On any given Sunday night, you'll find me shoving junk food down my esophagus to ignite an insulin induced coma. All of my #firstworldproblems fade as my body shunts blood flow to my intestines and away from my brain in an attempt to prioritize digestion and (feebly) deal with the bolus of food crashing it's way towards my colon. A nutrition professor at Kansas State University named Mark Haub ate nothing but junk food for ten weeks, but for an entirely different (and even more outlandish) reason: to lose weight. And he did. Haub lost a total of 27 pounds over those 10 weeks. His specific strategy went something like this: Eat assorted Hostess and Little Debbie pre-packaged cream filled somehow stay fresh forever snack cakes every three hours. He mixed in Doritos and other junk food. Because, variety. Haub was out to prove that weight gain and weight loss wasn't about eating healthy. It wasn't about how many meals you ate, or how frequently you ate. Nor was it about when you ate what. It was about one thing.
The energy balance model of body composition is now commonplace. You won't get far without seeing some mention of calories — the protagonist of the energy balance model — or the energy balance rally cry: just eat less and move more!
If you don't know what calories are, don't worry. You will soon enough, because I gots beef that needs acookin' with the energy balance model. (I'm sure the OG Pirates crossing the Atlantic got somethin' to say about it, too.)
The energy balance model is…meh.
For instance, you might have heard body fat is a result of an energy surplus. You might also have heard muscle mass requires an energy surplus. So, uhh, what's the deal?
Likewise, you might have heard losing fat requires an energy deficit. A common recommendation is to eat 500 calories less than you burn on a daily basis. But why? Why not eat 1000 calories less? Or 1500 calories less?
Your body is a smart adaptive creature. Trying to understand a complex phenomenon like body composition solely with numbers is…lol. And, no surprise, the numerical approach usually ends up sabotaging those wielding it as their main weapon as they walk into battle.
You'll understand why soon enough. But I might as well start by keeping my original promise.
Let's find out how to eat Doritos, Twinkies, and other assorted junk food in order to lose weight.
Think of a car. A car parked in your driveway is energy. All matter is energy. Haven’t you taken physics? A car’s parts and whatnot can (and will) be broken down and transformed into other sorts of energy by Mother Nature and Father Time.
Us humans are no different. We’re strange flesh covered moist machines, but, really, we’re really just an organized packet of energy. When we die, our skin, bones, and reproductive organs (!) will undergo a magnificent feat of cosmic recycling.
How wonderful of you to be so environmentally friendly! You must feel proud to do the universe such a favor! You must drive a Prius!
Your eyeball could very well be recycled cosmic matter from Plato’s penis. Likewise, your penis could very well be recycled cosmic matter from Plato's brain, meaning you're one smart dickhead.
It’s one thing to be energy.
It’s another thing to need energy.
A parked car is energy, but it doesn’t need energy…until you turn the key in the ignition. The car needs a certain amount of energy to turn on and stay on.
Humans, once again, are no different. But our relationship with energy input and energy output is broken because it’s informed by McFitness propaganda.
A lot of people think that when we’re in the gym huffing and puffing (or doing any kind of exercise) our engine is on, but when we aren’t doing those things our engine is off. Exercise, on. Non-exercise, off.
According to Dr. Peter Attia, if your body stops recycling energy for just one second, you die. So humans are always using and recycling energy…unless they’re dead.
You’re obviously not dead. At least, I hope you aren't dead. Because then I’m dead, too. Is this a parallel universe? Mom…? Dad…? They’re here.
You’re using energy when you sit on the couch and watch TV…even if you sit for so long the fabric of the couch melts into your biology and becomes another body part.
Our body does things we don’t have to think about. But now I’m asking you to think about those things your body does that you don’t have to think about. (I’m more confused now than when I tried to read Gödel, Escher, Bach.)
- Your heart beating.
- Your brain thinking.
- Your kidneys filtering.
- Your intestines digesting.
These processes aren’t free. Your brain churns through 20–25% of the energy you use at rest. Digesting food? Another 10–15% of your energy use.
Meaning if you burn 2000 calories in one day, your brain and intestines account for 600 of those calories (as a conservative estimate).
Not only do these processes require energy, but they’re also essential processes. Meaning, without them, you die.
You may not be macromoving, which is to say: moving to the visible eye. But you are very much micromoving. Take a look at yourself under a microscope. You cells are partying like it’s 1999.
From a macromovement standpoint, there are different gradients.
Being sedentary is like idling in the driveway. You need energy, but not a lot. Being mildly active is like taking a relaxing joyride. Being really active is like hopping on the Autobahn. The higher your output, the more energy you need.
And that’s what it’s all about: output. Sometimes we output more. Sometimes we output less. But we always output. And output demands intake. Doesn’t matter if we’re parking in a driveway or driving on a parkway.
Something needs to support our output, otherwise we run out of energy, die, and become food for the raccoon living in the backyard.
For millions of years, humans knew they had to eat. They probably didn’t understand much about the who, what, when, or why. But they were smart enough to listen to their gut.
Or maybe they weren’t. Maybe they thought they were Birddddddmmmaaan. And so they sat in the sun to satisfy their hunger. And then they died. Natural selection at its finest.
