9 More Calorie Myths We Should All Stop Believing

Myth Yesterday’s post introduced the major myths surrounding calories, weight loss, and human regulation of body weight, but there are some other serious misconceptions surrounding the topic that need clearing up. People can really get down on themselves when they listen to all the “experts”. They’ll weigh, measure, and count themselves into oblivion only to experience middling weight loss. Or maybe they lose weight but their energy tanks, their performance in the gym suffers, and their belt size doesn’t get any better, suggesting muscle loss. They’re basing their decisions and actions on myths, and myths just don’t work. These myths do real harm, so it’s important to destroy them.

Today, I’m going to focus on nine more.

The calorie count of a food is the sole determinant of its metabolic fate.

The way many people envision it, the only thing food does is provide energy for storage or immediate use.

But food is more than energy.

Protein, for example, is broken down into amino acids which provide the building blocks for human cells, muscles, and tissues. And yes, in extreme cases protein can provide energy, either through direct metabolism of the amino acids or conversion into glucose, but the vast majority of the protein we eat is directed toward structural roles. We build things with protein. And even when we do “burn” protein for energy, it’s not very efficient.

Food provides energy and raw material for building important things like muscle, cellular membranes, hormones, nerves, neurotransmitters, sperm, tears, new eyelashes, beards, or toenails. Anything the body does, or makes, or metabolizes, like convert serotonin into melatonin so you can fall asleep at night, requires both energy (to power the process) and raw materials. Food is both.

And even when food is “just” energy, it’s “metabolizable energy.” You have to expend energy to extract energy from that sweet potato and steak you just ate. It’s not gross energy.

Calorie counting is the best way to lose weight.

Since we all agree that weight loss requires that a person expend more energy than they take in, counting them should be the only way to lose weight. Nearly everyone can count and do basic math, so why not just do a little addition and subtraction? Once the stark reality of the numbers lies in front of you and the true, physics-backed path to healthy weight loss reveals itself, you’d have to acquiesce and give in and stop eating so much, you glutton, because Science implores you to and no one can deny Science.

The latest low-fat/low-carb diet study contradicts this: participants in the low-carb arm were told not to restrict calories by the researchers, yet calories were restricted and weight was lost. Detractors often point to this as proof that calories indeed matter. To me, this showcases that active consideration of calories is unnecessary. They lost weight and reduced calories without counting calories. That’s the good stuff, right?

Heck, even when you compare a strict calorie-counting diet with an ad libitum (“at liberty”) low-fat, high-carb diet, the calorie counters lose out and the ad libitum dieters have better weight loss retention after 2 years. Calorie counting just doesn’t work for most people.

At the end of the day, if you consume more calories than you expend, you will gain fat.

Gotta love that phrase, “at the end of the day.” People drop this in comment sections and that’s that: the debate is over, the argument won. Go home.

Except is that really the case? “Weight” is so non-specific. You might gain bone. You might gain muscle. You might gain glycogen. You might gain organ weight. You might gain newly repaired intestinal lining. And yeah, you might gain fat, but it’s not a foregone conclusion just because you “gained weight.”

Conscious regulation of one’s energy intake and expenditure is possible.

Imagine if you had to maintain conscious control over every physiological process in your body. When you walked, you’d say to yourself “step left, step right, step left, step right” all day long or you wouldn’t get anywhere. To provide oxygen to your body, you’d have to remember to breathe in and breathe out every few seconds. An hour or so before bedtime, you’d will your pineal gland to begin secreting melatonin so you could sleep. After eating, you’d have to alternately engage and relax your peristalsis muscles to create the undulation that forces food along the digestive tract. Performing a squat would require conscious orchestration of the contraction of dozens of agonist, antagonist, stabilizer, and synergist muscles at once. Life would get pretty unwieldy, wouldn’t it?

So where do we get the idea that eating – one of the most basic and essential physiological processes – requires constant vigilance and number crunching? What did people do before the concept of a calorie was invented?

In metabolic ward studies where calories are counted for you and food is strictly weighed, measured, and provided by the researchers, calorie counting works pretty well. Subjective feelings of appetite are immaterial when you only have access to the food provided and you can’t leave to get more.

In the real world, calorie counting doesn’t work as well. If a free-living guy is ravenous from counting calories and he drives past a McDonald’s, he has the option of stopping in for a McDouble (they still make those, right?) and fries. If a subject in a metabolic ward study is ravenous from having his calories counted for him and he has a fever dream of Ronald McDonald hand-feeding him fresh french fries, it doesn’t matter because he doesn’t have the option of eating any more food.

