The Amercian doctor and author LH Peters in what was perhaps the first ever book on nutrition Diet & Health: With Key to the Calories proclaimed:
“You may eat what you like… but count your calories!”
Published in 1918, and the first one to sell over a million copies, Diet and Health led to a mathematical understanding of obesity - the so-called CICO hypothesis (Calories in-Calories out).
A relatively simple concept which is easily understood by most:
One gets fat if one eats more and/or exercises less than is needed according to one’s height and age.
In order to lose weight, all that one needs to do is to reverse this equation i.e. exercise more and eat less. This seemingly simple process has been followed, and is still sworn to by millions of individuals worldwide in a bid to lose fat and become fit. However...mostly in vain.
Studies over the last century have shown consistent results. Most serious dieters lose 5-10 kg in the first 3-6 months, after which their progress plateaus, followed by a slow regain of the lost weight (roughly 90% of the dieters regain at least half of their lost weight within 2 years; many of them even more). As most succumb to inertia, leading to lethargy and overconsumption, they remain overweight/obese. It would be worthwhile to ask why efforts of millions of humans and countless scientists failed to crack this seemingly straight forward task?
As Sherlock Holmes said to his friend Dr. Watson, “…when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This might leave us with an uncomfortable truth - there must be something wrong with the CICO hypothesis.
A Calorie (or a Kilo calorie-kcal, or 1000 calories-cal) is a unit of heat-defined as the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 liter of water by 1° C. Wilbur Atwater calculated the energy content of foods in the late 19th century, and reached the conclusion that the energy content of carbohydrates and proteins is approximately 4 kcal/ g, while that of fat is 9 kcal/g. The average American adult was thought to need about 2000 cal/day for females and 2500 cal/day for males. The average calories needed to be burnt to lose 1 lb weight was estimated around 3500 cal (~7700 cal for 1 kg). This led itself to an easy interpretation - eat 500 calories less per day, remain active, and one should lose 1 lb per week (or 1 kg every fortnight).
This should be easily achievable by any dedicated dieter, and obesity should be rare. The facts, however, are mind boggling. Obesity has multiplied over 3-fold in the last 40 years, diabetes by 4-fold, and heart diseases have become mankind’s biggest scourge in this period. So, what are we missing?
What Are the Problems with Calculations of Calories Consumed?
What Are the Problems with Calculating Calories Burnt?
The other side of the CICO hypothesis is fraught with similar complications. Excluding young athletes, one cannot exercise enough to lose weight consistently or even keep it off, if one is not watching one’s diet. For instance, it would take an average adult 3-4 hours of brisk walk to burn the calories contained in a scoop of ice cream, a piece of chocolate, or the friendly samosa.
Hence even if the CICO is a valid hypothesis, it is a rather complex calculation with many imponderables. If one were to eat the equivalent of just 20 calories extra per day, one would gain about 1 kg every year, everything else remaining the same. Also, one rarely sees the predicted results within expected time. Eating 500 calories per day less than usual for 1 month doesn’t bring about a weight loss of 2 kg, hardly 1 kg or so. And most people feel tired, often listless, lacking in energy and the drive to exercise, and dream about splurging on their favorite dessert; which they do, sooner or later. And that too lasts a few months; soon there is a plateau followed by a slow regain.
So, do calories not matter at all? Of course, they do. But not in the way people think!
More on this next week.
This is a recurring column published every Sunday. Click here to view my other articles on health, nutrition and exercise.
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