Fat loss is as simple unbalancing the calories in vs calories out equation... eating less and moving more right??
Right? Or wrong...?
We like simple explanations. Breaking down the complexities of the human body into a simple equation makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It gives us reason to justify our choices.
The belief that we're on the right path, if we follow a formula that we understand and that makes sense to us, then we will get the results we seek.
The logic for the calories in vs calories out equation is simple... Fat is stored energy. For this stored energy to increase it means we must consume more energy than we expend. For the opposite to occur, we need to eat less than we expenditure.
It's so easy to understand, you almost wish it was this simple.
But anyone who has followed a calorie deficit diet (either by reducing food intake, or exercising more) soon discovers that there is a disconnect between what should happen and what does happen.
Why is this the case?
Why is fat loss not as simple as reducing our food intake?
Why is calorie counting not a sustainable way to lower body fat levels?
Why does such a basic solution prove to be such a challenging undertaking?
I'm going to answer all these questions below. But if you don't want to read my 6000 word article and would rather cut to the chase, be sure to download my FREE How To Lose Weight Without Counting Calories report by clicking HERE.
The calories in vs calories out equation assumes that one understands what a calorie actually is. So what is a calorie? The English Oxford dictionary defines a calorie as:
The energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1 °C (now usually defined as 4.1868 joules).
A calorie is simply a unit of energy. Fuel as such. For example, there are 31.4 million calories in a gallon of gasoline. The amount of calories in the food we eat shows how much stored energy is contained in the product.
That's all the 'calorie' total shows. Energy.
We now know that calories equal energy. So this equation could be rewritten as 'energy in = energy out'.
And taking it a step further, the conventional fat loss way of thinking would then go:
To decrease the amount of stored energy (fat) on my body, I need to bring in less energy (eat less food) than the energy I expend.
But there is a problem with this equation when it comes to fat loss (or fat gain).
The problem is that the equation doesn't always work in practice.
Why doesn't it always work? Let's ask some questions to see if we can find the root of this problem.
Does the problem lie with the calorie itself?
No. The calorie is simply a unit of energy. It's a quantifiable number. And all foods we eat have a set amount of energy within.
Is the problem in the math?
On paper the mathematics of this equation works.
Is the problem that the equation doesn't apply to the human body?
Aha. Now we're on to something. As nice as the model is, it doesn't mean it applies to the human body.
We don't have a running ledger of our energy consumption versus energy expenditure. And there is no balance sheet that determines if fat should be created, or fat should be broken down to balance the equation at the end of every day. The human body is a much more complex system than that.
Though scientists may try to model the inner workings of the human body, there are simply too many variables at play to find a perfect formula.
The temperature of the air, the exhaust fumes of the passing car, the piece of mould on that bread you ate this morning... All these variables impact our body, impact our energy equation, impact our waist line.
It's these variables that throw the spanner in the works of the calories in vs calories out fat loss equation.
The problem with tracking calories for fat loss is that you're only looking at energy. But there is more to fat loss than balancing energy inputs and outputs. Let me explain...
This point should be rather straight forward, yet so many people trip up on this.
I explained above how a calorie is a unit of energy. If you only look at food from an energy point of view you know that 100 calories of Mountain Dew Soda equal 100 calories of organic beef equals 100 calories of gasoline.
Do you see the problem with this? When it comes to health, there is a big difference between that 100 calorie serving of Mountain Dew and the 100 calorie serving of organic beef. And consuming 100 calories of gasoline may just kill you!
This is the biggest problem I have with the calories in/out model. There is more to food than energy. There are other things in the food we eat that the body uses. Macronutrients (fats, proteins, carbs), the micronutrients (vitamins, minerals), the water content, the toxins within the food, even the temperature of the food itself.
All of these things make a difference to our body and our health. If it was all about energy, we could mainline gasoline into our body and never have to worry about eating again.