Besides, it’s not even possible to do it accurately without direct measurement. A group of normal weight men and women were blinded to one of two treadmill exercise sessions (burning either 200 or 300 calories). After the workout, they were taken to a buffet and told to eat as many calories as they’d just burned exercising. Both groups failed miserably.

First of all, they thought they’d burned way more calories than they actually had. The 200 calorie group guessed they’d burned around 825 calories. The 300 calorie group guessed close to 900 calories.

Second, they ate fewer calories than they estimated, but more than they actually burned. Every estimate they made was inaccurate.

And that was in normal weight individuals, the people who are least likely to have broken metabolisms and dysfunctional satiety mechanisms. If they can’t accurately predict energy intake and expenditure, how is anyone supposed to? According to many researchers, self reports of calorie intake and expenditure are “so poor” that they’re more harmful than not even trying to count.

Everyone responds to calories equally.

For the most part, people all have the same basic physiological machinery. We all metabolize carbs, fat, protein, and other nutrients along the same pathways. We all use insulin to sequester glucose into cells, for example (even people who don’t produce insulin will respond to injected insulin).

That said, we all have different capacities for using these pathways.

For instance, most overweight or obese people seem to do best on lower-carb, higher-fat diets. The literature is pretty clear on that. If you’re insulin-resistant and overweight (which is most of the overweight population), going low-carb is the best, easiest way to control hunger, spontaneously reduce food intake, and lose weight and, most importantly, body fat. Hundreds of success stories from this site and others are further testament to that.

However, the relatively rare insulin-sensitive obese phenotype does better on calorie-counting low-fat diets. If you’re obese and insulin sensitive, you’ll probably be able to lose more weight eating more carbs. That’s just a fact, and it’s just more proof that macronutrient ratios, personal history, hormonal status, and genetic background are relevant to the impact of calories.

Another example: Say you’ve got two men, both weighing 200 pounds and standing 6 feet tall. The first is active, fit, and muscular, sitting at 11% body fat. The second is sedentary and overweight, sitting at 30% body fat. If they eat an equal amount of baked potato, will those carbohydrates enjoy the same fate in both men?

The first guy has significantly more muscle. That means larger glycogen stores, the only way to store carbohydrate. The second guy has significantly less muscle, meaning he has less room to store carbohydrate as glycogen. Assuming both are equally glycogen depleted, in whose body will the greater portion of carbohydrates be sequestered as body fat?

The first guy is more likely to store the carbs as glycogen because his larger muscle mass confers greater storage capacity. The second guy is more likely to convert the carbs to fat. Once his liver and muscle glycogen stores fill up, any glucose that isn’t immediately used for energy will be converted to fat. This isn’t a huge acute contribution to overall fat gain, but it does illustrate the different metabolic fates the same number of calories can have in two different people of equal weight.

And we all know that guy who can eat a 2000 calorie meal without gaining an ounce. If you sit next to him while he eats, you can literally feel the heat emanate from his body. Or maybe he’ll start fidgeting, or get up to pace the room. Kids are often like that. You feed them a big meal and they’ll be whizzing around the room, not to “burn the calories off to avoid weight gain” but because they just received a large influx of energy and it’s only natural for a kid to use it. That used to be me back in college.

Exercise affects appetite and inadvertent calorie intake differently in men and women. In men, the higher the exercise’s intensity, the lower the appetite. This is true across most studies. But there’s also evidence that in women, intense exercise — sprints, HIIT, circuit training — actually has the potential to increase appetite and energy intake.

The only thing that might affect weight loss beyond calories in, calories out are your macronutrient ratios.

This is where we start getting somewhere. Most people will admit that different ratios of macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs) in the diet can affect weight loss. This is why bodybuilding cutting diets are made up of chicken breast and broccoli, not Coke and pizza. But they’ll go no further than talking protein, fat, and carbs.

In reality, different subtypes of protein, carbs, and fat have different metabolic effects. Take protein. Whey promotes energy expenditure relative to other proteins, like tuna, egg, or turkey. Other studies have found that both whey protein and pea protein suppress the appetite to a greater degree than milk protein or a combination of whey and pea protein. Meanwhile, fish protein eaten at lunch suppresses subsequent energy intake more than a beef protein lunch.

Take carbs. In one (rat) study, isocaloric amounts of honey and table sugar had different effects on bodyweight. The rats who ate honey gained less bodyweight and body fat (particularly that really hard-to-burn epididymal pad fat we all hate so much!) than the sugar-fed rats.

