Calories that don't add up

14th June

A pound of fat is 3500 kcals. Or is it? According to the newest research on the subject this number is old news and a more accurate figure stands at 4200 kcals, but really... who cares!

I don't, because common sense is all it takes to see that simple math doesn't work when it comes to our bodies and the way they turn food into energy. A calorie is a theoretical, academic construct - you are not.

Calories matter... not

Let's get it out of the way right now – how much you eat does impact your weight and body composition. Therefore, finding a way to track the amount of food can be helpful as a tool of self control but... you can't actually count the calories you eat. This is why:

  • there are too many variations at play to accurately estimate the calorie content of naturally derived foods, the amount of energy (calories) in any animal product, for example, depends on what the animal ate, how much it moved and where it lived;
  • the amount of calories given on food packaging is not subject to any official regulations and can be as much as 50 % off the actual number. So you may have eaten 300 kcals or 450 kcals. Whatever, right..?

Should this not convince you to stop counting, add this: 

In a chemistry lab, food may be very easy to break down into calories but to your living body it's much more than incoming energy. First of all, your metabolism has no direct way of measuring calories (!) – it doesn't have a calculator or an encyclopaedia where a calorie is clearly defined so it can refer to it. It does, however, sense glucose (carbs), protein, fat or fibre as these are potent (natural and familiar) signalling molecules, while a calorie remains a (bootless and foreign) mathematical concept.

Real-life is a little different and makes a calorie... not a calorie. If you ate a piece of wood, it wouldn't matter at all that it had 500 kcals because your body can't absorb (virtually) any of this energy. But if you ate 500 kcals worth of steak you would assimilate most of its calorific content (as difficult as it may be to come up with the exact number of calories that your body has actually absorbed). What matters here is that your digestive apparatus may, or may not, absorb the energy you ingest with food; whether you're counting or not. So 'calories in and calories out' is less than perfect science, at best, and gets a little more complex still...

What happens when you drink a diet coke that has 0 kcals? There's virtually no energy it provides but you could still gain weight as the sweeteners it contains raise insulin levels. Even if 2 plus 2 is 4, your body simply doesn't care.

Calculus doesn't apply because every bite you eat delivers more than straight-up energy. It carries sophisticated information that feeds your internal control system to tell incoming calories 'what to do' – they may be absorbed or not, used to fuel your tissues and organs or excreted in the breath; equally they can be sent straight down to your fat stores. So a calorie, before it enters your mouth, is not the same once it starts being processed by the body; a reason to stop counting?


Gut bacteria matter more than calories

The same amount of food can 'behave' like a 100 kcals in one person and like a 150 in another. A big difference all due to small (yet mighty) bacteria that live in our guts. Studies show that in overweight people these creatures are much better, and eager, at extracting calories. What affects their behaviour? It's the types of foods you eat, not the amount.

I wholeheartedly recommend you test your gut bacteria, which is fairly easy to do. Don't waste your time trying to loose fat while your microbiome could have decided: 'not happening, no matter how little you feed me'. If you're interested in finding a practitioner who can run the test for you, email us and we'll point you in the right direction (don't just google it!)

Hormones matter more than calories

The simplest, and very helpful, way of looking at the subject comes down to three points:

1. Different foods cause the release of different hormones 2. Hormones decide what happens to calories: it's possible to gain weight in a calorific deficit and lose weight while increasing the amount of food. 3. The hormone with the most decision-making power is insulin. Keeping it low is the most important aspect of getting (and staying) in shape.

Calories and yo-yo's

If you're still thinking about cutting calories, remember that eating less causes your metabolic rate to drop. This is big. Your low-calorie inspired fat loss will eventually stall and when you start eating more again the weight will inevitably pile back on, often with a vengeance. What works better than eating less is moving more - walk as much as you can (literally!) and lift weights. This will increase your metabolic rate and create a hormonal environment where the body gives up its fat stores easily. I wouldn't go on a 'low calorie diet' but plan two 'hungry days' a week when I only eat once, stopping before I feel full (and I wouldn't count anything).

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