All Diets Work: The Importance of Calories

In the article All Diets Work: A Qualification I made a quick qualification regarding my original statement that ‘all diets work’; today I want to expand a bit on something I mentioned on in that article. That something is the importance of calories.

Now, I have read a LOT of diet books; too many frankly. Most follow a fairly standard organization (the first chapter always explaining that YOUR FAT IS NOT YOUR FAULT) and, with very very few exceptions, most will tell you that ‘calorie restricted diets don’t work for weight loss’ and that whatever magic they are selling is the key to quick, easy (and of course permanent) weight loss.

Whether it’s insulin, dietary fat, the protein:carbohydrate or insulin:glucagon ratio, partitioning or whatever other bullshit, they will make it sound like caloric intake is not the key aspect in whether or not someone gains weight.

In almost all cases, the idea that food intake must be restricted in any fashion is dismissed; if it is mentioned it is generally as a short aside late in the book that nobody pays any attention to.

This is purely a psychological ploy; it sucks to have to consciously restrict food intake and this causes mental stress. Simply knowing that you can’t eat what you want when you want it blows; I hate it as much as the next person. Many people will feel hungrier simply because they know that they can’t eat what they want when they want it.

Yet the fundamental fact is that the body will NOT have any need to tap into stored body fat unless the individual is burning more calories than they are taking in. Of course this means that either energy expenditure has to go up, caloric intake has to go down, or both have to occur.

So how can these books make this claim? It’s simple: they all hide basic caloric restriction in whatever they happen to be proposing. Basically, this is Lyle’s Rule #1 of Diet books:

All diet books tell you that you won’t have to restrict calories, and then trick you into doing it anyway.

One of my favorite examples is Enter the Zone by Barry Sears. After prattling on about insulin:glucagon and partitioning and how caloric restriction doesn’t work and all the standard hot buttons, he then sets up a diet that will put everyone on about 900-1200 calories/day. But it’s not the caloric restriction causing the weight loss, of course, it’s the magic protein:carb ratio.

All of the rules, the food combining, the elimination of carbs, the elimination of fat, don’t eat XXX at all (where XXX is something that contributes a lot of calories to the diet), don’t eat YYY after 6pm (where YYY is something people tend to overeat in the evenings), etc. are all just ways of tricking people into eating less without having to think about it.

Now, in one sense, I have no problem with this, anything that gets people to eat less without having to think too hard about it is usually a good thing since it avoids some of the psychological stress that occurs with dieting. And, at least to some degree for some time it can work effectively. I remember a specific client years ago, wanted to lose weight and I saw that he was drinking like 4 regular sodas per day. I told him to switch to diet, he cut several hundred calories per day by doing so and lost about a pound a week for quite some time. Without having to consciously feel restricted.

But there’s often a HUGE problem that comes with this type of approach and telling people that calories don’t matter often goes horribly wrong (not to mention being intellectually disingenuous) becuase of a simple factor and that factor is human beings and how their brains work.

Left to their own devices, most people will find ways to take ‘You can eat as much as you like as long as you do/don’t do XXX’ and fuck it up completely.

Take for example the original low-fat mania of the late 80′s. Having realized that dietary fat was most calorically dense than carbohydrate, studies found that when you reduce fat intake, people tended to eat less calories and lose weight. MAGIC!

Except that somewhere the message got garbled and people heard that ‘As long as you don’t eat fat, that’s all that matters’.

Which wouldn’t have been a problem had people stuck with unrefined naturally occurring low-fat foods (it’s nearly impossible to overeat plain baked potato). But when companies brought calorically dense but no-fat foods (Snackwell’s anybody) to market, people got screwed; a diet that should have naturally reduced food/caloric intake ended up not doing so and people either didn’t lose fat or gained it.

There was also the phenomenon whereby people would subconsiously allow themselves to eat more food if they thought it was low-fat. The classic study gave people normal fat yogurt and either told them that it was or wasn’t low/no-fat. The group that thought the yogurt was no-fat ate more of it.

Tangentially, you can see similar things with stuff as innocuous as artificial sweeteners (which should help people reduce calories). On some subconsious level, people compensate for the calories they think they are saving with the sweetener by allowing themselves other stuff with more calories. End result is no result.

I’d also note that the same can happen with activity, a topic I’ll come back to later. People tend to vastly overestimate how many calories they are burning with activity and you frequently see people following a logic along the lines of ‘I must have burned 1000 calories in that aerobics class, I deserve that cheeseburger and milkshake.’ Which given that they probably only burned a few hundred calories in the workout is a problem because they end up eating far more calories than they burned.

In any case, something similar to the low-carb debacle happened with low-carb diets as authors like Atkins told people that they could eat ‘as much as they liked’ and lose weight without caloric restriction. Given that carbohydrates typically make up 50% or more of the daily diet, when you tell people not to eat them, caloric intake falls.

Yes, I know people claim to be eating certain amounts but the few studies on the topic show that ad-lib ketogenic diets have people eating about 1700 calories. So they lose weight. MAGIC!

Except that the message that got heard ended up being ‘Calories don’t matter as long as you don’t eat carbs.’ By the time people figured out way to make fake food with no carbs but lots of calories (I saw lowcarb jelly beans at one point) it all went wrong. People ended up eating more total calories and despite eating ‘no carbs’, there are legions of people on the net who are ‘eating no carbs’ but not losing weight. But try to tell them that it’s their caloric intake and they won’t have any of it. Endless stall excuses are made but, at the end of the day, it’s still calories.

So tying this in with the last blog post, I basically want to make the following point, one that I sort of alluded to when I started this series. For a fat loss diet to have any chance of working, it needs to fulfill at least two primary criteria:

1. It must cause an imbalance between energy intake and expenditure. Most diet books focus on the diet end of things but some use activity to increase expenditure. But if there is no caloric deficit, nothing will happen.

2. There must be adequate dietary protein

Other stuff such as essential fatty acids are also critical but other aspects of the diet (carb intake, timing, meal frequency) is all debatable and arguable and depends on the specifics. I’d note, of course, that every diet (and book) I have written adheres to this on some level or another. Caloric intake is the key aspect, protein intake is the second crucial aspect (in The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook I actually let protein intake set caloric intake in reverse), you get your EFA’s and then you worry about everything else.

Now, most effective weight loss diets will probably adhere to 1 and 2 on some level. Whether the caloric restriction is spelled out explicitly or not is irrelevant, as long as it occurs it’s fine on some level. Most diet books don’t recommend sufficient protein but this is changing in recent times.

So given that tons of diets still adhere to 1 and 2, why do most still fail. Finally, that’s what I can start talking about in the next post.

Guide to Flexible Dieting

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