Why "Calories in, calories out" does not tell the whole story

I think the notion of "calories versus calories out" is ridiculous.

Food affects our body in different ways and goes through different metabolic pathways.

Not only that, but the food we eat can directly affect the hormones that regulate when and how much we eat.

Therefore, the types of foods on which we base our diet are as important as the amount of calories we are eating.

What is a calorie

I want to make sure we understand each other, so let me quickly define what a "calorie" means.

A calorie is a measure of energy:

"1 calorie is the amount of energy required to increase the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius."

The official measure of energy is Joule. 1 calorie equals 4,184 joules.

What we usually call "calories" are actually kilocalories (kcal).

A kilocalorie, or a dietary calorie (with a capital "C") is the energy needed to heat 1 kilogram of water per 1 degree centigrade.

A dietary calorie (kilocalorie) is 4184 joules.

But what does "energy" mean?

"Energy is the ability of a system to work."

The human body needs energy to move, breathe, think, contract the heart, maintain electrical gradients on cell membranes, etc.

At the molecular level, the body functions with an enormously complex set of chemical reactions. These chemical reactions require energy, which is where calories intervene.

Bottom line: A dietary calorie is the amount of energy required to heat 1 kilogram of water per 1 degree centigrade. The body uses energy (calories) to boost chemical reactions.

What are the calories, the calories that enter (CICO)?

According to the "calories in, out calories" (CICO) way of thinking, obesity is simply a matter of eating too many calories.

Advocates of this often say that the types of food you eat are not very important, that the caloric contribution of food is the key.

They say that the only way to lose weight is to eat less, move more and that it is the responsibility of any individual to keep the calories balanced.

One pound of fat is 3500 calories (one kilogram is 7700). If you consume 500 calories less than you burn every day, after one week (7 * 500 = 3500) you will have lost one pound of fat.

From here comes "a calorie is a calorie": the idea that all calories are the same, no matter what foods come from.

Although it is true that obesity is caused by excess calories and weight loss caused by a calorie deficit, this is still a drastic oversimplification that is absolutely wrong.

The fact is that different foods can have very different effects on our body and go through different metabolic pathways before they become energy (1).

Focusing on the caloric content of foods and ignoring the metabolic effects they have is a very faulty way of thinking.

Bottom line: Advocates of the "Calories Inside, Outside Calories" mindset say that the only thing that matters when it comes to losing weight is calories, regardless of the metabolic and hormonal impact of the food.

"Too many calories" does not tell us much

How much energy we eat and how much energy we spend matters. It is of the utmost importance.

The first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy can not be destroyed, it can only change form. So, if the energy that enters the body is greater than the energy that leaves the body, then the body will store the energy, usually as body fat.

If we consume more energy (calories) than we spend, we gain weight. If we spend more energy than we eat, we lose weight. This is a unbreakable law of physics and it is not even debatable.

However ... this fact does not tell us anything about WHY this is happening.

A person who has gained weight is the same As a person who eats more than he burns.

Let me explain this to you with a simple analogy ...

Imagine that the entrance hall of a cinema is full of people. All these people are there because they are going to see a very popular movie that just came out.

If you were wondering ... "why is this lobby full of people?" And someone had to respond with "because there are more people entering instead of leaving", then you would think it was a pretty ridiculous response, right?

Tells you nothing about why If the entrance hall is full, it is simply saying the obvious.

To say that the increase in weight is caused by excess calories is as ridiculous as saying that the entrance hall is so full because there are more people coming in than going out.

The next logical question would be ... Why do people eat more?

Is it a consequence of a series of logical decisions to eat a little more and do a little less exercise, or is there something in our physiology that is causing it ... like hormones?

If it is the behavior that is causing the increase in caloric intake (weight gain), what is driving the behavior?

The fact is that all our thoughts, desires and actions are controlled by hormones and neuronal circuits.

To say that it is "greed" or "laziness" that is causing the increase in calorie intake overlooks the complex physiological processes that control our behavior and how the foods we eat can directly affect these processes.

