if it fits your macros....
April 15, 2019 9:07 AM   Subscribe

What I learned about weight loss from spending a day inside a metabolic chamber - "Research from the chamber won’t alleviate these socioeconomic drivers of obesity. But a better understanding of human physiology and metabolism — with the help of the chamber — might level the playing field through the discovery of effective treatments. "

Yes. It’s Not as Simple as Calories in Calories out but Calories Still Count. Here’s Why.

posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:16 AM on April 15, 2019

I jumped started my weight loss (33 pounds and kept it off) by counting calories via loseit and returning to cycling. I found by actually seeing what I was eating every day led to me making better food choices. First it was, "oh a cookie or donut has how many calories?!". Then, everything seemed to evolve, as I was no longer mindlessly grazing and became more in tune with my dietary needs. They key for me was keeping the discipline long enough to make things a habit. Once that occurred, I no longer had to count calories, unless it's the holidays or vacation and I'm worried I may fall off too much.

I think where the whole problem with calorie counting apps come from A. Only counting calories and not making better food choices and not exercising is not sustainable after honeymoon period. B. Taking the calorie and exercise numbers as gospel. The apps tend to overestimate these (especially exercise) which leads people to quit out of frustration before building good habits.

While not a silver bullet by any means, but with the right mindset, I found calorie counting a better method to long term sensible weight loss. It builds the foundation, and is flexible in tweaking unlike the diet of the month.
posted by remo at 10:04 AM on April 15, 2019 [23 favorites]

It never fails that presented with any array of science, research, or data about fat, nutrition, weight loss, etc, someone will always come in and insist that any of the "common knowledge" (and wrong) assumptions about the subjects are true, actually.
posted by FirstMateKate at 10:19 AM on April 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

The array of science, research and data has been saying different things throughout that are periodically trotted out to support or challenge "common knowledge" on this subject. Some of this is the result of shoddy reporting of scientific findings by the news media, but isn't some of it borne from a lack of consensus in the field?
posted by Selena777 at 10:31 AM on April 15, 2019 [11 favorites]

I’ve spent the last 16 months counting calories and tracking my weight, so I have data on this subject. I’ve found only a loose correlation between calories consumed in a given week and weight gained/lost that week. A scatter plot shows a weak trend that is barely discernible from the noise. My weight seems to randomly vary by about 1-2 lbs a week, which also happens to be within the general range of how much I could expect to gain or lose depending on my dietary choices, so the trend only becomes clear when averaged out over time. Even then, the relationship isn’t strong enough to be reliable unless I’m varying my caloric intake by more than maybe 10% from baseline. Taking into account calories burned via exercise did not tighten the fit. During a previous diet, when I was consistently eating about 15% less than my baseline, the effect on my weight was more reliable and pronounced.

In conclusion: basically what the article said.

I found by actually seeing what I was eating every day led to me making better food choices.

Seconding this. I think that’s arguably the primary benefit of calorie counting.
posted by dephlogisticated at 10:31 AM on April 15, 2019 [14 favorites]

These articles are really interesting. I was initially inclined to push back, because the only way I've ever lost weight was by calorie counting (using a site that also tracked macronutrients). It made me more aware of what I was eating, leading me to reduce my consumption of high-density carbs like rice and pasta and also the amount of cooking oil I used. It also discouraged me from some snacking just because it would have been annoying to enter the info into the site. But I was definitely not aware of the extreme variation in how different bodies process calories and the different factors (like heat and softness, wow!) that can affect it. If I ever try calorie counting again I will reread these pieces and keep the info in mind.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:55 AM on April 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

On another note, I feel extremely vindicated by this bit from the second link:

the real-life journey from dinner plate to toilet bowl takes on average about a day, but can range from eight to 80 hours depending on the person.

