Somewhere along the lines, misinterpretations in nutrition spread the overwhelming belief of calories in vs. calories out, and the majority of people started concentrating on thermodynamics. Viewing our bodies as a physics equation; less calories in (deprivation) and more calories burned, does not equal health. This advice is highly detrimental and has created immense confusion.
There are several problems with this mindset, which come down to the fact that the data does not take into account the physiology of the human being. The body is a complex system that is constantly regulating itself and trying to obtain homeostasis. Some complications that arise during calorie restriction include: hormonal imbalances, altered enzyme regulation, and consumption of too much processed food. These problems can have a myriad of deleterious effects on the body and the mind.
The hormonal system is highly regulated by the nutrients that enter the body. While considering caloric intake the primary system that needs to be addressed is the hypothalamic-pituitary complex, with an emphasis on glucocorticoids and thyroid production. If the body is under a calorie deficit, dealing with food ratio problems, or is experiencing inconsistency with food frequency, the system will start to have blood sugar handling problems. This problem will activated the hypothalamic-pituitary system to secrete CRH to ACTH, which reaches the adrenals to secrete glucocorticoids (stress hormones) which mobilize and control the blood sugar.
Stress and blood sugar fluctuations will lead to increased releases of insulin which have major implications in fat storage, detoxification pathways, sex hormones and enzyme regulation. According to Ray Peat “estrogen levels are increased by stress” (Peat, 1997), and excessive estrogen or progesterone deficiency has many toxic side effects and serious implication on the liver. Estrogen, cortisol and lack of proper nutrients will all affect the thyroid and the metabolism.
The hypothalamic-pituitary complex also stimulates TRH and TSH which reaches the thyroid to secrete T4 and T3 which controls the metabolism. Inadequate amounts of calories, especially the right types and ratios of sugar, protein and fat will inhibit thyroid production and the body’s metabolism. Increased nutritional stress, insulin issues, and estrogen affect the thyroid as well. Estrogen inhibits proteolytic enzymes and blocks thyroid secretion (Peat, 1997). Estrogen will also build up in the liver disrupting detoxification and T4 to T3 conversion which also occurs in the liver. Therefore, nutrient deprivation and inconsistency become highly problematic and can contribute to hypothyroidism.
As mentioned earlier, our caloric intake, food ratios and frequency will also alter enzymes that regulate fat storage and liberation. Skipping meals and restricting calories will lead to increased amounts of lipogenic enzymes. Lipoprotein lipase will be increased which is responsible for fat storage and location of storage. Lipolitic enzymes or fat liberating enzymes such as hormone sensitve lipase will be decreased. Therefore, we are changing the fat regulation physiology and increasing the likelihood of gaining fat. Fat regulation
Finally, if you’re counting calories you’re eating too much processed food! How do we know how many calories are in a specific food item, umm….. the package. Which means the food as been wrapped, boxed, packaged, etc. in some way. The majority of processed food contains large numbers of ingredients which include possible toxins, allergenic ingredients, and other unwanted particles. On the contrary, if you go to the farmer’s market and get a carrot, do you know how many calories are in it? If you make some bone broth, do know how many calories are in it? No, but you know it’s nutritious! The importance here lies in the quality and your metabolic requirements. Therefore, the quality of the food and your nutritional needs are the most important factors.
There might be certain times when tracking calories or other numbers may be used as a guide for ratios and frequency. However, I find that most individuals use it to induce a state of deprivation, and all the misinformation pushes them into deeper stress and more problems. Counting and restricting calories is a poor system that negates physiology and leads to poor dietary habits. Let’s focus on quality food that supports our well-being. Healthy eating is about enjoying your food and having a beautiful connection with it. When this happens the body will respond favorably and produce beneficial outcomes.
Stop counting calories, and start enjoying real food!
Chek, P. (2004). How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy. San Diego, CA
Peat, R. (1997). From PMS to Menopause. Eugene, OR
Widmaier, E. P., Hershel, R., Strang, K. T. (2008). Vander’s Human Physiology: The Mechanishms of the Body Function (11th Ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill