When I was a kid in the 1960s, nutrition labels were pretty much non-existent. People who wanted to lose weight usually just put a little less food on their plates and cut out the obvious offenders, like desserts and potatoes. If you actually wanted to know exactly how many calories were in your food, you had to go buy a book. Almost nobody did … but amazingly, there were fewer fat people.
Now nutrition labels are everywhere, but there are more fat people. I’m surprised the proponents of the Lipid Hypothesis didn’t leap to the obvious conclusion: nutrition labels must make people gain weight … I mean, just look at the correlation.
You’d think this little bit of history would convince the high priests of the Holy Church of Accepted Advice For Living A Long And Healthy Life that accurate calorie-counts aren’t the key to losing weight. And of course, you’d be wrong. They’re still convinced it’s all about counting calories. Take a look at this video:
Ohmigosh, the calorie counts on restaurant meals and pre-packaged meals are off by an average of 18 percent! Horrors! No wonder we’re all waddling around these days. This study naturally received a lot of media attention; evil restaurants making us fat and all that. Here’s my favorite headline, from this online article about the study:
Study: Restaurants Lie About Calorie Count
Ah, I see: they’re lying to us! That’s quite an interesting slant, especially since the article itself included this paragraph:
The researchers and other experts aren’t accusing restaurants and food companies of trying to deceive customers. They said most of the discrepancies can be explained by variations in ingredients, portion sizes and testing methods. For example, the teenager behind the counter might have put too much mayonnaise on one sandwich.
I guess journalism school ain’t what it used to be. But if I get started on media bias, I’ll be writing for days, so back to the “experts” in the video …
They’re convinced the inaccurate calorie counts are making us fat. The co-author of Eat This, Not That — one of the many worthless diet books out there — even warns us that being off by 18% could result in gaining 30 to 40 pounds per year.
Wow! Imagine diligently counting your calories for a full year and ending up 40 pounds heavier. You’d be so shocked by the inexplicable weight gain, it would never even occur to you (after, say, gaining the first 20 pounds) to cancel out that extra 18% by thinking to yourself, “Hmmm, my calorie limit might be a little too high. Maybe I’ll reduce it a bit.”
But even if people were actually that stupid, Mr. Eat This Not That’s calculation is based on these assumptions — not a one of which is true:
- People religiously count calories, and continue counting calories even if they gain 40 pounds in a year.
- People eat nothing but pre-packaged food and restaurant meals and therefore depend on precise calorie counts.
- Our metabolisms never adjust to what we eat, so our daily caloric needs always stay the same.
- Every time we exceed those daily caloric needs by 100 calories, we gain exactly 0.02857 pounds.
In other words, they still believe gaining or losing weight works like a bank account: you have a fixed number of expenses to be paid daily from the account (your basal metabolism), and everything else depends on deposits (eating) and withdrawals (activity). The bank counts every calorie.
So by gosh, if you want to lose 10 pounds this year, just cut 100 calories from your daily intake, and you can start shopping for that smaller dress by Christmas. But if you accidentally deposit an extra 100 calories per day — darn those teenage counter clerks with their extra mayo! — you’ll gain 10 pounds.
The bank-account analogy only works if you add a crazy banker to the equation — so crazy, not even the Federal Reserve would hire him. If he’s decided your account should stay at the same level, he doesn’t really care if you deposit a little more or a little less … he’ll just adjust the expenditures and the interest rates until your account is back to where he likes it.
On the other hand, if you eat foods that jack up your insulin, you send a coded message to the banker telling him to build up your account — like it or not. You may think you’re consuming just enough calories to cover your daily expenses, only to discover that he cut your heating bill and deposited them anyway.
In Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes recounted a study in which naturally-lean prisoners were fed an extra 1,000 calories per day for six months. If it’s true that every calorie counts, they should’ve all gained 50 pounds. Not one did. Most only gained a few pounds. Their bodies simply adjusted to the higher intake. As soon as the experiment was over, they returned to their previous weights — and none of them counted calories to do it.
My son’s weight is also remarkably stable. He’s always the same size, always has the same six-pack abs, year in and year out. He consumes well over a million calories in a year, but doesn’t count any of them. Do these experts really believe he just happens to eat exactly the right number of calories every year — with better than 99% accuracy? That’s ridiculous. His hormones tells him how much to weigh, then adjust his appetite and metabolism to keep him there.
Very few people gain 40 pounds in a year, and trust me, the ones who do aren’t counting calories or anything else. And since most of us eat a mix of packaged foods, restaurant foods and home-cooked meals, counting our daily calories precisely is nearly impossible. It’s also unnecessary, if we eat the rights foods.
Yesterday morning I had an omelet with sautéed onions, spices, raw-milk cheese and sour cream on top. My wife made it, she didn’t measure anything, and we split it. (In our case, that means I ate about 2/3 of it.) I have no idea what the calorie count was.
It rained all afternoon, so we took the girls to the mall to get them out of the house. We stopped for lunch in the food court, but I didn’t eat. I wasn’t trying to restrict my calories; I just wasn’t hungry, so nothing appealed to me. Later in the evening I had another one of my wife’s concoctions: a mix of spaghetti squash, grass-fed hamburger, onions, alfredo sauce, and a bit of tomato sauce. Delicious.
Once again, I have no idea how many calories I consumed. Nor do I care, because I don’t calories. I eat the foods I know are good for me. I keep my insulin down. When I do that, I don’t have to control my appetite. My appetite takes care of itself.
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