I KNEW IT! I was taught all through school that it takes 1-2 days, full stop, and I KNEW that (to be delicate) I could see evidence of much more rapid processing from my own person, but I just figured that either I was a major outlier or else it was taking me 1-2 days to process MOST of my food but some small bits were getting through. I don't know why I just accepted this bit of received wisdom all this time but I feel oddly smug about my poop self-knowledge now.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:01 AM on April 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

Please don't mistake my comment as trying to refute the science. I simply found benefit to using calorie counting as PART of my process. As I said earlier, the numbers are not reliable, and just solely trying to count calories would most likely not work long term. I simply found it useful as an honest self reflection of my daily diet. Taking the hard truths of what I was ingesting was more useful in building a sustainable long term diet than obsessing over the numbers.
posted by remo at 11:11 AM on April 15, 2019 [7 favorites]

I've been so disillusioned by what counts as physically 'healthy.' There just doesn't seem to be any metric that works across the board. I've met so many people who ooze health and they all look completely different and employ different means.
posted by es_de_bah at 11:41 AM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

i'm 41. I am counting calories using My Fitness Pal. So far I've lost 11 lbs in the last three weeks, and still going. The primary reason I want to lose weight is to look better in a tailored suit, for better flexibility (esp getting in and out of my sea kayak), and to give my already-shot knees a bit of a break. I had a full physical just prior to starting this, and while the BMI says I am "obese" my doctor says the BMI is bullshit and he wishes it had never been published. Everyone is different. My blood work is all good, my heart sounds great, my breathing is good, when I hike it's for 10-20 miles at a shot, and I'm basically healthy as a horse. When I asked my doctor about the BMI and losing weight he said "Really, you're fine. If you want to lose some weight, I'd just focus on portion control. But really, you don't need to worry about it." Different approaches work for different people. Find whatever works for you and go for it.
posted by xedrik at 11:50 AM on April 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

1. Weight loss is 100% calories in vs calories out.
2. Good luck counting those calories, because outside of a metabolic chamber, you can't.
posted by grumpybear69 at 12:09 PM on April 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

My problem with the calories and 'calorie counting' is that people are not robots and calories from specific food items are abstractions and turning them into usable data requires many manual steps, and I'm not sure the average person has either the perseverance, inclination, or desire to get an accurate counting of them such that they are useful.

I have a calorie counting app associated with my insurance, so that I get cash (about $600 a year) to count my calories, steps and sleep. So steps and sleep I can manage, and they are accurate enough with a $30 counter. Calories I have to enter and 4 months in I'm just about ready to forego the amount of money I get to count them. It's a real pain. My required limit is 800, and most days after I've input 800 calories worth of data, I stop. So for me personally, $600 a year is not enough compensation for my time to accurately track my calories, it's barely enough for me to input the minimum. I'm not sure what amount of compensation I would personally need to rigorously track my calories, but it's way higher than that.

So it's a technical problem or a serious economics problem, and given that I also completely believe the number of calories burned varies based on the person + exercise, then it's essentially insurmountable until the app can automatically track calories based on what is eaten without user input. Until then, unless the person is essentially a robot, the 'calories a person consumes' is really just noise.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:11 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Calorie counting works but IME you have to cut what seems like an incredible and unhealthy amount of calories (probably because you're so inaccurate) in order to see any real consistent outcome, which seems like about what the first link is saying.

Throw this into an arena where everyone thinks that if you eat "below" a certain amount of calories you'll actually gain weight and that (as in the second link) men "need" 2,500 calories a day and I'm surprised that more people don't gain weight by counting calories in the silly and stupid way that is advised by a lot of US sources.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:22 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

"1. Weight loss is 100% calories in vs calories out." is wrong.

When people are concerned about weight gained or lost, they generally assume that weight variation is solely fluctuation in fat mass. That just plain isn't so.

DEXA is the gold standard method of determining body composition. DEXA readings break up reports in terms of bone mass, fat mass, and "lean mass". The latter is basically anything watery in the body, and includes muscles, blood, and viscera.

