The Calorie Canard
“Canard” is French for “duck”. It’s use in English originated from the French expression “vendre un canard à moitié”, which means, “to sell half a duck” .
I’m here to tell you that we’ve all been sold half a duck.
Which is this; that we absolutely need to count calories in order to lose weight, and remain lean and healthy.
Counting calories allows us to facilitate weight loss. It’s the tried-and-true method to losing weight. And it definitely works. For weight loss.
But is that what you really want? Think about how incredibly non-specific that term is. Weight loss.
Hypothetically, let’s assume that you start counting calories and tracking your weight with the goal of losing some of that excess body fat. You’ve kept your calories under maintenance over the last two weeks and weigh-in day finally arrives. You jump on the scale and see the numbers are down from the previous weeks. You fist-pump the air, feeling a sense of satisfaction and pride. It’s even more satisfying considering that you felt like crap all week, avoided ALL temptation, and persevered nonetheless.
I’m sorry, but I’m about to burst your bubble.
Most people assume that when you induce a caloric deficit and subsequently lose weight, you are losing pure, unwanted, stubborn fat. On the surface, it makes sense. It seems logical enough. Only, that’s not how the body works. That’s not how biology works.
Bear with me.
I’m going to analyse the use of the calorie and scale in regards to body composition tracking, referencing a selection of Podcast interviews, scientific papers and material from clinicians, authors, and experts in the health and performance nutrition space. The purpose of this article is to illuminate the misappropriate nature in which we use these two tools, and hopefully tempt you into walking a different, more favourable path.
A very brief history of the calorie
The calorie has an interesting past. The word was coined in France somewhere between 1787-1824, and has since been used as a measure of a unit of heat. More specifically, a calorie is the quantity of heat necessary to raise 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius .
In 1894, Mr Wilbur Atwater published a paper entitled “Foods: Nutritive Value and Cost”, aimed at enabling people to make more nutritious food choices based on their economic situation [3,4].
Atwater’s intention was to help people - who were poor - to make the best, most nutritious food choices that they could afford. This moment in history marks the beginning of food and nutrition policy in the United States .
Today, over 100 years later, the caloric value of foods is still currently being measured with the Atwater factors . These factors approximate the available energy in macronutrients; fat has 9 calories per gram, with protein and carbohydrates coming in at 4 calories per gram, respectively .
In 1947, the Food and Agriculture organisation of the United Nations (UN) assembled a committee, and among other things, examined the use of the Atwater factors in relation to individual diet and energy intakes. The committee concluded the following; “this procedure is inaccurate for individual foods, and has only limited application to diets” .
Let that sink in for a minute. Our daily energy intake is still based on a wonky old system that was established at a time when vitamins had not yet been discovered . And if that isn’t enough, almost 70 years ago, the UN deemed the application of the method inaccurate.
Despite this, most of the population continue to base their entire diet around extremely old research that was never intended for use in the way in which we use it now .
The word on thermodynamics from a physicist
The human body is subject to the same laws of thermodynamics as is any engine that requires an energy source to perform work . This is the reason that most people cite in staunch defence of the calorie model, explaining that you can’t interfere with a basic energy-in vs. energy-out equation. Actually, if you ask a physicist about thermodynamics in relation to the human body, they will tell you that this is incomplete.
The reason that this argument falls apart is because it ignores efficiency. Efficiency in the body depends on many variables; type of macronutrients, energetic needs, hormones, lean mass, even the time of day [8,9,10].
And that’s just to name a few.
John Kiefer, physicist, sums up the argument nicely; “the underlying logic behind a calorie is a calorie violates the most basic laws of the universe” .
That will do me.
Hand-in-hand with the calorie, goes the dreaded scale.
Using the scale to track your weight is commonplace, but does that make it an appropriate tool?
Well, for starters, if you hop on the scale and do happen to see that you have lost weight, we cannot say if that loss in weight has made you a healthier person .
In fact, a review of two independent studies concluded, "among individuals that are not severely obese - weight loss is associated with increased mortality rate and fat loss with decreased mortality rate” .
That means that when we look at weight loss at large, it appears to be negatively correlated with optimal health. When we look at pure fat loss on the other hand, it appears to be positively correlated with optimal health.
As it turns out, dropping body fat should not be attempted for vanity’s sake - and I’ve been just as guilty of this as the next person. Getting shredded is apparently just a nice side effect of improving your health. I’ll take it.
Micros and macros
Why is there a decrease in my health when I lose weight? What’s the difference between weight loss and fat loss, anyway?
Using the calorie and the scale is an attempt at tracking from the macro level. By macro, I mean that this only provides us with a bird’s-eye view. It lacks depth and complexity in a situation that is nothing if not deeply complex. After all, the human body is known to be one of the most complex organisms. Considering our internal set-up as akin to a vacuum-sealed engine just doesn’t sound reasonable to me. Engines don’t have hormones. Engines can’t decrease their stress levels by meditating. Engines don’t… you get the idea.
Considering calories all equal is akin to reading a book by its cover.
Weight loss is no different. It doesn’t allow us to differentiate between potential fat loss, muscle loss, bone mineral density loss, or the excretion of bacteria from your gut.
Muscle loss is a major issue. In a state of calorie deprivation, muscle loss may represent more than half of any short-term weight loss . Among other things, this leads to a decrease in your metabolism, making it harder for you to lose body fat over the long term [14,15]. That doesn’t sound optimal. Indeed, we call this Sarcopenia in the elderly, but when it’s done intentionally as part of a weight loss strategy, it’s somehow considered part of the game. The same goes for bone mineral density loss, aka Osteoporosis.