Bottom line: To say that weight gain is caused by excess calories is true, but meaningless. It does not tell you anything about the real cause.

Different foods affect our hormones in different ways

In my opinion, one of the biggest fallacies in nutrition is to think that all calories are the same.

Different macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) go through different metabolic pathways.

Let me show you this with two examples ... fructose and protein.


Fructose, when it enters the liver from the digestive tract, can be converted into glucose and stored as glycogen.

But if the liver is full of glycogen, it can be turned into fat ... which is then sent or lodged in the liver.

Consumed in excess, it can cause insulin resistance, which raises insulin levels throughout the body. Insulin promotes the increase of fat (2, 3).

Fructose is also not registered in the same way as glucose and does not affect satiety in the same way. Fructose does not reduce the hunger hormone ghrelin (4, 5).

Then ... 100 calories of fructose can increase your insulin in the long term, lead to higher levels of ghrelin and increase your appetite.


Then you have 100 calories of protein.

About 30% of the calories in the protein will be spent digesting it, because the metabolic pathway requires energy.

Protein can also increase the levels of fullness and increase the metabolic rate (6, 7).

This protein increase can even be used to build muscles, which are metabolically active tissues that burn calories throughout the day.

Clearly ... 100 calories of fructose will have completely different effects on the body than 100 calories of quality protein. A calorie is NOT a calorie.

In this way, fructose will boost a higher energy intake compared to the protein, through its effects on hormones, the body and the brain.

Drinking a can of soda every day for 5 years will have a very different effect on the body and long-term energy balance, compared to eating the same calories as eggs.

Some people say that "any" food can be harmful in excess. Well ... I do not agree. Try to eat too much broccoli, or eggs. You will feel full very quickly and you will not want to take another bite.

Compare that with a food like ice cream, which is very easy To consume large amounts of.

Bottom line: Different foods go through different metabolic pathways. Some foods can cause hormonal changes that stimulate weight gain, while others can increase satiety and increase the metabolic rate.

Different ratios of macronutrients affect the appetite

Changing your macronutrients can affect your appetite in a dramatic way.

The best example of this is seen in studies comparing diets low in carbohydrates and fats.

While people on low-fat diets should have a calorie limit to lose weight, people who eat low carbohydrates (and fats and proteins) can usually eat until they feel satisfied and still lose weight.

Studies clearly show that there is something in the low carbohydrate diet that decreases appetite and causes people to lose weight without having to control portions or count calories (8, 9).

In these studies, researchers need actively restrict calories in the low-fat groups so that the results are comparable, but those who diet low in carbohydrates still lose more weight (10).

In this study, the low-fat group is restricted in calories while the low-carb group is eating to fullness (11):

People who diet low in carbohydrates automatically start eating fewer calories because their appetite decreases.

These studies show that there there is no need Consciously concentrate on the calories to eat less. This can happen automatically, simply by changing the types of foods you eat.

Bottom line: Being aware of your calorie intake is NOT necessary to lose weight, as long as you eat a certain way. It has been shown that reducing carbohydrates while increasing fat and protein leads to automatic calorie restriction and weight loss.

The metabolic rate (calories outside) can change depending on what you eat

Another thing to keep in mind is that prolonged diets will reduce your metabolic rate.

If you had to reduce your calorie intake by 10%, it would only work for a while until your metabolic rate adjusted and you would stop losing. Then you would have to reduce calories again, then again ...

The body tries desperately to maintain its fat mass. This is called the body fat set point and is regulated by the hypothalamus. If you do not change your diet, just the amount of food you eat, then your reference point will not change.

If your weight goes below your set point, your brain responds by decreasing your calorie expenditure (calories off) and by increasing your calorie (calorie) intake.

Bottom line: The body tries to resist changes in body fat levels by increasing hunger and reducing calorie expenditure.

Maybe we have things upside down

Most people believe that the increase in caloric intake is driving The weight gain.

