I know the cited study is a bit much for most people to absorb. For that reason, the idea of my article from here on out is to simplify the core argument of the study. I want to dispel a rather heinous myth. A myth that has been the cause of pain and suffering for millions of people for more than four decades:
“To lose weight, you must burn more calories than you eat.”
Simply put; weight loss is a matter of calories in vs. calories out.
I’m sure you’ve heard this myth repeated over and over. By family, by friends, by the talking heads on TV, by personal trainers, and even by medical professionals. If you push back on them, even a little bit, they are likely to start spouting well-rehearsed rhetoric. A slew of “facts” designed to sail over your head and confuse you enough to solidify their unearned title of “expert.”
To combat this theory, I’m going to touch on a few key points:
Calories in, calories out: by the numbers
How your body burns calories
Calorie burning does not equal fat burning
Calories and insulin
You cannot exercise your way out of a high-carb diet
1. Calories In, Calories Out: By The Numbers
To kick things off, I’d like to share a short story with you. A close friend of mine recently hired an experienced and well-respected trainer. Out of curiosity, my friend decided to share his prescribed plan with me. On this plan, he must restrict his calories, track his macronutrients perfectly, and subject himself to long, strenuous workouts, 5-days per week. He will also be subjecting himself to separate “cardio” sessions, three times per week. These cardio sessions are designed to burn fat. He must run on a treadmill or elliptical while monitoring his heart rate until he has burned 250 calories. Does this plan sound like fun yet? Yeah, I didn’t think so either. Yet, this is a very similar protocol to what trainers give millions of people all across the country, each and every day.
“Eat less, workout more.”
When I saw his recommended food intake, one item, in particular, jumped out at me: 300 grams of carbohydrates per day! In my world, that is over six days worth of carbs packed into just 24 hours! Let me walk you through why this was so shocking to me…
The cardio workouts prescribed were designed to burn fat by burning calories. Here is a quick lesson on the caloric content of each macronutrient per gram:
(For the sake of this article, we will only focus on the two primary macronutrients used to create energy)
1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories
1 gram of fat = 9 calories
My friend must eat 300 grams of carbs per day. Simple math tells us that he will be eating 1,200 calories of carbohydrates each day (and that doesn’t even include his protein and fat intake!). A belief in “calories in, calories out” would tell us that he would need to complete five cardio sessions to burn off just one day of carbohydrates! How can this make any sense to anyone?! Let alone a fitness and nutrition expert.
This type of thinking runs rampant all throughout the fitness and nutrition industry. It’s the reason why most Americans have come to expect mediocre results from their protocols. It’s common for people to believe that more than 1-2 pounds of weight loss per week is unhealthy. Or that gaining a few pounds of muscle takes months and months of hard work. They are operating on outdated and disproven pseudoscience. What people don’t realize is most of what we grew up learning about nutrition was based on bad science that is now decades old. Which is just, well… stupid.
Making dietary decisions based on decades-old research is like trying to take a selfie with a rotary phone.
It’s that ridiculous. When you’re using shit science, expect shit results.
2. How Your Body Burns Calories
And now, I shall take on the monumental task of translating the brain-numbing article about calories into simpler terms…
Not all calories are equal.
Calories are required for your body to produce energy. Your body breaks down calories and turns them into energy. For the sake of simplicity, we will focus on your body’s primary source of energy. Something called, ATP. (Adenosine Triphosphate, for us geeks out there)
When you eat food, your body immediately goes to work on that food. Kicking off a chain of events that all lead to the creation of ATP. The thing is, not all calories create ATP the same way. Nor do they all produce the same amount of ATP. Calories burn differently, depending on the type of calorie.
We want the process of creating ATP to be as efficient as possible. The goal is to create as much ATP as we can from each calorie. In other words, per calorie, we want the most bang for our buck.
When your body burns calories from fat, it creates 9 times more ATP than when it burns calories from carbohydrates.
For every unit of ATP that carbohydrates create, healthy fat creates 9.
Since fat is roughly nine times more efficient than carbohydrates at creating ATP, clearly, not all calories are created equal. Even if we were to look at these numbers while following the “calories in, calories out” logic, carbohydrates still lose. If most of your energy came from fat, your body would actually need fewer calories overall.
3. Calorie Burning Does Not Equal Fat Burning
More importantly, I want to make something abundantly clear:
Calorie burning does not equal fat burning.
The “calories burned” display on your FitBit or fancy treadmill is in no way a representation of how much fat is being burned. In fact, when you have excess carbohydrates in your system, it is virtually impossible to burn fat. This is another example of why tracking calories is a remarkably inefficient way to approach fat loss.