To be fair, most people don’t even realise all this. Other gym goers just accept this as a necessary evil. Bulk, and then cut they say, as if there was no other way.
In actual fact, they are both unnecessary, detrimental detours on the path towards your goal.
Furthermore, the scale provides exactly zero insight on current bodily hydration levels and accessory water retention from compounds that cause dramatic fluctuations in your overall weight. Everyday items like carbohydrates and sodium, which often come as a combo deal, are prime examples.
Let’s look at carbohydrates first. Carbohydrates - excluding the fibrous type - are broken down into glycogen in the body. Glycogen is stored in the liver, skeletal muscle tissue, and/or fat cells in a hydrated form (three to four parts water for each part glycogen) .
But what does that have to do with weighing myself on a scale?
Well, basically, for every gram of usable carbohydrate (glycogen) you consume, the body will store around three grams of water. So if you have a carb-laden feast one evening, you can absolutely count on waking up heavier, by default. And you may not necessarily have gained body fat.
Sodium is also well known to cause water retention. Fighters use water and sodium intake manipulation during the final stages of their weight-cutting regimen. Bodybuilders, fitness models, and figure competitors also participate in these practices, albeit for different reasons. Practically-speaking, this means that if you eat something that contains sodium, your body will, again, be forced to increase it’s water retention temporarily. You didn’t get fatter; you are simply heavier.
It is also well recognised that women experience fluctuations in water retention over the course of their monthly cycle, and that these fluctuations are not consistent across the population .
This evidence points to the insignificance of the scale, especially for females. It doesn’t tell us anything contextual at all. Your weight is always in flux, so just think of it as a snapshot in time, and only use the scale as a backup tool.
Put the scale away and buy yourself a measuring tape.
The path forward
The calorie counting method along with the scale, are simultaneously the most widely used and inferior metrics for tracking body composition and health goals. It’s 2016, we have now discovered vitamins, and to be frank; we have better tools.
Let’s say that your goal is indeed to become lean and healthy. In that case, given what we now know about calorie counting and weight tracking with the scale, you should find another method.
And it’s even simpler than you think.
Actually, your body wants to be lean and healthy. That, it will happily do for free, even without exercise… providing you get out of the way and feed it the right things, that is.
The key is to concentrate on what the calories consist of, not the total amount of them.
Copyright © 2016 by Benjamin Dewar
All rights reserved
Online Etymology Dictionary. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=canard
Hargrove, J. L. (2006). History of the calorie in nutrition. The Journal of nutrition, 136(12), 2957-2961.
Drewnowski, A. (2010). The Nutrient Rich Foods Index helps to identify healthy, affordable foods. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 91(4), 1095S-1101S.
Kiefer, J., and Patel, R. (2014, February 13). BIOFM - Episode 30 – Research Review 4: Calories in, Calories out [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from http://body.io/body-io-fm-30-research-review-4/
United States Department of Agriculture. (2016). Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). Retrieved from https://www.ars.usda.gov/northeast-area/beltsville-md/beltsville-human-nutrition-research-center/nutrient-data-laboratory/docs/frequently-asked-questions-faqs/#4-9-4
Merrill, A.L. and Watt, B.K. 1973. Energy Value of Foods...Basis and Derivation. Agriculture Handbook No. 74. U.S. Government Printing Office. Washington, DC. 105p.
United Nations. (1947). Energy-yielding components of food and computation of calorie values. Washington, U.S.A. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2027/coo.31924003549650
Kiefer, J. (2011). Carb Back-Loading: Manual for Total Body Fat Control. Retrieved from http://carbbackloading.com
Fine, E. J., and Feinman, R. D. (2004). Thermodynamics of weight loss diets. Nutrition & metabolism, 1(1), 1.
Kiefer, J., and Patel, R. (2014, February 13). BIOFM - Episode 6 – Richard Feinman “Low fat diets are dead” [Audio Podcast]. Retreived from http://body.io/podcast-dr-richard-feinman/
Kiefer, J., and Patel, R. (2014, January 21). BIOFM - Episode 4 - Jonathan Bailor and the Calorie Myth [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from http://body.io/podcast-with-jonathan-bailor/
Allison, D. B., Zannolli, R., Faith, M. S., Heo, M., Pietrobelli, A., Vanltallie, T. B., ... & Heymsfield, S. B. (1999). Weight loss increases and fat loss decreases all-cause mortality rate: results from two independent cohort studies. International journal of obesity, 23(6), 603-611.
Kiefer, J. (2005). The Carb Nite Solution. Retrieved from http://carbnite.com
Greenfield, B. (2013). Diet Myth News Flash: Eating Less Does Not Cause Fat Loss. Retrieved from https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/2013/12/diet-myth-news-flash-eating-less-cause-fat-loss/
Stevenson, S. (Presenter), and Harrell, J. (Producer). (2013, July 19). The Model Health Show 010 - Jonathan Bailor - The Calorie Myth [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from http://theshawnstevensonmodel.com/the-calorie-myth/
Kreitzman, S. N., Coxon, A. Y., & Szaz, K. F. (1992). Glycogen storage: illusions of easy weight loss, excessive weight regain, and distortions in estimates of body composition. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 56(1), 292S-293S.
White, C. P., Hitchcock, C. L., Vigna, Y. M., and Prior, J. C. (2011). Fluid Retention over the Menstrual Cycle: 1-Year Data from the Prospective Ovulation Cohort. Obstetrics and Gynecology International, 2011, 138451. http://doi.org/10.1155/2011/138451