The 'Calories in / calories out' model doesn't work. We need to be smarter about weight loss

The 'calories in/calories out' exercise and eating regimen is dead, it doesn't work and doesn't make logical sense. Yet for the last 30 years this way of thinking has been rampant. As many people who spend hour-upon-hour at the gym on the cross trainer will tell you, unfortunately it doesn't work. It's an equation thats been far too over-simplified.

It's not the quantity of the calories, it's the quality

Let's break it down. 

First, what is a calorie?

Definition: A calorie (kcal) is the is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius

Nutritional information for grass fed butter & a popular chocolate spread

Nutritional information only gives part of the story. What is often ignored is

  • How much of these calories is absorbed through your gut?
  • Are they usable or so called 'empty' calories?
  • Are they used straight away or stored?

Let's compare butter and chocolate spread to explain this. As shown above 100g grass fed butter contains 723 kcal while chocolate spread contains 544kcal. Notice the difference in carbohydrates, 0.3g vs 57.3, and fat 80g vs 31.6g. Sugars will make you more fat than fat will (as paradoxical as this may sound). As long as these are good fats (grass fed butter is high in omega 3 and CLA)

According to 'calories in/calories out' rule, you'll put more fat on by eating butter than chocolate spread. However, fat synthesis is not due to an energy balance, it is mainly caused by increase in insulin levels. Insulin stimulates a protein on fat cells called lipoprotein lipase(LPL).

The role of LPL is to pull fatty acids into the cell. On top of this, insulin suppresses a hormone sensitive lipase (HSL), that breaks down triglycerides (stored fat) into fatty acids that then can be burnt by the body as fuel.

Insulin controls the nutritional state, the food we eat influences how much insulin is released.

The chocolate spread contains a very high amount of sugars, therefore causes a spike in insulin and therefore increase in fat storage and not use. This combo of high sugar AND fat is lethal. Butter will decrease the amount of LPL on your fat cells and CLAs contained in butter have been shown to actually inhibit these receptors,see study here. The fats in the butter are broken into parts the body uses and needs such as making cell membranes and insulation for nerves.

We need to pay more attention to how fat is regulated.

So sugar has more impact on how fat is stored and used, but pre-disposition is huge. Gary & Keith are a great example of this (drawing is not one of my greatest strengths!)

Do you know a Gary or Keith?

From a pharmacist perspective, I would be more likely concerned by a thin patient with a 'bad' diet than someone with a high BMI but 'good' diet.

So for Keith to lose weight, or at least stop putting on more weight, he needs to eat foods that are not necessarily calorie low but will increase metabolism and increase 'fat burning hormones' particularly hormone sensitive lipase. This includes a diet that is low is carbohydrates but high fat content.

Forget the calories.

When it comes to exercise and weight loss, if your diet isn't right your body will go into it's natural famine state, increasing appetite and fat storagewhen any food is eaten. 

You can't exercise your way out of a bad diet. 

Calorie counting also affects the way your brain functions day to day. There are many people who calorie count so they can stay in control of their weight, going for a run and burning the amount of calories that they have eaten. If this is not the way your body processes these calories then all this counting is fruitless. All this counting can actually cloud your mind from other important matters, in fact 'diets don’t just reduce weight, they can reduce mental capacity', according to Harvard professor, Sendhil Mullainathan

Your fat regulation isn't controlled by the calories you eat, it's the type


Fat chance - The Bitter Truth by Robert Lustig

Lipoprotein Lipase and Insulin

The biology of weight control