Many people are of the opinion that when dieting for weight loss, it is all
about counting calories. If you want to lose weight, you just eat fewer calories
or do extra exercise to burn more calories. That’s it, just one of those two
options. But that is not true! Diet is not simply about calories.
The idea is, all “diets” are just a means of getting people to eat fewer
calories. If you follow a vegan diet and lose weight, then that is just because
cutting out animal products caused you to eat fewer calories. It doesn’t matter
that you just ate vegetables, it just matters that you got less total energy
from food. The idea would be the same if you switched to a keto diet and lost
weight: the diet must have worked just because you ate fewer calories. Not
because you didn’t eat sugar, not because you were in a state of ketosis. Just
because you’re more limited food options incidentally caused you to eat fewer
The concept is derived from the assumption that the body can be imagined as a
simple energy burning machine, where any “extra” energy you eat must be stored
as fat. You “burn” some average amount of calories every day both from exercise
and basic metabolism. People then assume that any “extra” calories you eat on a
given day, beyond what you burn, must be stored as fat. Likewise, if you don’t
eat as many calories as you burn, it is assumed that those missing calories from
your diet will be made up for by your body burning its own fat.
Then it is assumed that you can just determine how many calories you burn in a
day, and then extra calories eaten above that number must lead to fat gain and
eating fewer calories than that number leads to body fat loss. That’s it, no
other details to worry about. This would work the same way regardless of what
one is eating.
Our Bodies Are Complex #
This concept holds some appeal because it borrows the language of energy
balancing from physics and appears to be rooted in “common sense”. However, this
fails to consider how the body actually processes energy, which is complex and
involves a wide variety of chemical pathways. The body doesn’t just burn the
food in a pure oxygen environment, as food companies do to assess the food’s
total energy content. In fact, the calories in some foods many not even be fully
absorbed by the digestive system. And this also doesn’t consider how food
consumption can impact hormones, which can also affect whether body fat is
stored or broken down.
Should Diet Include Intermittent Fasting? #
There are a lot of factors at play beyond just counting calories. This is
particularly clear when you consider the research that has been done on short
term fasting, where one might skip breakfast or eat all of their meals within a
fixed time window such as 8 hours. Consider a recent randomized controlled trial
which demonstrated quite conclusively that when it comes to obesity and health
generally there are dietary factors other than simple caloric intake.
This study in question compared groups of mice that were fed a very unhealthy
diet. One group of mice were allowed to eat this food at any time. The other
group of mice were only allowed to eat during an 8 hour window. The total amount
of food provided was the same, and both groups of mice ended up eating the same
number of calories every day.
So, if counting calories was the only important factor in a diet, you’d expect
the two groups of mice to end up about the same, health wise, right? That’s not
what happened. At the end of the experiment, the mice that were allowed to eat
whenever they wanted were hugely overweight, had unhealthy livers, and the
equivalent of type 2 diabetes in humans. That’s what normally happens to mice
with this particularly unhealthy diet. But the interesting part is that the
group of mice who could only eat during an 8 hour window were perfectly healthy.
They were normal weight and had no applicable health problems. The mice looked
These results show us quite clearly that diet isn’t just about counting
calories. Even though they ate the same number of calories, one group of mice
was quite obese and the other group maintained a healthy weight. Now, this is an
animal study, so the results cannot be directly applied to humans, it merely
points the way for further research. But on the positive side of an animal
study, animals don’t lie about how much they ate, how much alcohol they drank,
or how many cigarettes they smoked on their surveys. So you really do know with
a much higher degree of certainty what those mice ate and how much of it, so the
results are all the more convincing.
Calorie Restriction Doesn’t Mean Weight-Loss (and, it’s not long-term) This is
very good news. Caloric restriction is not a very good tool for weight loss, so
we should be glad that it is not the only one available. That’s why so few
people have success losing (and keeping off) weight with very popular caloric
restricted diets. If this is surprising, consider the Women’s Health Initiative,
the most ambitious, important weight loss study ever undertaken. This enormous
randomized trial involving almost 50,000 women evaluated a low-fat, low-calorie
approach to weight loss. Through intensive counseling, women were persuaded to
reduce daily caloric intake by 342 calories and increase exercise by 10%.
Researcher projected a weight loss of 32 pounds over a SINGLE year based on
their understanding of thermodynamics.
When the final results were tallied in 2006, the experiment proved the opposite
of conventional thinking. Despite good compliance, over seven years of calorie
counting led to virtually no weight loss (.04 kg). Not even a single pound.
Therefore, something—that we now know is the endocrine system—must have
superseded the overly simplified thermodynamic arithmetic associated with the
concept of caloric restriction.
If your main goals are to lose weight, don’t simply jump to calorie restriction.
If you want long-lasting results, you need to better understand our wonderful
and complex bodies. They can do a lot more than we think!
John Jaquish, Ph.D is a research professor at Rushmore University, his alma
mater, speaks at scientific conferences all over the world. His newest book,
Weight Lifting is a Waste of Time: So is Cardio
, and There’s a Better
Way to Have the Body You Want is set to release in August 2020.