As a neuroscientist, I am fascinated by the complex relationship between nutrition, productivity and mental health.
Calories: The Pervasive Myth
An increasing number of us are pulling the blinders off our own eyes and rejecting outdated dogmas surrounding nutrition, weight gain and metabolism. One particular falsehood still subscribed to by the majority of the population relates to the topic of calories. 'Calories in, calories out' (CICO) is a phrase that has been delivered to the majority of us since childhood, often with a smug smirk. After all, "it's simple physics, which many biologists fail to understand; the human body must follow the first law of thermodynamics".
However, the body does not need to rigidly adhere to this concept of simple energy consumption versus expenditure to adhere to the laws of thermodynamics. In fact, the complex systems involved in metabolism, energy expenditure, productivity and weight gained are also subject to the second law of thermodynamics (a law of dissipation); 'CICO', as a fixed formula, does not apply to human nutrition and, in fact, violates this second law.
It is evident that eating a low-carbohydrate, high-fat (LCHF) diet compared to a high-carb, low-fat diet (HCLF) diet produces significantly greater weight loss results when calories are the same. A pilot study had individuals eating isocaloric preparations of either of the two diets (men were given 1800 calories daily, and women 1500 calories); the LCHF diet produced an average weight loss result of 23 pounds, compared to 17 within the HCLF experimental group.
To further investigate this phenomenon, they also recruited a third group to which they delivered an additional 300 daily calories of high-fat foods. This group lost an average of 20 pounds, still significantly beating the high-carb group (that took in less calories) due to insulin levels remaining lower (Greene, 2003). Here, you can read about one man's experiment with consuming 5,000 daily calories of high-fat foods; he only gains a total of 1.3kg over the month, compared to the 7.3kg expected if the 'CICO' calculator were infallible. Moreover, he also lost 3cm from his waist, suggesting the modest weight gain that he experienced may have actually have been owed to an increase in lean muscle mass.
So, Calories Don't Matter?
Calories do matter, in the sense that 5,000 calories of a specific type of food will probably result in more weight gain than 3,000 calories worth of the same type of food. However, as is demonstrated by unbiased modern literature, carbohydrates result in more weight gain than high-fat/high-protein foods of the same caloric value. Eating large amounts of carbohydrates, especially refined sugars, results in steady and marked weight gain due to sustained increases in insulin, decreased insulin-receptor sensitivity and leptin resistance, the latter of which disrupts satiety signals and increases baseline hunger levels. Not to mention, regular sugar intake results in progressive liver damage and marked systemic increases in inflammation (the key driver of all disease pathologies known to man).
I decided to take it upon myself to prove to you all that a calorie is not 'a calorie', since the body is a complex system possessing an inherent set-point weight range and the ability to dramatically speed-up or slow-down your metabolism as needed. This is a truth that the sugar and pharmaceutical industry do not want you to figure out; as long as people believe that consuming two Coca-Colas (280 calories of sugar) a day is fine and that they can a). burn off the damage with exercise or b). just eat one less avocado to balance things out, every single human disease and mental health condition will be on the rise.
My Experiment: 6,000 Calories A Day
Committing to eating 6,000 calories a day for a full month, I devised a meal plan that was both convenient and appealing. Inspired by my biological background and personal experience with different diet plans, I knew that this would allow me to put to bed any lingering doubts regarding the calorie conundrum. Though the great amount of food consumed may seem concerning to you, I have always possessed an incredibly keen appetite and consider myself a 'volume eater'; I found myself satisfied on this protocol, but did not struggle to hit the target.
The Meal Plan
From the 29th of October, 2019 to the 29th of November, 2019 I ate as follows:
Breakfast (7:30 am): 8 large eggs, 2 tbsp of coconut oil, 340g of spinach, 130g of edam cheese --> 1,500 calories
Snack (10 am): 120g cashews --> 600 calories
Lunch (1 pm): 400g of salmon cooked in 2tbsp of coconut oil and a large head of broccoli --> 1,500 calories
Snack (4pm): 230g of blueberries and 100g of macadamia nuts --> 800 calories
Dinner (9pm): 350g of chicken cooked in 1tbsp of coconut oil --> 600 calories
Desert (10pm): 100g of brie cheese and 60g chia seed putting with cacao and 3tbsp of peanut butter --> 1,000 calories
Total = 6,000 calories per day
How Much Weight Did I Gain?
As a slim, tall woman, I naturally have a fast metabolism and can maintain a BMI of 19.5 when I eat around 3,000 calories of paleo foods every day. However, I notice myself able to maintain my low weight when eating a seemingly-absurd quantity (4,000 - 6,000 daily calories) of low-carb, ketogenic, high-fat foods.
Based on my height, weight, daily energy expenditure, rudimentary CICO calculations would have had me gaining a whopping 28.4 pounds after a month of following my overly-generous diet plan.
Paradoxically, I only gained 4 pounds of weight during this month; despite eating in excess and being in a highly positive energy balance, the macronutrient composition of the foods that I opted for did not prime me for weight gain. Following an extremely low-carbohydrate diet results in negligible insulin secretions and, given that insulin is the key driver of fat storage, a low probability of piling on a significant mass of body fat. I must mention that I have gained as much as 10 pounds of fat in a mere month of over-indulging in sugar, bread and alcohol in the past, so I am not immune to weight gain when following the suboptimal diet that the vast majority of the population follows.
You might have noticed that coconut oil featured in many of my meals; there is no single food that I recommend more than coconut. I've experienced greatly enhance satiation, a leaner physique, an improved immune system and sharpened cognition (measurable through my ability to write fluidly) since incorporating it into my diet. Take care to only purchase high-quality, extra-virgin coconut oil like this one (such brands are more affordable online). Cheap, refined coconut oil can be rancid and inflammatory, negating any of its benefits.
Sugar Is Poison, Not Food
Obesity is a hormonal issue rooted in altered insulin system functionality, and is principally driven by refined sugar intake. I hope this article drives you towards embracing a diet that a). fuels your body correctly and b). involves no sugar.
Whole-food sources of carbohydrates such as potatoes, oats and quinoa can form part of a healthy diet, but ensure to prioritize dark green vegetables and animal products to minimize insulin spikes and improve inflammatory markers.
Greene P, Willett W, Devecis J, A. Skaf (2003). Pilot 12-week feeding weight-loss comparison: Low-fat vs. low-carbohydrate (ketogenic) diets. Obesity Research.
This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2019 Lucy
Lucy (author) from Leeds, UK on January 27, 2020:
Thanks for this comment, Dora! It really is fascinating to see us advancing past outdated 'calories in, calories out' science.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on December 18, 2019:
Insightful and revealing! There is more to consider concerning the benefit of foods than whether or not they add or decrease weight. Thanks especially for explaining the insulin factor.