You’ve all heard me rant and rave about how stupid the “calories-in-calories-out” (CICO) model of obesity is. But I’m not some lone wing-nut. Many, many smart people — way smarter and more knowledgeable about obesity and weight loss than I am — agree that CICO is BS. Here’s what they have to say.
1. Adele Hite — “Sometime around noon, I will disappear altogether because all my calories will be gone.”
I love Adele, and her Eathropology.com blog is a shining diamond of nutritional truth in a proverbial ocean of dietary advice sludge. Or something. Rope off a few hours to scour her blog for wisdom. Here’s an apropos nugget that skewers one of the most visible “calories count” mandarins, Marion Nestle:
“Fortunately, there’s an easy way to keep track of your calories even though you can’t see, taste, or smell them.
Marion Nestle says that the best way to measure calories is to step on a scale. So, lessee. I stepped on the scale and I weigh 160 pounds. If I’m 55% water (hooray, no calories there!), and 4% minerals (wait, does calcium have calories?), and then 13% protein (4 calories), 24% fat (9 calories) and 4% carbohydrate (4 calories), well then, hmm multiply by and convert and carry the one and—got it!—
I’m exactly 194766.884 I’m exactly 206112.371 calories.
That means if I decrease my calorie intake by 500 calories a day (this where all that helpful calorie information on the side of the box of low-fat, high-fiber, individually calorie-control portion food comes in handy) and increase my activity by 500 calories a day (which I understand I can do simply through insanity, which—according to my children—should not be much of a stretch), that means that on November 10, 2012, sometime around noon, I will disappear altogether because all my calories will be gone. See how easy that is.”
2. Dr. David Ludwig and Mark Freedman — “We have an abundance of calories, but they’re in the wrong place.”
Dr. David Ludwig and Mark Freedman are overseeing some fascinating, cutting edge nutrition research. Their May 16, 2014 editorial in the New York Times, “Always Hungry? Here’s Why” was that weekend’s most shared news piece in the world. They also just published an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), “Increasing Adiposity: Consequence or Cause of Overeating?” that explores this theme further.
Here’s the start of their blockbuster NYT editorial:
“FOR most of the last century, our understanding of the cause of obesity has been based on immutable physical law. Specifically, it’s the first law of thermodynamics, which dictates that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. When it comes to body weight, this means that calorie intake minus calorie expenditure equals calories stored. Surrounded by tempting foods, we overeat, consuming more calories than we can burn off, and the excess is deposited as fat. The simple solution is to exert willpower and eat less.
The problem is that this advice doesn’t work, at least not for most people over the long term. In other words, your New Year’s resolution to lose weight probably won’t last through the spring, let alone affect how you look in a swimsuit in July. More of us than ever are obese, despite an incessant focus on calorie balance by the government, nutrition organizations and the food industry.
But what if we’ve confused cause and effect? What if it’s not overeating that causes us to get fat, but the process of getting fatter that causes us to overeat?
The more calories we lock away in fat tissue, the fewer there are circulating in the bloodstream to satisfy the body’s requirements. If we look at it this way, it’s a distribution problem: We have an abundance of calories, but they’re in the wrong place. As a result, the body needs to increase its intake. We get hungrier because we’re getting fatter.
It’s like edema, a common medical condition in which fluid leaks from blood vessels into surrounding tissues. No matter how much water they drink, people with edema may experience unquenchable thirst because the fluid doesn’t stay in the blood, where it’s needed. Similarly, when fat cells suck up too much fuel, calories from food promote the growth of fat tissue instead of serving the energy needs of the body, provoking overeating in all but the most disciplined individuals.”
3. Gary Taubes — “They lost 60 percent of their body fat before they died of starvation, but still had five times as much body fat as lean mice.”
Taubes is almost singlehandedly responsible for the modern anti-CICO revolution. When the forces of good prevail in the war against the insanity that is calories-in-calories-out, and we solve obesity, diabetes and the diseases that associate with them, we will all have Taubes to thank. Here’s a particularly devastating assault on the nonsensical “Eat Less Move More” model of obesity, from his bestseller 2007 book, Good Calories, Bad Calories:
“[Certain genetically obese mice] will fatten excessively regardless of how much they eat. The obesity is not dependent on the number of calories they consume… “These mice will make fat out of their food under the most unlikely circumstances, even when half starved,” [researcher Jean] Mayer had reported. And if starved sufficiently, these animals can be reduced to the same weight as lean mice, but they’ll still be fatter. They will consume the protein in their muscles and organs rather than surrender the fat in their [fat] tissue. Indeed, when these fat mice are starved, they do not become lean mice… they become emaciated versions of fat mice.
