Calorie Rants and Ketosis (part 1).

Calories – a topic that seems to push me from zero to rant mode in 2.3 seconds. You hear people say calories count. Others say they don’t. And in the end, with the punters on the ground, it leads to nothing but confusion. I’ll try to give my take here, touching a bit on Robb Wolf’s latest post, and the buzz word de jour – nutritional ketosis.  I’ll try to do so without spiralling down into some form of frothing-at-the-mouth incoherence.

A calorie is a calorie?

Here is a comment I left on Gary Taubes’ blog on the topic;

Saying a calorie is a calorie is no more useful in describing what is happening at a physiological level than saying a metre is a metre. Both are units of measurement, useful in our physical worlds – for measuring stuff – but completely bloody hopeless for understanding our biology.

If I say I have a metre of wood, a metre of glass, or a metre of string, does this tell me anything much about these things other than how long they are? Assuming a metre is a metre, they must all be the same… they must all have the same properties, because I can quantify some aspect of them all similarly. What if we took two substances, in an identical amount, such as say, testosterone and oestrogen (I assume you could probably even quantify a caloric measure of these hormones – they “burn” after all). Do we automatically assume, once you feed them into the body, they each have identical effects because they can be quantified identically? Of course not. Yet we make the same mistake with fructose, glucose, palmitic acid, lauric acid, tryptophan, tyrosine, and so on.

I have only a nutritionist’s understanding of biochemistry (read as: relatively basic), but I understand, when we move away from their gross macronutrient labels, that each of those compounds will elicit a different downstream response… will send a different signal or message to our biology. I can’t for the life of me fathom why anyone would think these different compounds, even if corrected to be calorically equal to each other, would be identical in their effect on the body.

Let’s define a nutritional calorie… from Wikipedia;

The large calorie, kilogram calorie, dietary calorie, nutritionist’s calorie or food calorie (symbol: Cal) approximates the energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 °C. This is exactly 1,000 small calories or approximately 4.2 kilojoules. The calorie, the kilocalorie and the kilojoule are in common use in nutritional contexts as units of food energy. As used in these contexts the calorie (unprefixed) is based on the kilogram whereas the kilocalorie is based on the gram. That is, the nutritional calorie is the kilogram calorie and the kilocalorie is one thousand gram calories. Thus, in nutrition, the terms calorie and kilocalorie refer to equivalent units.

So what we are talking about when we talk about calories, to be correct, is a measure of the physical properties of proteins, fats, and carbs, external to a biological system. A calorie is a way for us to physically quantify the energy contained within those macronutrients [outside of a biological system] in much the same way as we can physically quantify the length and mass of something.  But what about within a biological system? What is relevant there? Well if we are going to be concerned with energy in a biological system, we are better off quantifying proteins, fats, and carbohydrates by how much potential they have for ATP production – the actual energy currency of the body.

  • Each molecule of glucose (carbohydrate) metabolised will yield between 36-38 ATP’s (aerobic)
  • Each molecule of palmitate (fat) metabolised will yield 106 ATP

So, everything else being equal, palmitate will provide your system with more energy than glucose…

Now there are a couple of points from here already (and I’m purposefully not going to go through all the biochemistry of it all here – consider that extra for experts if you want to deploy your Google-fu)…  When we start to look at the energy yield in a biological system rather than in the physical (calorie) world, to be accurate, we need to look at individual molecules of the various substrates.

We cannot lump all carbohydrates together.

We cannot lump all fats together.

There are many different ways in which glucose differs from fructose when we start to look at metabolism (and the hormonal responses each elicit in the body). Likewise, there are different ways in which, say, lauric acid (a medium-chain [12C] saturated fat found in the likes of coconut oil) differs from palmitic acid (a long-chain saturated fat [16C] saturated found in the likes of steak). Technically, we would say lauric acid and palmitic acid are both saturated fats, and being fats, they yield 9kcal per gram. But in the biological system of energy production, the 12-carbon lauric acid yields roughly 57-58 ATP, whilst the 16 carbon palmitic acid yields 106 ATP, with both being handled quite differently from digestion, to absorption, to metabolism.

The way in which we quantify them in the physical world, as the macronutrient “fat”, gives no insight at all into how they are treated in a biological system. It is like saying that retinol, cobalamin, and ascorbic acid are all the same because they are all “vitamins”. We need a bit more fidelity in how we talk about these things. A calorie is not a calorie in the same way that a macronutrient is not a macronutrient, or a vitamin is not a vitamin.

There is no central calorie counter in the body – period. There is no running tally, or end of day summation and gross adjustment. What the body does do, however, is respond to momentary fluxes… how much fructose or ethanol is arriving at the liver; what is the status of blood glucose, liver glycogen, muscle glycogen; how much oxygen is available; what is the demand of the muscles, brain; what are intramuscular triglyceride stores like; what is the stress status of the system; is the system in fight/flight mode or is it in rest and digest mode?

