A Calorie Is A Calorie?

a calorie is a calorie

A discussion came up on the forum here asking about macros, calories, and muscle and I thought I was all clever and original when I replied with:

Calories in and out determine weight gain/loss and macros determine if its muscle or fat.

Well, someone pointed out that one of my mentors, Will Brink, said this over seven years ago and in fact had written a whole excellent article on nutrition around this. Rather than rewrite Will Brink's article, I will expand upon it with my own twist of course.

In my bodybuilding nutrition made simple article, I advise a top down approach like one would use in personal finance where you pay the most important things first then see whats left over. You pay the rent, car payment, utility bills, and student loan before you go thinking about going out to a fancy, expensive restaurant. In a similar way, we eat our boneless, skinless chicken breast and brocolli before we eat our cookies. This is even more fundamental though. We will start at the top and break it down.

  1. Only calories in and calories out determine weight change, nothing else.
  2. Macronutrient ratios (Protein/Carb/Fat) determine if the weight change is due to fat or muscle.
  3. Micronutrients and toxins determine health.

This is powerful and simple stuff, lets look at each in detail now.

1) Only calories in and calories out determine weight loss/gain, nothing else. The human body obeys the laws of thermodynamics, period, end of discussion. Calories (energy) enters the body thru food/beverage and leaves the body as work done (from lifting things and movement) or heat (conducted, convected or radiated). If more calories go in than leave, then you gain weight. If fewer calories go in than leave, then you lose weight. Want to lose weight the fastest way possible? The #1 fastest way to lose weight is to stop eating completely and run naked ultra-marathons in Antarctica. No calories consumed and your body will burn off weight at an astronomically fast rate to run (do work) and keep your body warm despite the being naked at 80 below zero in gale force winds (radiate and conduct heat). Of course, this approach to rapid weight loss has a big disadvantage - assured rapid death.

Remember this - scales measure weight, not fat nor muscle. Sounds stupid to say but so many people don't understand this. Many people incorrectly rely on the scale to measure their fat loss or muscle gain. Many people confuse fat loss with weight loss and confuse weight gain with muscle gain. The scale reads weight, period. If you want to know how much muscle or fat you have lost/gained then you have to measure your bodyfat. People are by nature optimistic and the obese person on the near starvation diet is only fooling themselves when they assume that the 5 pounds a week they are losing is all fat because they are losing substantial amounts of muscle as well. Similarly and even more common is people who are bulking. They convince themselves that the 3 pounds a week they are gaining is "mostly muscle" when it is predominately fat.

2) Macros determine if the weight change is due to fat or muscle. If you are trying to gain muscle by bulking and your macros are 0/50/50 (0% protein, 50% carbs, 50% fat) then it doesn't matter how much you eat, you will not gain any muscle, in fact, you will lose muscle. Macros are just as important when you are losing weight to insure that as little muscle is lost as possible. If you are on a severely calorie restricted diet with macros of 0/50/50 again, then you will lose a LOT of muscle. Changing to 40/40/20 (40% protein, 40% carbs, 20% fat) will reduce your muscular losses.

3) Micronutrients and toxins determine health. Of course, its not just calories and macros that matter otherwise you could live on beer, donuts and protein powder. Take fiber for instance, if you don't get enough of it you will have some pretty severe gastrointestinal problems and be at an increased risk of colon cancer and hemorrhoids. Salt is another micronutrient very important to health but most people get *way* too much which can cause high blood pressure in some people. Vitamins are a big one, without them you would get an array of diseases like scurvy. Then there are anti-oxidants found in fruits and vegetables that help protect you from cancer. Then of course their are the toxins. Eating lots of tuna with mercury and vegetables sprayed with DDT is a fast track to the hospital … or rather the slow, agonizing, and painful track.

Its not quite so simple

Of course, the above is a simplification because they are all intertwined. For instance, its not just micronutrients that determine health. If you consume too many or too few calories - that can be unhealthy or deadly. Macros too affect health and getting them too far out of whack will affect health negatively. Keeping each of the three macros in the range of 20% to 50% is probably a really good idea for health.

Similarly, its not quite so simple to determine what part of the weight change will be due to muscle and what part will be due to fat - its not just calories and macros. To state the obvious one, whether you lift weights or not will have a lot to do with how much muscle you gain. Things like omega-III fatty acids can have an effect on how much muscle is gains as can amount of sleep, stress, meal timing, meal size, and meal frequency.

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1) Calories in and out determine weight change
2) Macros determine what is lost or gained
3) Micros determine health