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A Calorie Is A Calorie? : Is Weight Loss Only A Matter Of “Calories in, Calories out?”

Once every few years a new diet or exercise program surfaces in the American mainstream offering a bevy of claims relating to fat loss or some specific health benefit. A few great features of these fad diets are that they reinvigorate the public’s concern for nutrition and, for the most part, they all work. Every year people collectively shed thousands of pounds in stride to their intended weight loss goals. A major reason why so many diets are effective is in large part due to the reduction in Calories respective to a person’s pre-dieting Caloric intake. Going from a 3,000 Calorie diet to 2,000 or even 2,500 Calories is sure to help anyone lose a few pounds. But is “Calories in, Calories out” all it actually boils down to? Why need a fad diet at all? Simply reduce your intake and you’ll get your beach body before summer vacation. As many people might know, there is much more to the story than just intake versus output.

A nutrition professor at the University of Kansas set out to test this concept in an interesting way. Professor Mark Haub changed his diet to what is more commonly known as the Twinkie Diet.1 He substituted whole fruits and vegetables for refined sugars and candy. The only stipulation was to control for Calories consumed never exceeding 1,800 Calories per day. Professor Haub lost 27lbs eating only refined foods that included a mix of Twinkies, Doritos, Oreos, and other notoriously “unhealthy” options. To further prove his point, Haub ordered medical labs to see how the Twinkie Diet might impact biomarkers in his blood. All indicators for CVD risks tested normal and even improved in tandem with his weight loss. It is pretty clear that reducing Calories alone can help people lose weight as evidenced by Professor Haub’s self-experimentation. We know “Calories in, Calories” out can help you lose weight but, what about keeping the weight off?

If your dieting goal is to reach a specific body weight then maintaining that weight usually coincides with that goal. Dieting isn’t really just about getting there but also staying there. So, once you hit your goal you can return to eating your most beloved meals, right? Not really. Dr. Layne Norton, a specialist in protein metabolism, explains this phenomenon best when talking about weight loss. He says “Americans don’t have a weight loss problem. They have a ‘keeping it off problem.4 ’” Norton, like many others in the nutrition field, have seen people revert back to their previous eating habits and not only gain the weight back but overshoot their original weight before dieting. There has been a few new concepts, however, that contends with the notion that eating more food means gaining more weight especially after a diet. One method called reverse dieting suggests slowly increasing Calories as a means to keep the weight gain to a minimum (more on this in another post).3 Imagine adding an extra 500-1,000 Calories to your intake and gaining 5-10lbs rather than the 40lbs you lost over the duration of the diet. If this does work then a Calorie isn’t just a Calorie for all dietary goals. There seems to be many other factors involved in maintaining your weight.

Let’s go back to the 1,800 Calorie Twinkie Diet that Professor Haub employed to lose weight. If Haub added an additional 1,000 Calories of the same foods in the Twinkie Diet, he might not keep those 27lbs off once he reached his goal, though, this is only speculation of course. One article does suggest this might be the case, however. A recent article published in Nutrition Reviews suggested the components of your diet does influence your body composition. Adding a single serving of a refined sugar into your daily intake correlated to an additional 0.3kgs (0.66lbs) of weight gain over four years.2 Less than a pound every four years seems insignificant but remember that it's only a single serving. If you accidently ate the entire pint of ice cream - as we all tend to do - you might add an extra 5lbs of body weight per year. More research still needs to be done so there is nothing conclusive just yet but you might want to start thinking about what you eat not just how much.

What’s important to remember about Calories is that they are essentially a tool you can use to reach a specific goal. Like any tool in your toolbox each has a unique function. Tracking Calories is a great tool for hitting your weight loss goals but not so great for other purposes. Short term Calorie restriction absolutely works and supports the “Calorie in, Calorie out” notion. But for other scenarios the research is suggesting you pick the right Calories to meet the right long term goals.

  1. Park, Madison (2010). Twinkie Diet Helps Nutrition Professor Lose 27 Pounds. Cable News Network. © 2017 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.

  1. Mozaffarian, D. (2017). Foods, obesity, and diabetes—are all calories created equal?. Nutrition reviews, 75(suppl_1), 19-31.

  1. Lee, Sohee. Norton, Dr. Layne (2015). Reverse Dieting. Sohee Lee with Dr. Layne Norton. Sohee Fit Systems LLC. 2017.

  1. Layne Norton Interview. Feb. 24, 2015.

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