Calorie Rants and Ketosis (part 2).

Wow… Whoddathunk part 1 would have gone gangbusters the way it did?  It was one of those spur of the moment, stab the keyboard with my fingers, posts that had been a long time in the brewing.  I had no idea that such long-winded stream of consciousness ramblings would strike a chord with people, let alone be noticed by The [Primal] Don himself.  In part 2, I just want to tie off a couple of loose ends, tidy up my thoughts on the subject, and try to provide an illustration of my thinking when it comes to ketosis.

There are lots of good valid reasons for why calories don’t (or shouldn’t count), many of which people have made some great comments on both on this site and in the comments to Robb Wolf’s post.  But the bottom line for me is that I see absolutely no reason to be accounting for something that doesn’t exist in a biological system.  If I am going to be counting anything, I should at least be counting something that my body recognises as currency (though that is practically impossible for people to do).  Your body no more measures calories in or out any more than your stomach weighs your food for you.

Calorimetry is the measurement of heat.  We can measure the heat [in calories] generated from burning fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.  Carbs and proteins release a similar amount of energy to each other, and fats a little over twice as much as either one, gram for gram.  We can also measure the amount of heat [in calories] generated by the human body at rest (resting metabolism), after eating (thermic effect of food), and during exercise.  And by measuring the ratio of oxygen consumed to carbon dioxide expelled, we can infer which of the main energy substrates (fats, carbs, proteins) are fuelling our metabolism, and what the heat [calorie] cost of that is.

So let us say that (because we can measure someone’s resting metabolic rate) they need 1200kcals to keep the lights and central heating going in their body, without adding any movement on top of this.  And let us say that they are eating a minimum of 1200kcals to keep everything running.  We would say they are in energy balance… calories in = calories out.  But what happens if, say, the hormonal environment in our soft and squishy biological system causes 600 of those kcals to be pushed straight through to fat storage, locking that energy away nice and tight?  On paper, calories in still balance calories out, by our mathematical equation.  But something within our biological entity is causing half of those calories to be made unavailable.

And this is again the problem with the whole calories deal.  We can’t accurately count them outside of our body, our bodies don’t count them at all, and a whole raft of hormonal and neurological factors determines where the “calories” go and whether they are actually available for biological functions.  As I mentioned in part 1, the currencies our bodies do actually deal with are the likes of the saccharides, amino acids, and fatty acids, and these can be fed into various parts of your metabolic machinery to generate your main energy currency – ATP.

Conventional wisdom tends to hold and promote an overly simplistic view of things.  This wisdom suggests, by way of analogy, that you need a certain amount of money (calories) to keep the power, heating, and water running in your body, to keep everything maintained, the grass growing, and to fuel occasional trips to the mall.  You can make regular payments via the ATM deposit box in the middle of your face.  If you run a fairly lean house, you are going to need to make deposits that come close to matching the cost of keeping everything running every day, having only a small savings account to draw on.  If, however, you insist on stuffing wads of cash in your face hole, some of it will be used to keep the utilities paid off and running, and the surplus will automatically spill over into your savings account.  If your savings account is getting too fat and you need to run it down or suffer some serious withholding tax penalties, then conventional wisdom holds that you make fewer deposits via the face and do more circuits of the mall via the legs.  And because you are now spending more than you are depositing, the difference can be funded from savings.

This model assumes that you have a way of depositing only one currency – calories (calories are all that counts), spending only one currency (calories fuelling metabolic processes) and have only two accounts to balance – your day-to-day cheque account (for metabolism to immediately draw on), and your savings account (fat storage).  But what if the model actually worked more like this…

You need to make daily deposits to keep everything running.  But instead of paying for everything with one currency, the different processes actually require different currencies.  Some processes require the currency of glucose, whilst others require the currency of fatty acids.  Some processes prefer one currency over the other, but will ultimately accept both, though perhaps with a few fees and transaction penalties for you paying with one instead of the other.  Some processes, such as growth, maintenance, and repair require more of the amino acid currency than anything else, and indeed, if you don’t put enough of this currency in, things start to get a bit run down and you end up robbing Peter to pay Paul.

It is possible to deposit too much of any of the currencies, but with some of the currencies being worth more than others, and with economic conditions at the time dictating that one might be of more value than other, this is a highly variable thing.  If you, for example, continually flood the market with glucose, it soon isn’t worth that much.  So best to save some of it to smaller accounts in your liver and muscles, and then convert much of the excess to a different currency altogether and to lock that into a term deposit – you can get it back when economic conditions improve.

Other currencies, even if they appear to have the same face value, such as glucose and fructose, actually hold completely different values in different markets (a bit like $10AUD vs. $10NZD).  They look similar, but in reality, it is actually best to get a whole wad of the fructose and convert to a more valuable currency – like fatty acids (for a fee and penalty for flooding the market with a weak currency).  Of course, if you are flooding the market with a currency that is better just to be converted and spent, then there isn’t much point in pulling more of the same currency out of savings.

You could play around with this analogy forever.  But the bottom line is that your body runs multiple accounts, deals in multiple currencies, has term deposits, and won’t release savings unless the economic environment is right to do so.  You can easily have a situation where some accounts and currencies are spent and running on overdraft, but the body just won’t release savings/term deposits because it isn’t right to do so.

