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There Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body)

Caution: contains SCIENCE!

A friend of mine once said “The problem with explaining complicated systems to the layman is this: it’s easy to simplify a concept to the point that that it’s no longer true.

To that end, I submit the following hypothesis:

The concept of the “calorie”, as applied to nutrition, is an oversimplification so extreme as to be untrue in practice.

What Is A “Calorie”, Anyway?

The dietary calorie is defined as “the amount of energy required to increase the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Kelvin.”

The dietary calorie is actually a “kilocalorie” = 1000 calories, which is why you’ll occasionally see it abbreviated as “kcal”.

It’s an obsolete unit: the “joule” is the modern unit of energy. There are 4.184 joules in a calorie, and 4184 in a dietary calorie (kilocalorie).

Problem: Our Bodies Don’t Use “Calories”

You may already see the problem here: a “calorie” is a unit of energy transfer. We determine the number of “calories” in a food by, quite literally, burning it and measuring how much heat it generates.

A bomb calorimeter

This is a bomb calorimeter. Note: not equivalent to the human digestive and metabolic system.

Unfortunately, our bodies are not steam engines! They do not burn the food we eat in a fire and convert the heat into mechanical work. Thus:

There is no biochemical system in our bodies whose input is a “calorie”.

Every metabolic pathway in our body starts with a specific molecule (or family of molecules), and converts it into another molecule—usually consuming energy in the process, not producing it.

This is why we must eat food in order to stay alive. The chemical reactions that build and repair each one of the trillions of cells in our bodies, from brain to toe, from eye to pancreas, require both energy and raw materials. The chemical reactions that allow our cells to perform their necessary functions, from transporting oxygen to parsing visual input to generating muscular force to manufacturing mucus and bile and stomach acid and insulin and leptin and T3, require both energy and raw materials. And the chemical reactions that allow our cells to communicate, via hormones and neurotransmitters, require both energy and raw materials.

In summary, the food we eat has many possible fates. Here are the major ones:

  • Food can be used to build and repair our tissues, both cellular (e.g. muscles, skin, nerves) and acellular (e.g. hair, collagen, bone mineral).
  • It can be used to build enzymes, cofactors, hormones, and other molecules necessary for cellular function and communication.
  • It can be used to build bile, stomach acid, mucus, and other necessary secretions, both internal and external.
  • It can be used by gut bacteria to keep themselves alive, and the waste products of its metabolism can meet any of the other fates listed here.
  • It can fail to be digested or absorbed, and be excreted partially or completely unused.
  • It can be converted to a form in which it can be stored for future use, such as glycogen or fat.
  • It can be transported to an individual cell that takes it in, and converts it to energy, in order to perform the above tasks.

Note that only the last of these fates—immediate conversion to energy—even approximates the definition of a dietary “calorie”.

Why “Calories In, Calories Out” Is A Radical Oversimplification

By now, the problem with “calories in, calories out” should be obvious:

The fate of a “calorie” of food depends completely on its specific molecular composition, the composition of the foods accompanying it, and how those molecules interact with our current metabolic and nutritional state.

Note that “our current metabolic and nutritional state” is the definition of satiety, as I explain in my ongoing article series “Why Are We Hungry?”, and in my 2012 AHS presentation.

Did you just have an epiphany? I hope so.

So What Matters, If Not “Calories”?

Of the possible fates I listed above, only one is wholly undesirable…storage as fat.

I speak from the modern, First World point of view, in which obesity and the metabolic syndrome are more common health problems than starvation.

And while space does not permit a full exploration of all the possible fates of an ingested “calorie” (it’s called a “biochemistry textbook”), I will give a few examples.

A Few Possible Fates Of A “Calorie”: Protein

Imagine a molecule of “protein”.

Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. (Learn more about proteins and their structure here.) Some proteins, such as meat, are readily digested and absorbed. Some are poorly digestible, such as the prolamins found in grains like wheat and corn, and part of them will either feed gut bacteria or be excreted. Then, once protein is absorbed, its composition of amino acids determines how much of the protein we can use to build and repair (the first three fates in the list above), and how much must be burned for energy or excreted.

The amino acid composition of grains is different than what our bodies need, since the metabolic needs of a grass seed are very different than the metabolic needs of a human being. That’s why grains score so low on measures of protein quality, such as the PDCAAS, compared to meat and eggs. (Grains score 0.25-0.4, versus approximately 1.0 for all animal-source proteins.)

But even if the protein is perfectly digested, absorbed, and of high quality, that is no guarantee of its fate! If we’ve already absorbed enough complete protein for our body’s needs, additional protein will still be converted to glucose, burned for energy, or excreted, no matter how high its quality. (Our bodies have no dedicated storage reservoir for protein…the process of muscle-building is very slow, and only occurs when stimulated by the right kinds of exercise.)

So, right away we can see that a “calorie” of meat protein that is digested, absorbed, and used to build or repair our bodies is not equal to a “calorie” of meat protein surplus to our needs. Nor is it equal to a “calorie” of wheat protein that is only partially digested, poorly absorbed, and disruptive to the digestive tract itself! (e.g. Fasano 2011)

A Few Possible Fates Of A “Calorie”: Fructose

(Again, space does not permit a full exploration of all possible fates of all possible types of “calories”, so these explanations will be somewhat simplified.)

Imagine a molecule of fructose.

Under ideal conditions, fructose is shunted immediately to the liver, where it is converted into glycogen and stored for future use. However, fructose has many other possible fates, all bad. It can fail to be absorbed, whereupon it will feed gut bacteria—a process that can cause SIBO, and consequent acid reflux, when continued to excess. If our liver is already full of glycogen, fructose is converted to fat—a process strongly implicated in NAFLD and visceral obesity. And when our liver is overloaded with fructose (or alcohol, which uses part of the same metabolic pathway), it can remain in circulation, where it can react with proteins or fats to form AGEs (advanced glycation endproducts), useless and/or toxic pro-inflammatory molecules which must be filtered out by the liver.

A typical Big Gulp contains over 100 grams of HFCS. Even the typical “healthy” fruit smoothie contains over 90 grams of high-fructose fruit sugar!

An adult liver can only store, at most, 100-120g of glycogen…and our bodies never let it become deeply depleted.

The problem here should be obvious.

Now ask yourself: which of the above fates has any meaning relative to the definition of a “calorie”?

A Few Possible Fates Of A “Calorie”: Starch

I can’t possibly explore all the fates of starch, but here are some common ones.

Starch is made of glucose molecules chained together. Upon digestion, it’s broken down into these individual glucose molecules, and absorbed—usually reasonably well, unlike fructose (though certain forms, called “resistant starch”, are indigestible and end up being used for energy by our gut bacteria).

Once glucose enters our bloodstream, its fate depends on a host of metabolic and nutritional factors. Ideally, because high blood glucose is toxic, our muscles and liver are not already full of glycogen, and insulin will quickly force it into one of them, whereupon it will be stored as glycogen and used as needed. Our brain and red blood cells also need glucose, since they can’t run on fat, and if they’re low on energy they can burn it too.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, our liver has a very small storage capacity, and the capacity of our muscles isn’t very large either—1-2% of muscle mass.

A 155 pound (70 kilo) adult at 14% bodyfat will contain about 66 pounds (30 kg) of muscle, leaving him with 300-600 grams of glycogen storage, depending on his level of training. (Source.)

Note that only reasonably intense exercise (> 50% VO2max) significantly depletes muscle glycogen, and only from the muscles used to perform the effort. Also note that the mainstream recommendation of 50-60% of daily “calories” from carbohydrate equals 300g-360g for a 2400 “calorie” diet.

Again, the problem here should be obvious.

Then, our cells will try to switch over to burning the surplus of available glucose, instead of burning fat for energy.

People with impaired metabolic flexibility have a problem switching between glucose and fat metabolism, for reasons that are still being investigated.

This is yet another example of how our nutritional and metabolic state affects the fate of a “calorie”; why a “calorie” of fat and a “calorie” of sugar are not equivalent in any sane sense of the word; and why different people respond differently to the same number and composition of “calories”.

Next, our body will try to “rev up” our basal metabolic rate in order to burn off the excess glucose…if sufficient cofactors such as T3 are available, and if our metabolic flexibility isn’t impaired. And a continued surplus will be (slowly) converted to fat in either the liver or in fat cells…but if it remains in circulation, it can react with proteins or fats to form AGEs (though more slowly than fructose).

Note that these proteins and fats can be part of living tissues: neuropathy, blindness, and all the complications of diabetes are consequences of excessively high blood sugar over the long term.

Are you starting to understand why the concept of a “calorie” is so oversimplified as to be effectively meaningless?

A Few Possible Fates Of A “Calorie”: Fat

Explaining all possible fates of all possible fats, even cursorily, would require an even longer section than the above two! However, I trust my point is clear: the fate of dietary linoleic acid differs from the the fate of DHA, the fate of palmitic acid, or the fate of butyrate, and their effects on our nutritional and metabolic state will also differ.

But Wait, There’s More

I also don’t have time or space to explore the following important factors:

  • Energy loss when food is converted to different forms of storage (e.g. gluconeogenesis, glycogenesis, lipogenesis) or retrieved from storage
  • How different types and quantities of dietary protein, fat, and carbohydrate affect our hormonal and metabolic environment
  • How the fate of a “calorie” depends on the composition of the other foods it’s eaten with
  • How different types and quantities of food, as well as our nutritional and metabolic state (our satiety), affect our perception of hunger
  • The host of known, measurable differences between individuals, such as MTHFR genes, the respiratory quotient, and the bewildering variety of hormones on the HPTA axis.

Conclusion: The Concept Of A “Calorie” Is So Oversimplified As To Be Meaningless

Let’s recap some of the possible fates of a “calorie”:

  • Food can be used to build and repair our tissues, both cellular (e.g. muscles, skin, nerves) and acellular (e.g. hair, collagen, bone mineral).
  • It can be used to build enzymes, cofactors, hormones, and other molecules necessary for cellular function and communication.
  • It can be used to build bile, stomach acid, mucus, and other necessary secretions, both internal and external.
  • It can be used by gut bacteria to keep themselves alive, and the waste products of its metabolism can meet any of the other fates listed here.
  • It can fail to be digested or absorbed, and be excreted partially or completely unused.
  • It can be converted to a form in which it can be stored for future use, such as glycogen or fat.
  • It can be transported to an individual cell that takes it in, and converts it to energy, in order to perform the above tasks.

Note that only the last of these fates—immediate conversion to energy—even approximates the definition of a dietary “calorie”.

I hope it is now clear that the fate of a “calorie” depends on a bewildering host of factors, including our current nutritional and metabolic state (our satiety), the composition of the other foods it’s eaten with; our biochemical individuality, both genetic and environmental; and much more.

Takeaways

  • There is no biochemical system in our bodies whose input is a “calorie”.
  • The food we eat has many possible fates, only one of which approximates the definition of a dietary “calorie”.
  • The fate of a “calorie” of food depends completely on its specific molecular composition, the composition of the foods accompanying it, and how those molecules interact with our current metabolic and nutritional state—our satiety.
  • Therefore, the concept of the “calorie”, as applied to nutrition, is an oversimplification so extreme as to be untrue in practice.
  • Therefore, the concept of “calories in, calories out”, or CICO, is also unhelpful in practice.

  • The health-supporting fates of food involve being used as raw materials to build and repair tissues; to build enzymes, cofactors, and hormones; to build bile, mucus, and other necessary secretions; to support “good” gut bacteria, while discouraging “bad” bacteria; and, once all those needs are taken care of, providing energy sufficient to perform those tasks (but no more).
  • Therefore, we should eat foods which are made of the raw materials we need to perform and support the above functions.
  • Biochemical individuality means that the optimum diet for different people will differ—as will their tolerance for suboptimal diets.
  • However, eating like a predator—a diet based on meat, fish, shellfish, vegetables and fruit in season, and just enough starch to support your level of physical activity—is an excellent starting point.

Live in freedom, live in beauty.

JS

This is a multi-part series. Continue reading Part II, “Did Four Rice Chex Make America Fat?”

ATTENTION! Before reflexively commenting that “A CALORIE IS A CALORIE BECAUSE SCIENCE!!11!!!1!”, you are required to read both the comments below (in which I address many such questions)—

and, more importantly, the peer-reviewed research contained in Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, and Part VIII. (And there’s more to come.)

Yes, metabolism is complicated. Deal with it.


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139 comments

Permalink: There Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body)
  • [...] Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body) GNOLLS.ORG / Posted on: March 19, 2013 GNOLLS.ORG – A friend of mine once said “The problem with explaining complicated systems to the [...]

  • Beowulf

    I love waking up to a new Gnolls article. :-) Beware, a bit of a rant follows.

    Breaking out of the CICO dogma seems to be a real key for heath. I am so tired of seeing overweight coworkers slowly nibbling on their “portion controlled” lunches consisting mostly of either pre-packaged or home-packaged “100 calorie packs,” most of which is really junk food. I work in fitness, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard from a potential client looking to lose weight, “I know what I need to do [eat less, move more]; I just have to do it.” The more I know, the more I conclude that most people really DON’T know what to do.

    I think CICO is so seductive because it says you can have anything you want as long as the portions are small enough. Want 200 calories of pie this evening? Well, just leave the cheese off your turkey sandwich and go walk a mile. Nutritional needs don’t matter. Food quality doesn’t matter. Just do your addition and subtraction based on a food label and you’re good to go. You don’t have to give up anything because “we all know” deprivation can never work. Yeah, I am SO deprived avoiding cookies and eating great quality meat instead. It’s only deprivation if your body actually needs it.

    Insanity.

  • pzo

    I’m surprised that you didn’t mention the most blatant “A calorie is not a calorie:” The thermal effect of food. (TEF)

    Protein requires massive amounts of energy to get converted into the forms we can use. Depending on one’s source citation, this is apparently about 23%. In other words, TEF strips one calorie of every four eaten. Truly a low calorie macronutrient!

    There is very little TEF for fats or carbs, as I recall.

  • thorbreakbeatgod

    >There is no biochemical system in our bodies whose input is a “calorie”.

    There is no system period, in which the primary input is a ‘calorie’ the calorie is a measurement of the energy contained within – the amount of heat something gives off through chemical processes.

    You couldn’t even get that right, your ‘science’ isn’t that.

    This is basically a long winded and poorly articulated argument for Keto/Paleo diets.

  • Brian Beaven

    Another great article! I really liked the way you showed the many ways the macronutrients get processed. But, at the end of the day, it still remains that if you consume more energy than you expend, you will accummulate fat.

  • Tyler

    thorbreakbeatgod – Did you even read the article? This article doesn’t even mention anything diet-related. It’s solely on the dangerous shortcomings of simplifying human nutrition to a unit of energy. You’ve let hate close your mind and bias your thinking. That, my friend, is what is truly not science.

  • eddie watts

    wow the haters are already here!
    good article, my favourite thing over the last few days has been this:

    so to lose a pound of fat you need to use 3500 calories?
    and yet a pound of butter has more than 4000 calories?
    therefore: you eat a pound of butter and end up with less calories: you’ve just destroyed matter!!

    it’s all a nonsense of course. keep them coming J :)

  • I've used the 'uncertainty principle' a few times myself – namely that you cannot tell the fate of a particular “calorie” and that CICO masks a host of complications.  My favoured example is that of two athletes on equi-caloric diets but one whose diet is 50:50 fat and carbohydrate, and another whose diet is 30:30:30 of protein, fat and CHO.  The ratios are unimportant rather than to illustrate that different macronutrients satisfy different demands in the body, and 'repair' from exercise induced damage is an obvious example.

    Of course a picture paints a thousand words.

  • Timothy

    Excellent article. The fallacy of CICO has always been so apparent that I declined to count calories at all for a long time.

    But there must be some measurement in order to calibrate a diet that will oxidize stored fat while sparing lean mass.

    Counting macronutrients is more accurate, but “if it fits your macros” is just as bad a fallacy. JS is one of the only people writing about why. Insoluble fiber and fructose are both “carb”; trans fat and DHA are both “fat”; casein and L-Tyrosine are both “protein”. Yet in each case the metabolic effects could not be more different and this must be understood for efficient dieting. It baffles me that so many people fail to do so.

    Keep up the fab nutrition articles, JS, they’re so much more enjoyable than reading biochemistry textbooks.

  • Michael

    I really enjoy your articles; the more I read, the more I truly appreciate your writing style and message.

  • Brook

    any hope that we will get articles related to the possible fates of each one?

    also great article ive been saying this exact thing for awhile now but couldnt put it so eloquently

  • Marilyn

    But I (and thousands of other women like me) am here to tell you that counting calories DOES work. Lunch: a bushel of iceberg lettuce topped with a whole can of water-packed tuna, drizzled with lemon juice. Dinner: a serving of elbow macaroni cooked together with a serving of frozen mixed vegetables until the creamy starch forms a sauce, topped with one slice of American cheese. Snack: Check the nutrition facts on the bag; immediately upon opening the package, take the appropriate number of zip-loc bags and divide the contents equally. . . The pounds just melted away. Every time. Was I hungry all the time? It’s been over 30 years, so I don’t really remember. I do remember being tickled pink to be fitting into smaller dresses and really liking the way I looked.

    I also know that the suggestion to “eat less” is nothing new. I remember hearing about a doctor in the 1950s patronizingly telling women “just push yourself away from the table.”

    Arguing about whether calories count or not is probably not worth the effort, since women like [the much younger] me will continue to count calories and tell their friends of their successes. The message that’s HUGELY important is all the ways the human body uses the calories it gets, only one of which is fat storage. With all the single-minded emphasis on obesity today, it would be good to see some articles in the popular press such as “Yes, too many calories can make you gain weight, but did you know that the calories you eat can also do these things. . .?”

  • Jen W

    @Marilyn: It seems to me that JS is NOT saying calorie counting doesn't work, but that it is an oversimplification of a very complex process.  If you only look at how many calories, and not what's in those calories and whether those “calories” produce a satiety response or not, then it is a short-sited way of thinking.  I think you should read JS's “Why We Get Hungry” series.  It should help you better understand where JS is coming from here.

     

    @JS, thanks for another great article.

  • [...] Re: Weight Loss or Weight Gain Thread "2012" A good read that a friend sent me: There Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body) - GNOLLS.ORG [...]

  • Jamie

    Superb essay, Sir. Superb.

  • Carole AKA Carbsaner

    Another excellent and balanced post J. I always look forward to them. I know that losing weight by restricting calories or fat is possible, I have done it before… but it was a grim experience, constant unbearable hunger, feeling faint, cold sweats, heart palpitations. I have been eating low carb for over 5 years now – losing weight that way was easy and painless and I’ve managed to stay at a sensible weight since.

  • Keoni Galt

    wow the haters are already here!

    Haters? More likely paid shills and cognitive infiltrators. Remember one of the most important posts here at gnolls.org:

    “Simply by eating a paleo diet, we have made ourselves enemies of the establishment, and will be treated henceforth as dangerous radicals.

    This is not a conspiracy theory. By eschewing commodity crops and advocating the consumption of grass-fed meat, pastured eggs, and local produce, we are making several very, very powerful enemies.

    The medical and nutritional establishments hate paleo, because we’re exposing the fact that they’ve been wrong for decades and have killed millions of people with their bad advice.

    The agribusinesses and industrial food processors hate paleo, because we’re hurting their business by not buying their highly profitable grain- and soy-based products.

    The mainstream media hates paleo, because they profit handsomely from advertising those grain- and soy-based products.

    The government hates paleo, because they’re the enforcement arm of big agribusinesses, industrial food processors, and mainstream media—and because their subsidy programs create mountains of surplus grain that must be consumed somehow.”

    You can bet your ass there are people who make a living doing exactly what the “haters” are doing in this thread. Not just the haters though. Look at the type of posts written here in which the person seems nice and friendly – but STILL pushes the CICO simplification as “correct” bullshit.

    They’re all over Mark’s Daily Apple, too.

    Ignore the shills, trolls and opinion whores.

  • pam

    thanks for the clear illustration.

    Sean also discussed that calories is not a viable measure of our energy input/output.

    i like what Dr. Attia said re. CICO: it’s “descriptive” but not “explanatory”

    re. fructose, it also allows cancer cells to become prolific.
    (sorry don’t have citation’ i’m just a layman)

    although i think fructose that comes from real food (i.e., fruits) may be negated?

    cheers,

  • Beowulf:

    “I think CICO is so seductive because it says you can have anything you want as long as the portions are small enough.”

    That’s part of it: as you point out, 200 calories of cherry pie does not meet the same metabolic fate, or cause the same metabolic changes, as 200 calories of whole eggs!  Another reason it’s seductive is that it’s very simple, and the solution it offers (“just eat fewer calories”) is simple.

    Unfortunately, the evidence seems clear: that solution (“just eat fewer calories”) is also wrong — because, to a first approximation, all diets fail, and people regain at least as much weight as they lost.  I think this article offers some insight as to why.

     

    pzo:

    You’re correct that the thermic effect of food (TEF) is important.  However, TEF isn’t a magical property: it’s a direct effect of the metabolic fates of food, as explained above.  For instance, when energy is “lost” due to inefficient conversion one form of food to another, e.g. protein to glucose via gluconeogenesis, the “lost” energy is dissipated as heat — increasing the “thermal effect” of protein.

    Also note that TEF is an approximation, because those fates vary per individual and over time.

     

    thorbreakbeatgod:

    First, “Keto/Paleo” strongly implies that the two are equivalent, which they are not.  A ketogenic Paleo diet is quite possible, but non-ketogenic Paleo diets and non-Paleo ketogenic diets are more common.

    Second, “the calorie is a measurement of the energy contained within — the amount of heat something gives off through chemical processes.”   In other words, it’s a unit of heat transfer, as I said.

    There are reasonable arguments against my hypothesis, but these aren’t two of them.

     

    Brian Beaven:

    “But, at the end of the day, it still remains that if you consume more energy than you expend, you will accummulate fat.”

    The problem is that the net heat produced by burning food in a bomb calorimeter (“calories”) is not equivalent to the net energy produced by ingesting food — and the bewildering variety of metabolic fates of any specific molecule of food mean that the net energy in food isn’t even a fixed value! 

    For instance, as shown above, food that is used for raw materials actually has “negative calories”, because not only is it not burned for energy — your cells require energy to synthesize molecules containing it.

     

    Tyler:

    I appreciate the support.  As Beowulf and I discussed above, “calories” are a very seductive oversimplification.

     

    More coming soon!

    JS

  • tess

    it’s always a red-letter day for me when you post, J — thanks, and keep up the good work!

    best regards….

  • eddie:

    Exactly.  I challenge anyone to eat a pound of butter each day, for a week, and find that they've gained exactly seven pounds that week.

     

    Asclepius:

    “different macronutrients satisfy different demands in the body, and 'repair' from exercise induced damage is an obvious example.”

    Exactly.  Olympic weightlifters in training can be in negative protein balance at 2g/kg/day (i.e. that amount is insufficient to repair all the damage and respond to the growth signals), whereas the average couch potato would be converting quite a bit of that to glucose.

     

    Timothy:

    “But there must be some measurement in order to calibrate a diet that will oxidize stored fat while sparing lean mass.”

    Fortunately, our bodies can usually tolerate a wide range of intakes, so it's often sufficient to know whether it's better to have too much or too little of something.  For example, on a “cutting” diet for someone who's already lean, I've seen people succeed with both low-fat (e.g. the standard bodybuilder diet of chicken breasts and broccoli) and ketogenic approaches, but rarely in between.

     

    Michael:

    Thank you!  Please spread my articles around, and support me if you can.

    Brook:

    That's not a bad idea, actually.

     

    Jamie:

    Thank you!  Your “Calorie Rants and Ketosis, Part 1” and “Calorie Rants and Ketosis, Part 2” helped inspire me to write this article…and I'll recommend them to my readers again, for the analogies as well as the real-world examples of the low-level phenomena described here.

     

    More replies to come…

    JS

  • X

    Had to bookmark this one. Good article.

  • jesse

    Hi JS,

    This is a good article. I wanted to nit on some of it, while nodding to it’s overall excellence and presentability.

    So, can the brain really only burn glucose? My few years of slowly absorbing nutritional and metabolism information left me with the impression that around 3/4 of it can run on fatty acids and/or ketones, but that 20-25% must run on glucose (does fructose work here?).

    And secondly, while I think you are correct about eating like a predator, the logic you are using in your final bullet point doesn’t seem solid. If it was solid you could make the same argument about any animal and we know right off the bat that animals are evolved to eat substances which are in different forms than the substances their actual body is formed of. I’m sure human’s do quite a bit of that as well, even relying on gut flora to handle some of it as you mentioned. I guess the ultimate test would be, what foods can we eat, and use, that have no recognizable presence in the body. Fiber is clearly one of them. We can eat fiber, but none of our tissues (that i’m naively aware of) are made out of fiber, nor do we burn fiber as fuel, etc…

    Sorry for being critical. I read articles as a skeptic because many of the people I would like to share the articles with are skeptical, so I have to watch out for gotchas :) Otherwise the information gets minimized. Baby out with the bathwater.

    Take care,
    jesse

  • jesse

    @ Brian Beaven:

    “But, at the end of the day, it still remains that if you consume more energy than you expend, you will accummulate fat.”

    Actually that’s not true at all. Maybe you will gain muscle, or bone, or connective tissue or intestinal villi or capillaries. If you had said “weight” instead of “fat” you’d probably be correct, but most people aren’t _really_ is opposed to gaining weight, they are opposed to gaining fat beyond what looks/feels good. And the second point I have is that what you have basically done is stated that you are consuming energy, and that the only place that energy can go is to expenditure or fat. This is completely false.

    What you could say is: If the food you eat is not used for anything other than energy expenditure then the net energy excess of the food you eat that is not utilized it will be stored (or excreted, who knows). And I don’t think anyone is really arguing with that. Even though it’s not super helpful or relevant. I’m sure that in a highly specific personal context a gram of food contains X amount of “energy” and I’m perfectly happy to define that based on joules, watts, calories, whatever. But the simplification of CICO implies that the only possible outcomes of the food are based on the energy content. I think JS did a great job of explaining how that’s completely false and I don’t really see you presenting any good argument against it.

