Flux capacitor

Look up. No, not that far. Back a bit. Have a look at the top of this page. Do you see what it says?

One man’s quest to exercise enough so that he can eat all of the good things that exist in the world

Little did I know, when I wrote that back in 2012, that I was expressing a key argument that would be troubling clever minds right here in 2015. For my glib little strap line encapsulates an equation, something known as energy flux.

In vs Out

It can also be called energy balance, although that sounds a little less exciting, and it is a very simple equation: calories-in versus calories-out. The basic science is fairly incontrovertible. You eat, you drink, you take calories in. You exist, you burn calories. The basic aim is to balance the two; where it gets tricky is in how you achieve that balance. And the approach, it would appear, would depend on your own particular agenda.


Let’s dive back in to Runner’s World (a recent, and slightly worrying, addition to my library). July 2015 was their “body issue” and featured a well-written and heavily-researched article on just this topic. You only had to reach the third paragraph to find their take on this equation:

There’s scant evidence gluttony is our problem. In fact, the convincing data points to the other side of the calories-in/calories-out equation – physical activity.

Well, this is Runner’s World; you might expect them to say that.

But it is a theory that seems logical, if simplistic. We sit. A lot. Significantly more than our ancestors did and this has led to a decrease in exercise levels. The article suggests that our sedentary lifestyles mean that we expend only three-fifths of the energy that our grandparents did and “to compensate for your office work, you’d have to run six miles a day”.

In terms of calories-in, the article reports a 2014 study that found that daily calorie intake had increased by only 10 calories over a 17 year period. Which would make it hard to point the finger at the “in” side of the equation, you would have thought.


Pancake1If you have a Netflix account then I commend Fed Up to you. Search it out soon and have a watch. Even if you don’t have Netflix, then you are still able to pay real money to a real person and buy it on DVD, but you might just want to have a look at their website instead. It is a documentary about food, primarily focussing on America but, in many ways, probably just as relevant to us here in the UK.

And it also talks about this equation, but it reaches a different conclusion. Exercise, it explains, is not the answer. The answers lie not just in how many calories we consume, but in the type of calories. According to Fed Up, one calorie is not the same as another.

It suggests that sugar is the problem: there is too much of it in our food and, as a result, we are eating far too much of it. The talking heads – all sensible-seeming people, not inclined to shout or grandstand too much – explain that, when eaten in naturally-occurring foods such as fruit, sugar is accompanied by fibre. The fibre inhibits the speed at which the sugar is digested and processed by our bodies, allowing us to deal with it in a more natural way. When sugar is consumed unadorned by fibre – in many processed foods, for example – then our bodies cannot cope: we process the sugar far more rapidly and this drives up insulin production. This, in turn, leads to more of the sugar being stored as fat. Ergo, sugar eaten without the accompanying fibre will lead to an increase in fat storage when compared with sugar eaten in naturally-occurring foods. As such, they suggest, some calories (those obtained from unadorned sugar) will lead to greater fat-storage than other calories (those from sugar eaten with a side-order of fibre). One calorie is therefore not the same as another.

This seems to make sense, and they even had an animation to illustrate this very point, but it pays to be cautious. We will return to this topic soon, for a more in-depth slalom through the sweet world of sugar, but the Fed Up documentary will, for now, serve to illustrate that there are those out there who believe that the answer to this problem lies with the “in” side of the equation.

What if they are both wrong?

Or, to put it in a more optimistic light, what if they are both right? Is it really that much of a leap to conclude that the easiest way to balance the scales (both figuratively and, quite possibly, literally) is to attack both sides of the equation? If we are careful about the calories that we put in, then we can attempt to manage that side of the problem. And at the same time, we can also address the amount of calories we take out of the equation through the amount of exercise that we do.

It rather feels as though this isn’t rocket science. It is hardly even GCSE science. But then, I don’t have a magazine to sell or a documentary to produce. And if you dig a little deeper into both the Runner’s World article and the Fed Up film then you will find a tacit acceptance that the other side of the equation is also important; it just doesn’t happen to be the side that fits their particular agenda and is therefore not the side that they are focussing on. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we remember that it is our equation and we need to be thinking about both sides if we are going to balance our own personal equation.

So I was wrong…

One man’s quest to exercise enough so that he can eat all of the good things that exist in the world

This quest will fail. It is not correct to focus only on the exercise side of the equation; to succeed I also need to consider the “eating” side of things. Particularly if “all of the good things” include cake; which, clearly, they must. I can have my cake and eat it (to willfully misuse that particular idiom), but it will come with a cost that I must pay back: through exercise and through a better awareness of the effect that the things I am eating will have on me.

But I quite like that strap line so I’m going to keep it. Small steps, people. Small steps.


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  1. Pingback: A hard pill to swallow | Running Buffet

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