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Scientifically Speaking | There’s more to losing weight than counting calories

The standard view of obesity is that if you eat more than you metabolise, then you put on weight. And this is by and large correct. But it is also simplistic because metabolism isn’t just defined by calories
By Anirban Mahapatra
UPDATED ON JUL 28, 2021 11:16 AM IST
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Representational image. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The world is getting fatter. It is a problem that humans have not had to face for most of our history. Our ancestors spent much of their lives foraging or farming food. They were subject to the vagaries of nature. Famines were common. Industrialisation pulled many people out of poverty and made energy-rich food readily available. For most of the world, these changes happened in the last century. Our brains have not evolved to deal with modern food choices and lifestyle changes in this time. As a result, there are approximately two billion adults who are currently overweight. Childhood obesity is on the rise globally too.

The standard view of obesity is that if you eat more than you metabolise, then you put on weight. Or in other words, more calories ingested than are burned leads to weight gain. And this is by and large correct. But it is also simplistic because metabolism isn’t just defined by calories.

What kind of food calories are we tied to, when we eat, and how good our bodies are at breaking down (and storing) the biological molecules of food play a role in determining how successful we are in maintaining or changing body weight.

Our body shape is also determined by a large extent by the genes we inherit and our gut bacteria. Even if you set a table for one, you never eat alone. Your body has around 40 trillion microbes, many of which are in your gut. In fact, there may be as many or more bacteria in your body as there are “human” cells. When you eat, they eat with you.

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Our bodies also tend to find metabolic equilibrium so it becomes difficult to make radical changes. This is a likely reason why children quickly put on weight they have lost once they recover from illness.

There’s also a growing body of research that indicates when we eat influences our ability to metabolise food because of the activity of hormones and bacteria in our gut. Staying up and eating late compared to the natural light-dark cycle results in a higher risk of increased body weight and glucose intolerance (including pre-diabetes).

Scientists have known for a few years that late-night work is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Even if you eat the same food with the same calories, your body may not metabolise the food the same way. So, it is probably not advisable to eat the biggest meal of the day late at night or raid the refrigerator for energy-rich midnight snacks.

In his new book, Why Calories Don’t Count: How We Got the Science of Weight Loss Wrong, Giles Yeo, an obesity researcher at Cambridge University, mentions how calorie counting is misused. Yeo is quick to point out that calories do matter in terms of what and how much you eat. A calorie is a unit that defines energy. If you eat twice as much of the same food, then your body will obviously have to figure out what to do with the extra energy.

But the obsession with counting calories to control weight obscures the fact that not all calories are used by the body the same way. Some energy-dense foods such as sugars and fats — we always seem to have room for dessert — give us a spike while others take longer to digest. Likewise, the amount of energy that is available to us from different foods with the same calories will differ.

It takes energy to break apart food and that number is not reflected in nutritional labels. Simply counting calories for different foods gives us an estimate of the total energy we might get from them. Yeo gives the specific example of proteins, which take more energy to metabolize than sugars. For every 100 calories of protein eaten, around 30 are used up in breaking down and absorbing the protein. That leaves 70 calories that are available. The conversion rate of proteins is different from other kinds of nutrients. Not all calories are equal.

Yeo’s example reminded me of a blind spot in another field. There is an emphasis on lower carbon emissions of electric vehicles compared to vehicles running on fossil fuels. But there is a cost to extracting the energy sources that produce the electricity that often gets overlooked. In other words, the source of the electricity used by an electric vehicle matters — while overall emissions might be lower than that for a petrol vehicle, it will be substantially lower for wind and hydro-generated electricity compared to coal and natural gas.

What is becoming amply clear is we need to broaden our view beyond the standard model of obesity. We need to take a holistic approach to weight control, because there’s more to it than just counting calories.

Anirban Mahapatra, a microbiologist by training, is the author of COVID-19: Separating Fact From Fiction

The views expressed are personal

The world is getting fatter. It is a problem that humans have not had to face for most of our history. Our ancestors spent much of their lives foraging or farming food. They were subject to the vagaries of nature. Famines were common. Industrialisation pulled many people out of poverty and made energy-rich food readily available. For most of the world, these changes happened in the last century. Our brains have not evolved to deal with modern food choices and lifestyle changes in this time. As a result, there are approximately two billion adults who are currently overweight. Childhood obesity is on the rise globally too.

The standard view of obesity is that if you eat more than you metabolise, then you put on weight. Or in other words, more calories ingested than are burned leads to weight gain. And this is by and large correct. But it is also simplistic because metabolism isn’t just defined by calories.

What kind of food calories are we tied to, when we eat, and how good our bodies are at breaking down (and storing) the biological molecules of food play a role in determining how successful we are in maintaining or changing body weight.

Also Read | Dieting impacts a person’s energy balance by altering gut microbiome: Study

Our body shape is also determined by a large extent by the genes we inherit and our gut bacteria. Even if you set a table for one, you never eat alone. Your body has around 40 trillion microbes, many of which are in your gut. In fact, there may be as many or more bacteria in your body as there are “human” cells. When you eat, they eat with you.

RELATED STORIES

Our bodies also tend to find metabolic equilibrium so it becomes difficult to make radical changes. This is a likely reason why children quickly put on weight they have lost once they recover from illness.

There’s also a growing body of research that indicates when we eat influences our ability to metabolise food because of the activity of hormones and bacteria in our gut. Staying up and eating late compared to the natural light-dark cycle results in a higher risk of increased body weight and glucose intolerance (including pre-diabetes).

Scientists have known for a few years that late-night work is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Even if you eat the same food with the same calories, your body may not metabolise the food the same way. So, it is probably not advisable to eat the biggest meal of the day late at night or raid the refrigerator for energy-rich midnight snacks.

In his new book, Why Calories Don’t Count: How We Got the Science of Weight Loss Wrong, Giles Yeo, an obesity researcher at Cambridge University, mentions how calorie counting is misused. Yeo is quick to point out that calories do matter in terms of what and how much you eat. A calorie is a unit that defines energy. If you eat twice as much of the same food, then your body will obviously have to figure out what to do with the extra energy.

But the obsession with counting calories to control weight obscures the fact that not all calories are used by the body the same way. Some energy-dense foods such as sugars and fats — we always seem to have room for dessert — give us a spike while others take longer to digest. Likewise, the amount of energy that is available to us from different foods with the same calories will differ.

It takes energy to break apart food and that number is not reflected in nutritional labels. Simply counting calories for different foods gives us an estimate of the total energy we might get from them. Yeo gives the specific example of proteins, which take more energy to metabolize than sugars. For every 100 calories of protein eaten, around 30 are used up in breaking down and absorbing the protein. That leaves 70 calories that are available. The conversion rate of proteins is different from other kinds of nutrients. Not all calories are equal.

Yeo’s example reminded me of a blind spot in another field. There is an emphasis on lower carbon emissions of electric vehicles compared to vehicles running on fossil fuels. But there is a cost to extracting the energy sources that produce the electricity that often gets overlooked. In other words, the source of the electricity used by an electric vehicle matters — while overall emissions might be lower than that for a petrol vehicle, it will be substantially lower for wind and hydro-generated electricity compared to coal and natural gas.

What is becoming amply clear is we need to broaden our view beyond the standard model of obesity. We need to take a holistic approach to weight control, because there’s more to it than just counting calories.

Anirban Mahapatra, a microbiologist by training, is the author of COVID-19: Separating Fact From Fiction

The views expressed are personal

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