    You can even see in my re-wording of your argument that it already starts leading one towards the thought pattern of “why am i eating foods that are only good for energy metabolism and expenditure” and hence why many people prefer a nutrient rich diet, with sufficient energy to fulfill their needs (which for _most_ ‘paleo’ people is pretty well auto-regulated, it’s called hunger :) ).

    jesse

  • [...] There Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body) - GNOLLS.ORG Interesting post but do prepared for some heavy reading __________________ Epic Quote "Godamnit don't waste my bloody time if you are not interested." [...]

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  • vizeet

    I have one point:

    If excess starch is also a problem then how many tribes are healthy inspite of high amount of carbs.
    “The Kitavan diet is 69% carb, 21% fat, and 10% protein. The Okinawan diet is even more carb-heavy, at 85% carb, 9% protein and 6% fat. The Tukisenta diet is astonishingly high in carbohydrate: 94.6% according to extensive studies in the 60s and 70s. All of these cultures are fit and lean.”

  • js290

    The body burns ATP, not calories. Also, the base units of a calorie is kg*m^2/s^2. If one is interested in body composition, the obvious question is how does one extract the mass component (kg) out of a measure of heat?

    Anyone that spouts off about CICO has no basic understanding of science nor understanding of metabolism. They’re a nuisance and should be ignored.

  • noko

    “so to lose a pound of fat you need to use 3500 calories?
    and yet a pound of butter has more than 4000 calories?
    therefore: you eat a pound of butter and end up with less calories: you’ve just destroyed matter!!”

    (From an above comment)

    My head hurts. Are people really this stupid? Do you understand what *density* is?

    Anyway, suffice to say I disagree with this article, but it’ll take a bit to articulate why.

  • heather Siemaszko

    Wow JS love your website and articles!! I was introduced to your site via the latest and fantastic Everyday Paleo and Fitness Lifestyle podcast produced every week by Sarah Fragoso and Jason Seib. Jason talked about your recent article on whether our health is really measured by feeling “just fine”. I was entrigued and checked your site out. Well I have spent the last 3 hours reading your wonderfully written articles and I totally agree with him! I would love to hear you sometime in the near future on their podcast – I’m sure Jason and Sarah’s audience (including me!) would love to get even just a small part of what you produce here each week. thank you so much.

  • js290

    JS, I should add, CICO is a necessary effect, not the cause. We are all bound by the Laws of Nature. That’s probably the root of the confusion for those who don’t understand science nor metabolism.

    As wrong as they already are, calorie counters neglect to consider the thermodynamic efficiency of human metabolism. Calorie counters are just a train wreck…

  • E Craig

    js290 said:

    Calorie counters are just a train wreck…

     

    Because that system of CICO encourages you to pick the food that you can make the most palatable with shortcuts (which is usually something processed, artificial flavors and flavor enhancers) for the least amount of calories.

     

    And keeps you on the corporate/processed food wagon.

     

    So you haven't solved the 'more is AWESOME!' problem (whether that's food quantity/food coloring/food umami taste tingling).  You've just put it off to deal with at a later date. 

     

    *If you ever do deal with it*

  • Sofie

    So if building with protein and glucogenesis costs energy, does that mean you never get 4 calories from a gram of protein? Fat & carbs too?

  • [...] felt the need to comment on this article, because I’m tired of reading stupidity by people who think they are exempt from the laws of [...]

  • eddie watts

    noko: please note the tongue firmly in the cheek.

    conventional wisdom states that a pound of body fat contains 3500 calories. look any where you like and you will find this number quoted all over the place.

    my point is that 1 pound of butter actually contains more than that, so how is this possible?

    (this is all ignoring the TEF calclulations that state you’d need to ingest 4200 excess calories to gain a pound of fat. which is just as stupid)

    JS i’d challenge anyone to eat a pound of butter a day. i mean i love the stuff. but no way i could do that! i experimentally tried adding 50g butter to my post workout meal for a few weeks last year around dec. first week i felt amazing, mood, sleep, libido, recovery etc etc all went up.
    but after the first week it went away again. and eating that 50g butter became a chore so i stopped.
    i would certainly not consider myself to be deficient in sat fat, but i suppose i must have been?

  • [...] There Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body) - Gnolls.org [...]

  • EBoyette

    I track my food intake pretty closely, my net caloric intake over the past month should have resulted in a slight weight loss (according to various calculators based on my weight, and activity level weight training, sprinting, and brisk walking 5 days a week).

    Over the past month I’ve added 2 pounds! Calorie magic!

  • Tim

    Sooooo, how many calories should we be eating???

    Just kidding. I find the concept of ‘calories’ very useful. Eating like a predator is good advice, unless you kill an elephant in a watermelon patch…you will still become a fat-ass unless you limit overall (dum-dee-dee-dum) CALORIES!

  • Tim

    All you ever wanted to know about TEF: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/79/5/899S.full

    “We conclude that a calorie is a calorie. From a purely thermodynamic point of view, this is clear because the human body or, indeed, any living organism cannot create or destroy energy but can only convert energy from one form to another. In comparing energy balance between dietary treatments, however, it must be remembered that the units of dietary energy are metabolizable energy and not gross energy. This is perhaps unfortunate because metabolizable energy is much more difficult to determine than is gross energy, because the Atwater factors used in calculating metabolizable energy are not exact. As such, our food tables are not perfect, and small errors are associated with their use.

    In addition, we concede that the substitution of one macronutrient for another has been shown in some studies to have a statistically significant effect on the expenditure half of the energy balance equation. This has been observed most often for high-protein diets. Evidence indicates, however, that the difference in energy expenditure is small and can potentially account for less than one-third of the differences in weight loss that have been reported between high-protein or low-carbohydrate diets and high-carbohydrate or low-fat diets. As such, a calorie is a calorie. Further research is needed to identify the mechanisms that result in greater weight loss with one diet than with another. “

  • [...] You'd better read this: There Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body) - GNOLLS.ORG The sooner you get the notion of 'calories' out of your head and start thinking about eating good [...]

  • noko

    “noko: please note the tongue firmly in the cheek.

    conventional wisdom states that a pound of body fat contains 3500 calories. look any where you like and you will find this number quoted all over the place.

    my point is that 1 pound of butter actually contains more than that, so how is this possible?”

    A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing; you keep making these idiotic statements without even reading what I wrote. Let’s break it down:

    -First of all, the 3500 calories = a pound of fat is just an estimate. It’s not an exact number. A pound of muscle will take something around 300-400 calories.

    I can already see your brain lighting up:

    “But how can a pound of fat have 3500 calories, when a pound of muscle has less than a tenth of that?”

    As I said before, density. Two different objects can have the same mass but different amounts of energy; that’s one of the most obvious facts in existence, yet you seem to neglect that because you’re colored by biases.

    As for the actual article:

    This entire article is just an extremely long-winded strawman argument. The only people who misunderstand calories in/calories out to this degree are, ironically, your paleo/keto/vegans etc.

    Of course your body will not convert calories perfectly. Protein has the highest thermic effect, followed by carbohydrates, followed by fat (but I thought carbs were literally Satan incarnated?!?!?!). However, most people, when attempting to “disprove calories in/calories out”, completely neglect the “out” part of the equation. The food you eat will affect your energy output – for example, protein will burn a fair amount of calories just through metabolism, a thyroid condition will mean that your BMR is lower, eating more will tend to increase NEAT, increasing your net output, etc.

    However, it is a law of physics that every calorie you consume is going *somewhere*. If you’ve calculated your expenditure at 2000, and you’re eating, say, 1500 calories and not losing weight (after more than a few days, because weight fluctuates within the couple pound range), you need to cut your intake more or increase your output. Why? Because the body is a complex system – maybe your NEAT has been lowered, thus lowering your net output, or maybe your caloric intake *estimate* was slightly overshot.

    This does not disprove calories in/calories out, however, all it proves is that people don’t understand what calories in/calories out *fucking means*.

    Here’s an excellent article which will help your average blind fool understand CICO: http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/fat-loss/the-energy-balance-equation.html

    Also, statements like “your body is not a calorie counter” are just ridiculous and should be laughed at. Nobody is saying that; that doesn’t mean that your body isn’t a system, and all systems are subject to the laws of thermodynamics.

    So, in conclusion, do we always know with 100% accuracy our intake/output? No, but we can estimate it with a high degree of accuracy, and if you’re not seeing fast enough results, that means you need to ADJUST. Adjust, you say? You mean I have to actually act like an intelligent human being and adjust my strategy when it’s not working? Yes.

    Sorry for the condescending tone, but nothing works me up like reading stupid comments. To your credit, Stanton, this article wasn’t necessarily incorrect (besides the title, but I think you just went for shock value there). However, it’s arguing against a strawman. It’s akin to a creationist claiming that bananas disprove evolution or something.

  • Cyclops

    “Sorry for the condescending tone, but nothing works me up like reading stupid comments. To your credit, Stanton, this article wasn't necessarily incorrect (besides the title, but I think you just went for shock value there). However, it's arguing against a strawman. It's akin to a creationist claiming that bananas disprove evolution or something.”

     

    Temper tantrums on Gnolls…hmm take a chill pill and calm down..this is a discussion , civility is not essential but hey it helps.

     

    The CICO argument relies on being able to know exactly what goes in and out to prove its theory..so how many CICO fans excrete into test tubes to evaluate their output.. hmmm not very many.

    There are some very exciting experiments going on in the microbiome field, and the upshot is that some people have microbes that chow on fibre and gain a massive caloric advantage from short chain fatty acids that microbes excrete ( making more food for you )..others don't..does this make calculating CICO difficult..you bet. SO even if you measure to the gram everything going in, live in a sealed unit so you can calculate the heat output and so on.. you still cannot acurately calculate the CI part…microbes are tricky little suckers eh…

    J expounds well on the concept that CICO is over simplified..take away message is accept there are many more factors to take into account.

    Cool

  • [...] blood sugar isn’t normal (Part 2) Check out the new J. Stanton blog from Gnolls: There Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body) - GNOLLS.ORG Reply With [...]

  • eddie watts

    noko: well done on sidestepping the actual points raised and knocking down ones that were not made.
    then claiming Stanton is making a strawman!

    this is brilliant.
    your poor attempt at snarkiness i can overlook with ease, i’m used to vegan responses personally so you’d need to try harder to upset me.
    (even then…getting upset at some person on the internet? i don’t think so)

    cyclops has covered it quite well, but the main issue with CICO is that we (by that i mean humans) can only control the CI part of that equation and not the CO part, indirectly we can of course by exercise, cold therapy seems to be producing results for some people, controlling macro nutrient intake etc etc

    but CICO theory holds thrives on the idea that we do have control, which is misleading at best.
    At Best.
    and at worst an absolute lie.

    care to disprove that? your own post reflects that you agree with this? so what is the actual strawman you are claiming is being made here?
    think i’ve read that lyle mcdonald write up before, it is good, but i don’t think he is disagreeing in principle with what is being said overall.
    ok before posting i read through the article, i have def read it before and memory did serve me correct.

    so overall i think you’re actually agreeing with JS’ article. it is more complicated that CICO as put forward by weight watchers et al?

  • Mr. Chevy

    I love what this article is all about! I have been telling people for years to quit discussing ‘Gallons’ when talking about cars and trucks. No engine runs on ‘gallons’, they run on gas or diesel! You can’t put 10 gallons of water in a car and expect it to run.

    I hate seeing “40mpg”. MPG’s of what????? Water???? We need to start using real terms like BTU’s/liter/hydrocarbon-based/liquid propellant or something more accurate than ‘gallons’ it’s so stupid.

    Same as calories. Calories of what??? Shit???

  • noko

    I’ve got to give you credit, Chevy, your wit far surpasses my own.

    @Cyclops:

    “The CICO argument relies on being able to know exactly what goes in and out to prove its theory..so how many CICO fans excrete into test tubes to evaluate their output.. hmmm not very many.”

    I think you misunderstand. “Output” is not poop, it’s how many calories you’re burning.

    Like I said, nobody ever has claimed that we can 100% accurately track every last calorie in and every last calorie output. However, we can do so accurately enough – based on estimates – to gain/lose weight when we want to. That’s the principles of calories in/calories out, which really isn’t that hard to understand. It baffles me that 90% of the commenters here are arguing against a position that nobody is taking. What’s that called again?

    Right. A strawman.

    Here’s how you count calories, if you’re doing so to lose weight:

    You calculate your BMR, based on activity, weight, etc. You factor in exercise and other lifestyle factors, and boom, you’ve got a caloric target. Now you keep track of the calories you consume. You track yourself over weeks, and if you’re not losing weight, you’re either getting the in or the out part wrong, so you adjust.

