Do Calories Matter? Is a Calorie a Calorie? (Science of Weight Gain)

Do Calories Matter? Is a Calorie a Calorie? (Science of Weight Gain)

November 15, 2019 100 By Ewald Bahringer


Why does Bill Gates have so much money? Because he earned more money than he spent Why did Basketball Team X win the big game? They scored more points than Team Y. “Goddamnit Pete, why are you fat?” The typical answer is that more calories went
in than out of Pete’s body. The responses to these four questions aren’t
technically wrong but… they’re not helpful. Calorie counting may induce weight loss, but
why would you care about that? Losing 10 pounds is great, but wouldn’t
you want to know where that 10 lbs came from? Was it bone, muscle or fat? Then, if it’s fat, which is what most of
us want to lose, is it subcutaneous fat or visceral fat? Pediatric Endocrinologist Robert Lustig points
out in his book “Fat Chance” that several studies show that the amount of subcutaneous
fat you have, the fat under your skin, correlates with increased longevity; Whereas visceral
fat, the fat around your organs that gives you a big belly, promotes inflammation and
causes several health detriments meaning the difference between dying early in your fifties
or living into your eighties or longer. A pound of fat being 3500 calories is usually
the piece of data we’re provided with to help us create our weight loss goals. For example if you create a deficit of 500
calories per day, then in a week you will lose a pound of fat. But why would the body choose to discard fat
first when you restrict calories? Decreasing your energy intake is interpreted
by your body as you being in a situation where less energy (food) is available. Thus, it will do what it can to keep the stored
energy it has and slow down processes that spend energy. Muscle is a relatively energy expensive tissue
while one of fat’s functions is to serve as a place for energy storage. So the body would want to preserve the fat
and break down the muscle, to conserve as much energy as it can. And that’s what it does. Through a process called gluconeogenesis,
“new glucose making,” muscle is broken down into glucose which can be used for energy. So now you have successfully reduced your
weight by going into a caloric deficit, but now it’s even harder to maintain a caloric
deficit and lose more weight because your resting energy expenditure is now less due
to having lost muscle. Jonathan Bailor points out in his book “The
Calorie Myth” that “Studies show that up to 70 percent of the
nonwater weight lost when people are eating less comes from burning muscle–not body fat. Only after it’s cannibalized this muscle will
our body burn fat.” So your calorie restrictive diet may actually
reduce your weight as you intended, but the weight isn’t necessarily coming off from
where you’d like it to, and this whole process becomes an uphill battle. Restricting calories without modifying the
composition of your diet will cause your body to lower energy expenditure and increase hunger
to provoke you to get back to your normal energy intake. “Eat less and exercise,” the typical advice
for weight loss, is a strategy fueled mainly by willpower. Hunger and lowered energy expenditure is going
to set you up to where the last thing your body wants to do is exercise. Alright, maybe it’s more simple to look
at how people get too fat in the first place. Surely to get fat, one has to eat too much. But what causes that excessive eating? We have very sensitive receptors in our body
that let us know when it is too hot, too cold, when we’re thirsty, et cetera. What would cause someone to eat past the point
of satiety so much and so frequently that they become overweight or obese? Of course small fluctuations in weight throughout
the year is not unnatural. But when people get significantly overweight
or obese over time through overeating, surely something is significantly wrong with the
way their body processes food and the way their hunger and satiety receptors work. So what calories in calories out isn’t explaining
is why some people’s bodies will just raise energy expenditure in response to eating too
much, keeping them thin while other people get fat. Just because you eat extra calories doesn’t
mean they have to be stored, they could just be burned off automatically. The medical journal QJM reports, “Food in
excess of immediate requirements… can easily be disposed of, being burnt up and dissipated
as heat. Did this capacity not exist, obesity would
be almost universal.” So why is it that obese people don’t automatically
dispose of calories, experience intense lethargy, and have voracious appetites despite having
massive amounts of energy available in the form of fat on their body? What is particularly interesting about this
