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The Weight Loss and Thermodynamics Fallacy

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L:inda Gottfredson

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2000 words

Eat less and move more and you will lose weight. That’s the common mantra of everyone around the world because this is what has been repeated for decades. “The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed in an isolated system”. This Law is used in support of the CICO paradigm. But this kind of thinking does not make sense. The First Law only tells us that energy is conserved. That’s it. It says absolutely nothing about weight loss. Does anyone think that it’s weird that we’re given weight loss advice with physics (thermodynamics) and not advice for our physiology? This fallacy, what I term the CICO fallacy, then leads to the second fallacy: that a calorie is a calorie. The implication is this: the body does not discern between what type of macro you choose to ingest, it’s only worried about the amount of energy consumed. But, as I will show, this type of thinking does not work, either.

The First Law of Thermodynamics

The First Law states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. A positive caloric balance must be associated with weight gain, but where the wrong conclusions come in is when people assume that the positive caloric balance is driving the weight gain. So if the First Law is interpreted correctly, then both conclusions—getting fat makes one consume more energy and consuming more energy makes one fat—are both valid hypotheses. The evidence and observations suggest that getting fat makes one consume more energy. (Jason Fung (2016: 33) writes: “Having studied a full year of thermodynamics in university, I can assure you that neither calories nor weight loss were mentioned even a single time.“)

Obesity researcher Jules Hirsch said to the New York Times:

There is an inflexible law of physics—energy taken in must exactly equal the number of calories leaving the system when fat storage is unchanged. Calories leave the system when food is used to fuel the body. To lower fat content—reduce obesity—one must reduce calories taken in, or increase activity, or both. This is true whether calories come from pumpkins or peanuts or pate de foie gras.

It’s this type of information that has caused the CICO paradigm to continue unabated. However, there are dissenting voices. People like Dr. Jason Fung, Gary Taubes, Zoe Harcombe, Nina Teicholz, Tim Noakes all go against the conventional wisdom regarding obesity and the cause for weight gain.

Another thing that is not taken into account is what occurs in the body when calories are reduced. One important thing to note is that the energy we consume and expend are not independent variables—they are dependent. Therefore, if we lower what we consume, what we expend will then lower as well. If you change one of them, the other will change too. For example, if you exercise more in an attempt to lose more weight you will eat more to compensate. If you eat less to lose more weight, your body’s metabolism will drop to match what the intake is. This is exactly what was seen in the Biggest Loser Study—shockingly lower RMRs in the contestants (see Fothergill et al, 2016). Biological systems are way more complex than to reduce it down to “eat less and move more=weight loss”, and that is easily shown.

Fliers and Maratos-Flier (2007: 74) write in Scientific American:

An animal whose food is suddenly restricted tends to reduce its energy expenditure both by being less active and by slowing energy use in cells, thereby limiting weight loss. It also experiences increased hunger so that once the restriction ends, it will eat more than its prior norm until the earlier weight is attained.

Take this example. Caloric excess in children is positively correlated with height increases. Though the caloric excess is not driving the height increases; they eat because they are growing.

The point that most people miss is the third storage system—fat storage. The three storage systems are kcal in/kcal out and fat storage. Insulin dictates fat storage, in the absence of insulin, the body cannot gain weight. Insulin shuttles fat into the adipocyte which is why insulin is fattening. That’s the point that CICO doesn’t work due to hormonal fluctuations. The most fattening hormone is insulin. The types of foods that elicit the highest insulin response are processed carbohydrates. Therefore, those are the most fattening foods. People who assume CICO state that a calorie is a calorie; that’s wrong.

Imagine a crowded room. The room is getting more crowded, and you ask me why the room is getting more crowded. I say ‘the room is more crowded because more people are entering it than leaving it.’ You say ‘duh, of course that’s true, but why is the room more crowded?’ Saying a room gets crowded because more people are entering than leaving it is redundant; saying that one gets fat because more calories are consumed than burned is redundant, it only says the same thing in two different ways so it is meaningless. Rooms that have more people enter them than leave them will become more crowded since there is no getting around the First Law, right?

Now take that same logic with obesity. Thermodynamics states that if we get fatter then more energy is entering our body than leaving it. Overeating means we’ve consumed more calories than we have expended. It’s tautological.

‘CICO could work’ but that is irrelevant, since what is assumed by the CICOers is that calories are calories; the assumption that once ingested, they go through the same metabolic pathways. This is false. The First Law says nothing about why we get fat. It is irrelevant to human physiology.

Taubes (2007: 293) writes:

Change in energy stores = Energy intake — Energy expenditure

[…]

The first law of thermodynamics dictates that weight gain—the increase in energy stored as fat and lean-tissue mass—will be accompanied by or associated with positive energy balance, but it does not say that it is caused by a positive energy balance—by “a plethora of calories,” as Russel Cecil and Robert Loeb’s 1951 Textbook of Medicine put it. There is no arrow of causality in the equation. It is equally possible, without violating this fundamental truth, for a change in energy stores, the left side of the above equation, to be the driving force in the cause and effect; some regulatory phenomenon could drive us to gai weight, which would in turn cause a positive energy balance—and thus overeating or sedentary behavior. Either way, the calories in will equal the calories out, as they must, but what is the cause in one cause is effect in the other.

And on pg 294:

The alternative hypothesis reverses the causality: we are driven to get fat by “primary metabolic or enzymatic effects,” as Hilde Bruch phrased it, and this fattening process induces the compensatory responses of overeating and/or physical inactivity. We eat more, move less, and have less energy to expend because we are metabolically or hormonally driven to get fat.

All the first law of thermodynamics tells us is that people can’t become more massive without taking in more energy than they expend since people who are heavier contain more energy than people who are lighter. That person has to consume more energy to accommodate said increasing mass. That person also cannot become lighter without expending more energy than they take in. That’s all the First Law tells us: energy is conserved. It says nothing about causation. The First Law literally only says that if something becomes more massive than more energy has to come in than leave. Nothing is said about cause and effect; it only tells us what has to happen if said thing does happen. That’s not causal information.

People only assume that the First Law has any relevance to obesity because of the ‘energy cannot be created nor destroyed’ part. But this shows no understanding of the Law. If you carefully read and understand it, you will see that it gives you absolutely no causal information. You can then reverse the commonly-held mantra—that eating more leads to obesity—to becoming obese leads one to eat more. It’s perfectly logical to reverse it and no Law is broken. People erroneously assume that the Laws of physics dictate weight gain and loss, but in complex metabolic systems, what is ingested is more important than how much is ingested (because we have hormones that let us know when to stop eating—which don’t get released while one eats carbohydrates).

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

The second weight loss fallacy is ‘a calorie is a calorie’, therefore, for weight loss, it doesn’t matter if a majority of my calories comes from fat, carbs or protein; the body will register the calories consumed and will regulate fat stores as dictated by the First Law (supposedly). The fallacy of invoking the First Law of thermodynamics ties directly into the fallacy of the Second Law of Thermodynamics—what the Second Law states is, that variation in metabolic pathways is to be expected, therefore, the mantra “a calorie is a calorie” violates the Second Law as a principle (Feinman and Fine, 2004, 2007).

A diet split of 55:30:15 CHO, fat, protein, yielded 1848 kcal. In fact, thermodynamics does not support the dictum that, all else being equal (i.e., two diets with the same amount of calories, but differing macro splits; one high-fat low carb the other high carb low-fat).

However, in 2004 Zoe Harcombe recalculated the figure from Feinman and Fein (2004) and found it to be wrong. The correct number ended up being 1825 kcal, not 1848 kcal, which strengthened Feinman and Fine’s (2004) point (Harcombe, 2004). She also writes:

I then repeated the calculations for a 10:30:60 high protein diet (keeping fat the same and swapping carbs out and protein in), and the calories available to the body dropped to 1,641. This is incredible. This means that two people can both eat 2000 calories a day and the high carbohydrate person is effectively getting nearly 200 calories more than the high protein person. Anyone still wonder why low-carbohydreate diets have a built in advantage?

So we can see that it’s ridiculous to ignore the thermic effect of food, seeing as it’s 20 percent for protein and 5 percent for CHO.

To put this into perspective, two people eating similar diets (but differing macro splits) only need to out-eat the other by 20 calories per day and that will be enough to gain more weight than the other person. Taubes (2011: 58) writes:

How many calories do we have to consume, but not expend, stashing them away in our fat tissue, to trsnsform ourselves, as many of us do, from lean twenty-five-year-olds to obese fifty-year-olds?

Twenty calories a day.

Twenty calories a day times the 365 days in a year comes to a little more than seven thousand calories stored as fat every year—two pounds of excess fat.

Multiply that by 10 and that’s twenty pounds gained in ten years—all from counting kcal wrong (Aamodt, 2016: 111-112). So with Harcomb’s (2004) example, the damage will be much worse in 10 years. This is all based on the assumption that ‘calories are calories’ which is false, as I have shown.

Conclusion

The CICO paradigm is wrong. Consumption and expenditure are not independent variables, they are dependent. So if you decrease one of them, the other will decrease as well. This is the fatal flaw in the CICO paradigm. The First Law always holds, yes, but it tells us absolutely nothing about obesity or human physiology and is therefore irrelevant. The Second Law is violated when one states that ‘a calorie is a calorie’, but this is demonstrably false. The Second Law states that variation in metabolic pathway efficiency is to be expected. Therefore stating that “a calorie is a calorie” violates the Second Law. This has further implications. Using Taubes’ example of 20 calories per day, if people truly believe the CICO mantra then people eating the same exact number of calories will have different weight gains if the skew of carbs to fat is higher in one than the other. Couple that with what insulin does in the body and this exacerbates the problem.

Stating that thermodynamics has anything to do with weight loss is clearly fallacious.

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8 Comments

  1. RaceRealist says:

    Melo,

    “Yes I did need to write a book, to show you that I do understand this (I know much more if you’d care to know). What was ‘a much more efficient way’? This?”

    No you didn’t because I was already aware that you understood it but a key point is flying over your head, the term “irrelevant”. Thermodynamics is always relevant, this is non-negotiable.

    It is irrelevant to human physiology since the in always matches to the out. Yes it always holds, but it is irrelevant.

    And no the more efficient statement was this:

    “CICO follows Thermodynamics, but CICO is not the correct way weight regulation actually functions, because of confounding variables like Insulin. So the issue isn’t the relevancy of Thermodynamics, it’s the way people interpret how their metabolic system works. Thermodynamics is always relevant because it’s a physical law and Biochemistry runs on physical laws. Thermodynamics defines the origins of life itself.”

    Meaning I already stated all of what you said, and then some.

    You’re still wrong. Your extremely simple “because of confounding variables like insulin” does not explain how or why it confounds the relationship; my words on that did that and then some—because I understand the physiology behind weight loss.

    Why do we prescribe a theory of physics to lose weight (First Law—CICO)? Don’t you find it weird that we’re told to lose weight with CICO—people’s interpretation of energy in/out?

    Do you agree that LCHF diets are superior to HCLF diets?

    Like

  2. meLo says:

    “Yes it always holds, but it is irrelevant.”

    If it always holds then it is always relevant.

    “does not explain how or why it confounds the relationship;”

    I didn’t think I had to, we both read the same artcile RR, I could’ve just copy and pasted like you love to do. So no I was not wrong, I just left out irrelevant information.

    Are there any other arguments you decided to responded to in a completely different post?

    Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      “If it always holds then it is always relevant.”

      CICO theory assumes there is one compartment (kcal out and fat), not one.

      Are fat stores unregulated?

      “RR, I could’ve just copy and pasted like you love to do. So no I was not wrong, I just left out irrelevant information.”

      I hardly copy-paste and it’s not ‘irrelevant information’.

      No this is the only one I responded to in its appropriate thread.

      Like

    • meLo says:

      “it’s not ‘irrelevant information’.”

      The level of detail was irrelevant not the concept itself.

      Like

  3. show me a person that has lost weight on a surplus or gained weight on a deficit and I’ll show you someone that has broken the laws of physics.

    Dieting is more complicated that CICO, however, the actual MECHANISM of weight loss is CICO, for the most part; the equation isn’t changed substantially based on which macronutrient you consume most of.

    It’s literally impossible to not lose weight by eating less and doing more, /if you eat enough less and do enough more/

    Otherwise, people in labor camps that are starving would be normal weight / obese…

    There is no magic here. /The energy used to perform your daily actions has to come from //somewhere///

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    • RaceRealist says:

      show me a person that has lost weight on a surplus or gained weight on a deficit and I’ll show you someone that has broken the laws of physics.

      So you didn’t understand the article. Thermodynamics only says that if one consumes more they get gain more mass. It says nothing about weight loss. Are you familiar with Ancel Keys’ starvation studies?

      Dieting is more complicated that CICO, however, the actual MECHANISM of weight loss is CICO, for the most part; the equation isn’t changed substantially based on which macronutrient you consume most of.

      So it’s your belief that “the actual MECHANISM” of weight loss is CICO”? Are you ready to defend this claim?

      It’s literally impossible to not lose weight by eating less and doing more, /if you eat enough less and do enough more/

      Why do most all diets fail?

      Otherwise, people in labor camps that are starving would be normal weight / obese…

      Then what?

      There is no magic here. /The energy used to perform your daily actions has to come from //somewhere///

      You’re aware that when one begins eating less their body’s metabolism slows down right? And when it’s slows down, then they eat what they’re eating and they gain weight. Due to their slowed metabolism (the technical term is “metabolic adaptation”), the individual will gain more weight eventually. The citation I provided in this article is apt in regard to eating more after a long period without sufficient kcal:

      An animal whose food is suddenly restricted tends to reduce its energy expenditure both by being less active and by slowing energy use in cells, thereby limiting weight loss. It also experiences increased hunger so that once the restriction ends, it will eat more than its prior norm until the earlier weight is attained.

      Like

  4. Helo says:

    There is no actual proof that insulin “makes us fat”. Insulin causes fat storage, but when in a caloric deficit, one cannot have high insulin levels all the time (especially not at night, right?). Plus, protein sometimes causes even higher insulin spikes. And fat balance = fatty acids in – fatty acids out.
    Most diets don’t work because while CICO is the most fundamental principle of weight loss, it’s hard to apply in the real life, and that is why I don’t agree that “eat less and move more” is the solution for worldwide obesity. Neither is low-carb, as Atkins diet is known for a very long time and nothing much’s changed. But blaming insulin straight away is oversimplistic and it’s actually only a hypothesis, nothing truly proven unlike CICO (countless overfeeding and underfeeding studies).
    All those eat-whatever-you-want-but-not-THIS- diets forget to mention one thing. They all put you into energy imbalance – energy deficit this time. If you eat one large Bic Mac a day or eat tons of vegetables and butter and whatever meat (which is what Gary Taubes advocates), there is a difference in energy volume and the overall potential health coming from this diet, but you still need to be in energy deficit. But the body won’t be fooled as easily as that you feed it more but low-energy and it will release fat like if it didn’t remember it needs to survive. There are just same effects on leptin, ghrelin and other hormones over time. So no, I certainly do not buy this insulin hypothesis. I would be morbidly obese if it was true. And such a slim nation, French people, would be very fat, too – so much refined pastry and pasta. Obviously, they must be an exception. Insulin doesn’t make them fat. They’re so lucky, uh.

    Like

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