The calorie myth & eating 36,000 calories a day

Here’s the link to a great programme on super morbid obesity (The programme is no longer available sadly).

Great programme spot from one of our super fans – Melissa. This is worth the 47 mins to watch. I just wanted to draw your attention to yet another example of the calorie myth being completely absurdly applied…

The programme features 4 morbidly obese people:
Paul is 45 years old and he weighs 48 stone and consumes an estimated 36,902 calories a day.
Larry is 38 years old and he weighs 50 stone and consumes an estimated 14,349 calories a day.
Lisa is 39 years old and she weighs 45 stone and consumes an estimated 9,277 calories a day.
Jacqui is 40 years old and she weighs 26 stone and consumes an estimated 15,880 calories a day.

Quick couple of observations:
1)     Where on earth do they get the 2 calories at the end of Paul’s estimate?! The calories in 1 gram of fat/carb/protein are not even accurate – how do they think that they can estimate a day’s consumption to that level of accuracy.
2)    Why is Paul not massively heavier than Larry? He’s eating 2.5 times the number of calories and can’t move around (as Larry proved he could when food was put in the other room!)

Ian Campbell (former head of National Obesity Forum) is the main expert speaker on the programme.

With reference to Paul – Ian says it is physically and physiologically impossible for Paul to burn off the calories he consumes. I agree – this is a factual statement using hours in the day and maximum activity rates possible – notwithstanding the fact that Paul is bedridden. However – I would like to see what would happen if Paul’s intake were changed from predominantly processed carbs to real fat/protein. He would be unable to store fat in the absence of carbs and insulin and he would be unable to consume anywhere near that intake of real food.

With reference to Larry (I made a note of the time for this one – so see how they do this for Larry at c. 12 minutes) – the narrator (Samantha Bond) quotes the usual statement that the average man needs 2,500 calories a day. Ian Campbell estimates that Larry needs about 4-4,500 calories a day “and so that extra 10,000 calories a day would equate to 3lbs of weight gain on a daily basis.” Did you spot that use of the unproven calorie formula – applied directly as if fact – without even being quoted? Ian has divided 10,000 by 3500 to get 3lbs and has assumed that every excess of 3500 will gain 1lb (in fat alone – we are forgetting water and lean tissue for now), just as Ian assumes that every deficit of 3500 will lose 1lb. Neither surplus or deficit works with this formula – I have yet to find even one study to prove this formula and would be astonished if I ever did.

Let’s apply some common sense here – Ian is saying that Larry will be gaining weight at the rate of 3lbs a day – that’s 1095lbs EACH & EVERY year. That is 78 stone and 3lbs EACH & EVERY year. Let’s forget water and lean tissue and assume he is the first person in the world only to gain fat. So – if the programme checks in on Larry next year – he should be 128 stone.

With reference to Lisa (they do this for Lisa at c. 44 minutes) – the narrator again says that the Recommended Daily Intake for an average woman is just 2000 calories. They obviously allow 3000 calories a day, for Lisa being larger and then the narrator says “If she continues to eat this daily excess of over 6000 calories, Lisa will gain almost 2lbs every day.

Ditto on the common sense – Lisa is supposed to gain 52 stone, 2lbs each & every year she continues to eat in this way.

With reference to Jacqui – Ian says that Jacqui is having “perhaps seven times the number of calories she needs just to keep her body healthy.” The narrator then says “To burn off what Jacqui eats in a day she’d have to walk briskly non-stop for almost two days.”

The last point is interesting because so many government officials and dietary advisors continue to think that our ‘sedentary behaviour’ is to blame for the obesity epidemic. Ian Campbell makes the point that Olympic rowers could not need this number of calories (my comment – and they would eat their intake in a hugely healthier way). Surely it is vastly more important to NOT put something in one’s mouth in the first place than it is to think we can burn off that fuel in some way. Aside from the fact that we can only ‘burn fat’ when there is no glucose or glycogen more readily available for the body. These four are eating carbs continuously every waking minute (Lisa in the middle of the night also) and therefore are continually storing fat and are never in a physiological environment in which they can burn fat.

