Lean for a Lifetime: The Calories In/Calories Out Paradigm

author : KenMierke
comments : 5

A powerful attraction of the calories in/calories out paradigm is its apparent simplicity. Unfortunately, the human body isn’t so simple and that is why this seemingly wonderful formula doesn't work.

As a high school student, I weighed 230 pounds (at 5’8”) and had a 43 inch waist. I played on the varsity football team, but couldn’t jog once around the field with the team for warm-up before practice without stopping. A quarter mile was just too far. I slept endlessly and was exhausted all the time. For some reason girls weren’t asking me for dates. I tried every diet I could find, mostly with great short term success, but the weight always came back. I came from an overweight family. I thought that I just had to accept that this was a part of me. I was kind, intelligent, and successful in many areas of my life, but fat. Lots of good, but that one part hurt so deeply and that negativity even carried over into the good parts.

During my college years, I decided that there had to be a better way. I studied exercise physiology, nutrition, biology, and psychology, partly as a career path, but even more so to figure out how I could lose weight and keep it off. That was more important to me than a career. I lost weight slowly, but have gotten leaner than I ever thought possible. I now race at 155 pounds.

Shortly after I started to lose weight, I decided that I was going to do a triathlon. This wasn’t a crazy event like an Ironman, but a regular (Olympic) distance triathlon. When I excitedly told my friends, all but one laughed. They weren’t trying to be mean or to mock me, but they sincerely thought I must be joking. I have a mild form of Muscular Dystrophy and none of them could picture an obese Jerry’s Kid finishing a triathlon. I couldn’t jog slowly once around a high school track, but I was going to do a triathlon? They underestimated the human capacity for change. While those reactions from my friends cut to my soul, they also provided inspiration. I was going to show them. I did. I did it.

At my five-year high school reunion, only those few friends that I had kept in touch with recognized me. Dozens of people that I had sat next to in a classroom for four years introduced themselves, thinking I must be one of the husbands, not a member of their graduating class who they had known well for four years. I have lost 75 pounds and 12 inches from my waist and the principles of Lean for a Lifetime have changed my life:

  • I now weigh less than I did in seventh grade.

  • I sleep fewer hours per day and wake up rejuvenated.

  • I have the energy to participate aggressively in triathlon competition and all of the other passions in my life.

  • I never thought I would say this, but I like how I look. I am PROUD of how I look.

  • The confidence and self-esteem from this has translated to every area of my life. If I could lose the weight, I can do ANYTHING.

  • My favorite clothes are those that show my shape, not baggy ones that hide it.

As difficult and up-and-down as the journey was initially - if anyone promises it will be easy, they lie, it is work - it has been the greatest accomplishment of my life. I am so fortunate that I learned how to work with my body to be leaner because that is at the root of all of my successes. This truly has changed my life.

The weight loss industry in the United States does not work. The average weight-regain a year after leaving a commercial weight loss program is 120% of what was lost. This is the only multibillion dollar industry whose affect is the opposite of what the customer pays for. The strategies of the weight loss industry are even worse for athletes, who need to fuel workouts to perform in competition.

When 94% of students in a class fail the course, it is the instructor’s fault, not the “stupid” 94%. Similarly, when weight loss programs fail in almost nineteen out of every twenty people, the flaw is with the program, not with willpower-less customers.

The basic paradigm upon which this industry is built is flawed. Strategies derived from the Calories In / Calories Out paradigm are based on an overly simplistic view of human physiology and assume that several aspects of physiology, which we know to be dynamic, are static. Our bodies are much smarter than those strategies, which simply do not work.

What caused you to be less lean than you want to be? It is probably not as simple as the Calories In / Calories Out paradigm would lead you to believe. The basic philosophy of this paradigm is that you don’t exercise enough (laziness) and eat too much (gluttony). I bet very few people reading this are either lazy or gluttonous! You probably exercise fairly consistently and try to eat a basically healthy diet.

You also probably eat a hot fudge sundae or a Snickers bar occasionally (rarely), but so do athletes who are extremely lean. That occasional splurge, as long as it truly is occasional and not a regular pattern, is not the problem.


