Calories, part 1: Problems with Calorie Counting for Weight Loss
We’ve been taught since middle school health class that 1 pound of fat equals 3,500 Calories and, therefore, creating a Calorie deficit of 500 Calories per day through diet and/or exercise will result in 1 pound of fat loss per week (500 Calories x 7 days).
It sounds great in theory, and legions of citizen-scientists love to cite Newton’s law of conservation of energy to support their rigid belief in the Calories In Calories Out (CICO) of weight loss, but it’s just not that simple. In fact, virtually nothing about the human body can be reduced to a simple mathematical equation.
Weight loss is a very complicated process. Attempts to simplify it by preaching the Calorie deficit theory likely do more harm than good, making individuals feel like failures when their weight loss doesn’t go as planned. We’ve been told that the formula for weight loss is to eat less and move more in order to achieve a Calorie deficit. There are many problems with that overly simplistic notion.
Our physiology is working against us
Our bodies are programmed to store fat and make it difficult to lose fat. We are working against the primitive origins of our physiology, as our genetics have not changed significantly over the millennia. Our distant ancestors certainly had to endure much harsher conditions than we do, with their survival depending largely on the ability to obtain nutrition. As we had to adapt to the risk of going long periods without food, it makes sense that our physiologies are geared toward storing backup energy as fat.
Weight loss is not linear
If one believes in the Calories In Calories Out model of weight loss, then there must be a linear pattern of weight loss. However, legions of people who have attempted this method of dieting can tell you that that’s not the case. They may lose some weight initially, which serves as reinforcement for their strategy. At some point, however, their weight loss will stall. Then, they double down on eating less and moving more. Again, they may lose some more weight but will eventually stall again. You see where this is going. It’s a frustrating approach, and people often find that they are constantly hungry.
In theory, their long-term Calorie deficit should have given them indefinite weight loss. In fact, according to that theory, if you stick with that Calorie deficit long enough, you should eventually wilt away to nothing.
Clearly, that doesn’t happen. Along the way, something must change to prevent the complete loss of all fat tissue. Indeed, that would be a disaster for your body. Without adequate fat tissue, our bodies would be at severe risk and cannot maintain proper bodily functions, with nutritional deficiencies and hormonal dysregulation, ultimately being a life-threatening situation. It is estimated that the minimum essential body fat percentage is 3% for men and 13% for women.
It’s just not that simple
The human body is infinitely complex, and there are numerous mechanisms to prevent the above scenario from happening. Weight balance is not as simple as a bank account balance – it’s not just a function of Calories in and Calories out.
What happens when our bodies enter a sustained caloric deficit?