Take fat. In one study, isocaloric amounts of either industrial (not grass-fed ruminant) trans-fat or a blend of monounsaturated and saturated fat were given to human subjects. Those eating the trans-fat experienced greater increases in body fat and waist circumference. There was no difference in overall bodyweight, of course, so I guess the CICO fanatics “win” this one, but the two different fat sources clearly had different metabolic fates.

There are more examples of each, but even just one is enough to dismantle the claim.

The results from studies apply to every individual human.

Lost in all the blog chatter about this or that study is the fact that the faceless participants whose bodies we’re discussing are individuals. The individual experiences of these individual subjects dissolve into the mean, the average presented in the abstract. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a +/- indicating the range of responses. But every subject from every study ever conducted has had unique reactions to the experiment.

For instance, there’s the “single low-calorie subject” from this study who experienced no reduction in liver fat. Everyone but him saw improvements. Should that guy disregard his own experience because the study’s conclusion about the effect of dieting on liver fat in the “average person” said otherwise?

You are not a statistic. This goes for every study out there, but it’s especially pertinent for diet studies.  I know many people who’ve had paradoxical responses to various dietary interventions, responses that the studies don’t really capture. Are they all lying?

The concept of a calorie isn’t applicable to the complexity of human metabolism.

Sometimes, I like to dream that we’re bomb calorimeters.

Our stomachs are buckets full of water (that’s where those “the human body is 75% water” claims originate). Suspended inside those stomach buckets is a smaller sack, called a bomb. A tube runs from our mouths and feeds directly into the bomb. When we eat something, the food goes down the tube and into the bomb. As we chew, a series of tendons attached to our jaws rub together to produce a spark. The heat travels down into the bomb to ignite the food. A separate tube runs from our lungs to the bomb carrying pure filtrated oxygen. The food combusts and the heat generated is distributed throughout the body to give us energy. The beauty of digesting our food in the bomb is that it’s a closed system, shut off and free of influence from the outside universe, so we know that what we put into the bomb is exactly what we’ll get out of digesting it. Meat, potatoes, kale, Pepsi – it’s all pure unadulterated raw fuel and it all burns equally. It’s all heat energy.

Unfortunately, that’s not how the human body works.

The scientists all agree that a calorie is a calorie.

I contend that no one truly believes “a calorie is a calorie.” Even the researchers who claim perfect parity between different caloric sources in esteemed scientific journals contradict themselves in their own papers.

We conclude that a calorie is a calorie. From a purely thermodynamic point of view, this is clear because the human body or, indeed, any living organism cannot create or destroy energy but can only convert energy from one form to another.

No argument here.

In comparing energy balance between dietary treatments, however, it must be remembered that the units of dietary energy are metabolizable energy and not gross energy. This is perhaps unfortunate because metabolizable energy is much more difficult to determine than is gross energy, because the Atwater factors used in calculating metabolizable energy are not exact. As such, our food tables are not perfect, and small errors are associated with their use.

“Small errors.” Mistakes were made, nothing to see here, move along. Don’t worry yourself over the margins. It all evens out in the end.

In addition, we concede that the substitution of one macronutrient for another has been shown in some studies to have a statistically significant effect on the expenditure half of the energy balance equation. This has been observed most often for high-protein diets. Evidence indicates, however, that the difference in energy expenditure is small and can potentially account for less than one-third of the differences in weight loss that have been reported between high-protein or low-carbohydrate diets and high-carbohydrate or low-fat diets.

It’s just “one third” of the difference in weight loss. That’s nothing at all!

As such, a calorie is a calorie.

Even though we just explained how a calorie is not a calorie, a calorie is a calorie.

Further research is needed to identify the mechanisms that result in greater weight loss with one diet than with another.

In other words, our simplistic “calories in, calories out” approach is inadequate and other mysterious “mechanisms” are responsible for the difference in weight loss between diets. But trust us, a calorie is still a calorie!

We’re all on the same page here. Some of us just can’t admit it.

Thanks for reading, everyone, and let me know what you think in the comment board!

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TAGS:  calories

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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67 thoughts on “9 More Calorie Myths We Should All Stop Believing”

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  1. Good stuff Mark.

