‘Move more, eat less’. ‘Just ensure that the calories going in are less than we burn, and then we will lose weight’. You must have heard this hundreds of times, but it really is a very dangerous over-generalisation. Firstly, the body utilises the calories it receives from CARBS, fat and protein in different ways. While it is true that, in a test tube known as a calorimeter, we can burn different types of food and measure the amount of heat they give off (remember that calories are measurements of heat/energy), it’s only loosely relevant to how the body utilises calories. What is a calorie? It is the amount of heat it takes to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius.

By the gram, it’s true that CARBS have fewer calories than fat. Per gram CARBS contain four calories, protein sits in the middle at five and the previously vilified enemy, fat, possess a much larger nine calories per gram. Looking at calories per gram, you can see how so many people have reached the wrong conclusion for so long, blaming fat for making us fat, and not CARBS. But the human body does different things with all three macronutrients. For example, it pretty much uses protein to grow our hair and replace blood, skin and nails, so these calories aren’t exactly going to make us fat. Likewise, it uses fat not just as energy, but to create vital hormones and acids that we need to survive. But with CARBS, unless we are burning more than we consume each day, the body just doesn’t use them for anything other than storing energy in the form of body fat, i.e. they make us fat. Remember, if we’re not planning on getting marooned on a desert island, or going into hibernation for six months, we don’t actually ever need to consume a single CARB to survive.

Low carbs icon

Most importantly, as you are going to read repeatedly through this book, insulin plays a vital role in our health, or lack thereof. What really makes us put on weight is insulin and this book is going to show you how to be the master of it. What we should be focusing our attention on is whether the body is more likely to store the calories that we consume or burn them.

Any conversation regarding ‘eat less – move more’ is futile without an understanding of both the role insulin plays in the body and the bacteria in our gut. Let me labour this point for a moment because it’s very important if we are looking to lose weight. A certain species of bacteria strips more energy from food than others. If we allow them to dominate the space in our gut, then losing weight becomes extremely difficult. It is for this reason that subscribing to the basic law of thermodynamics – energy in = energy out – is just plain wrong!

Medical research now suggests that by getting a better balance of microbes in our stomach, even when consuming the same amount of daily energy, we can absorb 50 calories less each day. Over three years that equates to a stone in weight and over ten years to more than three stone. That’s enough to turn someone who is obese into a streamlined specimen or, of course, vice versa!

Gary Taubes 

Gar Taubes

You can’t compare the caloric value of carbs, protein and fat. It’s like saying if I hit you over the head with $100 of notes, or if I hit you over the head with $100 in coins or $100 in gold, it’s going to have an entirely different effect, even though it’s the same measurement. Even if I was to hit you over the head with $500 in notes, it’s still not going to do as much damage as the $100 in coins, because these are fundamentally different forces at work. The nutrition community keep repeating this mantra that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie, but each of these micronutrients, fat, protein and carbohydrates, influence your body in a very different way. Your body secretes totally different hormones for each of these nutrients.

Don’t Count Calories

There is a dirty immoral little lie that corporations and governments just won’t admit, and that is neither counting calories, nor the low-fat diets work. Inevitably, in the long run, they both invariably lead to obesity.

It’s not just calories in/calories out that’s a waste of time. Counting calories consumed in isolation is pretty meaningless too. Let me tell you a short story. A few years back, I was skiing with my uncle Dave. We rounded a corner on the slope, and we saw down the mountain a class of small children enjoying a skiing lesson. I turned to Dangerous Dave (we call him Dangerous Dave because he is very accident prone) and as we descended I kept repeating, “Don’t-hit-the-kids-don’t hit-the-kids-don’t-hit-the-kids- don’t-hit...” and you can guess what he did. He took out every single one of them. By the time he came to a stop, there was not a single child left standing. After a number of apologies and 15 minutes helping them put their skis back on, luckily without injury, they were on their merry way.

Later that night I tossed and turned in bed wondering why Dave had ploughed into them and then it struck me. It is like what happens when we get told not to think of a pink elephant. I kept yelling “Don’t hit the kids!” and all Dave could focus on was the kids. If I had said “Ski left, keep left,” then he most likely would have done it and avoided them all together.

So here lies the problem with most diets: they focus on food, food, food. In reality, when we count calories we’re thinking more and more about food. What a primal life is about is stopping us from overthinking about what we eat. When we fast we are not thinking about it. When we are eating natural food, we’re not thinking about having to read food labels, we just enjoy our meals. It’s easy once we get into living primally – we don’t have to read heaps of diet and fitness magazines every month, we don’t need to go to slimming clubs and instead of reading labels we just avoid them!

Plus, as we discussed in the previous topic, there is a gross misunderstanding with those who count calories in that no two calories are the same. On paper, the same number of calories from bread or meat should provide the same amount of fuel for the body. Wrong! Wrong for so many reasons. For example, protein is thermogenic, which means it produces heat as we digest it. When our body creates heat, we burn more calories. Therefore, for this reason alone (and there are many more) it is incorrect to assume that calories are an accurate measurement at all.

Athletes, trekkers, adventurers and sportspeople are not lean because they exercise;
it is their leanness that allows them to exercise. Whereas fat or obese people are not overweight because they don’t exercise, it is their size and therefore lack of energy that prevents them from doing so. This is why the old ‘eat less - move more’ just doesn’t work. By the way, if you are counting calories, are you calculating kilocalories (kcals) or the international standard for energy kilojoules (kJ)? While kilojoules are more accurate, most people and food labels in the UK count kilocalories, which are the equivalent of 4.18 kilojoules. Confusing, hey?

My advice to religious calorie counters: if you insist on counting calories, then you should take a helicopter view and only think about them in the following two ways. The first calorie number is 2,000 calories. That is the approximate number of calories from CARBS and several other food types that our body can store in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen. Any further intake of calories that aren’t immediately used to fuel activity just increases the waistline and several other fat stores.

The second is 3,500 calories. That is because one pound of body fat is 3,500 calories. Therefore if we want to lose a pound of body fat, we must burn 3,500 more calories than the combination of what our human body and the trillions of micro-organisms in our gut extract from what we consume.

Dr Dan Maggs

Dan Maggs

When we start evaluating the nutritional value of food that we eat, we want as high a percentage as possible to be in the form of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (much more on these later), as well as plenty of fibre and oils such as omega 3.