You put your calories in, you put your calories out, you put your calories in and you shake ‘em all about! Hey, wait a minute, that’s not a diet funda, that’s the Hokey-Pokey.
My daughters used to do this kindergarten dance a few years back and even they have grown out of it, yet a majority of health and nutrition gurus still cling to outdated (not to mention flat-out inaccurate) ideas when it comes to the care and feeding of the human body. Why? Maybe brainwashing, maybe herd mentality, maybe fear of stepping outside the mainstream. Or maybe fear of upsetting their corporate sponsors .
We talked about the first law of thermodynamics which became the ‘calories-in/calories-out’ hypothesis – CICO model of weight regulation – in order to lose weight, you must take in fewer calories than you expend. We saw how nonsensical the hypothesis appeared to be in the ‘tale of 20 calories’ (in my previous post). It says nothing about what happens to those calories once they’re ingested, or whether or not we even can ‘count calories’ at all.
We were also told that all calories are the same. This is a relatively new belief (remember how BigFood shaped our belief? My post ‘First do no harm’?). Back in our childhood days, it was ‘common knowledge’ that obesity was caused by sweets and starchy foods (refined carbohydrates). If you wanted to lose weight you cut those out and you lost weight. Nobody, they would argue, got fat eating vegetables or fish.
In other words, our great great great grandmothers believed that calories were not all equally likely to cause weight gain. Some foods, like sweets and breads, would cause obesity but others would not. A calorie is not a calorie.
In 1946, Dr. Benjamin Spock‘s wrote in his classic bible of child rearing Baby and Child Care “Rich desserts, the amount of plain, starchy foods (cereals, breads, potatoes) taken is what determines … how much (weight) they gain or lose”.
This was common knowledge for centuries and up until the 70’s.
All calories were never same.
For the sake of stripping this down further, let’s assume that BigFood agrees to sponsor my blog (for an undisclosed sum!!) and I am suddenly convinced that ‘a calorie is a calorie’, an ice cream is the same as a salad. Now all I have to do is count the calories I consume and the calories I expend, right? That should be a breeze, so let’s do it, I need the moooneeey!!
The CICO (Calories In Calories Out) hypothesis says:
Fat = Calories in – calories out (CICO …. Sicko!)
Let us first focus on the intake of caloric energy (calories in) because it is easy. Simply measure what you eat in a day, add up the calories and presto! You have your number (which we so love to have). But, real food doesn’t have numbers (Pinggg!! Light bulb moment!! That’s why they said all calories are the same). Doesn’t matter. I can eat some numbered food for the sake of this important experiment. They are paying me, dammit!
We use the calculator on our smart phones, better still, we have calorie apps where you search the product – One Mars bar– and the app does the rest. It can even tell you that if your target calories is 1700 kcal and you have consumed 564 kcal then, you have 1136 kcal left to consume!! Amazing! Why did I waste all those years in school. So we have the calories-in. It really is a breeze!
(By the way, I need to clarify here that what we call ‘calorie‘ in food parlance is actually kilocalorie in reality, hence the unit ‘kcal’). I tell you, they were always confused about this calorie thingy or they did it to make you feel good – ‘imagine if I told you that you just ate a cake which had 500 kilo calories!! You would freak out right?!’
Now just for arguments sake, let us do a buffet experiment. How many times have you been to a Chinese restaurant buffet and stuffed yourselves with food only to feel hungry again within 2 hours of the feast. And how many times have you been to an Indian restaurant and after a few meat based delicacies felt like skipping the next 2 meals. Maybe, maybe just for arguments sake we can agree that how much, how often and what we are driven to eat, and how that reacts in the body could be governed by something more than just the calorific value. Maybe, just maybe no formulas or apps can possibly tell us that. Let’s freeze this argument here and move on to calories out.
Now to understand what is going on with total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) or calories out is much, much harder.
Something that I just can’t understand when I read studies about weight loss is that almost always the phrase ‘calories-out’ is used to mean some kind of physical movement that is known to expend calories: jogging, cycling, swimming, soccer, tennis, walking. Sometimes they even include thinks like fidgeting, tapping your toes, drumming your fingers, scratching your §$%” – (today I was itching so much that I earned myself a Tiramisu!).
