Calories | Do they really count?

We’ve all been there, at the supermarket, nauseously glancing at the number of calories contained in that “healthy” sugar-free, low-fat smoothie. Standing there like a halfwit, conscientiously figuring out precisely how many more calories you can consume before you’ve reached your daily limit of 5...sound familiar?

Becoming fixated on the number of calories you consume is a sure way to go crazy and lose focus of your goals. I personally don’t count calories; I lost over 30kgs (70lbs.) practicing intermittent fasting whilst following a paleo/ketogenic way of eating. If you’re feeding your gut with nutrient-dense, whole, bioavailable food—your body will instinctively ‘tell’ you when you are full via the hormone leptin. I bet our evolutionarily ancestors looked at a chunk of delicious, wild, fatty meat, wondering what the calorie count is so they can record it into their Fitbit in order track calories-in/calories-out.

The question is, do calories really count? Or is the idea behind calories-in/calories-out a misguided, misconception, that has been enforced by government healthcare to inertly avert the current health crises facing first world countries?

What is a calorie, and how much do we need?

Calories are conducive units of measurement that determine how much energy is stored or used within the body.

There are two types of these bastards that run our lives; namely, small calories and large calories. Small calories are measured by how much they can raise the temperature of one gram of water—whereas, large calories are measured by how much it can raise the temperature of a kilogram of water. In this case, we are dealing with the latter.

The fundamental energy suppliers in your biology are fat storage, muscle tissue or the food you eat. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but for the sake of the argument, let’s keep it simple. Any living organism needs energy available at any given moment to survive—what source the energy comes from obviously varies. Basic measurements like your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate), which is the amount of energy you expend when in a rested state, can determine how many calories your basic bodily functions need when resting. According to most sources, if you’re an average woman, you need at least 1,200 calories and for males, it will be at least 1,800. This amount will vary depending on your physical activity level.

I just love how science has bummed it down to a simple equation; the amount of fat you will lose is directly proportional to the number of calories you eat, minus the amount of energy you expend. If this were the case, then we should be able to take two identical individuals, both consuming the same number of caloriesbut, one will consume only sugar, and the other will consume only protein. Now, according to conventional wisdom, these two should remain or change in the exact same way. We all know this won't be the case.

I’ve been arguing that the original sin in obesity research is this belief that our body fat is regulated by the amount of energy we consume and expend. I think this is simply the wrong way to think about obesity and the chronic diseases with which it associates, and it’s because this is the fundamental assumption underlying most obesity research, it’s the reason why we’ve made so little progress.
— Gary Taubes

Hormones trump calories

If the basic model of calories-in calories-out was precisely true in all respects, that would mean for one bottle of Coca-Cola consumed, you would need to run for 50 minutes. That’s utterly ridiculous.

Hormones are the driving force for anything that happens on a metabolic level within our biology, and it all goes south with the devil of them all—insulin.

Gary Taubes summed it up perfectly by saying: “It’s not about the calories; it’s about what those macronutrients do metabolically and hormonally.” Whenever you consume carbohydrates of any sort (and even protein in high amounts)—eventually they will either be used as energy or stored as fat. I consider insulin the most controllable hormone for fat loss. The job of insulin is to unlock the cell so that glucose from carbohydrates can be used or stored. Here’s the ironic part, when insulin is released by the pancreas from eating carbohydrates, you literally cannot burn fat. This is because while insulin is present in the blood stream dealing with the glucose—it is simultaneously telling our fat cells to hold onto the fat within them. So just to shed light, if you’re trying to lose weight by doing 3 hours’ cardio at gym but you eat anything that spikes your insulin beforehand, you will find it exhaustingly difficult to reach your goals.