    The next time someone tries to argue that a calorie is a calorie, ask them if you’ll gain the same amount of weight if you ate a 200 calorie candy bar everyday vs a 200 calorie serving of leafy greens. Watch them quickly shut up. 😀

        1. Yup! There are about 200 calories in two gallons of arugula, my favorite BA salad green.

        2. I’d even go so far as to say that some foods (like greens) can be eaten in unlimited amounts and they will not only create zero weight gain regardless of the calories added but instead cause a calorie deficit. I think rabbits and other ruminant animals can bulk up on greens but I think it’s impossible for humans. I suspect it’s just the way we metabolize them. Hay is nutritious for a horse, but a human would starve eating hay.

        3. Good point, Clay. When it comes to a lot of vegetables, especially greens, our body is very inefficient at extracting what little calories are available which is why they are so great for those trying to lose weight. Like you said, a rabbit would bulk up eating something like greens and carrots everyday, but we would starve to death in the long run.

    1. Heh… reminded me of some investment advice from Will Rogers, “only buy stocks that go up. If it doesn’t go up, don’t buy it.”

    1. I was curious so I looked it up. I did not know US Snooze and World Distort was still published. I looks like the #1 diet was sponsored by Kraft. Paleo diet foods are produced by organic farmers that do not have the budget to advertise in national rag magazines.

  2. More great info. I love that you emphasize that weight gain is not necessarily fat gain, that it can be so many things, plus that it works differently for everyone. Couldn’t be more true.

  3. Love the write up. Very intuitive. Explaining this to my patients who have been taught a calorie is a calorie is a calorie is like hearding cats, however.

  4. I liked the break down of the different types of macronutrients. Time to start heading back to the fish market!

  5. I used to think counting calories was a good practice because it forced one to keep track of what was ingested. However, there is a inevitable moment when a slip fails to make the journal. Did I have 7 corn chips or was it 17? I’ll just leave that out of today’s entry. I think what Mark has summarized here is 100% of eating habits should be concentrated on the quality of food not how much. Quality food is what your body needs and the decreased appetite from nutrient dense food will naturally reduced the need to snack on corn chips.

  6. There is a website I came across early in my Primal journey called the National Weight Loss Registry. You have to have lost so much, 30 lbs maybe? And kept it off for so long. 2 years maybe?

    In any case I went there for inspiration. It was a nightmare instead. Most of the people had lost weight with calorie counting, eat less, move more. Right a few percent will ‘succeed’ this way.

    But their success was nightmarish. They talked about how hard maintenance was, how they had to exercise at least an hour a day. How they had to monitor everything they ate. It was one kind of sub-par existence for another.

    I am a year and half in and still losing, albeit slowly. I am already in the ‘normal’ BMI range. Perhaps I will lose up to 10 lbs more. But it is effortless. I exercise when I want for how awesome it makes me feel, but honestly I don’t do that much.

    I love the food I eat, never calorie count. Maintaining is effortless for me and my wife. Our daughter absolutely thrives on Primal and has much less behavior problems than other kids. SO HAPPY for her she gets to grow up Primal.

  7. Regarding this one:

    “The concept of a calorie isn’t applicable to the complexity of human metabolism.”

    Shouldn’t the myth be:

    “The concept of a calorie IS applicable to the complexity of human metabolism.”?

    1. The conservation of energy principle is valid for all of life. However, people such as Lyle McDonald are abusing it. This principle , while relevant in the background is not anywhere near SUFFICIENT to give a full or even an adequate EXPLANATION of obesity and fat cell regulation SPECIFCIALLY 🙂

      it is merely an abstract mathematical statement as Richard Phillips Feynman noted. . A “state equation”. Nothing more. It cannot and does NOT say ANYTHING about where the energy is tored or where it came from.

  8. I think there is a place for determining maintenance calories and counting against maintenance, particularly in the beginning of one’s healthy eating journey and periodically as a spot check. If you’re consuming 4,000 calories a day (for most people), you’re going to struggle no matter what you’re eating. I’ll grant you that 4,000 primal calories is tougher to consume than 4,000 non-primal calories, but, I would argue for some portion sizing and general awareness of satiety cues is out of whack enough that it’s possible. One can certainly pack away a fair amount of high caloric primal-approved food (e.g. nuts are pretty easy to get carried away with in my experience). Like most things, once you’ve been at it awhile, I starts to become more intuitive and easier to manage.

    1. I’ve been logging my food in myfitness pal as part of a challenge, and holy smokes — I’m barely making it to 2,000 cals a day and I feel like I’m eating SO MUCH. (all paleo stuffs)

      Could not imaging eating twice as much to get to 4,000.

      But, I like your point of this becoming more intuitive and easier as you go along. That definitely rings true for me.

  9. I remember reading a “thought experiment” somewhere (I think it might have been in a book by the ever-controversial Tim Ferris, or it might even have been on this website!): you take a pair of identical twins, both of them with roughly identical percentages of lean mass. They both work in sedentary office jobs, and they exercise together at the gym (doing equal amounts of exactly the same exercises). For one month, you give them exactly the same meals to eat. You’d expect the outcomes to be pretty close to identical – HOWEVER, one of them was ill a few weeks before the start of the test, and he had a round of strong antibiotics which completely mangled his gut biome. Would you still expect identical results? A calorie is a calorie, after all…

  10. I pretty much eat the same stuff all year, though I do favor beer in the summer and cognac in the winter. But I have noticed that when farming season gets going in the Spring I’ll typically drop 5-10% of my weight. I figure there’s a coupla things going on, 1) I’m not inside eating, out of boredom and such, and 2) I’m outside, moving more, quite a bit more.

    1. Ha! You sound like my dad. His doctor told him if he would farm year round he would be a lot healthier. If only Nebraska winters would allow….

    2. I have the opposite situation. I surf everyday so in the winter I lean out and in the summer I gain a little. It must be due to the increase metabolic demands on my body just trying to stay warm in 50 degree water for two hours.Cold water is even harder to paddle in because it’s molecular density is greater than warm water.

  11. God damn…I forgot how good a writer Mark is.

    Taking such a controverisal and nasty discussion on with class, evidence and a pragmatic approach.

    The majority of the CICO crowd are body builders and “sports” nutritionists. These guys have atheletes who burn a lot of calories and they are engaged in glycogen intensive activities. So LC/Primal/Paleo doesn’t work for them.

    Rather than shut the F*)$#! up about it and move on with life they spend a ridiculous amount of time trolling LC writers like Gary Taubes and others. I suppose they’re jealous that they haven’t hit the big time and instead troll for attention.

    You know what? The rest of us don’t care.

    We’re not as focused on having 6% BF and a “V” shape as much as we are living longer, seeing our kids grow up, staying active and avoiding the commons diseases of Western Civilization – Diabetes, CVD, Autoimmune etc..

    Great article Mark. I’m emailing this to friends and family.

    1. Those aforementioned sprts people gurus are ALL abusing and misusing the conservation of energy principle completely. Physicists do NOT like it. it is as erroneous as it gets.

      I have over 50 physicists i talked with who agree completely and unanimously with Gary Taubes’ assessment.

  12. Anyone trying Bulletproof diet or heard about Dan’s Plan? I tried Bulletproof for 2 weeks and enjoyed the all the tasty fat but didn’t experience weight loss. Hard to wait until 1pm to eat. I saw Dan’s Plan – The Ideal Weight Program: The Goal of Sustainable Fat Loss – on Robb Wolf’s Facebook. Podcast was a bit scientific to listen to for an hour.

  13. A calorie is a calorie is a unit of energy. I hooked myself up to a car battery overnight and gained ten pounds. Tru story Bruh…

    1. I would guess a shot-glass of olive oil would have about the same calories (units of energy) as a shot-glass of top quality engine oil.

      I’d also would guess that drinking either one of them (or pouring it on your salad and consuming it ) on a daily basis (or just once) would have different metabolic outcome………but yeah, a Calorie is a Calorie…..

  14. People mistakenly think that a Calorie and food calorie are equivalent.
    They are not even remotely similar.
    Calories are absolute measures of energy, usually computed by oxygen combustion (i.e. burning).
    Food calories, are arbitrarily defined as 80% of the Calorie value.
    Gasoline, wood, fuel oil has Calories, and that is an accurate measure of their energy. Food carbs, fats, and proteins produce varying amounts of available energy to the body.

    Human exercise results in an energy expenditure that can be measured in Calories.
    However, there is no exact correlation to food calories consumed and Calories expended in exercise. Carbohydrate calories are the most energy dense source of energy for our bodies, so they match closest to actual Caloric exercise output. Protein and fat, much less.

    1. That si correct. NOBODY eats calories. Richard Phillips Feynman ( the Nobel winning physicist not the low carb medical doctor) went out of his way to stress this.

      Calories are just the heat energy in the food. How the body handles, partitions, absorbs and uses this energy is not at all addressed by the “laws of thermodynamics” like is so often incorectly stated by Lyle McDonald et al.

      The human body needs nutrients and chemical energy from the chemical bonds of the food.

      1. Does this also comply with the myth that to loose 1 kg of fat one has to burn 7000 calories. I can not find that confirmed either in any study.

