Is weight loss an issue of food quality or quantity?
There's a heated debate going on right now about whether calories matter when it comes to weight loss. Is weight loss an issue of food quality or quantity? Or could both play a role?
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Hello, I’m Monica Reinagel and you’re listening to the Nutrition Diva podcast. Welcome!
There's a heated debate going on right now about whether calories matter when it comes to weight loss. On the one side are those who insist that weight loss is simply a matter of taking in fewer calories than you burn. This is often referred to as the Calories In/Calories Out model. Taken to its absurd conclusion, this view holds that you can lose weight while eating nothing but Twinkies, as long as you don't eat too many, and that you can gain weight eating nothing but salad if you eat too much of it.
In the other camp are those who ascribe to the Carbohydrate Insulin Model of Obesity, which holds that calories from some foods (specifically, sugar and grains) cause you to gain weight more quickly than calories from protein and fat. Taken to its absurd conclusion, this view holds that you can eat as much as you want without gaining weight as long as you avoid those bad foods.
This is, of course, an over-simplification. The arguments for each of these positions are a lot more nuanced and sophisticated than I’ve given you here. If you’re interested in the subtleties, these two camps have spent the last several years engaged in an energetic public debate, which has played out on the stages of big nutrition conferences, in the pages of scientific journals, and (of course) on Twitter. Kevin Hall and Stephen Guyenet are two of the most prominent defenders of the Calories in Calories Out argument, while Gary Taubes and David Ludwig are co-captains of Team Carbohydrate Insulin.
And this issue has become a sort of litmus test. A lot of people want to know which camp I belong to so that they can decide whether I'm full of beans or not. Well, as my friend Jose once quipped, "There are two kinds of people in the world—those who believe that the world is made up of two kinds of people, and those who don't!"
I actually believe that both sides have it partially right and that the two views are not as mutually exclusive as they may appear.
It's true that not all calories affect metabolism in the same way. As I've talked about before, calories from protein have a (very modest) effect on metabolism, causing you to burn a few extra calories. Theoretically, you could lose weight without cutting calories simply by increasing the proportion of calories that you get from protein. It would probably take you quite a while to lose a significant amount of weight this way, but it does support the argument that some calories are more or less fattening than others.
I've also talked about the way that sugar and refined carbohydrates affect metabolism. These foods are relatively rapidly converted into glucose and absorbed into the bloodstream, which triggers a cascade of hormonal effects which—among other things—signal the body to store fat, which in turn reduces your metabolic rate. Highly processed foods also require less energy to digest which means that a greater proportion of the calories remain in the body after digestion. Again, this supports the view that some calories are more (or less) fattening than others.
Those in the “calories don't matter" camp are probably nodding in agreement right now while those in the "calories in/calories out" camp are shaking their heads in dismay. But hang on. I'm about to turn the tables. Because even though I acknowledge that calories are not all created equal, I still believe that losing weight is about taking in fewer calories than you burn.
Let me explain.
My first argument is really just a semantic one. According to the Carbohydrate Insulin Model, 100 calories of white bread is more fattening than 100 calories of egg whites. And that's probably true, because the egg white (which is all protein) increases the number of calories you burn. So instead of adjusting the "calories in" part of the equation, you've adjusted the "calories out" part of the equation. But it is still about manipulating that relationship so that you burn more than you take in.
My second argument is the more important one: The foods that we choose have subtle effects on our metabolism, but they have much more substantial effects on our behavior. Minimally processed foods, which tend to be higher in fiber and water, fill you up more quickly than highly processed foods. And a meal or snack that's higher in protein and fat will keep you full for longer than one that's higher in refined carbohydrates. The result? Fewer calories in.
So, yes, the quality of the calories you choose will have a big impact on your weight, but mostly because that has such a direct and powerful impact on the quantity you take in. If my argument seems a little circular, it's because it is. These two theories about whether calories matter are not parallel lines that will never intersect. Rather, they are two sides of the same coin. (Can’t we all just get along?)
With apologies to George Orwell, all calories count but some calories count more than others. No matter where your calories come from, you'll need to burn more than you take in if you want to lose weight. However, choosing whole foods and avoiding refined carbohydrates will help you burn more and make it a bit easier to take in fewer.
Have a nutrition question for me? You can send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave me a voicemail at 443-961-6206.
I’d also like to invite you to check out my other podcast. It’s called the Change Academy, where Brock Armstrong and I squabble about the art and science of behavior change. You can find it on all the major podcast platforms, so whatever app you’re using right now to listen to me, just head to the search bar and type in “Change Academy.”
Nutrition Diva is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. It's audio-engineered by Nathan Semmes with script editing by Adam Cecil. Our Podcast and Advertising Operations Specialist is Morgan Christianson. Our Digital Operations Specialist is Holly Hutchings. Our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin, and our intern is Brendan Picha .