Fueling Your Meat Vehicle Part 1: Calories Matter

By Ciaran O'Regan

Pre Flight PREP:

  1. This is a roughly 8-9 minute read. 
  2. This article may NOT be for everyone. There may be a small subsection of people who read this who should potentially not quantify and track their food due to having disordered eating. Tracking and quantifying nutrition, in these people, may further exacerbate, reignite, or even create new unhealthy eating-related behaviors. I am not a psychologist and helping people with eating disorders is not my field. 
  3. Who is it for then? This article is for people who maybe have just tried to lose or even gain weight many times but failed and just want to cut the bullshit and start to get a handle on their nutrition for weight management once and for all. It is also for those who may wish to improve their sports performance as appropriate Calorie intake is key to fueling human movement and as well as recovery from said movement. 
  4. For the purposes of this article, I will use weight loss in my examples more often than weight gain or performance needs. This is because I hazard a bet that most people reading this will be a lot more likely to find it easier to gain weight than lose it and will be more interested in body recomposition than optimizing performance.  Performance demands will be dealt with in later articles in this series.  

Let us begin...

What is a Calorie and why is it important?

You know the way dead people are cold? Well it may seem like I am stating the obvious, but they are cold because they are not producing any heat.

You know the way you get really hot when you exercise really hard? Well, to state the obvious yet again, you get hot because you are producing loads of heat. 

Now you may be asking yourself "what in name of fuck is this nutcase on about I thought I was reading a nutrition article?

Well heat is given off from humans as a result of energy being expended within our bodies and our blood carrying this heat around. Since dead people are not burning any energy and are lacking a heart beat, and you burn loads of energy when training and have a heart that is beating the heated up blood around like fuck; the deceased are cold and you are hot. A word we use to describe this energy our bodies burn that releases heat is "Calorie". 

All credit to genius.com for the image

All credit to genius.com for the image

In its most simple terms, a "Calorie" with a capital C is also known as kcal which is 1000 kilocalories with a small c. Calorie/kcal is one of the descriptors we use to describe the energy available to our bodies from within our food. We also use it to describe the energy our body burns with its metabolism to get shit done such as move muscles during movement or use your brain to read this ramble of mine. 

All credit to wikipedia for the screenshot. 

All credit to wikipedia for the screenshot. 

The reason it is important to understand this concept is because the balance between the Calories burned by your metabolism, and those it gets in through food is the principle upon which weight management depends. 

Energy Expenditure and your metabolism

You most likely have heard or even used phrases like "he/she has a fast/slow metabolism", but what is your metabolism and how does it relate to energy expenditure? The factors that contribute to your bodies total energy expenditure from your metabolism are as follows:

  1. Exercise. This is obvious.
  2. The thermic effect of food (TEF). This is the energy expended to actually break down and do stuff with the food you eat. 
  3. Resting metabolic rate (RMR). For ease, let us just describe this as the energy your body would still burn if you just laid there with your eyes closed doing absolutely fuck all except being alive because your body is burning energy/Calories to do things like repair tissues, make hair and nails, allow organs to function etc.
  4. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). NEAT is essentially stuff you do that burns Calories without even realizing it such as tapping your foot, fidgeting, doing laundry, etc. 

(See this article by Lyle Mcdonald for a detailed explanation on the above factors that make up your metabolic output.) 

People with "fast metabolisms" basically just burn relatively more Calories when the above 4 listed factors are added up and those with "slow metabolisms" basically burn less. What is also worth noting is that YOUR metabolism and subsequent energy expenditure is not fixed in stone and can actually change as a result of a host of factors including how much food Calories/energy you eat. This is a topic for future articles however (but if you want to read further on it check this article out by Danny Lennon). 

ANY WEIGHT LOSS "DIET" CAN WORK

Before I go in to why any diet can work, let us make sure we both mean the same thing with the term "weight loss". "Weight loss", as in someone weighing less in kilograms or pounds on a bathroom scales, can occur for loads of reasons such as decreased hydration levels, muscle and liver carbohydrate stores depleting, gut residue depleting due to decreased fiber intakes etc. However, when I use the phrase "weight loss" in this article, I am referring to what most people use the phrase to describe which is the process of decreasing body fatness (decreasing body fatness can actually occur independently of someone's bodyweight decreasing due to factors such as gaining muscle at the same time as losing fat which can happen with sufficient strength training and protein intake, especially in inexperienced trainees. However, this is a topic for another day.) 

