If we want to release weight, the common advice is to eat less and move more. I believe this piece of advice is one of the worst.
The “eat less and move more” paradigm is based on the energy balance equation:
Body fat = calories in ÷ calories out
According to this equation, to release weight, calories in must be less than calories out.
“Calories out” can be divided into two categories:
- Basal metabolic rate (BMR) – This is what the body is burning when resting.
Assume that an average BMR is somewhere between 1500-2000 calories. If we do a moderate workout for one hour 3 times/week, we will burn between 100-200 calories per workout. So unless we are athletes exercising multiple times a day, our BMR will be the central part of our “calories out.”
Lets say that our BMR is 2000 calories and we do no workout. According to the “eat less move more” approach, we will not gain or release weight if we eat 2000 calories;
0 body fat = 2000 calories in ÷ 2000 calories out
And if we reduce the calories we eat by 500 calories we should, according to this theory, burn 500 calories of fat;
-500 calories body fat = 1500 calories in ÷ 2000 calories out
And before we go on, I want to state that the energy balance equation is correct. It is the first law of Thermodynamics; energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed.
However, the equation does not explain the whole picture when it comes to weight gain and weight release.
Here are three reasons why restricting calories is the wrong approach if you want to release weight:
- Bad accounting
- WHAT we eat affects our metabolism
- A calorie is NOT a calorie
Let’s dive in!
3 Reasons why “Eat Less Move More” is the Wrong Approach
1. Bad Accounting
The first problem with counting calories is that the calculations are incomplete. They are based on estimates of how many calories an average person is burning and that the amount of calories in the nutritional facts of the food is correct.
There is a third factor we need to consider for the accuracy of the calorie calculation, and few people talk about it; how many calories end up in the toilet. I have yet to see an app that has an option for analyzing your stool.
The second reason why counting calories is the wrong approach is more exciting and far more critical when it comes to an understanding of WHY we gain or release weight.
2. What We Eat Affects Our Metabolism
The main factor that is controlling our ability to release fat is NOT our ability to eat less and move more.
Most people assume that the BMR is constant. That is not correct. Our BMR can go up and down as much as 30-40%.
Dr. Ancel Keys did a study where he gave the subjects a calorie restricted diet. It showed that a 40% drop in calorie intake was led to a 40% drop in BMR. (Keys, Brožek, Henschel, Mickelsen, & Taylor, 1950)
“Your body is very smart and does not want to die. If you do not alter your hormones (predominantly insulin), you won’t be able to access your fat stores. If you can’t get energy from body fat, then then you cannot run an energy deficit forever.”
Our hormones play a significant part in weight release, and it is predominantly insulin that controls whether or not we are able to access our fat stores.
So if we are only reducing our calorie intake without changing our hormones, it will just reduce our BMR:
0 body fat = 1500 calories in ÷ 1500 calories out
(calorie reduction, no fat burning)
So the only thing we achieve is that the body has 500 calories less to burn. As a result, we have lower energy.
So how do we get access to our fat stores? We get access to our fat stores by lowering our insulin level.
In short, this means;
If we eat food that keeps our insulin-level low, our body gets a signal that fewer calories are coming in, and it is time to burn fat.
If we eat food that increases our insulin-level, it tells our body to both burn the calories that are coming into our body and store energy (fat).
3. A Calorie Is Not A Calorie
A food calorie (kcal) is defined as:
“The energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water through 1 °C, equal to one thousand small calories and often used to measure the energy value of foods.”
In the “eat less and move more” paradigm, generally, all calories are treated equally. It makes it simple to understand, and it can easily tie it together with exercise.
However; a calorie is NOT a calorie. At least not when we consider how calories from different sources affect our body in different ways.
Calories from a carrot are more useful than calories from a soda.
Our hormonal response to the calories (food) we eat is far more important than the calories itself.
High-quality food = high-quality calories
Low-quality food = low-quality calories
To sum it all up:
- Calorie calculations are incomplete and inaccurate
- Our BMR is affected by calorie intake
- Our hormones (especially insulin) determines whether or not we have access to our fat stores
- High insulin-level = no fat burning. Low insulin-level = fat burning
- Calories are not created equal
- Our hormonal response to the calories (food) we eat is more important than the calories itself
Other things to consider:
- Low blood sugar can affect our willpower (read more about this in a previous article I wrote) (Gundersen, 2018)
- Cutting calories can increase the “hunger” hormone (ghrelin) and lower the satiety hormone (peptide YY) –> Increased hunger (Fung, 2018a)
If you want to learn how to train your brain to stop craving foods that aren’t good for you and to start wanting foods that truly nourish and energize you, join the our next 14 Day Reset