Written by: Kevin Cann
The great calorie debate is and has been quite a controversial topic for some time. I am not going to lie, I have changed my stance on this topic probably more than once. To quickly answer the question “Do calories matter?” the answer is yes. However, I want to take this topic a bit deeper and help everyone gain an understanding for how our body should be controlling our caloric intake. We have survived for millions of years as a species without having to weigh and measure our food.
The most popular calorie counting equation is the Harris-Benedict equation. This equation has quite a few downfalls. First, it was established in 1918 which makes it almost 100 years old. This study also used a small sample size. This study looked at 136 men, 106 women, and 94 newborns. To summarize, our most popular equation for calculating intake is 100 years old and looked at a sample size of a little more than 300 people to establish guidelines for the entire population. I think it is safe to say that there is a good chance that these researchers missed the mark a bit.
I am not saying that I have all the answers. If I did I would not be writing this article right now, but laying on the beach of an island that I own because I would be the richest man alive. We are still trying to figure out what causes people to be obese and how to correct it for the long term. We have consistently tried the eat less and exercise more mantra with very limited success. If looking at the climbing obesity rates of the American population is not enough here is a conclusion on a literature review of low calorie dieting:
“Dietetic literature on weight management fails to meet the standards of evidence based medicine. Research in the field is characterized by speculative claims that fail to accurately represent the available data. There is a corresponding lack of debate on the ethical implications of continuing to promote ineffective treatment regimes and little research into alternative non-weight centered approaches. An alternative health at every size approach is recommended (1).”
Now, I am not saying that we do not need to decrease caloric intake to lose weight. We definitely need to decrease calories in order to lose weight. However, the research is stating that these methods have been largely unsuccessful. To solve this puzzle we need to answer a different question. Why do obese people get hungry? If someone is 50lbs overweight why are they constantly hungry? If 3500 calories equals 1lb of fat, that obese person would have 175,000 calories of stored energy. If hunger is our body letting us know we need more energy, there is something off here.
In the 100 years since the Harris-Benedict equation was founded we have learned a lot about a group of hormones that control our appetite and how much body fat we need to store. Just cutting calories and not addressing these hormones and their functions will be unsuccessful because it can cause further damage.
The reason for this is low calorie dieting is actually a stressor. For millions of years low calorie dieting equated to a food shortage. The body being an amazingly adaptive machine and a food shortage being an extremely large stressor forced our genome to alter how it does things. The human body becomes more and more resilient every time we deprive it of calories. Research has shown that low calorie dieting increases our major stress hormone cortisol, and counting calories is actually a psychological stressor (2). Increased cortisol levels can also lead to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and weight gain (3).
This does not even take into effect the negative impacts low calorie dieting has on mood. Does anyone ever feel truly great when they are depriving themselves of calories? Go backstage before a bodybuilding or fitness competition and tell me everyone is flying on unicorns over rainbows. This has actually been shown in studies in humans as well.
From 1944 to 1945 Ancel Keys and colleagues studies low calorie dieting in 36 young men. They were placed on a 1,600 calorie per day diet and physical activity levels were controlled. The results were quite frightening. The subjects experienced hysteria, depression, self-mutilation, and hypochondria, as well as a preoccupation with food, hoarding food, loss of sexual drive, anger, decreased social interests, and lower leg edema due to the increased water intake to try to get rid of hunger feelings (4).
Research has not replicated a human study since 1945 on the long term effects of low calorie eating. However, the popularity of TV’s the Biggest Loser has led researchers to look more into the eat less and exercise more advice. The overweight contestants on the Biggest Loser go through calorie restricted diets and extreme exercise in an attempt to lose the most weight. Lots of people make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and undertake many of the same actions that are seen on the television show.
Researchers looked at the methods of the Biggest Loser and concluded the following:
“Despite relative preservation of FFM, exercise did not prevent dramatic slowing of resting metabolism out of proportion to weight loss. This metabolic adaptation may persist during weight maintenance and predispose to weight regain unless high levels of physical activity or caloric restriction are maintained (5).” This means that the rebound weight gain is inevitable unless you continue to subject yourself to these same extreme conditions. This is due to the metabolic adaptations that the body goes through in these types of situations. The exercise helps preserve lean body mass, but the hormonal changes drive the hunger response and will set the stage for greater weight gain once the exercise is downgraded or more calories are consumed.
