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There Is No Such Thing As A "Calorie" (To Your Body)
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May 1, 2013
12:22 pm
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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

May 4, 2013
2:09 am
eddie watts
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thanks for that, will see if i can find some. if only for interests sake!

May 6, 2013
8:04 am
Paul
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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.

May 14, 2013
2:10 pm
Juan
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@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

May 16, 2013
1:48 pm
Freddy
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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

May 16, 2013
2:06 pm
Freddy
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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.

May 16, 2013
7:35 pm
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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

June 27, 2013
5:23 am
Titan
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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

June 30, 2013
2:47 pm
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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

July 3, 2013
7:05 pm
grinch
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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.

July 3, 2013
7:19 pm
grinch
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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.

July 8, 2013
1:47 am
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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

August 8, 2013
6:34 am
Heather
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“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!!

August 8, 2013
7:19 am
Heather
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@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.

August 10, 2013
1:13 am
eddie watts
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^^^ 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.

October 9, 2013
10:30 am
Kevin
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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.

October 10, 2013
8:17 pm
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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

January 20, 2014
4:13 pm
Jonny V
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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.

January 21, 2014
8:53 pm
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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

January 30, 2014
11:36 am
Jason
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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.

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