Asking the Right Questions (about Calories)

Welcome. Let’s jump right in.

Perhaps the reason we seem to have an endless debate about the validity of the Calories In/Calories Out (CICO) model of weight loss, known as caloric balance or even more technically as energy balance, is that we are so stuck and entrenched in conventional wisdom and patterns of thinking that we cannot really see outside the box we inhabit when we think about calories, what I like to call the “calories paradigm.”

Here’s how I define the calories paradigm: that we can and should measure our food in calories, all calories are the same, and that calories are all that matter when it comes to weight gain and loss.

Maybe we’re not getting the right answers because we really are asking the wrong questions. We keep asking the same old tired questions and getting the same old debates.

Experts say this, debunkers say that. Who’s right?

You have to ask the right questions about calories and calorie counting, if you want the right answers. Ask the questions nobody asks, questions a beginner would ask.

Gary Taubes wrote in September 2011, “Catching up on lost time – the Ancestral Health Symposium, food reward, palatability, insulin signaling and carbohydrates, kettles, pots and other odds and ends (with some philosophy of science as a special added attraction). Part I.” (yeah, crazy long blog post title, I know) (emphasis added)

This is why, as Kuhn explained in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, his seminal thesis on paradigm shifts, the people who invariably do manage to shift scientific paradigms are “either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change…”

So when a shift does happen, it’s almost invariably the case that an outsider or a newcomer, at least, is going to be the one who pulls it off . . .

This is why a common and understandable response to any challenge to the existing paradigm – to the conventional wisdom, in effect – from an outsider is this: “who the hell are you (or am I) to be questioning us? You’re not a member of the priesthood. Not an upper wizard of the stratosphere. You haven’t trained in the field. You haven’t proven yourself. You haven’t done, in effect, what we have done; you haven’t learned what we have learned. You didn’t have the necessary apprenticeship in the relevant arts. Bug off!” …

As Kuhn explained, shifting a paradigm includes not just providing a solution to the outstanding problems in the field, but a rethinking of the questions that are asked, the observations that are considered and how those observations are interpreted, and even the technologies that are used to answer the questions. In fact, often the problems that the new paradigm solves, the questions it answers, are not the problems and the questions that practitioners living in the old paradigm would have recognized as useful.

Plain and simple, I’m no expert in nutrition. I haven’t learned what they have learned. All I have is the past five years of research into the validity of calorie counting.

I have been studying and answering the question:

Is calorie counting the correct theory of weight loss?

This is the beginning of an open-ended series laying out what I’ve learned about calories and the validity of calorie counting as a weight loss strategy. It will be wide-ranging, from the beginnings of nutrition science to the historical origins of calorie counting and metabolism research; to language and terminology used to discuss calories; and ultimately to the real physics of weight loss. Energy balance will be extensively explored and analyzed in great depth. I’ll go back to first principles to see whether our belief in calorie counting really makes any sense scientifically or is just the fad Lulu Hunt Peters started in 1918 when she wrote the first bestselling diet book in America, Diet and Health With Key to the Calories. It’s likely the craziest diet book you’ve ever seen, complete with stick figures drawn by “The Author’s Small Nephew.” It’s the fad that caught on and stayed on for the past century.

Here’s a high-level summary and guide to all this series will cover, answering the question above:

Despite a century of belief, calorie counting still cannot accurately predict weight loss because nutrition science has confused the language of calories, ignored the history of metabolism research, and misinterpreted the fundamental physics of weight loss.

