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5 Reasons Calories Aren’t as Important as You Think

It seems in the nutrition world you have the camp who says calories are the end-all-be-all of fat loss, and if you wanna lose, all you need is a caloric deficit, doesn’t matter what type of foods you eat nor what type of exercise so long as a deficit is created. Then there’s the camp who says calories don’t matter at all, and it’s just about the type of food. Who’s right? Well, both. Calories matter, but there’s a little more to taken into consideration.

Here’s an example. The Atkins Diet. Many believe that the Atkins Diet works because (of the misconception that) protein can’t be stored as fat so you can eat as much as you want and not get fat. The truth is that calories do play a role in the Atkins Diet. Whenever you cut out whole food groups like starch and limit others, the result will almost always be less calories consumed. However, on the flip side, the Atkins Diet is compromised of mostly protein & fat–both of which are very satiating macronutrients (keeps you fuller for longer) compared to starches so chances are most people will END UP eating less because of it.

In short, calories DO matter, but the food choices you make matter more, as does the type of exercise that you do. Hormones play a key role (or else how to do you explain the fat storing effects of stress? No cals there). Metabolic Effect has many articles on the calorie model and why taking hormones into consideration is important for sustained fat loss. Check the bottom of this blog for more resources.

Here are 5 insights to consider when you are tempted to revert to the old equation of calories in versus calories out:

1) When you lose weight, it can be muscle, fat or water. It’s more the TYPES of foods you eat that determine which. Weight loss is not the same as fat loss, and the latter is what we really want. Losing weight is easy, just stop eating and go long-distance jogging. But you’ll most likely lose a good amount of muscle. Sparring muscle and losing fat in infinitely harder. For most to achieve it, protein, fibrous veggies and fruit should make up 70-80% of the diet, with correctly-timed starchy carbs pulling up the rear at 20-30% of cals.

2) Exercise matters. A person who goes out and runs for hours a day burns many more calories through exercise than someone who does heavy weight training for 30-45 minutes a day, and yet these two people will look completely different. Not only will they look different, but chances are that if they ate the same diet, the weight trainer would have a lower body fat %. How can this be explained calorically when the person running is in a much larger caloric deficit? Hormones. The way in which you exercise affects hormones. Long-duration exercises increases cortisol and catecholamines mainly, which can have a muscle-stripping effect in the arms and legs, and a fat-storing effect in the midsection. By contrast, heavy weight training boosts release of testosterone and growth hormone (along with cortisol), both of which elicit a muscle-building, fat-burning effect. Hormonal signaling differs in certain modes of exercise, and this can’t be ignored.

3) Macronutrients matter. The idea that a person can eat 1500 calories’ worth of Swedish Fish, and a second person eat 1500 calories from lean chicken breasts and they will have the same results is insane. Macronutrients elicit different responses in the body. Protein raises glucagon, which breaks down stored carb and fat for energy, while carbs spike insulin, a fat-storing (and muscle-building) hormone. Fat is absorbed more slowly then carbs, protein uses more energy in the digestive process (thermic effect), fat is a key component of cell membranes, without which metabolism will slow. Carbs are needed in certain amounts to help build muscle and power the Krebs cycle, etc.

Different macronutrients do different things, signal different messages and have different effects. To say that our body is simply a furnace and a calorie is a calorie is a calorie is short-sighted. However, for someone who is obese, cutting calories from anywhere is a great first step and they will have success, but for the normal-weight person, macronutrient ratios matter a whole lot more, for continued progression.

4) Satiety matters. This is a huge piece of the puzzle. At Metabolic Effect, we advise eating more of the right foods more often, and the calories will take care of themselves. This is mainly because the “right foods” in our opinion are lean protein, fibrous veggies and low-sweet fruits, all of which elicit a strong satiety effect (high volume, high water content, higher fiber relative to total carb, etc). They make you feel fuller for longer so you end up eating less naturally. It becomes effortless to automatically eat a lower calorie diet because the foods you choose keep you satisfied. Use biofeedback tools like hunger, cravings and energy fluctuations to monitor your success, and add protein & fiber as needed. Food choices come first, calories take care of themselves after the fact.

5) Using willpower sucks. When you count calories, you are exclusively using willpower. How many of X can I have?? (Same deal with the WW Points System…how many points can I have??) Everything is in the context of how much you must RESTRICT yourself.  Jade always says that you cannot win a battle of wills agains your physiology. Meaning, from an evolutionary standpoint, our bodies want to eat and store fat for next winter’s famine. So stop trying to use your brain and every ounce of willpower to keep yourself from eating, and INSTEAD, choose foods that fill you up and satisfy automatically, effortlessly. If you are constantly using all your mental energy to resist, resist, resist, at some point your self-control will be exhausted (been shown in research). The more effort you use to resist, the faster it will crumble at the first sight of a tough day at work.

More resources from Metabolic Effect about playing the hormonal fat loss game (and getting away from the calorie counting game):

The Rider & the Elephant
The Calorie Trap: Why some will never win the weight loss game
Food is Information for Fat Burning
Preemptive Eating: Why it’s best for fat loss 

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