Calories In, Calories Out: Fact or Fiction … Redux
In an article I wrote for Breaking Muscle yesterday on the 7 Fitness Myths You Gotta Know About, I accidentally stirred up quite the controversy over an ongoing debate among fitness professionals about how important the Calories In vs Calories Out equation is.
I made the claim that the most important part of the equation when you are trying to lose fat is that the amount of calories coming in should be less than the amount of calories going out. By extension, I said the the quality of your food was FAR less important than the total quantity when if comes to losing weight.
I’d expected my stance on Running to be the controversial one. I was dead wrong!
What’s great about this type of situation where people come out of the woodwork to argue against a point I’m making is that it allows me a chance to think about what they’re saying, take their points to heart, and then come back to make clarifications that explain my reasons more clearly.
A good many of the concerns people had with my claim were well thought out and reasonable. I still think I’m right, but not because I think they are wrong. That might seem wild! But, I think the problem comes down to one of a lack of clear definitions and emphasis. In very few cases did I feel like we were really at odds with one another. We were largely talking PAST one another.
But, before I get into that, I want to make a separate, and equally important clarificatory point … I was talking EXCLUSIVELY about weight loss NOT health or performance AT ALL. I wasn’t just talking about fat loss, but weight loss generally. (More on this below.)
Rule One: Coaches Lie
The first major objection some might have to what I said is that it was overly simplistic.
YES. Yes it was. Here’s why …
I’ve discussed before that Coaches Lie, sometimes outright, sometimes by omission, because they MUST. Teachers, educators of any kind, cannot come out with every last detail of the subject they are teaching on day one and expect the student to do well. That is a disaster.
One step at a time MEANS that you only get part of the picture at a time, and sometimes the implications are that you’re learning something that is wrong to a high-level practitioner.
The classic example is when Olympic lifting coaches tell you to DRAG the bar up your legs, keep it actually touching your thighs at all times. I don’t want my more advanced lifters doing that. It is wrong. You should hydroplane, not drag the bar up. But, in the beginning, we’ve all found that if you don’t force contact of the bar with the thighs, the bar drifts off too far from the body. We’re erring on the side we see as more important, ignoring the details for a moment, and focusing on the MOST important thing – having the bar in the hip at the right moment.
The entire point of a step-by-step process to learning and teaching is that step one is the most important! Often, it is SO important that if you did everything else wrong, but you got that right, you’d by 80%+ of the way there. So, even if you are causing the beginner to get the other steps wrong (for now, we’ll fix that later) at the start, they are doing the first step right.
It is a fantasy that you can do everything right all at once. Any teacher can back me up on this.
So, when I write a simple, fun, list-article for a website like Breaking Muscle I have to keep it rather to the point, almost aphoristic. Hell, I’d originally wanted to make it 12 Fitness Myths, not 7, but I ran out of space!! Non-writers sometimes forget that you only get so many words to play with. I can’t fully explain a point in two or three paragraphs, no one can. I simply needed to say what I believed to be step one: Get a deficit. We’ll worry about quality of food, macronutrient manipulation, and quality of exercise, etc later.
It is NOT ideal. But, we’re talking about short articles on the internet, not a serious College course in Nutrition Science …
Definitions Matter: A Look At The Equation
Speaking of Science!
At the outset, the equation seems too simplistic to be true. Life and biology and physics are all complicated. Not simple. Pretending that one little equation sums up the whole of weight loss is naive … right?
Wrong. That is obscuring a basic reality of mathematical abstraction: Just because the equation looks simple, doesn’t mean that the information contained within the variables in that equation is simple! Much of mathematics and theoretical physics (and theoretical science in general) is an act of trying to find clear general equations, rules, and laws that encapsulate in a simple way the complexity of the universe.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is ridiculously simple on the surface. But, the details of WHY it works are very hard and are the life’s work of thousands of scientists.
