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.
If you enjoy my posts, please consider a small donation to the Fat Head Kids GoFundMe campaign.