Generally, bone mass does not appreciably change (or does, but incredibly slowly.) When you see a change in your body mass on the scale, it may be due to change in fat mass or change in lean/aqueous mass. It's not possible to tell accurately with a scale, not even the bioimpedance type that try to estimate those numbers for you.

I've eaten an ultra low carb diet for the past several years. One of the effects of this is to drastically limit the amount of carbohydrates stored in the body in the form of glycogen. Glycogen storage in the body is fairly limited, to the liver and some in skeletal muscle. Glycogen necessarily hangs on to a lot of water. When people go cold turkey with carbs, they lose a lot of weight at first which is water weight. This is not "calories in, calories out".

Every now and again, I choose to enjoy something chock full o carbs (like our family's favorite waffles with real maple syrup on Christmas morning.) By now, I know that when I do, I will put on literally seven or eight pounds overnight as a result of water retention. I get right back on the wagon and I will lose that water weight. However, it'll take about seven to ten days for it all to disappear. Seven to ten days, as the result of one meal. (Incidentally, I also see effects on my resting heart rate as measured by my fitbit depending on whether I've eaten any carbs, or for that matter had any alcohol. This seven to ten day pattern of losing the water weight correlates with the seven to ten days of RHR pattern: shoots up when I eat the carbs, comes back down to normal a week or so later.)

All this to say:

Your scale is a blunt instrument and isn't giving you the full story. If you can get a good quality body composition scan once a year, that's a much better guide.

Also, if my timescale observation is any indication, kinetics of metabolic response are a confounding factor in all this weight loss stuff and I think muddies the water a lot.
posted by Sublimity at 12:31 PM on April 15, 2019 [12 favorites]

If your downfall, like me, is random thoughtless snacking then counting calories is a great way to give yourself a little mental speed bump between impulse and execution to help shore up willpower. There are a lot of chips, cans of coke and random office donuts I haven't eaten in the last couple of years because I didn't want to have to write them down.
posted by Reyturner at 12:59 PM on April 15, 2019 [11 favorites]

Previously: Why the Calorie Is Broken
(among others that are findable by clicking the 'calories' tag)
posted by polecat at 1:02 PM on April 15, 2019

It absolutely is not 100% calories in vs calories out unless you define that so carefully that it is a tautology (calories stored versus calories used). Calories from different sources are processed differently. Calories consumed at different times of day are processed differently. Calories consumed in different quantities are processed differently. Calories are processed differently depending on how food is cooked.

In reality it is calories in (which are almost always wrong by at least 10%), calories processed (which you kind of just have no idea about and will vary by about 20%), calories used (hello metabolic chamber if you want to actually know this, and baseline usage can change by up to 40% in response to dieting), calories excreted (have fun).

So do calories matter? Kind of. In the sense that you will not gain weight if you do not consume more energy than you use. And tracking calories, as uncertain as they are, is one way to get a sense of how much you are eating. But you can't do math with them. You can't drop 400 calories a day and expect to lose exactly one pound a week. And you won't gain a pound if you eat a 4000 calorie meal. And doing 45 minutes on the treadmill is not equivalent to a beer in any but the most general, hand-wavy sense.

I wonder if we should track calories per month instead of per day.
posted by Nothing at 1:54 PM on April 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

"1. Weight loss is 100% calories in vs calories out." is wrong.

When people are concerned about weight gained or lost, they generally assume that weight variation is solely fluctuation in fat mass. That just plain isn't so.

That is indeed a bad assumption. Weight fluctuates daily for the reasons you mentioned and cannot be reliably measured in a single reading. You can only really measure weight trends over time, and that will only be accurate if you measure your weight at the same time every day, preferably in the morning.

But as noted in the "Calories Still Count" article:

ALL of the obese patients [in a study on weight loss in which they were given constant-calorie meals of differing nutrient compositions over a long period] lost weight at a constant rate, regardless of the nutrient composition of the diet; whether fat or carbohydrate intake was high or low – what mattered was the total calorie deficit.

