Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Is Calories In vs Calories Out the Final Word?

Anyone who has heard me speak, read much on this blog, or worked with me, surely understands that I don't often worry about calories.  You have seen here recipes for delicious smoothies with coconut, luscious fruits, tahina; my raw brownies and peanut bars resplendant with dates and nuts; creamy banana oats and other carb-heavy dishes.   I personally find that by staying away from processed foods, from sugar, from too much wheat and animal products, I can enjoy a bountiful diet without having to count or watch calories.

But what about what we have been taught:  "Weight is controlled quite simply by calories in versus calories out." Isn't this an indisputible Law of Thermodymanics?

Total honesty here:  I don't know.

I do know that when I was following a 100% Raw Vegan Diet, I ate whatever I wanted as long as it was raw, and I lost weight. I ate loads of fruit, veggies, avocados, as many nuts and seeds as I wanted, agave nectar, raw honey, raw cacao, coconut oil, loads of flaxseed crackers, and gourmet raw dishes and I continued to lose weight. Sometimes, just for fun, I input everything I ate into fitday.com to see where I stood calorie-wise. Not surprisingly, I quite often came in well-over the 1400 calories I had needed to stay below in order to lose the 70 lbs I had lost up to that point. It was pretty clear to me then, that NOT all calories were created equal. Calories from raw, unadulterated sources seemed to be used by the body more efficiently.  (By the way, I lasted as a 100% Raw Vegan for 30 days.  Twice.  It's not easy).

Then there is the lecture I recently listened to by Marc David, author of The Slow Down Diet, Nourishing Wisdom, and Mind/Body Nutrition, founder of The Institute for the Psychology of Eating, and a graduate of and guest teacher at my alma mater, the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. In the lecture, David discounts the calories in-calories out theory completely. He points out that if that formula really worked, so many of us wouldn't still be struggling with our weight. David goes on to explain that a meal, eaten under stress, anger, or self-loating isn't going to be digested the same way as a meal eaten in happiness, joy and calm. He's got the scientific data to back up his claims.  I personally think he's on to something.

And what about hormones and their role on weight?  What about toxins in the environment.  What about the thyroid, the master gland that controls our calorie burn rate, the metabolism?

In my own practice, I've had plenty of clients keep meticulous records of their intake and output everyday for days on end. Often where there is a calorie-defecit and we would expect them to lose weight, they don't. Other times, they lose weight when they are clearly eating a surplus of calories. I am pretty convinced that weight loss adds up to quite a bit more than just calories in vs calories out.

The method I try to teach my clients is to follow their hunger. Eat when hungry, don't eat when not hungry. This takes some practice for many of us, especially those who have not allowed themselves to feel actual hunger for years, but I have a great technique that makes this so simple and easy.

I also advise everyone to eat as natural whole food as possible and to avoid artificial flavors, chemicals, preservatives and other ick. Fruit is your friend people! It is not a high-calorie bomb!! Who came up with that anyway? I so often hear people tell me they are avoiding fruit because it is too many calories and too much sugar, as they chomp on their artificial chemical filled diet bar and their skim latte. Perhaps their snack is fewer calories, but what about nutrition? What about satisfaction? What about fiber?? Will that lower calorie, albeit lower nutrtient snack actually help them lose weight? Will they then be skinny but sick?  This is not an experiment I am willing to take with my health. I am not eating food created in a Lab. I do not believe that those reduced calorie items will keep me slim and healthy. Pass me the peaches.

I also ask my clients to find a form of movement that they love and then get out there and do it regularly. It should be hard enough to make you sweat and breath, but fun enough to make you want to do it again.

BUT, and this is a very big but:  More times than not, I will also ask my clients to submit food logs or to track their calories for a few weeks on http://www.sparkpeople.com/ or http://www.fitday.com/.  Why?  Because it is all too easy to think we are eating great and within reason, but in reality we are eating more than we need.  How many people reading this have been frustated that they did everything "right" and still didn't lose weight?  Yeah, me too.  Then I logged it all and saw I was overeating enough of the time to undo the lower calorie days and halt any weight loss progress. Food logging and calorie counting can be THE KEY to figure out why your weight is not going in the direction you want it to be going.

So, I am divided on the issue.  I think calories DO count.  I also think there is more to weight loss than just calories.

What do you think?  What has been your experience with calorie counting?

For those of you on SparkPeople, please friend me:  EmilySegal.  Sometimes I track my food there too for all to see.


  1. Did you ever read Fit For Life by M&M Diamond? He doesn't talk about calories, but it did inspire me to eat more live food, and more fruit in the mornings. I was hardly eating any fruit before! And my mom is a Weight Watcher's success story, but I hate that her calorie avoidance plan means she eats loads of processed low-cal foods, additives, sweeteners, and almost no fruit because it's so 'full of sugar and calories'. Ack!

  2. I've been following Dr. Joel Fuhrman's, "Eat for Health" program and find that when I'm eating high nutrient foods, my cravings go away and even though I feel stuffed to the gills, I still lose weight. I definitely believe in the, "Law of Thermodynamics."

  3. Interesting! I was on a 100% raw diet 3 years ago for 6 months and I gained weight! Well,that was not the only reason for weightgain;the other reasons were I had quit smoking and gotten divorced.But still.And I had my thryroid checked and it was ok as well.So I am still wondering where these 24 kilos came from.....