Monday, July 15

Whole30 Part III: Calories and Hormones

This is the third installment in a series highlighting the Whole30.  These posts build on one another, so if you missed the first parts I'd encourage you to go back. As a reminder, Jessie and I will be starting another Whole30 on August 1st. We'd truly love for you to join us... treat your body to some nutritious food and see exactly how it feels to eat clean!

Whole30 Part I: How and Why We Started
Whole30 Part II: Introduction and Purpose

This post will be slightly longer than the others, but hang with me, as I assure you it'll be worth it. For me, this is when certain things about the body and eating really clicked. 

Here we go.


I've become a firm believer that calories-in-calories-out tell us virtually nothing about why we gain or lose weight. Gary Taubes first turned me on to this idea and I remember really wrestling with the concept. All kidding aside, it took a while for me to fully understand. Not sure if I'm just slow, or if the message wasn't being communicated effectively. I would read (and re-read) articles, watch (and re-watch) lectures, all to make sure I fully understood that calories are seemingly useless when talking about weight regulation. (Video: Calories In, Calories Out)

You see for the longest time it had been beaten into my head that by consuming more calories than you burn you will gain weight. And on the flip side, by burning more calories than you consume, you lose weight. But the more you stop and truly think about it, the more ridiculous that idea becomes. 

People (including myself at one point) think it's as if calories are like physical 'things', tangible 'items', and the more of them you put into your stomach the fatter you're going to get. Or the less you put in, the skinnier you'll get.

On the very tail-ends of a normal bell curve, in the most extreme circumstances, believers of this theory might be right. If you consume 10,000 calories per day and have zero physical activity, you could certainly gain some weight. Conversely, if you starve yourself relative to what you've been doing in the past (i.e. The Biggest Loser, the professor in his Twinkie Diet) you could also lose weight. By the way, when people use these examples or other related ideas to prop up their calorie-in-calorie-out argument, I typically fire-back with something on sustainability. "Yes, cut your eating in half and you will lose weight. Then come back in see me in a week and let me know how it's working out for you." 

I digress.

The fact is we're not talking about these extreme cases, this third standard deviation away from the mean. We're not talking about semi-starvation diets, we're talking about Paleo and the Whole30. We're talking about normal people in normal everyday lives who want to eat when they're hungry and should stop when they're satisfied.

If calories-in-calories-out is true, then in order to maintain your current weight you would have to keep up with perfect energy balance. That is to say, you need to match calories in with calories out every single day. Do you know how hard that is? Do you know how incredibly precise you'd have to be? There's no chance in hell even the most diligent calorie-counter could ever know exactly where they netted out at the end of the day. 

Often times a light-bulb goes off for people when they think about perfect energy balance. I'll be explaining this concept to someone who hadn't worked out but for 30 minutes once a week the past month and hadn't gained weight. Surely they were in a 'surplus' of calories, yet they maintained a stable weight.

300 calories of Snickers will certainly have a different impact on our bodies than 300 calories of broccoli. Why? Because calories measure energy. That's it. Just like miles measure distance and degrees measure temperature. Calories tell us how much energy is in food, but tell us nothing about what our body will do with that food once it's made it to our stomachs. It's the composition of the foods we eat - regardless of calories - that dictate weight regulation.

When you eat something, an entire cascade of events occur inside the body. A ton of processes are kicked off to properly digest, utilize and/or store that food. What specific processes are initiated and the eventual outcomes from those processes are determined by what you eat, regardless of calories. I understand I'm being slightly redundant here, but this needs to be hammered home: 300 calories of broccoli will cause a much different reaction and outcome in your body than 300 calories of Snickers.

How? Why? I'm so glad you asked...


Before I launched into the realm of health and nutrition, the only things I associated with hormones were menopause, testosterone and females' "time of the month." Fear not, as we won't be discussing that today. Endocrinology is a specific scientific field that examines and studies the glands and the hormones those glands secrete. Needless to say, my past understanding of hormones was virtually non-existent.

Technically, hormones are chemical messengers that transport signals throughout the body. Generally speaking, hormones keep everything in balance. In the book It Starts With Food, the authors write:
"When you eat and digest food, various biochemical components of the food trigger multiple hormonal responses in the body. These hormonal responses control the use, storage, and availability of nutrients -- where they go and what happens when they get there. Different nutrients cause different hormonal responses, but all of those responses are intended to correct the shift in balance caused by the influx of digested food particles."
The book gives an overview of four different types of hormones they feel are pertinent in the context of diet: insulin, leptin, glucagon and cortisol. All of these, including others not mentioned, are critical to our health. But in an attempt to keep things simple for this post/series, we're only going to focus on the master-hormone insulin.

Insulin has two main functions: (1) to regulate carbohydrate and fat metabolism and (2) to allow the body to maintain healthy blood-sugar levels.

Let's briefly discuss the first function, insulin's role in regulating carbohydrate and fat metabolism. When insulin levels in the body are elevated, the body's ability to burn fat is turned off. Furthermore, the body begins storing energy for fuel to use at a later time. Remember back to Part I, where I discuss this concept of burning fat for fuel. One of the objectives of the Whole30 is to get your body to switch its metabolism, from preferring carbohydrate/sugar for energy to utilizing its own fat stores. Fat is preferred by the body (unless doing intense exercise) for many reasons. By burning fat you lose weight, get hungry less often and don't experience spikes and crashes in energy. For those that have up's and down's with their energy levels and say things like "I need to get my blood sugar up!", they certainly haven't experienced what it's like to burn fat for fuel.

I'll be writing more on this later, but the thing you need to remember is that if insulin levels are high, you store fat, as opposed to burning it. If insulin levels are low, you burn fat, instead of storing it.

The following is a speech I gave in Toastmasters last week (July 10th). For those that don't know, Toastmasters is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people improve their public speaking/communication skills, as well as develop them into leaders. There are thousands of clubs worldwide, including one that I founded at Southwest Airlines. It's called "LUV Toastmasters." The objective of the speech I'm giving is to have it organized, while the topic is open-ended. I chose something near and dear to my heart: health/wellness.

Specifically, I talk about the fact that eating dietary fat doesn't make you fat. The reason for this, of course, comes down to the hormone insulin.

Thanks for reading this week. I realize it's a lot of information to take in. If you understand it though, it can truly be life-changing in how you look at food. Only a couple more weeks until August 1st, hope you're getting as excited as Jessie and I are. See you back here soon.

Click here for Whole30 Part IV.


  1. Eating 300 calories of Broccoli (just under two pounds) will give you another type of response too.

  2. Incredible synthesis of information. Thanks, Brian.

  3. This leads to an empty warehouse and a bunch of arrests, right?

  4. So are you campaigning for SW flights to serve almonds instead of peanuts? :)

    1. I've thought about that several times. If only! :-)

  5. Excellent blog right here! I was just searching for this information for a while. Very effectively written information. There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also.
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  6. Thanks for the info this is great!!! I'm 5 days into my first Whole30, I'm thinking I may forgo dairy and possibly gluten for good after this, can you tell me if coconut oil in my coffee would work as well as the butter??


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