Why Calories in vs Calories Out Is an Over-simplified Approach to Weight-loss

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Conventional wisdom says that in order to lose weight one should consume fewer calories than they expend (or burn). If you've ever tried losing weight with this approach over a prolonged period of time, you'll probably have experienced first-hand that this approach has its limitations.


Particularly in the context of the world-wide diabetes and obesity epidemic, it's useful to analyse the flaws in this paradigm. This is one of the topics covered in the fourth module of the health coaching course I'm currently enrolled in with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.



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Co-existence of obesity and malnourishment in populations


In a guest lecture with Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, a few case studies were presented. These case studies focussed on poor populations in which some people were overweight, and some were malnourished. These were communities in which people were on calorie restrictive diets because of difficult financial circumstances. The prevalence of obesity in these populations caused researchers to challenge the century-held paradigm that people become fat simply from over-eating and lack of exercise.



If over-eating and lack of exercise don't cause weight gain, then what does?


It turns out, as you may be suspecting by now, that weight management is more complex. Instead of considering obesity as a disorder caused by external lifestyle factors, it's more useful to consider it in biological terms. Obesity, as Gary Taubman puts it, is a "disorder of excess fat accumulation".


This definition of obesity, or weight gain, is more useful in that it highlights internal biological mechanisms as the root of fat accumulation. This helps remove the villainisation of overweight people which is common in society. It also helps us to understand the root cause of weight gain and why it can be so difficult for overweight people to lose weight.



Insulin is the 'principal regulator of fat metabolism'


Insulin is a fattening hormone. It directly prevents fat from leaving fat cells. The more insulin is present in the blood stream, the more fact accumulates in fat cells. This means that fat loss requires healthy insulin function and that our bodies are not constantly exposed to high levels of insulin through the food we eat. This is particularly challenging given that insulin is secreted in response to the consumption of carbohydrates, and most people consuming a Western diet over-consume carbohydrates.



Simple carbohydrates are a chief driver of fat accumulation


Its no wonder, given the food guidelines of many countries, that carbohydrate over-consumption is such a wide-spread phenomenon. Many countries have simple carbohydrates at the base of their food pyramids (cereal, bread, pasta, white potatoes etc) and recommend eating at least 6 servings a day.


Insulin is the hormone that facilitates the conversion of carbohydrates (glucose) into energy for the brain and muscles. Yet we also know that too much insulin inhibits fat loss. Chronically elevated insulin levels damage the metabolism and may lead to insulin resistance (a condition where your body does not properly use insulin and your body secretes increasing levels of insulin in order to use carbohydrates for energy) and type 2 diabetes.


The bottom line


This might explain why it can be so much more difficult for some people to lose weight than it is for others. It cements the point that weight loss is not merely a matter of calories in vs calories out. The quality of the calories we consume matters. Genetic factors, sex (gender), age and hormonal factors matter too, just to name a few others.


Calories in vs calories out is a major myth in the diet world. It causes people to have unhealthy relationships with food and exercise and may lead to feelings of shame and self-depreciation for others. There's no need for this. It's important to understand that all our bodies are different and that situations in our lives influence our weight as well.


I'm so excited to continue sharing as I learn! Learn something new today? Let me know by mentioning me in your instagram story (@iamtshepangpooe) I hope to see you here for the next post.


Lots of love






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