When someone suggests that “calories count”, before reaching for your calorie tables and calculator, ask yourself where calories come… ask yourself how you get calories into your body.  Obviously, you get them from eating food (and if you don’t believe me, try to go to the supermarket and buy a packet, tin, box, or bag of “calories” – you can’t do it).  Calories don’t count, but the food currencies you eat, and the “economic environment” that they, your sleep and activity patterns, stress levels, etc. create, do count.  People like Robb and others are quite right in suggesting that it isn’t all about the carbohydrates on the plate… that you can’t just eat low carb and get a free pass on everything else… that you can’t eat sources of fat and protein with impunity.  But we do the subject an injustice, we confuse people, and we are perhaps being a little intellectually dishonest, when we short-hand the proteins, fats, and alcohol to “calories count”.  It might be me being pedantic and arguing semantics, but I have seen how people interpret “calories” and the numbers they start tracking.

Because so many non-food factors influence your “economic environment” (e.g. hormones), counting calories and simply trying to balance energy in and energy out equations, sees people missing the larger (and perhaps more important) qualitative picture.  You could have the calorie numbers squared away, but not be sleeping, walking, getting out in the sun, maintaining healthy relationships, being engaged in something that mentally stimulates you, not getting out in natural environments, be an angsty ball of stress, and so on, and you will not be getting the results you want to see in terms of how you look, feel and perform, and the answer is most certainly not to screw the calorie equation down even tighter.

Point laboured…

I want to shift my attention to ketosis as it seems to have replaced intermittent fasting and cold water thermogenesis as the latest hot-button topic in the paleo blogosphere.  My executive summary is that nutritional ketosis is a tool, it isn’t for everyone (it may well only be for a select few), and that people really need to do their homework (which includes taking a long hard look at themselves) before they dive down that rabbit hole.

I want to use three real-world case studies to illustrate my rationale for caution around the ketosis hype.  One of those people I know VERY well, and he has given me express permission to talk about him here.  Of the other two people, I know one, having met him in person on a few occasions now, most recently at a low-carb speaking gig here in Australia.  I know a good amount about Jimmy, having listened to him speak, talked to him in person, and having read bits and pieces he has posted.  The third person I have never met before and do not know at all.  But she has posted some good information on her experiments with ketosis, and I feel her case makes an interesting contrast to the other two people I’ll discuss.

With both Jimmy and Neely, as I don’t know everything about their specific cases, I will likely take a bit of poetic licence with each of them in order to illustrate a point.  I may very well be way off track with each of them, but I am using them as illustrative examples only.  Related to this, I realise that Jimmy is a fairly polarising figure, and any mention of him in certain contexts (mostly dietary), tends to attract all the usual detractors looking for their next soapbox.  All of the comments to this blog go through moderation (99.9% of which get published).  But should anyone leave a comment here aimed at denigrating Jimmy (or anyone else), I shall name and shame those people and blacklist their IP and email addresses…

Jimmy Moore seems to be enjoying good success with his personal nutritional ketosis experiment in which he is eating a very low carb, moderate protein and very high fat diet.  Between the time I saw him at AHS12 in Boston (August) and then again in Brisbane for the Low Carb Downunder tour, he has visibly lost an appreciable amount of weight.  He finds his current way of eating sustainable, satiating, and it has improved his health markers.  It is hard to argue with the success he is having with it.  The only real down side with it, as far as I can see, is that it has spurred the latest round of Monkey See – Monkey Do.  We saw it with “Martin-does-intermittent-fasting-and-is-ripped-so-I-should-too”, and “Jack-does-cold-water-thermogenesis-and-is-ripped-so-I-should-too”.  Now by no stretch of the imagination can we describe Jimmy Moore as ripped, but he has lost a good chunk of body fat whilst increasing his muscle mass, from which we see a really blunt logic applied;

“Jimmy Moore has lost 20+ kilograms on nutritional ketosis and I have 2-3 kilograms I’d like to lose, so it will work well for me.”


“Jimmy Moore is fat and losing weight.  I’m already lean, so if I do what he does, I’ll be ripped!”

I really don’t know what it is about the thought processes and logic in some of these people… perhaps thoughts for another day.

With Jimmy, he has clearly found something, be it dietary or lifestyle-related (most likely a combination), that has opened the gate on his fat stores.  He mentions that he is now always satisfied, doesn’t feel hungry or get cravings.  He also mentions he is sleeping better, up from 5 hours a night toward 8 hours (I was always amazed at the hours Jimmy and some others keep on Twitter – you could tell there wasn’t a lot of sleep going on).  If you want to get fat and stay fat, less than 6 hours sleep per night will do it for you.

Jimmy claims his sleep improved after the change in diet and credits nutritional ketosis with this improvement.  Perhaps.  My cynical/sceptical mind wonders if Jimmy’s sleep improved because his dietary experiment displaced something else that was wrecking his sleep.  In this regard, he perhaps doesn’t sleep better because of what he is eating but rather what he isn’t eating.

It could also be that Jimmy has been able to reprioritise his life somewhat.  He has decided that things were getting out of hand on the weight front and something needed to be done.  As a result, he now invests more time in himself, taking care of his food a bit more, making sure he gets to the gym, and so on.  Preparing food, getting to the gym, can add up to less time on the computer, looking at a blue light screen, and thus better sleep.  The food, sleep, exercises, less stress, whatever, all add up to improvements in Jimmy’s health that aren’t found entirely on what his ketosis meter tells him.

