This is the transcript for my video “Why Calories are not Important (What causes weight gain part 1)” along with a couple of comments. This was my most controversial video for good reason. I was challenged a piece of conventional wisdom with an incomplete argument (The argument becomes more complete when followed up with Part 2: Why your body makes you fat and hungry) The message of the video did not intend to be “what you put in your body doesn’t matter because calories don’t matter,” but it seems to have come across as such for some. What I was hoping to convey (and I should have clarified better) is that calories are an insufficient means of understanding what your body does with the food you consume. Simply measuring your macros (Protein, Carbohydrate, Fat) would be a much more worth while thing to measure.
Ever since the 1960’s we’ve been taught to get enough calories to keep our bodies going, but not to get too many so we don’t get fat. The reality is that calories could be one of the most useless pieces of information for understanding your food and how to regulate your weight. Let me take a minute to explain why the logic and the data behind the calorie idea just simply implodes on itself.
Calories in calories out is presented as based on the first law of thermodynamics and thus cannot be broken, as is with any rule in Physics. Sure calorie counting works for some people. This ballet dancer interviewed on munchies describes how her meticulous calorie counting allows her to achieve her goal weight. “So to lose half a pound a week, I do a 250 calorie deficit a day so I’ll be there in 3 weeks. I had half of a smoothie so it’s 185…” Though, the thing with using Physics as a justification for something is that the law must work every time. For example, in 2011, the OPERA experiment found particles called neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light. So did the scientists say “Ah that’s just one case.” Of course not. The results and nature of the experiment were thoroughly analyzed, to eventually conclude that there indeed was a mistake, and no the universal speed limit was not broken. So it’s very odd that something like calories in calories out that rarely works became touted as an undeniable truth among health professionals because it’s supposedly based in Physics.
I am not attempting to criticize physics or suggest that the speed of light might not be what it’s been proven to be. The point of this illustration is to explain that physics does always work, but CICO does not always work and thus has no right to be justified as if it were an accepted Physics concept.
In 1846 The Native American tribe known as the Pima had been encountered by the US Army and had been observed to be lean and in wonderful health. They lived off of abundant game, they had fish, and clams they had cattle and huge stockpiles of corn, beans, wheat, melons, and figs. Then the California Goldrush brought in people who hunted their game to extinction and diverted the Gila river, leaving them unable to irrigate their crops and by the 1870’s they were so stricken with famine that they had to rely almost entirely on government rations to survive. Yet after all those years of famine, between 1901 and 1905 two different anthropologists observed them as being particularly… fat. How could they be lean with an abundance of food and fat when they were having trouble getting enough calories to survive?
Then, In the early 1990’s a study was done on fifty thousand women to see the effects of a low fat, lower calorie diet on their health. They consumed 360 less calories per day than their previous diets, yet after 8 years they lost on average only 2 pounds. This doesn’t follow the widely accepted idea that a 350 calorie deficit will lose you a pound of fat every 10 days.
Jillian Michaels, speaking to an overweight woman: “Do you or don’t you count calories?”
The woman’s reply: “No.”
Jillian: “Calories are everything when it comes to weight loss, it’s the universal rule. It’s calories in versus calories out, simple math. Let me explain. A pound is 3500 calories, Okay….”
Wait a minute. This 3500 calories per pound of fat at first doesn’t make sense because a pound is 453.6g and FAT is 9 calories per gram, so 9 multiplied by 453.6 equals 4082.33 calories. However, only 87% of your body fat is actually lipid, so 87% of 4082.33 is actually 3551.63 calories so it sort of works. Except the lipid percentage changes from person to person. It could be as low as 72% for some people, so for that person a pound of fat is only 2939.28 calories. This is a pretty significant difference if you’re someone whose closely monitoring calories.
OK Let’s say you went and figured out the lipid density of your fat tissue. Great. It’s still way too hard to precisely monitor the amount of calories you take in.
So, 4 calories from carbs, 4 from protein, 9 from fats, right? Not quite. These are averages. Depending on the source of the macronutrients the actual calorie values differ.
Protein from wheat gluten is 5.95 calories and from cow’s milk is a little bit less at 5.9 calories. The fat from cow’s milk is 9.19 calories whereas human breast milk has 9.37 calories of fat. Then your carbohydrates – monosaccharides have 3.75 calories, disaccharides have 3.95 calories, and polysaccharides are from 4.15 to 4.20 calories. This doesn’t sound like much at first, but over the course of a day, it adds up.
And, Studies have shown that the packages on food labels are at most 90% accurate. BBC has done a program called “The Truth about Calories“ Where they investigate this and confirm that there are plenty of discrepancies on food labels, Casey Neistat did something similar in this video of his:
“But I did find that on this day, if I had based my diet on the calorie counts provided to me, because of the discrepancies in those counts, I would have consumed an extra 548 calories.”
