I remember loving math back in high school. It was so satisfying to solve a math problem: all the numbers in agreement with nothing left to account for. It was so tidy. When I first heard “1 pound of fat equals 3,500 calories,” I had that same feeling. If I wanted to lose weight I could simply track all the calories I ate versus the calories I burned and make sure I made a 3,500 deficit over a week or so. I loved to exercise so I thought it would be a breeze. How wrong I was.
Current science is putting the final nail in the coffin of what we can now call the “3,500 calorie myth”. As it turns out, losing weight is much more complex than eating less and exercising more. I learned this the hard way during my university days when I was surviving on tofu salads and living at the gym. There is a laundry list of reasons; I’m going to briefly go over couple of major ones.
Looking only at the number of calories ignores the types of calories you’re taking in. Fat, protein and carbohydrate have very different effects on your hormones and metabolism. Fat and protein raise your insulin levels only minimally; large amounts of carbohydrate cause it to skyrocket. This is problematic because insulin is a hormone that tells your body to store fat rather than burn it. Eating a diet that’s low in calories but high in carbohydrates could lead to a conspicuous lack of weight loss… or weight gain. It’s tricky because many seemingly healthy foods are heavy in carbohydrates: breads (even whole grain), rice (even brown) and potatoes (even if they’re not in the form of french fries).
Protein also has much more of a thermogenic effect on your body. That means it requires extra energy to digest it and that energy is lost as heat. A gram of protein has about 4 calories; however, not all 4 calories “count”. Neither fat nor carbohydrate have this effect which is part of the reason why a diet that’s rich in protein is typically more successful in weight loss.
To be clear, these are only a couple of reasons – roughly sketched out – that should plant a serious seed of doubt in the minds of calorie counters. I’m not saying that calories don’t matter at all but I think that their importance is definitely secondary to the kinds of calories you eat. Next month I’ll look at how exercising more doesn’t necessarily lead to weight loss.