calories

“In my diet plan it says I can eat as much as I want.  How does that work?”

“I’m confused: should I count calories or not?”

“My doctor says that Gary Taubes is wrong: you can’t contradict physics.  I’m fat because I eat too much and don’t exercise enough”

We hear this all the time, and questions like this appear in Facebook groups and diet forums all the time.  Frequently with people saying something like “excuse me for being stupid“.

We will put that last one to bed straight away.  You are not stupid!

Let’s deal with “eat as much as you want“.  First, how much do you want?

Your body has sophisticated control mechanisms to tell you:

  1. You’re hungry: you need fuel (food)
  2. You are full: you’ve had enough

Click this picture: you may get a surprise!

However, unfortunately you have two completely different mechanisms in this control system:

  1. Biochemistry
  2. Psychology and emotions

Frequently our psychology and emotions around food get messed up.  It starts with parental messages to eat up all your dinner or children will starve in Africa and is then manipulated by the HUGE sums of money that advertisers spend to program our brains to make us eat.

Our biochemistry also gets messed up.  When I was a lad growing up in England, Chinese restaurants were  novelty.  There was a piece of “received wisdom” that said that you would feel hungry again half an hour after eating Chinese food. Cecil Adams in “The Straight Dope” even wrote an article about it. (Click those links: they are more fun than this blog post is likely to be!)

The point is that some food makes you feel full up, some food leaves you hungry and there is some food that actually makes you hungry (mostly manufactured food, manufactured by firms with no interest in you being healthy, just in you buying more of their products.

So, leaving on one side the psychology and emotions for a moment, if you STOP eating the stuff that doesn’t make you feel food, and replace it by eating the stuff that does make you feel full, then we can say “eat as much as you like”, reckoning that you will get to feel full quite quickly, that that will be “as much as you like” and you’ll eat less, and lose weight.

But notice what I said there: “you will eat less”.  Let’s move on.

(Oh, by the way, highly processed carbs and sugars are the things liable to make you want to eat more, and fatty and spicy food are likely to make you want to eat less.  ”Diet” versions don’t help.  To understand just a little of what’s going on here, first glance at “Is it true that drinking diet sodas like Diet Coke make you crave carbohydrates?” Ask.com.  You will notice that there is one “yes” vote and one “no” vote, the “no” coming from Snopes, which I usually trust.  But then just glance through this Mercola article: “Aspartame — History of Fraud and Deception“.  It’s down the bottom where he says:

Aspartame is the only biochemical warfare product on grocery shelves

that makes me think I need a lot more research before I’ll give it a try!).

Of course, we haven’t dealt with the psychology yet.

You have probably heard this old joke: “I’m on a seafood diet. I see food and I eat it!

There is even a Facebook page with that name, for food jokes :

Q: Why do bakers work so hard?
A: Because they need the dough.

But maybe the “see food” thing isn’t a joke.  Maybe it’s the truth.  Spend a couple of minutes watching this experiment carried out by stage hypnotist Paul McKenna:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbDFnI_fMd4

You might like to try it for yourself.

And how would it be if someone fed you, rather than you feeding yourself?  My guess is that each mouthful will be smaller and that your “eating speed” will be slower.

I think that we have learned to bypass or over-ride our “satiety” signals, and if we could fix that problem, then we would feel full sooner, and we would eat less.

But notice what I said there: “we would eat less”.

Losing weight is all about eating less.  It’s about doing something that will mean that we are happy to stop eating when we are full.  It is not about forcing ourselves to eat less.  That never, ever works.  And if you think it does, just look around you.  All over the western world for at least the last half century, doctors, nutritionists and diet pundits have been telling overweight people to, “eat less, exercise more”.

Does it look like this advice is working?  I don’t think so.

And then along comes Gary Taubes with his two books, [simpleazon-link asin="1400033462" locale="us"]Good Calories, Bad Calories[/simpleazon-link] ([simpleazon-link asin="0091924286" locale="uk"]The Diet Delusion[/simpleazon-link] in the UK) and [simpleazon-link asin="0307474259" locale="us"]Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It[/simpleazon-link].  The book (WWGF) changed my life.  Here’s why.

There is a subtle subtext behind “If you eat less and exercise more you will lose weight” which says “you are fat because you are greedy and lazy“.  Gee, thanks doc.

When Gary says that this isn’t the way to go with this all the conventional pundits cry “foul”.  They say it’s all a question of physics.  If you take in more energy than you put out, that excess energy has to go somewhere and it will be stored as fat.  Therefore, take in less energy and/or put out more energy, or both.  It’s all physics and Gary Taubes should be burned at the stake (steak?) for saying otherwise.

But Gary does NOT go against the laws of physics.  Read the above paragraph again, but stop at the word “Therefore”.  There should be a whole book, or maybe a whole library, between “stored as fat.” and “Therefore …”

Here’s an example that Gary uses quite a lot.  Think of  a teenage boy.  There comes a certain age where they seem to grow (tall) overnight.  And they seem to be always in the fridge, except when they are in bed.  But you don’t ever hear a parent say “My Tommy has grown six inches in the last three months, it must be because he’s eating too much and not exercising enough”.  He is eating because he is growing.  He lacks energy because all his energy is going into growing.  And why is he growing?  Well, we know, don’t we.  It’s his hormones.

And it’s our hormones that make us grow fatter, too.  It’s just different hormones.  With Tommy it’s testosterone and somatropin, with me it’s insulin.  With Tommy it’s supposed to happen: if his testosterone and somatropin get out of whack he’ll either not grow, or he’ll be a giant.  My insulin is out of whack: I’m only a giant width-wise.  And it was eating too many refined carbohydrates when I was young and foolish (and middle-aged and foolish) as opposed to now when I am old and foolish, that damaged my insulin system.

But I’m getting off subject, or at least on to a subject that I’ll come back to later.

So, Do I have to Count Calories? Yes or No?

Well, it depends (sorry!)  You will only lose weight if you correct that energy balance: eat less or exercise more (actually, exercising more probably won’t help: it’ll just make you hungry).

What we hope is that by eating less processed junk food, less refined carbs, by eating more “real food” (what your grandparents called “food”), by eating a balanced amount of protein and upping the amount of fats that you eat (etc etc: we’ll deal with precisely what elsewhere), you will naturally want to eat less.

The trick to losing weight while eating as much as you like is to change how much you like.

So if you are following your low-carb diet, or your paleo or primal regime or your ketogenic or auto-immune protocol, and you are not losing weight, then you are eating too much … BUT, the answer is not to just cut down, but to find out why.  If you are significantly obese then it is highly likely that switching to a paleo or ketogenic regime will cause you to lose weight, without having to count calories.  You will just naturally want to eat fewer calories.  You’ll feel full up sooner.

But as you get closer to your goal weight, where the margins for calculation are tighter, you may need to exercise more control.  You may need to count something … not necessarily calories: it may be grams of carbs, or it may be getting the macro-nutrient ratios right.  It may be paying better attention to micro-nutrients.  I have heard it said that if we are missing certain micro nutrients in our diet that we may crave certain foods.  I have also heard it said that modern food is only around half as nutrient dense as food that was commonly available 100 years ago.  So, presumably, we need to eat twice as much (and hence get twice as many calories) just to get the same level of micro nutrients.

Or it may be finding a way to re-wire your brain, so that you find more effective ways of supporting starving African children, other than by eating more than you need yourself.

As so many of my articles conclude, it is highly likely that no-one has an off-the-peg answer to your individual question.  Research is needed.  The question is, will you pay a Harley Street nutritionist £125 per hour to do the research, or will you learn about food, nutrition and your own body, and do your own research?

Go on, give me a hint!

Zoe Salmon

Zoe Salmon

Some while ago the BBC made a programme called “The Big Fat Truth About Low Fat Foods“.   I like this programme because they took an ordinary person (well, as ordinary a you can be, being an ex Blue-Peter presenter and an FHM model) and put her on a low-fat, packaged food diet for four weeks, to see what would happen.  She is “ordinary” in the sense that she doesn’t have any particular health problems, is not a diet and nutrition expert, but generally eats a reasonable diet.

(Having said that, I just discovered that she was a contestant in Celebrity Masterchef!!)