is that the satiety hormone, Leptin, is secreted by your fat cells. So if we are to assume that a calorie is a
calorie and the type of food you eat does not have any peripheral effects… like disrupting
the hormonal environment of the body, then fat people should have less of an appetite
than leaner people. We would need to assume that all overweight
people have something like a gene defect that screws up their hormones, leading to this
dysfunctional situation where the brain is constantly being told to eat more food despite
having plenty of stored energy available on the body. Robert Lustig explains that only 2 percent
of morbid obesity is explained by genes. “Researchers worldwide have scanned the
human genome and have identified thirty-two genes that are associated with obesity in
the general population. Altogether, these genes explain a total of
9 percent of obesity. And even if one person had every single bad
gene variation, it would account for only about 22 pounds–hardly enough to explain
our current obesity pandemic. ” So when people get fat, they are of course
for some reason or another, taking in much more calories than they need to. But, their body for some reason chooses to
use nearly all these extra calories for body fat accumulation at the expense of muscle. “And I always had it in my head that the morbidly
obese were probably pretty well muscled underneath all that because effectively they’re lifting
weights all the time. But it’s not the case – their muscles are
extraordinarily atrophied. Your external oblique muscle that ought to
be y’know as thick as a piece of steak, in these people it’s paper thin and stretched
to the point of bursting. Because they are having nutrient partitioning
that doesn’t allow energy to go anywhere but the body fat. So they are literally starving inside an encasement
of blubber.” A good example for understanding why the body
uses calories in different ways is puberty: During puberty, young men and women develop
bigger appetites, and that extra energy is put towards developing things like sex organs
and making their bodies larger in general. But young men put on a lot of muscle during
this phase whereas young women put on more fat. You might attribute this to the fact that
young men are more likely to play sports, but the way fat is distributed is very different
between the two genders. Most guys are not gonna find their pants are
getting tighter due to butt and hip fat. This is the effect of several hormones, particularly
one named insulin. Insulin is an anabolic hormone- it’s known
as the energy storage hormone, or sometimes the “fat storage hormone” -one of its
jobs is directing how the food you take in will be stored. And, puberty is associated with a higher than
normal secretion of insulin. A very clear illustration of insulin’s fat
accumulation abilities is the side effect some diabetes patients experience where they
develop a mound of fat at the site where they frequently inject their insulin. This is called lipohypertrophy. So understanding how food affects hormones
would be better for weight management than understanding how many calories are going
in and out of your body. Other than insulin, worthwhile hormones to
look at are: Leptin and Hormone sensitive lipase Leptin is the satiety hormone – if you have
higher leptin levels and your brain has no problem reading these levels, then you feel
“full”. And, hormone sensitive lipase breaks down
fat so it can be used for energy, this of course is important if you want to lose body
fat. Researchers at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto
Health Care System genetically altered mice so they could no longer make use of hormone
sensitive lipase. These mice ate more and gained 70 percent
less than normal mice. Completely independent of calories, altering
the mice’s hormones caused a drastic reduction in body fat accumulation. So the ideal situation is to have high levels
of leptin so you are not hungry all the time, and you would want lower levels of insulin
so your body doesn’t store too much energy, and you would want hormone sensitive lipase
to be activated so it would break down body fat. Losing body fat while not being hungry would
be the ideal situation, right? The problem with calories in calories out
is it doesn’t tell you anything about how to achieve this preferred hormonal situation. But, paying attention to how much of and what
kinds of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are in your meals will tell you much more
about how your hormones are going to respond. This brings us to the next point: Is a calorie
a calorie? For a calorie to be a calorie, we would expect
all foods to be processed in similar ways in the body without having unique effects
on our hormones or other biochemical processes. But in the case of alcohol a calorie is clearly
