Rethinking Calories Control

Calorie-counting is a complete waste of time. It is based on flawed science. The concept of energy balance is the basis of the recommendations that calories restriction be utilized to lose weight. “What you eat and drink is ENERGY IN. What you burn through physical activity is ENERGY OUT.”[1] The following diagram visually shows this concept:[2]

This concept is based on the first law of thermodynamics. A consequence of this law is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed: it can only be transformed from one state to another.[3] In the 1890s, doctors used this law to explain the cause of obesity:[4]

They likened the body to a tank, into one end of which energy is poured in the form of food.  This, they said, was then either used up or stored. If you used up more than you poured in, you got thinner and if you poured in more than you used, you got fatter.

Since then this concept has been touted as gospel, and used as the bases of nutritional recommendations by many people including doctors, governments, and nutritionists.  Part of what the theory has had going for it is that it is easy to understand, makes sense, it is scientifically backing, and it is actionable. The implication is that obese people eat too much and/or expend too little energy.

Unfortunately, the theory is wrong.[5]

There is an emerging scientific consensus that weight control is a highly complex topic and the old ideas that overweight people are lazy gluttons are now realized to be as absurd and insulting as the overweight have always thought they were.

The flaw of the energy balance theory is that the first law of thermodynamics describes a closed system. The law states that the total amount of energy in an isolated system remains constant over time.[6] Our bodies are NOT closed isolated systems. The energy we intake through food stuff is expended through heat, sweat, urine, feces, and the chemical process that produces energy.

A calorie is defined as the energy needed to raise 1 kilogram of water by 1°C.[7] The amount of calories in food is determined using a Bomb Calorimeter:[8]


The number of calories in food is measured by burning the food inside the chamber and measuring the resulting change in temperature of the water.[9] These measurements are the basis of the values given on food labels.

The energy balance theory of obesity assumes that the heat produced by burning food inside of a Bomb Calorimeter equates to food energy. For example, if you put a dried carrot in a Bomb Calorimeter and burn it, the number of degrees the water temperature raises indicates the amount of food energy which enters your body when you eat a carrot.

The obvious flaw is that our bodies do NOT use all its food to provide energy. Our digestive process is not nearly this efficient. Energy is provided to our bodies through the chemical process in which blood sugar is oxidized. Some food energy is utilized in this process, however, not all of it. A significant portion is excreted in sweat, urine and feces as energy-containing molecules.  For example, ketones are formed when eating a lot of fat and these ketones are excreted in urine. A gram of ketones is roughly four calories. In this case, nearly half of the energy from fat is lost in urine. The amount of energy utilized for energy verses the energy excreted through sweat, urine, and feces varies and would need to be taken into account. [10]

Another important flaw in the energy balance theory is that not all food is utilized for energy. Our bodies have additional nutritional needs beyond energy. For example, dietary protein’s main function is cell manufacturing and repair.

For all of these reasons calorie-counting is a complete waste of time. It is an over simplification…to the point of being misleading. The attraction to calorie restriction diets is fairly clear. They appear to work. People restrict their calorie intake and they lose weight. Then eventually most people cannot keep it up, they stop restricting their calories, and boom the weight comes back on. Then the self flagellation begins. If only you could have enough will power, you could keep that weight off.

Use of calories restriction to lose weight is a poor strategy. It amounts to semi-starvation. We lose weight when we starve our bodies because our bodies will tear down tissue in order to obtain enough energy. Both fat tissue and muscle will be torn down to provide the necessary nutrients. This is both unhealthy and very difficult to maintain.

In the blog Innovation of Dietary Recommendations, I wrote about the Ancel Key’s calorie restriction study.  What is comes down to is that our bodies need nutrients for both energy and huge variety of other functions. Starving your body will result in our bodies not functioning properly. Once we stop starving our bodies we will gain back all of the weight and more.

Obesity is a result of broken metabolic processes often brought about by diets that contain too many high gylcemic carbohydrates. High glycemic carbohydrates mess with our metabolic processes. Maintaining a healthy weight is NOT brought about by restricting fat or restricting calories. It is brought about by improving your metabolic processes.

Beyond a healthy weight, healthy biochemistry provides many more benefits including a healthy heart, increased emotional health, and increased energy. Happy Deviants have a better strategy for obtaining excellent health. Will power and discipline are part of creating excellent health, however, knowledge and strategy are also a key part of creating excellent health.


~ by happydeviant on November 14, 2010.

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