I began the year with a series of posts explaining why I believe weight loss is mostly about chemistry, not character.  People who insist it’s all about character (usually people who’ve never been fat) are fond of reciting calorie math:  there are 3500 calories in a pound of fat, ya see, so if you just shave 500 calories per day from your diet, you’ll lose a pound per week.  Problem solved.  So demonstrate a little character, stop buttering your toast and pour skim milk instead of cream in your coffee, and you can be as thin as Jillian Michaels and the other experts in thermodynamics.

Those of us who spent years as frustrated dieters know it isn’t that simple.  We cut those 500 calories per day from our diets, maybe even drank crappy meal replacements like Slim Fast, lost a little weight, then stalled.  Calorie math just didn’t work as advertised for us.  The more we tried that whole “just eat less and move more” theory, the more it seemed like a myth.

Hmmm, maybe someone should write a book to explain this stuff with a title something like The Calorie Myth …

That is, in fact, the title of Jonathan Bailor’s latest book: The Calorie Myth.  (I’m more than a little fashionably late with my review, by the way.  The book was released in January, but as I’ve explained in my recent posts, I’ve been swamped with work.)

I reviewed Bailor’s book The Smarter Science of Slim back in 2012 and met him on last year’s low-carb cruise, where he gave a presentation about misguided calorie math.  As he explained in that presentation, the usual calories-in/calories-out math assumes your body works like a machine.  But it doesn’t.  Your body works like a body.

In The Calorie Myth, Bailor explains what “works like a body” means, and not surprisingly, it’s about all hormones — a.k.a. chemistry.  Bailor is quite a science wonk, and he cites published research virtually every time he makes a point.  Frankly, I’d buy this book just for the study references. But he’s also a gifted writer, so he takes what is often complex science and explains it simply enough for your Aunt Martha to understand.

I know some people will see the title and assume Bailor either doesn’t understand the laws of thermodynamics or is denying them, so let me say this for thousandth time or so: no one, including Bailor, is claiming that calories don’t count or that a high-quality diet causes calories to magically disappear.  The point is that the quality of the calories you consume has a dramatic effect on what your body decides to do with those calories … store them, burn them, use them for repair and rebuilding, etc.  In other words, the calories-in side of the equation affects the calories-out side of the equation.

For example, here are some quotes from the book about the metabolic effects of semi-starvation diets:

Eating less of a traditional Western diet does not cause long-term fat loss because this approach incorrectly assumes that taking in fewer calories forces our bodies to burn fat. This has been clinically proved to be false.  Eating less does not force us to burn body fat.  It forces us to burn fewer calories…. When our body needs calories and none are around, it is forced to make a decision:  go through all the hassle of converting calories from body fat or just slow down on burning calories.  Given the choice, slowing down wins.

… When we do not provide our body with enough essential nutrients (vitamins, minerals and essential fatty and amino acids) our body goes into starvation mode.  What does our body want more of when it thinks we’re starving?  Stored energy.  What is a great source of stored energy?  Body fat.  So when our body thinks we are starving, does it want to get rid of or hold on to body fat?  It wants to hold on.

… After our body survives starvation, its number one priority is restoring all the body fat it lost and then protecting us from starving in the future.  It does that by storing additional body fat.  Researchers call this “fat super accumulation,” and they believe it is a primary trigger for “relapsing obesity” – also known as yo-yo dieting.

He goes on to cite several studies (both animal and human) in which starvation diets led to slower metabolisms and more fat accumulation over time.

Wait, don’t get depressed just yet.  It isn’t hopeless.  The problem with those starvation diets is that they don’t adjust your set-point – the amount of fat your body is hormonally driven to maintain and will, in fact, fight to maintain.  As Bailor explains:

Long-term fat gain works like this: a person’s hormones go haywire, causing his set-point to rise, and then his body fights to keep him storing more fat…. Most obese people hold a stable weight around their elevated set-point.  Obesity is simply the result of the body defending this elevated weight – but in a very regulated way.  A heavy person’s higher set-point prompts the body to store more fat in just the same way that a thin person’s lower set-point prompts the body to burn more fat.