The type of food we eat, beyond its energy content, plays a huge role in determining our body fat levels. Let's look at a few examples:
"Despite isocaloric feeding, weight gain was lower in rats fed the more highly saturated diet than in those fed either the high fatty acid Olive Oil diet (7% higher body weight levels than the saturated fat group) or the high omega 6 fatty acid safflower oil diet (12% higher body weight than the saturated fat group)." (1)
Do you see the biggest flaw with the simplistic calories in versus calories out model?
There is more to food than energy. There is more to fat loss than the amount of energy we consume. What you eat also determines whether you're losing fat or gaining fat.
This single concept should be enough of a reason for you to not waste time with calorie tracking for fat loss. But if you want more reasons, read on as I'm just getting started!
A diet high in toxins (such as pollutants, chemicals, antibiotics and hormones) requires a healthy body to detoxify and excrete these compounds.
If the body is not up to the task, or if the amount of toxins ingested at one time is too high, the body will store these compounds in fat tissue to process later.
Even if you were eating a calorie deficient diet, if the food you're eating has a high toxin load it is going to make losing fat increasingly difficult.
This is a common sight in 'skinny fat' people. In clothes they look lean. They seem to be able to eat whatever they want and not get fat (another reason why the calories in/out model is flawed, but I digress).
Yet when their shirt comes off, you see a pocket of fat around their lower back and stomach.
All that junk food may be taking a toll after all...
I touched on this above, but it's point that I want to reinforce.
There is more to food than energy and not all food is the same.
What we eat can have a big impact (positively or negatively) on our body and health.
Understanding this fact is important if you wish to lose weight.
For instance, the nutrient density of a particular food can impact how much we eat later on in the day. The body requires a certain amount of nutrients and minerals from our diet. If we don't consume these essential compounds, the body will enter a nutrient deficient state.
In this state the body is going to increase appetite so that we eat more food and (hopefully) consume the nutrients we're lacking.
But if we don't consume these key nutrients, what happens? We have a ravenous appetite and a growing waist line.
If you are thinking 'only those in living in third world countries are lacking in nutrients' think again.
A paper by the Council for Responsible Nutrition found that:
“Large portions of the (American) population had total usual intakes below the estimated average requirement for vitamins A (35%), C (31%), D (74%), and E (67%) as well as calcium (39%) and magnesium (46%) (4) The authors concluded: "In large proportions of the population, micronutrient sufficiency is currently not being achieved through food solutions for several essential vitamins and minerals. Use of age- and gender-specific MVMM (multivitamin/multimineral) supplements may serve as a practical means to increase the micronutrient status in subpopulations of Americans while not increasing intakes above the Upper Limit"
And remember glyphosate? The weed killer found in our food and water supply - glyphosate is a mineral chelator. Meaning exposure to this poison causes mineral deficiencies in the body.
If you eat GMO food then you're consuming large amounts of glyphosate. And this glyphosate is blocking absorption of essential minerals.
Are you starting to see why I don't recommend using the calories in/calories out equation for fat loss? It's more complex than this. Remember, what we eat is more important than how much we eat. Quality over quantity.
Hormones are powerful things. When they're working in your favour life is good. However, when there is a hormonal imbalance, that's when you start having health problems, fat loss issues, libido problems, even sleep problems.
Fixing underlying hormonal issues is the fundamental key to looking and feeling amazing.
But are you aware that the food we eat, the environment we live in and the life we live impacts our hormonal profile?
Again, this is another reason why only using a simplistic energy model for fat loss is flawed in the real world.
Often when people restrict calories, they cut out fat. Fat is calorie dense, with 9 calories per gram of fat (compare this to protein which has 4 calories per gram).
If you're caught up in the world of calories, the logical dietary adjustment is to cut your fat intake. This may keep your MyFitnessPal calculator happy, but it's torture for the bodies hormonal system.
Cholesterol (which is found in saturated fat), is an essential building blocks of the bodies sex hormones. Cells convert cholesterol to free testosterone. In fact, testosterone cells are made from cholesterol.
Why is this so significant? High testosterone levels lead to an increased amount of energy expenditure at rest (6), increases muscle mass (7), inhibits creation of new fat cells (8) and make it easier for the body to burn fat instead of breaking down muscle (9).