For four weeks, model and former Blue Peter presenter Zoe Salmon ditches the fine dining she’s used to and lives on nothing but pre-packaged, highly-processed foods that are labelled either low or lower in fat. She finds out what’s in these foods and how they affect her moods, nutritional levels and, crucially, her weight. She also meets the low calorie converts who say that eating this way isn’t just a diet, but a way of life.

The programme (I think) does for Weight Watchers what “Supersize Me” did for Macdonalds.  I think the programme is a must to show to anyone who thinks your high-fat diet will kill you, and a must for anyone considering Weight Watchers.  Here’s a trailer:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XlLTQHdGzK4

And here’s the who programme (it’s about 50 minutes):

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jca9O4js2Og

There are those in the diet world who stick firmly to the “Calories In, Calories Out” (CICO) model, citing the “Law of Thermodynamics”.  This is a bit of a problem, and can be easily knocked over as an argument.  Firstly, there is no one “Law of Thermodynamics”.  If someone quotes that at you, ask them if they mean the zero-th, first, second or third law.  That will probably shut them up!  The thing is that we have been advised to eat less and exercise more to lose weight for the last 50-60 years and during that time obesity rates have soared around the world.  Clearly something is wrong.

[simpleazon-image align="left" asin="0307877523" locale="uk" height="160" src="http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51N18MYXSuL._SL160_.jpg" width="139"]There has been much work over the last decade to show that, in human nutrition terms, a calorie is not just a calorie, and I put myself firmly in that camp.  CICO leads to weight-loss advice that says either eat less, exercise more, or both.  This is over-simplistic, and if you want chapter and verse on how to demolish this argument, read Gary Taubes’ books.  ”Why We Get Fat” is the easy book: Good Calories, Bad Calories” (Known as “The Diet Delusion” in the UK) is the “big book” (if exercise is all you need, you could lose weight simply by carrying GCBC around with you!)[simpleazon-image align="right" asin="1400033462" locale="us" height="160" src="http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41ikBliWK8L._SL160_.jpg" width="105"][simpleazon-image align="right" asin="0091924286" locale="uk" height="160" src="http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41zvRZLsE4L._SL160_.jpg" width="97"]

But while I am a total fan of Gary, and feel that his books have changed my life, the good old calorie can still tell us a few things:  it can show you just how easy it can be to become malnourished when you’re on a diet.

For instance, the “average” person needs around 2000 calories a day to maintain normal life.  This, of course, varies a lot.  According to the math I would need 3050 calories a day to maintain my current size, and my wife would need 1755 (she’s younger, much smaller, and more active than me).  You can see that it’s quite a range.

We know that body fat is a highly-effective energy storage medium: one pound (.45kg) of fat contains 3500 calories.  So if we just go with the basic idea of “eat less”, if we want to lose 1lb a week we need to consume 3500 calories less per week, or 3500/7=500 calories less per day.  For Susan that would mean reducing her daily calorie intake by 28%, for me I’d need to reduce by 16%.

That’s all very well, but our food is not just an energy supply.  In addition we need micro-nutrients and, although as their names implies we don’t need much of them, when we don’t have enough the results can be horrendous.  For instance, a severe deficiency of vitamin C causes a disease called scurvy, where your teeth fall out, you get suppurating sores and you get severely depressed (well, you would, wouldn’t you?)

Beri Beri victim

Pellagra sufferer

Beri beri, a disease caused by a lack of thiamin (vitamin B1) caused extreme lethargy and even death.  And pellagra, caused by a deficiency of vitamin B3 (niacin) affected more than three million people in the American south, killing 100,000 of them in the early part of the 20th century.

I got quite a shock, researching this.

I am from the UK but my wife is American and her father was a southerner.  When she grew up she was accustomed to eating grits (from the same stem as English “groats”) and still enjoys grits when we go out to breakfast if we are in the Southern states.  I have always laughed: to me grits looks like wallpaper paste, tastes not much better, and I imagined it to be completely devoid of nutrition, because grits is made from corn kernels, dried and soaked in lime (that’s the chemical, not the juice of the fruit!)  But apparently, the key nutrient in corn (maize), niacin, is biologically unavailable (it’s locked up).  However, if you treat the maize with lime it makes the niacin nutritionally available.  Traditionally, new world cultivators of maize knew this (how?!) since 1500BC and didn’t suffer from pellagra, but when maize started being shipped around the world, people who adopted it without knowing about this process of  nixtamalization developed diseases of malnutrition.

