“I lost 30 pounds,” he said, “in two months.” Smart Mouth (not his real name, I’ll call him SM for short) started out the year as a chubby young 18-year-old. He has this funny, drop dead, hilarious tendency to speak whatever is on his mind; for example, in an exercise he was tense and holding his breath, so he was told to breathe and SM’s reply was, “I hate breathing, I think it’s overrated.” Anyway, back to his acute and sudden drop in weight…
“Yeah, it’s this diet I found online,” SM bursts out in excitement as though he discovered the Fountain of Youth.
“15 pounds in one month isn’t safe,” I reply with a bit of concern in my tone.
His rebutle is a surprisingly ignorant one, but it is to be expected from an 18-year-old, “I mean, I found this guy online who wrote about this diet he created to lose like 150 pounds in, like, 6 months.” I couldn’t find the guy online, and even if I did I wasn’t going to link him. However, if you want to trim excess fat, do the work!
“WHAT!?” I couldn’t contain my shock. “There is something really wrong with that… What the hell is the guy doing? Running for 6 hours a day and eating bird seeds?”
“No man, that’s the beauty of it, he did it with no exercise and still eating what he wants.” Typical lazy and “path of least resistance” response is SM’s way. “The guy reduced his calorie intake by only eating once a day, at night, and only 500 calories. He only drank water, no snacks, nothing during the day.”
“You have no idea what you are doing, let alone, the sort of damage you are doing to your body. And you’re just going to blindly follow some dude on the Internet?”
“It worked for the guy. Besides, a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. He even says it on his site.”
Gosh… If this stranger on the internet says so, it must be true, right?
And that’s when I felt like Mugatu in Zoolander when he said, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”
A calorie is a calorie only if we are comparing the absolute energy value of A to the absolute energy value of B AND if we were combusting both by oxidizing them, as in utilizing each as energy sources or fuel. For instance, both carbohydrate and protein have an average of 4 calories per one gram. Calorie wise, they are identical. The value is obtained through in vitro testing. However, both are utilized in very different ways in vivo, as I will explain below. Likewise, fat has 9 calories per gram and is used for entirely different purposes.
In SM’s case, if a calorie is absolutely indeed a calorie is truly a calorie, then logic would indicate that he could theoretically eat 500 calories of candy, or 500 calories of butter, or 500 calories of eggs and be perfectly ok. But the human body is extremely complex and he’d miss out on the other food groups, vitamins, and minerals that are vital to maintaining essential functions and, simply, healthy living.
Our bodies don’t burn or combust the food we ingest. Nor is all the nutrients we ingest used for energy only. Let me give a short list on what our body does with each carbohydrates, protein, and fats.
Carbohydrates are complex sugar chains that is broken down in the body into simple sugars and recombined in the liver and muscles as glycogen. Glucose is the primary fuel for ATP (chemical energy in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate) production in both aerobic and anaerobic respiration (two energy systems). The process is a rather complex one that is well beyond the scope of my post. I’ve provided a link to Wikipedia for you if you are curious and want to learn more about these two energy pathways.
Glucose is the only energy source that is used in the brain. Sugars are also a component in cell membranes; such as, the A, B, O glycoproteins on our red blood cells, other glycoproteins such as mucus in our air passageways, and glycolipids.
Proteins are made up of amino acids which is considered the “building blocks” of all life. Pretty important stuff if it’s responsible in the creation of life as we know it, wouldn’t anyone agree? Our stomach digests proteins into the individual amino acids which are stored in the liver and are used to form complex cellular structures, connective tissues, grow hair and nails, become enzymes (digestive and catalytic), build muscle fibres, produce anti-bodies, cellular proteins, and much more. The human body will only use protein as an energy source in very extreme conditions; for example, severe malnutrition, heavy exertion, and severe illness. I’m not making this up, others also remark on how protein is the last thing our bodies go to for energy:
Fats come in all sorts of forms, from triglycerides, cholesterols, high-density lipoproteins, low-density lipoproteins, very-low density lipoproteins, as well as saturated and unsaturated which describes whether the double-bonds across carbon atoms are broken by the addition of Hydrogen, or not. Fats function as insulation, as a concentrated energy source, as well as function as the backbone of hormones, and is a part of every single cell in the body. Most people forget their high-school biology when it comes to the cell membrane. The cell membrane is composed of a phosphoLIPID bi-layer. This means all our cells have fat in them.