Bare with me while I bring out the Math on you! Here’s the equation put in a more formal way:
- Let W = weight loss (not just fat, but general loss of pounds on the scale)
- Let X = the number of calories actually metabolized by the human body (more on this in a moment), and not simply flushed down the toilet.
- Let Y = the number of calories expended by the body.
Then, we have the following definition of weight loss that I claimed was true in the article:
X < Y if and only if W
That is, someone loses weight (W) only when the Calories metabolized (X) is less than the number of calories burned (Y). (The converse also holds, if someone is losing weight, there MUST be a deficit, even if you don’t know how it is occurring.)
Now, here’s the rub. X and Y are extremely complex variables, so knowing exactly what they are is literally impossible by the tenets of Chaos theory. But, that doesn’t make the equation above less true.
A Practical Example
Lets say that we have 2 people, Mojo and Filta, who are genetically identical – not twins, clones! They are the exact same weight, and they have the exact same activity level.
Mojo and Filta both eat the same number of calories per day, but Mojo is on a high carb diet, and Filta is on a high protein diet. From what we can calculate based on their activity levels, they seem to be burning the same number of calories per day as each other.
Further, their X matches their Y.
However … Filta is losing weight, but Mojo is not. What gives?! Clearly, the quality of food matters, not just quantity. Right?
What’s happening is that while their X value is the same as one another’s, their Y values are not the same … we were wrong in our calculations of Y.
High protein diets have been shown to cause your body to burn more calories per day that lower protein diets. So, for Mojo, X = Y, but this isn’t true for Filta. Her X value is the same as Mojo’s, but her Y is higher.
For Filta, X < Y, and that explains the weight loss.
X and Y are Hard to Pin Down
We never really know the EXACT number of calories that the body is burning, nor the amount of calories the body has actually metabolized. Just because you ate something, that doesn’t mean that your body used it, stored it, or did anything with it at all.
Technically, a rock has calories, but your body can’t process it, so if you eat it, you’ll just shit it out. So, using the calories of your food before you eat it as a gauge is not particularly accurate. Everyone digests differently, and so you can’t know how much of the food you eat is even a part of your X value. You can’t know the number that X represents, it is impossible.
Your Y value is equally confusing. The food you metabolize has an effect on the number of calories burned per day.
That means X affects Y!!
The quality of your food obviously has an effect on how you lose weight, but largely because it has the power to raise or lower your Y value … thus contributing to the calorie deficit. Quality affects Quantity.
The use of calorie cycling, and other types of macro nutrient manipulation work because they are a way of constantly keeping Y high. Your body is sneaky, it adapts! It want’s to lower Y. You can make your weight loss efforts work better if you do everything in your power to up your Y value.
But, none of that negates the basic equation.
Clearly I’m making an argument based upon the second law of thermodynamics which essentially states that you can’t break even. That is, X = Y doesn’t really happen ever unless we redefine Y to be more than JUST calories out. Instead …
Y = Calories Out + Entropy
That is, there is always a LOSS of energy because no system of chemical reactions can occur with 100% efficiency.
Here’s Protein Power on the issue:
How does this apply to weight loss?
Each of the many chemical reactions in the body end up dissipating energy. We get our energy in the form of calories from the food we eat. This energy gets consumed in all the countless chemical reactions that go on all the time. Just like an automobile, we are not all that efficient. We don’t convert calories to energy on a one to one basis because of the loss of energy to the universe described by the second law.
Different foods, like protein, are LESS efficient from an energy standpoint than sugar. So, you can eat the same number of calories in protein or sugar, but the Y value will be different.
Again, the point is that the X < Y has to hold to lose weight, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t manipulate this with Macro Nutrients. By eating more healthy foods like high protein and fiber, you can actually eat MORE calories and still lose weight than a diet of sugar and white pasta. But, in either case, if you don’t have X < Y (whatever those numbers are), you won’t lose weight.
This is where applications to athletes in weight-classed sports like Weightlifting and Wrestling can get interesting. Manipulation of macro nutrients is often the go-to method before an absolute drop in calories.