    Another strawman people try to knock down is to argue that restricting calories but still eating shitty food is unhealthy. Duh. Once again, nobody is saying that your micronutrients, macronutrients and anti-nutrients aren’t important to take care of. It’s entirely irrelevant to calories in/calories out, however. Look – if you forcefeed somebody a ton of grassfed meat, sweet potatoes, and whatever other “healthy” foods you want, such that their calories in exceeds their output, they will gain weight. In terms of weight gain/loss, the food quality doesn’t matter, it simply determines the health of your diet. I will add, though, that obviously eating an unhealthy diet can cause issues (for example, a thyroid problem will lower your caloric output significantly).

    So yes, Eddie, this article is a strawman. That’s about the only part of your post I’ll even address, because your post was honestly completely devoid of any evidence or even meaningful discussion.

    And no, I’m not a vegan, I eat paleo myself. But I don’t swallow the new-age horsepoop that often follows it.

    Summary: CICO is an estimation, from which you adjust if you don’t see results. It’s only about gaining/losing weight, not the health of a diet. Yes, a calorie is a calorie, it’s a unit of energy.

  • GiGi Eats Celebritie

    Thank goodness I don’t put myself through the agony of counting calories!!! — Clearly it would have been a waste of my time! LOL!

  • Fmgd

    Noko, nobody is arguing that the variation of our bodies’ internal energy is given by the sum of the net external work and the heat received by it (some of that from food).

    One of the points being made is that different foods eaten under different conditions but labeled at the same calories can lead to different internal energy balances. Of course you acknowledge that and, as you said, that balance can be “tweaked”.

    But much more important than this first point (by itself) is one that is related to it: the same variation on a system’s internal energy can lead it to different changes in state. In the case of our bodies’ it’s (at least to a big measure) the actual foods eaten and the very circumstances when they’re eaten, rather than just the net heat they give us, that will determine to which of the many possible “states” (using the term loosely here) a difference in internal energy will lead us. And that’s what actually matters. You can loose weight (even if you’re overweight to begin with) and actually get less healthy for that. The converse is also true.

    So there are quite a few good reasons to say that focusing too much on calories is a big mistake, and I know you agree with that, and that was the point of the article, I believe. Now you may understand it makes no sense to put calories above every other property of the food itself and an other circumstances, but many people don’t.

    Also, as J. states, diets, even when taken seriously, rarely work in the sense of retaining desirable weight loss over the long term. There are quite a few possible reasons for that, but it means that most of people won’t live on some “deprived” state most of the time, and in this sense, coupled with the above, CICO IS quite the oversimplification: it can lead people to believe the “quality” of the foods being eaten matters less than the net amount of heat they’re giving you compared to the net amount of work you’re doing. And it gets to be a dangerous one at that, because they may succeed for a while, even if that’s, in general, neither healthy nor sustainable.

    What’s more, he puts forward that “food quality” (and “quality exercise”), coupled with our own bodies’ mechanisms will tend to set us on a healthy homeostatic level, and that that should be our goal. If you attain that level you shouldn’t need to count anything, because your body itself will be doing a fine work at sensing it and informing you.

    I realize now I may have written more than necessary. I also did it in kind of a rush, so I apologize for the possibly bad structure.

  • noko

    Yes! That’s a philosophy I can get behind. I just can’t get behind these “refutations” of CICO, which are always either strawmen or poor science (in Taubes’ case). For many people, eating a diet of unprocessed foods, and even going farther and restricting foods like grains, will be great for reducing calories. They won’t feel hungry or accidentally overeat. Unfortunately, some people have awful appetite regulation, whether that be genetic or caused by some other factor. For these people, calorie counting will be a critical step in the process.

    Take me, for example. I’m naturally lean, so in general I don’t worry about calories. At the moment I’m trying to gain weight, so I’m doing my best to maintain a caloric surplus, so every once in a blue moon I’ll count calories for a day to make sure I’ on track.

    My point, though, is that people are leaping from “not everybody NEEDS to count calories” to “you SHOULDN’T count calories”, or even worse, stating that CICO is flat out false.

  • Brook:

    Like I said, that would be a biochemistry textbook…and I have enough incomplete series-in-progress that I probably shouldn't start another one!

     

    Marilyn:

    “But I (and thousands of other women like me) am here to tell you that counting calories DOES work.”

    Sort of.  If you restrict “calories” deeply enough, you've dramatically decreased the amount of food you're eating — and the decrease in total quantity becomes enough to overcome the inherent errors in reducing everything to “calories”.

    “Calories” are, in effect, a very rough approximation to the amount of food eaten…and the equivocal results we obtain (having to reduce “calories” by far more than the expected value to result in weight loss, or increase “calories” by far more to result in weight gain) support my hypothesis that they are not a very good approximation!

    “With all the single-minded emphasis on obesity today, it would be good to see some articles in the popular press such as “Yes, too many calories can make you gain weight, but did you know that the calories you eat can also do these things. . .?””

    It would be good, but I'm not holding my breath.  Meanwhile, I'm doing my best to get the information out there.

     

    Jen W, tess, X: 

    Thank you!

     

    Carole:

    Exactly.  The calorie-counters all say that what you (and so many other low-carbers) do is impossible, and that you must have been lying about your food intake on the low-fat diet while eating much less than you think on the low-carb diet.  At some point, one must entertain the possibility that the “calories über alles” paradigm is not entirely correct!

     

    Keoni:

    I'm not sure I'm important enough to shill…but I do assume the Internet is full of paid shills.  Paying people to sit on Google Alerts and propagandize the comments of news articles doesn't cost much relative to “real” advertising.

    OTOH, I think most of the people screwing up MDA are just crazy Peatarians.  The irony is that there are only about four of them…but they post in every single thread.

    And thank you for reminding everyone of my article “You Are A Radical, And So Am I.”  My predictions at the end have (unfortunately) turned out to be excellent.

    (Keoni blogs over at Hawaiian Libertarian.  Warning: mandrosphere.)

     

    pam:

    “i like what Dr. Attia said re. CICO: it's descriptive but not explanatory”

    Exactly. By definition, we are in “energy balance”, because physics is true.  But it turns out we are not in “energy balance” in the same very simple way a bomb calorimeter is in “energy balance”, because we are more complicated than a bomb calorimeter!  Cue the classic essay “Of Taubes And Toilets.”  

     

    Catching up,

    JS

  • jesse:

    “can the brain really only burn glucose?”

    Yes, I oversimplified that a little bit in the interest of not writing the entire biochemistry textbook.  The problem AFAIK is that long-chain fats are too big to cross the blood-brain barrier, unlike simple sugars, lactate, ketones, etc., all of which the brain can use for energy.

    “we know right off the bat that animals are evolved to eat substances which are in different forms than the substances their actual body is formed of. “

    However, they all convert it to something more closely approximating their own makeup.  All that plant matter, for instance, gets fermented into short-chain fats in a ruminant's digestive tract.  This is a central point of Perfect Health Diet…that once you realize what's absorbed is not the same as what enters the mouth, all animals “eat” a reasonably narrow range of macronutrients.

    That being said, our bodies' need for energy substrate is large and some nutrients can be interconverted, so we have some leeway in what we can eat.  But given our relatively simple digestive tract and limited capacity for conversion, it seems prudent to eat as close to what we are made of, and what we directly use, each day.

    Your reply to Brian was excellent, by the way.  That's exactly what I meant.

     

    vizeet:

    “Excess starch” is relative to your degree of daily activity (large, in the case of ancestrally living islanders); your insulin sensitivity and metabolic flexibility (good, in their case); the amount you smoke, which is an appetite suppressant (like chimneys, in their case); how often you eat (big meals only once a day, in the case of Kitavans); whether you're a product of many, many isolated generations of living on the same high-carb diet (all the Polynesian islanders); whether your diet contains plenty of iodine to help metabolize the carbs (all the examples, from seafood); whether your diet is otherwise low in toxins like omega-6, gluten, etc. (all the examples)…

    Also, the traditional Okinawan diet isn't anywhere near 85% carb…that's propaganda put out by the people who push the “Okinawan Diet” book.  “According to respected gerontologist Kazuhiko Taira, the most common cooking fat used traditionally in Okinawa is lard. . . Dr. Taira's findings differ from those of the Okinawa Centenarian Study in that he reports that healthy and vigorous Okinawans eat 100 grams each of pork and fish each day.”  (Source.

     

    Heather:

    Thanks for the suggestion!  I know Jason is a fan of mine…and though I've just done a podcast, I'll keep them in mind when I'm more ready to do another one.

     

    js290:

    “JS, I should add, CICO is a necessary effect, not the cause.”

    Exactly.  Physics still applies…but thermodynamics just isn't a very useful way to approach the problem in this case.  See my reply to pam, above.

     

    E Craig:

    “Because that system of CICO encourages you to pick the food that you can make the most palatable with shortcuts (which is usually something processed, artificial flavors and flavor enhancers) for the least amount of calories.”

    Quite true: Beowulf made a similar point.

    Also, people get hung up on “fat has 9 calories per gram”, not realizing that (for example) because real food contains water, rice cakes are actually more calorie-dense than prime rib!  (More surprising examples in this article.)

     

    Sofie:

    “So if building with protein and glucogenesis costs energy, does that mean you never get 4 calories from a gram of protein?”

    It's unlikely. If you use it to build something, it costs energy.  Gluconeogenesis is only about 70% efficient, if I recall correctly.  And even if it's directly oxidized, the 4 calories/gram is an approximation, as different amino acids each have different entries into the citric acid cycle and slightly different energy values.  

    These are the reasons that protein has such a high TEF…all that “waste energy” ends up as heat.

     

    EBoyette:

    “Over the past month I've added 2 pounds! Calorie magic!”

    Exactly!  We can invoke magical properties like “set points”…

    …or we can understand the different possible fates of food, and realize that a calorie is not a calorie.  Nor is the metabolism of a 24yo male Crossfitter the same as a 55yo post-menopausal woman, or me, or you.

     

    Tim:

    “you will still become a fat-ass unless you limit overall (dum-dee-dee-dum) CALORIES!”

    You're not limiting “calories”…you're limiting food.

    More specifically, you're limiting the supplies of hundreds of different nutrients, with effects that may or may not approximate the oversimplification of treating food as a bag of “calories”.  See my reply to Marilyn, above.

     

    More soon!

    JS

  • Tim:

    Let me highlight these sentences from the paper you linked, because they're so monumentally self-contradictory – and highlight the deficiencies of the calorie model so well.

    “Evidence indicates, however, that the difference in energy expenditure is small and can potentially account for less than one-third of the differences in weight loss that have been reported between high-protein or low-carbohydrate diets and high-carbohydrate or low-fat diets.”

    In other words, the CICO model, while trivially true in the physics sense, is completely inadequate to explain observed reality.  (By which I mean “Attempting to adjust the “calorie”-based calculations for all the factors I discussed in my article is apparently, in practice, impossible.”)

    “As such, a calorie is a calorie.”

    Wait, what?  They've just said that it isn't.

    “Further research is needed to identify the mechanisms that result in greater weight loss with one diet than with another.”

    And now they admit again that the calorie-based model fails to explain observed reality.

     

    noko:

    “The only people who misunderstand calories in/calories out to this degree are, ironically, your paleo/keto/vegans etc.”

    OK, I see you're a Lyle McDonald follower, which explains everything, including your lumping together of paleo and keto.  That's so 2009.  Will you start calling me a “paleotard”, too?

    The irony, of course, is that Lyle's article and mine are making the same point, except on different levels.  Lyle is enumerating all the “adjustments” one has to make when we treat food as comprised of “calories” (as measured by a bomb calorimeter), which include all those sciency-sounding acronyms like TEF, SPA, NEAT, etc.

    However, as I explained to pzo and Sofie above, TEF (to choose one example) is not a magical property: it's a direct consequence of the different metabolic fates of food — the very ones I enumerate and explore in this article.  Some protein is used to build and repair tissues, enzymes, and secretions; some undergoes gluconeogenesis, which is (AFAIK) only about 70% efficient; and if you're eating grains, some of it might not be digested at all!  

    Result: a variable amount of waste heat, which is all lumped together under “thermic effect” (or “diet induced thermogenesis”).  

    In support of my hypothesis, I note that TEF is not a constant: it's an empirically measured value, and it changes with both aerobic and anaerobic training (source), as well as a host of other factors.  Again, this is exactly what we'd expect, given that TEF is a result of nutrients meeting a varying combination of the fates I enumerated, depending on our nutritional and metabolic state and the circumstances of their consumption.

    Yes, the other sciency-sounding acronyms in the equation from Lyle's article can be explained in terms of these fates, just like TEF.

    And now, a question for my readers.  Here's the equation from Lyle's article:

    Energy In (corrected for digestion) = (BMR/RMR + TEF + TEA + SPA/NEAT) + Change in Body Stores

    In other words, this is the fancy footwork you have to do in order to make the “calorie” model approach accuracy…

    …which involves correcting it by a bunch of empirically-measured factors that vary both on an individual level and over time.

    Is this really a useful way to think about what, and how much, you should eat for dinner?

     

    More soon,

    JS

  • Ttoph

    Noko, one thing is what CICO really is, and another is what the people understand about CICO.
    The “strawmen” is this bad understanding of CICO.

