Calories In, Calories Out

If the mind, that rules the body, ever so far forgets itself as to trample on its slave, the slave is never generous enough to forgive the injury, but will rise and smite the oppressor.

~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

If you’re not familiar with the term “calories in, calories out,” or CICO, it refers to the dearly held belief that somehow the laws of thermodynamics demand that if we eat X number of calories (energy in) and expend Y number of calories (energy out) that our weight will change by Z according to how much we over- or under- ate our caloric needs. This formula is trotted out as the ultimate answer for obesity.

And it’s idiotic.

I hate to use that word, but since I’m sitting here in a body currently 120 pounds lighter than it was 8 months ago, which did not become that way either through taking in less energy or expending more energy, I feel as if I can say it.

And what are we if not a giant bundle of feelings?

Well actually what we are is a very complicated, brilliantly designed machine. So complicated that people who can build rockets that go beyond our solar system, bombs that drop exactly on target, and cars that can park themselves are still trying to figure us out.

And despite acknowledging this vast complexity, people still insist that when it comes to our energy intake and expenditure it’s all very simple. When it comes to understanding why just about the most complex mechanism in the universe breaks–i.e. gets fat–it couldn’t be easier to explain.

One of my favorite places to see this is in medical definitions of obesity. They invariably say something like this:

Obesity is a complex, chronic disease characterized by excessive accumulation of body fat.

And then they proceed to tell you in the next sentence that it’s actually very simple. You fool.

…the cause of obesity is simply that the energy (food) taken in exceeds the energy expended by the individual’s body…


This kind of thinking just makes me want to do something drastic, like kick the dog. And here’s why: a car is a far, far less complex organism than a human being. A car is less complex than a little blip of bacteria, for that matter. And yet everyone understands that what you get out of your car isn’t just a matter of the amount of energy you put into it and the amount of energy you ask of it. It’s far more complex then that. The type of energy matters, doesn’t it? Different grades of gasoline will give you different performance, as will different types of oil. How you expend the energy in driving technique, temperature changes, terrain issues: all will determine how much you’ll get out of the same amount of fuel.

But when it comes to the human organism apparently we’re much less complex than our cars.

Let’s consider a few other logical problems, shall we?

If CICO is accurate, then the following should all be true:

1. It should make no difference what you eat. If we had three people of the same gender, age, height, and activity level, starting out at the same weight, and all three ate 3,000 calories per day for 2 months, they should all gain exactly the same amount of weight. Even if one ate 3,000 calories of broccoli (19 1/2 pounds), one ate 3,000 calories of lard (3/4 a pound) and one ate 3,000 calories of hard candy (3 1/3 to 5 1/3 cups, depending on what candy you choose) .

So that’s what CICO tells us, but does your brain tell you that these three people will look the same at the end of the 2 months? Even if we give them nutritional supplements to make sure they’re all getting the protein, vitamins and minerals they need?

2. It should be virtually impossible to not become fat. After all, which of us knows exactly how many calories we expend in a day? You can get a rough estimate, but even if you went in tomorrow and had your metabolism tested to get an exact reading, it still wouldn’t be useful. After all every day is different. To expend exactly the same amount of calories tomorrow, you would have to sleep exactly the same amount of time, down to the minute. You would have to respirate at exactly the same speed for the whole day. You would have to take the same number of steps, spend the same amount of time watching TV, watch the same shows with the same reactions, etc, etc, etc, etc. You see where I’m going.

And yet they tell us that 1 pound of fat is 3,500 calories, so all it takes to gain 1 pound is to overeat 3,500 calories. That seems like a lot till you divide it over, say, two months. You’d only need to overeat just over 100 calories a day to put on a pound. 100 calories is nothing.

You’ve seen those “100 calorie servings” of snacks, right? They’re packaged that way because no sane person would imagine so little of that product could be a whole 100 calories without a guide to tell them so. And how could anyone possibly keep from overeating such a minuscule amount of normal foods? That’s just 1/2 a cup of the disgusting ice cream (the low fat kind), or one mini quesadilla, or three whole crackers with cheese–but only if you use the low-fat cheese and only if you eat one slice, or six of those tiny pretzel sticks, or half of a baked potato with no sour cream and no butter: just a tablespoon of salsa on top.

