Preview: Junk food tells your brain to make you gain fat. If you try to stop that by counting calories, you’ll end up hungry, tired, and unmotivated. Eat natural, whole foods, and your brain works with you to lose fat.
The nutritional calorie only entered human thought in 1894. So we’ve only thought of food in terms of energy for the last 120 years, roughly 0.005% of our time on this planet. Caloric value labeling on food products was not recommended until 1970, and only became a legal requirement in 1994.
Needless to say, “counting calories” did not exist for the overwhelming majority of human history. Our ancestors were healthier than we are during most of that time, and they had never heard of a calorie, much less conducted math to determine how much to eat.
When you eat natural foods, your body does a very good job of regulating intake to keep you healthy and fit; in other words, “counting calories” happens subconsciously. Unfortunately, this gets derailed with modern hyper-palatable food products.
Flavor Engineering and Hyperpalatability
The most egregious offenders in the obesity epidemic are highly designed food products like Oreos or Cheetos. The food design process starts with a lab full of chemistry PhDs, taste scientists, and flavor engineers. Utilizing their vast knowledge of science and human reward circuitry, they spend their careers developing and testing food products with one goal in mind: get the customer to buy more. First they accomplished this by being tastier than their competition, but they ran into a wall; weight-stable humans can only eat so many calories in a day. They were able to break through this wall by developing a greater understanding of the methods by which the brain controls food intake. They were able to design food products that beat the system, hijacking your brain’s control of your body to encourage overconsumption and ultimately sell more of their food products. Sound like science fiction? Americans are averaging 458 more calories per day than in 1970, because of the work of these flavor engineers. This is well understood and documented in books like “The End of Overeating” and “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us”.
The original fake food, bread, was first designed to take advantage of grain surpluses. In a sense, you can call the motivations of bread’s invention economic. To this day, fake food is created for economic purposes in a much more obvious way.
Food companies, like any other company, exist to make a profit. They are not charities. Their goal is not to hurt or to help you; any outcome other than money for shareholders is pure consequence. In the pursuit of profit, these companies can be trusted as perfectly rational economic participants. In pursuit of health, these companies cannot be trusted.
Let’s imagine that you work for Kraft. Your international arm, Mendelez International, owns Nabisco, which owns Oreo. You want to earn your Christmas bonus this year, which means you need to sell more Oreos. You know that Oreos typically only sell to people age 10-25 (we’ll call that 50 million people). Most people in that range average 2,000 calories a day, and are willing to contribute about ¼ of those calories to snack foods. This means that your potential market is limited to 50M*2000*0.25 = 25,000,000,000 (25 Billion) calories. Four pounds of Oreos costs about $24 and contains 8,000 calories. Assuming 0.25% of this is profit, Oreo makes $0.00075 per calorie. Let’s say they currently hold 10% of the market, making $1.9 Million per day. If they can increase their market share by 1%, their yearly profit will rise by about $70 Million, more than enough for a tidy bonus.
Of course, every snack food brand is trying to raise their market share, and as we saw above, there’s a fixed market to operate in. Or is there? Let’s reexamine our assumptions. We said that each person eats 2,000 cals/day. If we can somehow raise that by 10%, to 2,200 cals/day, we can get that huge Christmas bonus without increasing the market share of Oreo, because we’ve increased the market size. So how do these food companies convince everyone to eat 10% more than they need?
These giant food product corporations have figured out how to get us eating more, and then some (increasing our daily consumption a staggering 22% over the last 40 years). This is accomplished with a neat little trick manipulating what’s called the “reward value” of the food product. The taste scientists and flavor engineers at these big corporations know the flavors and textures that drive consumption. In making their food products hyperpalatable, they flood your brain with a stimulus it is not accustomed to dealing with: unnaturally high reward from food.
Our brains have built-in circuitry to help keep us healthy. Over the course of evolution, we developed ways to eat the healthiest foods available. Our brains learned the signals that indicate when a food is especially healthy, and constructed a system to encourage us to eat healthy foods. This system encourages consumption of foods that taste fatty and/or salty and/or sweet.
Man-made foods are specifically designed to hit on these signals and push the brain to encourage consumption in overdrive. In other words, this biological system worked to keep us healthy when fatty, salty, sweet foods were relatively hard to come by. Now that we have humongous corporations flooding the market with food products that are fattier, saltier, and sweeter than any natural food, this same biological system makes us fat.
Fortunately, it is quite easy to escape the evils of highly-designed hyper-palatable food products – just don’t eat them. Food products designed and made by humans make you fat and sick, real food designed and made by nature makes you fit and healthy.