So then what do we do if low calorie diets make us nuts and set the stage for more future weight gain, and eating too much makes us fat? This is the trillion dollar question. Our body should know when to eat, when we are full, and how much body fat to store. If we eat too much food one day it should compromise by taking in less the next and use some of the excess energy we stored. The problem is our body gets in a state of dysfunction and it does not know when to stop eating and it loses the ability to burn our stored fat.
To keep this simple I am only going to discuss the roles of a few hormones. There are others involved that maybe I will discuss in future articles, or if I ever get the motivation a book. Leptin is the hormone that controls how much food we should eat and how much fat we should store. Insulin is probably the most well-known and it is our main fat storage hormone. Glucagon stimulates the liver to release stored glycogen to help control blood sugar levels and works with adrenaline to free up our fat stores to use as energy.
The goal is to get these hormones to function properly to regulate our appetite and control our body fat. Eating processed and refined foods negatively affects these hormones. All of us have those foods that we can just throw down a couple thousand calories in a sitting. Pizza, ice cream, Doritos, pick your poison. I encourage you to attempt to eat that amount of calories in leafy greens. It is nearly impossible. Impossible unless we add some sugar, salt, or fat to the meal. Hyper palatable foods creates leptin resistance. When we have resistance in one of the hormones there will be resistance in all. That means we also have insulin resistance and adrenaline resistance. When we develop leptin resistance we do not know when to stop eating and how much body fat we actually have stored. The body is tricked into thinking it actually has less fat then what it does.
Eating too frequently throughout the day can negatively affect our hormones as well. Insulin is secreted in two phases. Phase 1 occurs within 10 minutes of eating. This is when the pancreas releases its stored insulin. Phase 2 then begins and this is when the pancreatic beta cells produce insulin. If we eat every 2-3 hours we lose phase 1 insulin secretion. Loss of phase 1 insulin secretion is an independent predictor of type 2 diabetes (6).
Also, when insulin is present in the bloodstream our fat burning hormones glucagon and adrenaline cannot come into the picture. This sets us up to be really good at storing fat, but really bad at releasing it. Also, a major role of our liver is to help control blood sugar levels. If we are constantly eating our liver does not need to do this. Just like an unworked muscle it gets weak and lazy. If it is unable to control blood sugar between meals we will constantly have to eat to avoid blood sugar crashes. When this happens we are falling even further down the rabbit hole. This happens frequently enough we will become insulin resistant which means we will also become leptin resistant (as insulin rises so does leptin).
The chronic stress we are under also influences these hormones. When we are stressed our body releases cortisol, which as we saw earlier can lead to a number of health and weight related issues. Adrenaline is also released at this time. Just like with insulin and leptin our cells can become desensitized to adrenaline when too much is present. Remember when we have resistance in one of these hormones we have resistance in all 3.
If weight loss is your goal you will not be able to calorie count your way to it. Obesity is a very dynamic disease. The plan needs to be one that helps your energy homeostatic hormones get back on track. When these hormones are back on track you will naturally take in fewer calories and start utilizing the excess energy you have been storing. This paper does not cover all of the areas that are important, but it is a good start.
1. Be careful of added sugar, salt, and fat to meals. This increases the palatability of foods and it can make it easy to overeat. This includes even healthy foods. Cook with healthy fats, but be careful adding butter, nuts, and oils to foods. Limit this in the beginning.
2. Space meals apart every 5 hours. This will give our fat storage hormones and fat burning hormones equal time in the bloodstream. It will also allow our pancreas to rest and store insulin for phase 1 secretion and allow our liver to work to help regulate blood sugar. If you are hungry between meals adding more non-starchy veggies or protein to the meal before can be beneficial. Some people may need to tier down to 3 meals. If you eat 6 meals per day you can start with 5 for a couple days, then move to 4, and finally to 3.
3. Manage your stress. This is an often overlooked variable in an exercise and nutrition program. You need to actively manage your stress with meditation, yoga, and magnesium baths, there are a limitless number of options here. Try to limit your exposure to artificial light before bed as well.
There are other factors that affect caloric intake such as vitamin D, which studies show may actually act as an energy homeostatic hormone, sleep, neurotransmitter levels, and even genetics. Nobody has a definite answer as to how to correct this obesity epidemic. However, it is a far more complex topic then counting calories.