But what happens if we have things upside down and the increase in fat increases the calorie intake?

When a teenager grows rapidly in height, he eats more calories than he spends. Instead of becoming fat, calories are used to build muscles, bones, skin and organs.

It is not the increase in calorie intake that is driving growth, but the hormones, growth factors and physiological processes that are causing growth and growth. Boosts the increase in calorie intake. That makes sense, right?

What happens if obesity is similar? What if calories are a consequence of weight gain, not a cause?

In the same way that an adolescent's muscles and bones grow due to hormones, the fat mass of an obese person may be growing due to hormones.

An example of this are medications such as some antidepressants and birth control pills, which often have weight gain as a side effect.

There are no calories in these pills, but they alter the physiology of the body (brain and hormones) to cause weight gain. In this case, the increase in calorie intake is secondary To the change in hormones.

Bottom line: It is possible that we are confusing cause and effect. Perhaps it is not the increase in calorie intake that drives the increase in fat, but the increase in fat that drives the increase in calorie intake.

Food behavior is largely subconscious

Humans are not robots.

We do not walk and make decisions about our behavior based on mathematical calculations. It is against our nature.

We make decisions based on our emotions, how we feel and what we want to do. The "logical" part of our brain often does not have much control over the part of our brain that is regulated by emotions.

Some might call this weakness, I call it human nature. Changing behavior based on logical and rational decisions can often be impossible.

Have you ever made the decision not to drink coffee after 2 pm? Do you always do homework right after school? Only sleep on Sundays?

Making these kinds of changes in your life is often very difficult and the same applies to eating behavior, such as making the decision to eat 500 calories below your daily maintenance.

Although some highly motivated people can completely control their food intake (such as athletes and bodybuilders), this is not really representative of the general population.

This is very difficult for most people and especially For people who have a tendency to gain weight.

Let me use the breath as an example of how it is difficult to "control" a physiological function that is regulated by the brain.

The breath is almost completely subconscious, although can Control your breathing for a short period of time if you can concentrate on it.

If you made the decision to skip 1 of every 10 breaths, then you could probably do it ... but only for a few minutes. Then you will be distracted and start doing something else.

This is only possible while you consciously concentrate on it ... and even if you did, you could compensate by involuntarily breathing a little harder in the other 9 breaths, or you would start to feel uncomfortable and stop doing it altogether.

If you think this is a ridiculous example and does not apply to eating, then you are wrong. Eating is controlled with the same types of homeostatic mechanisms.

Some people can consciously eat fewer calories and control them with portion control and / or calorie counting. But they have to continue with it. for life.

Bottom line: Eating behavior is largely subconscious, controlled by hormones and neuronal circuits. It can be quite impossible to control this type of behavior in the long term.

Optimal health goes beyond the weight

One of the key problems with the "calorie-in, calorie-out" way of thinking is that it does not take into account other effects on the health of food.

The fact is that different foods can have different effects on our health.

For example, trans fats can cause inflammation, insulin resistance and all the horror that follows, including cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes (12, 13).

Another example is fructose. When consumed in large quantities (from additional sugars, not fruits), can lead to insulin resistance, high cholesterol and triglycerides and increased abdominal obesity (14).

There are many examples of foods that have harmful effects that have little to do with their caloric content.

In addition, having a healthy weight does NOT guarantee that you are healthy, in the same way that being obese does not necessarily mean that you are not healthy.

Although these metabolic problems are more common among obese people, many obese people are metabolically healthy and many thin people have the metabolic syndrome and may succumb to heart disease and type II diabetes (15).

Optimal nutrition and disease prevention go beyond only calories.

Bring the message home

To say that weight (or health actually) is simply a function of "calories in, calories out" is completely wrong.

It is a drastic simplification that does not take into account the complex metabolic pathways that different foods go through, nor the effects that foods have on our brain and hormones.

Reference: https: //www.healthline.com/nutrition/debunking-the-calorie-myth


That was Why "Calories in, calories out" does not tell the whole story

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