Today’s post is part 6 in our ongoing series of fitness lies you need to stop believing. I think most of us can agree that for every one fitness myth, there at least 10 diet myths, so I figured this month I’d take a jab at one of those… here we go…
Lie: “A calorie is a calorie. Losing weight is just as simple as managing calories in, versus calories out.”
Truth: Ok, so this one is actually true… sort of… but maybe not for the reasons you may think.
Let’s start with the true part. Yes, it is a physiological reality (as well as being in line with the law of statistical thermodynamics) that the ‘calories in, calories out formula’ does work. However, this dynamic, when applied to the human body, quickly runs into the hard brick wall of reality. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when: Certain systems in the body will call it quits after a certain amount of time to balance this energy deficit.
It’s not my intention to get super ‘sciencey’ in this post, but have you ever wondered what a calorie even is? Well I did, so a while back I looked it up. I used to think it was some sort of volume measurement, but it turns out that’s not the case at all. A calorie is the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Kelvin.
If you’re thinking like me, you already see the flaw here. A calorie is a unit of energy transfer. They determine the number of calories in food by, literally, burning it and measuring how much heat it generates. Unfortunately, that’s not what the body does. There’s no big bonfire going on in the bottom of your belly just incinerating everything that goes into your pie hole… so the ‘calories in, calories out’ thing is an oversimplification to the point of making it almost useless when talking about the human body.
I recently listened to a podcast where the argument of whether all calories were created equal was taking place, so the subject was fresh in my mind when the following event happened:
About once a month, for one reason or another, I will need to go to a local discount store to pick up a couple things for the house or gym (it’s called Big Lots for those of you who have one in your area). It’s not exactly a dollar store; they have household goods, furniture, etc… but it’s a fairly similar concept. Anyway, they have a candy aisle that has all kinds of candies that I used to eat when I was a kid… candies that they don’t have in other stores (at least not the ones where I shop). Since they’re so cheap, it is my guilty pleasure to often indulge and get myself a small box (ALWAYS after a workout… ok… maybe not).
The last time this happened I was feeling pretty antsy so I cracked open the box on the drive home (I only live about 5 minutes from the store) and the most amazing thing happened when I got home… the box was empty! Before I tossed the box, I decided to take a look at the label. This particular candy (Sour Patch Kids if you must know) had hardly any fat or protein, but there were 37 grams of carbohydrates per serving. “Ok, this isn’t so bad” I thought. Until I realized that the box I devoured in under 5 minutes was 2.5 servings. I feel really bad for those other one-and-a-half people. I can almost hear them now… wondering where their Sour Patch Kids went.
Also, one might think that after devouring almost 100 grams of carbs, I must have been pretty full with no desire to eat my normal lunch, right? Wrong. My hunger for lunch wasn’t altered by even the slightest amount.
I realize the story above is anecdotal which is not a good way to present an evidence-based argument, but let’s examine something: From a purely caloric and macronutrient standpoint, this box of candy was equivalent to eating five and half medium red apples. What are the chances that you would casually munch down five and half apples on a 5-minute drive home and still be hungry for lunch when you got there? Not sure? Well I didn’t know either, so a week later I decided to try it.
Let’s start by saying that eating five and a half apples in one sitting was a bit of a chore, and I certainly wasn’t hungry for lunch afterwards. Also, I’ll spare the details of what that many apples did to my digestive system, but let’s just say my toilet and I were not on speaking terms for about a day. (Oh, the things I subject my body to for this blog…)
This is the reason I’m calling ‘calories in, calories out’ a half-truth. I suppose if one has the discipline to stop eating hyper-palatable foods when they hit their caloric limit for the sitting, then yes, a calorie is a calorie. I would, however, argue that if the person in question is trying to lose weight (why else would they be limiting calories?), they have probably already proven to themselves that eating discipline is not one of their strengths. And when it comes to satiety, if given the option between five and half apples versus a box of candy, I think it would be much easier to find your weight loss goals with the apples.
In other words, if you’re trying to shed a few pounds, why would you stack the deck against yourself by eating stuff that doesn’t satisfy your hunger? NOTHING ruins a diet faster than, “I’m hungry all the time.”
If you’re always hungry, it’s a ticking time bomb to falling off the nutritional wagon. However, if you can manage to keep yourself satiated most of the time, staying on your eating plan becomes far more realistic. At the beginning of this year, I found myself in a situation where the holidays had found a couple extra unneeded pounds on me. (It happens to the best of us.) So, I decided to take on a little challenge:
“Vegetables as an entrée, protein as a side dish”
This was more of a thought experiment than anything else, and it was inspired by my wife who decided to take on an experiment of 90 days as a vegetarian (hopefully we can convince her to write a post on that too). This experiment afforded two things: First, unless you put vegetables in the forefront of your dietary selections, it’s almost impossible to get the recommended amount in your daily intake. This was really the first time that I ever consistently got the recommended amount of vegetables in my diet.
Second, it changes the way one looks at a menu at a restaurant. There are just a limited number of options that fall into the category of, “veggies as an entrée.” It’s not that Marie and I eat out often, but when we do, this changes the lens that we look through when selecting menu items.
Mind you, this wasn’t a diet. There were NO pre-determined calorie restrictions. I just ate until I was full, and the unnecessary pounds I found during the holiday just sort of went away. It turns out that getting your recommended daily calories through lots of vegetables is actually quite difficult.
One of the biggest nutritional lies that I hear is, “diets don’t work.” This is totally untrue. ALL diets work. The problems happen when we stop following them. If you are a fitness professional, I encourage you to be nutritionally agnostic. If you are reading this and are looking to shed a few pounds, I encourage you to always be your own best N=1 experiment. I’ve weighed pretty much the same for many years, but I still like to take on little experiments, and I learn something new every time.
One of the other most misleading things I hear is, “Results are 80% diet, 20% exercise.” Sure… if the only ‘result’ we’re looking for is to make the scale read a smaller number. If someone is sedentary and looking to make long-lasting, life-changing differences to their body, even the smallest changes in physical activity can have a significant impact on the ‘calories in, calories out’ equation. Most of the time when I hear the ‘80% diet’ thing, it’s usually said by those trying to peddle some diet crap. Don’t believe the hype… there is no such thing as a bad time to learn how to move your body better.
Until next time,
Jerry Trubman – Senior SMK Instructor
Jerry is the owner and founder of The Protocol Strength & Conditioning, a fitness facility and coaching program specializing in teaching people how to move better and become stronger. With over a decade of experience, Jerry has devoted himself to seeking out better answers, then distilling those answers into practical programs that produce great results. He provides workshops, clinics, and kettlebell certifications all over the world through the UK-based company, Strength Matters, and writes “The Healthy Addiction” blog which has thousands of readers world-wide. For more information, please visit theprotocolsc.com