Does eat less exercise more work for weight loss? That’s an excellent question. So I’ve written a series of articles to answer it.
You might have gathered from my previous posts that I’m not a fan of calorie counting. The concept of “eat less, exercise more, lose weight” is flawed. In my last post, I talked about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, which highlighted the psychological effects of extreme weight loss using a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet. They weren’t pretty.
Then in the post before that, I described how, unless you are a candle, we don’t burn calories; we convert the energy in food into ATP and other compounds. And why this was an important distinction to make. Because the predictions about how much of a calorie deficit you need to lose weight don’t work. This post helped demonstrate how you can eat less, exercise more, but gain weight.
Now, I’d like to focus on seven more ways advice to “eat less and exercise more” can harm your health in the long run.
Calorie counting causes some significant health challenges.
Focusing solely on the number of calories in your food won’t help you in the long run. Because typical calorie counting restricts the foods containing the most vitamins and minerals more than the foods stripped of their micronutrients.
Calorie counting usually implies a low-fat diet. This is because, gram for gram, fats will raise the heat of water more than carbs. And calorie counting often goes hand in hand with a low-cholesterol diet because, for decades, we’ve been told to avoid fats, saturated fats and cholesterol to prevent heart disease. Even though studies repeatedly show that this approach doesn’t reduce heart disease.
However, calories are only a measurement of heat production. You can’t look at a food or weigh it and know how many calories there are. Instead, you have to calculate the calorie content using estimates from some table or calorie calculator. Which is complicated, time-consuming and challenging. The crux of this is that to make your life less difficult, you’ll find it far easier to pick up a packet of ultra-processed food and scan the calorie count to see whether it meets your goals. Without you even noticing, you’ve been steered towards high-carb, low-fat, packaged and ultra-processed foods and away from nutrient-dense, real food.
Low-fat, low-cholesterol, high-carb, ultra-processed food is a mitochondrial fail on many levels.
Here are 10 ways that counting calories so you’re eating less and exercising more can damage your health and even that of your unborn children and grandchildren!
1. High-carbohydrate foods are low in nutrients.
First, the cornerstone of most low-calorie diet plans features ingredients like wheat, rice, soy, corn, other grains, and potatoes as their most prominent ingredients. These are difficult to digest, contain poor amounts of essential nutrients, and many of the nutrients aren’t in their bioavailable forms. For example, unless that corn has been nixtamalised, you’ll get next to no vitamin B3 (niacin) from it.
Meanwhile, some of the vitamins and minerals used to “fortify” these nutrient-poor fake foods are in forms that can’t be used by the human body as they are. For example, you need to convert synthetic folic acid added to foods and cheap vitamins into active forms like methyl folate. But unfortunately, doing so depletes other vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids.
Likewise, you need to convert the synthetic cyanocobalamin provitamin to the active forms of vitamin B12 (methylcobalamin and adenosylcobalamin). This is another inefficient and tricky process that wastes valuable nutrients.
2. Ultra-processed foods and refined carbohydrates cause imbalances in gut microbes.
Synthetic food additives that increase the appeal of ultra-processed foods can alter your gut microbiome and damage your mitochondria. For example, many artificial sweeteners would make passable antibiotics at higher doses. But even at the amounts used to flavour your food, they can make your gut an inhospitable habitat for many beneficial gut microbes. Preservatives are obviously the same.
And any chemical additive entering your mouth may be absorbed from your intestines. Then it can enter your bloodstream and be carried around your body. You can even measure E-numbers and their metabolites in the urine. If it’s not a nutrient, your body can’t use it. So how does it leave your body again? You’ll have to activate your xenobiotic biotransformation pathways and cellular transport systems using energy that your poor, whipped mitochondria don’t have and essential nutrients that you can’t afford to spare. Creating more of a nutrient debt and more mitochondrial dysfunction.
3. Natural antinutrients are concentrated in processed food ingredients.
Many food ingredients in ultra-processed foods are high in antinutrients. Antinutrients interfere with your digestion and absorption of nutrients. Plants, in particular, produce a lot of substances to protect themselves from being eaten by invertebrates (like insects and slugs), birds, and mammals. Plants aren’t just out to get us. They’re out to get mice and bears too. Nor do plants wish to succumb to fungal infections, bacteria, or viruses.