All of these processes and many, many others will dictate the delicate fine-tuning of the system. And there is obviously many things which can disrupt the balance of this fine-tuning – some of which we are only just starting to come to grips with (e.g. gut bacteria). How you run your ship on a day-to-day basis will often dictate the “disposal capacity” you have for the various substrates.  Compare someone who is a relatively squishy office worker, interested in only doing a bit of low-level walking a few days per week, to a fire-breathing super-lean Crossfitter intent on WODing themselves within inches of their life 4-5 mornings per week. These two very different individuals are going to have very different disposal capacities for the food that they eat.

The walker, because they are not fluxing their glycogen stores so routinely, might be able to sit at the lower end of the carbohydrate scale, get away with not very much protein – they aren’t doing that much damage that they need to oversupply the basic building blocks [amino acids] for repair, and due to their low-level aerobic metabolism with walking (AND – the predominate muscle fibre type they are using to do it), they can probably run quite happily with the fat from a bit of steak and butter in the mix.

The Crossfitter, however, is a lean, mean, fast-twitching anaerobic monster. They give themselves the beat down several times a week, and they try to stay reasonably active outside of this (let’s say they are a fire-fighter, so they aren’t sedentary). They eat clean, so they aren’t getting a mountain of glucose and fructose just by the default of eating and drinking junk. But they are fluxing a good deal of glycogen through both their muscles and liver, giving them a bigger “disposal capacity” for glucose and fructose (fructose being great at restocking liver glycogen – if you create the capacity for it to do so). Having a preponderance toward more and larger fast-twitch fibres, their muscles tend to flux more glucose/glycogen through them, and they don’t have a huge capacity to store and utilise intramuscular triglycerides (so the disposal capacity for triglycerides [fats] is relatively low – the amount they get from dietary sources, naturally, is generally plenty). This person has a good “disposal capacity” for more amino acids in the mix (a higher protein intake), and more glucose and fructose (carbs). The small(ish) amounts of fat derived from their clean eating is enough for them.

Now let’s say that someone advises our walker to dramatically shift up their fat intake… because “if you eat more fat, you burn more fat” (and as I heard at a recent conference, “It is IMPOSSIBLE to eat too much fat”… Where is it going to go with our walker? Sure, they can fuel their day-to-day activities with fat, and they don’t need a lot of carbohydrate. But without increasing their “disposal capacity”, by doing more exercise, creating more of a flux of ATP (which in their case, can be replaced through fat metabolism, predominantly), where are they going to put it?

And our Crossfitting Fire Fighter… they decide to give very low carb nutritional ketosis a go. They are already lean, but it seems that in this paleo/Crossfit world, you just can never be lean enough. And hey, if some big dude can drop 20kg on that approach, then surely our Crossfitter can drop an easy 2-3kg to look like someone out of Fight Club? Where might things go wrong?

For a start, their training patterns, activity levels, and muscle fibre type all dictate they are better running on a higher glucose/fructose mix. The fibre type that gives them the power of a locomotive in a WOD (type II) doesn’t run particularly well on fats as a fuel – they have a lower capacity to shuttle fats into beta oxidation. Simply throwing more fat down the gob isn’t going to change this (unless they also want to change their training patterns and gain some type II fibre adaptation toward a more oxidative metabolism). And because they have heard that you can overeat protein, they cut this too. You can see a mile off what is going to happen here. A crash is coming. They will end up tired and miserable, their training will suffer, and their health will take a step backward. And no, it isn’t because they didn’t do it hard enough or long enough.

We could reduce both of the above examples to “calories count”. The first person [walker] is now “eating too many calories”, and the second person [Crossfitter] “isn’t eating enough calories”. These statements are true, to an extent, if you always interpret “calories” to mean some combination of saccharides, fatty acids, or amino acids. The walker is eating too many fatty acids for their ability to actually utilise them. The Crossfitter is not eating enough starches (as a source of saccharides), to match their fuelling requirements. What this doesn’t mean is that they now need to count calories coming in and calories going out, and try to balance that equation.

This reduction to calorie counting  is my fear when I read the likes of statements from Robb such as “CALORIES MATTERED MORE THAN CARBS FOR BODY-COMP.” I fear that people will suddenly think they need to start counting the water-heating numbers coming in and going out. The way I read the above statement from Robb (and he is free to jump in here and correct me), is that he went from being very active and having the ability to dispose of all of the energy substrates he was eating, to not being that active and thus diminishing his substrate disposal capacity. The answer for him was not to simply reduce his glucose/fructose intake, and still keep eating a mountain of fatty acids, as if the absence of one in the diet causes the other to simply evaporate.  The fact that he wasn’t moving as much meant he didn’t need as much of the raw materials (food) going in his “pie-hole”. But I am picking (hoping), he didn’t sit down and decide he needed 1800 cals per day and calorie counted his food. He didn’t reduce his eating to a mathematical equation. How very tedious if he did.