  • [...] You may be wondering how many calories are in these. I can tell you that I have no idea how many calories they contain. I don’t count calories because I am not a steam engine. [...]

  • A few thoughts:

    The problem with 'calories' as used in modern dieting is that it is a single dimension by which to look at food.  The CI side is hard to quantify as the calories in food are difficult to measure.  The ripeness of food or how well cooked it is can all affect the availability of calories.  (In some cases, and for some species, even the time of day!).  How you masticate (the thoroughness of chewing) can affect digestibility of foods and this is something we see with, for example, sweetcorn.  The kinds of foods you eat together can have some influence on digestion and hormonal response.

     

    CO is interesting and a lot of the themes have already been mentioned, among them gut flora which have independent DNA and their own metabolism to satisfy.  They are part of a microbiome which is effectively an organ within an organ – they consume our food along with us, help our digestion and with the extraction of vitamins and minerals from food.  Our diet can influence the population of gut flora in a little as a day.  Although the gut flora are affected by CI, they can influence our behaviour and general activity(and so CO).  This is one of many feedback mechanisms in the human body and this is without going near the epigenetic effects we may have on the DNA of gut flora (they will produce many generations in our one lifetime, thus passing on their own epigenetic traits and modifications).

     

    We also need to consider the influence of epigenetics and mitochondrial expression (the latter well illustrated by a great talk on TED by Terry Wahls) the former which can strongly determine your 'bodyfat set point' about which you are likely to generally return to.  Tim Spector (Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King's College London) writes “…we believed that different metabolic rates and different types of fat were the genetic factors in why people differed.  We now know that the brain may be more important.  The first and strongest gene found so far is called FTO, and is expressed in the brain, especially in the key reward centre of the hypothalamus in the base of the brain (hypothalamus means under-chamber in Greek).  For some rare humans who have two copies of the variant, chances of being obese increase by up to 70 per cent.”

     

    There are also the dynamics of our hormonal environment to consider.  As Taubes said, teenagers don't grow because they eat more; their hormonal environment is driving them to eat more (and do less), to conserve energy for growth.  So we know that hormonal drivers can have profound influence.  But now it is becoming evident that our hormones can be affected by diet, inflammation, stress and sleep (amongst others), so again we see further feedback mechanisms.  Fat is not inert and has its own chemical messaging mechanism(s).  An empty fat cell needs to be interpreted in its evolutionary context.

     

    CI and CO are both moving targets in a system with various feedback mechanisms.  The system is adaptive, it can grow and shrink, it can upregulate or downregulate its activity.  It can live off itself (autophagy). 

     

    IS CICO true?  Of course it is (cue talk of the laws of thermodynamics).  Does CICO explain obesity? Not really, at best it just restates the problem.

  • Cyclops

    noko said:

    @Cyclops:

    I think you misunderstand. “Output” is not poop, it's how many calories you're burning.

     

    Noko

    Let's just say that there is a calorific output in “poop” and if you have really had a good look there is also a fair amount of undigested food in there, which would need to be accounted for in the CICO equation. They run to quite a large percentage of output which is why they need to be included.

    I was of course being facetious but there is a point in that..provoking a little more thought to what is obvious but overlooked.

     

  • heartbreak_star

    This is an excellent article.

    I used to use CICO, very low fat foods, and calorie-counted cardio exercise. I yo-yoed around a stone off and on, was tired all the time, and felt like my thyroid medication didn’t work.

    So now I avoid sugar and wheat products – bread, pasta etc. and most other grains with the exception of small portions of brown rice and potatoes. It’s not low-carb as such, but I eat more meat, eggs and vegetables than anything else. Sure I still eat fruit, but not in massive amounts. I also took up strength training, and stopped weighing myself.

    Guess what? I eat more, calorie-wise, than I ever have. I lift heavy and train hard. Sometimes I eat so much I get sick of eating…

    …and I have dropped a dress size and can out-lift most of my male friends in the gym. I have energy, my skin and hair look great, and I very rarely feel deprived – which is something my female friends “on diets” complain about a lot.

    Of course, I slip up occasionally – I’ll have a night out with beer or a takeaway curry – but now these things are very occasional treats rather than regular occurrences so I don’t feel guilty.

    I will never go back to CICO.

  • Healthy Paleo

    I have never felt better since I started “depriving” myself with meat, fresh veggies, fresh fruits and nuts. There is great freedom in sitting down with a plate of real, delicious food and not worrying about the calories or fat content.

  • [...] source than bread (which just gets converted to sugar for fat deposits most of the time…) etc. There Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body) - GNOLLS.ORG I'm considering the Paleo diet when I finish – and only having carbs on special/very rare [...]

  • Well said, Healthy Paleo. Better still when local and seasonal variations are considered; nature figures out your plate for you AND keeps it interesting the whole year through.

  • Mark

    A long time reader from the UK here, but this is my first comment. I just wanted to express my appreciation of this exceptional, cogent article. Thank you.

  • Cyclops:

    Yes, the intestinal microbiome does make a difference…and it's very difficult to calculate.

     

    eddie watts:

    “we (by that i mean humans) can only control the CI part of that equation and not the CO part”

    That's a very good insight, stated simply.  

     

    Mr. Chevy:

    I realize you're being facetious, but if we alter the analogy just a touch, it's actually not bad.

    Imagine that cars had, like humans, only one hole into which you put all the fluids your car needed.  Gasoline (or diesel), engine oil, antifreeze, transmission oil or ATF, windshield washer fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid, several different kinds of grease…everything goes in the hole, and your car takes care of filtering, processing, and sorting out what goes where.

    All these fluids, like food, have some sort of heat of combustion (once you boil off the water, in some cases)…so it's reasonably easy to come up with a “calorie” value for each of them.  Gasoline has so many “calories” per liter…so does brake fluid, so does antifreeze.  

    But a car doesn't burn anything except gasoline for energy!  So if you're short on antifreeze, your car will overheat no matter how much gasoline you give it…and the problem is not that your car is out of “fluid balance”.  In a car, none of these fluids substitute for the other, so the concept of “fluid balance” is meaningless.  

    I don't want to push the analogy too far, but I hope my point stands.

     

    noko:

    “nobody ever has claimed that we can 100% accurately track every last calorie in and every last calorie output. However, we can do so accurately enough – based on estimates – to gain/lose weight when we want to.”

    Really?  That explains why almost all diets fail, (to a first approximation) no one who loses a substantial amount of weight keeps it off, why it's impossible to calculate RMR and BMR except by individual experimentation, why low-carb diets have an appx. 300 “calorie” metabolic advantage over high-carb diets, etc.  The varying amount of heat lost to the atmosphere based on ambient temperature, subcutaneous fat, and how much clothing we wear, is also a confounding factor.  And there's the inconvenient fact that Americans were much skinnier in the days before nutrition labels, when no one knew how many “calories” were in any of the food they ate!

    Yes, “calories” are an approximation to how much food we are eating…but as eddie said above: we can control calories in, but not calories out.  Remember all the propaganda we heard for years?  “Eat one less slice of bread a day and you'll lose 10 pounds a year”?  

    Yet that never works.  In order to achieve significant weight loss we have to restrict “calories”, and increase activity, by far more than the equation predicts.  What I'm doing here is enumerating some reasons why, and (I hope) working toward a better understanding of both fat and lean mass gain and loss.

     

    Catching up…

    JS

  • Fmgd:

    Thank you for the thoughtful essay.

    “One of the points being made is that different foods eaten under different conditions but labeled at the same calories can lead to different internal energy balances.”

    Absolutely true!  

    To use an extreme example, 225 calories of pastured eggs (that's three “large” eggs), full of complete protein and fat-soluble nutrients, will lead to a different nutritional state, and therefore a different internal energy balance, than 225 calories of Coca-Cola (a 20-ounce bottle of Coke). 

     

    noko:

    Note that I'm not stating any of those things.

    Ttoph:

    If people only argued against what I actually wrote, my comment section would be a lot shorter!

     

    Asclepius:

    Several good points and information bits in there…particularly the “time of day” observation about plants.  I wonder if that applies to fruits or salad greens?

    However, I don't like the term “set point”, because it's just handwaving away a homeostasis we don't understand.  There's no “fat thermostat” in our brains that we could turn up or down if we could just find the dial!  (Though it's popular amongst neuroscientists and other brain researchers to assign that task to the hypothalamus, I think that's optimistic…just because you can break the hypothalamus of a genetic knockout mouse and make it fat doesn't mean people are fat because they have a broken hypothalamus.  There are trillions of cells in a human body, and they aren't passive hand puppets of the hypothalamus…each one has its own homeostases it attempts to maintain through expressing receptors, secreting hormones, and otherwise signaling its nutritional and metabolic state.  Add up a few trillion of these in dozens of different organs and hundreds of different cell types, each with its own unique needs, and you get a homeostasis…

    …or a “set point”.)

    “CI and CO are both moving targets in a system with various feedback mechanisms. The system is adaptive, it can grow and shrink, it can upregulate or downregulate its activity. It can live off itself (autophagy). 

    IS CICO true? Of course it is (cue talk of the laws of thermodynamics). Does CICO explain obesity? Not really, at best it just restates the problem.”

    Well put.

     

    Cyclops:

    Undigested output is just one of the possible confounders!

     

    heartbreak_star:

    Exactly.  It's indeed possible to lose weight by cutting “calories” sufficiently…but as you've found, paying attention to the quality of the foods you ingest has a much greater impact, and is much more sustainable over time.

     

    Healthy Paleo, Paul:

    Isn't it terrible?  We're all depriving ourselves of those delicious plates of lentils and brown rice (no butter or salt, of course), and forcing ourselves to choke down all these horrible steaks and fresh fish…salads with avocado and fresh Caesar…baked potatoes drenched in butter…fresh fruit…yuck!

     

    Mark:

    Thank you for the support.  I know I have a huge readership from my Web statistics, but it's good to know that I'm helping real, individual people.

     

    I'm caught up…for now.  Thank you all for the support…

    …and special thanks to those who bought a copy of The Gnoll Credo or a T-shirt, both of which saw meaningful sales upticks this week.  You keep the lights on and the articles coming.

    JS

  • K. Harris

    Overcomplicating it is just as bad as oversimplifying it. The calorie theory does work and is easily measured. The fate of the food we eat is called our metabolic rate, the amount of energy we expend at rest in a day. Once your individual resting metabolic rate is determined, one can easily determine the amount of calories needed to sustain, gain, or lose body weight, based on gender, height, weight, age, and activity level. Once you know the math, it’s almost too easy. Bodybuilders have been counting calories for years and can predict their weight and bodyfat % pretty much down to the day of competition. A calorie is a calorie; it is the human metabolic rate that’s not just a human metabolic rate that is the changing factor. Learn your individual metabolic rate and daily energy expenditure, and you can very easily determine your daily caloric needs for whatever your bodyweight goals are.

  • E Craig

    Body builders/fitness models/etc are a subset of the population at large.  Perhaps their bodies and brains are more tolerant of the restriction/overconsumption necessary to develop their bodies in the way they want to.

  • Alex

    I’ve twice used calorie counting on fitday.com: the first time to lose the last 12 pounds, the second time to lose the 7 pounds that had crept back on a couple years later after some emotional eating got the better of me. My experience is that in the 10 weeks or less that I’ve used it, it works perfectly. Not only does the weight drop off at a reasonable 1-2 pounds per week, my eating habits are reset such that after returning to ad libitum eating, my weight stays at the new lower weight.

    Oddly enough, even paleo foods can cause weight gain if eaten in excess. It’s a very strange phenomenon, and I accept that I may be an extreme outlier in this regard.

  • Andy

    Calories (not macronutrient ratios) have been repeatedly shown to be effective in weight loss or gain in metabolic ward settings. This applies to health and overweight people. Any difference in metabolic rates between individuals is trivial.

  • Jen W

    I think the more important question here is “weight loss” of what?  Water, fat or lean body mass?  If you loose “weight”, but that weight is lean body mass instead of fat or water, I'm not sure that's a good thing, hence why I've really stopped “weighing” myself and starting going by weekly, sometimes  bi-weekly measurements. I get a much better idea of whether I've lost fat or not, which is where I want the weight loss to come from and NOT lean body mass.

     

    Anyways, again, many people seem to be missing the point of the article in that calorie counting may work, but it's an OVERSIMPLIFICATION to just count calories at the exclusion of what nutrition or lack there of is in those calories.

     

    Jen

  • Beowulf

    Body builders prepping for a competition are HUGELY concerned with macros, not just calories. I know a couple women that compete regularly, and they get very excited when their trainer says they can have something like ten almonds or half an avocado a few times/week. They pretty much live on straight protein with very little carb and fat to cut down to competition leanness.

    My point is that if a calorie were a calorie, then they could achieve their desired results eating a certain number of peanut-butter cups each day. It doesn’t work that way. They are eating particular items to create an internal hormonal state that sheds fat mass (and some lean mass likely as well since they both report losing strength near competition time).

  • K. Harris:

    “Once your individual resting metabolic rate is determined, one can easily determine the amount of calories needed to sustain, gain, or lose body weight, based on gender, height, weight, age, and activity level.”

