(versión en español: pinchar aquí)
This is my favorite post among all that I’ve already posted, and if someone asked me how to start reading this blog, I think I would give him/she a link to this page. Here I write about the nonsense of using the energy balance in nutrition, and I believe I have been able to do that it in a way that makes it possible for anyone to understand that what we have been told is indisputable —the use of calories and energy on nutrition—, is in fact a blatant stupidity. It is very difficult to make other person understand that talking of calories is irrational, because it is an unbalanced fight: what I tell goes against entrenched prejudices (e.g. “people are fat because they eat too much”), huge economic interests and a message that, by dint of repetition, has become conventional wisdom.
It is a rather long post, but I have no doubt the issue is important: talking about calories is the ultimate cause of the obesity epidemic, never its solution. We need a change.
A few days ago an editorial article (see) was published in the Open Heart journal in which the authors claimed that we need to stop counting calories and begin to talk about healthy diets (and they proposed a high fat Mediterranean style diet). The request to stop counting calories was described as “idiotic” by a supporter of the energy balance paradigm (see). In the past they have also used the term “stupids” (see,see) referred to those who believe, like I do, that talking about calories is a mistake that does more harm than good.
I’m too going to talk about stupidity, but this entry is not an angry reaction to people calling me “stupid”. I think that it is ok to use the terms stupidity, idiocy and morons, not used as insults, but describing the apparent lack of intelligence of so many “experts” on nutrition and the nonsense of using the energy balance theory in nutrition. If someone wants to say that an idea is stupid, it is difficult to transmit that message with other words without distorting the essence of the message. I am going to say it, and I will give you my reasons.
Overweight and obesity happen over time when you take in more calories than you use (see)
The problem of a stupid diagnosis…
Imagine that you are the manager of a restaurant that is going through a bad time, and a business expert gives the following advice to you: “behold, economic problems happen when incomes are consistently lower than costs (see). Therefore, the solution to your problems are measures that a) increase your revenues, as raising the prices, combined with others that b) reduce the costs, like for example cutting down the staff by half or reducing the salaries of your employees“.” You’d certainly think that that person has an incredible intellectual problem, to put it kindly. But it is even more serious than you thought, because when you try to explain to him how stupid his advice is, he says “I can hardly believe you are denying something as basic as that having benefits requires a positive difference between income and cost” .
You summon all your patience, and you tell him that as you see it, the problem with your restaurant comes from the opening of two fast food restaurants in the neighbourhood, and young people, possibly by fad and low prices, are now clients of these places. And you try to explain that, in your opinion, the solution to the problem is finding a way to make those people come back to your restaurant. The business expert has been quietly listening to you, and he says: “ok, what you say may be important, but at the end of the day if your incomes are lower than your costs, your business is not going to survive. You must increase your income and reduce your costs. Any effective solution must comply with something as simple as that“. Now you have no doubts: he has no brain.
The fundamental cause of obesity and overweight is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended (see)
There we have the stupid diagnosis…
… followed by an even more stupid solution
The ‘economic balance’ equation:
Profits = Incomes – Costs
Do you think that the equation above this line gives you the keys to decide how to fix the problems of your restaurant? If you follow the expert’s advice and cut down your staff, you reduce the costs and therefore, according to the maths, you increase your benefits. And if you double the prices, maths say that the benefits also increase. A combination of all of those measures are all you need to solve the problems of your restaurant, right? It seems to me that maths without thinking are useless to solve the problem of the restaurant.
Only a moron would propose a measure as “cut down your staff by half” without considering first the foreseeable consequences for the business in the short-medium-long term. But the “economic balance” equation can’t tell you nothing about that. It can’t! Because it’s generic and descriptive, not specific and explanatory. It is the same equation for an illegal seller of pirated DVDs, for a Chinese restaurant or for a factory with thousands of employees. The same equation for your restaurant and for my daughters and their weekly pay. That equation has no clue about the particular business we are talking here. That’s really important: this equation doesn’t know the consequences of changing the inputs of the system, like doubling prices, firing half of the staff, or cutting down by half the sallary of your workers. According to maths all that measures increase the benefits, but the knowledge of how a restaurant works tell you that adopting those measures will lead the business to bankruptcy. Taking decisions using just maths is being very very and very moron. I will say it again: very very and very moron. And very moron.