On the exercise front, as best I can tell, Jimmy lifts some weights and maybe does a bit more in the way of low intensity activity.  As far as I know, Jimmy isn’t hammering himself with any high-intensity interval training (not extensively, at least).  Having seen Jimmy in person, and despite recent improvements in his lean mass numbers, I’d still categorise Jimmy as being lightly muscled.  He has a tall, slight frame, and on the spectrum of things, I’d put him more naturally on the endurance end of things.  He seems to be more of a lift and walk kind of a guy rather than a full on power-type athlete.

My speculation from this is that his muscle type and activity patterns probably lend themselves well to allow Jimmy to run quite happily on fat and ketones.  I know Jimmy points to some athletes who do tend to do well on nutrition ketosis, and almost without exception, they seem to be more ultra-endurance athletes – Ironman types.

The thing with these types of athletes is that to be successful in those sports, you need to teach your body to swim/ride/run at a high sustainable aerobic (fat-burning) pace.  You can’t afford to go all anaerobic/glycolytic in those sports – you are on borrowed time if you do.   These athletes have well-developed aerobic engines, lots of mitochondria in their type-1 (slow twitch) endurance fibres for burning the fat, and lots of miles to run/ride in their training needing steady fat/ketone fuelling.  Drop an Ironman cyclist, in ketosis, into a 45 minute chipper like a criterium or cyclocross race, where you are sitting on your limit, and I don’t think the performance will be so great.

Now let’s bring in a contrast.  Neely Quinn has also been writing recently about her experiment with nutritional ketosisan experiment which only lasted around 6 days.  As best I can tell from my reading, Neely claims to have given ketosis a crack in the name of science (mostly).  She is a nutritionist and wanted to have a better understanding of what ketosis is before recommending it to clients.  But let us suppose that Neely decided to give ketosis a go just in order to shed anther kilogram or two of body fat.

Looking at Neely’s body type, she is a lean woman, with really good levels of muscle mass.  And let us say that she developed that body through a combination of lifting, climbing, and higher-intensity style training.  If Jimmy is categorised as a lift & walk type of trainer, then Neely is more of a lift & sprint athlete.  She has a body built for speed and power.  But this type of body tells us something about the muscle type underlying it.

Neely is going to more likely have type-2, fast twitch muscle fibres, and perhaps, more specifically, she has a preponderance toward the fast and powerful type 2b fibres that love to run on glycogen (carbohydrate) as their primary fuel.  You should be able to see where this is going to go…

So a combination of exercise patterns and muscle fibre types predispose Neely to being better suited to running on a higher carb fuel mix.  This isn’t to say that she can’t run on any fat – of course she can (and the type 1 and 2a fibres she has will allow this to a degree).  But it does determine that she simply cannot run her body for days on end in a low glycogen state, and the type of training she is doing (nor her fibre type) would allow her to run that well on ketones.  She’ll survive on them, sure.  But surviving is not thriving/performing.

Bringing back the whole calorie rant for a moment, one of Neely’s posts outlines the macronutrient breakdown she was targeting and eating.  On her ketosis diet, she was consuming just over 1800kcal per day, which to me, for an athletic woman, seems a bit bat-shit crazy low.  She says she was actually targeting 1500kcal (I assume she was wanting a 500kcal deficit between that and the 2000kcal she estimated she needed), and I suspect she thought the 500kcal per day deficit would just come straight from her stored body fat and she’d lean out with ease.

You can hopefully see, however, that it isn’t a case of just lining the ducks up with the calorie numbers.  On paper it sounded good.  In practice, a miserable (for Neely) failure.  I’d guess Neely to be around the 18-22% body fat mark (maybe lower).  This is actually relatively low for a woman.  And in conjunction with the exercise type, the muscle fibre type (and the limitations this puts on ketosis as a fuelling strategy), and with being a lean FEMALE, whose body perhaps doesn’t want to release a lot of fat from her hips and thighs (she sure as hell hasn’t got a massive amount of belly fat to lose), I think she was on a hiding to nothing with this experiment right from the start.

Perhaps, as some people have suggested, she just needed to eat more… that 1800kcals, or more accurately, the amount of fat she was eating was just too low.  But there is a problem here.  Ketosis is great for killing your appetite.  If your appetite is dead, how do you force feed more?  High levels of early satiety might well suit the likes of Jimmy… I’m sure he could probably eat a good amount before hitting that spot (certainly more than Neely), and it stops him craving and snacking.  He also has a big fuel depot on his belly, and hopefully a hormonal profile that will allow him to access it.  Neely hasn’t got belly fat, and she is most likely to have a hormonal profile telling her to hang on to the little she has.

If she could by-pass the appetite-limiting nature of ketosis, and was able to eat more fat – specifically, more of the long-chain fats found in meat, eggs, olive oil, etc. does she have the capacity to digest and absorb all of this?  Long-chain fatty acids need to be shuttled into the mitochondria via carnitine-based carriers.  Does she have enough capacity to achieve this to a high degree?  If my assumptions on her muscle fibre type are correct, this capacity is limited.  She could develop it with time and training, but does she want to change the nature of her sport and recreation?

