May 25, 2016

"Calories Out" -- A Rant

I don’t like that I post so many rants, but what can I say? The nutrition world gives me lots to rant about. Lots. And if I may say, many of the emails I get from you, my beloved readers, specifically mention how much you enjoy my sass and snark. So, if sass and snark are what ye seek, then sass and snark are what ye shall receive! Especially when it comes to today’s topic.

I’ve written before about the complete and utter crapstorm that is the very concept of “calories.” (That post is from April 2014. I’ve acquired a lot of new readers since then, so if you’ve never read that one, do click on over and give it a whirl. It’s a good one, if I do say so myself.) 

Okay, so, calories.

When it comes to losing weight fat loss, we’ve heard over and over again that it comes down to one thing: calories in, calories out (CICO). (Or is that two things?) Or, rather, it comes down to weight loss reduced adiposity being the result when someone takes in fewer calories than they burn. People are so stubbornly wedded to this idea that “Woo” famously calls them CICOpaths, CICOphants, or CICOtards. (With apologies to the reader who took me to task for my “Don’t Be a Ketard” series title, which has been renamed “Being Fat Adapted Versus ‘In Ketosis.’”)

As you know, I try to be careful about how I phrase things. (Case in point: the crossed out stuff in the preceding paragraph.) Part of this comes from me being an English major and language nerd, and part of it comes from knowing that when we phrase things incorrectly, they may not even be relevant. For example, I try to say “accumulate adipose tissue” more often than I say “gain weight.” Because gaining weight and accumulating adipose are not the same thing. If you gain weight, that might be water, muscle, bone, or, for the truly crunchy/hippie among you, a pounds’ worth of leg and armpit hair. And I try to say lose body fat rather than lose weight, because you can lose water, muscle, bone, etc., and when the vast majority of us talk about “weight loss,” what we really mean—and what we really want—is fat loss.

The reason why I’m such a stickler for saying things a certain way is because saying them more precisely/accurately helps us frame discussions in a certain light. And the reason why I’m explaining to you why I’m such a stickler is because we are going to frame today’s discussion in a certain light. One that I don’t think gets anywhere near enough attention in the nutrition and health world (except from me). As far as I can tell, I am one of the only people writing about this particular thing in this particular way. (If I’m wrong, tell me in the comments and share links to relevant stuff you find.)

What the heck am I talking about? What is the point that’s taking me so much prep work and blathering to get to?

Calories in, calories out.

Let’s leave the calories in part for another day. (Or, you can read this to see that I do, in fact, acknowledge that there is such a thing as too many calories, even on a low-carb, high-fat diet. Indeed, you can accumulate excess adipose on a ketogenic diet. Why? Because ketosis does not guarantee fat loss.) Today, we’ll focus on calories out.

Why? Well, we control calories in. We have total conscious control over how much food and which foods we eat. We might feel out of control as we dig for the last spoonful of the pint of ice cream we swore we were only going to have one serving of when we sat down with it on the couch, but ultimately, we are in control. No one has actually tied us up and force fed us ice cream. We might have food addictions, or “trigger foods,” and wild fluctuations up and down on the blood sugar rollercoaster might have us hoovering up donuts and banana bread, so we feel like we don’t have control over ourselves, but the ugly truth is, we do. In the end, we put the food in our mouths. I could write a whole bunch of blog posts about the effects of various hormones and signaling molecules on appetite regulation, satiety, and fuel partitioning, and how all that may affect the amounts and types of food we crave, but even in the face of all that, when it feels like we’re at the mercy of those chemical signals, we are still the ones holding the fork, the spoon, the shovel, or the handful, and even when it feels like we don’t have control, we do exert autonomy over what and how much we put in our pieholes mouths.

Not so with calories out!

When the CICO people scream that the path to fat loss—and the only path to fat loss—is burning more calories than we take in, they talk about exactly that: “burning” calories. In posts too numerous for me to list here, rather than saying “burn calories,” I have made a point to say “expend energy.” But even this doesn’t really hammer home the point I want to make today, because the word “expend” is a bit problematic.

Where to start? Oy…it’s such a big topic.

The phrases “burn calories” and “expend energy” both imply that we accomplish this—the utilization of food energy—through deliberate effort. For example, running, biking, swimming, tennis, weightlifting, etc. And, certainly, those activities do burn calories utilize energy. However, the amount of calories we burn energy we utilize during that type of physical activity is miniscule compared to the amount of energy we utilize during the entire rest of our day, week, and life.

I don’t believe fat loss does come down to CICO and nothing but CICO. But for the sake of argument here, let’s say it does. Let’s say that if you want to lose body fat, the only way to do it is to consume less energy than you expend utilize. You have to eat less and move more, OR, eat less, or possibly even the same amount, and get your body—somehow—to burn more calories utilize more energy even when you’re not moving.