We all have a set-point – and that’s what determines how slim or stocky we are long-term.  Not calorie counting.

As Bailor points out, what makes the calorie-counting frenzy of the past several decades so ironic is that back in the days when most people were lean, almost nobody knew what a calorie was – and even if they did, it’s not as if there were calories counts listed on food labels.  So why weren’t they fat?  Bailor explains:

The explanation is that up until a few decades ago, we ate foods that maintained our body’s ability to balance calories automatically around a slim set-point weight.  In other words, for the past forty years we’ve been told to eat things that prevent our body from doing what it did for the entirely of human history – stay healthy and fit automatically.

Notice he wrote we’ve been told to eat things, not food.  That’s largely what screwed up so many people’s hormones and in turn their set-points:  the food-like substances that resulted at least in part from anti-fat hysteria and the push to convince everyone to consume more grains and more processed vegetable oils.  So it’s no surprise that Bailor’s prescription for lowering the body’s set-point revolves around food – as in real food.

The diet he recommends isn’t high-fat, but it isn’t low-fat either.  It’s not a low-carb diet, but by virtue of being a real-food diet, it’s not a high-carb diet either.  Rather than focusing on macronutrients, Bailor measures the quality of food by applying his SANE acronym, which looks like this:

  • Satiety – how quickly calories fill us up and how long they keep us full
  • Aggression – how likely calories are to be stored as body fat
  • Nutrition – how many nutrients (protein, vitamins, minerals, essentially fatty acids, etc.) the calories provide
  • Efficiency – how many calories can be stored as body fat

The idea is to eat foods that are high in satiety and nutrition, but low in aggression and efficiency.  Those are the SANE foods.  Sugars and refined starches (and food-like products in general) are INSANE foods because they’re not satiating, not nutritious, and easily converted to fat.  Protein is of course high on the SANE scale because it’s satiating and not easily converted to fat.  Nutrient-vegetables are high on the SANE scale because they’re nutritious (duh), not aggressive, and not easily converted to fat.  (I watched Bailor eat on the low-carb cruise.  The man is serious about getting his daily dose of vegetables.)

The meat of the book (pardon the pun) is dedicated to explaining the science of how SANE foods lower our set-points and how INSANE foods raise our set-points and thus make us fatter.  But there are also chapters on why most forms of exercise won’t make us thin, why yo-yo dieting makes us fatter, why anti-fat and anti-cholesterol hysteria don’t hold up to the actual science, and why what Bailor calls smarter exercise (the right kind of progressive resistance training) will improve our health and body composition by building lean muscle mass and triggering positive hormonal changes.  The final section of the book provides an action plan for putting Bailor’s recommendations into practice.

Bailor doesn’t label his plan as paleo specifically, but it’s pretty close, as evidenced by this quote:

The closer a food is to a plant we could gather or an animal we could hunt, the more SANE it is.  And if anything other than cooking or cutting is required between the plant or animal and our stomach, it probably does not belong in our stomach to begin with.

So it’s a real food diet, but at the same time, Bailor and I share the opinion (which we’ve discussed) that perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of good … in other words, don’t freak out if you can’t find or can’t afford local and organic versions of everything you eat:

This point has nothing to do with eating organic versus conventional food.  Until someone discovers a Cheerios tree, a pasta plant or a bread bush, conventional blueberries are more SANE than organic Cheerios, pasta or bread.

Bailor’s writing is simple and direct, his advice is very SANE indeed, and I highly recommend this book.  (I also highly recommend his podcast show.)

NOTE:  As I suspected, Wednesday night’s very impressive lightning storm knocked out our cable service entirely — no signal coming into the house, according to Larry The Cable Guy, which means a crew will have to come out and find the problem.  We were told this will take anywhere between one and seven days.  So I’m posting the review, but won’t be able to read or approve comments without driving somewhere to get an internet connection.