If you “cut calories”, what do you do? You eat less FOOD. Food which contains mixtures of glucose, fructose, palmitic acid, lauric acid… and so on. The opposite if you “increase calories”. If we took the Crossfitter example above, cut their carbs and protein, ramped up their fat, and ensured that it was all balanced out from a calorie counting perspective – let’s say 3500 in to account for 3500 out – will it change anything? Will getting them to eat the correct number of calories, mostly from fat, change anything about the type of muscle fibres they have, or the type of glycolytic activity they participate in, or the muscle wrecking nature of wrangling fire hoses and carrying BA gear on their backs?

No. Quantifying food and diet through “calories” says nothing of qualifying the needs of the individual. Simply calorie counting misses entirely that you need to take a horses for courses approach.

Let’s look at a couple of recent contrasting real world examples to see if we can illustrate the point further… next time.

74 thoughts on “Calorie Rants and Ketosis (part 1).

  1. dmgorton

    You are quite right to say the body’s energy currency is ATP, but to draw any conclusions from certain molecules producing more or less ATP is misleading if you fail to normalise for mass. A given fat may well still produce more ATP per gram than another, or a certain carbohydrate type, but without normalising these data are pretty meaningless.

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      You are most correct. So when someone refers to, for example, eating 500kcals of fat or 600kcals of CHO, we can work that backwards and figure out that they are actually saying to eat roughly 55g of fat or 150g of CHO, which will then go on to yield whatever amount of ATP depending on the status of the system. It would be more accurate then, for people to refer to gram amounts entering a biological system rather than kcal amounts. But even that comes with the tediousness of counting what are highly variable aspects in real food.

  2. James

    Excellent, excellent post, Jamie. I have to have conversations similar to this with people all the time.

    I like to tell people that “fat” “carbs” and “protein” are nutrient categories like “vitamins” and “minerals”. Nutrients are categorized based on similar properties or functions they share, but not all nutrients in a category do the same thing, and most definitely not the same thing for different people in different situations.

    If someone has hypothyroid isues because of a lack of dietary iodine, supplying them with iodine may help with that. But someone that consumes the upper tolerable limit of iodine daily, but who isn’t making enough T3 because of excess cortisol will not benefit from supplemental iodine the same way! And just because calcium is a dietary mineral, doesn’t mean it would have the same effect as the dietary mineral iodine!

    I hope many people read this post and understand what you’re trying to say.

    Thanks for finally writing this! ;)

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      Thank you, James. I am always impressed by your knowledge and wisdom that you hold at such a young age and early stage in your vocational adventures. If I knew what I know now, at your stage in life, I’d be dangerous! As I am sure you are going to be.


  3. Amber

    “Now let’s say that someone advises our walker to dramatically shift up their fat intake… where are they going to put it?”

    This assumes that the body doesn’t respond to that intake by changing (e.g. REE). If you change the amount you eat, everything adapts.

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      But the example I gave was of a person already eating a low carb, high fat diet, so you could assume they are already adapted. REE can only shift so much. You can’t endlessly tip fatty acids into the system and expect them to just be metabolised for energy, unless something has shifted the flux in ATP. There are different capacities each of us hold for dealing with substrate utilisation. Some have a big fat tank, some a big carb tank. But invariably, each of those tanks will reach a limit and be constrained. If you are eating fat beyond your capacity to deal with it (beyond metabolic shifts and behavioural changes), then what?

      1. ambimorph

        I agree, there must be a limit somewhere. I think the only way to really answer it is by experiment.

        The other thing that seems to be conflated in this discussion (not you, just in general) is whether that limit would ever be reached by a person eating ad libitum, but under the constraint that they have to stay ketogenic (not just what they think is ketogenic, but what is measureably so). It is one thing to say you can eat endless amounts of fat, and quite another to say that there is no amount of fat that you will want to eat that would make you fat. It’s possible that the latter is true even if the former is not.

        1. thatpaleoguy Post author

          This is something I was discussing yesterday… for those whose individual context require that they need an increased level of substrate, would the appetite suppressing effects of being in ketosis prevent that happening? They might not be hungry, but they still aren’t getting what they need.

          For a Jimmy Moore-esque type individual, that degree of appetite suppression might be exactly right for his context. But it might not be right for the Crossfitter wanting to nuke their AMRAP PR’s.

          1. squatchy

            Agreed, I’ve seen the ketosis hunger issue backfire in some situations like you mentioned, and have even experienced it myself in the past. Especially when it’s compounded by the appetite suppressing and poor digestion effects that excessive stress from training hard or overtraining while eating a very low carb diet.
            Great post Jamie.

          2. thatpaleoguy Post author

            Hey Chris. Great to have you here. Yes – I think the number of people for who NK is a good tool is fairly limited. Some are using with great success, but I have my suspicions they are the exceptions rather than the rules.

  4. Kindke

    The way I look at it…..

    Myocytes accumulate myofibrils, myofibrils are organelle’s, which in essence of made of calories.

    Adipocytes accumulate triglycerides in their central lipid droplet which is also an organelle, and is obviously made of calories.

    The fact that mitochondria burn fatty acids to generate ATP and that fatty acids come from triglycerides has been very misleading to the way people think.

