The more time I spend digging into the field of nutrition, the more I realize how little progress we’re making.
Since we’ve gotten past the ‘dietary fat is evil’ craze, all we’ve done is dig an even deeper hole, calling sugar a ‘dangerous drug’ and saying that carbohydrates are inherently fattening (thanks Taubes).
It truly pains me to see authority figures spread lies in an industry that is extremely vulnerable to scams and hucksters, which is why I call these people out when I can. It’s nothing personal, but you should not be able to lie to and mislead an audience, of whatever quantity, and get away with it.
Last night I came across an article on Twitter titled “I HATE CALORIES: Part 1” by Dietitian Cassie.
So either Cassie forgot to turn off ‘caps lock’, or she has a strong disdain for calories.
As the post goes on, it becomes clear that she doesn’t hate calories per se, she just hates the idea counting calories. Oh okay, that makes sense. Plenty of people don’t like counting calories, so that wasn’t surprising to me.
However, as I continued to read, the message seemed to be the typical ‘calories don’t count’ idea that has become so popular, particularly among the low carb and Paleo communities.
Let’s get this straight right off the bat: the energy balance equation, calories, metabolism, and nutrition in general are very complex and intricate topics. You cannot get by making over-simplifications, because they are misleading and dangerous to the scientifically illiterate general public.
I’m sorry to say it, but Dietitian Cassie’s post was a complete mess.
It’s not that long, so in the name of getting basic concepts correct and not misleading a vulnerable audience, I’m going to go through and address most of the points Cassie makes in her post in an attempt to set things straight.
Lindsey, a registered dietitian and blogger, already weighed in with her thoughts on the article here; I highly recommend that you check it out.
Also, for the record, I left a comment on the post on Cassie’s site, and as of right now the comment has not been approved. I’m not holding my breath, but if she does happen to approve the comment, I’ll be sure to link the ensuing discussion here.
And as a quick side note: this is not a personal attack or an attempt to defame anyone. I’m sure Cassie is a delightful person, but in this mess of an industry, you cannot be misleading and reductionist on a public platform.
The Energy Balance Enigma and Dietary Fat
Note: I will specify who’s words are in the quoted blocks.
Right off the bat, Cassie shows a rudimentary understanding of the energy balance equation. Whether it was intentionally simplistic or not, I’m going by what the article states.
Sadly, the misunderstanding of energy balance is extremely common amongst those who “hate calories”. If you’re going to “hate calories”, it’s important to understand what you’re hating and why.
The best explanation of the energy balance equation I’ve seen comes from Lyle McDonald. Basically, Lyle takes the simplistic ‘calories in, calories out’ and explains why it’s not quite that simple, which is why there is often a large-scale misunderstanding. You can read the post here.
At the end of the article, Lyle leaves us with the energy balance equation which accounts for all factors impact the calories in and calories out.
Energy In (corrected for digestion) = (BMR/RMR + TEF + TEA + SPA/NEAT) + Change in Body Stores
And one last quote from Lyle:
“The point of all of this is this: When people say that the energy balance equation is invalid, this is simply not the case. The equation is completely valid, what is invalid are the assumptions that people are making about what the equation means or says.”
So, as you see, it’s not as simple as calories in, calories out (in the way people typically imply), and there are a plethora of factors that affect both sides of the equation. I actually agree with Cassie when she says that fat loss is not as simple as calories in, calories out (again, in the way people typically imply it). There are myriad factors that influence both sides of the equation, and many people assume it is simply the calories you consume vs. the energy you expend through formal exercise. This is an oversimplification. To achieve fat-derived weight loss, you must implement a caloric deficit. Regardless of how this is achieved, it must be done for body fat loss to occur. This is irrefutable.
So to jump from calories in, calories out is oversimplified at times to calorie counting is ineffective all together is a gigantic and misled leap of faith.
Let’s move on.
After the points above, things start to become a huge bundle of logical fallacies, false analogies, and blatant misinformation.
“Another flaw with calorie counting is that it treats all calories equally and when counting calories, your body is unlikely to obtain what it needs to run most efficiently.”
