The Calorie Equation

If you ask someone what the best way to reduce the weight is – obviously eat less calories. Seems like a no brainer right? Spend the same number of calories, eat lower calories and that might seem to be the best way to lose weight. A lot of times I wonder how we came to such a simplistic and grossly inaccurate approach to consuming food? Seems to me that this is a direct byproduct of carbohydrate rich diets that all of us are so intimately familiar with.
I guess everybody knows the famous macronutrients – the carbs, the proteins and fats. The science textbooks in the school taught us that carbs give us energy, proteins build muscles and then nobody knows why fat is needed – since there was so less emphasis during the school years in any of the textbooks. So fat probably seems to be the bad guy – everyone like energy & muscles but nobody likes fat on the body. We also know that Carbs burn the easiest – more so the “simple carbs” – they convert to glucose the fastest in our body and give us immediate energy. Proteins burn slower, they have a longer process to get converted to glucose (and energy) and fats burn the slowest.
Given that the diets we are familiar with are composed mainly of carbs (sometimes more than 70% carbs), its no surprise that we feel immediate energy when we consume food and also feel exceptionally low when we go without food for sometime. No wonder calories get equated to energy – most of them anyways convert directly to energy for us.
But what happens under the covers? Let’s look at some basics which I think most of the people with blood sugar problems are already familiar with. When any food converts to glucose, be it carbs, or proteins and whatever else we eat, the glucose hits the bloodstream. Glucose is the basic energy needed by every cells in the body. we need it in the bloodstream in certain quantity. But in larger quantities, it is lethal. Hence, the Pancreas (one of the organs) produces a hormone called “Insulin”. The Insulin takes the body away from using fat for energy and starts to use the glucose in the blood stream for energy. The problem is that Insulin also tells the body to store the excess glucose in the blood stream around the belly as the belly fat. So now you know, the fat that you see is not the fat that you eat. Every function in the body is designed with one thing in mind – survival. The mechanism for storing fat is also a survival mechanism so that the body does not get a lethal dose of glucose in the blood stream. So when you start accumulating unwanted fat, its the body struggling hard to keep you alive because you are not doing something right with your food or lifestyle.

When you shed calories from the food being consumed,  the body also realizes that it has lot less to burn than it is used to. As a result, the same survival mechanism will kick in and slow down all the metabolism. In other words, it slows down all the processes in the body – thus consuming lesser energy than what they usually would have. All the important organ such as brain, heart, kidneys etc are prioritized for energy consumption. The other “less important” features such as building muscles, maintaining the reproductive system take a step back because there isn’t enough energy.

With a combination of the two Survival tactics that the body implements, you can very quickly see that restricting calories will not just slow down the metabolism but if the diet is still high in carbohydrates or sugars, the excess glucose in the blood stream will still cause insulin surges that build the visceral body fat.

In essence lowering the calories will have a temporary effect until the body re-aligns its energy consumption mechanism and slows down the metabolism. Once the body starts doing that, the visceral fat will almost always return in the same places.

Throw in some exercise with the low calorie diet, and now the secondary systems such as reproduction and muscle building take even a further back step. The body does not get enough energy from the diet. So after burning some visceral fat for energy, it starts aiming towards the muscles. The muscles enter a catabolic state and the body literally starts eating the muscles to generate the energy it needs.

The human body  has a lot of compensating and gate checking mechanisms which get triggered when a diet or lifestyle pattern change occurs. Which is why the equation cannot be simplified as a calorie In = Calorie out for fat loss.

Moreover, the rate at which the body converts food to usable energy is also dependent on every individual’s metabolism and a status of multiple hormones. So its really not a one size fits all.

Lastly, when eating fresh foods, which are supposedly the best for you, how do you even count the calories? A carrot picked fresh from the farm will have a lot different absorption in the body than a same sized carrot that travels thousand miles to the grocery store. An egg cooked in oil will have a completely different fat profile and hence the calories than the same egg boiled. The calories from oils depend on the freshness and sources as well. In short, its highly improbable to get a good calorie count without being off by a couple of hundred calories everyday. Considering an average of 2000 calorie food intake, this means that we can very easily be off by 10-25%. Is it even worth all the trouble with that much chance of error?

The discussion now needs to be driven from just calories to the nutritional value of the food. Focusing on the macro nutrient proportions to manage the blood sugar levels and hence the visceral fat accumulations. Focusing on the nutrient density of the food to ensure that we get enough “micro” nutrients such as the calcium, magnesium, zinc and several others. The mindset of calories needs to be out. Zero calories need to be out.

Let us start focusing on what a healthy body needs and give a plenty of that stuff. Let us focus on healing the body with the right foods.

Let’s stop converting the body processes into a third grader mathematical equations. if it was that simple, we might’ve never had an obesity epidemic.

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