So, what does all this technical jargon mean for you?! It means you have a choice. You can choose the efficiency of your body. You can determine the effectiveness of its ability to burn fat, which is exactly what the human body was designed to do.
For example, a car will always be a car. When you turn it on, it will try to run the way it is designed to run, regardless of what you put in it. If you drive a luxury vehicle, made for peak performance, the manufacturer will tell you to fuel the car with premium gasoline. Of course, you could always just use regular gas and the car will still run… it will just run like shit. It will never reach its performance potential, thanks to the junk you’ve shoved in its engine.
Think of your body the same way. You are the luxury vehicle. You have endless potential trapped within you. Bogged down by the cheap and dirty calories we call simple carbohydrates you’ve been shoving in your face for years. The foods you choose each day hold the key to every aspect of your health. Sleep, sex, mood, energy, athletic performance, mental performance, disease prevention, etc., etc. The cleaner the fuel source, the better your performance. Healthy fats are the single cleanest fuel source available.
This low-calorie, low-fat, high-carbohydrate nonsense has to stop. I know carbs are delicious, I know they are easy to cook, I know they are cheap and available in every store on the planet. That does not make them healthy, no matter how much you want to believe they are.
4. Calories and Insulin
Let’s address one more scientific fact, and this one will piss some people off:
Fat doesn’t make you fat. Carbohydrates make you fat. (For all you visual learners, click here)
Why? Insulin. Insulin is a storage hormone. It is responsible for making fat cells grow! Without insulin, the body cannot store fat. Guess which macronutrient triggers insulin production more than any other? You guessed it, carbohydrates. I’ll say this again, without Insulin, the body cannot store fat. If we were to oversimplify this immensely:
Less Carbs = Less Insulin = Less Fat Storage
And guess what? Insulin has nothing to do with how much energy is created from burning a single calorie! Some calories cause a massive release of insulin; others do not. Carbs release insulin; fats do not.
Still thinking all calories are equal?!
5. You Cannot Exercise Your Way Out of a High-Carb Diet
And the nail in the coffin for calorie counters:
You can not exercise your way out of a high carbohydrate diet.
Of all the points I will make in this article, this one frustrates more than any other. Why? Because society has this horrible idea that people who are struggling to lose weight lack discipline. This is just not true.
When overweight individuals say things like, “I’ve tried everything and just can’t lose weight!” They’re not lying. Yet, society has this habit of jumping to conclusions and deciding that these people must be hiding the truth. They’re imagining them devouring Cheetos and chocolate cake in front of the TV each night. I’m sure some people do that, but that vast majority of individuals that I have helped lose weight are actually very disciplined. I’ve worked with clients who are 250+ pounds, doing CrossFit 6 days per week or some other insane form of overtraining and they cannot lose fat. Why? I repeat:
You cannot exercise your way out of a high carbohydrate diet.
Some well-meaning trainer, somewhere along their journey, convinced them that they need to eat like a professional athlete to get results. This usually means a massive amount of carbohydrates. They plant this seed in the client’s head and just like that their fat loss goals are screwed. Indefinitely.
If I see one more “amazing transformation” post on Social Media about a client miraculously losing 10 pounds… in 6 months. I’m going to scream! Losing 10 pounds is a 7-day goal for my overweight clients. And my initial protocol for them involves exactly zero fitness.
It’s just science. Plain and simple. More specifically, it’s cutting edge science. These facts are proven by the highest level of clinical nutrition research currently available to humankind. As stated earlier, your body burns carbohydrates or fat for fuel. It does not burn both simultaneously. As long as you have excess carbs in your system, your body will not burn fat. Period.
To wrap things up, weight loss is not just a matter of burning energy. Specific calories trigger specific reactions within your cells. Some of those reactions are good, and others are bad. Which reactions occur depend on the type of foods you put into your body.
100 Calories from Pop-Tarts will not trigger the same reactions as 100 calories from grass-fed beef.
100 calories of sweet potato will not trigger the same reactions as 100 calories of avocado.
They are not equal, no matter how you look at it.
It is my hope that someday all of this will be common knowledge. It will be taught to our children from the first day they start school. It will wipe out the horrific food pyramid that was shoved into the impressionable minds of those of us born within the last four or five decades. But before we get ahead of ourselves, positive change starts with small steps…
Continue your own research on these incredibly important topics. Discover new and exciting information. Close the curtain on outdated nutritional myths and falsehoods. Get this information out there!