Francis Benedict reported this in 1936, when he fasted a strain of obese mice. They lost 60 percent of their body fat before they died of starvation, but still had five times as much body fat as lean mice (!!!!!!)* that were allowed to eat as much as they desired.”
*[bolded font and exclamation points are mine!!!!!]
“In 1981, M.R.C. Greenwood reported that if she restricted the diet of an obese strain of rats known as Zucker rats… and did it from birth onward, these rats would actually grow fatter by adulthood than their littermates who were allowed to eat to their hearts’ content. Clearly, the number of calories these rats consumed over the course of their life was not the critical factor in their obesity (unless we are prepared to argue that eating fewer calories induces greater obesity)… these semi-starved Zucker rats had 50% less muscle mass than genetically lean rats, and 30% less muscle mass than the Zucker rats that ate as much as they wanted. They, too, were sacrificing their muscles and organs to make fat.”
4. Dr. Mark Hyman — “Food interacts with your biology, a complex adaptive system that instantly transforms every bite.”
A practicing physician, bestselling author and advocate of low sugar living, Dr. Hyman has also penned some wonderfully vituperous attacks on calories-in-calories-out. Here’s a nice passage from one of his blog posts:
“The vast majority of conventional nutritionists and doctors have it mostly wrong when it comes to weight loss. Let’s face it: If their advice were good and doable, we would all be thin and healthy by now. But as a general rule, it’s not. And the mainstream media messages often confuse things even more. It is based on many “food lies”.
And the biggest lie of them all is this: All calories are created equal.
Is this really true? Not really. Let us explore why.
Take a class of sixth graders. Show them a picture of 1,000 calories of broccoli and 1,000 calories of soda. Ask them if they have the same effect on our bodies. Their unanimous response will be “NO!” We all intuitively know that equal caloric amounts of soda and broccoli can’t be the same nutritionally. But as Mark Twain said, “The problem with common sense is that it is not too common.”
I guess that is why the medical profession, nutritionists, our government, the food industry, and the media are all still actively promoting the outdated, scientifically disproven idea that all calories are created equal. Yes, that well-worn notion—that as long as you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight—is simply dead wrong.
Newton’s first law of thermodynamics states that the energy of an isolated system is constant. In other words, in a laboratory, or “isolated system,” 1,000 calories of broccoli and 1,000 calories of soda are, in fact, the same. I’m not saying Newton was wrong about that. It’s true that when burned in a laboratory setting, 1,000 calories of broccoli and 1,000 calories of soda would indeed release the same amount of energy.
But sorry, Mr. Newton; your law of thermodynamics doesn’t apply in living, breathing, digesting systems. When you eat food, the “isolated system” part of the equation goes out the window. The food interacts with your biology, a complex adaptive system that instantly transforms every bite.”
5. Tom Naughton — “If we start shaming them, we won’t end up with fewer fat people … but we will end up with more fat people who are depressed or neurotic.”
Documentarian and blogger, Tom Naughton, is one of the funniest voices in the nutrition blogosphere. His documentary film “Fat Head” is a must-see. And his recent 6-part blog series demolishing the preposterous notion of calories-in-calories-out is simply brilliant. Twain and Jonathan Swift would approve. Here’s an especially delicious quote from Naughton’s extended rant (disclaimer: I took a class with Kelly Brownell at Yale – he was a good prof, but he’s wrong wrong wrong about his “toxic environment” hypothesis):
“[An] official from the U.K. health system floated the idea that doctors need to stop pussyfooting around with the language and just tell fat patients that they’re too fat. A professor of ethics in the U.S. stepped it up a notch and insisted we need to start shaming fat people.
Riiiiiiiight. Because fat people don’t know they’re fat and aren’t properly ashamed of themselves. If we just shame them enough, they’ll develop some character and stop eating too much. It’s not as if appetite and energy balance at the cellular level figure into this or anything.
I’ve got news for both of these dunces: fat people know they’re fat, and most of them hate it. Most of them have tried over and over to lose weight, but failed because they were given bad advice on how to do it. To put it in terms of my last post, they expended plenty of effort, but the effort wasn’t effective.
