Most Weight Loss Programs Urge Conscious Control of "Calories In" and "Calories Out." Why?

Almost all conventional weight loss programs have a simple premise. By one means or another, these diets urge you to consume fewer calories and/or to burn off more calories. To maintain a balanced weight, you must consciously regulate the number of calories you put into your body and the number of calories you expend.

We all accept these concepts as if they were Holy Writ. But the notion that we might consciously control our fat tissue is kind of odd, when you really think about it. Talk to anyone who's struggled with weight loss programs for years, and you'll hear story after story about binge eating, hunger cravings, and so forth. Once you become fat, it is very hard to lose the weight. Similarly, we all know people who are as thin as string beans and who eat the most ridiculous food and for some reason don't gain weight.

Our fat tissue seems resistant to being changed. Why? Why can't we just change our weight by changing our balance of calories?

As Gary Taubes (and others) have pointed out, the reason is strikingly obvious: the biology of fat metabolism is incredibly complex. Fat is endocrinologically active. It is not a garbage bag where you dump your excess calories. It's essentially an endocrine organ. Fat tissue regulates our appetites and metabolisms. As one of the fathers of the Lipophilia Hypothesis, Julius Bauer, points out: fat tissue will literally "maintain its stock," even if the organism as a whole suffers as a result[1].

Here's another big problem with the Caloric Balance argument. To argue that one could possibly consciously count "Calories In" and "Calories Out" all the time is preposterous. We're constantly changing what we eat. We're constantly changing how we "burn off" energy.

On pages 297-298 of Good Calories Bad Calories, Gary Taubes outlines this argument lucidly. He quotes a Cornell University clinician named Eugene Du Bois, who suggested that obesity could simply result from a minor endocrine defect "'so slight that it upsets the balance of intake and output by less than 0.1 of 1%[2].'" Du Bois is also quoted as saying that it is nothing short of bizarre that people should be able to maintain a constant body weight given the incredible day to day variation in the foods we eat and the amount of activity we get.

Taubes points out that overweight individuals -- with little exception -- tend not to gain weight constantly. Weight gain occurs and then stabilizes at a higher-than-ideal level. He then quotes endocrinologist Hugo Rony: "An obese person who maintains his weight at 300 pounds... is in calorie equilibrium the same as any person of normal weight[3]." You might be able to try to explain that excess calorie balance made someone obese in the first place, says Rony, but the excess calorie theory makes zero sense when you try to explain why a person stays obese, resists attempts to lose weight, and regains weight after losing it.

Weight loss programs based on Calories In/Calories Out have no answer to this puzzle. That says a lot. That says, in effect, that obesity researchers have ignored big logic problems. It says that the diets most of us have been told are "heart healthy" -- and will lead to weight loss if only we follow them -- may in fact not be. It says a lot of things, but none of them are good for the Caloric Balance theory. Because if we accept the notion that we cannot consciously manipulate our weight, that means that we must rethink the core idea behind most weight loss programs and perhaps do away with the notion that "calories count."

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1. Taubes, Gary. "Good Calories, Bad Calories." pp. 297-298. New York: Knopf (2007).

2. ibid. p 282

3. ibid. p 282

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