As I’ve written before: “Which do we think is more important: the calories we might “burn” energy we might utilize during one measly hour at the gym every day, or how our bodies are using fuel the other 23 hours of the day? Even if we were to work out for three hours a day (and if you have time for that, my condolences on your unemployment), which would be more important: the calories we burn energy we utilize during those three hours, or what our bodies are doing metabolically and biochemically the other 21 hours of the day?”

This is such a small part of “calories out” and 
total cellular energy utilization, it’s not even funny.

See, every single thing our bodies do requires energy. Yes, intense exercise uses fuel, but so does sitting upright, and breathing, blinking, digesting food, the heart beating, the hand holding a pencil to write something—every single process that goes on inside us, whether we’re aware of it or not. Heck, even the teeny, tiny sodium-potassium pumps in our cell membranes use energy (ATP).

Other things that use energy are things that fall into the category called NEAT – “non-exercise activity thermogenesis.” This is the fancy way to classify physical movement that is not what we consider “exercise,” but which, on a cellular level, generates heat and/or uses energy. From the study in the link: “Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. It ranges from the energy expended walking to work, typing, performing yard work, undertaking agricultural tasks and fidgeting.”

Do not—repeat, do not—insult my intelligence by suggesting that I can drum my fingers or tap my foot to the point of losing ten pounds of fat. I actually hate fidgeting. When I am seated next to a fidgeter, I tend to want to murder them without prejudice. (Also, I guess the author of this paper has never had a wild romp in the sack, or (s)he might’ve mentioned S-E-X as a pretty great form of NEAT, but hey, it’s not for me to judge. Also, I only had access to the abstract; perhaps a little "afternoon delight" is mentioned in the full text.)

Since NEAT encompasses things like walking (not powerwalking, but just the everyday walking we do in the course of our lives), yardwork, laundry, cooking, etc., I acknowledge that, indeed, NEAT is an important factor in a person’s overall energy expenditure. But let’s focus more on the other stuff—the stuff that’s part of the resting metabolic rate (RMR). That is, the amount of energy we utilize while doing JACK SQUAT. (Which is not to be confused with a front squat or a back squat.) The resting metabolic rate includes the biochemical reactions and cellular processes that go on in our bodies all the time, awake or asleep, moving or lying down, over which we have no conscious control. It is the amount of calories you burn energy your body uses just to keep you alive. And the RMR—the sum total of the energy utilized by all those little processes that are going on inside us 24/7—is, for most adults, far higher than the amount of energy they could force their bodies to utilize through deliberate exercise.

This is the key thing here, folks: the CICO people wrongly assume that we have conscious control over all “calories out,” or energy utilized.

We can control some of the calories we burn energy we utilize, of course, but not the vast majority. This is the point that gets me riled up every time I read about “calories in, calories out.” Every damn time. Because no one seems to get this. No one. (Except me.) I feel like a lone voice in a huge expanse of wilderness: If a nutritionist rants in the woods, and no one’s around to hear it, is she still ranting?

Let’s talk about what we can control, and then get to what we can’t control.

We can control most of the NEAT—gardening, manual labor, walking to do errands instead of driving, carrying grocery bags instead of using a cart, etc. This is part of the push behind the standing desks and just being more active throughout the day in general. It’s not necessarily “exercise,” but it’s better than sitting on our rear ends all day, every day. It’s a way to incorporate just a little more physical activity into our lives. We can also, of course, control the “exercise” we deliberately make time for: sprinting, biking, lifting, hockey (LET’S GO PENS!), etc. The fortunate among us who happen to have hours upon hours of free time every week can do insane amount of exercise. We can do so much exercise, in fact, that we do make a huge dent in “calories out.” If we do enough exercise, we can get to a point where we are burning more calories using even more energy than is required by our bodies to maintain the RMR.

HOWEVER:  When people do this much exercise, there is a COMPENSATION. I’ve written elsewhere that it’s like dropping a bowling ball on waterbed. I apologize for using this analogy over and over, but I like it a lot. There is a ripple effect. In the human body, there’s almost nothing you can do without it being adjusted for somewhere else. In science-speak, this is homeostasis. Status quo. The body hates perturbations up or down, fast or slow, hot or cold, alkaline or acidic, etc. There are redundant pathways and overlapping processes like crazy, just to ensure that the body maintains its homeostasis. It doesn’t like being moved too far in any direction from what it considers “normal,” and it will do whatever it can to bring itself back to normal if it finds itself being pushed to a place it doesn’t want to go, be it with weight, temperature, pH, heart rate, or something else. (This is part of why many people find it so damn hard to keep weight off if they’ve lost a large amount of fat after a long time of being overweight or obese, as I wrote about here.)