If we start shaming them, we won’t end up with fewer fat people … but we will end up with more fat people who are depressed or neurotic. Fewer of them will visit doctors for checkups or to find out what that funny-looking lump is. They’ll avoid doctors to avoid the lectures and the shaming. That already happens, in fact. And by the way, raising their cortisol levels by shaming them won’t help the weight-loss efforts one bit.
Okay, so let’s skip outright shaming in favor of the kinder, gentler form of government meddling favored by CSPI and plenty of other do-gooders: calorie-count menu boards and can’t-miss calorie labels on food packages. In that case, we’re not assuming fat people are remorseless gluttons who need to feel ashamed. Nope, now we’re just assuming they’re stupid.
The belief here is that fat people go to fast-food restaurants and order a double cheeseburger, large fries and large soda because it’s never occurred to them that the calorie count might be too high for one meal. So let’s pass a law mandating a calorie count right there on the menu board where they can’t miss it. The menu board will then serve as a nagging parent, almost yelling “Hey, dummy! Look at all the calories in that meal! Order the chicken salad instead!”
During a talking-head-show debate about the calorie-count menu boards I saw awhile back, a skinny news anchor opined, “Well, if I see that the double cheeseburger meal is 1,000 calories and the chicken salad is 300 calories, I’m going for the chicken salad.” Yes, of course you would, Miss Skinniness. That would be a satisfying meal for you because that’s how your body chemistry works. But if an obese person ordered that meal because the menu board shamed him into it, the end result would be that he’d eat more later to make up the difference. That’s what the research shows.
Real-world studies have already demonstrated that confronting people with calorie counts doesn’t work, and it’s awonder anyone believes otherwise. Jacob Sullum (who appeared in Fat Head) once angered Yale professor Kelly Brownell during a debate by pointing out that Brownell is very fat. Sullum’s a nice guy, and as he told me off-camera when I interviewed him, he wouldn’t normally make a point of someone’s girth. But Brownell (a CSPI board member) is all in favor of mandatory calorie counts on menus, which means he thinks people are fat because they don’t have enough information to make smart choices.
And yet Brownell is morbidly obese. Are we supposed to believe that a Yale professor doesn’t have enough information to make smart choices? Are we supposed to believe that a guy who wants to use the power of government to (ahem) help obese people lose weight doesn’t care that he’s obese himself? Are we supposed to believe that a Yale professor who wrote a book about obesity isn’t aware that even people who go out of their way to count calories rarely lose weight and keep it off as a result? If calorie-counting doesn’t work for them, why the hell would it work for people who are merely confronted with calorie counts? I’m not sure which bugs me more: the hypocrisy or the ridiculousness of believing in a theory that clearly hasn’t worked for Brownell himself.”
6. Sam Feltham — “The energy in their body fat stores is trapped and accumulating, similar to a tumour that is growing.”
Sam is a weight loss expert and CEO of the very successful “Smash The Fat” franchise. Last year, he made headlines in the blogosphere and mainstream media when he conducted a series of overeating experiments designed to explode the dumb notion that “all calories are created equal.” His overeating videos are fascinating. Here’s a pull quote from an article he wrote about why he didn’t get fat overeating a high fat, low carb diet:
“A person who weighs 80kg and is 15% body fat, nearly what I am, stores approximately 108,000 calories of body fat. Again this is a great biochemical trick, and much larger storage capability for energy compared to carbohydrates, so that in hard times we can call upon this large energy store and survive for around 21 days until food is available again. This is where the problem lies in terms of overweight or obese people. In their current biochemical status they have either limited ability or can’t use the body fat they have stored for energy because of biochemical imbalances in their body. Simply put the energy in their body fat stores is trapped and accumulating, similar to a tumour that is growing. Unless their biochemical imbalances are rebalanced they will remain overweight or obese, even in a calorie deficit in a lot of cases, and will most likely develop either type 2 diabetes, chronic heart disease, cancer, alzheimer’s or even a combination of these called metabolic syndrome.