If your “type” is closer to a Neely than to a Jimmy (or the ultra-endurance types that Jimmy often refers to), I really don’t think nutritional ketosis is for you.  I don’t think ketosis is compatible with strength-power athletes engaging in extensive (mostly) glycolytic exercises such as lifting for time and other high-intensity interval session.  You can certainly be relatively glycogen-depleted going into this sort of training (particularly if your session is less than 20 minutes), but you will want to make sure you are restocking your glycogen stores post-workout (which ketosis won’t allow).  Run several days in a row of glycogen depletion at your peril.

But is there potentially a middle ground in all of this?  I think there is and this is perhaps the ground that I have naturally fallen into myself.

I have a relatively athletic build, carrying a bit more muscle mass than most office-dwelling late 30-somethings.  The history of my training (mixing endurance and strength training) suggests I have a good mix of type 1 and type 2a muscle fibres, with my 2a fibres having a relatively good oxidative capacity.  I say this because I tend to have a good amount of power on the likes of the bike, but that power comes from the force rather than speed side of the equation.  I certainly do not rate myself as a snappy sprinter type.

If I do any endurance-type exercise, as per my AHS presentation this year, I keep the bulk of it at the low intensity end (walking, hiking, cycling), and will generally do this early in the day in a relatively glycogen-depleted state.  I strength train 3 days per week, later in the day (for circadian rhythm reasons), and again do this in a relatively glycogen depleted state.  Likewise, if I do any sprint work (maybe 1-2 times per week), it matches the strength training pattern (late afternoon, glycogen-depleted).

I do not consider myself to eat very low carb, but I eat lowish carb through the day.  On strength/sprint days, I will cook a meal with a higher starchy carb content post-workout, thus most of my carbs are eaten in the evening, probably in a back-loading type pattern.  Without planning to, perhaps once a week, I’ll have a “big carb day”.  I’m generally not overly neurotic about my diet and eating, and I haven’t particularly over-thought my eating.  I have just tended to fall into this pattern through my own reading and experimentation.

I do eat quite high-fat, with the bulk of my fats come from medium-chain fats, namely coconut cream (coconut milk for North American readers – what you call coconut cream, we call creamed coconut or coconut butter), coconut oil, and coconut meat (flakes or fresh from the shell).  Medium-chain fats have the bonus of “pushing” you through to ketosis a bit more readily and perhaps without needing to run the carbs so low like you do with the longer chain fats.  They are also very easily metabolised, not requiring a carnitine shuttle to push them into mitochondria for burning.

If I was to categorise how I eat, I am more likely to fall into the intermittent ketosis camp.  I likely naturally flick in and out of ketosis, spending a good chunk of the day there, but without sustaining myself there day after day.  I think for those lift & walk types, not engaging in a lot of extensive high-intensity training multiple times per week, and who still enjoy a good degree of insulin sensitivity, this middle ground is perhaps worth a try.

In the end, ketosis, like intermittent fasting, cold-water immersion, and whatever else comes up, are just tools for you to hang off your Batman utility belt.  Some will be right for the right time, others will be totally wrong.  I think for the Jimmy Moore’s of the world, it is something well worth looking at.  If you are a lean, Crossfitting Neely-type of person, I’d think long and hard before undertaking it… you mightjust be trying to use a hammer to adjust a screw a quarter turn.

Finally, all of us want the fast track to glory, and these sorts of things – low-carbing, ketosis, and so on – perhaps offer us a promise that is just too tempting to ignore.  But time and time again, people just aren’t addressing the basics – good quality food, good quality sleep, good quality sun, good quality stress, and good quality sex (as a broad metaphor for all things to do with socialisation).  I have yet to see anyone, who asks me about all the usual hacks and shortcuts, who has addressed all of these things and has them all squared away.  They think they have.  They say they have.  But with some probing, you always find the deficits.

Happy solstice and new year.

53 thoughts on “Calorie Rants and Ketosis (part 2).

  1. Adrian

    Brilliant posts Jamie, very much appreciated, and not even slighty surprised at the response.
    As they say it’s all about context and maybe the context is around healthy living and not yet another ‘religious conversion/shortcut’
    Happy solstice.

  2. Kate @ Fit for Real Life

    I think you’ve created a model for explaining why nutrients & lifestyle factors matter so much that is so simple to ‘get’ that the rest of us are thinking, “why didn’t so think of that?” I love the bank model and will use in the future…so bravo!
    I used a food tracker when I did ketosis for the first time recently. Not for the cal count option but rather for the nutriet tracking it did. I know there’s a degree of un-measurability but it helped give me an overview of if I was selecting the best mix of foods to reach ketosis. Having never done ketosis before, it helped me shape my food choices to match the goal of ‘be in ketosis most of the time.’ I ended up losing 9lbs in about 6 weeks, leaned out all over & saw my strength do pretty well too (altho I purposely went into a low-rep, longer rest interval strength series & still kept carbs around my gymnastics sessions.) The 1st 2 weeks were very hard on my performance levels, but I felt like I bounced back up and beyond after that.
    I’m testing a higher protein/carb mix diet now, mainly to see how my strength will be affected & to test where on the carb-tolerance spectrum I am.
    Like you, I look at ketosis as a tool to use at various intervals, and more so, to apply in order to max out any amount of adaptability my body could have; I want to be able to survive/thrive in any situation, no matter the food source or quantity available.
    Excellent post good sir! You did a great job with this.

