that would result in guaranteed, permanent and sustainable weight loss.  If anyone discovers one, I will be the first to sign up! But so far it has proved to be anything but simple.  Therefore, for my own benefit, I thought I would use this post to summarize my current understanding of calories and where they fit in to nutrition and weight loss.  Anyone reading this, please take note that this is a lay person’s understanding and subject to re-evaluation and further learning on my part.  Also, I think that everyone should study and understand this topic for themselves, examine how the issues around calorie intake play out in their own lives and reach their own conclusions.  I am open to correction and further guidance, but this is what I currently believe:

  1. There is such a thing as an “energy balance” in which a healthy, lean individual takes in the right amount of food to support their energy requirements. In simple terms: they eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.  However, calculating exactly what that energy balance is, is not achieved by a simple equation that a primary school child could understand (Calories in = Calories Out).  It is infinitely complex, highly individual and achieved most successfully by the workings of the body’s own hormones that regulate appetite and fat storage: leptin, ghrelin and insulin.  When these hormones are in balance and functioning correctly, and the brain is sensitive to them, then the individual knows intuitively how much they should eat.  When they are out of balance, or the brain is resistant to them, then the individual is incapable of an appropriate caloric intake regardless of how much theory they know and how much will power they attempt to exert.
  2. From #1 it therefore follows that the first objective of anyone concerned with weight loss, be it: the overweight individual, doctor, dietician, personal trainer, therapist or researcher should NOT be trying to control behavior and somehow getting the starving fat person to “eat less.”  Instead, it should be figuring out how to bring those hormones back into balance and to restore sensitivity to them.  A great deal of research is going on in the area of leptin resistance in particular and I am following this with great interest.
  3. The continual, ready availability of calories is possibly one of the greatest environmental challenges that modern humans have to navigate. We evolved and adapted to an environment of scarcity and now live in one of abundance and excess.  In other words, we are hard-wired to take in as many calories as possible during times of plenty and store excess for the coming famine.  The fact that the famine never comes is irrelevant.  To be human means that if you are hungry and food is available, then sooner or later you will eat.  If you did not have this drive then your ancestors would have died out long ago and you wouldn’t be here to have this conversation!  The disaster is that if you are always hungry and food is always available you will become obese and the very drive that would have ensured your survival in an environment of scarcity could be your undoing in an environment of abundance.
  4. The source of the calories matters as much, or more, than the calories themselves.  In other words you can eat a 2000 calorie a day diet that will promote metabolic syndrome, addictive eating, excessive hunger and obesity, as well as making you disposed to eat more and more calories over time.  Or you can eat a 2000 calorie diet that promotes health, a lean body, balanced hormones, appropriate appetite and a consistent calorie intake over time.  Because a calorie is only a calorie when you are burning food in a bomb calorimeter.  As soon as you put it in your body, however, the source of the calories matters very much indeed! I would even go so far as to propose that the first goal of any weight loss program should not be calorie restriction but calorie replacement.  In other words if you simply try to get the fat person to eat less they will yo-yo diet for the rest of their lives (how much more proof do we need of this?) but if you get them to eat different (whole foods instead of processed junk food) it may be possible for them to gradually move back towards an energy balance, appropriate food intake and a leaner body mass.

Anyone still with me?  You’re a hero!  Given my current thinking on calories, I actually do keep a food journal and I do (sort of) count calories.  But not in an effort to force myself to stick to a daily calorie limit by pure discipline.  I do it to observe which eating behaviors result in the most consistent, economical overall intake that promotes gradual, healthy weight loss.  Not the way I intended to approach this when I started out at all!  I started out by trying to figure out the least number of calories I could eat to lose the greatest amount of weight in the shortest possible time. The outcome was:  I couldn’t keep it up long enough, I felt miserable and, worst of all, I stopped losing weight! I have now wrapped up that experiment and stored it away in a large box marked “FAIL”    I have started a new strategy, as outlined in my post A Bold Experiment.  So far so good, check back in a year or two for the thrilling conclusion 🙂

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