When it comes to where plants focus most of their energy, it’s their seeds and underground storage organs (like tubers and corms). They work hard to fill those little seeds with enough energy (fats and carbohydrates), proteins, vitamins and minerals for the baby seedling to germinate at the right time of the year. But roving herbivorous and omnivorous animals love nothing more than an energy-rich mouthful of nuts and seeds to nibble on.
Plants will often produce fruits that are appealing to animals to eat. If an animal ingests a fruit full of fertilised seeds, the plant is delighted so long as that animal wanders elsewhere and the seeds pass through its digestive tract intact and splat somewhere lovely and bright in a hill of manure fertiliser.
So plants endow their seeds (and other parts of the plant) with chemicals which function as pesticides (yes, we’re some of the pests!), enzyme inhibitors, and chelating agents to reduce digestion. These include gluten, wheat germ agglutinin, other lectins, phytic acid, oxalates, and goitrogens (which can impair your thyroid).
4. Many of the most nutrient-dense foods are rich in saturated fat and cholesterol.
Fourth, many of the most nutritious foods are high in saturated fats and cholesterol. So if you limit these foods, you’ll become malnourished. These top foods include liver, kidneys, red meat, fatty cuts of meat, shellfish, cheese, and oily fish.
Animal skin is also an excellent source of amino acids like glycine and proline, which are the building blocks of collagen (used to form connective tissues). And animal skin and connective tissues, and shellfish exoskeletons even contain types of fibre (glycosaminoglycans) that are good for your microbiome.
5. High-carbohydrate, low-calorie diets increase your risk of severe micronutrient and macronutrient deficiencies, especially thiamine
Well-designed low ketogenic spare thiamine while providing more macronutrients and micronutrients
Fifth, carbohydrate metabolism needs more essential nutrients like thiamine (vitamin B1) than fat metabolism. If you have a marginal thiamine status (which many people do), this could tip you into frank deficiency. In fact, one of the ways that ketogenic diets improve neurological and other health conditions is likely by reducing the body’s demands for thiamine.
Symptoms of thiamine deficiency are widespread today but rarely recognised because doctors today believe that thiamine deficiency was eradicated, apart from in a few select groups of people. Occasionally, doctors do recognise thiamine deficiency in alcoholics, people with severe malabsorption like inflammatory bowel disease, and people with a long history of anorexia.
The big secret is that you can have severe thiamine deficiency despite consuming more than the recommended dietary allowance of thiamine every day. You can even develop symptoms of thiamine deficiency which disappear with high or mega dose thiamine when taking a standard multivitamin containing thiamine (this happened to me). What’s more, you can have a thiamine deficiency yet have normal blood levels of thiamine. However, when you test for functional thiamine enzyme status using the erythrocyte transketolase test and urinary organic acid testing (OAT), you can demonstrate that thiamine isn’t working correctly inside your cells.
6. When you eat less, exercise more, but gain weight, it's because your metabolism is damaged by malnutrition.
While you may notice impressive weight loss in the short term using low-calorie diets, they reduce your metabolic rate. Then your weight starts to creep up, and to your horror, you discover that you’ve regained most, if not all, of the weight you’d fought so hard to lose. This can even happen while you’re continuing to eat fewer “calories” than before you lost all the weight.
This has happened with so many of The Biggest Loser contestants that some went on to have bariatric surgery. “Yoyo dieting” is commonplace enough that most people have heard of it. Unfortunately, the ubiquity of yo-yo dieting reflects how unsustainable some of the most popular weight-loss approaches are over the long term.
In my last post, I discussed how the participants in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment developed voracious appetites while losing weight on their malnourishing low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets. Then during the refeeding rehabilitation phase after starvation, they experienced an insatiable hunger that wouldn’t go away even after they had binge-eaten so much that no more food could fit in their bellies. You can read more in my summary of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment here. This helps to explain how the advice to eat less, exercise more to lose weight can result in disordered eating and binging. Which, of course, can lead to rebound weight gain.
7. Eating less while you're exercising more accelerates nutrient depletion.
Exercise and movement are great for your health. Activities which strengthen your muscles, increase your heart rate, improve your stamina, and enhance your coordination are associated with many benefits, including:
- better cardiovascular and respiratory health,
- better mental health (less stress, depression and anxiety),
- better bone density with reduced fracture risk,
- increased energy levels,
- reduced risk of death from any cause,
- reduced cancer-related mortality,
- Lower risk of cancer (especially of the breast, aggressive prostate, bladder, uterus, oesophagus, stomach, kidneys, and colon),
- reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome
- enhanced problem-solving, learning, and creativity,
- better sleep quality, and
- improved quality of life.