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      Thanks, Kate! It felt like a ramble to write, so I’m glad that people get the gist of it.

      Great comments on your experience with Ketosis. People are hugely adaptable, and if you are prepared to take the time, have the motivation, and know how to alter your training to suit, then I think you can make a good go of it. Your comments on your strength training structure match my thoughts on it – you would need to pull your volume down, and increase your rest intervals, making each session less intensive overall. That said, if that is a different way to train for you, you have to ask the question, did your strength improve due to the NK or due to the shift in training? But as you are doing, you need to keep testing and experiment to see what happens.


  3. pbo (@eatsandmoves)

    So how do you monitor your intake? Say you are trying to lose some weight, or even trying to gain. I think most who say calories count, understand that genetics, age, hormones, sleep, stress, can alter the energy out side of things, but since calories in via diet is the main tool to alter your energy balance, having an idea of what you can take in can be very helpful. That number may change as time goes on. If you start to gain some weight your calorie in side probably needs to go down too.

    My point is that for some, counting calories helps give them an idea of what they are taking in. Many people over/under estimate and have no idea why they are not losing/gaining. We hear this all the time in the low carb paleosphere, with answers like “you need to eat more fat, or you are eating too much protein, or lower your carbs even more”. The obvious answer here, to me, monitor your food intake, see how much you are eating, and then eat less than that, you most will lose weight. Do the opposite if trying to gain.

    If you don’t want to count calories, and it’s impossible to count the currency, then what are you supposed to do?

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      Whilst those who say calories count understand all the things which can alter energy balance, those receiving the “calories count” message, do not. Believe me, it is what I do for a living. Most people hear calories and think they need to balance a number. And as far as most laypersons understandings of genetics, hormones, etc, they know we share genes and have hormones like oestrogen and testosterone… and that is about it. Most of these people have no idea that sleep and stress can alter the way their bodies handle food.

      Human nature being what it is, people find it easier if you give them a calorie number or a points number or whatever. It is easy to figure out, relatively speaking, and you should (in theory), just be able to set and forget. In reality, however, it isn’t that easy, but people generally don’t want to take the journey of self-experimentation. They have given themselves 30 days and they want to be at their ideal destination by then.

      I have argued that what counts is the substrates we digest and absorb. Working back from there, we do we get those substrates? From the food we put in our mouths. So if you are going to count anything, it is the food you need to be counting. I am going to advocate doing a reset like the Whole30 – following a fairly standardised template for 30 days to see how you look, feel, and perform. Then from there, you can test things. Want to lean out? Then do you need to eat only one pork sausage at breakfast instead of 3? Is a whole can of coconut cream, everyday, too much? Do I need to eat more sweet potato post-workout? It is all these type of things that you need to count, test, and balance.

      Want to count something? Cool – count one slab of protein in your plate. Add 1-2 fistfuls of vegetables and a thumb-size amount of fat. Repeat for THREE meals per day. Monitor. Assess. Re-calibrate if desired effect not achieved.

      Many people in the paleosphere over or under-estimate because they will invest more time in reading about “short-cuts” like IF, CWT, and NK, or will spend hours trawling through threads on who is calling who what bad name, reading Paleo Drama, researching the latest barefoot shoe, reading odes to bacon, or collecting recipes for paleo brownies, rather than actually looking at themselves, what they are eating, how they are training, how they are sleeping, whether they can get out in the sun, dealing with poor relationships, fostering new relationships, and generally being prepared to tinker with the basics.

      If getting up early in the morning to do a WOD 5 mornings per week, whilst undereating carbs and fat, but fantasizing about Paleo cupcakes, and not dealing with a relationship that is messing you up and causing you great stress, is the root of your problems, then counting calories sure as hell aint gonna be the answer.


      1. pbo (@eatsandmoves)

        Great reply! I am totally with you on most of those points. I guess for me it’s been hard to naturally find the right balance. Whenever I do I end of gaining weight. I have only managed to keep the weight off (and now gain lean mass), by counting every calorie. I honestly would rather not do this, but it something I am used to and something that has proven to work. I would love to get a place where if I wanted to lean out I could do what you mention, same with maintenance, and lean gaining.

        1. thatpaleoguy Post author

          I suspect, when you decide to “count every calorie” that you have set foods that you build the bulk of your diet around. These will be foods that you know sit well with you, are palatable, and so on. Is there something about the composition of those foods vs. the foods you might relax a little more with? You, for example, decide that things are out of control and you keep a tight reign on the calories, e.g. you eat to 2200kcal. When you are more relaxed, your calorie intake creeps up – let’s say to 2500kcal. So at 2200kcal, you can keep things in check. But at 2500kcal, the body fat creeps up. But what foods (and what is the composition of those foods) that make up a 300kcal difference?

          More thoughts. Let’s say I decide I am eating too much fat and I need to cut down. I target dairy, because I feel that cutting out my dairy is the easiest way to cut back on calories. I do this and I lean out and I proclaim that it was too much fat and calories making me fat. But what else is dairy? What else is milk, for example? It is also carbohydrate and protein, in a specific composition. And of the fats in dairy?? Is the fatty acid composition of my high-fat dairy the same as my steak? Or my coconut cream? The answer is no. Sure, on paper I have reduced my calories, but I have changed entirely the composition of the individual substrates that I was consuming.