not a calorie as it has some interesting peripheral effects due to the fact that 10% of the alcohol
you ingest is metabolized in the brain, making you drunk and 80% of it is metabolized in
the liver, leading to liver disease and other problems. Another one is trans-fats, which are very
different from other fats. The synthetic nature of trans-fats doesn’t
allow them to be broken down in your mitochondria and they contribute to metabolic disease and
atherosclerosis. Proteins, get broken down into amino acids
in the body, and the liver will use these for either protein synthesis, i.e. muscle
growth or convert them into either glucose or fatty acids. These processes though depend on your insulin
levels, whether you have broken down muscle tissue through exercise and how much glucose
is stored in the form of glycogen in your body. And there are all kinds of amino acids, some
that are essential and can only come from the diet and some that are non-essential. Fats on the other hand get broken down into
free fatty acids and they will be processed by your mitochondria for energy or stored
in the muscle or stored in your fat tissue. And there are several different types of fat,
some good, some bad. For example you have bad ones like trans fats
we just talked about and you have fatty-acids like DHA, which is theorized to be what allowed
humans to evolve their big brains. Glucose, the carbohydrate found in things
like rice or starchy vegetables passes into the bloodstream and then stimulates the pancreas
to make insulin, allowing it to get into the cell so that it can be burned up for energy
or it may be stored as glycogen. Depending on how much glycogen is already
stored in the body and how quickly and how much glucose is entering your system at one
time, glucose may be stored as fat through a process called de novo lipogenesis. Keep in mind that fiber in vegetables is going
to slow down the rate at which glucose is processed. So your body will react very differently to
say 50g of glucose from white bread and 50g of glucose from broccoli. Now there’s another carbohydrate called
fructose (or “frooooctose”) found in sweet things like fruit, juice, honey or table sugar. The tricky thing about table sugar, or sucrose,
is it’s comprised of one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose, yet glucose
by itself is sometimes called sugar. For example, blood sugar is synonymous with
blood glucose. However what I’m discussing is fructose,
a molecule very different and much sweeter than glucose. Fructose is technically a carbohydrate but
it is not necessary for any biochemical reaction in the body, so almost all of it is processed
in the liver. The interesting thing about fructose is, among
other negative effects like promoting the development of fatty liver disease, is it
causes insulin resistance, meaning the more you eat sweet things, the more your pancreas
will have to secrete insulin to get its job done, leading to higher and higher insulin
levels. Fructose, by the way, is in 74% of all packaged
foods in the form of added sugars. If you’re trying to lose body fat, you’ll
want to keep an eye on insulin. When you have high levels of insulin, hormone
sensitive lipase which breaks down fat for energy, is much less active. In this case, if you haven’t eaten for a
couple hours you start to get really hungry because you can’t actually use any of that
fat on your body for energy. So your body fat continues to stick around
and you feel pretty crappy. Another reason behind the hunger is that high
levels of insulin block your brain from seeing the leptin signal- you become resistant to
leptin. Leptin again, is the satiety hormone. This how eating too many things, like packaged
foods or refined carbohydrates, that spike insulin levels can cause people to be hungry
and lethargic despite having so much energy stored on their body as fat. So yes Pete is fat because he ate too much
clearly, “I’m not fat!” but the reason he ate too much has to do with his hormones. A calore is a calorie in the way a gram of
money is a gram of money. A kilogram of one hundred dollar bills is
going to affect your bank account much differently than a kilogram of 1 yen Japanese coins. For some people, calories have worked as a
decent rule of thumb for them, but Tracking the macronutrient composition of your food
is going to give you much more insight into how your food is affecting your body than
just calories. There’s still a lot more to be said about
macronutrients, but you can notice their effects pretty quickly if you pay attention. Does a breakfast high in fructose and glucose
like orange juice and a big bowl of cereal with flavored yogurt leave you feeling hungry
and tired by the time you get to work? And does a meal high in good fat, protein
and fiber like salmon, eggs and vegetables make you feel any different?