So, yes, your water levels change frequently and maybe your bone mass changes over a long period of time, but energy surplus or deficit is what counts for the rest.
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:54 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's weird, the second article describes Atwater's experiments in differentiating the digestibility of foods, how it was averaged based on the diet at the time, and how that ended up enshrined in law, but then it seems to suddenly forget the whole thread and goes on to repeat the idea that "Calorie counts are based on how much heat a foodstuff gives off when it burns in an oven. But the human body is far more complex than an oven." If anything, companies being forced to bomb calorimeter their products would probably give more representative counts of high energy stuff.

It just feels like his work is a bit unfairly maligned sometimes, especially when the whole thrust of it was the point that digestibility depends on the food, the preparation, and the person eating it. He even specified that the factors were "at best general estimates, and not guides to be blindly followed."
posted by lucidium at 1:59 PM on April 15, 2019

I wonder if we should track calories per month instead of per day.

When I've been on a calorie counting kick I've racked calories per week. Obviously I'm tracking daily, but I only pay attention to the caloric deficit on a weekly basis. And when I run that deficit I do consistently lose weight, although only at about 50% of the expected rate. I've always written that off as measurement error,

I've been trying for the last few months to not count calories and rely on good habits. Good habits I apparently don't have...
posted by COD at 4:15 PM on April 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

1. Weight loss is 100% calories in vs calories out.
2. Good luck counting those calories, because outside of a metabolic chamber, you can't.

Whenever I'm told that 1 is true, I like to ask, "And how many calories did you eat yesterday, precisely? No, not an estimate, exactly how many? And exactly how many calories did you burn, and how many did you excrete?" The proponents of 1 really, really don't like it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:33 AM on April 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Do other people like it?
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:04 AM on April 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

Lost 40 pounds on Weight Watchers this last time (I'm lifetime but injuries and stress occurred and I gained again), kept it off a couple of years now, but they started with the "zero point foods" and that doesn't work for me, so I went back to MyFitnessPal and counting calories, which I do with a really balanced diet except for the sea-salt caramel chocolates, because it all works, and it all doesn't work, and every decade of my life my body acts differently, but I don't want the knee and foot problems to come back.

Or, as a friend said, "If you are alive in the USA in the 21st century, you probably have a fraught relationship with food and weight."
posted by Peach at 7:09 AM on April 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Last Friday, I went to the doctor and she said, "You lost 20 pounds since last year! How'd you do it?"

The most recent 10 were honestly because I now walk to two train stations twice a day and take a walk during lunch that's about 1.5 miles, as well as cutting out snacks at my desk (which was a LOT of snacks).

The other 10 pounds, I have no idea. I was, for years, on a medication that made it near-impossible to gain weight (which sounds fun until you get well below a healthy weight, and then it's scary) and when I started gaining again, I gained QUICKLY, so maybe I just adjusted naturally.

So yeah, there are trackable ways of knowing how your body changes w/r/t food, but a lot of it can be a total mystery as well.
posted by xingcat at 7:25 AM on April 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

There’s some good discussion above about the limitations of calorie counting. Yes, our digestive systems are very complicated, and yes it’s very hard to precisely measure either calories consumed or calories expended. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Calorie counts may give someone a false sense of precision. It’s important to acknowledge that limitation. But calorie counts are the only universal scale that the average person has access to that will let them track energy consumption from the food they eat in a consistent way. Weight-loss may not be “100% calories in vs calories out” (it’s not). But even though we can’t describe the exact relationship between calories in vs energy out, we can still say that the two are clearly directionally correlated over the long run. While both calorie counting and body weight are blunt measures, they are still useful models.
posted by dyslexictraveler at 7:40 AM on April 16, 2019 [8 favorites]

The other 10 pounds, I have no idea. I was, for years, on a medication that made it near-impossible to gain weight (which sounds fun until you get well below a healthy weight, and then it's scary) and when I started gaining again, I gained QUICKLY, so maybe I just adjusted naturally.