Give me a break. But not a Kit-Kat bar. Make mine some coffee with butter and coconut oil in it.

And how can anyone not overeat by such small amounts when we live in such a toxic food environment, which is how the obese Kelly Brownell, Yale professor and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, explains why we all won’t stop overeating. Perhaps he’s looking for a reason to justify his own obesity when he “knows” exactly how to stop being fat: just stop eating more calories than he expends.

And this also doesn’t explain why I just googled “splurged and gained 5 pounds” and found this:


Look at the answers these poor people are getting for the mystery of how on earth they could have gained 5 pounds in one weekend: “Well, a pound of fat is 3,500 calories so 5 pounds is 17,500 calories, which seems like a lot but…” Give me another break, please, because no one overeats 17,500 calories in two days and doesn’t understand what happened on Monday morning.

17,500 calories is about 61 slices of pizza. If you ate that much pizza over the weekend you’d have far more serious problems than just an extra 5 pounds on the scale. And that’s 61 slices above and beyond your weekend caloric needs, which for a young, active, pizza eating guy is about 5,000 calories: or about 18 slices of pizza. Meaning that to overeat 17,500 calories he would have to actually eat about 80 slices of pizza.

“But what about the beer?” I hear you asking.

Ok, let’s say that our poor subject only over-ate 30 slices of pizza (48 slices total, and still something most of couldn’t manage) and made the rest of those excessive calories up in beer. That’s 56 cans of beer.

Really? Our friend over-ate by 30 slices of pizza and 56 cans of beer, and then the next morning he got on yahoo answers to ask everyone by what mysterious mechanism he could have possibly gained 5 pounds?

I clicked one of the links that came up in answer to this question and got this bit of inanity:

A pound equals 3,500 calories. To gain five pounds, you must consume 17,500 calories. And while that many calories sounds ridiculous, it is very easy to consume in a short span of time. When you go out to eat at a restaurant, many dishes pack over 1,000 calories, and that does not include the calories from appetizers, desserts, sodas, coffees, or alcoholic beverages.

I want to talk about it because, frankly, I’m insulted that whoever wrote this thinks we’re all that dumb. Now come on.

Let’s send someone, a lady this time, to The Cheesecake Factory. Let’s say it’s her birthday, so she’s in a mood to splurge with the girls. Here’s what she eats:

Fried macaroni and cheese appetizer, which has the most calories of any appetizer on the menu. She doesn’t even share it with her friends, so she gets the whole thing: 1,540 calories.

She wants to be “healthy,” so she orders the highest calorie salad, the side Caesar salad: 860

She goes for the most caloric thing on the mains menu, beef ribs: 2,310

She has the highest calorie side she can pick, french fries: 570

She orders the biggest caloric dessert bomb, the Factory Mud Pie: 2,070

And she has three glasses of the highest calorie drink, the raspberry lemonade: 600

I’ll grant you that’s plenty of calories: 7,950 total. What I won’t grant you is that any normal American woman would eat a side salad, a plate of ribs, french fries, a huge cheesy appetizer, an entire mud pie and three glasses of sugar drink all by herself–somehow managing to choose the most calorie-packed foods in every category–and then eat like that again later in the day. Because to get to 17,500 calories beyond what she needs for Saturday and Sunday (say about 4,000 calories for a woman) she’d have to eat just about that same meal 3 times over.

Have you ever seen anyone do that? I mean normal someones. No, I’m confident you haven’t. You may have seen someone eat that way once on Saturday and again on Sunday, but they did not eat like that for three meals out of six in a two day period. Yet they would have to do so in order to pack on 5 pounds, if CICO is correct. It’s rare to see someone eat like that, but it’s not rare to hear people complain about putting on 5 pounds over the weekend. Or even overnight!

How do people gain 2, 4, or 5 pounds overnight, or even over the weekend, if they had to eat X number of calories to get that way? And how does anyone not end up fat in such a toxic food environment as we live in when you can put on an extra pound every 2 months just by overeating 100 calories a day? I mean, how can you measure food intake with such precision and have time to do anything else with your day?