    No.

    “ERS data suggest that average daily calorie intake increased by 24.5 percent, or about 530 calories, between 1970 and 2000.” (Source: USDA)  

    Assuming that people were close to maintenance in 1970, “calorie math”, which gives us the 3500 calories per pound of fat rule, would mean that all Americans in 2000 were gaining one pound of fat per week indefinitely! 

    Yes, we're getting fatter…but the average adult American in 2000 was only ~19 pounds heavier than the average American in 1970. (Source: CDC)  That's a long way from the one pound per week predicted by the calorie model!  

    In fact, “calorie math” says a 19-pound gain in 30 years should require a surplus of only 6.07 calories per day.  That's nearly two orders of magnitude from the observed 530 calories per day.

    “A calorie is a calorie; it is the human metabolic rate that's not just a human metabolic rate that is the changing factor.”

    But what is this mysterious “metabolic rate”?  All you've done is moved all the magic from one place to another.  

    Furthermore, attempting to explain all the observed differences between diets in terms of magical adjustments to “metabolic rate” makes it difficult to explain why 1800 calories of grass-finished beef, pastured eggs, kale, and sweet potatoes don't have the same effect on your body (or your bodyweight) as 1800 calories of Coca-Cola.

    The answer, of course, is that “metabolic rate” is driven in large part by your food choices, whether short-term (e.g. thermogenesis) or long-term (e.g. metabolic flexibility).

    “Bodybuilders have been counting calories for years and can predict their weight and bodyfat % pretty much down to the day of competition.”

    No.

    I have some experience with bodybuilders and nationally competitive weight-class athletes.  As Beowulf pointed out, they are strongly concerned with both macronutrients and supplements, not just calories, because they dramatically affect your body's hormonal and metabolic state.  

    No competitive weight-class athlete, whose livelihood depends on their ability to make weight, ever says “My diet says I can eat 1100 calories a day until the competition…I'll take that as two slices of pizza, two ice cream sandwiches, and a Coke.”  

    Short version: Beowulf's explanation in #60 is correct.  

     

    E Craig:

    See Beowulf's explanation in #60.

     

    Alex:

    If you're eating roughly the same foods after you start “calorie counting” than you were before, you're maintaining a similar level of activity, and you're not trying to restrict “calories” too dramatically, then yes, you might see reasonable results.

    Why?

    Because by not changing the composition of the food you're eating or your activity level, you're likely maintaining a very similar hormonal and metabolic environment.  All you're doing is eating less of the same food you were before.  Result: if you don't kick your body into starvation mode (i.e. you're not already strongly weight-reduced and you're not restricting your food intake too greatly), you'll probably lose some weight.

     

    Andy:

    That explains the appx. 300 calorie difference in REE+TEE between high-protein, low-carb diets and others, then.

    (Article, paper by Ludwig et.al.)

     

    Jen W:

    Going by physical dimensions rather than weight is an excellent idea, and one I recommend to all.

    My point is that “calorie counting” is, at best, an approximation to what's really happening — and treating food as a generic substance made out of interchangeable “calories” can lead us to make bad decisions that will actively sabotage our health.

     

    Beowulf:

    Exactly true.  Anyone who thinks bodybuilders (or any weight-class athlete) only counts “calories” can't possibly have any real-world experience with competitive weight-class athletes.

     

    Finally…I'm caught up!  Thanks, everyone, for your patience and interesting questions.

    JS

  • Alex

    J, that’s exactly what I do… same paleo foods, just 2-3 hundred calories per day less of them, averaged out over a week, so that I can have a few lower calorie days and a day of greater indulgence. With no starch/lowish carbs, the hunger level is so minor that sometimes I’ll go all morning on nothing but coffee with cream and then get half my daily calories from an entire pint of ice cream and still be in caloric deficit for the day. The only thing about it that feels diety is all the measuring and logging of food.

  • FrankG

    Many thanks JS for your sensible and eminently readable blog post! You make a great deal of sense :-)

    Yes the 1st Law of Thermodynamics is a physical law, yes CICO is descriptive (but NOT explanatory) and YES there is too much emphasis on “weight” rather than excess fat mass.

    I think the trick that many fall into with CICO is evident in both Lyle’s equation “Energy In (corrected for digestion) = (BMR/RMR + TEF + TEA + SPA/NEAT) + Change in Body Stores” and also those who like to quote the “bible” stories about how those in metabolic ward studies always show an “energy balance”, regardless of macro-nutrients (despite the 300 calories at rest per day “advantage” of an LCHF-type diet)

    This equation and the metabolic ward studies, show a balance because we always ARE in “energy balance”.. even when we are gaining or losing “weight” — so long as you properly include energy stored and energy released from stores in your maths.

    The trap is assuming that CICO is “predictive” of any outcome… that by reducing CI, or increasing CO, I will inevitably lose so much “weight”. As too many of us know from painful experience, this is NOT a sustainable approach in the long run and may indeed be harmful in the attempt; leading to loss of lean tissue, even higher fat mass and a depressed metabolism.

    Even those arguing in favour of CICO above are saying that you need to adjust the amounts over time (trial and error) before you get it right… in other words they accept that CICO is NOT predictive of the outcome… if you wait until AFTERWARDS and then look at the numbers of course they will balance! They MUST! That is is the 1st Law of Thermodynamics. BUT you didn’t get there simply by counting calories.

    I have a different car analogy and it has to do with trying to save fuel costs: in order to make my car run efficiently it is not enough to simply focus on and record how much fuel I am putting in, and how many miles I am driving with it — at the end of the day those numbers may help me track my progress but they do NOTHING in improving how the car works… for that I need to consider everything from the size and type of tires (and wheels) their inflation, my driving style, how clean the spark plugs, air filter, oil, filter, plug wires etc.. etc…

    I achieve efficiency only by focusing on the quality of these inputs, instead of simply complaining about the quantity of fuel I am putting in.

  • eddie watts

    FrankG do you have a blog at all? (i assume you are the same FrankG from taubes’ blog, fathead, dietdoctor etc?)

  • FrankG

    Eddie — yes I do follow and regularly comment at those other sites.

    I don’t have my own blog. I think there are others like J. Stanton here who do a far better job of that than I could… and I’m not sure I would have the patience with some of the comments I see others tolerating :-)

  • eddie watts

    shame, your comments are always clear and well thought out.

    although i do understand what you mean!

  • BC

    Wow I really appreciate the work that’s gone into this post J. Stanton.

    FrankG your car analogy is brilliant.

    Question though- do the bomb calorimeters reduce the food to ash and zero calories, or only to the same energy state of an average persons poo?

    Ie Say a steak has 500 calories of energy total, according to the calorimeter. How much of that actually is recovered by the time that steak has exited? How many calories of unused energy is there per kilo of feces? I’d be guessing hundreds at least.

    Sorry for the language, I’m just very curious.

  • BC

    Wow I really appreciate the work that’s gone into this post J. Stanton.

    FrankG your car analogy is brilliant.

    Question though- do the bomb calorimeters reduce the food to ash and zero calories, or only to the same energy state of an average persons poo?

    Ie Say a steak has 500 calories of energy total, according to the calorimeter. How much of that actually is recovered by the time that steak has exited? How many calories of unused energy is there per kilo of feces? I’d be guessing hundreds at least.

    Sorry for the language, I’m just very curious.

  • Jen W

    BC,

     

    I'm guessing that would depend on the conditions in which the steak was eaten, what condition the body is in at the time the steak was eaten, what it was eaten with, etc.  So I think that would vary from person to person.

     

    Jen

  • Kevin

    “A Few Possible Fates Of A “Calorie”: Fat”

    Darn! I was looking forward to reading that section most of all. Where can I find an easy to read description of this? I know this works because it works for me but I am trying to understand a few things.

    I understand that carbs increase insulin right away and so much of the carbs get stored as fat rather quickly because the body can’t use it fast enough. Just eat fat, and insulin does not spike, so the body burns the fat slowly for energy. But, what happens if you eat carbs with fat. The insulin spikes and works on the carbs. What does the insulin do with the fat?

    Also, does the body ever store ingested fat as fat if it decides there is more than needed for energy needs at the time?

  • [...] probably already have what you need Best shoulder mob ever There is no such thing as a calorie (to your body) Exercise as good as massage for sore muscles People don’t trust fat [...]

  • Pablo $

    Money is only an oversimplified measurement of value (and doesn’t really exist) but is certainly not meaningless. Just like “gallons of gas” or “miles per gallon” are completely and utterly oversimplified measures of what is happening when we “drive”.

    Surely, we need to optimize the quality of our food intake (not eat our energy intake for the day as processed junk) but we also need to gauge how much energy we are putting in our tank vs how much we can use. CICO works…especially if you are actually eating “food” and not junk.

    PS: Our use of “calorie” is another example of (USA) failure to convert to the metric system.

  • Adam

    Ctrl-f “food calorie” returns zero hits.

    You should really learn what the calorie on the nutrition label *is*, first, before you go all crazy on CICO. Protip, a food calorie is not 1:1 to a calorie from a bomb calorimeter.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_calorie

  • EatLessMoveMoore

    CarbSane has already debunked all of this.

  • Alex:

    That sounds about right…200-300 “calories” less food usually won't be enough to cause a radical shift in the metabolic/hormonal environment.

     

    FrankG:

    Thank you for your cogent comments: you've understood my point and extended it to a general description.  “CICO is descriptive, but not predictive” is a great summary.

     

    BC, Jen W:

    Bomb calorimeters reduce food to ash.  Dietary “calories” are computed by adjusting the resulting values by what are known as the “Atwater system”, which attempts to compensate for all the issues I've discussed by computing some average adjustment factors for “typical” people eating “typical” foods.

     

    Kevin:

    Insulin will cause the fat to get stored more quickly than it otherwise would.  

    In support of this concept, empirically, we see that weight-class athletes, bodybuilders, and others whose success depends on cutting that last few percent of fat follow either a very low-carb diet or a very low-fat diet, with nothing in between.  (Though they sometimes alternate, e.g. leangains and the variants of CKD.)  Though it probably doesn't make much difference unless you're trying to get “ripped”, going to one extreme (or switching them if you're already at one of them) can sometimes help you break through a weight-loss plateau.

    And yes, the body eventually stores circulating fat if it's surplus to energy needs.  However, since high blood fat isn't immediately toxic the way high blood sugar is, it's stored more slowly.

     

    Pablo:

    “CICO works…especially if you are actually eating “food” and not junk.”

    See my reply to Alex above, and especially FrankB's comment.  CICO is descriptive, but not predictive.

     

    Adam:

    “You should really learn what the calorie on the nutrition label *is*, first, before you go all crazy on CICO.”

    I did.

    Your Wikipedia link redirects to “food energy”, which notes “Conventional food energy is based on heats of combustion in a bomb calorimeter”, just as I've said.  This value is then adjusted by the “Atwater system”, which attempts to compensate for everything I've discussed by computing some average values for “typical” people eating “typical” foods.  Some discussion of the shortcomings of the Atwater system, including the fact that it's a fixed approximation to a host of variables, can be found here.

    PROTIP: “Protip” is written in all caps.

     

    “EatLessMoveMoore”/”Melissa”/”CarbSeine”:

    Don't expect a response to sockpuppeting or gratuitous pot-stirring.

     

    Thanks to all my commenters for the productive discussion!

    JS

  • [...] It's a good synthesis of Dr. Kurt Harris's series from a couple years ago about macronutrients: There Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body) - GNOLLS.ORG More to the point of the OP's question: Yes, a sight caloric surplus is best. In all honesty, I [...]

  • [...] *There is no such thing as a calorie! Shout it from the rooftops, please. [...]

  • [...] of long, but a really smart clarification on why “calories in, calories out” is [...]

  • Steven

    Great article! So basically what you eat matters much more than how much you eat. One question I always had was how much protein one actually needs to build muscles? The values recommended by the scientific/academic/health-agencies and the sports-nutrition/bodybuilding community vary so much. From this article, I figure caesin or whey are the best muscle building proteins?

  • Heather

    Energy In (corrected for digestion) = (BMR/RMR + TEF + TEA + SPA/NEAT) + Change in Body Stores

    OR

    Eat only what you can pick, dig or spear…mostly spear.

    I know my choice…

  • eddie watts

    Steven i think the best proteins are as much of as many as you can get.

    individual mileage will vary considerably which is why there is such a wealth of advice which mostly do not agree.

    some of this, no doubt, will be because people who have issues with whey/protein/egg protein will not be absorbing that protein, but still be counting it in their food plans.
    possibly this is why some get good gains on say 1g per pound of weight (they have good digestion and absorption) but others struggle even hitting 2g per pound of weight (digestion/absorption is poor, maybe 100g or so is from a source their body cannot handle)

    currently i’m hitting 2g per pound of bodyweight every day. it is relatively easy because i’m no paleo purist (5 protein shakes a day with 46g each. then 2 solid food meals each with 130g protein in. my bodyweight is around 230 pounds. i’ve always struggled with adding mass, but never tried such high doses of protein.
    i’ve also typically stuck to the CW of high reps time under tension etc, whereas now i am focusing on heavy weights and reps of 1-5 most of the time.)

    personally i’ll listen to those who have achieved muscle gains themselves very successfully over those who know all the theory but have not don it themself.
    if that means i listen to bodybuilders or powerlifters or strongmen then so be it.

  • [...] rest” days The Cuban diet: eat less, exercise more – and preventable deaths are halved There is no such thing as a “calorie” (to your body) Twenty tips that will make you better at Olympic weightlifting Jackie and the platform Exercise or [...]

  • Dana

    The big problems with starvation are:

    1. lack of protein

    2. lack of micronutrients

    …on an immediate basis. Eventually without essential fatty acids you will be in trouble from that too. But starvation is not due to lack of calories or lack of excess fat storage per se. In fact, speaking to the latter, adipose tissue in humans seems to serve as a temporary energy-storage tank more than anything else. We don’t hibernate, and it is not blubber so it doesn’t keep us warm either.

    (In fact, fat people are more likely to be *cold* since chances are excellent we have thyroid issues to go along with the metabolic syndrome!)

    And if you are not getting the aforementioned protein and micronutrients, excess fat will only go so far to address starvation–and only the energy issue, as you will still break down your lean tissues to get amino acids and that will still eventually kill you.

    I could, in fact, envision someone dying of starvation if all they got was either sugar syrup or liquid fat plus water to consume, even if they went above the starvation threshold on caloric consumption every day.

    So I’m glad you offered the disclaimer of speaking from a First World point of view, but the practice of measuring starvation in number of calories consumed is faulty to begin with.

  • Steven:

    That depends on how intense your training is.  For instance, Olympic weightlifters have been measured in negative protein balance (i.e. not getting enough) at 2 g/kg/day.  1 gram per pound per day is the usual “round number” starting point for active people.

    I find that so long as I'm not camouflaging protein by eating it as protein shakes, my own satiation is an excellent guide.  Lean protein becomes extremely unappetizing once you've eaten enough!

    As far as “muscle-building proteins”, all complete proteins (which includes basically most animal-source proteins) will help build muscle.  The main difference between whey, casein, and a steak is how quickly they're digested absorbed.  Whey is absorbed very quickly, so immediately PWO is probably a good time for a scoop…but at most other times (e.g. before bed), you'll want something that is digested and absorbed more slowly, e.g. a steak.

    AFAIK.  Sports nutrition is a complicated field that I don't claim to understand fully — and many of the people making bold claims for their own plans aren't substantiating them nearly as well as they claim!

     

    Heather:

    “I know my choice…”

    It's difficult for most people to gain fat on clean, Whole 30-style paleo: most people who do are eating/drinking dairy products or cheating in some other way.  (Though not everyone…some people do need to stay in ketosis or have other special dietary needs.)

    Note that there's an important difference between weight loss stalls (“I'm not losing three pounds a week OMG what's wrong HELP) and actually gaining weight.  As I've said many times, it took decades to break yourself: don't expect to fix yourself in a month or two.

     

    Eddie:

    When asking how to gain muscle mass, absolutely listen to bodybuilders, powerlifters, and other strength athletes!  Their theories may not be entirely correct, nor their approaches optimal, but they have the salutary characteristic that they actually work in the real world...

    …as opposed to untested hypotheses usually based on one or two in vitro experiments and knockout mouse studies, by people who don't have much muscle mass and don't lift heavy weights.

     

    Dana:

    Addressing starvation is beyond the scope of this article, but AFAIK your understandings are correct.  Kwashiorkor and other protein-deficiency malnutrition syndromes are disturbingly common, whereas rabbit starvation is mostly a historical footnote for a few explorers.

    JS

  • eddie watts

    JS do you know how they tested whether those olympic athletes were in negative protein balance?
    just wondering if it is something i can test myself in some way, other than just lack of progress.
    muscle takes time to build so i should not be expecting too much too soon.

  • eddie:

    The urinary urea nitrogen test is used to determine a patient's nitrogen balance. If the urinary nitrogen balance is positive, the patient is metabolizing sufficient protein, and as a result, nitrogen is excreted in the urine. A urinary urea nitrogen value less than zero indicates a negative nitrogen balance, which is an indication that the patient needs a higher protein intake. When urinary urea nitrogen and nitrogen balance are assessed, the dietician does a protein intake assessment and the nurse is responsible for accurately recording all food intake during the 24 hours of the test period. A normal urinary urea nitrogen level ranges between 6 and 17g in a 24-hour period.” (link)

    Apparently Weider used to sell test strips you could pee on, like Ketostix, but they haven't been around for a long time.

    Here's a meta-study which seems to suggest that 97.5% of American adults are in neutral balance at 0.83 g/kg/day:

    http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/77/1/109.full

    Even if this is true (nutrition recommendations are heavily biased against anything that could cause people to eat more meat), this means 0.83g/kg/day is not enough for the top 2.5% (1 in 40)…

    …and given the state of poor health in America and the generalized phobia of weight training, I suspect that anyone who exercises regularly (let alone lifts heavy weights, which makes you a 1%er or less) requires a lot more than that.

    As for myself, a day with only 70g of protein would leave me ravenously hungry for MEAT!

     

    The main problem people have when trying to gain muscle often isn't insufficient protein, it's insufficient food.  It takes a lot of energy to synthesize protein from amino acids…and it takes a large energy surplus to convince your body it should build energetically expensive muscle mass, instead of just burning the energy as heat or storing it as fat.  In order to gain mass, I have to, quite literally, eat to the point of nausea.

    Of course, this assumes you're eating a relatively clean, healthy Paleoish diet.  If you're just sucking down junk food, you won't be getting the protein you need, nor the nutrients required for the anabolic response.

    JS

  • eddie watts

    thanks for that, will see if i can find some. if only for interests sake!

  • Paul

    See, I love articles like this because it helps me break down this ridiculous idea of food we have developed today.

    HOWEVER,

    One cannot just ‘ignore’ the fact that the IIFYM crowd is still getting ripped, the calorie counters are still losing weight, and the Bro-Science weightlifters are still getting buff.

  • [...] “There Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body)” from Gnolls.org [...]

  • Juan

    @Paul, I agree; I love articles like this and people do think ridiculous things about food. However, I cannot agree that JS, or anyone in the various ‘tard’ communities, paleo, low-carb, or otherwise, are ignoring the facts you say are being ignored: “…that the IIFYM crowd is still getting ripped, the calorie counters are still losing weight, and the Bro-Science weightlifters are still getting buff.” As JS state; those groups are not just cutting calories, they are manipulating food. I am continually surprised why this simple fact is overlooked by so many of the smug CI-CO brow-beaters (or should that be bro-?). Speaking of which, take bodybuilders, for example: If they were all about calories then instead of eating chicken breasts or tuna with NO fat or seasoning, plus the obligatory white rice, for however long it takes to get ripped, they would be eating simply less of their usual fare of, say, pizza, burgers, beer, wings, chocolate cake, what-have-you. But they don’t do that, nor does anyone advise them to. Instead, they change the food they eat in order to cut the calories. EXACTLY as JS states.

    After reading the many comments above, and many thousands more, plus numerous articles, books, blogs, etc., over the past number of years, I cannot escape the utter uselessness of smugly saying, “it’s all about the calories in and calories out” (here one would add “bro” at the end of that if one were nice, but if not, then it would normally be said also with an air of derision or condescension.) Saying it is all about the calories is precisely the same as if a golf pro were to tell you that in order to improve your golf score, you simply had to hit the ball less often. That is true, by necessity, of course — just as no one denies the veracity of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics — but to suggest it has any practical, helpful, or informative value other than highlighting the obvious would be a colossal overstatement.

    Peace,
    Juan

  • [...] Article: There Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body) [...]

  • Freddy

    Hi J
    Keep it up.
    I love the way you use the language- so bloody efficient.
    No frills No ego diversions.
    You have a great mind.
    Thankyou
    Freddy

  • Freddy

    Weight loss still puzzles me.
    At the end of a coast to coast hike across the Scottish Highlands 4 yrs ago a Dr sharing my table warned me that the 18 lb weight loss should concern me. I’d never felt hungry despite the exertion. I am sure she was right tho’ because ( as a lean guy)I suspect I may have been eating muscle.
    On the following 3 two hundred mile hikes I have lost less and less weight ( last yr 6lbs). I’d forced myself to eat nutritionally dense food dehydrated at home.
    At home I eat 2 meals a day both dense. I wonder if all the catering industry and media hype about sophisticated flavoured foods is to compensate for their nutritional poverty. Eat this s*** and get fat.

  • Paul:

    Juan has said what I was going to say, and what I've said in many previous comments to this article.

    Freddy:

    Thank you!  I do my best.

    And yes, the scientific evidence is that hunger is primarily motivated by nutrition.  The problem isn't that junk food tastes good…it's that it tastes good in the absence of complete protein, essential fats, and necessary micronutrients.  Classic example: MSG (and free glutamate in any form, including soy sauce and Parmesan cheese…all produce 'umami') fools your senses into thinking you're consuming complete protein, so your body says “More!”  But since you're eating flavored cornstarch instead, your body never stops being hungry for more no matter how much you eat.

    In contrast, if you eat nutritionally dense and complete food, you can get all the nutrients your body needs while still being short on energy…in which case your body is happy to burn some of your own fat to compensate.  (To a point.)

    I talk about this subject at length in my article series “Why Are We Hungry?” and my AHS 2012 presentation.

    JS

  • [...] Interesting…There’s no such thing as a calorie part 1 and Part 2 [...]

  • [...] There Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body) - GNOLLS.ORG __________________ 1st time iHerb users – get 10% off using my code – YAQ580 [...]

  • [...] did the 2,000 calorie diet idea come from?) and of the different ways the body processes kcals (There Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body) - GNOLLS.ORG). And we've all probably had days where, with no change to our regime, we fancied (and ate) far [...]

  • Titan

    CI=CO, only in a closed system. The human body is not a closed system like the calorimeter.
    so,
    CI=CO+or-(other factors) these factors are numerous and based on metabolic functions.
    or
    adjust CI down until = CO so that weight loss is observed,
    but both clearly disprove that CI=CO
    at best,
    CI approximates CO, but depends on the Efficiency rate of energy conversion of the human body.
    which makes calorie counting a meaningless exercise

  • Titan:

    It’s not totally meaningless…but it's a poor approximation that only “works” when comparing different amounts of the same food, for the reasons you state: those (other factors).  Even then, the weight gain or loss that results doesn't follow the 3500-calorie rule.

    JS

  • grinch

    What you are saying about CICO doesn’t really matter. As demonstrated in human metabolic ward studies, it appears that even with the different metabolic pathways diets of various macro-nutrient compositions take, the end result in the form of body weight is virtually the same.

    The takeaway from all the literature is that the single most important way to predict body fat status is by counting the number of calories ingested in the food and estimate the energy expended.

    I would say you have a meaningful point IF humans ate homegeneous diets and then tried to compare them. But when we all tend to eat a large mixture of foods, some more efficiently processed than others, the end result is largely the same.

  • grinch

    Another thing to point out is one of the common claims in the low carb community is that Calories OUT is so tightly coupled with Calories IN that macro-nutrient composition can make it impossible to create a calorie deficit, completely independent of total calorie intake. In other words, if you eat the wrong composition of calories (ie. mostly carbs), then your body will lower your Calories OUT so that Calories IN is guaranteed to be greater and a calorie surplus ensues.

    There is no physical limits to this phenomenon, as thousands of internets people can eat 1000 calories per day while exercising for 1-2 hours and still gain weight.

  • grinch:

    “As demonstrated in human metabolic ward studies, it appears that even with the different metabolic pathways diets of various macro-nutrient compositions take, the end result in the form of body weight is virtually the same.”

    As demonstrated in the metabolic ward studies cherry-picked by CICO zealots (which don't result in weight loss following the 3500-calorie rule anyway, as demonstrated in Part II) — and as directly contradicted by dozens of other experiments, such as those in Part II and Part III (and beyond, as the series will continue).

    Note that “metabolic ward” is just a part of a hospital, and is a fancy way of saying “patients were in a hospital for part or all of the study” — so it's not any guarantee of accuracy or lack of cheating.  (e.g. “Subjects were required to have lunch at the metabolic ward of the Nutrition Department.“)  So the nut study in Part III is also a “metabolic ward” study.

    “The takeaway from all the literature is that the single most important way to predict body fat status is by counting the number of calories ingested in the food and estimate the energy expended.”

    Which explains why the steep increase in obesity in America coincides with the promotion of CICO as a religion. (Chart.)

    Once again, I prefer to start with reality and attempt to construct hypotheses around it — not start with religious dogma and attempt to retroactively justify it.  Again, read the experiments in Part II and Part III.

    Meanwhile, I'll wager that you don't even believe your own dogma — because you'd be happy to eat your 2200 kcal/d (or whatever you judge your “maintenance” to be) in the form of donuts and Coca-Cola.  However, as mentioned many times above, no one concerned with body composition actually does this — because nutrients exert direct effects on the hormonal milieu, which exert direct effects on REE, TEE, nutrient partitioning, etc., and consequently body composition.