One of those “something elses” the body will adjust for in order to maintain homeostasis, is the amount of physical activity someone engages in. Workout intensely, frequently, and without adequate rest and recovery, and your body will tell you who’s boss. It will make adjustments somewhere else. Maybe you’ll start getting sick more often, as high exercise loads may depress the immune system. Maybe you’ll just plain feel fatigued because something, somewhere else in your body, is slowing down in order to let you keep putting your balls to the wall hitting things so hard in your athletic endeavors.

My point: even if you do exercise your way to burning thousands upon thousands of calories—that is, utilizing tons and tons of energy—something, somewhere else, will compensate so that you don’t literally run yourself into the ground/grave.

Getting more and more “calories out” via deliberate physical activity—particularly when combined with reducing caloric intake (that is, eating less and moving more)—only means that, eventually—maybe not right away, but eventually—the body will compensate elsewhere such that the end result will be a reduction in “calories out” through other means. Think of all the [usually] women out there with “adrenal fatigue.” It doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s usually women who are exercising too much relative to the amount of sleep they get, recovery time they allow, and FOOD they eating. The body compensates for the insane amount of inadequately fueled exercise by slowing the whole body down. They get tired. They get sick. They get cold. They get depressed. AND THEY GAIN BODY FAT.

I have personal experience with this. I wouldn’t say I had landed myself quite in “adrenal exhaustion,” but stay with me here: Many, many moons ago, my (lack of) employment was such that I was able to exercise for four hours a day. I went to the gym for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. Admittedly, it was mostly “chronic cardio” with just a little bit of lifting (girlie lifting, since this was a long time ago, back before I had finally breeched what I had until then considered the scary “guy area” of the gym, where the free weights and squat racks were). So yeah. Four hours of “moving more” per day. And it worked. For a while. Until it stopped working. I was losing fat, until I started gaining fat. Some of you out there may even have experience with this, yourselves. I started feeling tired. I reached a point where going to the gym was a chore. It wasn’t fun anymore; I had to force myself to go. And I had stopped making progress in strength and speed. If anything, I was regressing. In addition to accumulating adipose, I was getting weaker. Why? BECAUSE MY BODY WOULD ONLY LET ME KEEP UP THAT CRAZY B*LL$H!T FOR SO LONG BEFORE IT MADE AN ADJUSTMENT. I can’t say what, exactly, happened, because this was long before any of my nutrition/health education, and I didn't know to have anything tested. With hindsight, though, I can assume that hormonal and other biochemical feedback was telling my body that it had to do something, or we were going to be in serious trouble. Since I wasn’t going to slow down voluntarily, my body made me slow down by making me tired, depressed, and weak.

(To clarify something before we move on: I don’t think that a lot of exercise, per se, causes these issues. I think it’s a lot of exercise in the absence of adequate recovery and nutritional repletion. Because that’s exactly what I was doing at that time: not enough rest, not enough calories, and, to be completely honest, probably not enough carbs. Remember: compensation in order to maintain homeostasis. If you’re resting/recovering enough and fueling yourself adequately, then your body doesn’t need to adjust.)

Okay. Let’s move on to stuff we can’t control:

The vast majority of “calories out,” or energy we utilize, is NOT within our conscious control.

You’ve all heard of the hypothalamus, right? If not, the extremely simplified explanation is that the hypothalamus is a region of the brain, and it’s kind of like the body’s thermostat. You may have heard that the thyroid gland is the “master regulator” of the metabolism. It’s true that the thyroid plays a big role in resting metabolic rate, but the kicker is, the thyroid doesn’t do anything without the hypothalamus telling it to. The hypothalamus secretes thyrotropin releasing hormone (TRH), which tells the pituitary gland (also in the brain) to release thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), and TSH tells the thyroid to secrete thyroxine (T4) and tri-iodothyronine (T3). So the thyroid gland is a key player, but, by itself, it doesn’t do a whole lot unless it gets the right signals from the pituitary, which gets signals from the hypothalamus.

SO: Why are some people’s “thermostat” set higher than others’? Why are some people’s resting metabolic rates seemingly off the charts, while others’ are lagging behind? Why are some people—naturally, through no deliberate doing—hares, while others are tortoises?

That is, why do some people’s bodies burn so many calories/utilize so much more energy than other people’s, regardless of the amount of physical activity they engage in? Seriously, we all know people who eat a lot and wouldn’t even consider lifting a barbell or sprinting down the street, yet they’re lean. And we all know people who don’t eat a whole lot, who are active, and are not lean. I have spent my entire life hating envious of people who eat far more than I do, and who exercise far less than I do, yet who carry far less body fat than I do. Punks. So please, do NOT tell me it’s all about calories in and calories out.