That is what’s called a strawman argument. Sure, some people who are uneducated on the topic of nutrition may see all calories in exactly the same light, but most who know what they’re talking about take into account factors such as rate of digestion, fiber content, thermic effect, satiation effects, vitamins and mineral content, etc.
She goes on to say:
”Ironically, although fat supports metabolism and actually helps with weight loss, it is the first macronutrient to be eliminated on a calorie-counting diet.”
“Therefore, diets that focus on counting calories are usually high in carbohydrates and low in fat. If it were all about calories, it would make sense to eliminate fat right away.”
I’m not sure where she’s getting this information, but it’s completely false to say that this happens in every situation.
Are there some misled dietitians who prescribe a one-size-fits-all high carbohydrate, low fat diet in every situation? Probably. But to make a blanket statement and say “fat is the first macronutrient to be eliminated on a calorie-counting diet” is completely absurd.
I guess I’ll throw in my n=1 case: I count calories. I’m pretty lean. I eat a high carb diet. However, when I attempt to lean out even further, I lower macronutrients (excluding protein, which usually goes up) proportionally. I don’t prioritize fat over carbs or vice versa, as a balanced approach fit to individual needs is typically the most effective protocol.
So, I would like to see where Cassie is getting the above information. No one is doubting that there’s some shoddy nutritional advice floating around, but that doesn’t mean you can make misleading blanket statements such as those made above.
Also, those who are educated on the topic of nutrition will know that fat slows gastric emptying, causing fullness over a longer period of time; which makes it extremely valuable while in a caloric deficit (which is a fundamental requirement if one desires body fat loss).
I would also like for Cassie to expand on how dietary fat inherently “supports metabolism” and “helps with fat loss”.
In the next section, Cassie goes on to rant about how the food companies want us to believe calories matter because that makes their products acceptable.
I’m not really down with conspiracy theories, and I think the above is completely silly. The more popular items on fast food menus are extremely calorie dense, and anyone who actually counts calories knows this, so for the most part they avoid overeating fast food (when they do eat fast food, it’s in moderation, of course).
I’m pretty sure the food companies don’t care what we think about calories. Actually, it would seem more logical to believe that food companies want us to believe calories don’t matter, as most of their products are high in calories. Anyways, again, I don’t like conspiracy theories, so I’ll put away my tin foil hat for now.
I do, however, want to address a point she made at the end of the ‘big food’ section. She says:
“Your body knows the difference between 300 calories of high fructose corn syrup and the 300 calories found in an avocado. Your body metabolizes these very differently.”
The above is a perfect example of yet another strawman argument, and actually, a false analogy as well. I have never seen someone with any education on the topic of nutrition claim that avocados are metabolized in the same fashion as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). I would love to see the proof of such a claim being made.
Furthermore, HFCS is sugar, and avocados are a mix of carbohydrates (mostly fiber), fats, and a bit of protein (along with plenty of vitamins and minerals). To compare HFCS to avocados is laughable in any context.
I understand that she’s just trying to “make a point”, but the point could be made more eloquently using a comparison of foods with at least roughly the same macronutrient and fiber content.
Metabolic Rate: Oh Boy
“Your body is complex and to try and oversimplify and count a single substance, like calories, is a degrading, non-effective approach.” – Dietitian Cassie
Just wanted to quote this excerpt because of the pure irony it provides. Who’s oversimplifying a complex system? Anyways, let’s move forward.
Cassie goes on to say:
“Any time you are hungry, your metabolism is already slowing down in attempt to conserve energy until you properly fuel it again. When you starve it, your body works against you and in turn you feel tired, cranky and will likely have difficulty concentrating.”
Okay, this is the kind of misinformation I’m absolutely fed up with. Really? When you’re hungry your metabolism slows down? No, this is completely incorrect.
The resting metabolic rate (RMR) hardly ever slows as a result of dieting. Even if you go on an extreme starvation diet, the RMR typically doesn’t decrease to any noticeable degree (not enough to effect fat loss, at least).
What does decrease is total daily energy expenditure. When you diet, you tend to move less because you have less energy, which leads to less calories burned through conscious exercise and NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). These adaptations that occur as a result of dieting are called adaptive thermogenesis.
