“Better to be roughly correct than precisely wrong” – John Maynard Keynes
In biology, as in life, we must learn to differentiate between proximate causes Y ultimate causes. Proximate causes explain the what and the as, the ultimate causes clarify the why.
Official weight management messages remain focused on proximate cause: energy imbalance. Obesity is caused by ingesting more calories than is expended and the solution, they tell us, is obvious: eat less and move more. For this, the input calories and the output calories must be recorded, ensuring the proper balance.
The actual ultimate cause is not so trivial. Obesity is ultimately the result of a evolutionary incoherence between what our genes expect and the environment in which they live. The modern environment spoils our hunger-satiety cycle, alters circadian rhythms, damages our microbiota, eliminates thermal and physical challenges … All these elements contribute to energy imbalance.
Focusing on food, the proximate cause would be that we eat a lot of food, the ultimate cause that we eat bad food. The solution in the first case is to eat less, in the second to eat better.
So do we focus on calories or food? My recommendation is always to first understand the why (ultimate cause), but without ignoring the what and how (proximate cause).
Applying this principle, today we talk about why in general you should not count calories. The next day I will explain why in some cases it will help you to count them, and typical doubts about the process.
Let’s start with the five reasons why counting calories is of little use.
1. Errors in the input calories
Lucky plants can get all the energy they need by lying in the sun, we can’t. Our input calories come from food.
It seems as simple as recording the calories of everything we eat and obtaining the total sum, but there are several problems with applying a mathematical approach to biology.
For starters, food databases show average values, but there are big differences between varieties of the same food. Maybe in your app of calories you simply register a medium tomato, already creating an important difference with reality.
Even if you use the information that appears directly on the product labels, you will be wrong, because they tend to underestimate reality, between 8 and 18% (study).
But the really important thing is not the calories you eat, but the ones you absorb, and here are also notable differences:
- Different ways (and times) of cooking alter the energy absorbed (study). Cooling and reheating some starches increases their resistant starch content and reduces their caloric intake.
- The microbiota of each person also influences the ability to absorb energy, with differences of more than 10% between individuals (study, study).
And finally, the destination of calories absorbed (muscle or fat) depends in turn on many factors: metabolic flexibility, training, hormonal environment …
2. Errors in the output calories
If the estimation of the input calories has a significant margin of error, with the output calories things get even worse.
Simplifying, we burn calories in three ways: Basal metabolism, thermogenesis, and movement.
Let’s look at the possible errors in each measure.
Differences in basal metabolism
Standard formulas use variables such as weight, height, gender or age to estimate basal metabolism, but there are many other factors that can have a relevant impact. Some examples:
- A specific polymorphism of the FTO gene reduces basal metabolism by up to 10% (study, study).
- Menstrual cycle (study).
- Lack of sleep (study).
- Brown Fat Levels (Study, Study, Study, Study)
Differences in Thermogenesis
Each macronutrient generates a different expenditure. Protein produces, for example, much greater thermogenesis than fat or carbohydrate (study).
And it is not only the macronutrients that impact, but also the type of food. Other than calories and macros, real food produces more thermogenesis than processed food. Digesting a sandwich of whole wheat bread with real cheese requires twice as much energy as a sandwich of white bread with processed cheese (study). Note: I would not define a sandwich as real food either, but it works for us for now.
Beyond thermogenesis, the different macronutrients condition the metabolic routes that our body uses, and these in turn differ in their energy expenditure.
Highly restricting carbohydrates, for example, increases glucose production via gluconeogenesis. This process is metabolically expensive, requiring 1/3 of the resulting final energy, thus limiting the available calories that could be stored as fat (study).
It is one of the metabolic benefits to increase protein and reduce carbohydrate (study, study, study). Although if your goal is to gain volume this extra expense becomes a disadvantage, of course.
Differences in Motion
As we saw before, the expense per movement is divided into two parts: planned exercise and NEAT.
Although it is another common mistake to think of exercise as just a way to burn calories (more detail), the formulas used to estimate the energy expenditure of physical activity also have a significant margin of error. And although I definitely recommend devices like the fitbit because they motivate you to take more steps, they have differences of 10-20% in the estimation of calories expended (study, study).
