Calories In-Calories Out: A Misguided Approach to Sustainable Weight Loss

19 December 2016

If you are above the age of 25, you have likely already experienced a self-dialogue that goes something like this: “I will reduce my calories for the next week and lose weight by New Year’s…the wedding…my birthday”… you name it. And, if you are older than 30, you’ve also probably experienced a simultaneous self-doubt that went something like this: “I have been consuming fewer calories but my weight is not budging. What is wrong with me?”

This kind of self-talk is so predictably a coming of age phenomenon that it may as well be a rite of passage.

Calories in-calories out. Eat too much, gain weight. Eat less, lose the weight. It’s that simple, right?

Ehhhhh (loud buzzer noise), wrong!!! If it were that straightforward, would nutrition studies be comprised of rigorous science classes, and human anatomy and physiology courses? Would sustainable weight loss be a topic of conversation that never seems to be going out of style? The facts just don’t add up.

Well then, WHY NOT? Why isn’t the number on the scale responsive to basic mathematical equations?

Let me start by addressing the naysayers out there. Some of you (no need to point fingers) may feel strongly that if you consume fewer calories, you will lose weight AND keep it off. In part, you are correct. You can ‘trick’ your body into a semi-starvation mode, in which you undoubtedly lose weight. However, as history shows, our bodies have many homeostatic mechanisms that come into play to help stabilize our weight and ultimately make us come face-to-face with the dreaded plateau.

Now that I have sparked your interest, we can focus in on the science of weight loss. I promise to keep it brief so that your sanity remains intact. It is true that consuming more calories than you are expending will lead to weight gain. However, this is a very narrow way of viewing the issues of weight gain (and even obesity). The QUALITY and consistency of one’s diet is extremely important to enhancing the success rate of weight loss efforts.

While there are many scientific explanations for the shortcomings of the calorie in-calorie-out argument, two key reasons stick out as to why this theory on weight loss is shortsighted.

Number 1: When we eat a candy bar loaded with high fructose corn syrup, our body does not require the same amount of energy to process this food (if you can call it that…) that it would need to break down a piece of chicken breast. Let’s say we measured out the candy bar and chicken breast so that we were consuming the same amount of calories from both – would that equalize them? NO! I hope you didn’t fall for that trick question. The surface level calorie count is irrelevant – what matters is how our body responds to the food and how much energy we need to expend in order to process it.

Number 2: In addition to the variation in energy expenditure, the foods we eat cause a chain of reactions in our bodies – triggering various metabolic pathways, corresponding digestive enzymes, hormone releases and nutrient uptake and utilization. This metabolic response, such as an increase in insulin, or the hunger and satiety hormones, leptin and ghrelin, will differ based on the composition of one’s meal.

Science lesson complete.

I am sure there may still be some skeptics out there shaking their hands. I applaud your strong convictions, but I challenge you to do your own research, and to start thinking more about the limitations of putting all your eggs in the calorie counting basket. If you want to talk more weight loss science with me, you know where to find me. I will never pass up a good nutrition debate!

That being said, don’t dismiss the importance of portion control during the holiday season. However, perhaps it would be wise to consider the source of your nutrition too while you are at it!

Happy and healthy holidays!