What follows is an extract from ‘How To EAT LOADS And LOSE WEIGHT’ – available now.
Counting calories has, for a long time, been a popular way of regulating a diet. Count the number of calories you consume, subtract the number of calories you burn, and if the number you’re left with is a minus—congratulations!—your body must have been forced to ‘burn fat’: Calories in versus calories out.
It’s an elegant theory, one that most people can easily get their heads around, and one that is supported by law; food manufacturers are legally obliged to print the total number of calories, as well as a host of other nutritional information, on all food packaging, to make your calorie counting efforts easier.
Such a shame then, that it’s absolute tosh.
Firstly, the ‘calories in calories out’ concept assumes that the amount of calories your body ‘burns’ is consistent. But that’s not actually true.
Recently—and by recent I mean one hundred years ago—two gentlemen published a study entitled A Biometric Study of Human Basal Metabolism (October 8, 1918). What J Arthur Harris & Francis G Benedict showed was that if you reduce the amount of calories you consume, the body performs a little self-regulation and adjusts the number of calories ‘burnt’—and by a similar amount. This is called your metabolism.
It’s little like putting your phone into ‘lower power mode’. When you consistently eat less, your body notices, and automatically starts to conserve energy. The downside is that, just like your phone, in low-power mode you don’t operate quite as smoothly. You might feel tired. A little sluggish. Colder than usual. But at least you’re not going to have to rely on your stored fats. Phew!
Despite the fact that the metabolism study has been replicated many, many times, the weight loss industry (and the world at large) has, by-and-large, chosen to ignore this rather crucial piece of information—not least because it renders the whole ‘calories in calories out’ notion completely useless. Have you been steadily reducing your meal sizes in the hopes that your body will be forced to fall back on its reserves? Oh dear. I have some bad news for you.
But people have been counting calories for decades…
Back in the 1980s, when the food guidelines in America and the UK were changed in line with the calorie counting, low-fat ethic, obesity in this country and the entire western world increased dramatically, but interestingly the average calorific intake actually fell.
We ate fewer calories, but we still got fatter.
The same decade also saw an explosion of fitness gurus, each with a video to sell. Fluorescent leggings and leg warmers became a thing. People started jogging. Gym membership escalated. The amount of exercise we were doing increased—and has done ever since.
We exercised more, burnt more calories… and yet we still got fatter.
Regardless of what you’ve read, or heard, or what your doctor or weight-loss guru may have told you, the evidence of the past thirty five years is pretty damning: the ‘calories in versus calories out’ equation just doesn’t add up.
What are calories anyway?
Aside from the whole metabolism issue, my biggest problem with our obsession with calories is this:
Calories are not things!
A calorie is a measurement. Like a centimetre. Or an inch. Or degrees Celsius. Or Fahrenheit. Or minutes!
What does the humble calorie measure? Energy.
Its exact definition is this:
the energy required to raise the temperature
of 1 gram of water through 1 °C.
When I was at school, I remember being given a ‘science experiment’ to determine the amount of ‘energy’ in a peanut. It went something like this:
Each student was given a peanut, a test tube, and a thermometer. We put one gram of water in the test tube, gripped the peanut with metal tongs, and then set fire to it. We held the burning peanut under the test tube, and when the nut eventually burnt itself out, made a note of the final temperature. From this we were supposed to be able to work out how many calories that humble peanut had.
Even at the time this experiment seemed flawed. For starters, surely the glass test tube, even the tongs, were absorbing some of the heat (and therefore the ‘energy’)? And surely it made a difference how close you held your peanut to the test tube?
But what bothered me most was I couldn’t see how this experiment could be replicated for other food.
Why weren’t we given a stick of celery? Or a steak? Or a potato? Or a mars bar? My adolescent brain quickly concluded it was because my teacher knew these things wouldn’t burn, which would render his hinky experiment completely useless. Being a teenager, I immediately took the opportunity to feel betrayed, hoodwinked, and angry. I probably had a good sulk about it.
Looking back now I realise that I may have inadvertently stumbled on something extremely important: When it comes to calories, you cannot treat all foods as equal.
We like to think that 100 calories of peanuts is exactly the same as a 100 calories of kale. But it isn’t.
Aside from the fact that it’s difficult to set fire to kale (!!), your body will treat those two foods in very different ways.
100 calories of peanuts has about sixteen grams of carbs. Whereas the kale has half that. Meaning that 100 calories of peanuts will yield more glucose, will cause your blood sugar to rise (more than the kale), stimulate the production of insulin (more than the kale), and ultimately cause you to store more of that glucose as fat—all whilst increasing your appetite. Exactly the same number of calories… but ultimately MORE body fat.
100 calories of peanuts will make you fatter
than 100 calories of kale!
Same number of calories, ultimately MORE body fat.
Let’s take this one step further. Let’s swap those 100 calories of kale for 100 calories of something ‘healthy’ like… rice.
100 calories of rice contain about 28 grams of carbs. Almost twice as much as the peanuts. Meaning that…
100 calories of rice will make you fatter
than 100 calories of peanuts!
Again; same number of calories, ultimately MORE body fat.
Let’s go further still. Let’s swap those 100 calories of peanuts for 100 calories of… petrol.
Petrol yields a staggering amount of energy. That’s why we use it to fuel our cars. And as calories are a measurement of energy, we know that a gallon of petrol is about 30,000 calories. Roughly. Meaning that 100 calories of petrol isn’t going to be very much. How many carbs in 100 calories of petrol? I have no idea. But my instincts tell me that drinking petrol, even in small amounts, is a really, really bad idea, and would probably make you very ill. Or dead.
That said, it would, once and for all, prove the point I’m trying to make—that your body responds completely differently to the foods you eat, and it doesn’t give two hoots about calories!
I want you to understand this: there are no calories in your food. Calories are not things. It’s a measurement. A measurement of one tiny aspect of the complicated biological process that goes into keeping you alive.
Counting calories is about as useful as counting centimetres, or inches. In fact, I’d like to suggest that counting centimetres sort of makes more sense. The next time you go grocery shopping, take a 12 inch ruler with you and measure each item you buy. Theoretically, the fewer centimetres a food has, the less weight you should put on! Get those total centimetres down over the coming weeks and you are just as likely to lose weight.
You could stop counting calories, and start counting carbs.