On the one hand, there are individuals that are gifted with great genes for dealing with carbohydrates efficiently—In other words, they are remarkably carb-tolerant. I, on the other hand, don’t fit into that category. If I look at a bagel wrongly I fear he may sneak into my room at night yielding a fat-emulsifying magic wand that will turn my dinner into extra pounds for the next day’s cry on the scale. What really grinds my gears is witnessing a ripped-to-shreds oak (slang term in South Africa referring to people from Fourways) plowing away at a carbohydrate dense burger from McDonalds, guzzling it down with five liters of coke (the drink) and a McFlurry to top it off. This insane tolerance to carbs will decline with age as your insulin becomes more resistant. You ever see photos of older people that had amazing physiques when they were younger and wonder where it all went wrong? Yeah, I bet they also talk about the “good old days” at every family get-together to.

Your body is a river. Not just any river, specifically the river Thames that runs through southern England. Before I commenced on a sneaky 30-day trip around Europe in 2015, I visited family in London. The weather was mind bogglingly amazing compared to the usual rain, wind, and more rain and wind—the sun was just showing off. We decided that we should go and enjoy this rarity and head for the city. Whilst pub-crawling down the Thames, I couldn’t help but notice the amount of people by the river. Obviously, the weather influenced the occurrence of people. Think of the shitty weather as the insulin flowing through your blood and the houses surrounding the Thames your fat storage. When insulin is secreted it denies your fat the ability to grab a cold beer down by the river. Instead, it forces you stay inside and get fatter while binge watching Game of Thrones. To conclude a terrible analogy; whether you are eating over 5000 calories or 2, it is the source that these calories are coming from, not necessarily the amount that will determine whether the calories are used as energy or stored as fat.

Ketosis and calories

I enjoy following a ketogenic pattern of eating—it keeps me relatively lean while maintaining muscle mass due to the anti-catabolic effects of the ketones available.

Generally, when you follow a ketogenic diet you will naturally eat less calories because you are just so full all the time. Here’s where it gets interesting. Even though you are technically eating less calories, the anti-catabolic effects of ketosis will prevent your muscles from being a source of energy. This wouldn’t be an option if you are carb-adapted—thus, you must eat every 2 or 3 hours to prevent catabolism of your muscles occurring.

It can get a little boring sometimes if you don’t know how to spice things up (literally) in the kitchen. However, if your goal is to get rid of fat fast, pairing ketosis with intermittent fasting is a sure way to lose serious amounts of fat in as little as 2 weeks without worrying about the number of calories you are consuming.

Most won’t agree with me, but I don’t stress about calories on a statistical level—even when trying to lose weight. I’ve tried the counting, measuring and weighing—it’s a time-consuming dog show for the average bloke simply trying to lose a couple of pounds and improve overall quality of life. Unless you are a competitive fitness model or bodybuilder, you don’t have to go through the pain. I focus on eating large quantities, mainly at night, of delicious food within restricted eating windows that will satisfy me for hours—otherwise known as intermittent fasting. I will usually practice intermittent fasting throughout the week, but on days when I feel the need to, I will have breakfast—an omelette with bacon and spinach is my go-to. 

To an extent, calories do matter depending on your goals—but, as JJ Virgin put it in the foreword of The Bulletproof Diet, “hormones count more.” And what effects hormones? The food you consume, your mental/physical state of being and the environment around you.

Just because it’s required by law in some countries to showcase the number of calories in food items, it doesn’t make the argument any clearer. Don’t be fooled by labels—if it only has 50 calories, that doesn’t tell you much information. Remember, that 1g of sugar is roughly 4 calories—in contrast, 1g of fat is around 9 calories. This explains why sugar may be favored over fat. From a distance, you may think because the calorie count is low, it’s healthy—however, this can be a manipulative way to deceive what you’re putting in your body.

Instead of worrying about calories, look at the nutritional label. Look for hidden sugars and preservatives. Food manufacturers like using fancy words to hide sugar in labels. Words like coconut sugar, maple syrup and palm sugar sound natural and wholesome—however, on a molecular level, they all convert to the same thing—fat.

I really hope you have deeper insight into calories and maybe a more refined understanding. Being empowered with knowledge is the first step in the process of change.

Be present. Be yourself. Be boundless.

Food is information, it’s not just calories. So you have to put the right information into your body.
— Dr. Mark Hyman