The traditional line of thought is that calories are all that matter. Nutritionists, dietitians, and doctors will all say this. But what the Paleo community understands is that this kind of thinking is flat out wrong. The Paleo community – if anything – swings too far in the other direction, saying that calories do not matter at all, which is not true either. The truth is somewhere in between, and the larger truth is that it is the type of calories we consume which matter most.
Your body does not respond to all types of food equally. This has been shown over and over again. More importantly, your brain does not respond to all types of food equally. Since your brain is ultimately in charge of your body, this is a very important distinction to make. This is shown in the response you have to eating lots of sugar, compared with lots of protein. One will have you running around with energy, and one will leave you craving no more food and sitting satisfied.
This is where many start to get confused, however. Since your body is a complex set of systems, it is important to understand that the only time when calories (sometimes) don’t matter is when you are metabolically healthy. This state will allow you to burn off basically anything. This is seen in young athletes (remember Michael Phelps’ diet?) This also comes with lots and lots of exercise.
Calories do indeed matter – but they are not all that matter. And this is where the nutritionists and dieticians get things wrong. The infamous Twinkie diet proved just how much an overemphasis on calories can be detrimental to our health. The three macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates) all provide different effects, as well as different levels of satiety.
Food quality should be the real focus of any good diet, and this emphasis trumps anything regarding calories. Because if you are eating good food, you will likely be led into the right calorie range, regardless of exact calorie count. One of the only factors that can alter this? Metabolic issues. This includes insulin resistance and leptin resistance – two states which are (unfortunately) increasingly common in today’s obesogenic environment.
This is where we have hundreds, if not thousands, of diet plans and books, taking hold. Every theory under the sun comes out – eat only these foods, keep grams of this to a certain amount per day. But these are all gimmicks. The fact of the matter is, food quality trumps all. If you are eating mostly plants, and they are vegetables, you are already on the right path. Adding in quality sources of protein, and then some healthy fats, is all one needs.
Sure, it is a good idea to have a baseline measurement of calories to draw from, but once that is established, it is easy to stick within the right amount of calories, with little to no effort. The dopaminergic and hedonic properties of food (specifically processed foods) are what make the calorie equation so confusing. When we start re-wiring our brain with insane amounts of reward – we come to crave these foods – disregarding our proper caloric intake.
In layman’s terms, we are short-circuiting the system. By disrupting our hormones, our dopamine receptors, biochemical signaling pathways, and many other mechanisms, we now need to be extremely worried about calories. That is because our bodies and brains are no longer functioning normally. And this scenario is now what many of us are faced with, due to our long-term intake of soda, processed foods and sugar.
This scenario is what most dieticians and nutritionists are referring to, when they say that “it’s all about calories”. But if one is to leave out highly rewarding foods, instead subsisting on satiating protein, healthy fats and vegetables – it will be very difficult to over-consume. This means that you don’t need to pay much attention to calories. The reasoning here is simple – processed foods are designed to addict us. They are designed to make us over-consume. Broccoli, however, is not.
In fact, this brings me to our next point. Broccoli and other vegetables are extremely beneficial forms of calories. Not only do they contain lots of fiber (our Paleo ancestors ate a lot more than we do) but they also contains lots of compounds that help to fight aging, cancer and other diseases. The same cannot be said for soda. If it were only all about calories, than this distinction would not matter.
However, it is also true that too much of any food will be problematic. So, you could gain weight eating broccoli and chicken breasts. However, since these foods are far less rewarding (in a neuronal sense) than Skittles and soda, it is less likely to happen. Eating lots of broccoli and chicken breasts won’t leave you malnourished and craving sugar. The other diet likely would.
The issue of calories is somewhat complicated, and people don’t like things that are complicated. They want it to be a black and white issue, and the truth is, it is anything but. I think the waters get muddied even further when people “cheat” on their diets, and because of the rewarding nature of these “cheat” foods, they tend to demonize entire food groups, and claim that “calories don’t matter – just stay away from sugar”. While this is somewhat true, it is an oversimplification.
As Mat Lalonde is fond of saying, humans are not bomb calorimeters, so there is definitely more going on than “calories in versus calories out.” Otherwise, wouldn’t we all just eat at McDonald’s every day? The key to a healthy, logical diet is eating a broad range of foods which are generally green, getting plenty of quality protein, and eating healthy fats. The more important key is what you are avoiding by doing that.
Gone are the dopaminergic and hyper-stimulatory foods like orange soda. Gone are the fried chicken fingers. You won’t be eating ice cream if the above rules are your diet guidelines, either. The trick here is not to obsess about calories, but instead focus on food quality. This sets you up for long-term, actual success. Sure, once in a while you can eat some ice cream – eat it and let it go.
I think another issue with calories is that everyone has something to sell. If they come up with an angle, and they are relying on that angle to sell their book – they aren’t going to budge from their point, no matter how much scientific evidence stands in their way. And this is where something like grains comes into play.
Grains will let you survive, long enough to reproduce. In an evolutionary sense, that is truly all that matters. But grains will not give you optimal nutrients. The issue of calories really boils down to getting the most bang for your buck. This means choosing high-quality foods and not over-consuming those foods. That’s it. And if you stray from this plan, don’t obsess about it and start consuming total garbage out of guilt or shame. I am still not quite sure why so many people have an inability to make this easy and simple decision, and to simply follow this plan, but they seem to really struggle with it.
It is fairly amusing to me to see all the different gimmicks, “scientific breakthroughs,” and new ideas that are pushed on a daily basis, when the truth is that the human body has not changed during my entire lifetime, nor will it change by the time you or I are dead. Barring any earth-shattering scientific discovery, we know which foods work — and we also know which foods do not work.
If you have no idea how many calories you should be consuming – do some research. Start with your BMR (basal metabolic rate) and then use something like the Harris-Benedict equation to multiply that rate by your activity level. This will give you a pretty good idea of just how many calories you should be eating. Stick near this level for the rest of your life (it gets lower as you get older, sorry to say) and you should be just fine.
Remember to always focus on good quality foods for the large majority of your diet. This will leave out the bad stuff, and give you optimal health benefits. Your brain and my brain both require roughly the same nourishment. So do our bodies. Things get overly complex when people try to follow insanely complex, unrealistic systems. Do you really think our grandparents, who were generally much healthier than we are (minus the smoking), sat around and worried day after day about calories? You shouldn’t, either.