28 Responses to “Book Review: The Calorie Myth”
  1. Firebird7478 says:

    I was intrigued by a video I saw earlier this week on “reverse dieting”. What reverse dieting supposedly does combat the effects of yo-you dieting. According to the video, each time somebody goes on a calorie deficit diet to lose weight, it becomes more difficult each time out, and what happens after is a rebound effect when regular caloric consumption occurs. More weight is gained…past the previous point.

    What the reverse dieter does is slowly add calories back into the diet…50-100 calories per week. It’s suppose to reset the body’s thermostat. Competitive bodybuilders are using it with pretty good success, but the carb count is very high and fat consumption is low.

    There is nothing in the video that takes into consideration somebody who is a steady dieter…one who has lowered their caloric intake to a set point and kept it there over the years…not losing any bodyfat and may be adding fat (metabolic adaptation).

    Interesting video but I’m not sold on the idea.

  2. Ash Simmonds says:

    Haha, one of those quotes is a longer version of the byline of one of my old abandoned sites (Low-HI.com): “If it had to be more than cut or cooked, it ain’t food.” :p

    Nowadays whenever someone gives me the “it’s all about calories in/out!!!!” BS I just send them here:


    I either never hear from them again or they handwave everything. Oh well.

    Bill’s book is definitely top-notch. I’ve read it twice and will probably read it again.

  3. François Dujin says:

    Great review of a great book.

    But I think it is time that you, sir, write you own book !

    Because we may need to lose weight and/or be healthier, but most certainly need a good laugh ! And that is something I’m sure you can deliver !

    Just a thought….

    The book is planned and even partially written. I’m finishing up a big software project, and then the book is next on my to-do list.

  4. Shannon says:

    I enjoy your blog, I just get frustrated sometimes. I feel like there’s something more I’m missing with my own personal chemistry. I’m fat, my mother is fat, her mother was fat and even though I never met her, I know from pictures that her mother (who died in the mid 60’s) was fat.

    So the fat women in my family go back long before current advice (which I admit, sucks) and long, long, long before any genetic modification of foods.

    Just venting really 😛

    There have always been people who are genetically geared to be fat. What’s happened in recent decades is that more people consumed a diet that pushed them into fat-storing mode.

    • Shannon says:

      Oh yeah, I know and I feel for the general population, but what I’m more concerned with is ME, lol! Yay, I have a genetic history of being fat. Joy. Now what? Because what I’m trying doesn’t work. And yes, I’m told it’s lack of will power, but I can’t even stick to paleo, which is definitely the diet I feel *healthiest* on.

      Seriously though, thanks for the blog and the book reviews and the movie (which is what got me headed to this in the first place). Hopefully I’ll figure it out eventually. Just feeling down today. I’m actually wondering if I’m entering peri-menopause or something because I’ve gained even more weight over this winter and feel like crap.

      • Cameron Baum says:

        Maybe you should get a DNA test? If there are problems genetically, seeing what is there could provide answers. I remember someone on here saying they had done it, and that lots of genes were damaged and stuff, so they were not absorbing nutrients properly. Maybe this is happening to you?

        • Kathy from Maine says:

          Or, get nutritional testing. I had a test called NutrEval, and it uncovered loads of malabsorption issues. I wasn’t absorbing hardly any of the amino acids from the protein I was eating and was actually on the verge of protein malnutrition (what the lab said). I wasn’t absorbing hardly any of the B vitamins and several essential minerals, either. Try Googling “malabsorption causing weight gain.” They can definitely be related. Most people think you would lose weight (failure to thrive) with malabsorption, but it can also cause you to gain weight and not be able to lose it.

          I’m not on a regimen of mega doses of prebiotics, probiotics, digestive enzymes, all the B vitamins (in their active form), and a ton of other vitamins and supplements. It’s anyone’s guess how long it will take my body to recover, but have been told 6 months is not out of the question.

