Can’t say I was surprised a post about calories generated a lot of discussion. Like I said, it’s apparently the issue that will never die. Based on back-and-forth comments on the blog and elsewhere, here are some additional thoughts about the calories debate in no particular order.
As someone pointed out in comments, people engaging in the calories debate often have more extreme views than the leaders whose ideas they’ve supposedly adopted. Yup, I agree. (And for the record, I don’t believe I’ve ever written that calories have nothing to do with it. If I have, let me know — I’m not going to go check every post I’ve ever written.)
When I re-read portions of Protein Power (1996) and The Protein Power Lifeplan (2000) to pull some quotes, I was struck by how well both books have stood up over time. I didn’t come across anything that made me think, “Boy, I bet they wish they hadn’t written that.” In fact, I was reminded that Drs. Eades and Eades were way ahead of the curve. They were explaining this stuff in terms of evolution and what our Paleolithic ancestors ate long before PALEO ™ became a thing.
But just to be sure I wasn’t quoting opinions they no longer hold, I emailed Dr. Eades to check. No, he replied, I haven’t changed my mind on how calories figure into it, so quote away. Then he added this:
I do believe that you can cheat the calorie math a little on the low-carb diet front. In another early blog post I guesstimated (an educated guess, but still a guess) that people on low-carb diets could probably get away with about 300 more calories than they could on a low-fat, high-carb diet. A few years later, Ludwig and colleagues came up with almost that same number (theirs was 325 kcal, as I recall) of excess energy expenditure on low-carb diets as compared to low-fat.
Perhaps a bit of a caloric advantage when trying to lose weight on a low-carb diet. That’s a heckuva long way from calories have nothing to do with it. But I wonder how many people who are fans of Dr. Eades insist calories don’t figure into it?
On one of the low-carb cruises, someone asked Dr. Eric Westman during Q&A if calories count. “Yes, calories count,” he replied. “But that doesn’t mean you need to count them.” He went on to explain that if you adopt a diet that lowers insulin to where it should be, your appetite should naturally fall in line with your energy needs, and your weight will normalize without counting calories.
Once again, that’s not the same as calories have nothing to do with it.
Low-carb and overeating.
In the previous post, I quoted Drs. Eades and Eades explaining that they had patients who wanted to know why they weren’t losing weight on a VLC diet. Diet journals showed that these patients were consuming 4,000 or more calories per day. That’s why they weren’t losing weight. (The pleasant surprise was that they weren’t gaining, either.)
Several studies have demonstrated that people on low-carb diets spontaneously eat less and report feeling less hungry, so what was happening with these people? Why weren’t their appetites reduced?
I remember Dr. Mary Dan Eades telling me over dinner years ago that if anything would torpedo the low-carb movement, it was all the junk-food low-carb products being sold. She explained that when they had patients who were still overeating, diet logs often showed they were stuffing themselves with processed junk that happened to be low-carb.
Unlike a lot of low-carb enthusiasts, I don’t simply dismiss Stephan Guyenet’s ideas about food reward. No, I don’t think it’s the entire answer, but this isn’t an either-or situation. The makers of processed foods don’t hire all those food-flavor scientists for no reason. In fact, for those of you who haven’t read it, here’s a part of chapter seven of the Fat Head Kids book:
The Nautilus was programmed to choose the right fuels and building materials automatically. Inside the FUD hatch, special sensors send messages to The Brain that say This is what the ship needs. You experience those messages as This Tastes Good.
When humans hunted and gathered their food, this app worked perfectly. Our taste for sweets told us to eat fruits and sweet-tasting vegetables like carrots and squashes. Our taste for fats told us to eat olives, nuts, eggs and meats. Our taste for salts told us to eat meats and seafood. Our taste for spices told us to eat plants that were full of vitamins and minerals.
But as we’ve seen, apps are designed for a particular environment. The This Tastes Good app was programmed for The Planet of Real Foods. It still worked reasonably well when we migrated to The Planet of FUD Farms. But when we migrated to The Planet of Industrial FUD, we created a huge mismatch between the app and the FUD in the environment.
The makers of food-like products understand exactly how the This Tastes Good app works. So they add just the right combinations of sweet, fatty, salty and spicy flavors to industrial FUD. When these food-like products enter the FUD hatch, our sensors tell us This Tastes Good. This is what the ship needs. That’s how The Nautilus was programmed.
But of course, these aren’t the foods the ship needs.
We are programmed to find certain flavors highly rewarding. So my guess is that if you’ve been dealing with a dysregulated appetite for years (or even if you haven’t), it’s easy to continue craving and stuffing yourself with oh-so-tasty junk foods – even low-carb junk foods – if they tickle the right part of the brain. After all, people crave and over-consume lots of substances that don’t provide calories or jack up insulin.
