The human body is a complex machine. We like to think we have it all figured out, but at the end of the day my guess is that we probably DON’T understand a thousand times more than what we do. We like to simplify things to make them easier to understand, but a lot of times this actually ends up gumming up the works more than it does in helping us understand a construct. A perfect case of this is the energy balance equation of weight loss. In the past, I made the mistake of telling clients that they should make sure that they are burning more calories than they are taking in and that this should be the core of their weight loss efforts. For the most part, this was a mistake of ignorance. At the time, I didn’t have a thorough understanding of how the human body works. Now that I have a better grasp of human physiology, I would like to take the time to tell you why counting calories shouldn’t be the primary concept you use to lose weight, maintain it, or just be healthy.
1)Energy or raw materials?
Your body is made up of trillions of cells, approximately 50 trillion of them. Each of these cells is surrounded by a plasma membrane made up of fat. While it is true that these cells are microscopic, if you were to line them up end to end you would circle the planet 4.5 times. Given that the membrane surrounds the cell, cutting a cell open and stretching the membrane out would more than double that length. In addition, your brain is approximately 60% fat and the sex hormones you make on a daily basis are made from fat. Not to make this point all about fat, your body produces enzymes from the amino acids in the protein you consume that catalyze the chemical reactions within the cells of your body. When these proteins and fats are used for raw materials like this, they may contain calories, but they aren’t being used for energy. If they aren’t used for energy, the calories really don’t count, do they? In the same way, if you had a stack of 100 $50 bills, you would have money to purchase something. If you were out in the wilderness with nothing to make a fire with and used those bills to make a fire, you no longer have something of monetary value, do you?
2)The bugs in your gut…
It has been long established that the symbiotic bacteria inside the gut of obese people is different than the bacteria inside the gut of lean people. This makes sense because if I had 2 petri dishes colonized with the same bacteria and fed each dish with different food sources, over time they would have different proportions of each type of bacteria. Studies have shown that these bacteria cause obese people to extract more energy out of their food, approximately 150 calories a day. Over the course of a year, this would lead to the accumulation of 15.6lbs. Underscoring this notion, studies in mice have shown that taking the gut bacteria from obese mice and implanting it in to lean mice cause the lean mice to become obese. The inverse is true as well, taking the gut bacteria from the lean mice and implanting it in to the obese mice cause the obese mice to shed their weight and become lean. Which bacteria proliferates has nothing to do with how much you eat because each bacteria type eats a specific type of food. It’s not how much, it’s what.
The human body is very machine-like. However, unlike a machine, humans can provide themselves with fuel. Given that there are multiple fuel sources for the human body, the type of fuel you select is very important. The fuel you select will influence performance and appetite. If a machine could provide itself with fuel and it provided itself with the wrong fuel, there would be dire consequences. If a diesel engine provided itself with jet fuel, the engine would overheat and blow up. While we don’t blow up, there are metabolic consequences to the food we choose to eat. These consequences affect our appetite, how we feel, how we perform, and future food selection. In study after study, lower carbohydrate diets have been shown to reduce the number of calories you eat by 25%. In addition, life and it’s effect on stress can influence these food choices and how we perform.
Multiple studies have shown that not getting enough sleep not only causes your blood glucose to run higher, it also causes you to make poorer food choices and typically leads to weight gain. If it were as simple as calories in and calories out, less sleep should increase the calories you burn since you would be spending less time sleeping. However, less sleep leads to poorer food choices and less energy throughout the day, which would actually lower the amount of calories you burn. In addition, applying exercise in a dose that is too high for your body to respond effectively to will cause you to lose sleep via overtraining. While you are hammering away on the elliptical machine during that hour at the gym, the lack of sleep will cause you to be less active throughout the day, more or less countering the hour you just spent trying to lose weight.
While it may be more or less true that weight loss is a product of eating fewer calories than you burn, you will never be able to figure out calories in or calories out. In fact, in many instances what you eat has a direct effect on how much you eat. It is far more complex than we make it out to be. In order to effectively use the energy balance equation, we need to know far more than the calorie content of the food. In fact, there are more factors that we don’t know than we do. What we do know is that some foods will keep you satiated and more likely to stick to the plan than other foods. In addition, certain types of activity lend themselves better to weight loss than others via the influence of hormones, something we will discuss in another blog post.