Check also – around 40 mins into the programme – the serious issue about fat cell number and size, which has become more widely accepted in recent years. It is estimated that Lisa’s fat cells will have multiplied from a ‘normal’ number of 40 billion to 100 billion. If she loses weight, these fat cells do not disappear – she will still have 100 billion – they just shrink in size.

p.s. daftest thought of all – if Ian Campbell estimates that Larry needs 4-4,500 calories a day, let’s assume that Paul needs the same. Paul is therefore eating 32,000 calories a day more than he needs.  I bet Ian Campbell did the maths – that’s a gain of 9lbs EVERY DAY; 2 stone every 3 days; so Paul should gain 238 stone over the coming year – and then thought “no, that’s mad!” Then he would have thought – let’s stick to using the 3,500 calorie theory for Larry and Lisa – it seems daft for Paul. It’s daft for all of them Ian! (And everyone else who uses this formula on a daily basis – NHS, Dept of Health, NICE, dieticians, nutritionists …..)

p.s. Jan 2011 update – please note that I am sadly simply unable to keep up with comments on blogs/youtube/facebook and all the wonders of the web. Please feel free to leave a comment to have your say & for others to read. If you have any questions our forum is the best place to have them answered. Your question may well have been answered already so you can read the thousands of questions already there if you don’t want to join. Many thanks for your understanding. Very best wishes – Zoe

23 thoughts on “The calorie myth & eating 36,000 calories a day

    • Many thanks Clare – I quote that one in my 2010 obesity book. It goes back a long way before then though – the earliest ref I have got is the 1918 Lulu hunt peters book Diet and Health – a cracking good read!
      Best wishes – Zoe
      p.s. you’ll note the Wishnofsky paper uses 3750 – not 3500 – that makes stones and stones difference in no time! It’s all non-sense

  • I used to be an ISSA personal trainer but gave up that profession some time ago because I had reached similiar conclusions about how a calorie is not just a calorie. The problem I’m currently having is: how can some vegans who with a 80/10/10 macronutrient ratio be as thin as they are given your current theory on obesity? Some claim to now be able to eat as much fruit (and veg) as they want and stay lean! Some even employ the advice of Dr McDougal whose advice is to eat primarily starch! At first I thought it simply had to do with their level of insulin sensitivity, but then I found that some of these lean vegans actually CAME from a life of being overweight or obese. Shouldn’t switching to a diet of fruit, sugar, and starch ruin their insulin sensitivity and make their weight problem worse and not better? That’s the problem I’m having with low carb theory. I hope you can give me some insight. I’m a big fan who’s seeking answers as well for the good of all humanity

    • Hi Joshua

      Why are vegans often slim? Because they tend not to eat processed food – because it invariably has animal nasties in it. No sweets, no (milk) chocolate, no pies, no cream cakes, no ready meals etc. Cutting out junk is what makes someone slim. What real food they then choose is almost irrelevant – especially when young. Which brings us to…

      Check out the profile of vegans –
      Typically under 35 and female. You can get away with a heck of a lot in your teens/20s and 30s. Go into the 40s, 50s and beyond and insulin resistance is likely to catch up with those who base their meals on fruit/starch. I forecast that people living on fruit/starch today will develop type 2 diabetes in the future. Some may get away with it; many won’t.

      You may find this interesting too:

      Best wishes – Zoe

  • I agree with the first poster.

    I read your article in the Daily Mail. To quote:
    “It is only after nearly two decades of my own research — I am a Cambridge graduate and currently studying for a PhD in nutrition —that I have changed my views.”

    While not a lie, mentioning a Cambridge degree that happens to be NOT in medicine, or human biology, or fields related to nutrition, strikes me as rather disingenuous. Also, according to Ben Goldacre, the PhD bit is false, is that right?

    • Hi Jelena – My reply to Ben was as follows: “I hadn’t thought about a PhD until a number of academics and doctors who read my book suggested it. Hence I have been in communications with my former Cambridge college – Corpus Christi. The submission is written and I am waiting for my tutor to get back to me on which of two departments it is best suited for. The topic is “The Obesity Epidemic”.

      I actually sent Ben a copy of the book last October, as I thought he’d be interested in the bad science in the NHS/dietary advice arena – right under his nose. He hasn’t had the courtesy to acknowledge receipt – despite being asked directly in our comms. I’ll send you a copy if you like and you can decide for yourself what I know about obesity. The intro/reviews/references etc can all be found at:

      If only we spent our time trying to resolve the biggest health crisis the world has ever faced, instead of making personal attacks on people trying to do just that, the world would be a healthier, and more tolerant place.