Furthermore, when you diet, you consume less calories, which means you burn less calories through digestion (the thermic effect of food).
As you can see, these adaptations can easily fall on the energy in and energy out sides of the energy balance equation as explained earlier.
In addition to the above factors, the loss of overall bodyweight leads to less overall calorie burn as well.
A person who weighs 200 pounds is certainly going to burn more calories during activity than someone who weighs 170 pounds (not to mention the fact that you burn calories just holding on to extra body fat, so when it’s lost, you burn less calories).
Cassie, with all due respect, I suggest that you do a bit more reading on the metabolic adaptations of dieting before you make statements such as the one above. You could even read Leigh Peele’s new book “Starve Mode” (non-affiliate link: here), which is by far the best source of information on the human metabolism, in the context of caloric restriction.
You can also check out Armi Legge’s excellent podcast on the myths of starvation mode here. And Tom Venuto’s excellent explanation of “Starvation Mode” here. And Evelyn (AKA Carbsane) explains some misconceptions behind calories and starvation here.
The reality is that “starvation mode” does exist.
However, it’s not nearly as prevalent as some make it out to be, and a modest deficit will not cause you to enter “starvation mode”.
Cassie goes on to assert:
“When you starve it, your body works against you and in turn you feel tired, cranky and will likely have difficulty concentrating. This is because your body slows down to compensate for energy it needs which it isn’t receiving. Not only do we feel lethargic and deprived, we don’t lose weight, and the desire to lose weight is a main reason why many people decide to cut calories to begin with.”
Again, read my response above. “Starvation mode” is largely an exaggerated concept.
And sure, some are going to feel lethargic and deprived, but one can certainly minimize these effects by eating at a modest deficit and not being overly restrictive with their food choices.
Further, I would like someone to show me controlled evidence displaying someone who doesn’t lose weight in a caloric deficit.
The problem is typically underestimating food intake and overestimating activity levels. These two factors combined easily account for the supposed lack of weight loss in a calorically restricted setting.
Insulin Issues: You Probably Knew This Was Coming
Even though the insulin hypothesis of obesity has been thoroughly and mercilessly debunked over and over again, people still perpetuate insulin as this evil hormone at the root of all fat gain.
It appears that Dietitian Cassie still somewhat believes in this largely flawed concept.
“You may have heard of insulin, better known as your “fat-storing” hormone. Any time there’s a surge of sugar in your blood stream, your pancreas secretes insulin to take that sugar to your cells for storage.”
Yes, insulin, that nasty hormone that prevents us from going hyperglycemic and eventually dying. So evil.
Anyways, she’s correct that sugar spikes insulin. However, she is extremely reductionist in her further explanation.
“Let’s work backwards: to prevent these fat cells from multiplying and growing, it would make sense to decrease the insulin response, and to do this, we would need to decrease the rapid spikes in our blood sugar levels. What spikes these blood sugar levels? You guessed it: sugar and carbohydrates (which are metabolized as sugar as soon as they reach the blood stream). Wouldn’t it make sense to decrease our sugar and carbohydrate intake to prevent our pancreas from secreting insulin, which takes the sugar to our cells to be stored as fat?”
I’m not exactly sure where to start with this gem, so I’ll just dive right in.
First off, apparently Cassie has not gotten the memo that protein spikes insulin, often more so than carbohydrates and sugar (7).
So if fat loss and fat gain were all about regulating insulin levels, we should probably only eat fat.
Luckily, fat loss is not all about insulin levels. It has been shown repeatedly in the scientific literature: diets that result in lower insulin levels (meaning the diets subsequently contained lower amounts carbohydrate) do not offer any significant fat loss advantage (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Energy balance reigns supreme, regardless of the macronutrient composition of the diet.
Even further, her suggestion that insulin causes sugar and carbohydrate to be stored as fat is reductionist, and somewhat of a fantasy.
The conversion of carbohydrate to fat is a largely inefficient process, and it doesn’t happen too often in humans (6).
When we step out of fairytale land and look at the science, we’ll see that carbohydrate consumption increases the rate of carbohydrate oxidation at a much higher rate than fat intake increases fat oxidation. And, as carbohydrate oxidation increases, fat oxidation decreases which causes more dietary fat to be stored. Carbohydrates are preferentially stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver, along with being utilized by the brain.