However, exercise benefits are contingent upon adequate nutrition and a decent metabolism. This is because exercise acts as a hormetic stressor.
Hormesis is like Nietzsche’s “what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger” being applied to your cellular health. There seems to be a goldilocks dose when it comes to many things in life, exercise included. Too little is bad; too much may be worse. You want to get the amount just right.
Exercise forces your cells and body to adapt. It drives growth in your skeletal muscles. Exercise also stimulates inflammatory pathways and increases the production of free radicals. These damage your muscle tissues a little bit and help to drive increased antioxidant synthesis and tissue remodelling. Of course, exercise also uses up a lot of energy.
So exercise increases your need for dietary proteins, vitamins, minerals, and essential fats to enable you to safely stimulate all the processes you need during adaptation. And also, to switch on the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant defence systems, you need to resolve the inflammation and oxidative stress.
If you exercise regularly on an inadequate diet, you’ll accelerate the effects of malnutrition. In fact, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, the symptoms of overtraining in athletes look very similar to the symptoms of malnutrition:
- A plateau or decline in workout performance or progress.
- A perception of increased exertion during “normal” or “easy” workouts.
- Excessive sweating or overheating.
- Unusual feelings of heaviness, stiffness, or soreness in muscles.
- A lack of feeling “refreshed” after regular rest and recovery.
- Recurrent injuries, like muscle sprains, tendonitis, stress fractures, and chronic joint pain.
- A decline in enthusiasm for exercise (or skipping or quitting workouts).
- Persistent feelings of fatigue, exhaustion, or low energy throughout the day.
- Losses in motivation and/or self-confidence.
- Lack of enjoyment in favourite hobbies and interests or other signs of depression.
- Unusual moods or emotions, including agitation, anger, confusion, irritability, and restlessness.
- New problems with sleeping, including insomnia and poor sleep quality.
- Problems with concentration and performance at work or in school.
- A sickly appearance, including changes to skin, hair, and nails (such as acne or hair loss).
- An increase in resting heart rate and/or resting blood pressure.
- Unplanned/undesired weight loss or weight gain or disordered eating.
- Digestive issues which include constipation, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, and increased thirst.
- Reproductive issues include reduced libido (sex drive) and a change in menstruation (including irregularity or cessation of periods).
- Repeated bouts of illness, such as colds and upper respiratory tract infections.
8. Exercise increases your appetite.
Now that you can appreciate how important good nutrition is to help you power through exercise, you will understand why exercise is such an appetite stimulant.
Appetite is more than simply your body telling you to consume more energy. You have enough carbohydrates, fats and proteins stored in your body to keep yourself alive for 2-3 months, provided you have access to water. The most prolonged period of fasting without food was recorded by a very obese 27-year-old man in 1965. He managed to go 382 days on only fluids, vitamins, and electrolyte supplements. But don’t try this at home. Total starvation to treat obesity also results in death in some cases.
Your appetite is stimulated by your need for nutrients. These are the same nutrients we’ve discussed throughout this series and in other posts: proteins, vitamins, minerals, and essential fats. Your body senses how well or poorly your cells are doing and feeds that information back to your brain. Since nutrients, oxygen, and water are what you need to take into your body to function optimally, your brain will provide a helpful stimulus to increase your intake of these when you need them. You’ll get the signal for hunger and cravings when it comes to food.
Unfortunately, ultra-processed food with artificial flavourings and food additives confuses this system. Because the food additives make nutrient-poor, ultra-processed foods taste like they are made with nutrient-dense ingredients. So, for example, Umami flavourings like cheese, chicken, prawns, beef and other high-proteins get added to high-carbohydrate foods. Taste and smell are how your brain analyses foods’ nutrient content. So you’re briefly tricked into believing you’re meeting your nutrient requirements when you consume them. Except you’re not. When your brain realises you’ve been duped a couple of hours later, it broadcasts the call to eat again.
So does eat less exercise more work? Nope. When you exercise more, you want to eat more. And you may think you should reward yourself with an ultra-processed sugary or savoury treat after doing the exercise. Because you’ve been so good, and you’ve “burnt off lots of extra calories.”