Would you say that looking for ways of recovering the lost clientele implies denying that profits depend on incomes and costs? It doesn’t. But you probably have no doubt that talking about the “economic balance” is a no-brainer that never will give you the keys you need for managing your business. Talking about the “economic balance” is a stupidity that leads to stupid solutions.
In the nutrition field the situation is exactly the same as I have been describing by using analogy of the restaurant. There is no difference. The obesity “experts” propose solutions based on a generic law of physics, which is valid for the human body, for a machine in a factory or for the formation of a star:
Change in accumulated energy = energy IN – energy OUT
And they give us solutions to obesity that are deduced from the equation above this line. Those solutions are stupid, because they ignore the actual behaviour of the system, as was the case with the restaurant’s analogy.
To lose weight, you have to eat less or move more or do both (see)
For the same reasons that firing half of the employees is stupid (because in that you may not be even able to keep the restaurant’s door open), an advice as “eat less” ignores how that action will affect the ‘system’ we are considering, and indeed that reaction will be producing hunger and changing your metabolism with the consequence that your energy expenditure will be decreased and fat accumulation will be favored (see,see). What seems reasonable in the maths domain is actually blatantly stupid, for the simple reason that is doesn’t consider the changes in the behavior of the system, a system that in this case is something as extremely complex as the human body. Increasing your physical activity produces too a compensatory reaction of your body, which tends to reduce your energy expenditure or increase your caloric ingest (see,see,see). In the long run, the most likely output will be bankruptcy in the case of the restaurant, and making even more difficult losing weight in the case of obesity (see). None of that can be deduced from maths: it is the knowledge of how the particular system works what gives us that information and what, sometimes, allows us to predict a result. If the question is “how to lose weight”, thermodynamics will not give us an answer. Because thermodynamics know nothing about the effects of reducing your caloric intake, cutting down sugars and grains on the diet or exercising more. Thermodynamics only allows us to know in advance a feature of the outcome, but doesn’t tell us what is going to happen. What about the energy balance? Is it fulfilled? Yes, it is. No one is denying the laws of physics, just in the same way that nobody denies that profits depend on incomes and costs. In the case of the human body, the system will behave as it has to behave, and at all times the accumulated energy will satisfy the above equation. But the output can’t be deduced from mathematics, only from understanding the behavior of the particular system that we are talking about. And it is not the same talking about the human body, than talking about the body of a mouse or talking of a machine in a factory. Using another analogy, thermodynamics says is that if I want to distribute 10 dollars among my daughters, the sum of the money given to both of them will be 10 dollar. Undeniable. We know that for sure. But thermodynamics don’t impose conditions on how the sharing out will be. Any result is possible as long as it meets the condition that the sum of money is 10 dollars. Knowing that feature of the result doesn’t tell us a thing about how that money will be distributed.
Thermodynamics says that if a fat cell, an adipocyte, fat is accumulating, in that cell enters more energy that it comes out. Thermodynamics can NEVER tell us under what conditions the cell will accumulate or lose fat, because that depends on the physiology. In no case, never, we will find a solution to obesity that is deducted from the laws of thermodynamics. Never talking about calories is going to give us the answer we are looking for: let’s talk about metabolism: the behaviour of the human body.
if you want to prevent obesity, eating less and moving more works every time (see)
There you have the stupid solution (please, don’t believe it works every time: it has never worked) and…
… that they only use for obesity
If I wanted to build my muscles a little, that would increase the accumulated energy in my body. Do you agree with that?
Do I have to become a glutton and a sloth to become a body builder? Doesn’t that ring a bell? How can the experts explain that the advice to build your muscles and the advice to increase your body fat is different, if, according to their theories, in both cases what we need is a positive energy balance? Why don’t they use the energy balance theory to tell us how to build our muscles? I think that question is really important and I believe the answer gives us a big understanding of the problem.
Why is it that nobody says bodybuilders are gluttons and sloths? Have you ever wondered why people increase their energy expenditure in the gym when in accordance with the theories of energy balance what they need to build muscle is a positive balance, not a negative one?
The questions above lead us to an obvious conclusion: the calories are use in obesity because they blame people with weight problems of being responsible for their condition, because the “experts” know that obese people are sloths, lazy, inactive and have no willpower. Without prejudices towards them we wouldn’t talk about calories. Without prejudices towards them, the “experts” would be looking for the real cause of the problem, which, as in the case of the restaurant, it is not an imbalance, neither of power nor of money.
Let’s talk about a new example. If I want my hair (see) to grow, what do the laws of thermodynamics say I have to do? It is clear that I “need” to create a positive energy balance, right? Should I become a sloth and a glutton again? Or, may be, the hair will grow if it has to, and the end result will simply be that part of the energy consumed is stored in those hairs? The laws of thermodynamics are met, no doubt about that, but thermodynamics aren’t going to tell us if the hair is going to grow or not, no matter if I force a certain deficit or surplus of energy. Eating more that you spend won’t make your hair grow, and eating less than you spend won’t make your hair shrink.
From the thermodynamic point of view, obesity is a disease of simple etiology, the consequence of a prolonged positive energy balance. (see)
From the thermodynamic point of view, the hair growth is a process of simple etiology, the consequence of a prolonged positive energy balance.
In the above quote, I’ve replaced the original text, “obesity” by “growth of hair”. In both growths there is a positive energy balance, but only in the case of obesity, the “experts” say that the energy balance is the cause. And anyone who said hair removal could be achieved with a negative caloric balance (see) would be considered a moron.
Why is it that we talk about energy in the case of obesity, but not in the case of hair growth nor in the case of muscle development, nor in any other cases? Because talking of energy is the excuse the “experts” need for telling us what they “know” from the beginning: obese people are gluttons and sloths.
A thermodynamics problem: yesterday your energy intake was 2000 kcal, with an energy expenditure of 1995 kcal and the remaining 5 kcal were stored in the form of hair growth. How many calories do you have to ingest today so that your hair doesn’t grow?
If you haven’t tried to solve the problem above, do so, please.
“Eat less and move more” is a solution deduced from maths, not from the knowledge of the human body works. An its deeply stupid origin is compatible with the fact of that for the majority of us it doesn’t work for long term weight loss .
Compute your costs and adjust your incomes so you have profit. Problem solved
Even the village idiot understands that the economic problem of the restaurant is not caused by having less incomes than costs, or that thinking in those terms can never help solve the problem. If we understand that — and only a moron wouldn’t —, it is easy to see that obesity is not caused by ingesting more energy than is spent, and thinking in those terms can never help solve the problem.
Saying that obesity is caused by an intake too big for your spending is a stupid diagnosis that leads to stupid solutions. To correctly diagnose the problem and find a useful solution, you have to understand the behaviour of the system we are talking about. However complicated the human body may seem, thermodynamics don’t simplify the problem, because they don’t help to diagnose correctly the problems nor to find solutions to obesity. Talking about energy is the cause, not the solution to obesity (see).
The problem is the excessive fat accumulation in adipocytes, right? The questions should be what controls the accumulation of fat in an Adipocyte. An excess of circulating fatty acids? Too high levels of one hormone in regards to another one caused by an excess of fast-absorbed dietary sugars?
There are people that no matter how you explain that talking about calories is stupid, they reply with claims like this one :
FACT: You can gain fat from eating too many calories (Healthy food or junk food)
Do we see the errors in their logic? Although I don’t want to go into detail about this comment now (I leave that to a next blog entry), it should suffice to express that sentence in terms of the analogy of the restaurant to see the absurdity of the comment:
FACT: If your income is lower than your costs, the restaurant won’t have profits, no matter if you regain your old customers or you don’t
Does anyone believe that increasing the incomes and reducing the costs is the law that allows us to save the restaurant? It is not easy to accept that people can be so oblivious.
Everybody can’t be a moron!
It is the fallacy of quantity: all that people can’t be wrong! But no one said everybody is wrong. A lot of people are, too many, if you ask me, but not everybody. Have you noticed how many people out there is “forget the calories, forget processed products, cereals and seed oils”? Not everybody is saying calories should be considered.
The first thing I want to point out, is that we talk here about a herd of buffaloes: if the leading buffalo changes his mind, the rest of the buffalos will follow him to death. They are not a lot of buffaloes that are wrong: the only one that is wrong is the leader, i.e. the U.S. Government. The rest of the world simply don’t have a saying. They follow their leader.
I recognize that this kind of sarcastic comments make me uncomfortable. “So you say all the Governments on earth are incompetent in matters of nutrition?” The purpose of this strategy is trying to avoid thinking, by trying to finish the conversation by ridiculing the other person calling him/her crazy. This tactics are typical of those who work as preachers of the official truths: they claim to be the safe, sensible options, and anything else are “fad diets” and health risks.
I don’t have an explanation that seems sensible to why so many people are so wrong, when it is assumed that so many people can’t be wrong. And I am sure that looking for explanations to this fact is a trap, because no possible explanation makes favors the one who gives it.
When someone uses this type of fallacious arguments, you have to understand that already have made the decision to not questioning the sayings of the majorities. They won’t have critical thinking, no matter what you answer to the question. They want to follow the leader of the herd without questioning their decisions. No answer, no matter how ingenious and clear it may seem to you, is going to force that person to think for him/herself and question their beliefs.
“No one has said that all of them are morons. There are lot’s of people who understand that talking about the energy balance is nonsense”
“I can’t explain it. May be you can explain to me how is it that we have let the prejudice towards the obese people determine the policies in the fight against obesity”
“Are you you saying that those who think like I do are the morons? Can you give me the reference of just one scientific study where caloric restriction has proved being useful for long term weight loss? You seem to be so sure that it works…”
In general people don’t want to hear you, when what you tell them goes against what is officially established. People link what comes from “official” sources with the sensible, safe option. Moreover, they think their knowledge about nutrition is not enough for questioning the official guidelines. They criticize what they perceive as “alternative”, something very human, but the reality is that those who use these arguments have never questioned their own beliefs or have a formed opinion, they only repeat dogmas.
Although almost all the Governments on earth, and most of the scientists, may recommend “eat less and move more” to prevent/cure obesity, that doesn’t change the actual effectiveness of the method according to the scientific literature, which is none (see, see, see). They are legion and they are the ones who impose the guidelines, but that doesn’t make their message right. The answer is: Yes, they are wrong. And the important question is how you can we escape from the chaos created by the energy balance theory. Looking for an answer to how it is possible that they are so wrong usually leads to nowhere.
Hardly in the history of human errors we will find something as amazing as the energy balance con
Just to end the entry, and increasing the risk of making it even larger, I’ll briefly tell the story of Ignác Fülöp Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician. This doctor, back in 1840, observed that, in his hospital, the mortality rate among mothers when giving birth was different between the two existing delivery rooms. Semmelweis realized that there was a difference between those two rooms: one of them was used by the medical students, while the other one wasn’t. And since medical students helped in childbirth after having forensics lessons in which corpses were manipulated, he postulated the hypothesis that perhaps some kind of matter that those students were carrying in their hands, coming from the corpses, was the cause of the higher mortality rate in that room.
The medical establishment of that time rejected the need to take hygiene measures during childbirth. Semmelweis wanted to force the students to wash their hands before entering the delivery room, and he was fired because of that. His supervisor dismissed Semmelweis’ theory and blamed the high rate of mortality to the incompetence of the students, expelling lots of them.
A couple of months later, Semmelweis returned to the hospital, working this time in the other delivery room, the one not used by the medical students. He did some tests, e.g. he lead the students to his delivery room and checked how that change increased the mortality rate (and he was the good guy!), but according the european leading surgeons and obstetricians ignored or rejected his discovery and they even accused him of using falsified data.
In the words of Professor hebra: “When the history of human errors is written one day, it will be difficult to find such a striking example, and people will be amazed at how such able and specialised persons could be so blind and stupid in their own field of science“.
When you know what is happening in the nutrition field with the energy balance and calories, the history of Semmelweis causes no surprise. What I find striking is the use of the term “able”.