Most of us living through our #firstworldproblems don’t connect our consciousness to the psychedelic reality: if you don’t eat, you die.
Hungry? Then you should probably find something to eat. Not hungry? Then history says you will be hungry soon. So you still should probably find something to eat.
It seems bonkers, but guess what?
Humans were fine.
They were able to handle the relationship between input and output by using wonderful internal feedback mechanisms we still have to this day, like hunger pangs, food cravings, and satiety loops.
But science has given us the insight to move beyond the [eat-live | starve-die] reality. Food isn’t magic anymore. Food is a number. Food is calories.
Calories are the main character of the energy balance story, and
they're used to measure and quantify intake and output. Many people think calories are “fattening” or “sugar” or so it would appear based on those hidden camera TV shows. Guy asks, “Do you count calories?” Person replies, “Absolutely.” Guy asks, “What’s a calorie?” Person replies, “Me like for you to cheese unicorn turtle.” (Kind of like how most people handle gluten these days.) But calories are measurement of energy, much like a degree is a measurement of temperature. Calories weaseled their way into the food industry when some totally (in)sane person put food inside of a contraption known as a bomb calorimeter. The calorimeter lit the food on fire (or something), which allowed said (in)sane person to calculate the energy content within foods. Standardized energy values for food were born for the three primary macronutrients: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. One gram of each of these macronutrients always had a certain caloric value. Protein = 4 calories per gram. Carbohydrate = 4 calories per gram. Fat = 9 calories per gram. You can also factor alcohol in the mix, as one gram of alcohol contains 7 calories. And if you’re in the paleo crowd, I’m sure there’s something worth mentioning about exogenous ketones, but I’m not going there because I’m not so sure I know how to go there. I should mention the difference between “calories” and “Calories” to prevent trolls from coming of their troll hole and asking for the troll toll so they are able to pay their way into the boy’s soul. The “calories” you’re familiar with are big c Calories. Technically big c Calories are kilocalories, or 1000 small c calories. For practical purposes, you can ignore everything written in the last paragraph. And if you’re not American, you might measure food energy in joules. I’m going to do the American thing and pretend like the world revolves around me.
Knowing the calorie value of food brings on the idea that we can calculate our energy input, so let’s get to calculating our energy output.
Say you do nothing but breathe. You lie in bed and breathe. That’s all. The amount of energy your body needs to make this happen is known as basal metabolic rate (BMR).
Resting metabolic rate (RMR) comes next. RMR is less restrictive than BMR. It includes thing you do daily, like getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, and getting dressed.
Beyond RMR is daily energy expenditure (DEE). DEE is me shoving a fork in my eye because this shit is starting to get confusing.
Point being: there are calculators that we can use to find our output, which means we now have both input and output available to us.
Enter the Haub-ian inspired fat loss strategy: balance your energy intake with your energy output.
- Energy intake > Energy output = Surplus, gain and store energy
- Energy output > Energy intake = Deficit, loss and use stored energy
These are the rules.
And I hate them.
Okay. You got me. Hate might be an overly aggressive word, but the energy balance story is, I have to imagine, like herpes. You want to pretend like it doesn't exist, even though, deep down, you know its not going away anytime soon.
I’m not stupid enough (thankfully) to argue against the laws of thermodynamics. I’m also not stupid enough (thankfully) to believe the energy balance story is of much use.
I should say: I’m not stupid enough to believe our interpretation of the energy balance story is of much use. Because it's not long before the logic above is combined with a little factoid; one pound of body fat contains 3500 calories.
Enter the strategy.
You have a certain metabolic rate. You calculate output.
You eat a certain amount energy. You calculate intake.
You tip the energy balance scale in your favor, being in a deficit of whatever amount of calories daily. If you need 2500 calories and you eat 1500 calories, then you’re at a daily deficit of 1000 calories.
Time passes and you lose fat at identical perfect increments because, by all numerical logic, there’s no rationale for any scenario otherwise.
The interpretation of the energy balance model is very straight and mechanical. We understand this kind of logic, which why most minds are already twisting around the idea.
Simplicity is beauty, right? Steve Jobs said so. And it he did everything in his life picture perfect, including being an absent father.
Unfortunately, the mechanical interpretation of the energy balance story fails because humans are biomechanical, which already sound scary enough to stop reading. I prefer the term wiggly as inspired by Alan Watts.
The physical world is wiggly. Clouds, mountains, trees, people, are all wiggly. And only when human beings get at working things, they build buildings in straight lines and try and make out that the world isn’t really wiggly. But here are we, sitting in this room all built on straight lines, but each one of us is as wiggly as all get-out.
The most efficient way to get from one point to another is a straight line…in a mechanical world. But, in a biomechanical world, sometimes wiggly lines are more efficient than straight lines.
The behind the neck pull-up and the behind the neck press are both straight line lifts compared to their more wiggly bar path in front of the neck versions. But the wiggly versions are more efficient.
There are no straight lines in your body. Your bones, your muscles, your organs. All wiggly. And the energy balance story is no different.
The implementation of the energy balance model described above is flawed from the start. Calculating your intake and output is a guessing game most people fail. And as much as I'd like to dive into that now, I'm going to take the indirect route.
Hop on a P-Wing with me to the year 1945.
→ Click here to read Part 2