          We can’t treat all fat the same because it has the same calories per gram. The same with all carbs or proteins. Coconut cream is not the same as dairy cream, in my body, even if I controlled the calorie difference between the two.

          The problem still comes back to the way we catergorise the macronutrients. We cluster them into big families and give them the same characteristics (in our body) based on their caloric load. When we begin to recognise the individual acids and sugars (as we do [mostly] with the likes of vitamins and minerals), and recognise that they can have differential effects in isolation (and probably in combination) on our metabolism, you can soon see that when you start to change your food intake patterns – even if you are basing those changes on calories – you are actually significantly changing the composition of your nutrients and that will have effects right through from the gut through to systemic metabolic functions.

          1. pbo (@eatsandmoves)

            I eat a pretty mixed diet. So when I cut back I don’t really think eat less fat or carbs or even protein. I just think to cut back everywhere … slightly. This being the case I wouldn’t just pick one food out and say I will eat less of that, unless I know I was overdoing something, like say I found myself late night snacking. Part of the challenge is trying to distinguish between being hungry and eating out of habit/boredom or just eating way too much in one sitting because you were not “stuffed”.

            You are forcing me to think outside of the calorie context, which brings up reasons for why are you eating more than you body can handle. Maybe you focus on things outside of the food itself, the times you eat (meaning rushing a meal before work, or not having the time to cook so you just buy something already prepared), paying attention to why you eat (if you are eating because you are bored you might to examine your social life, hobbies, family, etc and see why are you not engaged more in those). Trying to become more in tune with your body by slowing down, focusing on what you are eating, who are you enjoying your meal with, not just forcing the food down your pie hole, might be valid alternatives to just worrying about calories.

      2. pbo (@eatsandmoves)

        Thinking about this a bit more. Say I want to lose some weight, and I weigh myself and measure myself every 2 weeks. After a month the numbers show that I have gained weight, and my waist is larger. So obviously I was eating too much food stuff. So how do I know what to count back on? Eat a slightly smaller yam? Eat a slightly smaller than fist slab of steak? You see it starts to become a guessing a game. I am open to trying to it, I just don’t see how I can lose without overly eating less, which I don’t think is a good thing.

        I can see something IF possibly working here. For a few weeks try to establish a good baseline for what your body needs and can maintain. After that, once a week skip a meal or two but don’t compensate in the following meal.

        1. thatpaleoguy Post author

          How do you know it was anything to do with the food? Is it sleep? Is it stress? You could be in calorie deficit, stressed to the max, not sleeping, and getting fatter. And why? Because the hormonal profile of the stress and sleep restriction alter your metabolism and calories have nothing to do with that. You could be sleeping well, managing your stress, and be in calorie surplus and leaning out. Same deal.

          And yes, when it comes to you, me, the guy next door, this whole gig is a guessing game. It is an educated and informed guessing game, but it is still trial and error nonetheless. Which brings me to my point that trial and error means giving something a go, possibly failing, and having to start again. And most people seem to be afraid of that. But look at the likes of the Wolfs, Sissons, Hartwigs, and TPGs, and for collectively a lifetime between us, we have been doing nothing but trial and error, and continue to do so.

          Change your training. Change your sleep. Live seasonally. Manage your stress. Check your relationships. Eat more while you try some of those things. Change it up, change it down. But ensure you are covering all the basic stuff REALLY well before assuming that it is the calories and you just have to eat less to weigh less.

          1. pbo (@eatsandmoves)

            Once again great reply. I really appreciate you taking the time. I am genuinely interesting into finding ways around the calorie paradigm. I was just turned off by so many in the paleosphere you believe in the low carb magic, eat all the fat you want, you can’t lose weight. I was so happy when Robb wrote his article because he is such a prominent member of the community and basically alerted everyone that there is no low carb magic.

            That being said, I don’t want to live in a world where a slab of beef on my plate is translated into a plate of numbers, it’s the farthest thing from paleo we could do. I just could not find a way around it, because I believe in thermodynamics and science, and these things count. But yes, maybe we need to count them differently and ensure that we place everything into the right context. Sure 200 calories is 200 calories, but in different environments your body will utilize the substrates from the sources differently.

          2. thatpaleoguy Post author

            I guess the issue is one of how literal people can be. When Robb says it isn’t just the carbs that matter, calories count too, his use of the term “calories” invariably meant that everything else you stick in your pie hole plays a part in the end result too. You can’t just limit carbs and have all of the other energy-giving substrates get an excemption from thermodynamics. But people will see his shorthand “calories” and literally start counting the numbers and I don’t think that is what he meant by any stretch. Similarly, those who go around saying that you can eat all the fat you want are likely saying this based on those people who are very easily satiated by fat and who would find it impossible to actually overeat the stuff. But those more literal types, who perhaps don’t have this natural handbrake to consuming fat, will go around mainlining mountains of the stuff thinking there will be no ramifications… as long as they don’t eat carbs.

            So Robb is right, and I am likely just being really pedantic about it. But I think discussions around these things called calories do a disservice to people. I’d rather focus on real things that actually have a biological effect. The more we recognise the individual nutrients, their differential effects, what non-food behaviours can influence their metabolism, and do away with global terms like “fat” (we are all really quick to rail against “fat is bad”), or “carbs” or “calories”, the more likely people will learn about these things and come to grips with them.