Vitamin D, a hormone despite its name, also plays an important role in determining our body fat levels. Studies show that people with low Vitamin D levels were 3.2x more likely to be obese than those with high Vitamin D levels. (10)
Adequate vitamin D from sunlight exposure is shown to increase testosterone (11) and is also linked to thyroid health and sleep quality - both of which help determine body fat levels.
Whether you get sunlight exposure or not has even been linked to body fat levels (12).
The point I'm trying to make is simple - don't get caught up on a simplistic energy model if your goal is fat loss.
Instead, focus your attention on the bodies hormones. Sure, counting calories in your favourite app is no doubt easier than correcting underlying hormonal issues (and if you need help with the latter check out THIS page). But the proof is in the pudding.
There is a reason why hormonal healthy individuals can eat thousands upon thousands of calories a day and not gain an ounce of fat. Yet those with hormonal issues who count calories suffer from low libido, cold intolerance, lack of energy and poor sleep - and put on fat just thinking about food.
It should be clear to you now that food is more than energy. The type of food we eat has a profound impact on our waist line.
But that's not the only role food has on our body. Food is a messenger of sorts.
What we eat and when we eat cause biological changes to our body. These changes are not factored in with the calorie in/out model.
For instance, when you eat your food can negatively or positively help you reach your fat loss goals. You may have read my article on Leptin Resistance (if you haven't you can read it here).
In this article, I talk about how the hormone leptin impacts our appetite. Leptin is released from the fat cells the more fat we have, the more leptin release, and in a body free of hormonal issues, the less we eat.
However, there is an issue known as leptin resistance, this means that the leptin 'don't eat' signal doesn't get through.
We continue eating when we really shouldn't. I go into a list of reasons how this condition can manifest in the leptin article.
But two powerful ways to resolve this issue are by eating during daylight hours (i.e. As soon as you wake up and not late at night) and fixing your sleep and circadian rhythm.
When we eat is just as important as what we eat and how much we eat.
Even the bacteria in our gut follow daily rhythms. These rhythms influenced by the food we eat, when we eat them and even the light we expose our bodies to (read more about light and circadian rhythms HERE).
Disrupting these signals - through broken light signals and disrupted meal times - impact our micro-biome (both their own rhythms and their underlying health).
What does this mean for those hoping to lose weight? Changes to the micro-biome from circadian rhythm disruption lead to weight gain and glucose intolerance.
Again, you can impair your fat loss progress simply by staying up late at night and eating close to bed. I cover this in much for detail in my article on blue light.
Sleep has a huge impact on fat gain (or loss). When you have a bad night of sleep, your body produces less leptin hormone (14).
Remember, leptin plays a huge role in regulating appetite - when levels are high, your body will have a low appetite.
One bad night of sleep can significantly decrease your leptin levels - you will wake up feeling extremely hungry. Worse, poor sleep leads to impaired glucose metabolism and increased insulin levels (15). Meaning the body can't clear glucose properly, in other words, you're in a pre-diabetic state.
If you've been cutting out sugar while cutting calories, just know that you may be undoing all this hard work by sleeping poorly. A study done in 2008 found that poor sleep is also associated with:
"... changes in the appetite regulating hormones, leptin and ghrelin. These changes would indicate an increase in appetite, which may lead to increased food intake and weight gain. "
How well you sleep may determine how well you eat.
Are you finally understanding why the calories in / out equation is not applicable to our lives?
Sure if you have all the willpower in the world, you may still be able to stick to your caloric goals in a sleep deprived state, but most of us will succumb to cravings.
Cravings triggered by the bodies hormones.
The lack of sleep is going to increase the stress hormone cortisol, decreases testosterone leptin, and decrease sensitivity to neurotransmitters such as dopamine. A perfect biological recipe for junk food cravings.
Stop fighting against the body. Work with the body. Understand the importance of hormones and how they have a bigger role to play than the amount of calories you eat.
I have been working with clients for nearly a decade now. In recent years I'm starting to see more and more clients come to me with horrible thyroid numbers.
Even those who don't have lab reports come to me with all the tell-tale signs of hypothyroid - cold extremities, low body temperature, low energy and poor health.