(OR: if you are going to insist that it’s all about calories in and calories out, please help me understand why MY BODY utilizes so many fewer calories than someone else’s does AT REST, and then, for the love of all that’s holy, HELP ME FIX IT!)

Why, WHY, are other people’s resting metabolic rates so much higher than mine? (And maybe yours!)

Is it the hypothalamus? Is it the pituitary? Is it the thyroid? Is it all three, and then some?

When it comes to making my body utilize the same amount of energy as someone whose RMR is naturally higher than mine, why should I have to exercise four hours a day every day just to “burn the same number of calories”/expend the same amount of energy that someone else’s body expends BY DEFAULT? AND, if I do force myself to engage in that much deliberate exercise, what about the compensation that WILL eventually occur? What about when whatever body fat I managed to lose comes back, and it brings friends, and it’s even harder to lose a second time, because now, my body has compensated by lowering a resting metabolic rate that was ALREADY lower than someone else’s to begin with? (Yo-yo dieting, anyone?)

This is what no-friggin’-body—as far as I can tell—is talking about.

Now you can understand why even the phrase “calories in, calories out,” is problematic for me. Calories out implies that we can control it—all of it. So if you are not getting enough “calories out,” it is a failure on your part. You are undisciplined, lazy, slow, and slothful. It’s not that your hypothalamus is on the fritz and your resting metabolic rate is in the toilet; it’s that you—you weak-willed, moral failure of a person—are just too lazy to spend 18 hours a day at the gym. These moralistic arguments that imply excess adiposity results from some kind of character flaw have GOT TO GO. It is probably the number one reason I wanted to be a nutritionist, after having learned about the science of low-carb. Because I learned that there is a much more effective way to reduce that excess adiposity than eating less and moving more. I don’t look at other human beings and, based on nothing but the size of their body, assume that I know anything about what they eat and how much they exercise. Because I can’t. You can’t. You cannot look at someone and know everything there is to know about why they are lean, not-so-lean, or super-extra-not-so-lean.

(Click here and here to read posts from long ago where I talked about the problems with “willpower and discipline” as they relate to attempting to reduce one’s adiposity.)

Y’know, the truth is, fat loss does come down to calories in and calories out. IT DOES. The question, in case it’s not clear yet through my angry writing, is why do some people’s bodies put so many more calories out -- that is, use so much more energy -- than others’, regardless of how much deliberate physical activity they engage in?

Rather than “calories in, calories out,” I would SO MUCH PREFER if we could switch to calling it “energy in, energy utilized.” This implies energy utilized in all contexts: walking to the bus stop, running a marathon, carrying heavy grocery bags, playing the saxophone, sleeping, watching TV, and doing absolutely nothing. (Also: gettin’ it on.) It includes all the things we don’t have control over. So it removes the “shaming” and stigma I grow increasingly disgusted by on social media.

Ooookay…back on message.

From the paper on NEAT: “Hypothalamic factors have been identified that specifically and directly increase NEAT in animals. By understanding how NEAT is regulated we may come to appreciate that spontaneous physical activity is not spontaneous at all but carefully programmed.” Really? What a friggin’ shock! If the hypothalamus is firing on all cylinders, animals want to expend more energy? If a person’s hypothalamus is working harder than mine, is that why they want to fidget, while I’m a fan of sitting still and being quiet? Is a very active hypothalamus the reason why some people are physically incapable of holding one of those clicky pens without clicking it constantly? Are there some people whose hormonal signaling is telling them to be in constant motion, even if it’s just drumming their fingers or jingling the change in their pocket?

It seems like these people aren’t utilizing more energy because they’re moving more; they’re moving more because their bodies are making energy like crazy. They’re not using lots of ATP because they’re moving more; they’re moving more because they’re generating more ATP (without even trying!) and therefore have lots of energy to expend—to the point that they are literally unable to sit still for five minutes. For those of you familiar with Gary Taubes, this is very Taubes-ian. [He’s been taking a lot of flak lately in the nutrition world, but I remain a huge fan.] To paraphrase him, “People don’t burn more calories because they move more; they’re moving more because they’re burning more calories.” That is, they are driven to move more because their bodies are “burning” through a lot of energy.