  4. tess

    YES. :-) your discussion of “calorie finances” is really well-expressed! i need to be careful about where my calories come from, just because of my age and hormone status, and what you wrote matches my varied experiences throughout my life beautifully.

  5. Rich

    Interesting article! From what I’ve read about about nutritional ketosis and athletic performance, it seems that after the adaptation period (probably 4-6 weeks), even strength and power athletes can benefit. Seems that any experiments lasting only 6 days would not work well. Jeff Volek, one of the authors of The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance, eats a ketogenic diet and is a power lifter himself. Also, Peter Attia, who is also lean (after being on NK for over a year), is very physically active and even filmed a video of himself doing high intensity exercise in NK and posted it on youtube. According to Steve Phinney (the other author with Jeff Volek) glucose needs in high intensity exercise can be 1/4 what they are under other metabolic conditions. So, while it may appear that you wouldn’t be able to do high intensity training on this diet, it doesn’t seem to be a problem in practice or in theory after the adaptation period. In other words, while you don’t have the glycogen reserves, you don’t NEED as much reserves after adaptation to NK. Even Jimmy engages in superslow HIT. This training is very much not aerobic despite the fact that it is “slow.” This is not to say that NK is for everyone, but I think it is false to say that those engaged in high intensity training will necessarily have issues. Even lean athletes might find this diet OK especially if they are sure to eat lots of fat, supplement with sodium, and allow for the adaptation period.

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      Great comments, Rich.

      I think the key here is adaptation, and whether you are sufficiently motivated enough to ride out the 4-6 weeks needed. I suspect the Voleks, Attias of the world are highly motivated people, prepared to do lots of homework, tinker, experiment, take a few steps backward, not panic, and rebuild their fitness. They are shining examples of what can be done in their contexts (and I really don’t know enough about what each of those individuals do to make much of a comment). But from a practical perspective, 4-6 weeks is a tough sell for most people if they are going to feel really average for at least a couple of weeks of that. Some people SHOULD suck that up and ride it out because it will be the best thing for them. But others, who are already close to how they want to look, feel, and perform, do they really need to go there? Could you convince a Crossfitter with a body fat % already in single digits, who enjoys hammering themselves, that they need to lay off the hard stuff for maybe up to 6 weeks to allow full adaptation, on the promise that they will perform either slightly better, about the same, or slightly worse? It is this subset of the community – those who, rightly or wrongly, like to train in a glycolytic fashion 4-6 days per week, for 20 minutes or longer at a time, who are probably less likely to need to do NK, and are less likely to succeed with it without serious sacrifice in the short-medium term. These aren’t pure powerlifters (powerlifters don’t train that way – in fact, having shared a gym with powerlifters and watching them train, I could well see how NK would suit that style). And being in NK doesn’t stop you doing a hard workout as per the Peter Attia example. But can you do that day in, day out? No, I don’t think you can. And again, there will be those who do train that way, and who are also looking at NK as a means to lean out even more. I stand by my comment that NK and lots of glycolytic training are not compatible for the vast majority.

      I do agree though, 6 days for any major dietary or lifestyle change is never enough.

      Thanks for commenting and adding to the discussion.

      1. Rich

        Yes, agreed. I do think it would be a hard sell (and probably an unnecessary one) for a Crossfitter! At the end of the day, this type of diet DOES require a certain amount of sacrifice and commitment and the trade-offs may not be worth it. But, for some, it is just the right thing! Thanks for your reply!

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  7. Jo

    Great post Jamie!
    As someone who is recovering from stage 3 adrenal fatigue, I know first hand how important the hormonal factor is to the equation.

  8. Louise

    Once again, thank you for the helpful post. Wonderful reminder about the big picture; healthy lifestyle rather than nutrition alone.

    I’ve started adding a chunk of butter and a some lumps of coconut oil (probably ~ 1/4-1/3 C fat in total) to my morning coffee, and happy to find my energy stays much more level throughout the day. My appetite is slightly suppressed but not completely, which makes it easier to wait and prepare a healthy meal rather than my usual “I’m starving so I’ll grab a handful of nuts or a banana” menu. So far it’s working for me, ketosis or not.

    PS: Marry Christmas!!

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      Thanks, Louise.

      What you are doing – trying something, to see if it sticks – is exactly what people need to do more of. Nice work.

      And no, I won’t marry Christmas… been there, done that. Not the marriage type!

  9. Jim Jozwiak

    What you’re saying is all scientifically valid and sensible, but in practice I’ve found that
    it is necessary to strictly control calories in order to keep weight stable while trying to
    determine whether low-carb or high-carb or something in the middle is optimal. This is because
    just about any regimen will work if you are losing weight, but the same regimen will not necessarily work for maintenance.

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      So if I am hearing you correctly, you hold your carbohydrate foods constant (high or low), but vary your non-carbohydrate foods up and down, to a pre-determined caloric value. What you are actually varying is your total number of fatty acids and amino acids, and they will have differential effects either way. And those effects have nothing to do with their ability to heat water externally to the body (calories). Even if you could determine your calorie needs, accurately, you cannot accurately determine the caloric load of what you are actually eating. There is a degree of error – possibly quite large. CICO cannot be “balanced” if you cannot actually and accurately measure either side of that equation.