What I am finding is that a large percentage of these people have had a prior history of low caloric dieting or even ketogenic (ultra low carb) dieting.
For those who have been eating a low calorie diet, they often saw rapid results - dropping weight in the first few weeks.
But eventually their results stalled. So naturally, they reduced their caloric intake even more.
After a few months (or in some cases years) they are left in a metabolic hell hole... And they still haven't reached their fat loss goals despite eating such a low calorie diet.
Why does this happen? The body will adapt to the food we eat and the environment we live in.
If you are constantly decreasing your food consumption, the body will soon notice it has less resources to work with and will make cuts.
Thyroid will down regulate - with lower conversion of T4 to the active T3.
Your metabolic rate will plummet (shown by a lowered basal temperature).
Motivation to exercise will fall as the body attempts to conserve energy for vital functions.
Libido will become non-existent - why reproduce if food is scarce. And your cravings for food will sky rocket. This is just one way to bring on lowered thyroid function. Other pathways include:
Why does this all matter? The thyroid plays a large role in determining our metabolic rate. What exactly does this mean? Wikipedia defines metabolism as:
"the set of life-sustaining chemical transformations within the cells of living organisms. The three main purposes of metabolism are:
1. The conversion of food/fuel to energy to run cellular processes,
2. The conversion of food/fuel to building blocks for proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, and some carbohydrates,
3. And the elimination of nitrogenous wastes.
These enzyme-catalyzed reactions allow organisms to grow and reproduce, maintain their structures, and respond to their environments"
Thus a good metabolism ensures conversion of the food we ingest into energy, repair and growth and to thrive in our environment.
As I outlined above, a lowered metabolic rate can have negative consequences for ones health.
Energy output is lowered.
Recovery and repair slows and of course body temperature drops.
The bodies thyroid plays a vital role in determining ones metabolic rate and our body fat levels.
T3 (the active form of thyroid hormone) is needed for cells to create energy and when these levels are low metabolic rate slows.
With a lowered metabolic rate the body uses less energy, increasing the likelihood of fat gain.
A study titled 'Is obesity associated with lower body temperatures? Core temperature: a forgotten variable in energy balance' found that a body temperature drop by 1 degree celsius lowered metabolic rate (energy expenditure) by up to 13% (16).
For more on body temperature and metabolism please read this article of mine: Why You Need To Measure Your Temperature.
For those of you still stuck in your calories in vs calories out ways, an increase in metabolic rate (from improved thyroid function) means the calories out part of the equation increases.
Great I hear you think. And your thinking is justified.
But let me bring this back to the core theme in this article... How you live, what you eat (and what you don't eat) and the state of your health determines the state of your thyroid.
Even if you were in a healthy state with normal thyroid function, then you drastically overhauled your diet and exercise in an attempt to lose weight (maybe you started counting calories, reduced your fat intake, went on a ketogenic diet and started exercising more), then your thyroid health (and in turn metabolic rate and energy expenditure) would soon change.
The calories in/out equation may help you get results in the short term (assuming all the other factors I have touched upon in this article so far are ignored) but soon you will start seeing a decline in your health, energy and vitality.
I'm going to start sounding like a broken record here... following a caloric restrictive diet is not the best way to lose weight, keep that weight off, and maintain (or improve) health while at it.
A question for those who track calories. You eat a meal, log the caloric load into your favourite meal logging app, but a few hours later you have severe stomach pains and spend 30minutes on the toilet.
While cleaning up you notice large chunks of your meal and a lot of oil floating in the toilet bowl (sorry to gross you out).
I'm curious, does this effect your calorie load for the day?
Do you delete the meal from your app as if you didn't eat it?
Do you approximate the amount you expelled and adjust the numbers accordingly?
Or do you leave it as is as technically you did eat it?
There is a reasoning to me asking this question. If you don't absorb the food, does it count?
And if not, how do you know what you're absorbing?
You may have heard the phrase 'It's not what you eat, it's what you absorb'. Generally, this is applied in a nutrient context (are you absorbing the vital nutrients and minerals).
