Calories Matter – Stop Bashing the First Law
Posted by Michael Vacanti
Note: This article was originally published on Fitocracy which is a bad-ass fitness website that serves both your social media and workout tracking fixes.
At some point in the last 12-18 months, it became cool to rebel against the energy equation.
You know, the first law of thermodynamics.
Energy In – Energy Out = Weight Gain/Loss
I’m not sure why it became cool.
Calorie counting has been effective for a long time. It has been proven to facilitate weight loss through controlled studies, and it has helped individuals from all walks of life achieve their fitness goals – single moms, star athletes and sculpted fitness pros alike.
Why All The Hate?
Some are financially incentivized to make weight loss as mystical and confusing as possible. This allows them to promote a fancy product or drug.
Others aren’t so malicious. Clean eating or Paleo worked well for them, so they adamantly preach it like the gospel. And while their intentions are pure, this is harmful to the industry nonetheless.
And still others like to make red herring arguments in articles titled something like “a calorie is a calorie; or is it a calorie?” that undoubtedly mention one gram of water, one degree Celsius, yada yada yada. Surely, you have seen a few of these pieces.
Five Arguments Against The Energy Equation
The common disputes mentioned in these types of articles, ranging from logical fallacy to umm, seriously?, certainly are not helping anyone.
For that reason, I have gathered the most popular arguments and reduced them to layman’s terms, so we can all understand what is really going on.
Argument #1: PROCESSED FOODS MAKE YOU FAT
What they mean: Processed foods are higher in sugar and lower in fiber than most fruits and vegetables. There are countless benefits to choosing produce over processed.
Processed carbohydrates spike blood sugar, thus generating less satiety than fruits and veggies. And let’s not forget the micronutrient density that one group is severely lacking.
But, does a diet low in micronutrients really make you FAT? How about a diet comprised mainly of fast digesting, processed nutrients?
I mean, this guy dropped 27 pounds in 10 weeks eating Twinkies.
Processed foods don’t make you fat; eating more calories than you burn makes you fat.
Argument #2: EACH MACRONUTRIENT IS DIFFERENT
What they mean: One component of metabolism is called the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF). Digesting food requires energy, and TEF accounts for the energy used by the body during digestion.
The number of calories burnt through digestion varies by macronutrient. Protein digestion requires more energy (20-35% of calories) than fat or carbohydrate digestion (5-15%).
Again, this does not invalidate the energy equation. Yes, given the same total calories, a high protein diet will burn more calories than a low protein diet. This really just highlights one aspect of “energy out”, the Thermic Effect of Food.
Argument #3: HORMONE LEVELS CAN CHANGE BASED ON DIET
What they mean: The quantity and type of macronutrients you eat can affect certain hormones. Generally, in the context of dieting and calories, leptin takes the stage.
Leptin is a hormone produced in fat cells that helps regulate metabolism and appetite. When we eat a calorie deficit for a prolonged period of time, leptin levels drop and our calories expended might decrease. This is one reason refeeds and cheat days are popular – they create a leptin spike.
Does this make the energy equation invalid? Absolutely not. Changes in hormone levels as they relate to weight gain/loss, whether it be leptin, insulin, testosterone or estrogen, are simply increases or decreases in energy expenditure.
Sure, do what you can to increase testosterone naturally, but planning refeeds to manipulate leptin levels is overkill for most people. Practice tracking macronutrients, eat a calorie deficit and you will see great results.
Argument #4: FIBER ISN’T DIGESTED COMPLETELY
What they mean: Fiber is a carbohydrate, but it doesn’t come in at 4 cals/gram like other carbs. Soluble fiber provides 2 calories per gram and insoluble fiber ~0 cals/gram.
Does this mean a calorie is not a calorie? Well, no. If you really want to crunch the numbers, go ahead and calculate fiber as “Energy In.”
Before you do this, let’s gain a little perspective; the average person’s diet contains ~15g of fiber, and the RDA for fiber is 25-30g. This means that eating a diet high in fiber will save you 30-45 calories per day.
Look, I don’t think anyone denies that a high fiber diet is a good thing. Fiber offers satiety, smooth digestion, regulated blood sugar and much more. Eat your fiber for those reasons but know that it also has a home in the energy equation.
Argument #5: MEAL TIMING IS IMPORTANT FOR WEIGHT LOSS
What they mean: To be honest, I’m not sure.
Maybe they mean carbs before bed are evil, but that was debunked.
Maybe they mean you need protein within 30 minutes of your workout to maximize the anabolic response, but that was also debunked.
Maybe they mean that frequent, small meals should be eaten to stoke the metabolic fire, but that was debunked like a decade ago.
Maybe “timing” sounds just confusing enough to make some poor guy buy expensive supplements to take with his 8 meal by 2 hour schedule, who knows.
I don’t know the solution to the obesity crisis, nor can I offer with certainty the best strategy to ensure we put the best information forward.
However, developing an understanding of the relationship between macronutrients, total calories and food is imperative for any person’s long term success and happiness.
All changes in body weight stem from an energy imbalance. If people learn how to track macronutrients, they will be able to eat any way that fits their taste and lifestyle – and still manage their weight.
While 1000g of pixie sticks obviously is not the same as 1000g of beef n’ broccoli, trolling the energy equation with nonsensical arguments isn’t helping anyone.