Now, if we were talking about a machine, this would actually be fairly inefficient, right? In a mechanical system, the less energy required to get something done (or to “do work” in the physics sense), the more efficient the machine or system is. So a body that is using lots of energy is sort of inefficient, while one that conserves energy, or gets the same amount of work done using less energy is more efficient. (If Mr. Peterson, the physics teacher, still reads my blog, please chime in in the comments if I’m wrong. ;-) ) Of course, we are not machines; we are human beings. And I guess we could say we’re not getting the same work done. If we were, then the slow metabolism people among us would have faster metabolisms and we would be doing the same amount of work. (At the cellular level…the stuff we can’t control.) Sorry; I know that’s kind of a weird tangent. I just wanted to talk about the concept of “energy efficiency” for a sec in order to make us slow metabolism folks feel better. In a way, our bodies are more efficient than the people who run hot all the time. We’re staying alive while using less energy. So there!

The secret, it seems to me, is how to get the body to use more energy without triggering the aforementioned physiologic/hormonal compensations. That, I think, might be the holy grail of lasting fat loss without having to decrease caloric intake year after year, until you reach a point where things have gotten so off track that you’re eating about 300 calories a day and not losing fat. The secret is how to crank up that thermostat so that your RMR is higher regardless of whether you’re sitting on the couch or training for a triathlon. We shouldn’t have to devote ungodly amounts of time to deliberate exercise in order to achieve the same amount of leanness others enjoy through no deliberate action on their part whatsoever.

To use the physics/machine angle again, what we would want to somehow achieve is getting the machine to be less efficient -- that is, use more energy or burn through more fuel -- without incurring any of the negative consequences we might expect in a machine, such as overheating, wearing out, or flat-out breaking down.

Good luck.

HOWEVER: Based on the lasting, long-term fat loss many low-carbers and Paleo eaters (and adherents to other diets) out there have achieved—without starving themselves, and without amounts of exercise that border on the neurotic—obviously, this can be done. To be honest with you, I’m not sure I understand how it happens, but we can’t deny that it does happen. Maybe some of the metabolic changes that occur on these plans actually affect the hypothalamus and pituitary. Maybe, even in the absence of adding a great deal of new muscle mass, the resting metabolic rate somehow increases. That’s really the only way I can see this working, especially for the people who lose a lot of body fat and maintain that loss over the long term while eating normal amounts of food and not doing a bunch of strength training.

…Or maybe they just fidget a lot.

P.S. For more sass and snark about the morass that is “calories,” the podcast Robb Wolf recently did with Dr. Jason Fung is highly recommended. Dr. Fung has a way of using some pretty hilarious analogies to point out how utterly ridiculous this all is.

Disclaimer: Amy Berger, MS, CNS, NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition and is not to be used as a substitute for the care and guidance of a physician. Links in this post and all others may direct you to, where I will receive a small amount of the purchase price of any items you buy through my affiliate links.


  1. You're not a lone voice in a huge expanse of wilderness. I've written about this a bunch of times in the last year. But I only have dozens of readers, and you did a better job anyway:

    1. Whoa...are you "Mike D" from Paleo Hacks? I recognize your avatar, I think. I used to post there *years* ago, and I remember you regularly posting very sound and intelligent stuff. (Which was not easy to do there! Lots of great people there, but a lot of crazies, too.) I'll read your posts when I get a chance. Thanks for sharing!

    2. Yes that's me. I'm glad you remember my attempt at being intelligent. I left paleo hacks once the crazies got out of hand (though, with that metric I should just leave the internet). I hope you enjoy my rants - we need more internet ranting.

    3. Holy moly...I just read your post from 2/2106 (eat less, move more doesn't work.) LOVE the graphic showing additive vs. constrained. It showed in one fell swoop what it took me a zillion words to say. The reduction in "calories out" through some *other* means in the face of increased deliberate physical activity. (And your post did, too -- much more succinctly than I did.) I really need to learn to let my "internal editor" cut out the extraneous stuff in my writing. But I also kinda like the conversational tone I have when I ramble. ;-)

      (As for where I am, I'm in Northern VA, right near DC. But I do think I'll probably go to AHS this year!)

  2. Great post.
    Regarding calories in, you said: "we do exert autonomy over what and how much we put in our pieholes mouths."
    Obesity "experts" keep claiming that the excess that leads to the well known devolution to the typical modern fat-fortified body is just above 7 kcal per day. Now, at that level we don't really have any influence how much is put in our mouths. Not to mention that what's going in does not necessarily equal what gets utilized (absorbed and not excreted). Another interesting aspect is true energy content of foods. There is a huge variation between all natural, whole foods. What's more, authorities let food manufacturers have a 15 % room on either side of the package highlighted calorie content. Guess what, they use that room, and control checks in a calorimeter consistently show 10-15 % higher energy content than what's shown on labels. These uncertainties alone diminish all meaningful control over caloric intake. The CO part of CICO comes only after that...

    1. Oh, yes, I know. I was going to write a post about this, in fact, but it's gotten pushed way, way, to the back burner. We absolutely cannot go by the calorie counts on food labels, and we have almost no idea of the "calories" on food that *isn't* labeled -- like if you buy a steak or pork chop from a local farm and it's just in vacuum-sealed plastic. Who the heck knows *exactly* how much of that is protein, fat, or water? I could go on and on. And does that same cut of steak have exactly the same number of calories if it's from a steer that was slaughtered in August (eating lots of summer grass) versus one that was slaughtered in February? (Eating more hay & silage.) The mind boggles. It's basically impossible to count calories from real food *and* processed foods alike.

      BUT: that doesn't mean "energy in, energy utilized" doesn't apply. It only means that we have almost no hope of actually *counting* energy in. So in terms of doing the math and trying to calculate it all, it CAN'T really be done. But that doesn't negate the premise.

  3. You know you couldn't have been getting too few carbs really though, right?

    1. Not sure if this is sarcasm or not (especially since you posted anonymously), but I am extremely open-minded about all this. I might have felt loads better with just a bit more CHO in my diet, or I might have done equally fine with more total calories, if they came from fat and protein. Bottom line: I was undereating for the amount of exercise I was doing, regardless of where the food energy was coming from.

  4. Amy, have you heard of Ray Cronise? He's focused a lot on metabolism and using cold exposure to rev up the RMR, etc. As well as life extension. That's an insufficient description, but generally. II only recently heard him on Dr. Rhonda Patrick's podcast. Interesting, though I'm not sure I agree with his nutrition views.

    1. I've heard of him, yes, but haven't dug into his work yet. I'm less concerned with life extension than life ENJOYMENT. ;-)

  5. My personal opinion is that the whole "calories in, calories out" mantra is just a ploy to put the focus on individual people rather than misguided governments and greedy corporations; in other words, "blaming the individual" is most likely a marketing strategy to divert the attention away from the real perpetrators! It's a very lucrative business for the Sugar Industry, the Processed Food Companies, the Pharmaceutical Industry, the Dieting Industry, you name it; they would have a lot to lose if we knew the truth. I think they are trying to brainwash us with these pervasive messages, and it's all about money and profits! (That's MY rant; don't get me started.....) In any case, there is no science to support the "calories in, calories out" idea, as if our bodies were just machines running on simplistic....

    By the way, I'm also a big fan of Gary Taubes. I can't wait for his new book to come out. Also, if you want to know of someone else who likes to debunk the "calories in, calories out" myth, have you heard of Zoe Harcombe? She's an English nutritionist. She wrote a book called "The Obesity Epidemic". Her writing is not only logical, but also quite humorous. She has a blog too, if you haven't checked it out already.

    1. Yes, I LOVE Zoe! Been reading her stuff for a long time. :)
      And I totally agree with you about blaming the individual. (I don't want to use the word "victim.") That's why I'm so adamant about showing people the madness of all this -- because I am beyond angered by the moralism and holier-than-thou shaming I see going on toward overweight people. When I was training for my first marathon, I wasn't eating a ton of food, but I was doing plenty of running, plenty of walking, and I was chubby. So I know firsthand how frustrating it is to be heavy and have people assume you're lazy or undisciplined or weak-willed, when you actually eat less and move far more than they do. Grrr...

    2. Hey Lisa totally agree with you about the blame game, however this is where the blame should really be pointed at.

    3. If you like Zoe, you may also like the following:

      She writes with a lot of humor.

    4. HECK YES! I've read Adele Hite's work for years. SHe's fantastic, and she has me beat by a mile in sass & snark. :D

  6. "afternoon delight" is not mentioned in the full text which you can get free with SciHub.
    The author is quite prolific with about 10 reviews from NEAT.
    I am always surprised (read jealous) about people who can spin the words about the same topic and publish practically the same review in 10 different journals.

    1. Yes. I've noticed the same thing: *very* similar papers on the same topics, by the same author(s), published a year or two apart in different journals, but basically not saying anything new. "Publish or perish," as they say, even if that means publishing the same thing over and over again, with a couple of words here and there switched around. Honestly, "peer-reviewed" medical literature is a joke.

    2. I have a PhD and am painfully aware of this. Grit (Carol Dweck) was lacking from my work so I could not reach the top and was one of those writing garbage in, garbage out.

  7. "Part of this comes from me being an English major and language nerd".

    Great article, but I thought you'd enjoy the irony where that sentence itself has a grammatical error. The gerund requires you say "my being", not "me being" (as it's effectively the "being" of you, just as as the "doughnut of you" would be "my doughnut" and not "me doughnut" :-)

    Also, you write "amount of calories" when, of course, you mean "number of calories".

    I say this as one linguapedant fan to another, and not just to add to the Snark Mountain :-)

    1. Yes, I have trouble with the details sometimes, myself. ;-) I'm definitely not perfect, but there's far worse out there in the blogging world!

  8. I love your blog (and rants!). So maybe we (as in the people that find this stuff interesting) should try changing the narrative and the methods that haven't worked?

    If eating less and moving more isn't sustainable, maybe a well formulated resistance training program is something we should try. Maybe that means working with someone that knows how to design training programs (because lots of us (myself included) try to the "do it yourself" route which often only gets us so far).

    The body adapts to the resistance training program the way it adapted to the steady state cardio. The better coaches know how to design programs that fluctuate intensity and volume with a planned progression model, and couple that with a nutrition strategy that compliments the training program. I think a lot of us don't know what a progression model is, let alone knowing the optimal version of one for each of us.

    The elite coaches (who also employ coaches for themselves), know how to cycle through phases until the law of diminishing returns sets in. But by that point, they have accumulated enough experience to maintain themselves with relative ease. That's why I'm planning on finally biting the bullet and working with a coach (which us introverts tend to not feel comfortable with). I think a lot of us have a trepidation with the idea of paying someone to be our personal coach.

    The next question becomes who can we trust in this coaching process that isn't going to rip us off and give us bad advice? Again, I love your writing and keep it up.

    1. It's hard to find a good gym. I think I have a great gym, but it's really hard to distinguish myself from the noise and broscience out there. I will tell you something that most gym owners and personal trainers won't: you don't need any fancy programming. For regular-Joe-hoping-to-get/keep-in-shape, some simple strength work with a few sprints here and there are great. Even for general random athlete, you can get pretty far without fancy programs. If anyone tells you they have the magic program that will make you awesome, they're trying to sell you something.

      You can't just be random and do only fun stuff, and you do need to make sure you're progressing on your strength work, but that's much easier than any other internet trainer out there says it is. You can even follow along for our daily workouts free, our programming is strength-based for a regular person (that is, not trying to peak anyone for a competition) -

      The real benefit of going to a good gym is learning how to move correctly and do the lifts right - and that's usually what makes it so expensive because you need 1-1 / small group time with someone. In fact, as an introvert myself, I always find the small group class better because you don't have the forced 1-1 interaction with someone, you can fade into the background yet still get instruction on how to do things right.

    2. Where's your gym, Mike? Sounds like my kind of place. I work out regularly (including a mix of cardio & lifting), plus lots of walking outdoors, but I know I don't challenge myself as much as I should with lifting, and it's why I don't look a whole lot different from a few years ago. I'm getting stronger, because I can lift more, but I don't *look* a whole lot different. I would like someone to teach me correct form on some of the "real" lifts (DL, squat, etc). I don't do them, because I don't really know how, and they look like the kind of thing you could actually damage yourself pretty badly with if you do them incorrectly. (Maybe not with light weight, but once you start going heavier...) The "progression" part is what I tend to neglect until I notice that my lifts have become easy and I can do far more reps than I "should" be able to. I need to change things up more often and keep my muscles adapting & adjusting. I'm a creature of habit and tend to stick with my comfort zone, but that's been holding me back in *many* aspects of my life, not just working out. :P

    3. We're in beautiful Boulder, Colorado. We're just across the street from the University, so if you're coming out for AHS, be sure to stop by!

      Where are you? My weightlifting coach knows just about everyone, he could recommend a local gym for you to learn the basic lifts.

  9. Amy, this is excellent!! Thank you for writing this. I do have a question, though. For those people fortunate enough to utilize more energy, i.e., if their "hypothalamus is firing on all cylinders," causing them to want to move around more is the explanation for them being naturally leaner, then how would you explain people who eat all they want, are STILL lean, AND are inclined to be calm/still, or even sedentary?

    1. It all doesn't have to be movement. Thought experiment time: If you ate 2500 calories/day and didn't move, didn't store it, only burned it in cellular chemical reactions you'd radiate 121 watts - that is you'd feel as warm as a bright light bulb. Work you do in movement is so small, that you really can partition the energy you eat into storage (fat) or into heat (body temperature). If your metabolism ramps up so that you burn an extra hundred calories in a day rather than store them then all you need to do is radiate an extra 5 watts of heat. Some people just burn hotter than others - it's not all movement and fidgeting.

    2. Honestly, I think those are just the "lucky" ones. The people who can eat whatever they want, remain mostly sedentary, and be lean. They're "the people we love to hate." And yes, some of them will remain *healthy* throughout their lives, but many of them won't. Just because they don't accumulate a lot of body fat doesn't mean they're *healthy.* And it might not catch up to them until their 50s or 60s, but it does usually catch up. (Or really, I just tell myself that to make myself feel better!)
      Looks can be deceiving.

