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Why the obsession with calories?

According to Dr. Fung in the “Obesity Code”, we were not always obsessed with calories. This is quite a new phenomena, however, never in history have we had such a problem with obesity.

So why now?

Even in times of abundance, people did not struggle as we do now to lose weight.

Back in 1825, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote the textbook, “The Physiology of Taste” claiming that the second key cause of obesity was flour and starchy foods. People had unhealthy weight gain when eating these foods as a main source of nourishment. Other scientists following this found a similar occurrence – diets high in carbohydrate foods left them hungry and overweight.

Weight gain was then believed to be the result of “fattening carbohydrates”.  In fact, according to Fung, up until the 1950s if you asked your grandparents how to lose weight they would not talk about calories, but implore you to cut out the carbohydrates and starchy foods.

A rise in heart disease led to questions about diet problems.

In the 1950s after the discovery of vaccines and antibiotics, there was a rise in heart disease in the US. Misinterpreted by the public as an epidemic, the rise in heart disease was, in fact, a result of a lengthened life expectancy. One of the number one killers in the 1900s was infections, which had been greatly reduced with the new medical practices.

At that time, dietary fat was thought cast to be the evil villain, hence began the “low fat” revolution. The problem, however, is that low fat means replacing it with either proteins or carbohydrates. Since meats and dairy, a protein source, are also high in fat both protein and fats were reduced. What made this even worse, was the fact that most carbohydrates in the modern world wle we live, are in fact, highly refined.

This led to the commonly held belief that:

Fats are bad.

Fats cause heart disease.

This theory became the rule, despite lacking adequate research. Eventually, this led to the low calorie diet because the original thinking that carbohydrates were fattening did not unite with the current theory on low fat diets.

Low fat, low calorie diets then became the standard.

Not all nutritional experts agreed with this thinking. In fact, John Yudkin wrote in his 1972 publication that sugar was the main culprit in heart disease and obesity.

In 1977, however, dietary guidelines for the entire US nation came down to a political debate and fat was charged the guilty suspect. This led to the dietary guidelines set forth by the government. This was in fact, the first time our standard diet was dictated by the government.

Americans then followed this low calorie, low fat diet with a high consumption of carbohydrates. Everything became “low fat” or “low cholesterol”. Refined grains, such as pasta and bread, became the mainstay of our diets.

From 1976 to 1996, calories from fat, dairy and animal protein diminished greatly. Also, during that time the obesity rate also had a proportionately sharp rise from less than 20 percent to over 40 percent. Coincidence?

So what’s up with calories?

Over the past few decades, calories in and calories out became the standard measure for weight loss. We know, however, that a reduction in calories actually decreases the metabolism of calories by 30 percent.

Calories in versus calories out does not add up!

Simply decreasing calories actually causes weight gain.


Our hunger, calorie expenditure, and other weight gains and losses are controlled primarily by hormones. Obesity is a hormonal disorder. Obesity is not primarily a disorder of eating too many calories.

A calorie is not just a calorie. All calories are not created equal. According to Fung, a tablespoon of olive oil will not have the same metabolic response as an equal calorie amount of sugar. Foods with different effects on the body, whether this is the hormones, cells, gastrointestinal system etc, have profoundly different effects on weight gains, losses, and metabolism.

Why sugar is fattening

After eating sugar, the body produces insulin to reduce the amount of sugar in the blood. This is heavily regulated by the body because abnormally high or low blood sugar levels can be very dangerous. When olive oil is eaten it gets transported to the liver and there is no insulin response. A diet consistently high in sugar and insulin levels actually causes the body to store fat, among signally other weight control hormones. Continuously high insulin levels will result in hormone changes and often leads to insulin resistance.

So, what happens when we cut calories and eat mainly carbs?

The most complete study of starvation was done in the aftermath of WWII, in order to better understand the rehabilitation of people who had been starved during the war. The results shed light onto the low calorie, high carb diet that has been thrust into the Standard American Diet aka SAD.

Participants were basically issued a low calorie, high carb diet and had staggering results. They experienced a 40 percent reduction in metabolic rate, and a decreases in strength, heart volume, and physical endurance. They also had reports of “feeling cold”, while their blood pressure dropped, and their hair and nails became brittle.

There were also psychological effects. The men in the study lost interest in most everything, except food. Food became an obsession with neurotic behavior at times. The men were constantly hungry.

So what were the effects of a 40 percent reduction in calories?

  • Constant cold feeling
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Inability to concentrate, brain fog
  • Weakness
  • Hair loss and brittle nails

The body is extremely smart – it preserves life by reacting in ways to keep us alive, to preserve vital functions in the body.

What happened to the men in the study in the aftermath?

In the recovery phase, the men in the study regained weight rather quickly. The interesting part is that body weight did not stop at the previous level but continued. The men gained more weight back than they lost.

So, the bottom line is:

Reducing calories will reduce metabolism.

The changes in metabolism will persist even when calorie intake is reestablished. Therefore eating less does not lead to lasting weight loss.

From my own experience in restricting calories and following a high carbohydrate diet, I can attest to the intense obsession with food, hunger and all of the other physical symptoms: brittle nails, low blood pressure, fatigue and feeling cold all the time! Not only that, but I also had trouble maintaining my ideal weight. Low calorie, high carbohydrate diets can seriously damage a healthy metabolism.

Source: Fung MD, Jason (2016). The Obesity Code. Canada.

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