Calories In – Calories Out: A Fallacy?

Lisa sent me an article some time back that was about calories and weight loss and diet (meaning the selection of food types rather than the reduction of food quantity eaten). The two of us talk about this topic fairly often these days because we’re nearing the two-year mark of a process that’s seen us change our life styles, lose weight, and keep it off quite successfully, thank you very much–all without terribly massive heartache.

Lisa and I, it turns out however, have very different views on food and weight, and it shows up in how we viewed this article.

My view, you see, is that there are no bad foods and no good foods. I know that sounds odd, but there’s a certain sanity to it that makes total sense to me. Certainly I see that a serving of broccoli has more vitamins and whatnot than a cookie. Yes. Believe me when I say that I see that. But that doesn’t mean the broccoli is healthier. To know if the broccoli is healthy for me in particular (or if the cookie is a problem), I need to know what else I eat. For example, if I eat nothing but broccoli, then I’m going to have some problems. And if I eat nothing but broccoli then that latest serving of broccoli is essentially very unhealthy for me, and in fact the cookie (being a source of different valuable vitamins or minerals as well as its fats and oils is) is probably a better choice.

You see, I don’t put a health value on one food or another as an individual. To me, it is the overall diet that counts.

This is important to me specifically because of the statement early in the article wherein the author says: “No one likes to feel deprived or leave the table hungry, and the notion that one generally must eat less to control body weight really doesn’t cut it for the typical American.”

I think that as soon as you put specific tags on specific foods that it drives people’s perspectives and reduces their ability to make good decisions on a whole. If I call ice cream “bad” and I chose to eat ice cream, then I’m being “bad,” for example. And if I’m being bad, then I feel unsuccessful and if I’m unsuccessful then what’s the danged use of trying at all, and then I give up. Screw the authorities, I say. I want my ice cream even if it makes me a pariah! And that’s the spiral of doom when it comes to weight gain.

And weight gain is what we’re talking about here. My goal in looking at food is to create an environment where I can enjoy myself, and that is something that should (to my hedonistic mind) include being able to eat things I want to eat as well as lose weight. I am walking proof that this can be done.

Lisa listens to me as I talk about this, but it’s clear that she doesn’t really buy my golden words of wisdom. She understands, of course. My wife is sharp as a tack–she’s smarter than me, as my grandmother once reminded me. But she’s clearly more into the concept that some foods are healthy and some are not, and she thought this article was a bullet to my viewpoint. Her perspective was framed by Dr. Mozaffarian’s commentary that “There are good foods and bad foods, and the advice should be to eat the good foods more and the bad foods less,” he said. “The notion that it’s O.K. to eat everything in moderation is just an excuse to eat whatever you want.”

While I agree with parts of the basic sentiment of this statement, I disagree with it has been made. In fact, the statement is unfair, and seems to me to be a fairly thinly veiled indictment of “lazy” people (putting words in the good doctor’s mouth there, I know). While it may be true that some people use eating in moderation as an excuse, I think it is more appropriate to say “people like to eat things that make them happy.” Given this, I actually suggest that this doctor’s point of view was misguided and it was a bad idea–a disservice to his patients–for him to frame things as he framed them. I think it better to create a dietary framework by which individual people can manage to make adjustments that allow them to properly eat what they want to eat.

I will, of course, lay that framework out. Here is my disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I am a lapsed engineer working in the HR field. But this makes way too much sense to me. So, yeah, uh, follow me. But be smart. If you have health issues or concerns or whatever, see a danged doctor.

Okay, enough on the small print. Here’s the magic framework I promised . . .

To me, the basic framework of any good diet is really quite simple and can be summed as follows:

• Your diet should provide you with all the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy.
• Your diet should provide you only the number of calories it needs (which is dependent upon height and weight and metabolism and whatnot).
• Your calorie box can and should change as you exercise (exercise more, and you get to eat more … exercise less and you have to eat less)
• Your diet can consist of any collection of foods that fit into this design box

If you are a basically healthy person and you follow a diet that meets these criteria, then there is a very good chance that calories in vs. calories out will work just fine for you. You do, however, need to know your own body’s parameters (metabolic rate, exercise capacity, etc.), and you do need to pay attention to them (weigh yourself, estimate calorie intake and calorie burn rates).

In that light, I think it’s also best to know yourself when it comes to the accounting period. By “accounting period” I mean how often you add up the balance of calories in and calories out. Use a period that works for your own psychology–and allows you to succeed. Personally, I pay attention to myself daily, but I make judgments weekly. So I count things up daily (I don’t keep a written log, but I add up calories as I go through the day), and I pay attention to my exercise balance daily, and I weigh myself daily. But I don’t judge if I’m being successful by whether I stayed in my calorie budget any particular day or gained or lost weight that day. Instead, I look over a week or so and think things like “I was a little under in four days and a little over in three days–I won the week.” Lo and behold, when I look at my weight over the week’s period, the scale agrees with me.

A weekly spot just makes more sense for me.

Lisa uses a weekly process, too, but she doesn’t even weigh herself daily because the 1-3 pound swings that can happen daily can cause her to go insane.

A weekly spot makes sense for me, too, because if I focused on my daily calorie budget I would never be able to fit in some of the foods I like to eat. Heck, a trip to the ice cream shop can well kill many of my 1-day budgets, but there’s plenty of room for it in my 1-week budget because I pay attention to it all and I make room for it. But I like trips to the ice cream place, and if I denied myself those trips merely because I couldn’t fit them into a 1-day budget then what the heck would life be worth?

You see, in this framework, which I put forward is the only true framework that will work, the notion that it’s O.K. to eat everything in moderation being just an excuse to eat whatever you want is not true at all. In fact, this framework suggests that the idea that it’s okay to eat reasonable portions of whatever you want is the goal. Get that? While the diet itself is the input to the calories in/calories out equation, the construction of your diet is in itself part of the goal.

Telling people that the Oreo they want is bad is really not helpful. Telling them what conditions need to exist to make that Oreo work for them, however, seems to me to be something most reasonable people can manage to accept. And the beauty is that the exercise you need to do to at least maintain nearly any weight and still be able to eat that Oreo is really not that god-awful hard so long as you actually pay attention…but that’s a topic for another post.

Anyway, this concept that dietary construction is part of the goal is something that diets don’t really get–or rather, they get it but they confront it by telling people that they can’t have what they want, they tell people that this is the problem rather than the goal. It’s why diets don’t work. People want what they want. And that is why my framework is, in my opinion, the best one to focus on.

Share Me
Posted in Life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *