Are calories the most important thing?
By Fahad Maniar
There’s a huge debate going on in the fitness community at the moment about calories. Some say that calories are the most important factor when it comes to weight loss and others say it has nothing to do with calories but more to do with hormones. Now, I for one sit somewhere in the middle (though I tend to lean slightly more in favour of hormones – but only just).
In this article, I wanted to share my views on both sides and what I feel is the ideal thing to focus on.
Now, first things first, everyone’s different. Your body is different to mine and mine’s different to the next person to read this after you. All these little nuances if you will that make us up biologically, chemically and genetically alter the way our bodies react to many things and this includes food, weight management and body composition.
With that being said, it’s ultimately important to just focus on what works for you (and I guess, that being the forgone conclusion of this article)
“Calories are King”
Now, I am going to start with what I think is fundamentally wrong with the “Calorie is king” crowd. I see a lot of personal trainers on social media talk about calories being the most important thing when it comes to weight loss and I’ve had many interesting debates with those coaches. My problem with this argument is that yes, cutting calories fundamentally leads to weight loss but how much of that weight loss is lean muscle tissue?
The problem with the calories is king idea is that it relies far too much on the simple formula of calories in vs calories out. It’s an oversimplification of what goes on in your body and relies too heavily on the simplistic notion of foods containing a set amount of calories.
The truth is, calorie estimations can be grossly off the mark. Food labelling is hardly accurate and can be as much as 20-25% off either way (imagine eating 25% more calories than you think you’re consuming).
Calorie counting can never be an accurate science
For the most part anyway, unless you have atomic scales and a microbiological lab to assess the calorie content of the food you’re eating as well as being strapped up to some seriously funky hi tech gadgets to get an accurate account of the calories you’re burning (And erm sorry, your FitBit or Microsoft Band isn’t going to be nearly as accurate enough for this), then you’ll not really have an accurate account of your calories in vs calories out equation.
Then there are other things to consider. No two days will have the same exact calorie burn. One day you might be standing for longer than the day before. This is known as NEAT. Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. In other words, activities such as walking, standing and even fidgeting can add to your daily caloric output – Again showing how hard it is to track exact calorie burn in the day.
Furthermore, according to leading sports nutrition expert, Dr John Berardi, we don’t absorb all the calories we eat. We absorb more of the calories we eat from processed foods than whole foods due to the fact that whole foods need to be broken down more and digested more than processed foods. He also points out that gut health is a factor in calorie absorption and this can vary from person to person meaning 1000 calories will be absorbed a lot differently by one person to the next.
But what about the law of thermodynamics?
Proponents of the calorie in vs calorie out methodology state that it’s all to do with the laws of thermodynamics. It is the first law of thermodynamics which state that energy can not be created or destroyed, or the over simplification of that law that has led to the theory of calories in vs calories out.
However, as I’ve presented above, it’s too hard to say what calories are going in and what calories are going out without guess work. Therefore, relying solely on the calorie balance equation can leave you feeling frustrated.
In fact, all calories aren’t created equally. The whole idea that 1g of protein and 1g of carbohydrate equates to 4 Calories and 1g of fat equates to 9 Calories is again a generalisation. Furthermore, protein has a higher thermic effect meaning 4calories of protein will not equal 4 calories of carbohydrates. This whole notion has led researchers to find that it actually breaches the second law of thermodynamics. If you’re so inclined, you can read the research here >> http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC506782/
The other side of the argument:
Over the last couple of decades, a very radical way of thinking came into light that changed the way people saw diets and fat loss in general. Although his book was printed in the early 70’s, Dr Atkins, the founder of the Atkins diet saw sales of his book rise in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and the Atkins diet went crazy.
Although Dr Atkins wasn’t the founder of low carbohydrate diets, he was one of the pioneers for it’s growth since the 70’s. The diet did away with calorie counting, in fact, calorie counting was not necessary at all to lose weight and you could eat foods that were shunned before his book became popular. Eggs, bacon, butter and cream all were back on the menu – The only thing that was out were carbohydrates.
