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Macronutrient Mea Culpa

by Alison Hudson

November 21, 2013

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Donate Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned.

In my prior blog post, "The Skeptoid Diet," I championed the maxim "calories in, calories out." In doing so, I did not address all the nuances of weight loss; I did not offer an entire theory of good nutrition; I failed to recognize the nuances of nutritional needs; and I lacked a comprehensive eating plan that would satisfy those looking for permanent weight loss success. The were failings on my part, and I am repentant. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

As an act of contrition, I am here today to acknowledge my errors and to accept the ways in which my championing of the "calories in, calories out" maxim was flawed.

I acknowledge that the Skeptoid Diet is not a complete diet plan, and I in fact am not writing The Skeptoid Diet! nor The Skeptoid Diet Cookbook! The Skeptoid Diet was meant to be a bit of satire on the way these diets all present themselves. I had mistakenly assumed that the satire would be obvious and that no reader would actually think I was offering up a manifesto of lifetime good health. I was wrong in that assumption.

I acknowledge that, for long term health, macronutrients are important, and that trying to live on nothing but Twinkies for an entire lifetime would be unhealthy. There are recognized heath problems resulting from extreme deficiency of proteins, fatty acids, and carbohydrates, and no rational diet would exclude them completely (even Atkins includes "good carbs" in its diet). But those really are long term effects. None of them would prevent short-term weight loss from calorie restriction -- this was the whole point of the original Twinkie Diet story. And even in the long term, balanced macronutrients alone won't prevent weight gain if calories aren't also controlled.

I acknowledge that different calories may burn differently and thus can effect rate of weight loss. Two commenters and one private message each shared an article titled "A Calorie is Not a Calorie" with me, in which it is explained how not all calories are created equal and, yes, it is possible that eating the wrong calories can diminish the rate of weight loss. Of course, to get to that part of the article one must read past the part where it said "the actual diet doesn't matter so long as you actually reduce your calorie intake and do more exercise," and the part where it said "research did find that the differing proportions of carbohydrate, protein and fat didn't really matter in terms of weight loss". But still, it was an interesting article, and thanks for sharing.

I acknowledge that concentration camp survivors, morbidly obese little kids, and anorexics are all exceptions to the "calories in / calories out" maxim, though I'm not sure how often any of these groups are considered likely audiences for fad diets. Starvation and morbid obesity can both wreck the way that metabolism works, and it is true that those extreme situations require different nutritional approaches, usually with medical supervision. The average fad dieter is neither a bulimic teen nor the World's Fattest Woman, though, and so their metabolisms should respond typically to a caloric reduction.

And so I prostrate myself in front of the world. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. In the name of the Fatty Acid, the Protein, and the Holy Carb, ramen.

Here's the funny thing, though. Nothing I said above makes fad diets any more legitimate, which was the rhetorical point I was aiming for. More importantly, as of yet, no one has provided me with evidence that, for an average overweight dieter, "calories in, calories out" isn't the vital dietary variable. Even in angry screeds against the "calories in, calories out maxim, the authors are forced to admit:
The first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy can not be destroyed, it can only change form. So if the energy that is entering the body is greater than the energy leaving the body, then the body will store the energy, usually as body fat.

If we take in more energy (calories) than we expend, we gain weight. If we expend more energy than we take in, we lose weight. This is an unbreakable law of physics and isn't even debatable.
It seems to me that many of the contributors to the comments section of "The Skeptoid Diet" were not actually taking issue with whether "calories in, calories out" is true, but that by not going beyond that, by not endorsing some particular method of controlling calories, I was somehow "wrong,"or that by not going into the details of how different calories burn I was "wrong," or that by not promoting one macronutrient or decrying another I was "wrong." But was I wrong? Or just incomplete?

Details are details, but the basics remain unchallenged. Eat less than you burn. It's a commonsense simple truth about losing and maintaining a healthy weight. In deciding what you should actually eat, I defer to Michael Pollen: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Beyond that, it's all up to you.


by Alison Hudson

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