But does it still apply to a pure caloric/energy point of view?
Apologies for the rambling nonsense, but I hope you see why simply tracking calories is a flawed protocol.
Let us move on from this puzzle. Let's look at what really happens when you do eat food.
You may not know this, but the body requires energy to digest our food. It takes energy to extract energy.
This is known as the ‘thermic effect’ of food. 20-30% of the energy included in a protein molecule is needed to digest the food. Carbs’ thermic effect percentage is 6-10% and fat is 2-3 %.
Based on this information, if we look at a 2,000 calorie diet, split between 55% carbs, 30% protein, and 15% fat, the net useable calories are actually only 1,753, not 2,000.
247 calories would be lost as heat or used in the digestion process.
But if you took another 2000 calorie diet that consisted of 5% carbs, 15% protein and 80% fat (aka a ketogenic diet) , the net usable calories are 1,869 not 2000.
131 calories would be lost as heat or in the digestion process.
This causes all sorts of complications. Do you factor in the usable calories or the net calories?
Should you eat more protein and less fat given the high thermic properties of protein? But then you run the risk of ruining your sex hormones from the low fat intake...
Or should you just forget about calories all together and just work with the body and aim to improve hormonal function for fat loss? I know what path I would take.
Another variable that shows a limitation in the calories in/calories out model is with our gut bacteria.
I already touched on this earlier in the piece, but given the amount of research coming out on our gut micro-biome I wanted to take a deeper look at those bugs in our gut.
Researchers have found that certain gut bacteria are linked with increased body fat levels. They analysed the stool samples from 1300 twins and compared this data with body fat levels. They found that the more varied the micro-biome in the body, the less likely they were to be obese.
Other research has shown that gut dysbiosis leads to obesity.
These findings are fascinating and show how important our gut is if we're seeking a slimmer waist.
More importantly, these findings show how ineffective a caloric restricted diet may be in an individual with poor gut function.
Improve your overall health and you won't have to worry about calories ever again! But before I continue, please be reassured, the problem with the equation isn't you. It's not your lack of will power. The problem lies with the practical implications of the equation.
Humans are resilient creatures. We can survive eating various types of diets. We can live in hot climates and cool climates. Mountain tops and coastal regions. Our bodies have the ability to adapt to our environment, our diet, and our activity.
It's why an ultra marathon runner can get out of bed and go for a 5 hour run, but you and I wouldn't get past the 90minute mark. The body adapts to what we throw at it. And this is same for the diet we eat.
If you put yourself in a hypo-caloric state (calorie deficit) by restricting your food intake and or increase your activity levels, you will see a lowered metabolic rate. I explained this above in the thyroid section. But I want to revisit it in more detail.
Researchers have proven this to be true multiple times. When someone reduces caloric intake, their metabolic rate also decreases (17, 18).
Authors of a paper titled "Effect of calorie restriction on resting metabolic rate and spontaneous physical activity" concluded:
Body weight is defended in non-obese participants during modest caloric restriction, evidenced by metabolic adaptation of RMR and reduced energy expenditure through physical activity.
It's important to note the second part of this sentence 'reduced energy expenditure through physical activity'.
These researchers found that as the study participants consumed less food, not only did their resting metabolic rate decrease (the amount of energy consumed by the body at rest), but the participants also expended less energy. They moved less.
This causes another problem for those using the calories in vs calories out equation for fat loss.
Let's say an overweight individual is currently at an energy balance eating 2500 calories a day. Again we're ignoring all the data I have presented so far in this article, but let's play along for a moment.
The caloric equation looks like this: Calories in 2500. Calories out (Metabolic rate + activity) 2500.
This person wants to lose some weight, so they decide to cut their food intake to 2000 calories a day. Creating a 500 calorie deficit.
What happens? According to all the research, their 'calories out' figure will drop down to match the new 2000 calorie diet. They're metabolic rate slows and spontaneous physical activity is lowered. They move less.
This is the beautiful thing about the human body. Adaptation. It allows humans to survive and thrive in this world. The body recognises less food coming in, so it make changes to continue to survive (though hardly thrive).
