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More Peer-Reviewed Evidence That There Is No Such Thing As A "Calorie" To Your Body(Part III)
Read original blog post here (Comments and posts to this thread are linked)


4:24 am
June 18, 2013

J. Stanton


posts 1919

Caution: contains SCIENCE!

Even after the previous installment of this series, there are still people who believe that calorie intake—and calorie output via exercise—are the only factors that affect weight loss. Apparently my work is not done!

(This is a multi-part series. Go back to Part I, Part II.)

Empirical Evidence: A Calorie Is Not A Calorie When You Add Lots Of Coconut Oil Or Butter To Your Regular Diet

Take three groups of Wistar rats. One group gets free access to standard low-fat rat chow; the others get free access to both standard chow and a "high-fat chow", 2/3rds of which is butter…

Read original blog post here (Comments and posts to this thread are linked)

6:14 am
June 18, 2013



Another fine installment!

The whole 'calorie is/n't a calorie' debate has become rather laboured to the point where it isn't very useful and much of the disagreement is semantics. There is some common ground between the ACIAC and NSTAAC groups, who'd both agree that:

– 'Isocaloric is not isometabolic'
– Fitness, strength and body composition are moving targets. Our bodies are adaptable, and, static inputs will not cause static outputs (an obvious example of this is our having to change reps and weights in a strength-training routine to make it more challenging).
– The SLOT is immuteable!

On a personal note, I hope you are managing to take advantage of spring/summer!

6:20 am
June 18, 2013

Keeli Kaye


Thank you, J. Stanton, for another great post in this extremely interesting series! I love the work you do – it's informative and accessible, which is a combination that many try for and few achieve.

7:51 am
June 18, 2013

Carole AKA Carbsaner


Thank heavens you find time to post occasionally, J!! You make the internet a saner and more interesting place.

8:58 am
June 18, 2013




posts 43

Whilst on the topic of NSTAAC, I happened to find a study looking at diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT) between two isoenergetic meals – one 'wholefood' (WF) and one 'processed' (PF). On average, WF DIT was nearly double PF DIT!

  • "A higher thermogenic response was observed after a meal composed of whole foods than after an equivalent and isocaloric meal comprised of highly PFs. The lower DIT of the PF meal indicates greater net-energy assimilation."

Of course we kind of know this as cooking and other forms of processing begin the process of digestion long before food reaches our stomachs.

9:22 am
June 18, 2013

Adan Kosloff


Yay to J Stanton! LOVE this series. CICO = madness and flat-earth-ery. Thanks for your good work exposing it :)

10:07 am
June 18, 2013



All I know is that if I eat too much and don't get enough exercise I get fat.
I started the mosely 5:2 regime in January. Involves limiting to 600 cals two days a week .it is brilliant and I can do it, I feel so much better. I have lost 21lbs in 20 weeks. On my five days off I just eat as normal- lovely, it's the only way. By the way humans are not rats! Today I met a bloke who went on about his bad knee, he must have weighed more than 18stone, 250lbs, Doctors not interested, just give him pills, he said he wanted to see an osteopath. I didn't have the heart to say lose some weight- perhaps I should have?

10:54 am
June 18, 2013



When referring to the rat study you say "Even the butter+chow rats ate 30% more “calories”, but gained only a non-significant amount of extra weight."

Eyeballing Figure 1B, it seems that the butter fed rats reached about 550 grams, whereas both the coconut fed rats and the chow only rats reached only about 450g. This difference, if extrapolated to a 200 lb man, would be about 40 lbs, clearly not insignificant.

1) Am I missing something?
2) If I'm not missing anything, do you think the difference between coconut oil and butter is also that significant in humans?


12:29 pm
June 18, 2013




sorry to nitpick, but figure 1A doesn't seem to show 30% and 140% increases in energy intake to me. It looks more like 50% and 75% or something like that. Can you double-check?



3:37 pm
June 18, 2013

J. Stanton


posts 1919


Fortunately the rabid "calories uber alles" zealots (none of whom were ever paleo anyway, to my knowledge) seem to have moved onto attacking each other and leaving us alone.

However, the mainstream is still full of naive CICO/ELMM advice ("calories in calories out", "just eat less and move more", "just eat one less slice of bread per day") — and I write these articles for those new to paleo, as well as those needing ammunition against well-meaning but naive questions like "Have you tried Weight Watchers?"

Thank you for the DIT study link!  I'll discuss known and measured factors like DIT that affect CI vs. CO soon…for now I've stuck to the unexplained phenomena.



Thank you!  I try to end my articles with a summary and, if possible, a useful takeaway.



I do my best. 

After the controversy I kicked up with the first installment, I've noticed a surprising silence from the peanut gallery after these last two!

My opinion: there are too many paleo and nutrition bloggers starting needless controversies in order to keep the page views coming, whether for profit or for self-aggrandizement — and it's confusing a lot of people, particularly those new to paleo.  In my case, if I don't have anything substantive to say, I try to resist saying it.



As mentioned in the comments to the first installment, CICO is trivially true, because physics is true.  However, CI and CO are not independent quantities, and there are so many contingencies that it's impossible to measure either one accurately enough to predict the results…all you can do is figure out what happened in retrospect, which isn't useful when you're trying to figure out what to eat next.



"All I know is that if I eat too much and don't get enough exercise I get fat."

That's true…but if you try to measure "too much" and "not enough" in "calories", and extrapolate that to how fat you'll get (or how much food and exercise you'll need to stop getting fat or lose weight), you won't come up with the right answer.

That's why I recommend that adjusting the amount of food you eat comes last, after you're already doing all the recommended steps from Eat Like A Predator: eat the right foods, stop eating the wrong foods, don't snack, challenge yourself physically (preferably outside), experiment with eliminating common allergens and irritants, etc.  THEN, if that isn't enough, try decreasing the amount of food you eat.



Table 3 of Romestaing et.al. (the rat study) gives exact figures for calorie intake at week 3 and week 16, from which I derived the percentages.  These are the same percentages the authors quote in the Results section…

…however, the graphs, as you correctly note, don't appear to represent the same numbers. 

The calorie curve for the chow-only rats has been shifted upward (actual range 45-73, apparent range 55-95).  The calorie curve for the coconut oil+chow rats appears to be about right, but the butter+chow curve is way off (actual range 62-95, apparent range 60-165).

I'll add a note to that effect in the text.  No, peer-reviewed science is not infallible, even in "high-impact" journals!



The lack of an asterisk above the weight graph means that the difference did not reach significance.  That threshold is usually P<0.05, a chance of less than 1 in 20 that the result was due to chance.

Why would such a large difference not reach significance?  Because there were only four rats in each group. 

Yes, it would have been nice if they used larger groups!  Rat studies aren't incredibly expensive, so I'm not sure why they didn't use, say, six or eight rats per group.



12:28 am
June 19, 2013



You're blog is one of the few paleo site worth reading these days. Quality post as per usual :)

1:51 am
June 19, 2013



Slight correction needed: "A calorie is not a calorie when you add lots of coconut oil or butter to your regular diet AND you are a lab rat." Did they measure the activity levels of the rats?

In the almond study, the almond group got their almonds by the researchers, while the carb group only got instructions which carbs to choose. That hardly qualifies as a neutral protocol, as people are way more likely to cheat when they are not supervised while choosing their food. If you allready got food, taking additional food is a higher mental hurdle than simply being "inaccurate" with the implementation of dietary guidelines.

Anyway, great site and great content. I love to read it.

10:59 am
June 19, 2013



"“Calorie math” doesn’t work for weight gain or weight loss."

This is a way more accurate statement than "all calories are not created equal". All calories are created equal when measured in the standard way, but they are not equal when eaten, as you've pointed out.

My only critique is with the rat study…these were basically baby rats, age 3-15 weeks. You can't really do a metabolic study on a fast growing baby mammal and make blanket statements–so much more is going on in fast growing babies than in adults. I'd like to see this same study done on fully grown rats or humans. If you saw a weightloss/metabolic study done on 6 month old human babies–you'd lol.

2:38 pm
June 19, 2013



One more comment if you don't mind…

An explanation for the seemingly mysterious calorie mismatch from eating almonds can be found in this study:

"[Whole Almonds] significantly attenuated second-meal and daylong blood glucose incremental area under the curve
(AUCI) and provided the greatest daylong feeling of fullness. [Almond Butter] and [Almond Oil] decreased blood glucose AUCI in the morning period and daylong blood glucose AUCI was attenuated with [Almond Oil]. [Whole Almonds] and [Almond Oil] elicited a greater second-meal insulin response, particularly in the early postprandial phase, and concurrently suppressed the second-meal NEFA response. GLP-1 concentrations did not vary significantly between treatments."

If a food effects glucose and insulin as well as other metabolic properties, it throws the CICO model for a loop.

2:39 pm
June 19, 2013



9:39 pm
June 19, 2013



Interesting experiment here that supports your hypothesis: http://live.smashthefat.com/why-i-didnt-get-fat/

3:42 am
June 20, 2013

J. Stanton


posts 1919


Thank you.  It's easy to get page views by causing controversies (EVERYTHING WE THOUGHT WE KNEW IS WRONG!!!1!!1!), but the recent examples I've seen are misleading oversells of something interesting but far less revolutionary than advertised — and they harm the greater community of people who are just trying to get or stay healthy by confusing them as to the message.

There's a reason "Eat Like A Predator" hasn't changed meaningfully in over two years…I haven't yet found anything that redefines healthy eating.



I saw no mention of activity levels in the study: let me know if you find any.

Note that my contention is not that coconut oil makes "calories" somehow disappear by magic!  There is an explanation — whether through decreased absorption, increased thermogenesis, increased activity, increased protein synthesis, some combination of these, or something else entirely (I don't know).  The point is that if one can eat over twice as many "calories" and gain the same weight as someone else, counting calories is a less effective strategy than changing what we eat.

As far as the almonds vs. carb source question, yes, it's possible that the carb group was cheating more than the almond group…but recall that the study was providing over half the calories in both groups, since the remainder of the diet was "Health Management Resources (HMR) 70 Plus, a protein-sparing formulation prescribed during LCDs to ameliorate the loss of lean body mass".

And even if the carb group was cheating more (despite daily detailed food logs and weekly reviews that booted anyone who deviated too much), then an interesting point still stands — which is it's easier to stay on a starvation diet of nuts than a starvation diet of "complex carbohydrates".



They weren't "baby rats."  Wistar rats become sexually mature somewhere between 5 and 7 weeks of age (depending on living conditions and which source you decide to cite), so they were adolescent rats for perhaps the first 2-4 weeks of a 12 week study. 

That's an interesting paper on nut metabolism: thank you! As you may have noticed, I favor explanations that rely on established biochemical pathways –and while the effects in that study don't seem strong enough to account for all the observed differences, they're likely to be significant.  (There is also research suggesting that a significant amount of the fat in nuts isn't actually absorbed.)



I've seen it before, and it's an interesting link!  I'll probably bring it up later in the series.


Thanks, everyone, for your interesting and informational comments.  I try to keep gnolls.org a safe place for civil and informational discourse…and so far I've been able to do that without heavy-handed moderation.  (I haven't yet blocked or deleted anyone for anything but blatant spam.) 

Please help me keep it that way!


3:46 am
June 20, 2013



I think it is worth noting from the rat study that while the body weights were the same between the groups the rats on the butter and coconut fat diets were fatter than than the chow fed rats. The rats on the coconut fat diet also had a significant increase in the volume of their adipocytes.

This suggests that they were channeling at least some of the excess calories into their adipose stores at the expense of lean tissue. I suppose the equivalent for a human would be becoming more "skinny fat" without gaining weight.

The study also reports an increase in brown adipose tissue and uncoupling protein UCP1 and so the rats are likely to have increased their energy expenditure through heat production.

"In our study interscapular BAT is larger, or tends to be
larger, in the high fat fed groups, concomitantly with and
increased content in UCP1, suggesting the implication of
this tissue in fatty acid oxidation. BAT thermogenesis and
UCP1 expression are known to increase during high-fat
feeding, possibly to dissipate energy and to regulate body
weight [35,47-49]. We can therefore postulate that rats
can adapt to excessive lipid ingestion: firstly, by increasing
the storage of fatty acids in peripheral white adipose tissues, and secondly by over-expressing the UCP1-related
thermogenesis in BAT."

So they were both getting fatter and expending more energy to try to deal with the higher calorie intakes.

4:31 am
June 20, 2013

J. Stanton


posts 1919


Read my article more carefully: I already addressed the fat issue.

"The study makes much of the extra WAT (white adipose tissue) gained by the coconut oil+chow rats—62% more—but as the rats started with very little fat, the total gain was approximately 8.4g versus 5.6g for the chow-only rats, for a difference of appx. 2.8g of fat on a 450-gram rat.

In human terms, that’s a 0.6% difference in bodyfat percentage…just under a pound for a 160-pound human."

So the fat difference was insignificant in real-world terms…especially when a nearly 100 gram weight difference between groups was considered non-significant because of the small sample size!


Also note that the absolute amount of brown fat was even smaller: a 26% difference yields a whopping 67.5 extra milligrams of brown fat per coconut oil+chow fed rat. </sarcasm> 

That's about one-twentieth of a teaspoon.  This 67.5 mg of brown fat must have been burning like a meterorite in order to burn through 105 kcal/day!



5:08 am
June 20, 2013



What I meant to add to that last comment is that the researchers only measured the retroperitoneal white adipose tissue by dissection and weighing which is difficult to do for other fat deposits. While a doubling of the relative fat mass from 1 to 2g/100g of body weight is not that much, it does not exclude an increase in fat in other areas of the body. This would include an increase in epididymal, and mesenteric fat tissues in the abdomen and also include increased subcutaneous fat in the rest of the rats body. So the authors would be treating a doubling of the retroperitoneal as representative of increased fat in other areas.

As a normal Wistar rat could have a body fat percentage in the order of 10% a doubling of this to 20% is significant, as would be the case if all fat stores increased along with retroperitoneal WAT. This could be the equivalent of a human going from 20% to 30% body fat. I am just suggesting that this can indicate a bit more fat accumulation than just a 2.8g of fat on a 450-gram rat.

It is a shame they could not have carried out a whole body scan to determine the total body composition.

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