Calories matter – if you want to avoid obesity
In recent years, many people have been convinced that counting calories is not necessary if you want to lose weight and then manage your weight properly. I do not understand this view; it is, in fact, quite foolish.
Calories in food come from three macronutrients, which include carbohydrate, protein, and fat. We get about 4 calories for every gram of carbohydrate and protein we consume. In contrast, we get about 9 calories for every gram of fat consumed. You can witness this math in action on the label of any packaged food. The total calories are provided based on grams of carbohydrate, protein, and fat contained in a serving size.
Whenever we exceed our caloric needs, the body stores the excess calories as fat in specialized cells called adipocytes, which are more commonly known as fat cells. There is an odd misconception that it is primarily dietary fat that stored in fat cells; which is COMPLETELY incorrect. If you were to eat a low carbohydrate and low protein diet, the primary calorie source would be fat. And if this diet contained just 1500 calories per day, you would lose body fat mass, and perhaps develop 6-pack abs, despite the fact that 1000 calories per day might come from fat, which is clearly a high-fat diet. So, clearly, consuming a mostly fat diet in this low calorie context, would lead to weight loss, not weight gain.
There is a key point that must be understood based on what I described in the last paragraph. We must exceed our caloric needs in order for fat cells to accumulate stored fat calories. These excess calories most commonly come from “foods” made with sugar and flour as they make up about 40% of the total caloric intake of the average American. Excess calories from sugar and flour raise blood levels of glucose, which then gets converted into fat that stored in fat cells.
Another 20% of calories come from refined seed/legume oils made from corn, sunflower, safflower, cottonseed, soy, and peanut. Excess calories from these oils are also stored in fat cells.
Very few people, if any, over-consume protein calories. In other words, eating protein is not why people are fat. We are primarily fat because we eat too many processed food calories made from sugar, flour, and refined oils – the excess calories from these so-called “foods” is why we are fat.
With the above in mind, I could easily become as fat as a house if I overate avocados, nuts, and olive oil. Each food is calorically dense, which means I do not have to eat a lot to move into an excessive calorie state. In the case of avocados, nuts, and olive oil, the primary macronutrient is fat. If I exceed my caloric needs from these healthy and nutrient rich foods, I will become obese and likely develop diabetes and/or other chronic conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, or Alzheimer’s disease. I could actually develop these diseases if I chronically overate olive oil calories as my only high-calorie activity. In other words, calories matter, when they are consumed in excess of caloric needs.
So, whether I was to consume a low-fat vegan diet or a high-fat Eskimo diet, I would become obese if I consumed excess calories. This means we all need to first eat calories at level that is appropriate to achieve normal weight, and then maintain a caloric level that prevents us from gaining weight.
Of interest, is the fact that the overall dietary balance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat does influence body function, known as physiology or body metabolism. It turns out that eating less calories from carbohydrate and more from fat actually helps to improve metabolism. Consider the following study that was published in 2008, which means this is actually old news that most people are unfortunately not aware of.
Overweight men and women were fed 1500-calorie diets (1). Low carbohydrate, high fat diet contained 12% of calories from carbohydrate, 28% from protein, and 59% from fat. The high carbohydrate diet contained 56% carbohydrate, 24% protein, and 24% fat. Both diets led to weight loss and inflammation reduction, as expected, which means that either option is fine.
A closer look at this study also revealed noteworthy outcomes. It turns out that the low carbohydrate, high fat diet led to a greater loss of weight and a greater reduction in all inflammatory markers that were measured. Of perhaps greater interest is that the higher carbohydrate, low fat diet led to an increased blood level of saturated fatty acids. In other words, the low carb/high fat diet, which contained more dietary saturated fatty acids compared to the low carb diet, nonetheless led to less saturated fatty acids in circulation and a more robust deflaming effect.
This study clearly demonstrates that calories do matter. Both low-calorie diets resulted in weight loss and inflammation reduction; however, the higher fat diet was clearly the most beneficial (1).
- Forsythe CE, et al. Comparison of low fat and low carbohydrate diets on circulating fatty acid composition and markers of inflammation. Lipids. 2008;43:65-77.