Review: The poor, misunderstood calorie

Review: The poor, misunderstood calorie

Over the past couple of weeks, I had the pleasure of reading (slowly, when I had time) an excellent book about calories, nutrient partitioning and (yes) fat loss:  The poor, misunderstood calorie by Dr. William Lagakos.

Dr. Lagakos has a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry and Physiology.  He’s done quite a bit of research in the fields of energy balance, lipid metabolism and insulin resistance, and writes frequent posts on his blog.  I wasn’t aware of his work until recently, when for some reason he started showing up in my Twitter feed.  (I have no idea how people I don’t know end up in my feed.)  I was intrigued by his tweets, so I checked out his blog and was pleased to discover that he writes for a lay audience.  So I bought his book (which, by the way, he didn’t ask me to review).

If you’re looking for a how-to book, this isn’t it.  There’s no diet plan inside.  But if you’re looking for an explanation of the science of energy balance and weight loss that’s clearly written and easy to grasp, this is definitely one for your bookshelf.

As the book’s title suggests, Dr. Lagakos isn’t a big fan of counting calories.  In fact, here’s the first paragraph after the table of contents:

Counting calories is an ineffective means to determine energy balance or lose weight.  The calories in food are not the same as those expended by the body.  The poor, misunderstood calorie explains the concept of calories in the context of nutrition, obesity, and appetite.

And that’s exactly what the book does.  In the opening chapters, Dr. Lagakos explains what a calorie is and how calories are measured, both in food and as energy expended in clinical settings.  Then he devotes a couple of chapters to explaining why your body doesn’t work like a bomb calorimeter.  Strangely enough, your body works like a body.  It makes decisions about what to do with the calories.

I suspect that a few calorie fanatics out in cyberspace won’t bother actually reading the book but will nonetheless insist that Dr. Lagakos is trying to deny the laws of thermodynamics.  He isn’t.  Nowhere in the book does he claim that calories magically disappear or that a particular macronutrient ratio will allow you to overeat and still lose weight.  His main point is that the tendency to either accumulate or shed body fat is driven by the relationship between nutrient partitioning, energy expenditure and appetite.  What we eat – not just how much – affects all three.

As he explains, if you simply restrict calories, you may (depending on which foods you’ve restricted) ramp up your appetite, reduce your resting energy expenditure and partition nutrients in the wrong direction – away from building or maintaining lean muscle mass, for example.  That’s a prescription for failure.  If, on the other hand, your diet has the effect of moving you away from fat storage and towards fat burning, nobody will have to tell you to eat less.  You’ll naturally want to eat less.  If your diet also builds helps muscle, your metabolism will rise.

Not surprisingly in a book largely dedicated to explaining nutrient partitioning, Dr. Lagakos mentions the effects of insulin several times.  Here’s a sample:

Water quenches thirst.  Food should satisfy hunger.  Calories should satisfy hunger equally if they are providing the same amount of energy to the body.  But calories from fat and protein satiate better than calories from carbohydrates.  This logic supports that all calories are not the same, due to their effects on appetite.  If the focus were to shift from strictly energy balance to weight loss, this may be the more important interpretation of the energy debate.  Combined with the fat-storing effects of insulin, the conclusion must be that all calories are not the same.  Biochemists believe that obesity is caused by positive energy balance.  Nutritionists believe obesity is caused by excessive fat storage.  A suitable compromise might read as follows:  carb-rich foods are easily over-eaten, producing a positive energy balance.  The accompanying elevations in insulin cause net fat storage … Maybe all calories are calories, but not all calories are equally obesogenic.

Not all calories are equally obesogenic, and on the flipside, not all calories are equal when it comes to weight loss.  Throughout the book, Dr. Lagakos cites studies showing, for example, that people on higher protein diets lose more body fat than people on lower protein diets – even consuming the same number of calories – and then offers possible explanations for the results.  (I say “possible explanations” because as a scientist, he’s careful not to state his case in terms of absolutes.)

There are chapters on the effects of dietary protein, different types of fats, fructose, other carbohydrates, leptin and other hormones.  Nutrient partitioning is mentioned throughout, but there’s also an entire chapter on the subject.  Here are some quotes:

Nutrient partitioning is probably the single most important factor supporting the most positive possible outcome in a long-term weight loss strategy (and it is one of my favorite concepts in nutritional biochemistry and physiology).  “Build muscle and burn fat.”  Essentially, nutrient partitioning is the antithesis of “getting fat without a positive energy balance.”  [In an earlier chapter, he explains how we can get fatter without a positive energy balance.]

It only takes a little bit of insulin to completely inhibit lipolysis.  On the other hand, insulin has anabolic (muscle building) effects on skeletal muscle.  Thus, we want to minimize the effects of insulin on fat storage in adipose while maximizing it on anabolism in muscle.  To put things in perspective, however, the effects of insulin on fat storage are quantitatively more robust than its effects on muscle anabolism.

[After recounting a study involving growth hormone]:
Furthermore, this demonstrates that a particular hormonal milieu, in this example elevated growth hormone, is capable of regulating fat mass independent of energy balance.  This is one of the main principles of The poor, misunderstood calorie.

This is not a Good Calories, Bad Calories-sized tome.  The book is about 300 pages with fairly large text and, like I mentioned before, it’s easy to read.  I hope you do just that.

In the meantime you can follow Dr. Lagakos on Twitter at CaloriesProper.  (Unlike me, you’ll know why you started getting his tweets.)

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