Here are some common problems that active people face in reducing bodyfat:

  • Eating carbohydrates in a way that causes them to be stored as fat.

  • Eating in such a way as to make themselves hungry.

  • Doing basic aerobic training at a pace that is too high to burn fat effectively and/or do not do any of their aerobic training hard enough.

  • Not consistently performing intense strength training.

  • Not eating enough protein.

  • Eating a diet that is too high in fat.

  • Failing to eat when they are hungry.

Why doesn’t Calories In / Calories Out strategies work?

1. All calories are not created equal. Calories from different types of food are digested, absorbed, stored, and burned very differently in the body. A calorie of fat eaten is very likely to end up in your fat cells. A calorie of protein is very unlikely to add to your fat storage at all (in fact, is likely to help you be leaner). A calorie of carbohydrate may be very likely or very unlikely to be stored as fat depending on what is eaten with it and the chronological proximity to exercise.

Why a Calorie is NOT a Calorie

Our bodies process the three primary sources of calories - fat, carbohydrate, and protein - very differently. Learning how each affects our energy level, digestive system, endocrine system, metabolic rate, feelings of hunger or satiety, and mood enables us to regain control of our bodies.

Calories consumed in the form of fat may be kept in the blood until they are burned or stored as fat. Most fat calories consumed will end up in fat storage. Unlike protein and carbohydrate consumption, increasing fat consumption has very little effect on metabolic rate. Basically, eating too much fat makes you fat (as well as other health destroying consequences).

A recent fad, the low carbohydrate diet, has been not only destructive to weight loss efforts but also extremely dangerous and does not provide adequate fuel for workouts. Low carbohydrate diets are bad for humans, but especially bad for active humans. Interestingly, this fad swept the country in the 1950's and didn’t work, resurfaced in the 1970's and didn’t work, and hit again in the 2000's. Guess what, it doesn’t work! The human body just doesn’t evolve that quickly!

Calories consumed in the form of carbohydrates may be kept in the blood where they can be used as a fuel source, they can be stored in the muscles as glycogen, or be stored as fat. Two of three results of eating carbohydrate are good. The important point is that which of these results occurs is largely under our control. How our bodies use carbohydrates is affected by when we consume them, which types of carbohydrates we choose, as well as what other foods are eaten together with the carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates are necessary for burning fat. Avoiding carbohydrates is absolutely not the answer to anyone’s weight management problems. Nobody ever got any leaner by depleting carbohydrate storage. Incorporating carbohydrates into a nutrition plan in such a way that they are used as fuel instead of stored as fat is the answer.

Calories consumed in the form of protein may be used to repair tissues (especially muscle), be used as fuel, or be stored as fat. Significant protein will be stored as fat only in extreme cases of over-consumption. This is unlikely. People are not overweight from over-consumption of protein. Athletes trying to decrease bodyfat should eat a lot of protein. I recommend about 0.6 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.

Under-consumption of protein, on the other hand, may lead to muscle atrophy, which results in decreased metabolic rate, which results in fat storage. Eating enough protein, spread throughout the day, maintains muscle mass and keeps metabolic rate high. This is one key to long-term weight management.

2. Resting metabolic rate adjusts to calories consumed. The metabolism of the human body is extremely dynamic. Our bodies adjust to what we do to them. Decreasing caloric consumption causes our bodies to conserve energy, decreasing the number of calories burned at rest. Eating less causes our bodies to burn less. This is the single greatest reason why strategies derived from the Calories In / Calories Out paradigm are not effective long term.

3. Calories In / Calories Out strategies provide acute solutions to chronic problems. Unfortunately, the acute solutions of the Calories In / Calories out paradigm provide the appearance of acute success - initial weight loss - but significantly INCREASE the chronic problems, such as slow resting metabolic rate, tendency to store calories preferentially as fat and burn calories preferentially as sugar.

We have developed a system that will allow you to create habits that work with your body, not against it, to reduce bodyfat. You will learn to manage hunger and satiety responses and eat when you are hungry. You will not feel deprived. Discipline and willpower are not the primary answers.