      Hey, I’m not knocking what wokrs for you. I am just sceptical of the mechanism (caloric balance), because calories are a way for humans to quantify something rather than part of our biology. It seems to be a matter of correlation rather than causation. To test you would need to find a way of holding the absolute amount of carbohydrate, protein, and fat constant, and vary only the caloric load. Which is, by nature, impossible. To vary the caloric load, you have to add or subtract some portion of C/P/F.

      Like I said, cool that it works for you. But accounting food soley by calorie numbers doesn’t work for many/most.

      1. Jim Jozwiak

        No. I make a weight and bodyfat percentage measurement every day and apply linear regression
        to the lean and fat weights with a calorie adjustment so there is no gain of fat mass.
        Calories don’t vary that much from day to day. Macronutrients can then be optimized and the
        results are not necessarily intuitive–carbs and fat don’t work the same in my body!

  10. julianne

    Thanks again so much Jamie, great article, I love your analogies and how you have articulated this concept. Makes the whole nutrient / calorie thing so much clearer for me.

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  14. Jeanne

    Good analogy. I’m with you on your calorie theory, but I go a step further. The calorimeter literally burns food with fire. That is how the caloric content is measured. Our bodies remain at normal body temperature, thus, our bodies merely ‘warm’ food. If a calorimeter only warmed food to body temperature, nothing would happen, no caloric activity would be measured. It takes fire to get a reaction in the calorimeter. Therefore, without fire our bodies have no access to calories (not that they are a physical entity to begin with, only a measure). My point is simple, the human body is completely unaffected by the caloric measurement of any food. Like you say, there are so many factors involved, but calorie measurement is not one of them. People who use it as a tool are merely keeping their total food quantity or quality in check.

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      Thanks, Jeanne. Great comments and dead on. Love it.

      Did you leave a similar comment on a low carb forum that has been directing a bit of traffic this way? I did a track back on that link only to discover that I am a young athletic male with an inferno metabolism!! Hilarious. I obvioulsy hide my age well. Of course, finding reasons that something doesn’t apply to you as an individual has been a common strategy amongst those who find that easier than changing anything. I think we refer to them as unique snowflakes.

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  16. Sara Lake

    This is great stuff, Jamie. Like you, I have discovered a sort of fluidity and probably am in ketosis for most of the day, seeing as I’m munching lean proteins, green stuff and nuts. This is fine when I’m doing yoga. I also enjoy short HIIT bodyweight exercise sessions and need more carbs before and after those or my sleep gets disturbed and I don’t recover well. I once lost a lot of weight counting the cals, but although this may work, it has a serious downside: it’s freaking stressful – you daren’t eat a thing that is unknown. Eating natural foods is actually hard when you are counting those calories, because these foods do not have a packet, a serving size and a number.

    I find that a big issue is that someone will do something (e.g. count calories or low-carb) and it works. They think it will keep working, but as the body composition changes, so does the metabolism. An obese person with insulin resistance may handle, or even need more carbs as they get leaner, but instead they think they need to just ‘do lo-carb’ better when the fatloss slows down. People treat eating like a religion: ‘I’m the church of lo-carb’, ‘I’m paleo’, ‘I’m vegan’ which satisfies the need to define things. It’s messier to say ‘I’m mostly low carb paleo, with some nuts, I prefer those fermented. I eat more carbs when I’m more active, and if I’ve really gone hard, I might eat jellybeans’.

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  21. Barbara

    Can I just tell you how fantastic this post is!!!! I have been following you for a bit and Robb W refrenced you on one of his latest blog posts and I re-connected to your site. I have found this blog to be so helpful and validating. I was paleo for a few years, then went Keto after reading Peter Attia…had some good + metabolic changes but while eating a lot of starch…limited protein…i put on 10lbs…movtivatio for excercise tanked..blood lipids went through the roof…and my hypothyroid went low…but I swear by body responded like i was starving with the lb gain and muslce loss…

    I am now back to eating tubers which i have missed these past 2 months…and hope can re-boot my metabolism before the cycling season starts here in hte US. The keto was great as “tool” as Robb says…and I liked the mental clarrity and CNS benefits but I prob pushed the envelope too far. Your post gives me a new lease on life!!!


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  23. Mike

    So, as far as people in the middle ground go, what is your suggestion concerning carbs? I eat extremely low carb (under 30 per day) and I have more of a Jimmy more body type; however, I seem to do a mixture of both high resistence cardio/weight training.

    I generally get my heart rate going between 170-185 during a half an hour cardio session on the ellpitical with the resistence on 11 out of 20 (this burns about 400 calories, if that is an indication as to how intense the workout is); sometimes I feel extremely drained by the end, and sometimes I don’t. I follow that with about 20-30 minutes of moderate weight lifting – on the machines – with high reps (about 15). I do this routine 3-4 times per week.

    What is weird is that I can eat an apple with some protein before a workout and come back home and, using the urine ketostrips, still have a trace of ketones. Problem for me is that weight loss is relatively slow, and so is muscle gain.

    So, I’m not really sure of how to handle myself if I am in the middle ground. I obviously need to start adding carbs either post or before workouts since eating no carbs is not doing the trick for me. P.S. I’m 19, about 5’11 (1/2)” and weigh about 215 lbs, and I have a relatively large frame. -Shrug- I’m not sure if that helps, but some advice would be greatly appreciated! Thanks! =)

    I feel like I fall into the middle ground category

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