“A calorie is a calorie” — Um… NOT.


One thing that's remained true about the fitness and diet industry for the past four decades is this: it loves its math and  formulas.

For decades the calories in/calories mathematical “balance” equation has ruled. But real science has been calling that into question for several years now. The current nutritional and fitness-industry “math” simply doesn't add up. That is, a calorie is NOT a calorie, and the hormonal and metabolic environment of the body within which calories enter determines how your body deals with those calories.

You need to reread that previous sentence about a dozen times. This is HOW and WHY I developed my Cycle Diet, “to train a cooperative metabolism and positive hormonal environment” and it also explains why vogue industry trends like “IIFYM” (If It Fits Your Macros) or “IF” (Intermittent Fasting) can be TERRIBLY BAD IDEAS for a majority of the people who follow them. That is the truth of it regardless of what you may “want” to believe or what short-term “results” you experience.

All calories are not created equally nor do they act in the body the same and have the same physiological effects in the body.

Look, I cite the Twinkie Diet all the time in my books. (This is the case of Mark Haub losing 27 lbs by eating 1,800 calories of Oreos, twinkies, and gas station foods.) Yes, you can lose weight with that. But again: the hormonal and metabolic environment of the body within which calories enter determines how your body deals with those calories. And the calories you ate yesterday will affect the hormonal and metabolic environment of the body into which calories enter today.

100 calories of M&M’s will be digested and assimilated and cause metabolic and hormonal responses much differently than will 100 calories of asparagus. Sure, seems logical enough. Most people I think understand that at a gut level, even if they would rather be in denial of it. This whole calories equation in dieting and weight-loss and training protocols, makes for fancy formulas and misguided ideas, but its incomplete and not true. All calories of equal value are not created equal. This is like saying all red-headed males who are 21 yrs old and the same height and weight will all act exactly the same in the world because of those similarities.

So like the dozens and dozens of frustrated people who come to me for “diet solutions” each year, let me say you are not alone in your repeated experience and frustration from buying in to an industry ideology that is faulty at best, and totally upside down at worst.

Allow me to delineate the common individual “dieting experience” and you can check off how many of these may or may not apply to you and your “frustration” level. How many starts and stops and short-term “results” with long-term “consequences” are you going to experience before you ask what is wrong with the equation, rather than the default position of asking what is wrong with you, and blaming yourself for being so weak; when the dieting stops and the weight starts coming back? Or as Dan John once put it: “The diet worked so well I had to quit following it.” Examine that sentence for a bit folks. Isn’t that the common dieter experience? And then you move on to the next vogue trend?

You should have learned by now that cutting calories too much and for too long makes you hungry and miserable and mentally preoccupied with food. As the old saying goes: “Money, food and sex all only really matter when you ain’t getting any.” When it comes to the latter two, our brains are hardwired to be preoccupied with these things when “we ain’t getting any, or enough.” These are survival “instincts” we evolved into. You can’t skirt around an instinct for very long.

And what you may also not be conscious of is how over time, calories-restriction leads to less energy burning in exercise because 1) you aren’t able to put forth the same level of efforts because you are too energy depleted and 2) your body compensates for long-term calories restriction by preserving energy – something we call metabolic down-regulation. And you have less energy to do other things that used to burn calories and stoke metabolism as well.

We witness this in competitors all the time (especially female) who under the guise of faulty dieting and “Guru-Voodoo” have no energy for anything outside the gym anymore: daily tasks become “burdens,” and this often includes even talking and thinking. But hey, you’re getting leaner (for now) so none of that matters (well, for now!)

On the other side of this equation are people who were formerly less active and now finally understand that exercise is a key component to “sustainable” weight-loss. But for these people, who possess more “sensitive to change” types of metabolisms, the increase in physical activity creates more hunger and eventually increased calories intake to compensate for that hunger. So they are healthy and more “physically fit,” but their weight-loss agenda stalls. This doesn’t make them weak. Their metabolisms are merely “different” and more sensitive.

And the combination of these two together: decreasing calories intake while constantly increasing physical activity for “calories burning sake” is an especially UNPLEASANT experience, not just for the dieter, but for anyone around them as well.

When I used to focus mostly on competitors, as a contest got closer I wouldn’t just ask them how they were doing… I would ask their spouse, and I often got that “rolling eyes” response. The fact is physiologies, metabolisms and most importantly BRAIN CHEMISTRY will react negatively to ongoing unpleasant experience.

While some misguided folks are impressed by the level of effort and monumental willpower involved in that kind of sacrifice they see in someone leaning out, these bystanders seldom witness the fallout and consequences of it. A long-term calories-deprivation diet without relief, a diet that generates ravenous and intense hunger, has all kinds of fallout and consequences: physically, mentally, emotionally, and metabolically.

In worst case scenarios you'll get stalled or burnt out metabolisms, hormonal consequences, loss of muscle mass and other effects we have come to label as “metabolic damage.”  That's become a buzzword now, but I was regularly using the term way back in 2003.  I wrote a book on it, too: Metabolic Damage and the Dangers of Dieting.

So when ARE all calories equal?


(Reread that sentence again a dozen times and maybe send it to the cultists of IIFYM and IF and the rest who want to try to convince you that calories are calories and that number-crunching is the answer in all diet and weight matters.)

The relevant real-world biological fact of the matter is that the context of internal hormonal, biochemical, and metabolic environments need to always be considered whenever even “hinting” at such a ridiculous notion. Sure, all calories are equal if you ignore all of that, forever, but that's not how real life works. (Especially over the long term.)

There are thousands of people every year who have experienced short-term diet results, only to suffer long-term consequences, and yet they still do not connect these two, nor do they understand that the first is THE CAUSE of the second! This creates a booby-trap for future efforts at fat loss or physique transformations; as the body is quick to protect itself from another attempt at absolute-calories deprivation. Many of these former dieters will tell you – that they now “gain weight” even when eating healthy whole foods.

How can that be?

It “be” because of what I’ve been trying to explain in this whole article.

You can train your body to have “a cooperative metabolism and healthy and productive hormonal environment” but you can also damage and destruct that environment when you put weight-loss ahead of metabolic support and optimization. And when you do that – it can be a long, long way back again.

All calories are not equal merely because they share the same “number.”  It’s not about “calories.” To put a twist on the old political expression: it’s about the metabolism, stupid.

For more, see:

Beyond Metabolism: Understanding Your Modern Diet Dilemma

Metabolic Damage and the Dangers of Dieting

The Cycle Diet