Countering Anti-Energy Balance, CI=CO Arguments ~ Part II: We Can't Calculate It

This one is the strawman argument that I think irks me the most.  Because, ultimately, this argument is meaningless when it comes to the fact that our bodies MUST obey the First Law of Thermo ... and don't go on with the BWBS.  

Some claim the calorie levels reported for most foods are off by as much as 30%.  This could well be true - especially for things like hamburger.  It's also been shown that we absorb fewer calories from whole unprocessed foods than from highly processed/refined.  Add microflora to the mix and we extract more or less of the same food than our neighbor.  Also, different fats, carbs and proteins actually have differing energy density.  For example sucrose and starch yield slightly different calories/g (if memory serves sucrose is slightly less than 4, starch slightly more than 4).  

But does that last paragraph prevent us from getting a pretty good idea of CI?  I'd say not.  For one, it's average intake over time that's important, not that I ate the 100 cal cup of fauxgurt vs. the 80 cal cup.  For another, it's the amounts of food in the end, not the exact calories.  So, for example, if I decide to go participate in some study where I eat my usual foods for a month and some poor schmo is tasked with weighing and measuring all foods provided - uneaten portions, one can gauge my intake pretty well.  Perhaps I eat 250 cal/day less than one other study participant or 250 more than another.  So?  Also, perhaps the three of us actually "intake" the same number of calories in the end b/c of our digestive efficiencies.  Does it really matter to me, and a CICO approach to bodyweight whether +250-gal gets to eat more than me?  In the "it's not fair" department, I suppose ...

Do the caloric variations of foods matter?  Again, I'd say not in that these fluctuations about exact caloric content will be in both directions.  I may buy an 85% fat ground beef that's only 82% fat one day, actually 88% fat another.  I could, perhaps, take advantage of this by, say, replacing all 9 cal/gram long chain fatty acids with MCT Oil containing something like only 8 cal/gram.  

OK so ...

How about calories out?  In the inaugural episode of his new podcast, Low Carb Conversations, Jimmy's co-host Mindy tells the tale of trying to lose some weight she'd regained in an OCD-fashion.  She used one of those BodyBuggs to measure her CO and was diligently monitoring CI.  According to her calculations, she should have been losing weight hand over fist but she didn't lose weight.   Of course one has to ignore her little inconvenient fact that she once lost almost 100 lbs with a traditional CICO approach (aka the "wrong way" because somehow she must have been a pile of goo since you only lose muscle that way ... ).  But since switching to LC has Mindy lost that BB?  I'm willing to bet that if she continued her tracking with low carb, she'd be showing a CICO deficit during the period she lost weight.  But back to that BB for a moment.  There are all sorts of problems with such devices - they exemplify the real problem with measuring ACTUAL energy expenditure.  The most accurate way to do that is in a metabolic chamber - aka a human bomb calorimeter - all other such devices use various formulas considering movement, heart rate, skin temperature, etc.  Nevermind that you can get different readings wearing one on different places on one's body, etc., or that these devices notoriously under or overestimate the caloric expenditure of certain movements.  My point?  Relying on the BB for an accurate calculation is the problem here.  It was obviously overestimating Mindy's CO if she wasn't in energy deficit.  Rather than cutting intake by an additional 500 cal/day, Mindy accepted the dubious accuracy of CO and figured something else must be going on here.  Good luck with that.

Obviously CO is complicated.  Basal metabolism is said to account for around 60% of BMR in most people. Many fidgety folk have high NEAT (non-exercise activity), some have higher average body temperatures (I'm so never going to be a Matt Stone hot chick!), etc.  Some burn less fuel doing the exact same activity when they're reduced obese vs. before they got that way at the same weight.  We have little control over these factors.   But we can exercise more, deliberately move more.  And contrary to what Gary Taubes tells us, exercise tends to, if anything, increase our activity the rest of the day, not cause us to lie around more.  
CICO based approaches ALWAYS work.  EVERY time they are applied in controlled circumstances.  Measure TDEE and accurately assess intake and if a person is in energy deficit, they lose fat or vice versa.  

Unfortunately many of us, women in particular, have been lied to regarding caloric needs.  Even the official Atkins site , and if memory serves The New Atkins book, acknowledge the role of calories in weight loss.  

