Metabolism is something about which I would venture the vast majority of people don’t really have any firm understanding. Yet it’s pretty key to understanding how we lose weight, which is kind of a big deal for most of the folks who’ve chosen a keto lifestyles.
I’d like to spend the next couple of weeks discussing the various aspects of metabolism, and then connecting them to the different things we tend to recommend.
One thing we here at Ketovangelist have discussed a bit- and a get a TON of pushback on- is calories and whether or not they’re really relevant to the discussion of weight loss, especially on keto. The key takeaway I’ve had from most of these discussions is that most folks don’t have the faintest idea what a calorie is anyway. To a lot of folks it’s some nebulous, magical part of our food that either gives us energy or makes us fat. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the entirety of the weight loss community, regardless of what style of eating we’re talking about, is pretty obsessed with calories.
So what the heck are they anyway?
A calorie is a unit of measurement. That’s all.
To be ultra precise, it’s the amount of heat it takes to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius.
So it’s like an inch or a teaspoon, except instead of pulling out a ruler or a spoon to measure something tangible like a piece of paper or a bit of salt, you have to take the item into a lab and burn it to find out how much potential energy output it has.
When it comes to food, we measure the energy it contains in kilocalories, which simply means that one kilocalorie is the same in potential energy output as one thousand calories. (I don’t even want to think about how much bacon they’ve burned to get that number on the packaging.)
Simple stuff, really. So why does it give everyone fits?
The answer to this question is that for years the health and nutrition community has focused obsessively on the idea that the human metabolism can be boiled down to energy in versus energy out, and all the excess is automatically stored as fat. But is that true? This is one of the questions I’m going to try to answer over the course of this series.
For now, I’d like to focus on something we all try to figure out: How much energy do we use per day? How do we find out? Is this information useful?
I would like to posit the answer to the last question as a resounding, “No.” Let me explain:
Most of us are familiar with the little keto calculators, where we plug in our height and weight and after we hit the right button it spits out our macros for us. These little tools can be very useful in guesstimating how the range of calories we should shoot for in a day. But notice I said guesstimate? Yeah, that’s because these calculators use a one-size fits all formula to figure out how much energy an “average” body uses per day. How many of us fit into that “average” category? Pfffft. Not I. And I would wager most of you don’t either.
How about exercise? Even when trying to adjust for lifestyle factors, like whether or not you’re “sedentary” or “active” (and really, how broad could that possibly be?) the actual range you’re going to get between individuals is going to be incredibly wide. What about environmental factors? For example, if it’s very cold or hot, you’re burning more energy to regulate your body temperature. The calculators certainly cannot take that into account.
There is also metabolic damage to consider. As quite a few keto doctors and researchers have pointed out, when we Diet our bodies compensate for the loss of energy input by decreasing energy output. As I’ve pointed out before, the body likes sameness, which is called homeostasis. (All of which is why calorie counters are usually so unhappy. They’re hungry, and when you add in the tired, fuzzy, and cold crud that comes along with your body shutting down some less essential functions in order to compensate for caloric deficit you get a pile of misery and irritability. I digress.)
If you’ve spent years yo-yo-ing (raises hand) your metabolism is going to be messed up.
Can an online calculator with a generic mathematic formula account for all of that?
Of course not.
The nutshell is that these tools, while helpful in getting an idea of how to keto, are not accurate.
Not even close.
The only way to accurately assess how many calories you burn per day is to go to a lab, hook up to some fancy (and expensive) equipment, and having your RMR (resting metabolic rate) checked. You can then hook up to other machines to find out what kind of calories you’re outputting during exercise. None of which is particularly helpful in figuring out how much you’re expending on a day by day basis.
This doesn’t even get into the food side of things. That’s even more complicated.
Remember that calories are measured by taking things into a lab and burning them see how much it takes to make so much water boil. Unless your bacon strips are exactly the same size and composition as what they burned in the lab (Oh the humanity!!), the piece you’re eating for breakfast tomorrow does not have exactly 45 calories. Consider that to get an accurate calorie count for any meal you would have to make two absolutely identical plates and then burn one in a lab. Then tell me that trying to “count” the calories in what you eat is anything other than a waste of time.
Now, I’m not telling you that you can go have a free-for-all and eat four pounds of bacon and butter every day. What I AM saying is that, for all intents and purposes, counting both input and output of calories, a unit of heat measurement, is so grossly inaccurate as to be largely useless.
You will never have an accurate measurement of how much energy you’re burning today. You will also never have an accurate measurement of how much energy you’ve taken in today.
What you CAN do is eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Which is what we advocate here at Ketovangelist, pretty much every single day.
I’m not saying calories do not ultimately matter at some technical level. I’m saying that to the person trying to lose weight, they are irrelevant to the discussion.
Next week, I’d like to go into more detail about how the metabolism works and how calories are actually expended or stored. Stay tuned….