Low carbohydrate diets and ketogenic diets (Diets of a total of 5% carbohydrates or less per day) heralded the rise of the hormone crowd because they rely on hormone control for weight and fat loss. The basic premise of a low carbohydrate diet being that insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar, would not be needed due to there being next to no blood sugar circulating and as a result, the body just wouldn’t be able to store fat and any body fat or dietary fat would be burned up as energy.
Enter the hormone crowd.
For the reasons I stated above, calorie counting being flawed and inaccurate and the scientific importance of hormones in regulating everything in the body especially fat loss, a subsection of the world are all about hormones. Calorie counting is absolutely unnecessary to them and it is all about balancing hormones. Various books on the subject have gained huge popularity including the The Calorie Myth by Jonathan Bailor and Gary Taube’s book, “Why we get fat and what to do about it”.
The debate continues between the calorie is king crowd and the hormones are everything crowd but one thing seems to be the same (and it will allude to my own personal philosophy on what’s important in fat loss, body composition and health).
The most important thing to consider
When you ask either of these two crowds what someone trying to lose weight should be doing, the answers are usually the same. Eat more protein, eat more greens, cut out sugars, cut out refined carbohydrates and eat good fats and exercise more with a preference for resistance and strength based training.
There’s no arguing about those things – and for the most part, apart from their health benefits, they do one thing really well to help you on your quest to lose weight, they help stimulate your metabolism.
The metabolism is where the magic really happens. You can calorie count all you want and have a low carbohydrate diet but if your metabolism is damaged, you’ll struggle to lose weight. In order to becoming a fat burning machine, you’re going to want to ramp up your metabolic rate. This means, eating foods that stimulate metabolism, getting your hormones in check, eating foods that help your overall gut health and exercise that stimulates your metabolism by helping facilitate the growth of lean muscle tissue (strength and resistance training).
One of the flaws in the calorie counting model is evident in slimming clubs around the country where the emphasis is purely placed on calorie control. Whether it’s point based or calorie counting, the fundamental goal is to create a calorie deficit in order to lose weight. No emphasis is given on metabolism or hormonal regulation as far as I am aware. The success rates of slimming clubs are under scruitiny when people leave them because many people tend to gain the weight back on and then some after leaving a slimming club due to a slow down in metabolism due to a very low calorie diet combined with little to no stregth training.
A better approach
Ultimately, you want to achieve a goal. I am assuming that you’re reading this because you want to improve health, burn fat, build muscle and live a kick ass life full of energy to do the things you love to do, right? So why compromise? Why get stuck in a binary way of thinking? Why not adopt the best of both worlds?
And this is my personal philosophy to fat loss and body composition >> Exercise calorie control but focus on hormones and metabolism.
In other words, have an idea of the calorie deficit you need to create to burn fat, consume the maximum amount of calories you can per day and still create enough of a deficit to burn fat but eat nutrient dense foods that promote a healthy gut and hormonal balance needed to burn fat and build muscle.
That’s it! It’s that simple, a perfect harmony of the two (with a slight lean towards hormone and gut health for me personally)
I personally don’t count calories. I used to and was very precise with it but it was a pain in the pants and I have since come to learn that you can never be precise;
Whenever I have a calorie debate with a fitness pro who is in the calories is king crowd, I always ask the question, which would be a better way to burn fat and build muscle? 1800 calories of lean protein and leafy greens and good fats or 1800 calories of jelly babies? I’ve never seen the evidence but I would love to see the bodies of these two people side by side!
Metabolism is the key which and fat burning and metabolism is regulated by hormones. Calorie counting is important but hormones and metabolic health are the main factors.
- Workout your daily calorie requirements and create a deficit but use this as a guide of an approximation of how much you should be eating only.
- Focus more on eating nutrient dense foods and foods that promote good health including gut health and hormone support.
- Workout (Strength or resistance training preferred) 3-4 times per week.
- Increase your NEAT by moving around more, walking and even fidgeting more.
- Run a mile from anyone that says it’s only about calories or it’s only about hormones.