3.  BE SENSIBLE, NOT OBSESSIVE, ABOUT PORTIONS. There’s no need to count calories on Atkins, but we do ask that you use a little common sense. You probably could guess that too many calories will slow down your weight loss, but here’s a surprise—too few will slow down your metabolism and slow weight loss. You only need worry about calories if, despite following Atkins to the letter, you cannot lose weight. Then a calorie reality check may be in order. Depending upon your height, age and metabolism, you may need to play with the following calorie ranges to lose weight: 
  • Women: 1,500–1,800 calories a day.
  • Men: 1,800–2,200 calories per day

Please note:  Those are for weight LOSS!   Perhaps for the morbidly obese, but not for the merely somewhat overweight.  For women, 1500-1800 cal/day is maintenance levels.  The 1500 cal/day low is the average intake for American women in the 70's.  And you know what coincides with the obesity epidemic of the 80's?  Average intake increased to around 1800 cal/day.  

Whatever diet you choose to lose weight, it must create a sustained energy deficit.  To maintain the magnitude of that deficit, you're probably going to have to increase activity to increase CO, because:

  • At some point it's just impossible to eat any less and still enjoy one's life.  And,
  • Increasing activity helps maintain TDEE even when RMR is inevitably dialed down
If you're monitoring CICO with logging and a BB-like device, supposedly in a deficit, and still not losing weight ... there's something wrong with how you're monitoring!

  • For CI:  Estimating vs. actually weighing and measuring is a huge issue here ... I submit this is more likely the suspect for high fat eaters because of the high caloric density.  Whether it's free-pouring coffee cream or dolloping out sour cream, it's easy to underestimate by at least 50 if not 100%!
  • For CO:  Remember, those readouts are ultimately estimates based on a formula. Whatever you're doing, perhaps (presuming you're not exercising for hours on a daily basis) a bit longer is all that's needed.
There's nothing wrong with you or a CICO approach.  You just may need to ELMM a bit more.


Muata said…
CS, what I'm starting to find a bit annoying about all of this anti-CI/CO is that many of the arguments are not about CI/CO at all!

CI/CO or ELMM are simply guidelines on how one goes about physically losing or gaining mass (FFM or FM); I've yet to read that it can with 100% accuracy tell you how many pounds you're are "definitely" going to lose. This is what rubbed me the wrong way with Naughton's film. He counted calories, lost weight, and then dismissed CI/CO because he lost more than the "formula" predicted. OK, so because it wasn't 100% precise, the whole scientific law must come into question?

Oh, and the whole notion that if you eat too few calories, then you could actually gain weight is simply BS! Just because your BMR is reduced (of course depending on how low you cut your calories), if you're in a calorie deficit, your body MUST use stored energy to keep going. These fairytales about gaining weight while in a consistent calorie deficit is just that --- stuff that should entertain kids not adults ...
CarbSane said…
Ya know, it IS possible to actually gain weight in energy deficit. If one gets on the scale every hour and every day and ... Fact of the matter is we're composed of 60-80% of something we don't use for energy and ingest substantial quantities of daily - WATER. If I eat 1000 cals of salami one day, or white rice with soy sauce, I'll be losing perhaps 1/7th of a pound of fat, but I'm likely to retain a pound or two of water from the salt content (and carb content if I'm glycogen depleted).

People who claim they eat 1000 cals/day, consistently, for a period of a month and aren't losing are simply lying to themselves. It's ridiculous really that they even make such claims.
AAARGH! CI/CO is certainly not negotiable. But the problem lies in why it is difficult to stick with that. This is where everyone treats the symptom. Let's say someone is overweight and they go to a doctor:

FATTY: Doc, I'm fat. What do I do?

DOCTOR: If your weight increases then decrease your calories.

FATTY: Thanks for nothing, Doc.

This is a horrible non-solution. Forget that we are talking about the human body for a sec. What if it's your car and you are taking it to a mechanic.

FATTY: My alignment is off. What do I do?

MECHANIC: If your car pulls to the left then steer to the right.

FATTY: Thanks for nothing.

It's like that old joke--

FATTY: Doc, it hurts when I do this.

DOC: Then don't do that.

The symptom is weight gain which, of course, results from CI>CO. The problem has to do with one's reaction to certain foods. I don't think it takes a conscious effort to become obese.

They can make monkeys obese by simply giving them certain types of food. The question is, how do they make the obese monkeys lean again? Have the monkeys count calories? I REALLY don't think that is the solution.

I have to ask myself "Do I believe that obese monkeys can never become lean?" I think they can. I don't think counting anything is required. I don't think conscious control over amounts is required. I think the solution is in the type of food.

I have no idea what type would resolve the problem. I think Seth Roberts is close with how taste affects how much we eat. I think Matt Stone is close with the role of our metabolism. I think Jon Gabriel is close with the importance of not dieting.

But from this point onward trying to see the solution gets murky. This is the point where people throw up their hands and say "F*** IT! I'm just going to count calories or carbs or exercise all day." We know we are eating too much but we don't know exactly why.
Nigel Kinbrum said…
Also, there can't be a "formula" for weight loss. Rate of weight loss for a given caloric deficit varies a lot depending on the proportions of body-fat and muscle lost. See Lyle McDonald's article The Energy Balance Equation
CarbSane said…
@Charles: I hear ya! Unfortunately, even low carbing seems to have its limits. Folks tend to fare better the first time, than subsequent "reboots", it seems to work better for men than women in certain situations, and it seems to stop working in the long run for far too many for a variety of reasons (e.g. ability to adhere and/or even while adhering strictly).

So yeah, I guess what we're all seeking is how can we accomplish CI<CO without conscious effort to reset that old adipostat. Personally, I think rather than seeking that, many of us have to come to grips with the fact that however we got where we did, deliberate effort will be required to reverse the situation.

Thanks for the Lyle links Nige. I hadn't seen the other one, though I'm quite familiar with this one.
Muata said…
@Charles - I think why most people overeat has a lot less to do with the food. Yes, I do believe that certain foods, especially overly processed ones, can cause us to overindulge; however, the overeating is usually as a result of a larger issue the individual needs to deal with.

I was an emotional overeater, and there were many demons that I had to face (and continue to on a certain level) that had absolutely nothing to do with food. Watching shows on OWN like Addicted to Food lead me to believe I'm not alone ...

@ CS: You said, "So yeah, I guess what we're all seeking is how can we accomplish CI<CO without conscious effort to reset that old adipostat. Personally, I think rather than seeking that, many of us have to come to grips with the fact that however we got where we did, deliberate effort will be required to reverse the situation."


What's funny is that I'm reading Talented is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, and he talks about how World Class performers don't just practice, but they have "deliberate" practice. In addition, he points out that true Masters/Experts of any skill/sport are never on "autopilot" even though it may seem as if they are doing it effortlessly.

I don't see why "the skill" of losing fat and maintaining a desired size should be any different. At least this approach has been working for me ..
Tonus said…
I think that part of the problem is that in general, we don't like complicated solutions to problems. And we REALLY don't like complicated solutions to simple problems. And health is often reduced to a simple problem, even when it is not. And so people are easily convinced to seek out easy and simple solutions to their weight problem.

I think that the best solution is to find foods that are healthy and that you enjoy, then find an eating and exercise plan that allows you to gradually lose weight until you hit your target. At that point, you figure out what you need to do to maintain your weight and appearance and you do that for the rest of your life. You monitor your weight and appearance periodically to see if you need to make any changes and/or adjustments.

While that seems reasonable and pretty simple, it takes time and experimentation and some form of record-keeping. It takes some thought and effort. And so it is not quick and it is not THAT simple and it is not THAT easy. It can become simple and easy over time, but there is some effort required.

Contrast that to what many people are being sold: miracle cures, or simple and short-term eating plans that reduce weight quickly and relatively painlessly. Or they're told that if they simply modify their macro-nutrient balance THIS way, they can eat as much as they want and still lose weight! And then, at the end, when the weight is not gone, or has returned with a vengeance, they are sold a new bill of goods: a new miracle diet that REALLY works, or some new-fangled exercise aid, or they're simply told that hey, as long as you feel great it's not really an issue!

The easy way out is usually not easy and it's almost never a way out. But it's sooo darned TANTALIZING.
Moran Bentzur said…
I'm just happy that the full text is back in the RSS feed. thanks.
Bill said…
”Just because your BMR is reduced (of course depending on how low you cut your calories), if you're in a calorie deficit, your body MUST use stored energy to keep going.”“
It depends how you define “calorie deficit.” If you mean eating “5% less than before the diet,” or “5% less than you would be eating now if not dieting,” then it’s very possible to gain weight. (humans are definitely not big mice, but:
Muata said…
Bill, you're right; we're not big mice, and I'm sure if a consistent mild calorie restriction caused an increase in fat mass in humans, there would be studies to show this.
CarbSane said…
@MB: Sorry - that was just a fluke because I forgot the page break in the post. Due to content getting ripped off, I've had to go to partial feeds with the disclaimer.

@Bill: I blogged about that study: Of Mice & (Wo)Men: When's the last time you saw an 5'4" 130 pound fat woman?

During growth, the mice gained the same amount of weight but the CR mice partitioned more to fat and dialed down their BMR's.

This might translate to adult (e.g. not growing) humans in calorie deficit to spare fat at the expense of muscle, but that's not what we see.

Yes, we dial back our BMR's - which is why exercising is so important.
CarbSane said…
@Tonus: Good points! I would add that most don't have the guts (myself included) to experiment with certain approaches.