      Best wishes – Zoe

  • “I have yet to find even one study to prove this formula and would be astonished if I ever did”

    More and more articals that support the 3750Kcal/lb “myth” and the reasons where it may not apply. Protein balance from the diet is vital and this paper would suggest that the rapid “weight” loss your subjects experience is mainly loss of water and protein, something that will come back quickly once the body returns to equilibrium.

    Still why use studies when personal testomony is avaliable?

    The studies will never prove the formulea as it’s a rule of thumb and is based on the specific person, diet and activity regime. The studies give useful tools for estimating, but there is wide vaiation in TEE and RMR based on body composition, individual activity patterns and the likes. What matters is monitoring your own Energy expendeture and intake and componsating if you have overly rapid weight loss or overly small loss.

  • Interesting that you refer to the 3500Kcal/lb rule of thumb. Therer is actuslly quite a lot of work on this and especially the work of Gilbert B Forbes (see Forbes GB. Lean body mass-body fat interrelationships in humans Nutrition reviews. 1987;45:225–231) which is being continued by the likes of Kevin D. Hall (see What is the required energy deficit per unit weight loss?Required energy deficit per unit weight loss International Journal of Obesity 32, 573-576 (March 2008) | doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803720).

    The conclusion of these studies is that the energy deficit depends on how much you have to lose, and that in subjects with less FM the proportion of weight loss due to loss of FFM will be greater and so the energy deficit required will be less. Both alos refer to the impact of metabolisim changes during dieting, as observed in Ansel Key’s classic Minnessota Starvation experiment where initially lean subjects showed a reduction of up to 40% of BMR during the 6 month restriction period.

    The point is that the studies are there, the evidence is there and until you subject your appropach to a suitable study with 1yr, 3yr and 5yr follow up, and not just “personal stories”. I haven’t read your book so can’t make a comment but does it by any chance fit with this?

  • Jesus, the very point I was going to make has been shattered by Stephanie. Zoe – please tell me you aren’t pushing the old line of “lose 7 to 10 pounds in under 2 weeks” in any of your diet promotions.

    Any reduced intake of calories and sugars etc.. automatically corresponds to losing the miracle 10 pounds in 2 weeks. I’m now scared to pay for one of your books just incase I’m right and I don’t want to be.

    Tell everybody that starting ANY diet will lose the “magical” 10 pounds in 2 weeks, it’s losing the excess water retention that boosts the initial weight loss, not the diet. Haven’t people noticed that when they start to diet that they are peeing a lot more often and wow look at that I’ve lost almost 7 pounds in the first week…..what a great diet (NO! its what happens anyway).

    • Hi Alistair – no need to blaspheme.

      This is a serious blog on the calorie theory myth – a very important topic given that this ‘promise’ is the foundation for virtually all current diet advice and it is utterly wrong. Stephanie happened to comment that she had lost 10lbs in a week and a half. I can’t help that! I didn’t set out to design a diet that would result in spectacular weight loss, but it happened. I set out to design the perfect diet to overcome three conditions, which I discovered cause insatiable food cravings. If we can overcome food cravings, and more seriously food addiction, we can help people eat real food – which is all that we should be eating and they can feel fantastically better, as well as lose weight.

      The record for Phase 1 (only 5 days) is over 14lbs and this has been achieved several times (19lbs is the highest I’ve seen on a post). Yes, a great deal of this is water – two of the conditions cause nasty and unnecessary water retention, which can be cleared up in a few days and people are instantly less bloated, less puffy faced, rings fit again etc. If you don’t want to risk dropping a clothes size in a few days – don’t do this. This is achieved, however, unlike with 99% of other diets, with no calorie restriction whatsoever. Most people report eating more than they ever have done and not feeling hungry and they continue with this real food/real health way of eating for life. Phase 1 involves a total elimination of processed food but unlimited real meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, salads, natural live yoghurt and some brown rice.

      The human body is c. 50% water anyway, so we will always lose water in parallel with fat. A 200lb person is not going to lose 100lb of fat alone and turn into a puddle! What this diet does (no calorie restriction) is ensure that lean tissue is NOT the thing that is lost.

      This diet is different. I don’t push the 10lbs in 2 weeks but it may well happen – your call!
      Ciao – Zoe

  • I forgot to say that I am no a sensible weight. I have now kept my weight down to within half a stone of what I want to be for sixteen years, but it is only through the Dukan regime that I have been able to at last consolidate my weight and be aware of exactly what I can eat.