So yeah, there are trackable ways of knowing how your body changes w/r/t food, but a lot of it can be a total mystery as well.

I take one medication which has weight gain as a side effect and another which has weight loss as a side effect. So I have NO idea if on balance my meds are making it harder or easier to maintain a healthy weight, especially since I recently entered my 30s and my metabolism is presumably changing. At a certain point you just have to shrug.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:00 AM on April 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

1. Weight loss is 100% calories in vs calories out.

You don't even need a medical degree to point out how this is plainly false. Someone who doesn't exercise and eats and average diet changing over to high-protein/low carb diet with daily weightlifting could actually gain weight, despite losing fat. "Weight" is a useless notion in terms of diet, nutrition, health, and fitness.
posted by FirstMateKate at 10:24 AM on April 16, 2019

In your example that person is going to be eating a caloric surplus on their high protein low carb diet to gain muscle and change their body composition, and the muscle gain will be accompanied by fat until they change their diet and regimen again.
posted by Selena777 at 11:42 AM on April 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

It’s also interesting to ask people how many calories are required to put on a pound of muscle.
posted by Sublimity at 12:12 PM on April 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I can totally envision a machine learning based software to figure it all out, you take pictures of yourself without clothes and pictures of your food, then the program can do all the tedious analyzing and it will be more accurate than a human nonexpert.

My own problem is weight gain in order to progress on my weight training program. I am supposed to eat up to 1.5 g protein per kg body mass per day but I still have zero intuition what a balanced diet implementing that requirement looks like. It's not hard, it's just tedious to learn and an app that automates much of it would be convenient.
posted by polymodus at 12:17 PM on April 16, 2019

This whole conversation really hits at my frustration right now: My fasting blood glucose is too high, and all the information out there on how to deal with it is one long, frustrating chain of arguing over calories combined with Everyone Telling You What They Know Is True So Don't Listen To Those Frauds.

Yes, on a very basic level: If the number of calories you consume in a day is less than the number of calories you expend, your body will attempt to make up that deficit by burning your fat and protein stores.

Yes, it is more complicated than that, because each of us is a little different, has different tastes, and has different body makeups.

But, basically, yes, if you burn more than you ingest, your body will need to find that energy from somewhere, and if you ingest more than you burn, your body will try to store the surplus for the day when you will need that energy.

Everything else, well, it's a lot of noise amid the signal. Right now, for instance, I need to lose weight and try to avoid blood sugar issues while doing it. I'm trying to reduce carbohydrate consumption as a result. I've seen three different sites that argue:
- a low carb diet is 40% or less of your daily total of estimated caloric intake
- no, it's less than that, you want more like 20%
- no, you're really wrong, you want to aim for 20g or LESS a day

And that's just the diet composition. I haven't hit on the actual arguing over food itself. Asking "How does a potato affect your blood glucose level?" will send you into this world where people are arguing whether eating a baked potato is actually OK because fiber and complex carbs or is absolutely death because carbs. Don't even start into the glycemic index vs glycemic load arguing.

The end result is utter confusion. In a culture already wrapped up in food issues and distrust of science (NIH or corporate), it creates this opening for people throwing around bad ideas in the name of "what worked for me." (I see a lot of parallels here to the anti-vax movement, tho I would not say the situation is identical.)

Oh, and add on top of that this society's utter distaste for anyone who is in any way larger than the "ideal," whether it's size 0 for women or just not-obese for men, and it gets even more a mess.

There's so much bad advice out there we're not even sure what the good advice COULD be. And even if there were good advice, how would we even know it?

So I just stick with eating less, mostly nuts and whole grains and greens and meat, and exercising 30 minutes a day. It seems to work so far. If it's not perfect, well, I don't care anymore, because I'm so tired of all this bikeshed arguing over macronutrients I want no part. Just let me try to get healthy in peace.
posted by dw at 3:01 PM on April 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

« Older But now I didn’t want to avoid them.   |   A great sun has set. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments