Why Counting Calories doesn’t Work

From Gluten Free January:

Here’s another bit of conventional wisdom I’d like to debunk.

We’ve all been told ad naseum that if you want to lose weight you have to eat less and exercise more. In other words, you have to create a calorie deficit. People have been trying diets like this for thirty years now and the track record is pretty abysmal. Sure people lose weight at first, but 98% of the time it all comes back – usually with interest.

What’s the problem? The model is fundamentally broken.

People quote the calories in/calories out thing as a fundamental rule of thermodynamics. Well it is, but it only applies to closed systems. Your body is not a closed system. In fact it is an incredible complex and open system that tries to confound your pathetic attempts to corral it into some sort of human calorimeter.

You metabolic rate is not fixed. You body plays with this all the time based on things like the ambient temperature and food intake. The energy your body spends on maintenance far dwarfs any amount of energy you could spend exercising (ultra-marathon endorphin junkies excepted). Let’s say you decide to cut your intake by 200 calories a day. Your body, wanting to keep things as static as possible (called homeostasis) simply lowers your metabolism enough to compensate. So you’re tired, cold, and sleepy, but you don’t lose any weight. Nice huh?

So you cut your intake by 1000 calories in an effort to give your body no choice but to drop weight. So what does your body do? It starts ditching all that expensive lean mass – muscles, organs, stuff like that. Guess what? You’re still fat, but now you’re weak and sickly as well. Some 9 year old with a pituitary problem takes your lunch money.

In fact, a calorie restricted diet is BY DEFINITION not sustainable. If you could truly eat less calories than you were burning for the rest of your life you would starve to death. That’s why these diets always fail. You have to stop them sooner or later.

So how is it even possible to cause permanent weight loss and body recomposition? Hormones, baby.

Why are you squishy around the middle? Your hormones are screwed up. They are telling your body’s tissues to store fat. Why do you feel lethargic all the time? It’s not because you eat too much. It’s because you eat too little. Your body is down-regulating your metabolism in order to save energy for fat production. That’s what the hormones are telling it to do.

“So, gluten-free dude, if my hormones are messed up I’m screwed, right?”

Well my friend, while in some sad cases this is true, for the vast majority of people this hormone situation is completely under their control. The most important hormone is controlled by what we eat.

Insulin, which you’ve probably heard of, is THE storage hormone. It tells your body’s cells to store energy. What is the major dietary stimulant of insulin? Carbohydrates. High blood sugar is a dangerous condition and carbs = sugar. To lower sugar levels your pancreas secretes insulin to lower blood sugar levels by storing the excess.

Now I’m not saying that insulin is bad at all. It’s vital to life. Type I diabetics can’t produce enough insulin so they must take insulin shots to stay healthy. Without insulin your cells would starve to death.

But if you always have high insulin levels then your body is always in storage mode. Energy is going into storage, but is never coming out. At a certain point your muscle tissue and your liver are full. The only tissue that can keep storing energy bascially without limit is fat. So when you eat with chronically high insulin levels, energy goes into your fat never comes out. You get hungry even though you’ve literally got *months* of energy stored on your body. The fat can’t release the energy it has stored until the insulin level goes down. So your blood sugar crashes, you get ravenously hungry, you eat more carby junk, and the cycle repeats itself.

So conventional wisdom says you should eat many small meals throughout the day so you don’t get hungry, and that those meals should be mainly “healthy” low-fat carb sources. I hope you see how insane this is. 

You should be eating few (2-3) large meals each day with no snacking in between. This is how your body was designed to operate. You’re not a ungulate who grazes all day. I know this makes animal-lovers uncomfortable, but man is a top-of-the-food-chain predator. We hunted; we killed; we feasted. We’re lions not cows. A persons metabolism is designed to have punctuated episodes of eating and fasting. During fasting periods your insulin drops and your fat cells release energy from storage like they are supposed to. Then your body only needs enough fat to get you to the next meal. Please note: take a look at primitive people to see how much this is.  

If you control the hormones, you control the weight.

Matt

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