That’s just one guess. Another guess is that people who fill up on low-carb junk foods aren’t getting enough protein or micronutrients. As we point out in the book, your body knows what it needs. If you don’t provide what it needs, it will keep triggering hunger in the hope that you’ll eventually stumble across some actual nutrients in your food. In that case, you won’t stop until you’re stuffed. Here’s what we wrote in the book:
Food-like products can satisfy your appetite for awhile – but not because The Nautilus has what it needs. When the belly of the ship becomes full and begins to stretch, special sensors warn Marty to stop running the Get Hungry! program. But by the time that happens, you’ve probably consumed way more FUD than you actually need.
Marty has to do something with all that extra fuel. If you’re one of those lucky people (like my wife) Mary will crank up your metabolism and burn it away. But if you’re not so lucky, Marty will store the extra calories as fat.
Not exactly a calories have nothing to do with it argument, wouldn’t you say?
Why calorie math sucks, part one.
Calories have nothing to do with it is an extreme and unsupportable position. But so is The Piggy Bank Theory with its stupidly simple calories in/calories out math. Suppose you’re overweight and go online looking for advice. Here are some samples of what you’ll find.
In one month you can reasonably anticipate losing eight to 10 pounds if you follow a pretty strict plan. Losing one pound of body fat is equivalent to 3,500 calories. To lose two pounds per week, you must drop 1,000 calories per day. Elimination can be done by cutting the calories consumed in a day or increasing the amount of calories burned during your workout.
If every day you can cut about 75 calories through diet and burn about 75 calories through exercise, you’ll drop between 10 and 15 pounds in a year. It’s practically losing weight in your sleep.
On average, a slice of cheese—whether it be atop a sandwich, salad, omelet or burger—has about 70 calories. Eliminate it from just three meals a week to keep 10,920 calories and keep 3 pounds off of your frame over the course of the year.
From the Centers For Disease Control:
Paul is 47 years old and weighs 240 pounds. He’s at risk for type 2 diabetes. His doctor urges him to lose 40 pounds at a rate of 1 pound a week. Losing 1 to 2 pounds a week is a healthy goal for most adults, experts say. This gradual weight loss is the way to make lasting changes. To lose 1 pound a week, Paul needs to burn 3,500 more calories than he takes in each week. That’s 500 calories per day.
The CDC then lists all kind of ways to cut those 500 calories: swap skim milk for whole milk, use reduced calorie margarine on your toast instead of butter, steam your vegetables instead of sautéing in oil, etc., etc.
To lose one pound in seven days you need to reduce your net calories by 500 every day. The easiest way to do that is a 250 split: Cut half from your diet and burn the other half through exercise…. Choose one strategy from the diet and exercise columns each day and after seven days you will have cut out 3,500 calories. Losing four sticks of butter has never been such a cinch!
Heck, it’s a cinch, ya see! The article then lists all kinds of ways to cut those calories … switch from a cup of premium ice cream to light ice cream, eat an ounce of soy nuts instead of three ounces of almonds, etc., etc., blah-blah-blah. Simple math.
I could go on and on, but you’ve already seen this advice everywhere. You’ll hear it from doctors, dietitians, trainers, workout buddies, and countless internet cowboys. Just cut those calories, and the pounds will drop off in exact proportion to the number of calories you cut.
So people follow that advice and fail to lose weight – because our bodies don’t work like bank accounts. But that’s just part of the problem …
Why calorie math sucks, part two
Here’s a quote from the Fat Head Kids book, after a section describing the typical “just cut one pat of butter per day from your diet!” advice:
Well, that sounds easy, doesn’t it? So according to these people, if you’re fat, it’s because you’re not willing to eat just a little less — which means you’re a pig. Or you’re not willing to exercise just a little more — which means you’re a lazy pig.
The real problem with The Piggy Bank Theory is that it gives people who don’t know what the @#$% they’re talking about a license to be judgmental jackasses. It allows them to assume that anyone who gains weight or fails to lose weight is simply eating too much and could therefore lose weight by just eating normally. That’s nonsense. Here’s a quote from the book:
In a study from the 1960s, researchers wrote about obese patients who were locked in a hospital and fed just 600 calories each day. That’s about one-fourth as much as most adults eat. And yet the obese patients didn’t lose weight. Is that because of a flaw in their character? Should they only eat 300 calories per day? Or 200?
The researchers, by the way, referred to these people as the resistant obese and thermodynamic paradoxes. They were at a complete loss to explain how anyone could stay fat on 600 calories per day. But they did.
Here’s another quote from the book:
A documentary I saw called The Science of Obesity featured a woman who was lean until about age 35. Then she suddenly started getting very fat. She cut her calories to just 1500 per day and still got fatter.
So, was she consuming more calories than she was burning? Yes, absolutely. That is always HOW we get fat. But was consuming too many calories WHY she got fat?