Fat Loss vs Weight Loss
A big objection is that what I’m talking about is true for weight loss, but if left unchecked, you won’t just lose fat, you’ll lose muscle. That is BAD.
I don’t think people should stop at Step One, they need to move onto steps two and three. In my opinion, these are the steps of proper fat loss:
- Create a Calorie Deficit
- Get a Good Weight Training Program in Place
- Make Sure the Food You Eat is Healthy and Supportive of Muscle Gain
In that order! (Step 4 would be to find a way to do High Intensity cardio … if you so choose. Not at all necessary, but can increase the rate of progress for many.)
If you only did step one, then you’d lose fat … but, you’d also lose muscle. If you only did step one and step two, but skipped three, you’d likely keep most of your muscle, you’d lose fat, but your health would suffer long term which will slowly lower your Y value making weightloss harder over time.
You need all three to be able to lose fat fast over the long haul and keep it off and be healthy along the way.
But, I still stand by my ordering. The reason is twofold.
First, most people in America will NOT do all three. They won’t. We can preach all we want till we’re blue in the face. But, most people in this country don’t value their long term health enough to make dramatic life changes in all the areas we’d want them to. That is not going to change overnight, or ever.
Second, it is worse to be very fat – well over 20, 50, or even 100 pounds over weight – than to lose some muscle while losing all the fat. Some people may not agree with me, but I think you are better off being at a low weight with little fat – even if you don’t have much muscle and don’t workout at all, and the food you eat is only marginal – than if you eat very healthy, workout all the time, but are grossly overweight (50+ pounds on a person of average height.)
I know that losing muscle during the fatloss phase makes gaining it back more likely, but if they have internalized the low calorie reality, and stick to that – forever – they will be more likely to stay smaller forever.
In my experience this is a more “doable” thing for the average non-fitness type who HATES working out than joining a CrossFit club and going Paleo. They’ll actually do it and stick to it. Nothing is more important than consistency.
(Interestingly, I find athletes to be the opposite. They will eat healthy food and work their tales off in the gym … but ask them to lower calories and they freak out. I can totally relate!)
The Biggest Loser Example
I love the show The Biggest Loser. The diets they promote are moronic and WAY too low in protein. The workouts they suggest are stupidly unrealistic for the at home person, and their methods of teaching exercises leave a lot to be desired. But, every season, without fail, EVERYONE loses weight.
Not everyone keeps it off, but that’s true for all trainers. Not all of my clients keep it off either, because at some point they stop following my advice. Nothing new here. The goal isn’t 100% success rates. The goal is a large success rate. The Biggest Loser has that.
They’ve shown, over and over again, that anyone can lose fat in a big way and dramatically improve their health simply by following the equation X < Y. No matter how you set it up, so long as X < Y, you’ll lose weight. And, if you aren’t losing weight, something is causing the equation to fail. Either X = Y, or worse, X > Y. (Finding out what exactly that is, is hard sometimes.)
Given the insane amount of fat most Americans are carrying at this point, I believe that it is more important for them to lose it – at all costs – than to keep it around. Americans need to get smaller – a LOT smaller.
The Best of Both Worlds Fallacy
We don’t get to have our cake and eat it too. We don’t.
American’s – outside of our tight-nit group of CrossFitters, Fitness maniacs, weightlifters, powerlifters, and athletes – haven’t the faintest idea what they are doing, have a tiny attention span for health information, and will only do what they need to if they see it as easy. They hate to workout, they don’t like to cook, they have no interest in sticking to diets that force them to choose veggies over their favorite foods, etc.
The reason I like Intermittent Fasting so much is not because of the potential health effects, or because it may make losing fat happen faster, but because it is psychologically easier to stick with for the long haul. It makes maintaining a low calorie diet doable. Anyone can do it.
There are no rules on WHAT to eat. It works simply because of the X < Y equation: Keep your calories under a certain amount; eat most of those calories in one or two big meals so that you get to feel full and eat the foods you enjoy; and watch the weight fall off your body.