The reality is: dietary fat is stored as body fat much more efficiently than dietary carbohydrate, so the base of Cassie’s insulin argument is quite wobbly. This is not to say that dietary fat is to be avoided or limited, but attention must be paid to energy balance. If you’re in a negative energy balance, you will have to access stored body fat, regardless of macronutrient composition.
Read Lyle McDonald’s explanation of how we get fat here (this article does a great job explaining the differences in how each macronutrient is oxidized and stored).
Cassie then writes:
“Carbohydrates are what cause the insulin response in our body, whereas fat does not cause any at all.”
It is true that fat does not cause any significant increase in blood sugar levels. However, that doesn’t mean it cannot be stored. You see, we have this tricky little protein called acylation stimulating protein, which stores fat in the presence of low insulin levels (9).
Also, as I mentioned above, you cannot possibly ignore the fact that protein is a potent stimulator of insulin as well. James Krieger wrote an excellent series destroying the rampant myths surrounding insulin, and here is part 1. If you want a real understanding of insulin and not a reductionist and misleading view, it’s required reading.
She goes on to say:
“It would make sense then to reduce carbohydrate intake and ensure adequate consumption of healthy fats when on a quest for weight loss, wouldn’t it?”
In some people, sure. People should reduce intake of whatever they need to in order to achieve negative energy balance. I certainly agree that people should be consuming adequate amounts of dietary fat.
Some have more success cutting carbohydrates, some have more success cutting dietary fat. It’s going to greatly depend on the individual circumstances and personal preferences, so making blanket recommendations to reduce carbohydrate intake is incorrect.
Cassie ends her post with the following:
“Calorie counting doesn’t support this approach because the calorie theory doesn’t distinguish between quality of calories at all. Calorie counting focuses on quantity and quantity alone. When we take a look at how the body works, you can see how this flawed system can be damaging for our bodies to be on these low calorie, high carbohydrate diets. Maybe you’ll agree with me… that CALORIE COUNTING is absolutely ABSURD.”
Again, this is a strawman argument. The calorie theory (I’m assuming she’s referring to the energy balance equation) can certainly account for the quality of calories.
Typically, when one consumes “quality calories”, they are consuming whole, minimally processed foods that have a higher fiber content and are more satiating in comparison to highly refined foods. The higher fiber content increases the thermic effect of food (influences energy out) and whole foods are typically more filling, which influences calories in.
The general idea of calorie counting never asserts that quantity is all that matters.
Sorry Cassie, I don’t agree with your assertions. You contend that calorie counting is an oversimplification of bodily processes, and I’ve explained why it is you who is being reductionist in your explanations.
I hope that we can have a civil debate on the topic, as I feel it would be very educational for all those involved.
My Final Thoughts
Look, there is more than one way to lose body fat.
There are certainly people who have had success without counting calories, and there are certainly people who have had success counting calories. Again, it all comes down to personal preferences and what works best for the individual.
The idea that calorie counting is absurd because it doesn’t work for some people is, well, absurd. Making blanket statements about the intricacies of insulin secretion, optimal macronutrient composition, and the human metabolic rate is no joke, and said statements can be misleading to a population who are already vastly confused on the topic of nutrition.
Cassie, I’m sure your intentions are great and you want the very best for your audience. However, as someone who values the objective scientific evidence and underlying physiology, I cannot stand by and let authorities spread misinformation on a public platform.
This is not a personal attack on you by any means, but it is a call for a civil debate.
I would love to converse with you and exchange ideas, as that’s how everyone learns. If you want, you can shoot me an email or even drop a comment here. Either way, I hope this can be a learning experience for the both of us, and I hope everyone involved can benefit.
Some reading this may be wondering while I would take so much time to write this post. First off, it didn’t take me that long, so don’t worry about my time management!
Also, this isn’t just about Dietician Cassie and myself. This is for the benefit of an audience who cares about the science and the objective evidence behind nutritional practices. So, this is not a waste of time. If one person benefits from this post, then I have done my job.
Thanks for reading.