The Calorie Principle and Weight Gain; The Causality Has Been Obscure


  1. The birth of the "calories-in/calories-out" theory 
  2. Obesity is still on the rise
  3. Carl von Noorden's book

In Japan, most people believe that “taking in too many calories and lack of exercise are the causes of being overweight,” which I believe is largely due to statements made by experts, nutritionists, etc. on television.

When I launched this website in 2014, I wanted to argue against that in my website, but I couldn’t find any academic papers and other resources that showed the "causal relationship between caloric intake and becoming obese." 

However, around a year after I started blogging, I came across this great book: “Why We Get Fat” written by Gary Taubes. It is surprising that it was published in Japanese in 2013.

After all, this is the only book I can rely on. In explaining what I want to say, I first needed to let you know that, "the direct cause of being overweight is not determined by overeating.”

1. The birth of the "calories-in/calories-out" theory 

"Ever since the early 1900s, when the German diabetes specialist Carl von Noorden first argued that we get fat because we take in more calories than we expend, experts and non-experts alike have insisted that the laws of thermodynamics somehow dictate this to be true.

Arguing to the contrary, that we might actually get fatter for reasons other than the twin sins of overeating and sedentary behavior, or that we might lose fat without consciously eating less and/or exercising more, has invariably been treated as quackery "emotional and groundless," as the Columbia University physician John Taggart insisted in the 1950s in his introduction to a symposium on obesity. “We have implicit faith in the validity of the first law of thermodynamics," he added.

Such faith is not misplaced. But that does not mean that the laws of thermodynamics have anything more to say about getting fat than any other law of physics.

Newton's laws of motion, Einstein's relativity, the electrostatic laws, quantum mechanics -they all describe properties of the universe we no longer question.
But they don't tell us why we get fat. They say nothing about it, and this is true of the laws of thermodynamics as well.

It is astounding how much bad science-and so bad advice, and a growing obesity problem-has been the result of the experts' failure to understand this one simple fact. The very notion that we get fat because we consume more calories than we expend would not exist without the misapplied belief that the laws of thermodynamics make it true."
(Gary Taubes. Why We Get Fat. New York: Anchor Books, 2011, Pages 72-3.)

"In 1934, a German pediatrician named Hilde Bruch moved to America, settled in New York city. She was “startled,” as she later wrote, by the number of fat children she saw-”really fat one, not only in the clinics, but also on the streets, subways, and in schools.” This was two decades before the first McDonald's franchises was born, and more to the point, 1934 was in the depths of the Great Depression.

Bruch put in effort in the treatment of obese children. It was hard to avoid, she said, the simple fact that these children had, after all, spent their entire lives trying to eat in moderation and control their weight as directed, and yet they remained obese.

The physicians of Bruch's era weren't thoughtless, and the doctors of today are not, either.
They merely have a flawed belief system-a paradigm-that stipulates that the reason we get fat is clear and incontrovertible, as is the cure.

We get fat, our physicians tell us, because we eat too much and/or move too little, and so the cure is to do the opposite. (*snip*)

▽“The fundamental cause of obesity and overweight," as the World Health Organization says, “is an energy imbalance between calories consumed on one hand, and calories expended on the other hand." 

calorie in-out

We get fat when we take in more energy than we expend (a positive energy balance, in the scientific terminology), and we get lean when we expend more than we take in (a negative energy balance).

Food is energy, and we measure that energy in the form of calories. So, if we take in more calories than we expend, we get fatter. If we take in fewer calories, we get leaner.

This way of thinking about our weight is so compelling and so pervasive that it is virtually impossible nowadays not to believe it. Even if we have plenty of evidence to the contrary-no matter how much of our lives we've spent consciously trying to eat less and exercise more without success— it's more likely that we'll question our own judgment and our own willpower than we will this notion that our adiposity is determined by how many calories we consume and expend."
(Taubes. Why We Get Fat. Pages 3-6.)

2. Obesity is still on the rise

"Consider the obesity epidemic. Here we are as a population getting fatter and fatter.

Fifty years ago, one in every eight or nine Americans would have been officially considered obese, and today it's one in every three. Two in three are now considered overweight, which means they’re carrying around more weight than the public-health authorities deem to be healthy.


Throughout the decades of this obesity epidemic, the calories-in/calories-out, energy-balance notion has held sway, and so the health officials assume that either we're not paying attention to what they've been telling us -eat less and exercise more-or we just can't help ourselves.

Malcolm Gladwell discussed this paradox in The New Yorker in 1998.
“We have been told that we must not take in more calories than we burn, that we cannot lose weight if we don't exercise consistently," he wrote.
“That few of us are able to actually follow this advice is either our fault or the fault of the advice. Medical orthodoxy, naturally, tends toward the former position. Diet books tend toward the latter. Given how often the medical orthodoxy has been wrong in the past, that position is not, on its face, irrational. It's worth finding out whether it is true.

(Taubes. Why We Get Fat. Pages 7-8.)

(Gary Taubes’s thoughts on the relationship between thermodynamics and weight gain)

"Obesity is not a disorder of energy balance or calories-in/ calories-out or overeating, and thermodynamics has nothing to do with it. If we can't understand this, we'll keep falling back into the conventional thinking about why we get fat, and that's precisely the trap, the century-old quagmire, that we're trying to avoid."
(Taubes. Why We Get Fat. Pages 73.)


3. Carl von Noorden's book

Japanese television programs still continue to show doctors and nutritionists confidently saying, "The cause of weight gain is, of course, overeating or lack of exercise,”which I find disgusting. However, I hope you can see how flimsy and baseless these theories are.

By the way, I obtained Carl von Noorden's book (archive), which is shown at the beginning of the quotation. You can read it at the following link: 

 Carl von Noorden's book