          The NutrEval test is expensive, but knowing what the issues are is really helpful, and knowing what supplements are really going to help me (as opposed to wasting my money on this sup, then that sup) was invaluable to me.

          Good luck!

      • LeeAnn says:

        Shannon, I know what you’re feeling. It is frustrating to lose and gain the same 4 pounds even if you’re eating real food. Maybe utilize Jimmy Moore’s website, http://lowcarbdoctors.blogspot.com/ to find a doctor near you who may be able to help ‘adjust’ things within your body, who may understand what is going on. I recently used this website to find a DO in my area and am currently under his care. The first thing he did was determine my eating, and was thrilled that I was grain free/sugar free already. Not sure if this will work, but I’m tired of doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results! It’s time to think out of the box….Good Luck!

      • Shannon says:

        Thanks for the replies 🙂 I do think it’s a malabsorption issue. So many things point to that (not just my symptoms, but going back in the family). But the money is not there for expensive doctors and, right now at least, I’m just tired of researching. Every few years I think I have found “the answer” and it never is. It’s tiring 😛 I now know there is no one answer, but a whole life style of work to fix things and right now maybe it’s just more work than I’m willing to give. For now. I’ll get back on the horse eventually 🙂

        At least I found grain free 🙂 I’m still much healthier than I was before I gave up the grains, so that’s something to be happy about.

  5. tony says:

    Tom, Mr. Bailor brings out a great point, that low carb affects setpoint favorably (lowers it). Many in the diet community have also come to this conclusion.

    Even the recalcitrant CICOist Guyenet admits it, citing that low carb naturally manages your appetite to eat an adequate volume of food without being hungry, implicitly validating your chemistry series articles.

    I also find that I’m resistant to gaining when I keep the carbs low, even when I eat more. Sam Feltham’s n=1 experiments certainly demonstrated it works that way for him.

    • Mike says:

      Guyenet says that the satiety of low carb comes from the increased protein intake, which is in reality why people are successful on LC diets

  6. Firebird7478 says:

    As I read more and listen to his blogs, it seems as though Bailor is more about protein consumption, which I like. But he’s also suggesting lower fat and recommends leaner cuts of meat, low fat Greek yogurt and that if you eat eggs, to throw away some of the yolk in order to get more protein and less fat. He also seems to be a throwback to the Covert Baileys of the world that use to preach loading down on large quantities of broccoli to fill the stomach…eat more, weigh less was all about high fibrous veggies and low fat.

    His diet is definitely lower in fat than what many of us eat. He recommends leaner protein because protein has a satiating effect and isn’t easily converted to fat, not because he thinks natural fats are bad for our health.

    • Justin B says:

      It’s been a while, but I remember hearing an interview where he was asked about that, and he said flat out that he wasn’t against eating natural fat. I’d imagine it’s about reaching a broad, mostly fat-phobic audience with the message that grains and sugar aren’t good. That seems to be the easier message to get across at the moment.

      He’s not at all concerned about natural fats, including saturated fats. His approach is a real-food diet that emphasizes protein and vegetables, without adding extra fat to try to get into ketosis. So it’s not particularly high-fat, but not a low-fat diet either.

    • Firebird7478 says:

      I read the book over the weekend and I realize that lowering the fat content on protein foods ramps up the % of protein, but then suggests adding fat from somewhere else in the meal (ie nuts). That’s a bit puzzling.

      It’s easy enough to get his 10 servings of non-starchy carbs into your daily food intake, it can be done in one large salad. But, he doesn’t like olive oil, butter, etc. which makes that salad hard to take, or vegetables that I would consume with some butter on top.

      I know a lot of people like Slo-Burn but it’s not for me. I still like strength training, ie. deadlifts, squats, kettlebell ballistic movements, etc. He really doesn’t say at any point in the book that if you’re training that way, or if you like to run marathons, triathlons, or are sports specific, etc. to stick with it. He cited his N=1 bum knee to drive home the point the safety of Slo-Burn because training the way I like is how he hurt his knee. He seems to discourage the reader from training any other way than Slo-Burn.

      I’ve give him big props for recommending Quest Bars for snacking. Outstanding product.

  7. Mindy says:

    Any advice for breaking a weight loss plateau? I’m stuck at 168 and have been keeping the carbs under 100g for a couple weeks now. Shaking the weight is so much more difficult after the third kid. Even after a year I just can’t shake the last 12 lbs down to pre-baby weight. It was so much easier the last time around.

    If it’s only been a couple of weeks, I’d give it time.

    • Allen W. says:

      I have been cycling low to moderate carb since January 2013 and have plateaued twice, both times for three months. I was very big to start with so I figure it is just my body hitting a point of resistance and then finally letting the set point fall to a new lower level.

  8. John says:

    From my own personal experience the best way to lose weight and reset your bodies weight set point is with the hcg protocol diet outlined in Dr Semiones book pounds and inches. You must use real hcg from an American pharmacy. I have lost 120 pounds on this diet then maintained my weight for over a year on a low to moderate carb (that is no starch and suger with plenty of vegies)high fat diet.

    • Kathy from Maine says:

      I had a similar experience, until my body went back up to my old setpoint. I lost 35 pounds and stayed within 5 pounds of my lowest weight for more than a year, eating typical LC . Then, despite continuing to eat standard very low carb fare, my weight slowly but steadily went back up to just under where it was when I started. And though I’ve tried hcg quite a number of times since then, I could never get past the first week or so, at even at that didn’t experience the weight loss of that first time.

      I have nothing against hcg. It helped me at a time when nothing else did. I think it probably works best for younger women and also for men. Once menopause hits, all bets are off.

    • Firebird7478 says:

      I did HCG under a doctor’s care in 2008. I went from 183 lbs. down to 160 lbs. BF % dropped to 10%. I starved the entire time. They told me to walk on a treadmill because weight lifting caused the hunger, but that didn’t stop it.

      I rebounded and fast. Within 2 months I was back up to 183.

  9. Craig says:

    Sunday night we went to a little party hosted by a friend who just returned from France and who smuggled back about $150 worth of raw milk cheeses along with some sausages. I noticed that none of the packaging had any sort of calorie information printed on them. We were forced to just snack on delicious fat-filled sausage and cheese until we felt full. A lot of the cheese from the unpasteurized full-fat milk had natural mold on it, but somehow none of us got sick. Someone should do a study and compare how that country compares to ours in rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes with its citizens being forced to make such uninformed choices without all the protection and advice we get thanks to the USDA.

    Pretty sure France would win that comparison.

    • Jean Bush says:

      Craig, read The Fat Fallacy by Will Clower; he spent 2 years in France for his doctorate in neuroscience and he and his family lost a lot of weight eating like the French do.

      • Craig says:

        I’ll check out the book since it sounds fascinating. I assure you the comment was totally tongue-in-cheek. We do a lot of traditional French cooking at out house — fatty cuts of meat-on-the-bone seared in real butter and braised with vegetables in wine and bone stock in a cast iron Dutch oven. Thanks for the recommendation.

  10. John says:

    Kathy was this real doctor prescribed hcg or homeopathic hcg. I used doctor subscribed sublingual tablits. After the first week I was not that hungry. This is a result of being in deep ketosis. Inferior hcg would not cause proper ketosis resulting in not reseting your weight set point and feeling very hungry while on the diet.

    • Kathy from Maine says:

      I used homeopathic drops. I was not hungry at all while on it. I lost 35 pounds in just over 3 months, and kept the weight off for more than a year. I think menopause and some other issues I have caused the weight gain afterward.

      It was Firebird who said he/she was hungry on hcg.

  11. Chris says:

    okay, you convinced me Tom…it’s my next one…I’m just finishing The Epi-Paleo Rx by Jack Kruse, which I warmly recommend to all of you avid scientific readers!

  12. Jeanne says:

    If your dog is fat, it’s not genetics….. it’s probably your lifestyle.

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