Conscious movement isn’t the only way we expend energy. In fact, we spend very little energy with all the physical activities we can do in a day. Our bodies expend loads of energy just to keep us alive, even while we sleep. Everything you do unconsciously require energy, for example; breathing, your heart beating, your eyelids blinking, the contraction of the muscles lining your intestines that help propel food along your GI tract, your renal tubules (kidney) filtering your blood, the sodium potassium pumps in your cells that pump ions and electrolytes in and out; and this is a small sample of things going on round the clock. Pretty much every teeny tiny thing requires energy, that is, it burns calories. This is your basal metabolic energy expenditure (BMEE). This is the minimum number of calories your body needs (and expends) just to keep you functioning and maintaining your current body composition.
This basic, ROCK-BOTTOM, bare minimum number of calories needed to keep you from becoming a star (as my daughters would say) or ending up in an urn or the wrong side of the ground – whatever rocks your boat – is why there are such variations in BMEE from person to person. Do you think a weightlifter weighing 150 kg – with his bulging muscles and all the extra tissues – would require the same number of calories just to stay alive as a 70 kg software engineer who sits in front of a computer 12 hours a day?
The fact that our bodies are continuously expending energy by performing various metabolic and physiological tasks over which we have no conscious control is what makes it extremely difficult to determine exactly how many calories someone requires compared to someone else, and how much deficit someone would need in order to lose weight. (That’s why the statements like ‘500 calories per day to lose 1 pound of fat per week’ are a joke, and a bad joke at that. It is misleading and it is deceitful to people who are struggling with weight).
It is near impossible to figure out just how many calories, exactly, your heart burns every time it beats, how many calories, exactly, your eyelids burn each time you blink, or how many calories, exactly, your stomach burns when the muscles that surrounds it contract to churn your food together with the stomach acid.
If you are a ‘yogi’ meditating in the Himalayas perhaps you have cultivated more conscious control over some of these ‘involuntary’ processes than the average ‘me.’
This is what Jonathan Bailor means when he says something like, “calories count, but that doesn’t mean we have to count calories”. In fact, we can’t count calories out. It’s impossible to determine how many calories a person ‘burns’ during any activity, let alone when our activity levels differ greatly from day to day.
If you remember only one thing from this post, let it be this: WE ARE GENERATING “CALORIES OUT” ALL THE TIME. Never forget this. Not just when we’ve specifically scheduled time to do some exercise, but all the time. If your heart is beating, you’re breathing, and your brain has any sort of function registering, well done, you are using energy, loads of it!! In fact 90% of your daily energy expenditure is to keep you alive and kicking. The balance 10% is what you expend by moving your butt consciously (in the fancy fitness studio).
That is why the “calories burned” feature on a fitness equipment cracks me up. It’s ridiculous, ridiculously stupid! How does the treadmill, or stationary bike or elliptical machine know how many calories I, Mr. So-n-so, burned during my session? If it uses an algorithm based on speed, intensity, and duration of my workout, it can land on a vague, vague number. If it calculates for my age, height, and weight, maybe we get a less vague number. Will I burn the exact same number of calories as a man (or woman) of the same age, height, and weight, who works out for the same amount of time at the same speed and intensity? Please, please, tell me that you do not rely on those numbers. I hope you are starting to see how laughable this is. Now you know how useless those calorie counters you wear on the run really are in the context of our body as a whole. They are junk!! If you happen to have made the investment already, you could wrap it up nicely and take it to your boss’ (the one you hate) next birthday party! (Just a thought).
And those smart watches, which tell you whether you slept well or not. I mean I can tell myself whether I slept well, because I know it …. It’s me we are talking about, hello!!! As an aside from the seriousness of this post, it reminds me of this hilarious piece Rhod Gilbert did on toothbrush!
You can see how so many industries depend on us being stupid. They will con you into believing these ridiculous numbers. They survive because you are told that you need to know how many bites of the apple will add that extra pound of ugly fat on your belly. You need to balance 3 & ½ bites of apple with the steps you take to go to the kitchen and back (which brings me to another device, the pedometer! Ughhh!). They have a device and an app for everything now. I am so tired thinking about it. I don’t care if I am fat.
The CICO hypothesis, which requires a grade 2 maths ability to subtract 2 numbers, cannot work in the context of the human body. In the next post, I will highlight some of the studies conducted over centuries on the calorie hypothesis and the actual findings of the studies. It is important to understand what happens to the body when we reduce calories-in (consciously eat less), or whether we can consciously increase calories-out. It is important to understand why millions of people go on numerous diets and yet come out frustrated and gain extra weight as soon as the diets are over. It is important to understand the fallacies of the CICO hypothesis before we move on to what really governs the accumulation and utilization of fat in the body. In the next post I will focus on what actually happens to our body when we try to manipulate the calories.
Stay tuned and eat real food (my experiment with numbered food is coming to an end)!
I guess my sponsor has backed out too!!