And as we will see below, NEAT is even more difficult to estimate, because it is partly controlled by your brain at will.
3. The output depends on the input
Your body manages its energy just like you manage your economy. If your income is reduced, you cut unnecessary expenses. If your situation improves, you might buy the next-generation iPhone.
If you give your body less energy it spends less (study), and if you give it more it spends more (study). Is the call adaptive thermogenesis (study, study), which affects two of the previous variables:
- Basal metabolism. Most of this spending is necessary to stay alive, but there is always some scope to cut back (meta-analysis, study, study, study, study).
- NEAT (Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis). It represents all movement not directly attributable to exercise: setting the table, typing on a keyboard, or changing posture while sitting. Part of this expense is unconscious, and your body regulates it based on the remaining energy (study, study, study). It not only adjusts the amount of movement, but also its efficiency (study).
This adaptation also presents a huge variation. With the same surplus of 1,000 calories a day, some people gain 4 kg and others more than 13 kg (study).
Genetic expression also impacts energy regulation (study), and begins to be programmed during pregnancy.
4. The input depends on the output
Energy regulation is bidirectional. Changes in the input directly affect the output, but changes in the output also condition the input. For example, the more physical activity you do, the more your appetite increases (study, study, study).
VERY important note: This is not to say that exercise does not help you lose weight. First, because the increase in intake is usually less than the expense produced by exercise. Second, because exercise provides benefits beyond caloric expenditure, such as better hormonal balance and mitochondrial function, which indirectly help to improve subsequent energy regulation.
5. The entry depends on previous entries
Your food selection impacts your satiety, and therefore when you will be hungry again and how much you will eat the next time.
Satiety depends on multiple factors: cognitive, sensory and nutritional (detail). Protein is undoubtedly the most satisfying macronutrient (study, study), but the amount of fiber and water are also relevant aspects.
According to the satiety index, the most satiating food is curiously the baked potato, followed by fish and meat, fruits such as orange or apple and some cereal such as oatmeal. The least filling foods? All based on refined flours. Those who also have sugar score even worse. The least satiating of all? The croissant.
In short, the simple equation of input calories – output calories = weight change in practice it becomes a complex framework where everything is connected to everything. Simplistic interventions (“eat less”) often fail in complex settings.
Keys to lose weight without counting calories
If you live among the trees, you lose sight of the forest, and if you live guided by calories, you stop seeing food and disconnect from your body. Our ancestors did not know what calories were nor did they care. The only obese animals are humans and our pets.
Here are my 5 recommendations, ordered from highest to lowest, to maintain your weight and health, without counting calories:
- Prioritize real food. By far the main recommendation. Eat foods with high nutritional density and satiety. If you also cook them at home, much better (study). Bread, breakfast cereals and flours do not fall into this category.
- Eat enough protein. Not only is it more satiating and increases energy expenditure, it also protects the muscle in caloric deficit. These are the recommended levels.
- Adapt carbohydrates to your physical activityFor example, reserving starches for after training. Choose the best.
- Includes strategic recharges. Linear diets stop working at some point because of adaptive thermogenesis. Including refills will combat this adaptation and make your diet more tolerable.
- Experiment with intermittent fasting. In addition to their direct health benefits, they help in many cases to regulate caloric intake and improve the relationship with food, without being a slave to schedules and calories (meta-analysis).
So… There are no reasons to count calories?
Any fair trial must consider both sides. Today I have focused on the root causes of overweight, but we should not ignore the proximate causes either.
Some people follow the above recommendations and still fail to reach their goals. Some because they need more structure, others because they have very specific body composition goals. In these cases, it is better to count calories than to count nothing.
That is why The Revolutionary Plan uses two different approaches. The Plan R proposes an intuitive approach, based on changing habits and attacking the root causes of the problem. But it also includes a more advanced version (Rx) that, following the same principles, refines more, considering calories and macros.
In the next installment we detail the benefits of counting calories and how to get the most out of the process.