Sally Engelhart | The skinny on calorie counting
Scientifically Blonde | Low-fat dieting is a poorly supported scientific theory
September 14, 2011, 11:52 pm · Updated September 16, 2011, 12:24 am·
I’m going to tell you why we’re fat.
First: welcome back! It’s a new year, hoorah. And you can bet that, like last year, it’s going to be full of Allegro, beer and Insomnia Cookies. It’s no wonder we pack on extra pounds during the school year. But I’m here to tell you that your term-time belly is not the result of a few extra calories consumed here and there.
Yes, I’ll tell you why we really get fat. You might not like it. You probably won’t believe me either. But after reading some outstanding work by science writer Gary Taubes, I’m a die-hard believer.
Getting fat isn’t about eating too much or being too lazy, explains Taubes in his book Good Calories, Bad Calories (despite the title, it’s a science book, not a diet book). He says that this whole idea that our weight is determined by a balance between calories ingested and expended is bullshit.
The real reason you get fat is because of your hormones — namely because of insulin, which does most of its damage when you eat sweets and carbohydrates. Getting fat has nothing to do with how much you eat and everything to do with what you eat.
Yes, dietary fat is calorie-packed, but eating fat does not make you fat. Eating sugar does. So put down your low-fat smoothie and make yourself some bacon and eggs, for Christ’s sake.
I’m telling you this not because I want to help you drop five pounds fast, but because I’m trying to fix a major disconnect between mainstream thinking and scientific evidence. The persistence of the low-fat phenomenon is driving me crazy. It’s based on bad science, and it’s time we forgot it.
But it’s like we can’t. The idea that “low-fat” means “healthy” has penetrated society so deeply that we can’t shake the idea. But you guys are Penn students — young, smart and open-minded. If anyone can look past a lifetime of BS and see the light, it’s you.
The science behind the mainstream “calories in, calories out” theory doesn’t really add up (couldn’t resist the pun). According to popular belief, to maintain your weight, you must eat only as many calories as you burn.
If you over or under eat, you will gain or lose weight — at a rate of one pound of fat for every 3,500 calories. Do you really believe that it’s as cut-and-dry as this? That means that eating a single extra bite of your sandwich each day would cause you to gain about 15 pounds over college. Conversely, eating one less bite would cause you to shed 15 pounds over the course of your Penn career. Can it be that easy?
Counting calories cannot account for the major obesity epidemic. In theory, overweight individuals could eat a few less bites a day and solve their problem. In reality, obese individuals often remain a steady weight for months at a time, despite major changes in the numbers of calories they consume day to day.
The reason we get fat is because of a hormonal imbalance between fat-storing and fat-releasing hormones. When we consume too many carbs, our insulin levels spike, which makes us store glucose in our body as fat. So the real culprit here is carbohydrates, not fat. Yep, I’m saying it’s your skim milk that’s fattening: not that piece of marbled ribeye.
When I told this to a group of senior girls, I was met with complete disbelief. In their defense, they’ve been subjected to 21 years of indoctrination into the poorly supported theory of calorie counting.
And calorie counting sometimes seems to work. But I can explain that too. When people count calories, they unknowingly lower their insulin too. Switching from vodka cran to vodka soda or getting a salad instead of fries — these calorie-reducing steps are actually insulin reducing steps too, and that’s the real reason you lose weight.
So I’m saying that overeating and under-exercising is not why we get fat. I know this news is hard to swallow, after years of “calories in, calories out” being your mantra. Even I find the old notions of calorie counting hard to shake (low-fat fro-yo just seems to be a healthier choice than full-fat ice cream). But if you follow good science and question bad science (as I’m compelled to do), you’ll believe it too.
Sally Engelhart is a College senior from Toronto. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Scientifically Blonde appears every other Thursday.