Calories Matter… Sort of…

Calorie Counting

“People [...] ate a total of 65,000 more calories and lost 141% more weight.”
How could this be possible?

Calories in VS. calories out

You have all heard it. It’s undisputed. I mean, it’s the first law of thermodynamics: matter and/or energy cannot be created nor destroyed, it can only change forms. So, in order to lose those pesky pounds, the “calories in/calories out” model tells us that we need to expend more energy than we consume in order to lose weight.

Most people understand this concept. If you eat more calories than you expend through things like exercise and just simply the energy required by your organs to function normally, then you gain weight. I am not here to dispute that fact. But I am here to challenge the idea that calories is what you should focus on to regulate fat storage or fat loss. Calories should simply NOT be your focus if you want to lose weight and be healthy.


No, I am not stating that what I am about to say is neat (although it kind of is). NEAT is Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. Laymen terms: Activity that isn’t exercise that generates heat (expends energy). This includes normal daily activity: sitting, standing, talking, walking, typing, etc. All of this combined with exercise energy and organ function energy is your total metabolic rate, or how much energy you expend in a day. If this expenditure is less than amount of energy required to turn what you ate that day (matter) into heat (energy), then the matter stays in your body. This is how weight gain happens.

But if your NEAT is not high enough to counteract the amount you ate, do you have to add exercise to lose or not gain weight? Or maybe you have to just simply eat less so your NEAT is enough to create balance. Well… not necessarily. Let me explain, then I’ll show you the proof.

Typical Diet and Energy Expenditure

A breakfast like this with carbohydrate and sugary orange juice can cause a sugar high and fidgeting (NEAT) with a quick energy crash afterwards. At that point, NEAT would decrease and metabolism would slow until you refeed

The typical Standard American Diet, which is low in fat and high in carbohydrates, goes a little something like this. You eat carbohydrates and your body detects them. Carbohydrates are very easily broken down for energy, so your body does that first before turning to anything else for energy. The carbohydrates replenish cells. Protein is hopefully stored as muscle and helps feeds body cells. Excess carbohydrates and fat are stored as body fat (insulin plays a major role in the shuttling of this excess matter to adipose tissue, or fat tissue). All of this happens in just a few hours. During the first couple of hours, you may feel a big surge of energy. If the carbohydrates were simple/refined, you may even explain this energy as a sugar high. Once the matter is all absorbed, you get hungry and have to refeed to keep the flow of energy going. If you don’t, your body will start to try preserving energy by decreasing your NEAT. You will subconsciously shut down extra movement, like tapping your feet and little things you won’t notice. Some organ function will slow as well. The end result is less heat production (or less energy expenditure) which might not be enough to burn the calories needed to NOT gain weight.

Let’s talk a bit more about energy and NEAT. When humans have a lot of energy that needs to be used up, we tend to feel the urge to go do something. Like a child who had too much candy. Or someone who has had too much caffeine. This extends to all animals. Think of a dog that has done nothing all day and wants nothing more than to get up and run around. I’ve seen many little dogs who’ve been couped up all day run up and down the hallways without purpose. They are just burning off excess energy to regulate their system. Even if we don’t get up and run around, we do little things like tap our feet, twiddle our thumbs, shake subtly (like caffeine jitters). All things that we don’t notice or don’t think about much. Again, this only happens when you have an abundance of excess energy.

The opposite happens when you have no energy. Consider a day where you haven’t eaten all day and it is almost dinner time. The last thing you probably want to do is get up from your comfy seat. I highly doubt you are twiddling your thumbs. The last thing you’d want to do is something productive, like cleaning the house. Starting to get the picture? More energy = more subconscious movement and energy expenditure. Less energy = sloth-likeness. Not a terribly difficult concept to grasp… I hope!

Neat + Ketogenic Adapted Diet

NEAT includes fidgeting to burn extra calories

NEAT includes fidgeting to dissipate excess energy

Something that you wouldn’t immediately think of happens during a ketogenic diet. If you don’t know what a ketogenic diet is, or what ketoadaption is, take 10 minutes and read my primer which explains what they are. It is the backbone of everything I talk about on this blog. Anyway, when you restrict your carbohydrate intake and increase your fat intake, your body has a very constant supply of energy. You don’t have a sugar crash a few hours after eating. You have energy… all day long. What does this mean in terms of NEAT? It increases… all day long. You may find that you want to walk the dog. You may feel productive and clean the house. If you are in a chair all day, you might be thumping your feet away to some sweet tunes blaring out of your headphones. You might not think that you are burning very many calories, but I assure you, it is more than you think. How does this happen? Let’s go through a simplified version of the metabolic pathways that are more active within a ketogenic diet.

You consume a high amount of fat and very little carbohydrate. The very little carbohydrate is burned off first for energy but not nearly enough to supply your entire body with the energy it needs to run optimally. And of course, assuming this has been going on for a long time, your body is adapted to finding and using alternative fuel sources to make up for the deficit. This energy comes primarily from, you guessed it, fat. The fat gets broken down into ketones (via gluconeogenesis). Ketones supply most of the energy required by your cells. A small amount comes from glucose which comes from dietary protein (also via gluconeogenesis). Now let’s assume you’ve eaten more calories than the minimum amount required to just simply survive and get by. And lets assume most, if not all, of the extra calories are from dietary fat like they should be in a ketogenic diet. The excess fat will continue to be broken down (please note that fat oxidation really only happens this efficiently during a ketogenic diet) and you will have lots of energy for your body to use via exercise or NEAT.

Now let’s assume you didn’t eat enough calories during ketosis. Would you shut down NEAT, stop twiddling your thumbs, not want to exercise, and overall slow your metabolism just to preserve enough energy for normal organ function? No. If your body truly relies on fat for energy, and not carbohydrate, you will turn to BODY FAT once you run out of dietary fat. Your body would burn fat and you’d lose weight. Neat!

All of this talk about NEAT raising your metabolism isn’t even considering things like that fact that the liver burns more calories in the process of “burning fat”  in itself than the process of “burning carbohydrate”. Your resting metabolic rate (when you are laying completely still) is higher while burning fat for fuel due to the higher oxygen requirement needed to break down fatty acids. There are also a bunch of other hormonal changes that can increase your RMR during low carb like increase in human growth hormone,  epinephrine, and norepinephrine among other things which increases thermogenesis.

Calorie Conclusion

So, do you have to reduce your calories or increase exercise in order to lose weight? You would if you were on a standard low fat diet, and it would probably work granted you have the willpower to stick it through. You’d lose weight. But I guarantee you won’t have much energy and/or you’ll always be hungry. Your body would say “Feed me! I need energy or I will just sit here and not want to do anything!” On the flip side, you don’t have to worry AS much about your calories on a ketogenic diet. As long as you aren’t eating like an elephant, you can regulate your calories in/calories out without even realizing it. But if you eat 10 steaks in one day, you may have a little trouble twiddling your thumbs to dissipate all of that excess energy.

This doesn’t mean that just because you are on a ketogenic diet, you can eat all the calories you want and automatically lose weight. You would just find it very difficult to gain fat, if you wanted to for some odd reason. A deficit of caloric intake, in contrast to calories burned, is still needed in order to turn to the metabolism of body fat for energy. Albeit, NEAT very well could be overcompensatingly activated when there is excess energy and cause a caloric deficit anyways. But you may want to try exercising a little or eating a bit less if you wan’t to speed up fat loss. The major difference between ketogenic diets and standard American diets is that in a ketogenic state, you will always have the matter needed (body fat) to fuel whatever it is you are doing. With or without having just had a meal. So it is a hell of a lot easier to create a calorie deficit while low carbing without feeling hungry – ravenous even- all the time.

Eating a diet consisting of high fat, moderate protein, low carbohydrate, and a good variety of vitamins and minerals will keep you in a healthy ketogenic state and supply constant energy balance.

I’m Not Making It Up

NEAT may sound like a “too good to be true” concept, but it is proven to be a factor in energy regulation in animals (humans included). In 2002, a study was published in the Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism journal that states:

Physiological studies demonstrate, intriguingly, that NEAT is modulated with changes in energy balance; NEAT increases with overfeeding and decreases with underfeeding. Thus, NEAT could be a critical component in how we maintain our body weight and/or develop obesity or lose weight.

Here is another source (citing many other sources) that suggest that calories don’t count, but high nutritive (basically meaning low carbohydrate) foods lead to more weight loss. These stats are fascinating.

  • J. Volek’s Study at the University of Connecticut: People in the eat-more-high-quality-food group ate 300 more calories per day and burned more body fat.
  • F.F. Samaha’s Study at the University of Pennsylvania: People in the eat-more-high-quality-food group ate a total of 9,500 more calories and lost 200% more weight.
  • P. Green’s Study from Obesity Research: People in the eat-more-high-quality-food group ate a total of 25,000 more calories without gaining any additional weight.
  • S. Sondike’s Study from the Journal of Adolescent Health: People in the eat-more-high-quality-food group ate a total of 65,000 more calories and lost 141% more weight.

Although the site doesn’t mention what a “high quality food group” consists of, if you look at the studies being referenced, they are all pointing towards a low carb ketogenic diet being the high quality diet. This article also cites a Mayo Clinic study where researchers fed people enough calories to gain 18 pounds over the course of 8 weeks, but the most anyone gained was about 1 pound. Keep in mind that that is close to 8,000 extra calories a week over what the average person requires (1 pound of fat is 3500 calories). To be completely transparent, I can’t find the source link for that specific article. But is still says a lot about how much practitioners simplify the calories in/calories out model.

As another indicator of a low carbohydrate/high fat diet being the way to go, if you look into Sondike’s study, you will see the following breakdown. And these types of results are pretty typical in the abundance of studies comparing the two types of diets. Google (check Google Scholar) it if you dare.

Low Carb Low Fat
Calorie Intake 1830 1100
Weight Loss 19 lbs 8.5 lbs
HDL (good cholesterol) Increased Decreased
Tryglycerides -52% -10%

And what did they eat?

“One group ate a conventional low-fat, carbohydrate based ‘slimming’ diet composed of whole grains, fruits and vegetables with fat-free dairy products, low-fat meats, poultry and fish.”

“The other group ate a high-fat, low-carb diet in which they were allowed to eat as many calories as they wanted in the form of untrimmed meat, cheese, eggs, poultry and fish. Their carbohydrates came from two salads a day and minimal other carbs.”

Need I say more?

EDIT, MAY 21, 2012 10:30AM PST: I also want to point out the satiety factor in a low carb high fat diet. I mention this a lot. Eating more fat helps you stay less hungry all the time. The combination of fat and protein taking longer to break down and the fact that you will have ketones floating around for energy keeps you satiated. You can also see that in the study, the high fat group was allowed to eat as much as they wanted of low carb high fat foods. But they were all under the standard recommended 2000 calories a day. Most people eat much more than 2000 calories a day, especially teenagers, which the participants of this study were. The low fat group however, was forced to eat no more than 1100 calories, so that wasn’t on free will. Poor kids must have been starving!



Yes, I am indeed the asian with the cheese bowl. I am also a huge nerd and love science. My real job as the co-founder and technical director for Inphantry keeps my nerdiness factor at a record high. In my spare time, I am obsessive about diet and nutrition. Maybe even too obsessive... Keep reading and I'm sure you will pick up little bits of who I am along the way!

2 Comments on "Calories Matter… Sort of…"

  1. Huy Luu says:

    Always an informative read. good stuff

Trackbacks for this post

  1. My Weight Loss Journey So Far! | Asian Without Rice

Leave a Reply to Huy Luu

Login to comment with:

Or just go ahead and comment without logging in: