Calories In-Calories Out: Not Even Wrong

I recently read an overall-pretty-good article in The Atlantic called “What Does a Calorie Measure?” about how calorie counting is being criticized by some people, often in favor of focusing on satiety. This helped me to hit on what I’ve decided is the perfect way of describing the calories in-calories out, ELMM philosophy: not even wrong.

Sometimes a good idea will get oversimplified in more casual speech–a blog post about how intent is not fucking magic becomes “intent doesn’t matter”, or “calories in-calories out uses two numbers that are harder than people think to calculate and most people aren’t that good at ignoring hunger anyway” becomes “calories in-calories out is wrong”. But it’s not wrong. It’s not even wrong.

The more strict meaning of not even wrong is that something is bad science because it’s unfalsifiable. Calories in-calories out fits this sense in a way–the average dieter isn’t going to have access to the kind of precision measuring equipment (measuring temperature or carbon dioxide) to calculate precisely how many calories they’re burning, and they’re probably going to rely on food packaging or measuring cups–or even more imprecisely, estimating “a fist-sized portion”, etc. to give them a rough count of calories. So if they gain or lose more weight than predicted, then they have to assume that their estimates of how many calories they burned or how many calories they took in were wrong. If scientists only had the tools available to the average person, calories in-calories out would be unfalsifiable.

But what I’m primarily getting at uses the phrase “not even wrong” in a looser sense. Calories in-calories out is not useful information. Most people most of the time will not be able to follow a food plan that relies on ignoring internal cues–even leaving aside all the problems with correctly estimating calories in/out. Satiety will be a more relevant cue to most people than the calories on a nutrition label.

Also, some thoughts about that Atlantic article not related to the main thrust of this post:

-If the salad is only 300 calories, no, I’m not going to feel an absence of hunger for several hours after a chicken salad, trust me. I’ll probably feel full longer than with 300 calories of cheesecake, but still.

-Is the idea of satiety useful from a HAES perspective? I think it can be. If you focus on it not as a way to weigh less but as a way for your body’s hunger and fullness signals to work the way they’re meant to with foods that are not too far from traditional human diets, and don’t interpret as an all-or-nothing, only-eat-foods-with-high-satiety-values, I think it makes sense.



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3 Responses to Calories In-Calories Out: Not Even Wrong

  1. Harlequin says:

    I think satiety works well with HAES, and the way the Atlantic article presents it is weird. That is, satiety is just “feeling good and satisfied with what you’ve eaten”. The Atlantic article is talking about a satiety DIET, which still necessarily restricts calories, but is just trying to find an optimal way to do it (by making you less aware of the restriction). Satiety, by itself, is the “you’ve had what you need to eat now” signal, which is great for HAES. Conflating the sensation of satiety with a diet that makes use of that sensation is strange, but that’s what happens when you can only talk about eating patterns in terms of weight loss, I guess.

  2. G says:

    Overall I liked the article– it’s always surprising how little we really understand about human metabolism. One thing: the bit about nuts made me think. So we can’t get to all the stuff in an almond, and our bodies excrete the remainder– essentially, we waste food (expensive food, at that). And I can see people going out and buying almonds because it’s 20% indigestible or whatever, so they could eat 20% more/get 20% less calories from it.

    For me, satiety is a really important HAES concept. If I eat an unbalanced meal, I find myself grazing in search of what I missed (usually a particular macronutrient). Now that I know myself, I can look for whatever I was missing instead of plowing through an entire box of Wheat Thins. And I’ve learned to balance my meals so I feel more satisfied.

  3. Pingback: Giving in to a craving | Running While Fat

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