9. Low-calorie diets can have serious long-term health consequences.
Many studies highlight that calorie-restricted diets can have many adverse health effects. For example, low-calorie diets and weight cycling have been linked with eating disorders, heart disease, early death, type 2 diabetes, cancers of the endometrium and kidney, and early death. While low-fat, high-carb, low-calorie diets have been associated with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome.
10. Malnutrition can have adverse effects on your unborn children and grandchildren.
Studies of the Dutch Winter Hunger of 1944, where famine caused starvation, revealed that when pregnant women suffered from severe malnutrition, their offspring suffered.
Their babies’ birthweights tended to be low if they were calorie-restricted during mid to late gestation. But if the starvation occurred early in the pregnancy, birth weights were often normal, but their likelihood of developing obesity was higher. There’s evidence from the Dutch Winter Hunger that the unborn babies of women who experienced malnutrition from caloric restriction go on to develop:
- increased rates of coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes,
- smaller head circumferences (which is a proxy for brain size),
- marked deficits in selective attention in adulthood,
- increased risk of schizophrenia, schizoid personality disorder, and
- structural brain abnormalities with increased white matter hyperintensities.
These results raise concerns that prenatal malnutrition may lead to accelerated ageing in adulthood.
We see similar patterns after other famines. 30-60 years after the famine, people are at a greater risk of diabetes, and many aren’t significantly obese. In Cambodia, there’s a massive spike in diabetes in people born during or shortly after the 1979 famine. While after China’s Great Famine of 1959-1961 and the Ukraine famine between 1930 and 1939, your risk of developing diabetes if you lived in the most affected regions shot up by at least 40%. A similar effect was seen in Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries following the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852.
As if that wasn’t worrying enough, data from China of the grandchildren of women who were pregnant during the Great Famine also have an increased risk of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. The effects of malnutrition at a critical point seem to be transmitted through generations by switching on and off genes. And this effect wasn’t limited to pregnant women either. In the second generation, people could inherit the increased high blood sugar risk from either or both parents. In fact, if both your parents were exposed to famine in the womb, your odds of having abnormally high blood sugar levels was doubled.
The reason calorie-restricted diets leave you feeling hungry and weak isn’t only because they don’t contain enough energy to power you through the day. The main reason is that they leave you nutrient-depleted with a bunch of extra toxins to manage and a gut microbiome that’s nowhere near optimal. This is all terrible news for your mitochondria.
Summary of why you need to avoid following advice to eat less and exercise more to lose weight
Even more shocking is that you can exhibit classical signs of nutrient deficiency, such as beriberi, and your doctor will almost certainly miss the diagnosis. Few people these days are aware of high-calorie malnutrition. In fact, if you had a time machine and travelled back to the 1930s, the first doctor you met would likely be able to diagnose beriberi, treat it and offer you sound dietary advice.
You should only count the calories in your food if you intend to set it alight to heat your home. In which case, I’d recommend tossing the driest and most calorie-dense foods on the fire first, apart from alcohol, which is wet yet lights easily and is great for setting things on fire. Of course, wood, oil and gas are also high in calories, and I suspect they are usually superior for keeping your house warm than burning food. Yet they’re not going to do your health or metabolism any favours if you try consuming them.
Because a calorie is not a calorie when it comes to what you put in your body!
I hope that explains why you should never count calories. Calories are an artificial construct that doesn’t apply to living organisms producing and using energy. And focusing on calories to determine how much food you eat or how nutrient-dense a food is makes no sense.
Instead, focus on how you can improve the health of your mitochondria. You can improve overall mitochondrial function and even stimulate your mitochondria to increase in number in a process called mitochondrial biogenesis. You’ll have to take a holistic approach to do this. Diet is one crucial aspect. But others are:
- minimising your exposure to toxicity,
- getting adequate sleep and rest,
- managing your stress,
- having supportive and healthy relationships,
- getting outside and into nature,
- improving the health of your gut microbiome,
- and engaging in movement that’s appropriate for you at your fitness level.
Supplements can also play a pivotal role, although they need to be used appropriately.
Yes. That is quite a lot to take on board. But it’s achievable. Improving mitochondrial health is something I work on with my clients. If you’d like to chat with me about your health challenges, you can schedule a free clarity call by following this link.