    Adipocytes accumulate triglycerides for the same reason myocytes accumulate myofibrils, because that is their function, their purpose, so when you have an increased number of adipocytes, you have an increased amount of cells trying to accumulate triglycerides. Macroscopically, an increased accumulation of triglycerides presents itself as obesity.

  5. juliannej

    Great article, I like the way you explained it. I’ve recently seen a few CrossFitting women, pear shaped, who have cut carbs to lose weight, and kept up a high level of crossfit / bootcamp sessions. They eat protein and fat and low carbs, they are not losing weight as they increased fats, yet they CRAVE carbs as they are burning throught them. Then they have binges, and feel guilty.
    With some diet adjustments – more starches for fuel and glycogen replacement, less fat, and about the 1g per g protein, their energy goes up, their recovery, performance and sleep improves, cravings go away and fat loss resumes.

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      And this is exactly my point, Julianne. You are at the coalface of all this too, so no doubt see the same things I do. What you have written there is that you have taken into account the context of the person – their sex, build, fat deposition patterns, exercise type, amounts of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, and made adjustments from there. What you haven’t done (and this is the approach I see from those who are confused around this whole issue), is;
      – Taken that attitude that it works for XYZ person, so I’ll do it too
      – Simply lowered the carbs/increased the fat more… doing it harder or for longer
      – Or tried to figure out how many calories they are burning and topped them up/wound them down to create a 500kcal deficit.

      What you, me, Robb, etc., mean by “calories count” is quite different to how the layperson will interpret that, and the strategies they will put in place. They will try to measure or estimate their own outputs, in calories, and will estimate their food intake, still likely being fearful of carbs, fats, and now proteins, depending on what they’ve read this week. They will give no consideration to the physiology of the type of exercise they are doing, the muscle fibre types they might have (are they actually well-suited to WODs?? Are they more walk & lift, or are they more lift & sprint??). And invariably they will end up doing some weird hybrid of strategies with little to no success.

      “Calories count” is simply short-hand for “what food you stick in your gob counts; it isn’t just solely carb grams, or fat grams, or ketosis numbers, or whatever, based on diet-hack-of-the week.” Perhaps, more accurately, as a couple whom I am rather fond of keep saying, “context matters”.

  6. George @ the High Fat hep C Diet

    Also, if you weight a fat – say, olive oil, you’re including the glycogen, which is a carbohydrate. The ratio of glycogen to fatty acid in a triglyceride alters its true calorie count. So short- or medium chain triglycerides have significantly fewer calories-per-gram than long-chain triglycerides like fish oil. The Atwater ratios are just averages, rounded out.

  7. El

    Great ‘food for thought’ (pun obviously intended).
    I take it from above that you’re not a fan of Jimmy Moore’s preaching.
    Forgive me for not being scientifically intellectual enough to understand even the most basic biochemistry, but in layman’s terms, is it ever possible to achieve this supposed ‘nutritional ketosis’?
    I have a high fat diet, with moderate protein and low carb. So the theory fits well with me. My exercise routine involves Crossfit a couple of times a week, a lot of walking, a bit of running, some soccer and touch football. I eat 2-3 meals a day, usually a big breakfast, a medium lunch and a small dinner (if any). I have never had a problem with weight, so I can’t tell if this is effective in that regard. But in terms of energy, provided I get the right sleep, my energy seems to be better than ever. I bounce out of bed in the morning and get through workouts enjoyably. So am I doing the right or wrong thing? I don’t like thinking that I may be ‘missing out’ as you said above (considering I seem to fit the profile of the ‘walker’ and that I’m not hungry to eat more than twice a day sometimes)? Now I’m feeling so confused! Just when you think you’re onto the most nutritious, suitable diet you read something that makes you question what you’re doing.
    Volek and Phinney’s work also appealed to me because my boyfriend is a triathlete, and has pretty much the opposite diet to me (high carb, moderate protein, low fat) and he seems to eat far more often than I do, maybe once every couple of hours or sometimes less. Obviously his training load and activity level is on the VERY high end of the scale (especially training for Ironman comps). I worry about all the carbs (refined or not) he eats, and their suggestion (although forgive me, I haven’t read their work completely through just yet) that endurance athletes may be able to tap into fat burning stores if they train themselves to do so. Too good to be true?
    Sorry for the massive post – it’s all just a bit much for me to wrap my little mind around! I really appreciate your valuable insight though Jamie on this (and every other) subject.

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      I don’t have a problem with Jimmy’s n=1 experiment, provided people don’t apply the false logic that it is going to be automatically right for them because it is working for Jimmy.

      It sounds like what you are doing works for you. Describing a diet in gross macronutrient terms doesn’t say much about it. Your diet is high fat, moderate protein, and low carb. I can describe mine the same. Yet we could eat entirely differently. And low carb – compared to what? I am low carb by Western/Conventional standards, but I am not particularly low carb by low carber standards.

      You need to gauge your diet on things like hunger, energy, cravings, looks, performance, etc. If your diet ticks all those boxes, I wouldn’t get too concerned about anything I write!!