Looking at Raw Numbers:
If we look only at raw numbers then, yes, a calorie is a calorie. However, as I indicate above, that is not so. Our body prefers to use carbohydrates first as a fuel source, then fats, then proteins. If we are only exerting short bursts of explosive movements and exercises, our body will reach for sugar as this is the easiest to convert into ATP. The drawback is that our muscles can only sustain this high intensity effort from 30 seconds to 60 seconds. For anaerobic work (lack of oxygen, short bursty excercises), this is perfect. This is the system the body uses for sprinting, body building, and fight and flight situations.
We experience this energy system in the form of pain, heavy and rapid breathing, a burning sensation in the muscles, and a drop in strength or muscle fatigue due to a lack in available oxygen and accumulation of lactic acid and a slow rate of lactic acid clearing in the bloodstream.
That’s not all carbs is good for, though. In order to make ATP, we have to consume a little bit of ATP. So some glucose is consumed to start the process. The body requires ATP for various processes, not just for muscles and movement. Energy is needed in digestion, breathing, thinking, sensing, ion transport, protein synthesis, and a whole slew of other things.
In the most severe and extreme cases of malnutrition and starvation, giving the person food or nutrients would not work or have no intended effect. Why? As I mentioned earlier, we must input energy to kick start energy production; also, energy is required in digestion and nutrient uptake across cell membranes (think of pushing a boulder up a steep hill). In this extreme case, the person merely does not have the reserves to light the fire.
When we place demand for longer energy output our bodies then goes for fats, at the same time consuming carbs but at a reduced rate (we don’t totally deplete our glucose stores since our body must keep essential functions going). Fats require more processing before it can be used to make ATP. A precursor step is required to break the long molecule into smaller pieces. Fats are used when we work aerobically (in the presence of oxygen) and one fatty acid molecule can produce somewhere around 130 molecules of ATP depending on the type of fat than can a single glucose molecule which produces around 36 ATP. As we can see, fat is a highly concentrated source of energy. This system is much more efficient and is where we endurance athletes like to be.
Mathematics for SM:
Now let’s consider this: In order for SM to “burn” one pound of fat, he has to burn about 3500 calories. This is all theoretical since not all people will burn the same amount of calories equally. And, as we see ourselves get leaner, we also see that the same effort to burn the same amount of fat is not linear. The more fat someone has, the faster the body will burn the fat and release the trapped water as well. The leaner the person is, the less the body will burn and there will be less water trapped. But I want to keep things simple.
Marathon runners will burn about 1000 calories per hour. Again, this is all very theoretical as the actual numbers are very hard to determine, but in my research, it looks like 750-1200 calories is the range.
Let’s do some math for my friend SM: Normal energy expenditures to maintain essential systems not included.
To lose 30 pounds,
30lbs X 3.5kcal/1lbs = 105kcal X 1 hour/1.0kcal = 105 hours
105 hours/60 days = 1.75 hours/day of activity over 60 days.
According to our very simplistic and theoretical numbers, SM would need to do almost 2 hours of aerobic exercise training a day for two months in order to lose 30 pounds while being able to still enjoy eating breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the occasional snack. Even if my numbers were wrong by, say 100%, that’s still about an hour per day of endurance training. Both are virtually unsustainable.
Oh, but he’s doing this “starvation diet” with zip, zero, zilch, nada exercise. Therefore, he is starving his body at an equivalent rate of nearly 2 hours of endurance training per day. Wow!
This is what will happen after he hits his desired weight and stops this ridiculous and extremely dangerous diet and begins eating normally again:
- He will yo-yo.
- His body will be conditioned after months of starvation that it will store every last microgram of nutrients.
- Gluconeogenesis will kick in and a lot of the carbs and excess proteins will be converted to fats.
- He will gain more fat stored in adipose tissue.
Unless he continues this diet, he will lose everything he gained which he has suffered through.
The easy and quick way is almost always fraught with danger. His choice to remain lazy and completely ignorant will end up costing him. There is always a price.
There is this thing called homeostasis which is a fancy term for balance. The universe itself seeks out this balance. So too must we find our balance. Extremes is dangerous. Anything with “-ism” as a suffix is dangerous and usually attributed to ignorance with the false impression of insight and enlightenment.
Take for instance, water in high doses can cause drowning. It can also cause hyponatremia (critically low Sodium concentration) which can kill you.
Pure oxygen can also be toxic as well as too high Nitrogen (divers can get the “bends”).
Longer lasting and less painful results start with a plan that is set up for wholesome, clean eating, an exercise schedule with adequate rest days, a proper and reasonable goal, and our own willingness to make lifestyle changes. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s wrong – there shouldn’t be any suffering. So stop, reassess and reevaluate your plan such that it keeps you motivated, but more importantly, you are having fun and enjoying the journey.