The COCI disciples will tell you that all the thin people you see around you have managed to perfectly balance their food intake and output. Somehow. By magic apparently. Maybe they notice their belt is tightening a bit and they start under-eating for a while to make it up.

Only none of the skinny people I know do that. They do exactly what the fat people do: they eat until they aren’t hungry anymore of the foods they like. In fact when you ask me to think of people I know who overeat, most of them are skinny.

I think that’s enough logic problems. You can come up with some more of your own by now, I’m sure. The point is that obesity is not about eating too many calories or not expending enough energy. Obesity is about how the fuel you’re putting in the tank affects the machine. And it’s not the fat you’re putting in that’s making you fat.

Remember Mr. Feltham from a previous post? He’s the guy who’s eating 5,700 calories a day of a very high fat, very low carbohydrate diet for 21 days. He’s eating lots of beef, fish, eggs, almonds, walnuts, coconut oil, and green beans. According to calories in, calories out, he’s been overeating by about 3,200 calories a day for 21 days now. He’s over-eaten 56,654 calories tota, and did not change his exercise routine from what he did before he started overeating.

Now, after 21 days, he’s 2.87 pounds heavier. According to CICO, he should be 16 pounds heavier. And his waist has shrunk by 1.18 inches. When you put on a little weight while simultaneously shrinking, what does that mean? It means you’ve lost fat while gaining muscle. But whether he’s gained muscle or not, waist has shrunk or not, he’s definitely proved that there’s a lot more to this than CICO. He’s simply not gained enough weight for that to be true.

He’s mentioned the possibility of trying the opposite experiment in a few months: overeating by 3,000+ calories a day of starchy, carbohydrate foods. You can place your bets after you finish reading, but my bet is that he’ll gain  the 16 pounds that CICO says he should.

Oh and don’t worry about the dog. He’s fine. Though he might be hungry.



Plato says he’s hungry

Help us keep paying for this site and feeding the dogs.


8 thoughts on “Calories In, Calories Out

  1. Ok, I’ll bite this one slightly. CICO is absolutely true if the total processes are explained. And that’s the problem I see in simplistic statements when CICO is often trotted out: the majority of known details are ignored. Calories in is simple enough, eating. Calories out is extremely complex, rarely explained, and entirely different from person to person. However, to do a certain amount of work, if you put any two people in a calorimeter, they do indeed use the same exact amount of energy to do the same exact amount of work. But this has nothing to do with the rest of the processes that affect calories out. Just a few examples, gut bacteria play a huge role in how food is either absorbed or passed. Food type and quantity also affect absorption or not. At this point, maybe it is clear that some calories aren’t going to count, and that’s where the whole thing makes a little more sense to me.

    1. Exactly. It’s not that there’s no such thing as thermodynamics or that they don’t apply to the human eating/expending energy situation. It’s that there are many more factors involved than the simple CICO equation allows for. The human body is too complex to tell some fat guy he can burn off his brownie tonight by hopping on the treadmill for x number of minutes. Not only everything you’ve mentioned, but even problems in calculating the number of calories in a given food properly.

      But I would have to take issue with the idea that putting any two people in to see how many calories they expend doing the same work would result in the exact same caloric expenditure. All other things being equal, yeah, but all other things are never equal. People can accomplish the same tasks, but one person can do it far more efficiently (through being in better shape, for example), or one person can expend far more energy doing it (through being very fat and having to drag around extra weight throughout the process) or even through being a fat burner running on ketones instead of a glucose burner running on granola bars or energy drinks. A person with more muscle burns more energy doing the same tasks as someone else. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the perimeters of the experiment you’re suggesting?

      Dr Phinney did a careful experiment in-clinic of cyclists, well trained, on a high-carbohydrate diet. They were then put on a high fat, no carb diet and every measurement (stool, metabolism, respiration, nitrogen levels, protein levels) measured every 24 hours. The men were told to ride a stationary bike as hard as possible, to exhaustion, both before and after they had adapted to a high fat, no carbohydrate diet. The result after several weeks was not much change in endurance (if I remember correctly they rode only about 5 minutes or so longer on average after the high-fat diet), but a huge change in respiration and energy expenditure. THey only had to breath about half as often once they were fat-adapted. The details are in their book The Art And Science of Low Carbohydrate Living, or I would link to it here.