      I think Volek and Phinney’s work is good for endurance athletes – particularly the Ironman types. I’ll explain why in part 2.

      1. El

        And you’re so right about me over-simplifying the diet. Definitely need to stress less, and to think about the bigger picture! Cheers.

  8. Louise

    Some excellent basic points, and as for the more technical nutritional details, I simply trust your scientific knowledge & perspective (because most of it is far over my head). I’m one of those still somewhat confused people who doesn’t count calories but nevertheless constantly wonders if I’m any closer to getting the balance right. Fatigue, stalled weight loss, and picky children all indicated that we’re not quite there yet, but persevering. I’m definitely looking forward to part 2, with the real life examples! Great to see you still have time for these awesome blogs, with the new ventures you’ve got going on!

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      Thanks, Louise. It is a shifting target for us all. But one thing I have learned is to not put all the eggs in the nutrition basket. Food is important, sure. As is exercise. But sleep, sunlight, slow movement, seasonality, stress resilience, and socialisation are all also critical. Deficits in any of these could easily manifest in the problems you are facing.

  9. Stipetic

    The concept of “calories count” doesn’t make sense to me. Like Taubes, I think, and as you may have pointed out, this is stating the obvious (a meter is a meter, so what?). When someone mentions that calories count I feel like they are stating a lite version of CICO. I don’t think this does anyone any good. First of all, the typical person can only measure one thing–calories in (and as you pointed out this is somewhat inaccurate as the tables used to calculate these vary from one to another, etc). Trying to calculate calories out, comparatively, is a nightmare and even more highly variable. All a waste of time. So, and this may be your point as well and I misunderstood, what’s the point of addressing calories at all? CICO or “calories count” or otherwise. Unless you establish a large enough deficit through decreasing calories in, that you can’t make up via calories out (metabolism; “metabolic advantage,” REE, NEET, etc, whatever–it’s not important). But doing so brings us back to calorie restriction diets and putting CICO in the forefront once again.

    I don’t drink the CICO koolaid, and I’d rather not have the CICO lite version either.

    Thanks, Jamie, and I look forward to part deux.

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      Bingo… trying to count and balance something that is almost impossible to accurately count seems like an exercise in futility to me. I mean, a 5-10% error rate in trying to account for 2000 kcals, puts you out by 100-200kcals per day, or 3000-6000kcals per month. There’s half a kilo of fat per month, by all the usual accounting. Not to mention you are counting something that has no biological basis.

      Thanks for commenting!

  10. The Natural Nutritionist

    Fantastic as always.

    Firstly, it’s all about nutrient timing. Even triathletes need to learn when to eat their carbs and why. Simple sugars are pro-inflammatory and should be reduced, regardless of exercise volume, body fat percentage or performance level. El, buy your boyfriend a copy of Cordain’s “The Paleo Diet for Athletes”, trust me.

    “Low-carb” is actually defined as less than 50g of carbohydrates/day. But if you’re not counting, how do you know? ;) This will still be too much to yield nutritional ketosis in many. A short-term approach in my opinion anyway.

    I stand by my quote: “There’s no need to count calories, if you make the calories count!”.

    Looking forward to Part 2.

    1. El

      I actually own the book and have read it, also Volek and Phinney’s book and anything online I can get on the subject. I thought I was just wrapping my head around it but this post confused me slightly. It may be the time of year or information overload or just that I’m not naturally gifted when it comes to understanding all the ‘sciencey’ stuff. But I’ll keep soldiering through it and with help from people (like you) will hopefully come to a good understanding for him. He just did a half ironman in Canberra and the food was disastrous. Packet ready made pancakes smothered in jam and honey, Mightysoft raisin toast, pastas etc.

    2. thatpaleoguy Post author

      I prefer a bucket chemistry approach… a little bit more/less steak/kumara/coconut cream at this time or that time. Run with it for a couple of weeks – see how you look, feel, perform. Adjust as necessary.

      Not an approach a lot pf people like, however. Most seem to want to skip the “get to know thyself” approach in favour of the “give me the exact numbers so I can get it right from the start” approach. If only it were that easy!

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      Thanks, Ann. One of those hobby horses of mine. I have never liked the “calories count” mantra because a) calories are not a biological construct that can be counted in any meaningful way, and b) people don’t eat calories – they eat food.

      What we should be saying is, for some people, the potatoes on your plate may or may not count, but if they do, simply removing them doesn’t give you a free pass on everything else on that plate. The steak and butter may also count – depending on your context.

      1. Makro

        One additional point regarding “calories count” – as a practical matter, almost no normal person is able to in practice keep up a calorie counting approach.

        In a healthy “normal guy” scenario, appetite / satiety should regulate energy intake. I have a normal satiety / appetite system, and if I go on some huge buffet style binge, the result is that I feel stuffed for a very long time. (Hence, I eat less)

        It´s no coincidence that people were able to keep lean even before the “calorie” was defined. And no, that´s not because they were constantly teetering on the edge of starvation.