Expect this to be an up-and-down process. Remember that perfection is not the goal. The goal is to develop patterns that work for you. After trying to eat well and exercising hard for years, you may feel that perfection is the price of leanness, but it is not. Missing a workout or eating a little bit of junk food occasionally won’t ruin your efforts. What we are after is gradually reshaping your attitudes about food and exercise as they relate to leanness, your workout habits, when you eat which foods, and how you manage hunger and satiety.

A Better Paradigm

What is it we’re trying to lose? That may sound like a silly question, but it should be at the root of any plan, and yet it does not seem to be central to the thinking of most weight loss programs. Always remember that it is fat that we are trying to lose. Keep that at the forefront of your mind. Therefore, a better paradigm would be:

Fat Stored Versus Fat Removed From Storage

Unfortunately for the customers of most weight loss programs, this paradigm is far more complicated than the calories in / calories out paradigm. Strategies derived from this paradigm require more learning, more thinking, more planning, and more modest adjustments to your lifestyle, BUT THEY WORK. If you are reading this, obviously you think that is a worthy trade-off.

If we eat an extra 100 calories of protein at breakfast, and none of it is stored as fat, this is a good thing. That protein helps prevent carbohydrate consumed with it from being stored as fat, triggers feelings of satiety, increases resting metabolic rate, and maintains muscle mass. All of these things are good and will make you healthier and leaner in the future, but according to the calories in, calories out paradigm, this is bad because you have consumed additional calories.

Doesn’t it make sense to look specifically at fat and how calories are stored and used to see ultimately what causes them to end up as fat in storage, or not … and to look at expenditure the same way?

Many factors that affect this formula aren’t apparent in the calories in / calories out formula. There are also significant factors that affect calories in / calories out that do not cause either fat burning or fat storage. Let’s look at just a couple of the differences between the formulas. There are many more.

  • If you have 40 minutes to exercise, according to the calories in / calories out formula you should exercise as hard as possible to burn the greatest number of calories. However, hard exercise burns almost entirely carbohydrate and not fat, causing almost no fat to be removed from storage. Carbohydrate depletion does not lead to bodyfat reduction. Not a single human being has ever gotten one bit leaner by depleting carbohydrate.

  • According to the calories in / calories out formula, a plain bagel, having fewer calories, is a better breakfast choice than a bagel with egg white. The calories from the plain bagel are very likely to be stored as fat, while the calories from the bagel sandwich are likely to remain in the bloodstream until they are combined with fat and burned and where they will trigger sustained feelings of satiety.

  • The calories in / calories out formula suggests that the day before a party at which you will probably overeat, you should eat very little to “save up” calories for the splurge. This strategy is likely to increase overeating (because you get hungry), but even if you don’t overeat, this strategy activates the fat-storing enzymes and causes greater fat storage from the same food. Eating normally through the day will reduce the amount of fat stored from the food eaten at the party.

  • Reducing protein intake reduces caloric consumption. According to the calories in / calories out formula, this should produce weight loss. However reducing protein intake reduces metabolic rate directly (acute response), may cause muscle atrophy which reduces metabolic rate (chronic response), causes more carbohydrate calories to be stored as fat, and triggers feelings of hunger. All of these results of decreasing caloric consumption will make you fatter.

One powerful attraction of the calories in / calories out paradigm is its apparent simplicity. Unfortunately, the human body isn’t so simple and that is why this seemingly wonderful formula does not work. Learning how your body works and redesigning your lifestyle appropriately can be hard work initially. Inertia is a powerful foe to be overcome. Each of us is used to eating and exercising a certain way and making changes can be difficult. The key is that once you have put in the work of learning how you are fighting your body and adjusting your habits, inertia becomes a powerful ally.


It is not much more difficult to eat and exercise optimally for weight management than to do them the wrong way. Using the principles outlined in Lean for a Lifetime is the only way to work with your body to become leaner. Working with your body is the only way to achieve and maintain the level of leanness you desire.

Shift your focus away from the Calories In / Calories Out paradigm. Employ better strategies and you can be leaner than ever.


Ken Mierke holds a degree in Exercise Physiology with minors in Nutrition, Biology, and Psychology. He has lost 75 pounds and is a two-time world champion triathlete www.LeanForaLifetime.com 


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date: January 23, 2007