If you have ever made an attempt at weight loss, a few perfunctory online searches would have led you straight to the popular (but possibly misleading) concept of calorie restriction in your diet.    

For at least the last 50 years, we have been told time and again to count the calories to watch your weight and — if that doesn’t quite cut it — that being overweight is a personal failing and down to lack of exercise. Nutritionists have had a considerable head-start to think about diet in terms of calories, researchers have even been paid to downplay the link between soft drinks and obesity, and all we have ended up with is a big fat obesity crisis on our hands.

If you, like us, are realising that things are not adding up here — perhaps you’ve even tried a low-calorie diet that left you tired and hungry — you’ll agree that we need to reflect on what we know through an alternative lens. 

Are all calories equally fattening if you don’t burn them away? 

Let’s start with the basics — so what is a calorie? A calorie is nothing but a unit of energy. When certain foods, regardless of whether they are fat, protein or carbohydrate, are burnt in our bodies, the energy released can be measured in calories. 

Interestingly, the concept of calorie restriction as the best way to lose weight is actually a fairly new concept — the idea that no matter what you eat, be it a pork chop or a plate of fries, everything comes back to the number of calories, with an emphasis on quickly burning them away through exercise.  

However, decreasing calorie intake will have only a limited, short-term influence by itself.

For example, as stated by David Benton and Hayley A. Young, even a year after dieting, hormonal mechanisms that stimulate the appetite are raised. Over a million calories are consumed a year yet weight changes to only a small extent; there must be mechanisms that balance energy intake and expenditure. There is a need to understand the control of energy balance and how to prevent the regaining of weight after it has been lost. 

So we know that the body has a certain body set weight or BSW. Whenever we try to reduce that weight, the body attempts to bring it up, and when we try to exceed it, it tries to bring it down. Logically speaking, lowering the BSW is the only way to lose weight, as demonstrated in the experiment done by Dr. Rudolph L. Leibel in 1995

Join us on this thought experiment that Dr. James Fung took us on for a second — think of it as a thermostat. 

Simply put-

If you set a thermostat in your house to a sweltering 35 degrees Celsius, it will be like a furnace. You will need to bring in an air conditioner to cool it down, but the two will constantly be fighting each other. 

Similarly, with weight loss, by reducing calories while ignoring the BSW, we are constantly fighting with our own metabolism (<—also a keyword). Doesn’t it make so much more sense to just set the ‘thermostat’ at a comfortable temperature? Wouldn’t weight loss be much more effective if we get to the bottom of what controls body set weight and what determines weight loss? Let us work with the body, instead of against it. 

The crux of the issue here is that from the ‘Calories In, Calories Out’ theory, this incessant obsession with how many calories we put into our bodies has distracted us from the second part of the equation: Fat Storage = Calories In – Calories Out. 

The second part of the equation i.e. calories out – which is actually integral to unpacking what makes a weight loss plan truly effective. Let’s start with the fact that eating more and moving less is much more the result of obesity rather than the cause of it.  

Is the ‘Calories In, Calories Out’ model really working?

‘Calories Out’ in much weight loss advice refers to energy expended only through exercise such as jogging, running or cycling, or through NEAT, non-exercise activity thermogenesis — basically, small movements like fidgeting or drumming your fingers. But there’s a lot more going on in your body that you need to consider.

Focusing on reducing calories as the only means of weight loss makes the very misguided assumption that ‘Calories In’ and ‘Calories Out’ are independent of each other. But what we eat and when we eat it has a significant effect on how much caloric energy is used, because it is the difference (or the margin) between these that determines if there is weight loss or weight gain. 

For instance, if you consume 1000 calories, but then go on to expend an equal amount of energy, there is no margin, and hence — there is no weight gain. This energy could be expended through exercise or through Basal Metabolic Rate — the energy required for the involuntary bodily processes such as the beating of the heart and the generation of body heat, and so on.

While we have been led to believe this equation:

Fat Storage = Calories In – Calories Out

As stated by Dr. Jason Fung, rearranging it would be far more accurate:

Calories In = Fat Storage + Calories Out

We cannot consciously decide when to burn calories, and when to store them as fat. The truth is that the body can adjust the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) up or down by 40%. When you eat fewer calories, your body slows down so it uses fewer calories, which means there is no weight loss. 

This is also why it is possible to eat 5, 794 calories a day and still not gain any weight, as Sam Feltham found out firsthand when he used himself as an experimental subject to test the theory. As he increased his caloric intake to 5,797 calories per day, his body increased his metabolism to burn 5,794 calories per day. He did not gain any weight.

Another key component that many proponents of the ‘CI/CO’ theory have been ignoring is that the human body is a set of highly regulated processes. The body does not just tally up calories in, calories out and dump the rest into the food bank. This is where insulin, our fat storage hormone comes into play.

What is the role of insulin in releasing and storage of fat?

Whenever we have a meal, the glucose levels in our blood gets elevated and that’s the signal for our pancreas to release insulin to curb them. Read all about it here

Now that we know what an integral part insulin plays in our metabolism, it is only natural to ask — can we eat in such a way that our body knows when to use this energy as body heat and when to store it as fat?

What does alternative science have to say about tweaking our lifestyle and diets for weight loss and better health?

Years of obsessive calorie counting have gotten us nowhere, and the low-fat, high-calorie diet plan we have been advised to adopt has led us to soaring insulin levels, and a population that is becoming increasingly overweight. As far as macronutrients go, it is difficult to increase protein intake to more than 20-30% calories without resorting to protein bars and shakes. 

So could the logical way forward be to regulate our intake of fat and carbohydrates in such a way that we are able to dictate the release of our fat storage hormones (such as insulin and cortisol) and other compounds like ketone bodies? Is it high time to switch our focus and make an effort to stop trying to balance the calories, but balance the hormones?

Low-carb high-fat diets, ketogenic diets , and intermittent fasting / time-restricted eating (not caloric restriction), are emerging to be effective insulin-reducing strategies, as they cause stored food energy or fat to be broken down to power the body. This prevents the metabolic slowdown we read about above, and results in a decrease in appetite and, eventually, weight loss.

Researchers from the Framingham State Food Safety Study suggest that more fats and less carbohydrates could help people with insulin insensitivity and Type 2 diabetes maintain successful weight loss better. The best part? You won’t be putting on all this weight back on, soon as your diet is over, ‘Biggest Loser’-style. The idea is to make these food habits a way of life, after all, not to look at it as a fleeting fad. 

Stick around as we forge ahead on this myth-busting journey, and take a look at why we need to balance the hormones, not the calories.