  15. A grain of sand is a grain of sand – right ?

    Until you highly magnify the grain of sand, and realise that at a micro level, it has a pattern of the same complexity as looking at the coastline you found it on from about 10000 feet in the air. And also, each grain of sand has a unique “coastline” all of its own, and not a single one the same.

    In fact, there are even grains of sands within the grains of sand…

  16. Interesting that whether some study participants ate honey or table sugar, they still put on weight. The fructose gets you one way or another.

    1. Here’s something newish on fructose being bad for anyone who cares to read it.
      I have no plans to cut out honey, though I’ve drastically reduced my consumption of it to a treat occasionally, as with other natural sweeteners mostly, whereas before I delighted sometimes in chugging molasses and eating a 500g jar of honey in a single day. Surprisingly when I was making whole snacks of it almost daily I didn’t gain any significant amount of fat, though that probably has something to do with a medication I was on that increases metabolism and causes fat loss. Now I mostly go for molasses as a sweetener and I’ve only gone through a bit more than half a small bottle in I think a little over two weeks. It’s nice not feeling like a slave to sweet carb cravings.

      1. Actually, I was wrong about my recent molasses consumption. It’s less. That’s how often I haven’t used it very recently! I went through about 300mL in that time, and that was mostly to sweeten coffee that I’d drink through the day in lieu of actual solid food.
        The rest of this comment is about my backup plan for winter camping so if you don’t care to read, you have been warned.
        I want to get back to primal basics, food and living situation – wise. I’ve only spent about week in heavy urban sprawl and I feel like it’s driving me crazy. It was bad enough living in someone’s fairly dumpy apartment in a backwater town for a few months until that turned out bad; now I’ve spent the last week in concrete infested, car congested stupid suburbia! (I’d like to go on with a few more musical descriptions but that’s enough). I think I need to be immersed in wilderness for my sanity/contentment.
        I’m prioritizing finding my own apartment through a subsidy program so I can have a safe home base and work on my life from there but it’s hard to do that when I’m on foot and there’s not many places for rent around and if that’s not possible soon I think I might just put in the tedious work and gathering/scavenging of supplies and forgo showers, laundry, regular cooking and free food from soup kitchens and all that nice stuff and just bundle up and rough it in the woods (or abandoned structure sufficiently secluded in nature if I can find one) in walking distance to a food bank, sleeping under a pile of blankets or in a thermal sleeping bag, preferably near a natural water source, and thaw my food in my coat overnight, as I did two winters ago, except this time I think I’d do it a lot more sober.

  17. How the body handles, partitions, uses and absorbs energy is NOT at all addressed by the first law of thermodynamics, or more accurately, conservation of energy principle.

    Nor dioes the conservation of energy principle deal witgh fat cell regulation /hoarding/dysregulation specifically.

    The conservation of energy is merely a very peculiar and abstract mathematical statement that says there is a quantity that does not change in the manifol;d changes Nature undergoes as Richard Phillips Feynman stressed.

    The conservation of energy principle is merely a “state equation” and cannot and does NOT say anything about where the energy came from or where it is stored.

    I have studied this topic for 6 years straight, talked to over 50 physicists in this area. They ALL stressed the conservation of of energy principle is being abused and misused by Blog authors to blame and patronize obese people. . Obesity is a biochemcial phenomenon. It is NOT a matter of basic themrodynamics….. yes, it applies to all ife and , is valid and relevant int he background, HOWEVER, it is not nearly SUFFICIENT to explain fat cell regulation and opbesity. There is FARRR more going on here than mere energy balance. Energy balance does not at all deal with WHAT FORM SPECIFICALLY of mass is lost or gained. You can have very fatty ‘smaller ” people who only lost “weight.”, NOT mainly fat.

    There is nothing in the first law of thermodynamics which “requires” excess energy be converted to fat and stored as fat on the body . That is somehting the body actively decides to do. It is NOT somehting that just automatically happens in the absence of anything else being done with those calories. It COULD, but does NOT have to. That is ONE OPTION only.

    You can poop out energy. You can waste. energy as dissipated heat

  18. Furthermore, the final chapter has NOT been written in ANY part of physics. This INCLUDES the “laws of thermodynamics.” They are NOT in any way “immutable”, nor is any “law”. “Principle” is the more accurate word. They are reliable thus far and supported. That is it. NOTHING in science that we can say about our universe is immutable or absolutely certain. NOTHING.