    Finally, I have no patience with strawman arguments, such as you advance in your second comment.  I suggest you wait until I actually put forth a conclusion before arguing with it.

    JS

  • [...] Part 1 of four parts of a series on this topic at Gnolls.org. You will find links to subsequent articles at the end of each article. [...]

  • [...] is no such thing as a calorie to your body: parts one, two, and three. Every time someone says people just need to eat less to lose weight, I groan [...]

  • Heather

    “I know my choice…”

    It’s difficult for most people to gain fat on clean, Whole 30-style paleo: most people who do are eating/drinking dairy products or cheating in some other way. (Though not everyone…some people do need to stay in ketosis or have other special dietary needs.)

    Note that there’s an important difference between weight loss stalls (“I’m not losing three pounds a week OMG what’s wrong HELP) and actually gaining weight. As I’ve said many times, it took decades to break yourself: don’t expect to fix yourself in a month or two.

    I might be mis-understanding your reponse…

    :) My choice is eat only what you can pick, dig or spear. :)

    Your blog is the only one I truly look forward to reading. I have read the Gnoll Credo. I cried. Boy did I cry. Please keep them coming!!

    News today 8/8: high glucose levels (below diabetic levels) increase chances of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Apparently there’s a nice clean pretty upward pattern. I figure we might hear from you about this one (I have a copy of ApoE4 – I eat lots of saturated fat and cholesterol to ensure I’m getting enough to my brain. My body does love lots and lots of fat!!

  • Heather

    @Marilyn: “The pounds just melted away. Every time.” – So this means that you went on a diet more than once. That you had to count calories on more than one occasion to lose weight. Which means that the previous diets failed.

  • eddie watts

    ^^^ yes that.
    i bring this up with people all the time
    “i’m fat agin i’ll go to weight watchers again, i really lost weight well on that last time”
    me “erm so why did you get fat again?”
    “well i stopped going to weight watchers”

    people remember it worked, and initially all diets will, but when they stop working people stop following the diet and put weight back on. but they forget *why* they stopped the diet in the first place (it failing them) and only remember that it worked initially.
    so they repeat this basic failure to learn from their mistakes. again and again.

  • [...] There Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body) [...]

  • [...] Anyways, I’ve shared this in the past but for the benefit of any new readers I will share it again. I really really love this article… “There Is No Such Thing As “A Calorie” (To Your Body)” [...]

  • [...] Makes one think that the cheeseburger really isn’t worth a 4 hour walk, and really, really there is no such thing as a calorie (to your body). Why yes, I am going to share that link every single chance I get thank you very [...]

  • [...] The below article is not the property of NomSense. To view the original article click here. [...]

  • [...] Re: 90 Day Fitness Thread: Day 1! I thought I would add this article in here for those who will read it. It backs up further the claims that we have been duped to believe in calorie in/out crap. There Is No Such Thing As A “Calorie” (To Your Body) - GNOLLS.ORG [...]

  • Kevin

    A food calorie (kcal) is not a simple bomb calorimetric like energy measurement (see Atwater).

    Another truism I’ve discovered is that people will make a relatively simple problem, or rather solution, complicated because they can then use it to make money. The more complicated a problem the more outside help appears to be needed, the more the problem can be externalized (eg “metabolic syndrome” versus poor dietary discipline), etc.

    One can use a reasonably constant macronutrient distribution that contains an effective caloric content and track weight over time against that constant. Adjusting the intake level for the same approximate distribution against the tracked weight over time using the approximate 3500 kcal/pound number is more than sufficient for producing the desired rate of weight loss or gain. This will work every single time. In the limiting cases it absolutely _has_ to work. People may not like where their maintenance level falls and what their intake will have to be to reach their goals in a given deltaT but it will work; hysteresis effects, edema, etc. can complicate the process, but it will work.

    Just because the body doesn’t care about calories doesn’t mean they can’t be used to manage diet and manipulate weight. Massive bodies and space don’t know anything about the gravitational constant but the motion of bodies can still be calculated using it.

  • Heather:

    I apologize for missing your comments!  Meanwhile, yes, consistent high BG appears to be a problem whether it comes with insulin resistance or not.

    I'm glad TGC spoke to you so powerfully.  Yes, I cried while writing it.

    Heather, eddie:

    Yes, it's always possible to starve a few pounds off yourself in the short-term: just do a “cleanse” or any other method of staying hungry by using willpower (e.g. Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig).  Then, once hunger overcomes your willpower, watch all the weight come back, plus a few extra pounds as a bonus.

     

    Kevin:

    Like most zealots, you're accusing me of exactly what others are doing.

    The CICO brigade is making the problem excessively complicated — usually in order to sell the difficult and exhausting regimens, often including personal training and consulting, necessary to stick to such ineffective weight-loss techniques!  (See: Aragon, Weight Watchers, etc., etc.)

    Meanwhile, unlike the above, I'm not selling anything related to diet.  All my information is freely available here.

    Seriously, what's more difficult: eliminating grains, seed oils, and dairy, as the Paleo community recommends — or weighing and measuring every single potential food item on a gram scale before you allow yourself to eat it?

    Sheesh.

    You might also notice that the Atwater factors were already covered in the discussion above.

    “One can use a reasonably constant macronutrient distribution that contains an effective caloric content and track weight over time against that constant. Adjusting the intake level for the same approximate distribution against the tracked weight over time using the approximate 3500 kcal/pound number is more than sufficient for producing the desired rate of weight loss or gain. This will work every single time.”

    No, it won't.  In fact, it will never work…a fact proven by multiple metabolic ward studies.  See Thomas 2013, quoted in Part II. 

    I'm continually stunned by the religious nature of CICO fanatics like yourself: you repeat completely disproven dogma (e.g. “This will work every single time”) over and over.  Meanwhile, go read Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V (so far).  You'll find study after study proving the following:

    • A calorie is not a calorie when you eat it at a different time of day.
    • A calorie is not a calorie when you eat it in a differently processed form.
    • A calorie is not a calorie when you eat it as a wholly different food.
    • A calorie is not a calorie when you eat it as protein, instead of carbohydrate or fat.
    • Controlled weight-loss studies do not produce results consistent with “calorie math”.
    • And, the errors in estimating our true “calorie” intake exceed the changes calculated by “calorie math” by approximately two orders of magnitude. 

    Result: “calorie counting” isn't doing what you think it is.

    Feel free to argue…but only after you've read the rest of this series, conveniently linked above.

    JS

  • [...] part I: www.gnolls.org/3374/there-is-no-such-thing-as-a-calorie-to-your-body/ [...]

  • [...] There is no such thing as a calorie (to your body) [...]

  • [...] There is no such thing as a calorie (to your body) [...]

  • [...] There is no such thing as a calorie (to your body) [...]

  • Jonny V

    This is an incredible post! I have been telling my friends about how CICO is completely wrong and a terrible metric, but I have been met with a lot of adversity. This post pretty much is the nail in the coffin. I wanted to write a post like this but you did a much better job than I could have! Thanks.

  • Jonny V:

    As I've said before, “Calories count…but they don't all count the same.”  

    I've spent the next seven installments (with more to come!) exploring the myriad differences between naive CICO and observed reality.  (Links to Part IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VI, and Part VII.)  I hope they're useful to you.

    And yes, CICO is a seductive myth, because it's simple and has the aura of science about it.  It's just physics, and physics is the most scientific of sciences, right?  You can't argue with the laws of Nature, etc.  Unfortunately, CICO reduces, in practice, to the belief that weight gain or loss is a direct product of calories ingested, physical exercise, and nothing else.  Thus, it ignores the rapidly accumulating scientific evidence that what you eat, how you eat it, and even when you eat it changes the number of effective “calories” in food — and the evidence that it's impossible to estimate “calories” within the bounds of the results we hope to obtain.

    JS

  • Jason

    I realize that this is an old post, but the comments still appear to be going, so I figured I’d say something.

    I didn’t read all of the comments, but I followed a decent part of the discussion between noko, Tim, and JS. Having said that, I do not understand the mentality of the posters who seem to suggest not counting calories, or that doing so is in some way ridiculous or laughable. Yes, it is true that the macronutrient and micronutrient compositions of a diet matter greatly. Yes, it is true that different foods have different thermal effects. Yes, it is true that food energy can be used in numerous different ways, and at least some of those ways are affected by the diet’s composition itself. NEVERTHELESS, using “calories in, calories out” as a simple heuristic is often extremely beneficial. I have used it for years with great success, gaining muscle and losing fat as I desire, without any difficulty whatsoever. Concerning myself with details like TEF and different potential metabolic pathways has simply been completely unnecessary. The simple heuristic works well enough, and, in my experience, is optimal given the uncertainties and time investments that would be required to use some more detailed considerations.

    Put simply (and yes, it is simplifying, but that is exactly the point!), I find that, so long as my diet is composed of a reasonable amount of each macronutrient — given my activities, I try get around 1g of protein and at least .5g of fat per lb. of bodyweight — and a sufficient variety/level of micronutrients, the only other factor that I need to concern myself with is calories. Once the levels of macronutrients and micronutrients are met, I generally eat whatever I want within my set caloric intake (which I establish using only “calories in, calories out” as my heuristic) and succeed, progress, and love life.

  • Jason:

    I'm glad you're experiencing success — but if you are “gaining muscle and losing fat as I desire, without any difficulty whatsoever,” you are in a small minority. 

    “The authors review studies of the long-term outcomes of calorie-restricting diets to assess whether dieting is an effective treatment for obesity.  These studies show that one third to two thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost on their diets [emphasis mine], and these studies likely underestimate the extent to which dieting is counterproductive because of several methodological problems, all of which bias the studies toward showing successful weight loss maintenance.” (Mann 2007)

    And again, as you state, “so long as my diet is composed of a reasonable amount of each macronutrient, [...] and a sufficient variety/level of micronutrients, the only other factor that I need to concern myself with is calories.”

    So we've established that a “calorie” of Coca-Cola is not equal to a “calorie” of wild Alaskan salmon, because one fulfills your macro and micronutrient needs, and one does not.

    Unfortunately, macronutrients aren't all equal, either.  As I've proven in subsequent installments, a “calorie” of coconut oil doesn't make you as fat as a “calorie” of butter, and neither makes you as fat as a “calorie” of carbohydrate (Part III); and a “calorie” of protein doesn't equal a “calorie” of anything else (Part IV, Part VI).

    Then there is meal form and timing: a “calorie” of food makes you much fatter if you grind it into powder first (Part II); a “calorie” of carbohydrate eaten at breakfast is not equal to a “calorie” of carb eaten at dinner (Part II); intermittent fasting changes the amount of “calories” in food (Part VIII)…

    Unless you're weighing everything on a gram scale, your estimates of “calories” are so far off that differences of less than 20-30% will be totally masked by estimation error (Part V).  And we haven't even accounted for the effect of different foods on hunger and satiety (see my series “Why Are We Hungry?”)

    The one case in which “calorie counting” sort of works is when you're eating basically the same foods, just in greater or lesser quantities.  And even then you'll have to make a very large change in “calories” to see a smaller change in bodyweight over time, in order to overcome measurement error (discussed above) and the fact that the 3500-calorie rule completely fails in all metabolic ward studies (Part II). 

    Result: almost all of us will produce better results by focusing on which foods we're eating, when we're eating them, and how they're processed than by focusing on the number of “calories” they contain. 

    Yes, if we're absolutely sure our diet is already optimal, we can start counting calories — but doing that first, as is the current mainstream advice, usually just leaves us hungry and leads to failure.

    And yes, one of my future installments will cover the question “So when is a calorie still a calorie?”  There are some substitutions that don't seem to matter, e.g. substituting non-MCT fats for carbs, or vice versa, above ~10-15% carb intake.

    JS

  • […] Paleo blogger and author of “The Gnolls Credo,” J. Stanton put together a fascinating, detailed blog series devastating the calories-in-calories-out model. His whole series is really worth a read. Brilliant, brilliant stuff. As is his 2012 AHS lecture on the nature of hunger. Here’s a taste from his calories series: […]

  • Paul Quek

    You’re fucking retarded.

    Calories in VS Calories out is completely accurate.

    Your article is detailing how to lose weight in an appropriate manner whereby more fat is burned than muscle, AS OPPOSED TO merely losing weight HOWEVER IT IS.

    Meaning if somebody wanted to lose 10 kg, and he/ she did not care whether it came from muscle or fat or any kind of ratio of the two, calories in vs calories out would be entirely appropriate.

  • Paul:

    “if somebody wanted to lose 10 kg, and he/ she did not care whether it came from muscle or fat or any kind of ratio of the two, calories in vs calories out would be entirely appropriate.”

    That has been conclusively disproven in multiple studies via well-controlled, peer-reviewed science. See the comment directly above yours for the links — or those in the GIANT BOLD-FACED WARNING at the bottom of the article, both of which you neglected to read.

    I’m sorry you’re stuck in a long-disproven paradigm: it will make your life, and the lives of those to whom you issue your well-intentioned but utterly mistaken advice, much more difficult.

    JS

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