Let’s get started. Here are some of the questions this series will explore:

  • If eating too many calories makes you gain weight, then how much does a calorie weigh? — or simply, “How much does a calorie weigh?”
  • Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim wrote in Why Calories Count (2012), “Although calories are essential to human health and survival, they cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted.” — So how can invisible, intangible calories affect your weight?
  • When you lose weight where does it go? What goes?
  • How does anything gain weight? by gaining energy? or by gaining mass?
  • Standing in hot sunlight, you literally gain heat energy (calories) — Do you weigh more? Does your phone gain weight when you charge it?
  • What is an excess calorie? When have I overeaten?
  • Does the type of food matter? What about the weight of food?
  • Do 3500 calories actually equal a pound of weight?
  • Do calories actually cause weight gain and loss or are they merely associated with weight change?
  • How much will you weigh tomorrow (exactly)? Why can’t nutrition science tell me? Why is there no exact, quantifiable, testable theory of weight loss?
  • How can energy balance theory be correct when it doesn’t fit all observations and doesn’t always make accurate predictions?
  • Why do incorrect weight loss predictions in studies never invalidate energy balance?
  • Why is nutrition and weight loss such an inexact science?
  • Why do you get sleepy after lunch but your car doesn’t? You both burn carbon-based fuel with oxygen to produce energy, carbon dioxide, and water. Somehow some of your food energy becomes unavailable. Why?

Whew! Had enough yet? Well, I’m not quite through….

  • What did W.O. Atwater, the father of calories and nutrition in the US, know about measuring both the “balance of matter” (ingesta vs excreta) and the “balance of energy” to get the full picture of metabolism?
  • Is human calorimetry (the science behind energy balance) valid science? Is indirect calorimetry very accurate? Can you accurately measure all the internal work and heat of the body? Even in a full-body respiration calorimeter (direct calorimetry)?
  • Why do we measure food in calories instead of by weight (when we want to understand weight changes)? When did we switch?
  • What was our understanding of weight loss before calories were discovered?
  • Does energy balance always guarantee weight maintenance, i.e., constant weight?
  • How can weight loss be about calories and only calories when calories are energy, and weight is a measurement of mass?
  • If calorie counting is wrong, then what?
  • Is it possible that nutrition scientists don’t understand the physics of weight loss? at the most basic level?
  • What does thermodynamics have to do with weight loss?
  • What is the history and origin of calorie counting?
  • Who were the major players in early metabolism research? from Sanctorius (1614) to Atwater (1887-1907)
  • Why is it wrong to speak of “eating” and “burning” calories?
  • Why does a low calorie diet sound good, but a low energy diet sound bad?
  • Why is concentrated, energy-dense fuel good for rockets and cars—more efficient—but not for humans?

Wow, a long list. So much to explore.

Here’s a taste of what’s to come…

There’s a question no one who believes in calorie counting ever asks:

If eating too many calories makes you gain weight,
“How much does a calorie weigh?”

Here’s what they want you to believe: that something with no mass (calories are energy), that you can’t touch, taste, feel, smell, or pick up, is what determines and causes your weight to change.

Have we all lost our minds?

When you add fuel to your car, it weighs more, right? So how would you calculate the new weight of your car after you added the fuel? Would you:

a) Find the energy density of the fuel and calculate how much energy was in the volume of fuel you added, then use some conversion formula (3500 kcal = 1 pound, for example) to tell you how much weight the car should have gained from that amount of energy, or,

b) Just weigh the volume of fuel you added and add that to the initial weight of the car

We are all so stuck in the calories paradigm we can’t think outside the box to see how ridiculous it is. That’s why we need to think of other situations and analogs to break us out of established patterns and understand what’s really going on.

You and your car are very similar in many ways. You both use hydro-carbon based fuel, gasoline or diesel for the car, fats and carbs for you. You both combine the fuel with oxygen to produce energy and the end products of the reaction: carbon dioxide and water. You both excrete the carbon dioxide and water, as exhaust in the car, and by expired breath in you.

This is how you actually lose weight, all the time, by exhaling carbon dioxide and water vapor. You typically lose about 30-40 grams per hour this way (The Nature of the Insensible Perspiration, Benedict, 1927). It’s not the calories that cause you to lose weight. It’s the mass loss of carbon dioxide and water vapor (the waste products of cellular respiration), along with other body excretions such as urine and undigested food (feces), and other tiny losses from dead skin, hair, and water evaporating from skin.

Stay tuned!

PS: If you’re itching to learn more about the history and origins of calorie counting right now, read this excellent article, Counting Calories, by Chin Jou.