The Calorie Con Game

Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight has heard of the supposedly all-important Calorie (in nutrition-speak we count calories by the thousand—so 1,000 calories with a little “c” equals 1 Calorie with a big “C”). Few people really understand their significance. We’ve been told to count our Calories, because getting lean allegedly involves simply consuming fewer than you burn. But the reality is much more complicated.

The notion of Calories in vs. Calories out has made fortunes for weight loss centers. Typically, they tell you to reduce your food intake by 500 Calories per day to lose 1 pound a week. This is based on the scientific principle that a pound of fat stores 3,500 Calories (aka: Energy), so it seems logical that every 3,500 Calorie reduction you make will result in a loss of 1 pound of body fat.

The mathematical theory works in the lab, but humans have survival mechanisms that are designed to hold fat when food intake is restricted over time. Your body will adjust by lowering your metabolic rate and simultaneously increasing your appetite. The Calorie Con Game provides the instant gratification of short-term weight loss, but the vast majority of dieters gain all of their weight back plus some.

Here’s another way to look at it. If you give a stove more gas, the flames burn hotter. If you turn down the gas, the flames burn low and provide less heat. We can compare our metabolism to the stove. When Calorie intake is decreased, our bodies sense famine and don’t relinquish body fat as expected to compensate for the energy deficit. Plus, it is scientifically impossible to determine just how many Calories we actually expend in a day.

Our food choices can also encourage the tendency to burn Calories for energy or store them as fat. Low-fat, processed versions of real foods have little satiety value and can be packed with refined carbohydrates that quickly raise levels of insulin, a fat-storage hormone. Artificial sweeteners don’t even provide Calories yet their sweet taste can trick your body into storing fat!

The Calorie Con Game has yet another side effect: Loss of fat-burning muscle mass. If you want to become leaner, you must do resistance training. You’ll have to feed your muscles high quality foods, some of which are Calorie-dense. Initially, the extra muscle will create just enough of an overall Calorie deficit to slowly use up excess stored body-fat, increasing, rather than decreasing, your metabolic rate. Continue to eat right and you can learn to trust your appetite to tell you what you need. It is not how much you eat, but what you eat that matters!