Eat less calories than you burn and you will lose weight, right? Yes, and no. Technically its true but there are enough contributing factors to make the statement “Calories In – Calories Out” (CICO) an unworkable philosophy for weight loss.
One problem is that not all calories are not created equal. For example:
- If we consume 100 calories of Skittles (a simple carbohydrate) our body sends out an insulin response and whatever calories are not immediately needed for fuel will be turned to fat. If we were to consume 100 calories of sweet potato (a complex carbohydrate) those calories will be more slowly absorbed and used as fuel throughout the next few hours. This is especially true if that sweet potato is combined with fat and protein, which increases the number of calories but decreases the chance of those calories becoming body fat.
- It takes calories to digest the food we eat. Maybe. Food has a varying thermogenic effect, which is the amount of energy (calories) a food requires to process the food. Skittles has almost no thermogenic effect so all 100% calories become instant fuel or fat. The complex carbohydrate will need about 20% of its calories to digest and make the food ready for use, leaving 80% of its calories for fuel or fat. This is its thermogenic effect. The thermogenic effect of steak (a protein) can be as high as 30% leaving the remaining 70% for fuel.
- High-quality calories that come from foods that are rich in nutrients, like broccoli, leafy greens, avocados, nuts, chicken, eggs, and beef trigger the release of hormones that tell the body to burn fat. The foods we eat also directly affect the hormones that control when and how much we eat.
A few more reasons CICO doesn’t work:
- We eat at least as much for nutrition as we do for calories. If your body is getting enough calories but not nutrition it will signal our brain to keep consuming food. That is one reason we can mindlessly consume empty calories, like a bag of chips, but when we consume a few whole foods we feel satiated.
- Counting calories doesn’t work because we cannot accurately determine how many calories our bodies need today, and if we did, it would be different tomorrow.
- When we eat matters. Even if we did consume the right number of calories, if we consumed too many of those calories at one time, or later in the day when we didn’t need the fuel, some of those calories will be turned to fat anyway.
- We can stay within our needed caloric intake (if we knew what that was) and still cause the metabolic damage that dieting causes because if we do not get the calories when we need them our metabolism slows down and our body sloughs muscle tissue.
- The body tries desperately to maintain its fat mass. If we were to cut calorie intake by 10%, it would only work for some time until our metabolic rate would adapt and we would stop losing weight. Then we would have to cut calories again, then again, resulting in diminishing results each time.
- Low calorie dieting is stressful on both our mind and body and can cause an increase in cortisol, which in turn causes an increase of fat, especially belly fat.
- Calorie counting can cause an unhealthy obsession with food.
- It is very difficult to gain excess fat on real food. It is processed foods, especially sugar, that causes body fat. No one becomes addicted to real food like steak, vegetables or blueberries.
So what is the answer to weight loss? It is to eat only real food and eat frequently because: WHAT WE EAT AND WHEN WE EAT IT is the secret to a lean life and a healthy relationship with food.