A lot of clients who come to see me, and a lot of the ladies in my Six Week Summer Slim Down group weight loss program are still stuck in the archaic notion that “a calorie is a calorie” and weight loss is simply a matter of “calories in verses calories out”. This is not correct. The notion that “a calorie is a calorie” is an over-simplistic view. It’s an old way of thinking. It’s wrong, and it’s sending us down an unhealthy path.
When I was in my 20’s I used to go to the gym very frequently. In fact some days I would go twice – once in the morning before work and once in the evening, after work. However, I was chubby. I was doing all the things I thought were correct: eating “lollies” (the name for “candy” in Australia) because they were low in calories and fat, and consuming a “bran muffin” each morning, thinking it was a healthy, low-fat option. But I couldn’t budge the weight. So off I trotted to Weight Watchers. I recall being taught to eat pretty much whatever I wanted – chocolate cake, lollies, whole wheat bread – and to simply remain in my calorie count for the day. Did it work for me? No. Of course not. And the reason why Weight Watchers-type diets fail, (need I remind you of Kirstie Alley?) is because these diets don’t take into account the impact of foods’ various components on our energy storage and metabolic rate.
Calories consumed by foragers from the past 1,000 years were reported to be about 2,800 per day. On average, present-day Americans are said to consume 40% less calories: 2,007 calories per day, (as reported by the Institute of Medicine). And yet the obesity epidemic is alive and well in modern-day westernized societies. Why?
If calories were the be all and end all of weight loss we’d all have no issues with our weight. We’d know exactly what needed to be done to reduce our waistlines whenever the urge struck. But why then do most dieters who lose weight with a calorie restricted diet gain nearly 100% of that weight back in five years? The nutrients in our food is the answer. What researchers have started to realise is that food – depending on its composition – can have an adverse impact on your microflora, (gut microbes) and your metabolism.
The human body is an extremely complex organism with biochemical pathways that would blow your mind, (they blow mine!). And nutrients from the food you eat go through these pathways to affect various different mechanisms in the body, which impact your weight. We can see this at work when we look at broccoli vs. chocolate cake. You know that eating broccoli is better for you than chocolate cake, even if you ate the same amount of each in calories, (which would be hard to do with broccoli). This is because calories are not all created equal. Food is information, which means it impacts your hormones and your brain, which ultimately determines how much weight you pack on and what your appetite is like.
If you eat broccoli your body responds favourably. For example, you won’t have a dramatic rise in blood sugar or insulin. However, if you consume chocolate cake, candy, a bagel, or some cereal – of the same calories as the broccoli – your body kicks into gear to deal with this sugar onslaught. Your blood sugar rises and then in turn your insulin rises. Do this enough you’ll end up insulin resistant and then you’ll see stubborn fat storage as well as negative consequences to your satiety and hunger hormones.
Another example is fructose and glucose. Both of these sugars look very similar but they behave very differently in the body. Glucose can be used by every cell in our body, whereas fructose has to be primarily metabolised in the liver. This is because unlike glucose, fructose is poorly absorbed from the intestines. This may appear beneficial to weight loss however, when it’s taken into the liver it’s converted into glycerol – a fat. If you consume too much fructose this will lead to fatty liver disease, which in turn leads to insulin resistance. And insulin resistance will lead to increased belly fat, (the most dangerous kind of fat, also known as visceral fat), inflammation, (which will negatively impact your weight), high triglycerides and high blood pressure, lower HDL, (“good” cholesterol), and obesity.
One study also showed that fructose leads to higher ghrelin levels than glucose does, (ghrelin is our hunger hormone: it tells us we’re hungry). Additionally, fructose doesn’t stimulate the satiety centres in our brain the same way that glucose does. The nail in the coffin is that fructose has also been shown to negatively alter gut bacteria and increase the risk for leaky gut, (which leads to inflammation and thus, weight gain).
Now, I’m not telling you to go out and eat a whack of glucose. I’m merely making an example of how food is not just about calories but instead it’s about the information that food relays to the body and the way in which our body respond to the food we consume by altering our appetite and impacting the way we store and burn energy.
A better option than glucose or fructose would be to consume protein. Studies have shown us that protein is the most filling macronutrient, (by a long shot). In one study, participants who increased their protein intake by 30% of calories started eating 441 fewer calories per day and lost 11lbs (4.9kg) in 12 weeks.
In addition to the way food acts differently in our body, our gut bacteria will also impact how many calories we extract from food – proving once again that a calorie isn’t just “a calorie”. A study published in the journal Science showed that when you take the gut bacteria from human twins – one that’s obese and one that’s lean – and transplant this bacteria into lean mice, the mouse that received the gut bacteria from the obese human gained weight and the mouse that received the bacteria from the lean human stayed lean. Why does this happen? Research has shown:
- Bacteria have enzymes humans don’t have: they can digest plants that we can’t. They can break down complex carbs into simple sugars we can then absorb – and then we extract more calories from our food thanks to these microbes.
- Bacteria can also increase the number of capillaries in the small intestine – allowing increased absorption of food from the gut.
- Bacteria can also decrease the protein FIAF (fasting-induced adipose factor) – which suppresses the storage of fat, thus enabling fat levels to rise.
At the end of the day it’s the nutrients in the food that matter, not so much the calorie count. Our metabolic pathways in the body evolved a long time ago. When we evolved we did so in a miraculous manner that has allowed for humans to roam Earth today. However, in the very recent future the way in which we live and the diets we eat have changed tremendously, and our biology has not adapted to accommodate these drastic changes. We are now seeing the detrimental effects this is having on our health – and our waistlines – and it’s why we must re-evaluate our ways and try as best as possible to return to the eating styles of our ancestors in order to support our body that evolved to support us.
Belly Fat Effect, Mike Mutzel, MSc