You can make it better by eating healthy high protein foods, and by lifting heavy weights – I strongly advise that!! – but, if you only do ONE thing, and your goal is to lose weight … drop your calories under what you’re burning.
The Fitness Elite: We Are The 1%
You and I are part of the tiny 1% of American’s who not only workout all the time and eat healthy food most of the time, but go out of our way to hunt down information like this, comment on blogs and engage in conversations on the topic, and try to learn as much was we can.
We’re not normal. Not even close.
My lifters and I often comment how easy it is to forget that most people who lift weights don’t squat as deep as we do, don’t take snatching and cleaning for granted, and don’t focus the majority of their training time around big lifts like squats. But, at least those other people workout!
Say what you want about Globo Gyms, but at least the people curling in the squat rack show up.
Most American’s don’t do shit. Nothing. No exercise what-so-ever, ever. And they won’t start anytime soon.
The insights and deeper knowledge that we find compelling and totally worth arguing over turns off the rest of America. They hate that crap, and they think all we’re doing is PROVING that scientists and trainers and the fitness industry don’t know ANYTHING.
That’s a crock of shit, of course. Lots and lots is unknown, but a few basic things are known rather well. Workout more, and you will live a healthier life (maybe not longer, but better). Don’t eat a bunch of processed crap all the time, and you’ll be healthier still. Create a calorie deficit and you’ll lose weight.
Imagine what this country would look like if all the severely overweight people out there took those things to heart and put them into practice. More lifting, less junk food, lower calories. Boom … it would be amazing.
I made a few points (understatement!), so it’s probably a good idea for me to go over them again really fast.
First, I can’t explain everything with total complexity in a few paragraphs in a short article for an Online Magazine. That’s impossible. So, in those situations, I cut to the chase and risk being misinterpreted.
Second, coaches lie on purpose. We omit details, and even overemphasize points we’d never overemphasize with advanced clients. The learning process requires this.
Third, A simple equation can contain a lot of complex information. X < Y doesn’t mean X and Y are simple. In fact, X affects Y. The calories you eat and metabolize can change the number of calories you burn everyday. But, none of that complexity negates the underlying reality that a deficit is necessary for total weight loss by an application of the second law of thermodynamics. We’re humans, a walking bunch of cells and chemical reactions. The laws of physics and chemistry don’t stop applying to us simply because they are hard to calculate.
Fourth, The first step is setting the stage for total weight loss. Only then can we worry about step two, which is to make sure the most of that is fat loss and not muscle loss.
Fifth, American’s are fat. Really really fat. They are also lazy and unwilling to workout hard and completely alter their diets to resemble those that most of us fitness-nuts have. You can either become cynical and ignore them, or you can at least help them understand that total weight loss isn’t particularly complicated. So long as they create a deficit, they will lose weight. We’d LOVE for them to get a touch more complicated, and put in more work so that they are also getting fit generally along the way. But, at the very least, they MUST lose that weight.
For every 1 person who joins a CrossFit club or some place like mine and gets really into exercise and healthy eating, there are literally thousands who NEVER will … ever. And yet they will spend their lives looking for diet information and trying those diets out. If they get only ONE thing right, they need to learn that if they don’t start eating LESS food, they will never lose weight. We can help them on that front.
Sixth, This type of ultra basic point about a calorie deficit only seems obvious to us. It is far too easy to get wrapped up in our own world. We’re part of the 1% of the Fitness Elite who are many many steps in. It’s easy to forget just how out of touch with the basics the majority of American’s are.
I love a good debate. It helps everyone involved. So long as we’re all respectful of one another, and remember that it’s supposed to be FUN, then it is all for the good – not just the good of us, but the many people out there who are going to have the chance to learn from what we’re saying and get healthier because of it.
I welcome disagreement. So, if you have a comment about how you think I’m off base, I’d love to hear it. Not all of this is clear cut. There is a LOT of science we just don’t understand well enough for anyone to claim they have all the answers. As of right now, this is what I believe. But, I reserve the right to change my mind in the future.