  2. The reason people can gain weight without eating the required calorie equivalent is because all weight isn’t fat. There are complicated methods to determine what percentage of body mass is fat, but the best of these methods aren’t totally and completely accurate. That’s one reason people can gain and lose a lot of weight quickly without eating the required equivalent in calories or exercising off the required equivalent energy of the weight lost. All weight isn’t fat. To be exact, human body weight is water, protein, fat, and minerals in that order. The initial weight lost also happens in that order of composition. Water is lost first, in great amounts, and almost constantly through breathing and sweat. Protein is lost next in proportion as the easiest source of available energy stored in the body. Fat is lost nearly last with mineral loss being so small(hopefully) that it doesn’t count on the scale.

    It goes back to that CICO thing again. If your body demands calorie use beyond its absorption rate, protein is spent first, then smaller amounts of fat later on. This is one of the beauties of the high protein diet. It forces the body to replace protein almost immediately while continuing to burn fat. Another dynamic of protein loss first is that muscle mass, which is the source of the stored protein catabolized, is the primary driver of higher metabolism. That’s one reason among a dozen why the high carb low protein diet doesn’t work well. High carb low protein works if you want to eventually shrink all muscles to concentration camp size and then start losing fat after that. Some people like this look, I think it is retarded and dangerous.

    I think I have figured out exactly how this high fat and some protein diet works, but I’ll save it for another time. Thermodynamics studying waits for me now.

    1. Actually the water first, protein second, fat third model only applies to traditional diets. Low carb diets with adequate protein and minerals (not high-protein diets; high-fat diets) result in little if any muscle loss (measured not only by body composition, but also by nitrogen levels). There is initial loss of water, but that does not continue past the first week or so. After that it’s all fat.

      Basically if you give two people a diet with the same amount of protein and the same amount of calories, but put one on high carb and one on high fat, the one on high carb will lose more muscle and less fat: about 75% of their weight loss will be fat. The rest will be water and muscle.

      In 1971 Young did a very careful in clinic diet with overweight young men. They were fed in the clinic, so compliance was assured (and regular stool, urine and nitrogen testing confirmed they weren’t snacking outside the clinic). They ate 1800 calories, 115g of protein (which is definitely not a high-protein diet; merely adequate for a young man), 5g of sodium and 30-60 g of carbohydrate per day. It was a 9 week study using underwater weighing to determine body composition as accurately as possible (plus nitrogen testing to confirm protein loss. In the first week there was some net protein loss. After that, none. Even though all participants lost between 12-18 kg during the 9 weeks, body measurement at the end showed no lean tissue loss.

      10 years later a similar study was done with overweight women, this time with a severely calorically restricted diet for 8 weeks. The women were only given 500 calories a day, 5g of sodium, other minerals and 85g of protein (no carbohydrate). Again, only an adequate protein diet, not a high protein one. Other women in the study were given less protein (45g) and more carbs (45g). The first group stayed in nitrogen balance the whole time; the second were constantly negative.

      Volek, in another in clinic study, measured people going from their regular diet of about 50% carbs to a ketogenic one of less than 12% carbs. After six weeks they had lost an average of 3.4 kilos of adipose tissue and gained an average of 1.1 kilos of lean tissue, without any significant change in their protein intake. He proved through regression that 70% of the fat loss was due entirely to serum insulin decrease. In a follow up of men and women, he was able to measure accurately and show that given the same amount of calories and protein, but with one group eating mostly fat and the other mostly carbs, the fat group consistently sees 2x as much real adipose tissue loss than the carb group. When you throw them on a simple scale, the difference in weight loss doesn’t seem that much. When you do body composition tests you find that the amount of fat mass (as opposed to lean tissue) loss was greater.

      All this is because fat loss is controlled primarily by insulin, not by total calories. Insulin levels determine how quickly blood glucose is burnt and/or stored as fat (the tendency to do one rather than the other is genetically determined). One of insulin’s primary jobs is to keep fat tissue from releasing fat for use as fuel: meaning a person with high insulin levels can be 400 pounds and literally starving on the cellular level. There’s tons of fat there to be used for fuel, but chronically high insulin levels keep it from ever being released. Low fat diets cause muscle loss because the body has no alternate source of fuel: the body has no fat to run on, not as many carbohydrates as normal, insulin levels are high blocking the use of much body fat for fuel, so muscles are cannibalized as a last resort.