So now that we are on the same page, how can any weight loss diet work?

To my knowledge, there have been no diets created by Gandalf, Saruman, Harry Potter, The Wicked Witch of the West, or fucking Sabrina the Teenage Witch. No diet is magic. If a diet causes weight loss for someone it abides by one simple principle; they have simply used an eating method that caused them to be in a Calorie deficit long enough to lose weight. This is regardless of what method/diet they have done to end up like that. 

A diet is just an eating methodology that ONLY works for weight loss if it abides by the principle of creating a Calorie deficit. 

“Principles Vs. methods’ is a concept that we should always be conscious of when looking at any health and fitness topic. The reason this is so important is that when you only know some method, you only know one way of doing things. When you understand the principles that underpin why certain methodologies work, however, you can create and choose your own methods to suit your individual circumstances.

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” – Harrington Emerson
All credit to myoleanfitness.com for the image.

All credit to myoleanfitness.com for the image.

………the laws of physics do not give a FUCK how many books people have written blaming certain foods or certain nutrients like fats or carbs for weight gain. Diets that work only do so because they get you to eat less energy than you burn which is called a "Calorie deficit". 

(Side Note: this is a great article on the history of diet books by the legendary fitness writer Lou Schuler who has worked with world-leading evidence-based nutrition educator Alan Aragon.)

Thanks to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the mechanism that is NECESSARY for your body to want to break down its own tissues to a large enough degree to lose weight (body fat, muscle tissue etc.) is simply a Calorie deficit. This is because, as long as you are alive (remember the cold dead people example from earlier???), your body needs to accomplish certain metabolic tasks. Metabolic tasks, however, cost energy to perform and so your body will look for energy from somewhere to fuel these metabolic actions. If it is not getting sufficient energy from external sources of fuel (your food), it will turn on its own tissues (fat, muscle, etc.) to look for this energy.

Energy Balance

The thing is though, if you find yourself in a total Calorie/energy intake SURPLUS; you can still get fatter whether you are eating LCHF/Vegan/Paleo/Weight Watchers/etc. or not because your body will store excess energy from Calories not burned for use in the future. This is because no diets are magical transporters of food energy or body fat to mystical dimensions.

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 12.28.08 PM.png

All credit to www.cod.edu for the image.

Energy balance, as shown in the above picture, is the exact same principle whether you are an elite level swimmer burning 10,000kcal per day or a dude who had a parachute that didn’t open and is bed bound with 4 smashed limbs who burns 1500kcal a day. The swimmer will burn so much due to doing 6 hours in the pool per day, while the lad who is only alive because he was lucky enough to have a really tall tree to fall through before meeting the floor burns just 1500kcal due his body simply staying alive and using energy to fuel stuff like his brain thinking as well as using the energy needed to repair his now powdered bones.

You can even get leaner eating nothing but total bullshit junk food too so long as you dial in the required caloric intakes relative to your expenditures. As a little example, see this self-experiment by Mark Haub of Kansas State University in which he ate only Twinkies and other "junk foods" and lost weight simply because he was in a Calorie deficit. 

This is of course NOT to say that consuming 1800 Calories of chicken and potatoes will do exactly the same thing in your body as 1800 Calories of macronutrient matched protein powder and pop tarts as there are loads of factors that play a role in health such as fiber levels, micronutrient levels, gut health, etc. etc. All I am saying is that if you are eating nothing but protein powder and pop tarts and your body is burning on average 1800 Calories a day, eating less than 1800 Calories a day will force your body to have to get the remainder of that energy from somewhere in order to fuel the metabolic tasks I mentioned earlier. This “somewhere” will simply be the existing tissues of your body (fat, muscle, etc.).

It. Really. Is. Simple. As. Fuck.

So What Now?

It is all very well and good to learn that Calories are important and that they need to be manipulated somehow in order to manage weight, but how the fuck does one figure out how many Calories they are eating? This is where learning basic tracking techniques come in to play.

If you are somehow averse to the idea of tracking and it offends you to think you may need to spend time actually quantifying what you put into your face, I want to leave you with this screenshot from a brilliantly written article on Calories by Aadam Ali over on his site: 

No punches pulled. 

No punches pulled.