        Needless to say, the above does not hold if you are trying to create “the perfekt body”, etc.

  11. Sara Grambusch

    Great article. I enjoyed Robb’s post but towards the end I was also thinking “Oh god, please don’t let calorie counting be someone’s takeaway from this.” I don’t think that’s what he intended and of course everyone has their own context, but since I’ve been paleo I’ve almost forgotten about calories. I understand they have a place in some circumstances but that thing on your plate is an egg, not a pie chart of macronutrients. It’s real food, just eat it and see how it goes.

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      I’m pretty sure the point Robb was trying to make wasn’t that people need to get their calorie tables and abacus out.

      You are quite right about what is on someone’s plate – even before I turned paleo, in my role as a nutritionist I was advising people that they don’t shop for calories, carbs, fats, proteins, glycaemic indices, and so on. They shop for food.

      I don’t count a thing – well, maybe number of eggs, strips of bacon, etc. And I’ll play around with those numbers only. People ask me how many calories, or grams of fat/carbs/protein I eat and I tell them I have no idea and really could care less. I eat food and adjust food accordingly.

  12. Ben Dixon (@BenDixonUK)

    Great post!

    A great science teacher of mine at school once taught a class on a car’s mpcp (miles per christmas pudding) and I remember it being a somewhat surprising distance. However, you’d be a fool to think that your car would be anything but thoroughly screwed if you filled your tank with pudding, or coca-cola, or coal, thinking that as long as the quantities all represent the same amount of stored energy all will be fine. I’m afraid neither cars nor the human body operate like the DeLorean’s Dr Fusion. People forget petrol isn’t the only thing we put in our cars. We put oil in our engines, petrol in our tanks, screen wash in our wipers, and fluid in our breaks… but although they all could be said to have a caloric value, our car ‘consumes’ them all for different purposes, not all are simply burned as fuel.

    I know it’s not exactly like this of course, but I have found that a good metaphor is the only way to communicate certain things when people’s brains are so ingrained in the current (or previous!) paradigm. I do think the ‘food is fuel’ ‘energy in, energy out’ way of thinking is still a hang-over from the very industrial and Newtonian understanding of the world of the past couple hundred years or so. Gladly we are moving into a new paradigm of quantum fuzziness and complexity, it’s relevant, and will lead to progress and understanding in many fields. hmmm… Didn’t Art De Vany say something like that? Have I just plagiarised the old fellow?! (the last bit I mean, not the DeLorean bit)

    Hello by the way, I’m new here, I professionally jump around for a living.

  13. js290

    A couple of points:

    1. Energy input affects energy output. If the walker started consuming
    more energy that biases towards expenditure rather than storage, he may
    decide to partake in other activities to burn off the additional energy.

    2. The Type II fibers not only cannot metabolize fat, but they cannot
    metabolize glucose, either. They lack mitochondria for aerobic
    metabolism. Hence, they burn off stored glycogen, anaerobically. The Type II fibers
    do not recover quickly. So, all the plyo work that people believe is
    working the Type II’s are probably really just stimulating the Type I
    slow twitch aerobic fibers. Remember, the body is efficient and will
    use the least amount of energy necessary to perform a skill. And, the
    more you train, the more efficient you are at that skill. Also,
    activation of the Type II’s require adrenaline, fight or flight. Taking
    an adrenaline hit on a regular basis is not healthy and will lead to
    overtraining. So, it’s a wrecked body, not the dietary fat, that’s
    holding them back.

    3. Given that fat provides more ATP to the TCA Cycle than glucose, it is not possible to
    perform worse, aerobically, on a better fuel.

    1. paleo1223

      Js and Jamie, a question for you guys. If we look at a typical crossfitter after a workout, he has depleted glycogen stores. He will not replace these with ingested carbs. In the absence of sufficient ingested carbs , he has to replace the lost glycogen stores. If he has adequate supply of protein and fat , can’t he get re supplied via gluconeogenesis? Even though fat cannot be turned to glucose the glycerol portion of trigs can be converted to glucose. Would this not
      be a roundabout way of restoring glycogen levels with fats? What if your training and eating have been low carb and moderate fat and moderate protein to try to solicit an adaptation to precisely this?
      I would add that because the crossfit workouts a have a large proportion of anaerobic elements , although not a very efficient way of utilizing glucose, it would be precisely that reason that more glucose is consumed and would need replacement?
      be a roundabout way of geeting stored fat to replenish glycogen stores?

  14. Robb Wolf

    Great stuff-
    I’m kinda bummed about all the hand-wringing regarding calorie counting. In part 2 I lay out how to tackle this stuff in a relatively non-neurotic way…but alas, some folks will slip through the cracks, I’ve come to look at that less as an annoyance and more as job security.