Think of it this way. If civilization didn’t exist, what could you reasonably still eat? You can hunt and fish, and you can pick fruits and vegetables. You cannot forage for Oreos or Cheetos. You cannot hunt tofu.
Hyperpalatability and Set Point: You Can’t Control Your Body Fat by Counting Calories
The human brain, acting principally from the hypothalamus, can control many factors of intake and expenditure with no conscious thought. Mounting piles of research indicate that the hypothalamus establishes a body fat set point (based in large part on the reward value of the diet), and will work with a heavy hormonal hand to maintain a body fat level near that point.
This is a large part of the reason that the average American tends to plateau at an overweight level, instead of gaining 5-10lbs a year for life. They hit the elevated set point caused by their artificially rewarding diet and then stop gaining. It’s also why just about every diet shows the same weight loss pattern:Different diets cause different amounts of fat loss, but each successful dieter loses weight along a curve of the same shape. If we look at the “low-carb” diet, for example, it appears that the dieters lowered their set point roughly 5lbs, initially “overshooting” to 6.5lbs, and then leveling out over time.
What’s important for weight loss (or maintenance) is your set point, and you can only control your set point with the reward value of your diet. Say your set point is 10lbs of body fat, and you want to lose 5lbs. If you don’t reduce the reward value of your diet and just cut calories instead, your body will resist your efforts, trying to keep you fat. It will increase appetite, and decrease calorie burning; you’ll feel hungry, tired, unmotivated, and weak.
The system that sets the set point and works to keep you there relies on leptin (a hormone) signaling to function properly. Another way to screw up this system is to mess with that signaling – which most commonly happens with inflammatory foods like wheat and “vegetable” oils. These foods make you fat and sick twice over; once by raising the reward value of your diet, and again by interfering with leptin signaling.
On the flip side, if you’re eating nothing but natural, whole foods, your reward value and therefore set point will be appropriately low. If you go on a binge and eat a bunch of fruit after getting a bulk deal at the farmer’s market, your body will prevent you from gaining fat. Your appetite will decrease over the next few days, and your caloric burn will increase (you’ll feel warmer and more restless).
Clearly, eating natural, whole foods makes calorie counting completely useless.
Psychological Issues with Calorie Counting
Beyond offering no utility, the practice of calorie counting can actually be very damaging. Having a healthy mental/emotional relationship with food is shown to be a strong predictor of weight maintenance success. If you want to be healthy and fit, it’s important to think about food as more than just energy.
Food is fuel, but it’s also structural, medicinal, and culturally important. A slab of salmon is more than just 300 calories; it’s also omega-3 fats (reducing inflammation, providing structure for brain and nervous system cells), animal protein (highly bioavailable, providing for muscle growth and cell construction), vitamins, minerals, and probably other things we haven’t discovered yet. Under the right circumstances, it’s part of a treasured meal shared with family, friends, or lovers. You don’t get any of the above with 300 calories of Chips-Ahoy! in front of the television by yourself.
Food offers so much more than energy content, and reducing it to calories damages your relationship with food.
For most people, math is not fun, especially when it requires willpower and results in self-deprivation. Willpower is an exhaustible resource (it actually requires calorie expenditure), and studies show that binary choices are less taxing than those made on a gradient. Committing to yourself that you won’t eat fake food is not only more rewarding than attempting to count calories among a sea of artificial options – it’s also easier.
Summing Up – 3 Main Points
Almost 2000 words ago, I set out to convince you never to count calories again. Now that you have a basic understanding of the topics, I can be more succint:
- You can’t accurately count how many calories you eat.
- You can’t accurately count how many calories you burn.
- Junk food tricks your brain – making your body try to gain fat.
- To achieve this, your brain:
- Increases hunger
- Decreases calorie expenditure (you burn fewer calories sitting still)
- This means if you keep eating junk food, but try to count calories, you’ll have a bad time. You’ll be constantly hungry, and feel tired/unmotivated.
- To achieve this, your brain:
- If you eat natural, healthy food – your brain works with you to lose fat.
- If you eat more healthy food than you need, your brain:
- Decreases hunger
- Increases calorie expenditure (you burn more calories sitting still).
- If you eat more healthy food than you need, your brain:
- Counting calories isn’t just useless – it also causes psychological issues.
Conclusion and Recommendation
Don’t count calories. It’s useless at best, and leads to psychological issues and complicates weight maintenance at worst. Eat real food, in whatever quantities you desire, and forget that calories even exist. It isn’t just the easiest way to lose weight – it’s the only way to lose weight and keep it off for life. Now that is much simpler.
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