To explain how our body actually interacts with food I’m going to use a rather abstract metaphor but one we can all relate to and if you agree with it even demonstrate it at a dinner party. Imagine you’re doing the washing up and you’re left with a drinking glass at a kitchen sink full of water with two taps or fossetts and a small plug hole. The sink full of water is your fat stores with the plug hole as your energy out from fat stores and the drinking glass is your carb stores which you can drink from for energy. From one tap pours fat that you eat and from the other tap pours carbs that you eat. You place the drinking glass under the carbs tap that catches and store the carbs flowing out of the tap, with the overflowing carb water being stored in your fat stores. As with any regular taps they can accumulate ‘limescale’ which flows from the taps in to the sink and drinking glass if treated badly blocking up the plug hole. In this case the ‘limescale’ coming from the taps represents biochemical damage through eating highly processed or fake foods, whether that be refined and sugary carbs or hydrogenated fat. Which causes insulin resistance, leptin resistance, liver damage and a multitude of other biochemical problems that contribute to peoples body’s not working properly and developing the aforementioned diseases.
What happens when someone is biochemically balanced their fat stores stay steady with their body either using or “dumping” the calories coming in from food. In this metaphor the fat water is able to flow down the small plug hole with no problems as energy out. The fat stores are either kept topped up through the fat tap or by the carbs tap from the overflowing mechanism and as long as they aren’t refined, surgary or unnatural carbs this can and does work for some but not all people. We have copious amounts of data showing traditional diets that are high in fat and high in carbs with both populations living happy healthy lives.
This is how the body is meant to work to consume energy but when someone starts eating fake foods then the water that pours out of the taps, or energy coming in, contains that dreaded biochemical ‘limescale’. The ‘limescale’ from both taps starts to block the plug hole, or in reality inhibits energy out from fat stores. As a consequence the person must start to rely on the carb glass for energy more and more. Over time, this now biochemically unbalanced person’s energy out plug hole for their fat stores becomes completely blocked from the ‘limescale’ and they now solely rely on drinking from the carb glass for energy. Having to fill it up at every given moment with refined, sugary and unnatural carbs to survive, which drives cravings, as their ability to use body fat for energy diminishes and their fat stores grow exponentially.
Sooooo…to answer your original question of why did you choose a high fat diet and why didn’t you get fat? Using this metaphor as a basis for how our body interacts with food, I did not accumulate any biochemical ‘limescale’. The energy out from my body fat stores was not inhibited, so my body either used or “dumped” the calories coming in to keep me about the same size despite being in a 56,645 calorie surplus.
The only way to to stop accumulating biochemical ‘limescale’ is to not eat fake foods, whether that be refined and sugary carbs or hydrogenated fat. Plus the only way to get rid of the biochemical ‘limescale’ that’s stopping your body from using your body fat stores for energy is to EAT REAL FOOD, and the ‘limescale’ will wash away.”
7. Richard Feinman and Eugene FIne — “The dictum that a “calorie is a calorie” violates the second law of thermodynamics, as a matter of principle.”
Nutrition and Metabolism Society founder, Richard Feinman, together with Eugene Fine have published some mission critical research on carbohydrate restriction. They have also assaulted the simplistic CICO model on thermodynamic grounds, showing conclusively that when you consider a thermodynamic concept called “entropy,” the conventional wisdom about calories actually violates the laws of physics! Here’s a pivotal quote from their 2004 paper, “A calorie is a calorie” violates the second law of thermodynamics, published in Nutrition Journal:
“The idea that “a calorie is a calorie” comes from a misunderstanding of the laws of thermodynamics. There are two laws of thermodynamics…The second law is a dissipation law [which] says that variation of efficiency for different metabolic pathways is to be expected. Thus, ironically the dictum that a “calorie is a calorie” violates the second law of thermodynamics, as a matter of principle….Attacking the obesity epidemic will involve giving up many old ideas that have not been productive. “A calorie is a calorie” might be a good place to start.”
8. “ItsTheWoo” — “Are they so rigid minded and dogmatic, not unlike a cartoonish villian such as Javert, that they can’t at all waver from their convictions no matter how ridiculous those convictions reveal themselves to be?”
Firebrand blogger ItsTheWoo lost well over 100 pounds on a low carb diet… and kept it off for over a decade. Known for her take no prisoners rants that spare no one, “Woo” is one of the most impassioned critics of CICO in the blogosphere. Here’s a juicy quote from one of her rants (names have been redacted):
“Ya know blog, I’m not sure if [the CICO advocates] are actually purposefully pretending to misunderstand the hormone hypothesis argument, or if they really are too stupid to understand it. I just can’t tell. In my view it is beyond evident physiological factors are responsible for fat mass gain; calories and the mechanisms to obtain them (sloth/gluttony) are merely reactive to the body state which is controlled by baseline physiology. So, when [the CICO advocates] for years and years and *years* keep writing mind numbingly stupid shit like this:
‘We again are asked to ignore the obvious — that Americans are definitely eating more, on average, with no concurrent need for those calories, and likely moving a bit less as well.’