Above is the typical hormonal scenario of a yo-yo dieter.
We continue to fight our body, tricking our body to lose weight. But these mechanisms that stop you from losing weight are there to help us, to protect us.
If there really was a food shortage in our environment, we would welcome these hormonal changes in order to survive the tough times.
You cannot cheat the body. You can try, but you will only ever get short term, temporary change. The body will eventually catch on.
Neurotransmitters and hormones will change as a result. Your will power will cave.
The only true way to lose fat and keep it off is to work with the body, understand how the hormones work, and give the body the resources it needs.
If you're still convinced that counting calories and 'eating less than you expend' is the only way to lose fat, let me share a few more research findings:
Does your calories in/out equation factor environmental temperature into its calculation? I, going to assume no.
Do you hate counting calories? I personally couldn't think of anything worse. If you're trying to lose weight there are better methods than calorie counting.
If the calories in/out equation wasn't flawed already, using inaccurate data sure doesn't help its cause.
And don't get me started on the type of training you do. Sure you may burn 400 calories in you 60minute bike ride, but what's happening on the hormonal front? Especially when you compare this to a 400 calorie heavy weight lifting session.
The calories burnt may be the same, but it's the hormonal effects that really need exploring (and I have an article that goes into this in much more detail here - Why You Need To Lift Heavy For Fat Loss)
I like to tell clients on The Program, fat loss is a by product of health. Improve your hormonal health and your body fat levels will normalise.
When people come to me asking about the IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) diet, I like to ask them 'whats going to be healthier in the long run, that grassfed steak with a butter and broth mushroom sauce, organic vegetables, sweet potato and raw milk or the burger made with feedlot beef and GMO salad with potatoes deep fried in canola oil washed down with a milkshake laden with antibiotics and hormones'.
Both meals could have the same macronutrient and caloric profile.
Both meals could 'fit your macros'. But one meal is going to support your health, the other is not.
Please don’t get me wrong, I recognise that eating less is going to help lose weight.
And I am well aware of the studies that show caloric restriction is proven to decrease weight in the short term.
But I take a long term view of health and fat loss.
What I want to make clear is that following a simple calories in vs calories out model may not be an accurate, effective nor healthy way to lose weight.
The body has this innate desire to thrive and flourish.
Some say our sole objective in life is to reproduce, to spread our seed. If that is true then why would the human body want to be sexually unattractive, have poor libido, chronic fatigue and be ridden with disease and illness.
Wouldn't the body rather have high sex drive, lots of energy to mate and care for our offspring - providing them with the nutrients and safety they in turn need to thrive?
Stop counting calories. Focus your attention on improving your health. The fat loss will come.
How do you improve your health? Work with the body and address underlying hormonal imbalances. This is a much easier (and effective) strategy than simply starving yourself while sweating away at the gym.
Remember, there is a difference between losing fat, and losing fat for good.
Anyone can starve themselves to lose body fat. Is this going to lead to permanent fat loss?
And is this method going to be a healthy way to lose weight?
Energy restriction is a short term fix not a long term solution. Eventually, eating a toxin laden, nutrient deficient diet while stressing the body with poor sleep and overtraining will lead to hormonal problems that will leave you in a deeper health hole than you started in.
Instead of getting the scales out every time you eat and exercise, ask yourself these questions instead:
You can apply this question to any choice you make in life.
Here's one you can start with. I have put together a cheat sheet, outlining practical steps you can make to start working with your body, improving your health and losing weight. You can download it here.
So ask yourself, does downloading this free cheat sheet guide help me improve my health?
If the answer is yes, then click here.
This blog post was written by Alex Fergus. Alex is an ISSN Sports Nutrition Specialist, Fitness Professional and certified Superhuman Coach who continues to expand his knowledge base and help people across the world with their health and wellness. Alex is recognized as the National Record Holder in Powerlifting and Indoor Rowing and has earned the title of the Australian National Natural Bodybuilding Champion. Having worked as a health coach and personal trainer for over a decade, Alex now researches all things health and wellness and shares his findings on this blog. Learn more about Alex's Credentials HERE.
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