    As to the ketosis being sufficient to blunt hunger and force a weight loss: I’ve work with a LOT of clients, done a fair amount of tinkering on my own and I can force-fedd myself while in raging ketosis and gain weight. It sucks, it’s much easier to do with some carbs, but it is fully doable. I’ve had clients manage to be in ketosis AND gaining weight by mistaking mouth for vacum cleaner. It’s rare…but doable for a stubborn few. From an educational standpoint with the MASSES I would still tell people “don’t worry about calories, focus on protein, veggies, fat for flavor.” For the vast majority of folks this will be exactly what they need. For some they will need to up some carbs immediately just to feel good, for others, it will be when they are lean, for still others they will interpret this message as an endorsement to eat as much as possible (Jorge from my book…actually our lawyer, funny enough).

    If on the other-hand we are talking to an academic crowd, we need to talk about palatability, reduced caloric load etc or we will be ignored, and rightly so at this point. We need to be smart enough as academics to change our “hat” as it were and speak in a way that our curent crowd get from out message what they need. If we are coaching people then we need to COACH! Not rely on one method for motivating our cleints. I tie a lot of this stuff togetehr in part 2, kinda wishing I;d dropped all 5,000 words at once.

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      Hi Robb

      Firstly, thanks for stopping by and commenting – much appreciated. Secondly, I’m also a bit bummed that this post has been positioned by some as a “That Paleo Guy takes down Robb Wolf” post. Those who know me know I’ve had a calorie rant brewing for some time now. Reading your recent post was simply the trigger to get that post written. As I have mentioned in comments here, I suspect you and I are actually on the same page and that I suspect I know what you were saying when you say calories count. My issue has always been how that will be interpreted by lay people. Like you, I’ve worked with enough people to know that saying “calories count” will register with them to “start counting calories”. These are those people who will decide they need to be eating 2000 – 500 kcals for a deficit, and who will freak out at avocado whilst trying to make friends with celery. They will still fear carbs, and – due to their perceptions around calorie density – will begin to fear fat again (some have never got over this fear). Then we are back to chicken breast and broccoli dinners!

      I completely agree with you on the ketosis gig, and like you, probably wished I had dropped a dense tome of a blog post in one hit. It was a discussion the day before posting, with Dr Anastasia Boulais, that triggered my desire to write on this subject. We can just see ketosis being fraught with difficulty for some people, and not being the wonder diet they had hoped. Seeing the blunt logic that seems to be getting applied, along the lines of “Well Jimmy Moore has lost 20kg on NK, and I only want to lose 2kg, so it should work a treat with me”, is frustrating to watch. In my part-two, I want to outline my thoughts around why I think such a diet is potentially good for someone like Jimmy, but is not going to be for everyone (as Jimmy himself says). As you say, some people will be able to bypass the supposed appetite-blunting effects of NK with ease. Others just don’t need their appetite being blunted as they aren’t eating enough in the first place. Comparing an overweight guy who does a bit of lifting and walking, to a sub-20% BF woman who undertakes mostly glycolytic-type training, is a real apples and oranges gig. But for whatever neurotic reasons, people are not seeing the wood for the trees and are lining up to give NK a crack (I had a woman in Brisbane approach me recently – slim, CFing 4-5 times per week, complaining of always being hungry and tired, wanting to know if she should do NK to help her lean out a little more as her fat loss had stalled. My answer, obviously, was no – for reasons I will outline in my next post.)

      As far as talking to the academics, I certainly see your point to a degree. Though I don’t think we necessarily have to tell them what they want to hear just to curry favour with them (we don’t need to tell the flat earth society that the earth isn’t round just to get their support). But I do think we need to be guarded about some of our statements. Some of the things we heard being stated as absolute fact during the recent Low Carb Downunder event made Anastasia and myself cringe. Statements like “it is impossible to overeat fat” will see the academics throw us on the bonfire on the edge of town rather quickly. But we can talk about individual substrates, their potential energy densities (from an ATP standpoint), the differential metabolic effects they can have (in the varying contexts they have them), how you need to create a hormonal melieu that allows the adipocytes to release fatty acids (through food selection, timing, and other factors like stress mitigation, sleep, training), but you also need somewhere for these fatty acids to go (creating a deficit in one compartment [e.g. intramuscular triglycerides], which can be filled by another (e.g. adipocytes), providing these compartments are not being influenced by what is on your plate and being scraped into your pie hole!).

      I think, with the academics, we can be smart enough, and speak with enough fidelity, that we don’t have to revert to “calories in, calories out”, just to keep them happy and not thinking we are on the lunatic fringe.



    2. The Natural Nutritionist

      Robb & Jamie, great stuff.

      Firstly, I am definitely not part of the “That Paleo Guy takes down Robb Wolf” bandwagon, but rather see this a much needed discussion.

      Secondly, I too see clients gain weight/plateau/lose their sanity with NK. It’s certainly not a “one size fits all approach”. As I said in my last post, it’s quite a short term approach.

      Of course it is possible to overeat fat! It is possible to overeat vegetables! We need to minimise* the absolutes. Nutrition should be an individualised as any training program and those seeking results need to be willing for a little trial and error and to take responsibility for some personal experiment.

      Anyone sleeping less than 8 hours per night needs to go to bed earlier. Period.