  10. Amy, of course the physics teacher still reads your blog! And regarding efficiency, you said it well: work done relative to energy expended. As one of those people who is fairly efficient (aka not effortlessly lean), I have always taken solace in the fact that when the zombie apocalypse comes, I won't have to hunt or gather as much food as those effortless lean folks, leaving me more time to train or rest for battle.

    I have always liked Dan John's bit about how when it comes to fat loss, we want INefficient exercise: if you get increasingly efficient at something like running, you don't get as much energy utilized per unit of time (a whole other way of looking at efficiency, but not the technical physics perspective--this one is more related to power).

    1. And he even left a comment! (Which is a rarity, I know.) Thanks! And yes - to get the same benefit from exercise, we need to change things up from time to time in order to keep throwing our bodies some curveballs so that we *don't* become too efficient. (Or so I've heard.)

  11. Great article, as usual. And have you seen this recent Vox article, which mentions many things we in the LCHF community already know but also a new concept I had never heard, which is that daily calorie burn may have an upper limit (point 8 in this article)? The article also mentions that the Hazda, though physically active all day, have about the same daily calorie burn as sedentary Americans. Interesting points here, though I agree with the main premise too that exercise is an incredibly powerful wellness tool, so we should all do some, to the extent we can, and ideally it's something we enjoy, which would also then add that crucial "Vitamin J" to our lives. Thanks for your blogging, Amy!

    1. I haven't read it yet, but I'll try to get to it soon.
      It's been said over and over AND OVER again, though: physical activity (in all its various forms, not just "working out") is great for overall wellness, mobility, strength, etc., but it's a piss-poor way to lose body fat.

  12. oops, did I include the link to the article? It's here:

  13. Amy, I recently attended a talk given by a zoo nutritionist for the Smithsonian. At one point, he talked about the bane of a zoo nutritionist's existence: orangutans. Apparently, they are infamous for being impossiblely difficult to keep at a healthy weight. You reduce their caloric intake, and their metabolism's compensate. You reduce it further, and they compensate further. Meanwhile, they continue to gain fat. It was only when they started giving them a caloric excess that they began to shed fat. The theory is that when they are eating a surplus, their bodies relax, saying, "oh, there's clearly plenty of food around if you can find enough to keep stuffing your face, I guess I don't need to keep all this fat around."

    Perhaps this is an avenue of thought worth exploring in human terms?

    P.S. Keep doing what you're doing; this may be my favorite health blog. Really great stuff.

    1. Thanks for reading! :) Yes -- veterinarians (the smart ones, anyway) know all about this. When you bring a sick cat or dog to the vet, the first thing they ask is, "What are you feeding it?" When has a medical doctor ever asked a human patient that question when they come in with a long list of complaints & ailments? :-/

  14. Hm. Re: RMR. I have a very high RMR, about 20% over predicted as measured. That may be partly because I lift heavy weights at least 3 times a week, and have a lot of muscle mass, but I think it's also genetic. However, I still have a tough time losing weight! Why? Well, because my appetite keeps up with my burn rate. So what if my RMR is 1750 instead of the 1500 it's "supposed" to be; I'm just 250 calories hungrier. It still takes discipline for me to lose fat. And I can gain weight just like anyone else if I'm not careful, especially during the winter months, when I'm particularly hungry and more sedentary.

    I think it's also important to note that having a higher than predicted RMR doesn't mean I'm naturally skinny. I hover in the mid-high range of "normal" BMI (though it's worth noting I'm leaner than average because of my lean mass). If I try to suppress my weight to low-normal or underweight, I've seen my RMR decrease quite a bit. I'm scientifically-minded, so I actually have gotten it tested several times; it's been fascinating to watch my body compensate for deviations from what seem to be its ideal levels of muscle and fat.

    Anyway. Love love love your impatience with the 'fidget away the calories' thing. I always hated that. So idiotic.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I can only roll my eyes if someone thinks I might be able to slink into a size 2 dress if only I would tap my foot or drum my fingers a bit more. It's downright insulting.

  15. I already knew CICO to be highly questionable. The concept going from CICO to CICU (calories Used) is a good nuance I picked up from your blog. Though even CI is a bit harsh. True, nobody puts a gun against my head forcing me to eat, yet feeling week in, week out, month in, month out, internally starved will make you (over?)eat. That's being human. Somehow thin people (with automatic free of charge satiation) expect fat people (difficult hormonal satiation) to use magical powers to subdue natural impulses forever. Unfair, mean, but day to day reality.