I just don’t know what to think anymore. Are they morons? Are they so, so stupid they really can’t see the inverse projection of this system, which much more intelligent people have gone to great lengths to simplify and make child-friendly illustrations for them? Are they *pretending* not to understand because they have a vested interest in eating as much neurotransmitter plastering glucose/insulin whenever they want? Are they so rigid minded and dogmatic, not unlike a cartoonish villian such as Javert, that they can’t at all waver from their convictions no matter how ridiculous those convictions reveal themselves to be?”
9. J. Stanton — “The concept of the “calorie”, as applied to nutrition, is an oversimplification so extreme as to be untrue in practice”
Paleo blogger and author of “The Gnolls Credo,” J. Stanton put together a fascinating, detailed blog series devastating the calories-in-calories-out model. His whole series is really worth a read. Brilliant, brilliant stuff. As is his 2012 AHS lecture on the nature of hunger. Here’s a taste from his calories series:
“A friend of mine once said “The problem with explaining complicated systems to the layman is this: it’s easy to simplify a concept to the point that that it’s no longer true.”
To that end, I submit the following hypothesis:
The concept of the “calorie”, as applied to nutrition, is an oversimplification so extreme as to be untrue in practice… the problem with “calories in, calories out” should be obvious:
The fate of a “calorie” of food depends completely on its specific molecular composition, the composition of the foods accompanying it, and how those molecules interact with our current metabolic and nutritional state.”
Lagakos is a whip-smart blogger, nutrition wonk and PhD. His blog, Calories Proper, skewers myths and misconceptions about the nature of a healthy diet left and right, and it’s one of the few blogs I read as regularly as I can. I am eager to read his opus, The Poor Misunderstood Calorie. Professor Tim Noakes, South Africa’s leading expert in low carb high fat diet science, called Lagakos’s book: “The third book in Diet Trinity” in addition to Atkins’ Diet Revolution and Gary Taubes’ Good Calories Bad Calories.
Here’s Lagakos’ thesis — a middle finger to the simplistic and wrong idea that “a calorie is a caloire”:
“Counting calories to lose weight does not work for the majority of dieters. This happens, in part, because the calories in food are not the same as those expended by the body. This book is intended to explain this misperception, and function as a guide on energy balance and weight management for dieters, nutrition practitioners, and medical professionals.”
11. Jonathan Bailor — “The “eat less + exercise more = weight loss” equation simply doesn’t add up.”
Author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Calorie Myth, researcher Jonathan Bailor is one of the most vocal and successful “calorie critics” out there. He’s even launching a new video series, “The Quest to End the Calorie Myth,” which premiers next Sunday (June 22) at 11 a.m. PST. Can’t wait to watch it (and promote it!).
Here’s an excerpt of promotional material for The Calorie Myth that cuts to the quick of this whole matter:
“We value science. We celebrate innovation & progress. We seek to be in the know. So why are we following fat loss, eating, & exercise advice from the 50s?
Why haven’t we ever questioned the very foundation of every diet, exercise, and weight loss plan—an approach that, not coincidentally, has coincided with decades of escalating and record-breaking levels of obesity and diabetes?
After over 10 years of research and collaboration with some of the top academics, doctors, scientists, and thinkers in the field of health and wellness, Jonathan Bailor has developed a revolutionary new model for weight loss—and lifelong health. In THE CALORIE MYTH, he exposes the fundamental flaw upon which the diet industry has been built: the “eat less + exercise more = weight loss” equation simply doesn’t add up.
In this revolutionary book informed by over 1,300 studies and the new science of fat loss, food, and fitness, Bailor shows us how eating more—of the right kinds of foods—and exercising less—but at a higher intensity—is actually the key to burning fat, healing our hormones, boosting metabolism, and creating long-term weight loss. When we eat lots of high-quality foods like whole plants and nutritious proteins, our bodies are able to achieve a natural, healthy weight—automatically.”