      Cheers guys,


      *I would have written stop, but that’s an absolute too :)

  15. missskinnygenes

    This is SUCH an excellent post. Thank you very much for it. I’ve been struggling with trying to explain “calories in/out” vs. LCHF for some time, struggling, mainly, because it’s not as simple as one or the other.

    I’m coming from the “disordered eating” camp, where the solution to all of our health ills as proposed by the mass media–eat less, move more–is the problem for me. The problem is that we hear this advice, and we follow it to a “T,” which usually means developing some form of eating disorder or exercise addiction.

    And when we hear low carb, we also immediately hear low fat, because, again, the media tells us that fat is never the answer.

    I’ve discovered, though, as someone who only moves moderately and is still learning how to eat, that high fat is a great solution. It’s not that it’s hard to overeat–because, trust me, if you give me a jar of coconut butter, it’ll be gone before you can wrestle it from my cold, dead hands–it’s just that the satiety is easier to feel. It’s been so long since I’ve been able to accurately hear my body’s “I’m hungry” or “I’m full” signals that finally having the ability to know when I’m full has been a huge blessing. So that’s what works for me, in my life right now.

    I agree, that taken to the extreme or in the wrong context, either way of looking at the “nutrition solution” won’t work. It’s not as simple as exercising more or eating more ghee. And I just really appreciate how your post honestly and fully explains those perspectives. I’m going to share your words with my readers–and I hope that more people can look at this as holistically as you do.

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  19. Ash Simmonds

    An easy way to mystify the “a calorie is a calorie” person is to ask what are the effects of getting your whole week’s worth of calories via “normal” food versus getting them only through alcohol?

    We can get all the energy we need from alcohol, but nobody will argue that it also has other effects on the body.

  20. avonemily

    I can understand where you are coming from. But from a weight loss perspective a calorie is a calorie. I lost almost 50 pounds 13 years ago and it took me a few years to do it. I tried probably 5 different types of diet along the way. And as long as I followed them, each of them, I lost weight. It didnt’ matter what type of diet it was. As long as I did my daily exercise and ate the recommended weight loss calories I lost weight. I do believe certain foods are bad for you. And that you won’t be “healthy” eating certain foods. But you most certainly can and lose weight.

  21. avonemily

    As much as I agree with the fact that all calories are not created equal and do believe that your health is affected by what types of foods you eat to obtain your daily calories, I must say I believe that as far as weight loss goes a calorie is a calorie. 13 years ago I lost 50 pounds over the course of a couple of years using various diets. No matter what kind of diet I followed, I lost weight if I exercised and stayed under the recommendation of calories. I have repeated that process over the years as I gained a few pounds I needed to lose and it works each time. I want to reiterate that maximum health cannot be reached and maintained using the calorie approach but weight loss can and will be achieved regardless.

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  27. Darren

    Great post on a very complicated issue. I think it is human nature to always try to reduce complex systems to their most basic description, in this case the calories in/calories out line of thinking. Calories do matter, and a person will lose weight by eating at a caloric deficit and gain weight by eating at a caloric surplus. However, this misses the larger picture of health and fitness goals where macronutrient ratios and the sources of these macronutrient breakdowns matter the most. For the average person with a weight loss or physique goal though, it can be difficult to get past simple caloric tracking. Do you think there is a way to shift people’s thinking away from this simplistic and often quite suboptimal form of dieting?

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      In a word? No. And here is why.

      In Robb’s post, he made the statement that calories count. Further down in the comments, someone asks;

      “But now a question: how many calories should we aim for a day, I know conventional wisdom says about 2200 for me, is that the same for paleo as well?”

      To which he replies;

      “I don’t like setting cal limits, I like people to eat to satiety, follow all the other rules (sleep, exercise etc etc) and then see what happens. If non-desirable outcome, tighten things a bit.”


      Then I write a post outlining why calories don’t count, why I don’t think you need an on-paper system-wide “calorie” surplus or deficit (I have seen a boatload of people, in “calorie deficit” who get lighter and fatter, because they are not following the basic rules that Robb refers to… try a calorie intake deficit whilst being stressed to the eyeballs and not sleeping and see how quickly you shed your lean mass and INCREASE your fat mass), to which you make a comment that calories do count and either a calorie deficit or surplus is required.

      So you can see how easily people become confused. Our insistance in discussing calories, period, leaves individuals very confused.

      People also want the easy road. Calculating calories in vs. out is relatively easy. Easy when compared to trying to figure out what balance of glucose, fructose, fatty acids, amino acids, sleep, stress, exercise, types of exercise, phases of the moon, and so on, affect an individual. It is exactly this path that the rest of us have travelled… Robb, me, Mark Sisson… it has taken several years of toying and tinkering to get to where we are. And I doubt any of us are done. That is the nature of the beast. But with most people wanting easy, with most people scared of trying something in case it fails, with most people not prepared to have to give something up to get the greater gain (such as giving something up, like TV/internet, to go to bed earlier), and with so much confusion, no – I don’t think people will shift their thinking in a hurry.

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