No, of course she wasn’t consuming too many calories. But thanks to the belief in Piggy Bank math, doctor after doctor accused her of lying about her food intake, even though she’d been keeping detailed records. By gosh, nobody could get that fat on 1500 calories per day!
Uh, yeah, some people can. And some people don’t lose weight even on low-calorie diets. Of course, pointing that out inevitably leads to some jackass citing …
The concentration camp argument
If there’s one argument that makes me want to smack the person offering it, that’s the one.
Well, no fat people ever walked out of a concentration camp, so that proves it’s all about the calories! Huh? Huh? I bet you crazy low-carbers never thought of that one!
Yes, we’ve thought of that one. Here’s a quote from Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes:
Yes, it’s true: If you are stranded on a desert island and starved for months on end, you will waste away, whether you’re fat or thin to begin with. Even if you are just semi-starved, your fat will melt away, as will a good share of your muscle. Try the same prescription in the real world, though, and try to keep it up indefinitely – try to maintain the weight loss – and it works very rarely indeed.
There’s a reason it rarely works: it’s true that no fat people ever walked out of a concentration camp. It’s also true that no healthy, happy people with well-functioning metabolisms ever walked out of a concentration camp. The only reason they could be starved into an emaciated state is that THEY WERE LOCKED INSIDE A CONCENTRATION CAMP, YOU @#$%ING MORON!
There, I think that more or less expresses how I feel about it.
Ancel Keys actually conducted a useful study in the 1940s. To determine the likely effects of food shortages in Europe after WWII, he locked a group of young, healthy volunteers inside a camp and fed them 1500 calories per day for weeks on end. They lost weight. They also lost their energy, their libidos, and in a few cases, their sanity. They were miserable. They were cold. They were obsessed with food. One participant bit off part of his own finger to get out of the experiment.
When the CICO crowd insists that fat people should just starve themselves into being thin, they’re telling them to suck it up and live in a state of constant misery.
Yes, the woman who continued getting fat on 1500 calories per day probably could have starved away the fat at some ridiculously low intake of calories. She also would have been miserable the whole time, and would have had to remain miserable to avoid regaining the weight.
In a speech about what he calls “the fat switch,” Dr. Richard Johnson mentioned what happens in experiments when animals lose weight. When they burn dietary calories, they’re calm. When they start burning their own body fat, most of them remain calm. But when they start burning away lean body mass, most of them become highly agitated. That’s what happens when the body believes it’s starving.
The alcoholic analogy.
We used various analogies in the Fat Head Kids book: Saying people get fat because calories in exceeded calories out is like explaining that Donald Trump is a billionaire because he deposited more dollars in the bank than he withdrew. It’s like a plumber explaining that your toilet overflowed because more water went into the tank than drained out. Those statements are true, but they only explain HOW something happened, not WHY it happened.
Here’s an analogy I’ve used in speeches, but not (for obvious reasons) in a book targeted at kids: saying people become obese because they eat too much is like saying people become alcoholics because they drink too much. That not only fails to provide an answer, it doesn’t even ask the relevant question, which is: WHY do they drink too much? What’s the root cause of the excess drinking? Why do they crave far more alcohol than normal drinkers?
To me, arguments about calories are often as ridiculous as:
“The cause of alcoholism is drinking too much.”
“What?! That doesn’t explain anything. You’re confusing the symptom with the cause.”
“No, no, no. We’ve studied this extensively, and every time an alcoholic becomes drunk, it’s because the amount of alcohol he consumed exceeded his body’s ability to process it. So the cause of alcoholism is obviously drinking too much, and the cure is to stop drinking too much.”
“It doesn’t work that way in real life.”
“Of course it does! We locked alcoholics and normal drinkers inside a prison and gave them each just two drinks per day. At the end of each day, they were all equally sober. So that proves the cause of alcoholism is drinking too much, and the cure is to stop drinking so much. Don’t be anti-science!”
Assuming we live in an alternate universe where we can’t live without alcohol and not drinking at all therefore isn’t an option, any treatment for dealing with alcoholism would have to address the underlying biochemical drive to drink to excess. “You’re a drunk because you drink too much” isn’t an explanation; it’s just a restatement of the symptom.
“To cure your alcoholism, just drink less” would be ridiculous advice. But it would be equally ridiculous to say “being drunk all the time has nothing to do with the amount of alcohol consumed, so nobody has to count how much they drink.”
Previous posts on the topic.
Someone mentioned in comments that there are probably people who read the previous post, but aren’t long-time readers. Duh. I should have thought of that. So here are links to some posts related to this whole, never-ending debate about calories.
The Rider and The Elephant explains why we can’t just starve ourselves into being thin.
Puppies and Thermodynamics is about how we have two Rotties who eat exactly the same meals … but one has 35% more body mass, despite being the more active of the two.
Fat Accounts and the Laws of FiscalDynamics is another take on the body-as-bank-account analogy.
I hope that helps.