      1. Yes, this is what I was trying to say, and the science behind eating sufficient protein to lose fat and not lose muscle is well known. Why protein and fat are given such a bad reputation, I don’t know.

        Another reason high fat/protein but low carb diets work is simply the much smaller number of calories the human body can absorb from fat/protein compared to the almost limitless and easy calories it can absorb from carbs. The biggest example of this is the typical hamburger, soft drink, and French fries. Everyone blames it on the fat in the meat, or from the fries being fried. But the potato and bun’s starch, sugary drink and burger sauces are loaded with calories that are definitely absorbed and probably turned right into fat with the spike in insulin they created. In this case, they can count all the calories from fat and other sources they want. Fact is, even if fat would amount to 25% of the calories, it is impossible for that amount to be completely absorbed. The other 75% from sugar and carbs definitely will go into the blood stream, so the fat phobia is a tad overdone.

        Anyway, enjoyed your new found discovery. It makes a lot of sense, but it does go against the flow of accepted diet advice. Who’d have thought.

  3. I have never been guilty of being clear, unfortunately. The calorimeter experiment is an interesting one. Two people of widely different sizes and shapes can be put into nearly perfectly insulated rooms. Inside these rooms are simple weight lifting machines that restrict body movement to very limited axes. The two people’s resting metabolism is measured and subtracted from the heat produced by the work. It allows work done to be calculated. The weight of the body parts doing the work are also taken into account. If other extraneous body movements are restricted and body parts doing the work are accurately weighed, equal total work done by two different people will result in equal heat produced within 2% from the experiments I read about. This means that bodies all run on the same energy currency, ATP, and that energy out is able to be compared and measured accurately.

    From this little experiment, variables in apparent energy used in any other scenario can be visualized. Extraneous movements, different body masses moved, different resting metabolism, etc, etc.

    Anyway, going to bed here, but keep up the good work. I’m still curious how in the world you figured all this out. Was it a little at a time? Was it sort of a scary thought that all this low fat and high carb stuff was backwards? I guess I never gave it all a second thought even though I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that some of it wasn’t exactly correct. I mean, athletes in marathons eat a ton of carbs before and after running 32 miles or whatever it is they run. It’s the thing with the highest ability to pack energy into the human body. Makes sense it is the thing making us all fat, that and sugar which is in everything in gobs. All for now. Hope all is well.

    1. I really found out about it via Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories. Very dense with science and makes some good points. There’s still many things to be proved, which he acknowledges, but the basics are there for anyone to see. When your hypothesis is right, even if you can’t prove it due to limitations in your methods or prohibitive cost or whatever, time only makes it stronger. If time makes it weaker and you keep finding exceptions, then that’s a sign there’s something wrong with it. Time keeps wearing away at the lipid hypothesis. There’s too many questions and problems with it.

      And scary? Yeah, and kind of horrifying. Frustrating to have spent all that time eating food that was supposed to be “good” for me, while it was just making me fat and slow and sick. Upsetting to know that everyone despised me for being fat and thought I spent all my time stuffing my face, all because I was eating what I was told to eat: lots of whole grains, fruits and vegetables with low fat. And infuriating when I think about my Mother. She died young from cancer, which more and more I’m coming to see might not have happened if she hadn’t been sold a bill of goods all her life. She had a “pristine” diet. Not much sugar, which was good, but very low fat, lots of whole grains–even before it was popular to eat whole grains–lots and lots of fruits and vegetables. Lots of juicing, which now I realize just breaks down the vegetables and means all the sugar hits your bloodstream extra fast. Now that I’m beginning to understand the part that ROSs and AGEs play in cancer–both of which begin with sugar in the blood–it’s making sense why cancer is on the rise. Will do a post sometime on Dr. Enig’s tests of feeding carcinogens to mice–the ones on a butter diet didn’t get cancer. The ones on a vegetable oil diet did.

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