    Scientists fully expect modification to laws in the future with further advancements. ALL laws remian ALWAYS PROVISIONAL and perfectible . Look into Physicist David Gross. Once again, therei sno such thing as a ‘scientific law”. NOTHING is immutable. “Immutability” is NOT even a characteristic of a law….As Paul Lutus notes,. scientific PRINCIPLE is the right word.

    Feynman stressed we must figure out which laws are wrong as fast as possible to make progress. The laws of physics are the SHADOWS on the wall of the cave of an underlying far deeper reality. They are approximations only. They are ou BEST GUESSES as to how Nature behaves put through the sieve as the holes in the sieve got smaller. Our models and pictures – which could be wrong and are very tentative That is IT!!!!

    There are many people in the Blogosphere with no science literacy. PLENTY of UNDISCOVERED physcis is left….

    1. “NOTHING is immutable.”
      Eh, what about that statement?
      Just kidding.. nice Plato reference if I’m right about that.

      1. Thanks. 🙂

        Dr. David Gross has a lot to say about this in a YouTube video called “Do The Laws of Physics Really Exist?” He is one of the best scientists today in physics.

        I will try to link it if I am allowed:


        The Lyle McDonald’s, CarbSane’s and Anthony Ciolpo’s of the world do not understand this basic concept. But I doubt Gross would even engage them in physcis because they are cranks.

        Best wishes,

      2. Thanks. 🙂

        I am glad you are an informed person . It’s rare.

        The CarbSane’s and the Colpo’s of the world do not understand that there is no such thing as a “scientific law.” They do not understand that “immutability:” is not even remotely close to being a characteristic of a law. All they are is reliable and supported thus far.Those jokers do not understand that all things in science, principles and everything, remain provisional and perfectible in science. This includes even all the conservation principles. Scientists fully expect modifications to be made to our ‘laws” or principles in the future as David Gross notes.

        It is unfortunate the word “law ” was ever used back in the day. It does not mean in science what it means in socoety. “Principle” is he more accurate word as Paul Lutus notes. I recommend reading his stuff, as well as Feynman’s. Also, the David Gross video explanation of “Do The Laws of Physics Exist”?

        Whether prime Bo jackson had to gain muscle or lose some muscle mass OR it Fatman of YouTube gained fat or lost fat the conservation of enery principle was valid necessary and relevant in both cases but NOWHERE NEAR SUFFICIENT to explain the different results and the reasons why some people are way fatter than others naturally.

        Far more is going on than mere energy balance ITSELF . There is energy usage which is not addressed by the first law, then there are genetic factors which factor in extremely greatly as fat cell creation si a deliberately regulated process – which is also not addressed.

        if a star like CanisMmajoris or a human got bioger in overall mass and sioze more energy came into the system than left, HOWEVER, obesity is about too much fat mass specifically. The conservation pricnple does nto explain obeity any more than it explains freakishly huge muscularity . never evr was eman to. That is all physiology and biochemistry

        Then we have hormones which directly affect energy expenditure like low testosterone low thrypid. But as we both know, energy balance ITSELF does not address bodu composition specifically, nor what form of mass is lost ( bone, muscle, organ, fat or all ) Far mroe is going on. Relevant amd necessary BUT NOT sufficient.

        take care!

        Best wishes,

  19. Lab rats have the “luxury” of going sedentary when scientists jack up their insulin and make them fat (ala Taubes’ report in his books). Yet scientists conclude “a calorie is not just a calorie”. But if the lab rats HAD A JOB, and could not go sedentary, then they would burn what they ate, even if insulin was ramming blood borne energy into fat cells. If you burn more than you are eating, you will lose weight, It doesn’t matter a damn how the calorie is packaged. That said, life is easier if you keep your insulin down and then don’t have to make extra efforts to move more.

  20. A few months ago I went back to calorie counting and have lost about 9 kgs so far – pretty happy as that includes the Christmas period.

    Everytime I try to lose weight without measuring I fail. Every time I try to maintain weight without measuring I fail. Yet when I diarise the food and weigh myself daily (and record the weight) I can easily lose.

    I have to keep doing what works for me.

    1. More than likely your calorie counting is inaccurate (even if you weigh everything to the gram) and it’s more the act of counting than means you eat more mindfully/carefully.

      1. I’d say the opposite. His “natural” sense of how much to eat is not in tune with his actual energy needs. Counting calories is necessary for him because he cannot accurately judge how much he is eating at any given time. I’ve seen this many times with people who are carrying a lot of extra weight. They have no internal mechanism for satiety or volume. They will continue to eat until it’s gone. If you never feel full and can’t judge portions, then measuring and counting is perfect.