The next thing you would also have to track precisely is how well your food has been cooked. Research has shown that cooking your food significantly increases the amount of weight you can gain by eating it. Richard Wrangham talks about how this was a very important part to our evolution because it meant we were getting more energy out of pretty much the same materials, which helped us to power our big brains and have children more frequently. So if I ate this 46 grams of meat raw as a tartare or something, I would gain less weight from it than if I had cooked it. (The same thing goes for vegetables)
So Back to the 3500 calories per pound thing – Let’s say you ate a pound of coconut oil, which would give you over 4000 calories. Do you think that… might make you poop? Bad Lip Reading’s video: 🎵Everybody poops and if they don’t they’re an android 🎵.
But seriously, How are you supposed to consistently gain a pound of fat from 3500 calories if eating 4000 calories won’t do it?
So let’s rephrase Jillian’s question for her: “Do you or don’t you measure your body lipid composition, personally verify the calorie counts, analyze how much you cook your food and… weigh yourself before you go to the bathroom” “…No” “And there’s your problem.”
This all brings us back to Thermodynamics, which calories in and out is apparently based on. The first law states: “the change in the internal energy of a closed system is equal to the amount of heat supplied to the system, minus the amount of work done by the system on its surroundings.” Essentially, in order to gain or lose energy within a closed system, energy input must be different from energy output. Except the calories hypothesis interprets this as “If the energy added to your body does not match the energy coming out of your body, the excess energy will be stored as fat”. To understand how illogical this is, let’s think of a battery.
Let’s say your battery is dead and you want to charge it. By charging it you could technically say you’re adding calories to it. A calorie is just “the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1 °C” So I could surely find a way to use the electrical energy in the battery to heat up some water. So it has some calories. So now that I’ve charged the battery by adding calories to it, is it significantly heavier? Obviously not.
I’ll admit I could have used a better example here as a battery is a very poor analogue to a biological system. The point was to just poke at the widely accepted idea of “more calories equals more weight, so count em’ up and you will lose weight. (and you can know how much weight you should expect to lose.) It’s a stretch to say that the interaction of amino acids,
Yet we’ve been taught that calorie dense foods make us heavier because there is more energy in them. More energy is not what makes you heavier. If you could just violate the laws of conservation of mass and conservation of energy like that, everybody would have a perpetual motion device in their house. Homer Simpson: “In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!!”
By the way, calorie dense foods are giving you more energy to meet your daily energy needs with less mass. Shouldn’t the logic from the start have been that lower calorie foods make you gain weight because you have to take in more mass to get the same amount of energy?
You might say “No no no, higher calorie fatty foods make you fatter because they turn into fat more easily.” The biochemistry is more complicated than that and fat is still less than half of the weight for the same amount of energy! And if you want to start arguing that angle then you’re accepting the fact that different substances are processed differently in the body, which means a calorie is not a calorie thus calories in calories out doesn’t work. You have to either accept the fact that not all calories are equal or use some kind of magical wizard physics to defend the concept, you can only pick one.
Those are the problems with calories in calories out, now there is the problem of the calorie itself. Food’s caloric content is based on the heat generated by a foodstuff when it is combusted. Calories are measured in a calorimeter, a device where you insert the foodstuff into a crucible, submerge that in water and then basically blow up the foodstuff and see how much the water was heated. Sure It gives you an idea of the potential heat energy within the food, but needless to say, this is not how your digestive system works. Macronutrients are broken down, shuttled through various metabolic systems to generate Adenosine Triphosphate which is the general form of energy used to run the machinery of our cells. We are not bombs and we are not steam turbines, we do not blow food up in our stomachs and we do not run our body directly off of heat or heated water.
Even the terminology we have regarding calories and weight loss is misleading. You don’t burn fat – if you “burned” anything in your body you would be in the emergency room. After Fat is broken down to produce energy, 20% leaves your body as water and 80% as CO2. So you actually breathe off most of the fat. And sometimes people will talk about burning calories… Calories are a unit of heat themselves, you can’t… burn… heat – that’s not a thing.
Considering calories have so little going for them, how did they become the universal measurement of food energy?
There are so many more useful pieces of information you could track instead of calories-
What would really be good to know is how much Adenosine Triphosphate the foodstuff will produce, because that is what our bodies actually run on, not heat.
Calories in calories out illustrates the real problem with nutrition for the past several decades: Oversimplification. It’s easy to work with simple numbers like 4 calories for carbohydrates ,4 for protein, 9 for fat rather than trying to understand how these, or these or these are actually processed in the body.
If calories in calories out was correct, how could this guy set a deadlift world record eating 1200 calories per day, how could these people run 400 miles in a single go without eating at least 7 kilos of food? how could Matt Stonie eat all this crap and stay skinny and how could these two brothers be in the same household eating the same things and looking this different? This is because calories don’t matter and they never did.
I don’t think anyone is fat because they just don’t give a crap – It’s more likely that they were given a piece of advice that didn’t work, and when they questioned it they were told that they weren’t trying hard enough.
OK, so This video was all about what doesn’t matter to your health. Next time I’ll be talking about things that do matter like how your body and your hormones respond to your food. So make sure to stay tuned for the second part to this topic.
Check out part 2 to this topic here: