Why your body doesn’t care about calories, but you should

Photo by Emanuel Ekström on Unsplash

What comes to mind when you think of an authentic Italian dish? Margherita Pizza? Lasagne? Spaghetti Bolognese? Even though it’s famous around the world, Spaghetti Bolognese doesn’t actually exist. Spaghetti Bolognese is “fake news” according to the mayor of Bologna where Bolognese sauce was first created.

Bolognese is a dish that seems to create confusion outside Italy. Firstly, Ragu alla Bolognese (Bolognese sauce) is only one way to make a meat-based sauce. Secondly, Bolognese is only served with tagliatelle, tortellini or gnocchi because this type of pasta holds the sauce better than spaghetti.

The official version of Ragu alla Bolognese contains bacon and milk. Yep, milk. However, even some traditional Italian recipes leave out the milk, which just adds to the confusion.

When it comes to losing weight, we often get confusing messages. One side will tell you that it’s all about calories, the other side will shout “fake news” and tell you it’s all about controlling hormones. Both sides make a compelling argument, so who do you believe? It’s confusing, isn’t it?

Let’s sift through the “fake news” and look at whether its hormones or calories that determines weight loss.

Counting calories is useless
At least that’s what some people will tell you. People are getting fatter, even though more and more people are aware of how many calories are in food, so there must be something else that is causing the obesity crisis. That something else is supposed to be hormones.

The basic premise here is that some foods will spike blood sugar, which stimulates the release of insulin into the body. Insulin is a hormone secreted when humans eat carbohydrates. Insulin’s role is to regulate blood sugar levels by moving sugar from the blood into fat cells to be stored as body fat. As insulin levels rise in the body, fat burning stops and fat storing begins. Therefore, we shouldn’t worry about calories, but we should instead worry about controlling the hormones that are responsible for fat storage.

The other argument says it’s all about calories
A calorie is a unit of measurement. In this case, it’s a measure of how much energy there is in food. This is no different to Miles per Hour being a measure of speed, or Kilograms being a measure of weight.

Proponents of the Calories in v Calories out theory state that the first law of thermodynamics is the most important thing when it comes to weight loss. That is, energy (calories) consumed in the form of food is either stored (as fat) or burned (via movement and exercise).

So, if you take in more energy than you burn, you gain weight. If you take in less energy than you burn, you lose weight.

The Energy balance equations look like this:

[Energy in] > [Energy out] = Fat gain

[Energy in] < [Energy out] = Fat loss

As with most extreme views, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Calories in v calories out is also not wholly accurate. If we look at Calories in, we know that the calories on nutritional information on the back of packets can be incorrect by about 20%. Even if you’re weighing and measuring every morsel unless you’re licking every little crumb off the plate and from your saucepans you’re not eating every single calorie you supposedly should be.

On the “Calories Out” side of the equation, it’s almost impossible to accurately measure how many calories you burn. Even the most expensive calories trackers are out by 15–20% so we can’t accurately determine calories out either.

If calorie counting is so inaccurate, why bother?
Good question. Calorie counting is just an estimate of how much you should be eating. But everyone is different. If you’re putting on weight, eat a little less. If you’re losing more weight than you want, eat a little more. Calories just give you an idea of how much you’re eating. It’s not supposed to be an exact science. Like the cooking of a good sauce, you taste and make adjustments as you go

Proponents of the carbohydrate / Insulin model suggest that calories are irrelevant because the body doesn’t deal with food in the same way. 100g of Sugar will elicit a higher spike in insulin and therefore higher fat storage than 100g of broccoli.

This is partly true. Different food will elicit a different response from the body. This is mainly due to the energy it takes to actually digest and absorb certain foods — which is known as the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF).

Each of the three macronutrients will have a different Thermic Effect.

If you were to eat 200 calories of protein, approximately 60 calories are used in digestion, so your body only has 140 calories available to it.

Fat, on the other hand, has a low thermic effect. So, if you had 200 calories of fat, only 6 calories will be used in digestion, meaning 194 calories are available to the body.

Carbs have a moderate TEF. So, for every 200 calories of carbs, 20 calories will be used for energy.

So, in theory, it’s actually easier to store fat as fat rather.

Are carbs really stored as fat?
The other argument from the hormone zealots is that carbohydrates are stored as fat. This is very rarely the case. Yes, carbs can be stored as fat, but this only happens when the body’s glycogen stores are full. Even then, carbs don’t directly get stored as fat, they have to be converted to fat via Denovo Lipogenesis, a process which in itself requires energy. Only after eating more than 500g of Carbohydrates over 2–3 days do excess carbs get converted to fat. 500g of pure carbs is the equivalent of eating 2000kcal of sugar.

Nobody is going to eat sugar by the spoonful
Instead, they will eat food with a mixture of macronutrients. Let’s take a typical “unhealthy” food as an example — pizza. Sure, the base and crust is made of flour which is pretty much carbohydrate, but the cheese will have some fat and protein, you may have other vegetables or meat on the pizza which will slow down the absorption of the food and will therefore lessen the insulin spike.

As we can see, 200 calories from one meal may be processed differently in the body to another. And we can’t even measure calories in, accurately.

If we can’t measure calories in or out accurately, and the body processes calories from food differently, then we should give up on the calories counting model.

And hormones must be the answer, right?
Insulin goes up when the body detects food in the bloodstream. Once the nutrients have been absorbed, insulin levels drop, and the body goes into fat-burning mode.

The graph below from Legion Athletics and Weightology shows this visually:

Diagram from www.legionathletics.com

The blue portions are when the body is storing food and insulin is high. The grey portions are when the body has absorbed food, insulin is low and the body is burning fat to release energy. So yes, Insulin will slow down the process of fat burning and will store fat and carbs as body fat. But, as the grey areas on the graph shows, insulin levels drop after a while and the body goes back into fat burning mode. If you’re like most people, you actually spend more time not eating than eating so you’re in a fat burning stage more than you’re not.

What the hormone theorists negate to say, is that body has other processes in the body which allow the body to store dietary fat without spiking insulin — as in the case of De novo lipogenesis which we covered earlier.

How are some people able to eat junk food and still be slim?
If we take the example of Professor Mark Haub from Kansas university, who for 10 weeks, restricted his calories to a deficit of 1800Kcal per day, but ate twinkies every 3 hours instead of “normal” meals. For good measure, he also munched on Doritos, sugary cereals and biscuits. The results? After 8 weeks he had lost 27 pounds. If sugar and insulin were the cause of obesity, he should have put on 27 pounds, not lost them.

Many bodybuilders who get down to less than 10% body fat (think abs showing) eat upwards of 300g carbs every day whilst being in a calorie deficit. How are they able to lose fat if eating carbs makes them fat?

The answer is simple. Carbs and by extension, Insulin don’t make you fat, being in a consistent calorie surplus is what makes people overweight.

Confusing isn’t it?
Calories in and calories out are just an estimate. If you think you should be eating 2000 calories a day to lose weight and you end up putting on weight, just eat a little less (reduce calories in) or exercise more (increase calories out).

So Energy Balance is all that matters?
No. Hormones do play a part in weight loss. The action of these hormones in relation to weight loss is determined by energy balance. They determine how fat is burnt and where from. But you can’t measure, nor control your hormones. Do you know how much your insulin will spike after eating a pizza or a sandwich? No. Do you have a fair idea of how many calories are in that sandwich? Yes.

Hormones don’t work independently of energy balance.
Energy Balance is the main driver for fat storage and fat loss and will take priority over any hormones in the body.

In Summary
Energy Balance will determine weight loss and weight gain. Hormones will react to this energy balance and will either work to store fat or burn fat as necessary. Although calorie counting isn’t ideal, it’s the closest we have to estimating how much energy we take in. Numerous studies have shown that energy balance is the most important thing when it comes to fat loss.

Don’t believe me? Look at YouTube and see how many carbs shredded bodybuilders eat in a day. If carbs make you fat, these guys and gals would be obese. They’re not, because carbs don’t make you fat if the overall number of calories are in balance.

What can you do?
Don’t worry about carbs and insulin. Focus on what you can control — Eat enough calories to ensure you’re in a deficit. If you want to know how many calories you should be eating read this article. And if someone tells you that insulin makes you fat, you have my permission to shout “fake news”.

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