Calories in >Calories out= weight gain.
Is this the formula for weight loss? Sometimes... but not all the times. It's a simple equation and a mantra of fitness and diet enthusiasts everywhere. Many gyms have this proudly posted on their walls. You'll even read this on many diet focused websites. The problem with calories is that they are simply a unit of energy available in food. This perspective on food doesn't account for the message that food sends to your body. It assumes that all calories are created relatively equal.
Gary Taubes has a great book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, that thoughtfully explores our fascination with calories and the way it came about. A science journalist, Taubes has his share of critics as he blasts our conventional understanding of presumed nutritional gospel about cholesterol and calories.
Even my favorite reality television show, The Biggest Loser, regularly touts the simple mantra, "Calories in should be less than calories burned!" While I am routinely inspired by the contestants and impact of the show, that is one area where I will disagree.
Follow this reasoning.
1. Food initiates hormone responses. We know that insulin release is necessary for appropriate metabolism of foods. This is standard, textbook human physiology.
2. Insulin talks and interacts with other hormones... such as cortisol, testosterone, leptin, estrogen and more. This is an area that science continues to explores. Cutting edge clinicians are constantly amazed at the web-like interactions of different components of our body. The reality is that 1000 carbohydrate calories will cause a different insulin response than 1000 calories of fat or protein.
3. These hormones often take on a life of their own. For example, high insulin will promote insulin resistance over time. This promotes more cortisol release in an unusual stress response. Cortisol then promotes even more insulin resistance in a vicious cycle. As your body is now under a stress response, hormones like testosterone, estrogen and others can be shortchanged as the enzymes that produce them have altered activity.
Now let me ask you some questions;
a) What is the effect of high cortisol? It's bad.
b) What is the effect of low testosterone? It's bad.
c) What is the effect of altered estrogen metabolism? It's bad.
d) What is the effect of altered progesterone levels? It's bad.
...and the biggest question of them all...
e) What set this off to begin with? High insulin secondary to carbohydrate heavy meals... regardless of calorie content!
Let me make a point here. I am not a hard core low carb advocate. You must eat carbohydrates... the good ones. Your body loves carbs and they are designed to be utilized efficiently in the body. But I do think the Standard American Diet is carb heavy. Think about your meals and snacks. They are likely to be carbohydrates that promote an insulin surge.
The "calorie model" is useful to some degree. But it is the foundation of "old school" nutrition and does not effectively consider the many other variables involved.