Now you may think that these were all diseases of the past, and that we no longer need to worry, but here’s the interesting (and worrying) thing … these are diseases of extreme malnutrition, but malnutrition happens on a sliding scale.  If you are bit short of micro-nutrients you might not suffer from anything as bad as pellagra, beri beri or scurvy, but your health will be negatively affected.

Various governments publish “Recommended Daily Allowances” (known by various names depending on the government and the day of the week) for various nutrients.  But these amounts are the amount that, if everyone in the population had that much, around 50% of them wouldn’t get ill.  How much you need, not just to avoid malnutrition, but to be in optimum health, is probably much more than the RDA, or whatever your country calls it.

So, if you are aiming to lose one pound a week on your diet, and you do it by reducing what you eat by between 15% and 30%, you’re reducing your micro-nutrients by that amount, too.

Scary, isn’t it?

Before dieting you were probably malnourished to some degree; now you’re dieting it’s got worse.  We have all heard of pregnant women getting cravings–that’s because the baby is using up the mother’s micro-nutrients.  The craving is the body’s drive to get the mother to correct the deficiency.

Irradiated food symbol

But, if we’re eating a “normal” diet, are we getting all the nutrition we need?  No.  In the Standard American Diet (SAD), which (obviously, by definition) most Americans, and large numbers of people in the rest of the world eat, our food is deficient in these micro nutrients, for a variety of reasons:

  • The soil is worn out: we keep cropping, but don’t replace what we take out
  • The time from field to fork gets longer: vitamins start to decay once a plant is picked.  In America the average distance travelled from field to fork is around 1500 miles.  And if you think it’s better in Europe, just remember that most of your “fresh” vegetables and salad stuff comes from southern Spain.  A tomato grown in a greenhouse in Malaga will have done over 1500 miles by the time it gets to a supermarket in Birmingham.
  • Vegetables, nowadays, are picked before they are ripe, so that they will last longer on supermarket shelves.
  • Food is irradiated, destroying its DNA.
  • A lot of food is so processed that it has few, if any, micro-nutrients: what we call “junk food”.

So, we are already eating a diet that is low on nutrition, and then we eat 15-30% less of it.  Less of a bad diet is a worse diet, not better.  No wonder we have cravings and get hungry.

What are we to do?

[simpleazon-image align="left" asin="098430472X" locale="uk" height="160" src="http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/418yh6o7hML._SL160_.jpg" width="106"][simpleazon-image align="right" asin="0984755179" locale="uk" height="160" src="http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51AXQpauaLL._SL160_.jpg" width="115"]Well, I already knew a lot of this information about nutrition, but it wasn’t at the top of my consciousness until I read Naked Calories and Rich Food, Poor Food by Jason and Mira Calton. Time for a declaration of interest.  Currently I have no commercial relationship with the Caltons at all.  But I am so impressed with the books, and with their supplement, that I am hopeful that I may be able to import it into the UK.  I’ll alter this sentence if and when that happens!

By now you will understand the title of this post.  If most of the food we eat is just “naked calories”, how can we make sure that our calories are well-dressed?  The art and science of making sure that you have enough micro-nutrients is complex (one of the things I like about the Calton’s supplements is that they have made it very easy), but there are some things that we can do straight away.

Looking at the list of problems above, you can see that eating your five a day will help, especially if they come from a local, organic farm.  When we live in Florida we buy as much as we can from Lake Meadow Naturals (about 10 miles from where we live) and in the UK we use Sunnyfields Farm and Beechcroft Farm, both, I was surprised to find, exactly 9 miles away from where we live, but in opposite directions!

Next, don’t keep stuff too long.  Buying it fresh, organic and local is all very well, but if it sits in the veg drawer in the fridge until it’s floppy and unpleasant, you might have done better to buy canned or frozen!

Lastly, for now, aim for the most nutrient-dense foods that you can find.  I will be helping with that by posting about various foods.  For now, check out my recent blog post “Which Avocados are best for Paleo/Primal?

And educate yourself.  For starters, read the Calton’s books, and click the various links on this page.  And watch out for the next posts in this series.

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