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:
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
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