        Imagine if you never felt pain or exhaustion. You’d have to time and measure all exercise or you would continue until injury every single time. For some people that’s how their stomachs are.

        1. I agree with the effect of keeping a journal. The awareness is often enough to keep consumption down.
          So, perhaps you don’t need to count calories to determine how much to eat, but rather track calories of what you have eaten to help build awareness.
          For people who are accustomed to overeating or who have been trained to do so, (“finish your plate, Jimmy!”) that general awareness is lacking, so I see no harm in using calorie (and macronutrient) tracking as a way to retrain habits and hopefully one day it becomes automatic (like how I can type this message without looking at the the keys).

          But all the same, if you’re trying to restrict calories to fit a number, and they’re the insulin spiking, craving inducing type, then eventual failure is a fait accompli.

  21. Human body weight appears to be regulated biologically, i.e. having some attempt which can be overcome by the environment to keep body fat within a range or level.

  22. Whether or not it was calories (in, out, up, down or sideways) or those other “mechanisms”, 50% of my previous body mass has disappeared (melted away) since I determined that conventional wisdom did not suit my biology.

    Thanks as always to Mark, the MDA & ancestral heath community for bringing such a bright light to this mystery.

  23. So does anyone know why all my posts are tagged “waiting for moderation”? Did I puss someone off?

    1. I’ve run into the same firewall. I think for a while the mods were actually screening all my comments based on my email address after I sent in a bunch of comments that probably weren’t that relevant to the average reader, and some could be called spam or trolling.
      Hey, one Grok’s troll is another Grok’s.. teacher? preacher?
      I have come to the conclusion that there are also red flag words that automatically send a comment through the strict sieve.
      I have a feeling I am the causative factor for three of them: b!nge, p!nt and [email protected], because I often mentioned b!nging on p!nts and [email protected] sh!t or sh!t that I had [email protected] and subsequently b!nged on.
      I noticed that the Recent Comments feed on the homepage has also been removed.
      Chaos theory in work.

      1. I like it! That’s exactly why I’m 100% strict paleo, so I can b!nge on p!nts! My wife doesn’t understand.

  24. Thankfully I have never counted calories, and now I never will. Thanks Mark

  25. Wow! This post was a real eye-opener for me. I’ve been trying to go toward more protein/fat and less carbs for a couple years now, with limited success. Feel better, but very little change in the weight loss department. Haven’t been able to really understand it until now. Clay put it very well…some people just can’t judge portions very well and seem to have no “off” switch to their appetite, that’s me. Also what Mark said about being the “rare insulin sensitive person who is obese”. My blood tests confirm insulin sensitivity but at 30 pounds overweight, I’m technically obese and I just recently tried counting my calories (silly as it sounds) for the first time in my life. The strangest thing happened. I began to lose weight very quickly. It was surprising to me how easily it happened, after years of trying different macro nutrient ratios, hoping to get it right. This discussion has really helped me realize what I have to do and it is much more simple and yet not nearly as much fun as what I was doing before. Thanks Mark for all the great info and thanks to all who comment…..I always learn so much from reading.

  26. I have counted calories in the past, and it led to an eating disorder. Now I don’t count calories, and I am happier, healthier, and living a fuller life! How’s that for breaking a calorie counting myth?

  27. I’m glad we know a calorie is a calorie. Perhaps now we can talk about how protein is a protein. 😉

  28. Here’s the argument I’ve used quite a bit on talking calories, carbs, and proteins.

    What is fatter, a cow or a lion? Obviously the cow. A cow eat grains (carbs) all day long, while a lion will lay around all day, and then take down its prey (protein). You want to be a cow or a lion?

  29. Energy is NOT ANYTHING MATERIAL. It is a quantity. it is an abstract mathematical finding that there i NUMBER conserved that does not change during the manifold changes nature undergoes.

    NO caloric energy is being turned into or converted into bodily matter ( fat, organ, muscle, ligaments etc.) WHATSOEVER. Therefore, calories in/calories out is TOALLY WRONG.

  30. I’m morbidly obese. Bought a Fitbit Surge a few weeks ago and it tells me that I’m burning about 2700 calories a day on my more sedentary days. I also carefully track my calories and am eating anywhere from 1800 – 2000 calories a day. No weight loss. My diet is mainly Primal. Something more is going on here than calories in calories out.

  31. Calorie counting is not only way to lose weight. you can lose your wright a lots of way one way is exercise. you can also exercise at home by recumbent exercise bike.