    • Hi Trish – many thanks for sharing this and well done for finding something that works for you. Dukan does work – not sure I’ve got the willpower for it and I think low carb should be high real food, not high protein, but it is just great to be away from processed food and especially processed carbs.
      The evidence that calorie counting doesn’t work is scientific and overwhelming – I don’t understand why anyone still thinks it will work!
      Very best wishes – Zoe

  • Hi, I am a 66year old woman who has been on and off diets for 48 years. With experience I have learnt that counting calories is utterly useless. Sooner or later one gets too hungry and and I know that I and many others just end up bingeing. The body just goes into famine mode and preserves every ounce of fat it possibly can and a piece of bread for example can be worth 120 calories to a body that has been starved by dieting. The low carb, high protein way is the only way to lose and a diet starved body just has to make high protein, low fat a way of living. One can gradually add in other foods, but they are very limited. I know that this is what I have to do, and it makes me very sad that the powers that be will not listen to people like me.

  • I just finished an article by Justin Stoneman in the Huffington Post where your book was mentioned. I instantly went to your website and will be purchasing your book. I have all ready read Gary Taubes, Good Calories Bad Calories among other life changing books. I, like you, am interested in trying to help others see the truth about health and diet. I discovered paleo eating and never looked back because of how much my health improved. Now, I just try and let everyone know how bad our current government diet advice is! I appreciate people like you who do these things because you are genuinely concerned about your fellow humans….GOOD JOB!

    • Hi Aaron – thank you SO much for this. I also loved Taubes. I sent him a preview copy of my book, which comes out on 14 October. I haven ‘t heard back from him yet (and may not!) but I thank him at the front of the book for the help he gave me in my research. I like to think he will like what I’ve done with the 3500 calorie myth and thermodynamics and the seven countries study and the conflicts of interest (in the Huff post article) embedded into legislation in the USA dooming Americans to the food pyramid and being nothing more than consumers for the grain industry until an early death and a couple more bits of fun I’ve had. We have to get the truth out there – as Sally Fallon Morell says – we are now into the survival of the wisest – because they will be the fittest. The others will have obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease and so on.
      Keep spreading the truth!
      Very best wishes – Zoe

  • Hi Zoe

    I’ve never written on a blog/forum before …. as you can probably tell ‘cos I’m not even sure what it’s called! But I wanted to let you know that I’ve lost 20lbs on your diet and am now at a weight which I haven’t seen for 20 or so years. So after trying pretty much every diet there is, I’ve finally found something which works. Thank so much, I feel amazing!

    • Hi Loobyloo – great name! Thank you SO much for sharing this – what a lovely message. I’m delighted that this has helped you. If you need any more help or want to help others, we set up a club in March and it’s got about 3000 members now! We sadly had to introduce ‘moderation’ (what just happened with your comment) recently due to some club crashers, but once you’ve posted a few comments, you go into a ‘good egg’ category and can post immediately any time you like. People in there would love to hear your experience – some have 20lbs to lose and some 10 stone – so everyone is helping each other
      Best wishes – Zoe

  • hi zoe…

    i was actually shocked to read the first comment which seemed uncalled for and a very silly attack on something that the writter didnt seem to know much about!!

    i have been on your diet for about a week and a half now and have lost 10pounds… i have been answering some questions off people who ask how eating bacon and eggs for breakfast is healthy but to be honest, it keeps me full and i have lost weight so im perfectly happy so far! its a bit difficult to stick to at my parents house but im trying lol.

    so thanks for writting your book as hopefully ill have lost the baby weight and be back in my clothes in no time!

    • Hi Stephanie – thanks for your lovely message and well done on the weight loss so far! Great news.
      We set up a club for people to help each other and get support doing the diet – you can join us at
      Sadly we have only recently had to make the club moderated (like this posting was), as we had some ‘gatecrashers’. You’ll be moved out of ‘moderated’ quite quickly and can get quick replies from lots of lovely people
      Best wishes – Zoe

  • Hi Zoe,

    Well done on defending yourself there. I thought Karryne’s attack on you was very harsh, and opinionated.

    I have tried your diet and it worked for me. Unfortunately, I think I have underlying issues with food relating to a bully of a stepfather when I was younger and I really struggle with sticking to it. I am, however, going to get back on track this week, and so was reading up on articles and advice to get myself back in the right frame of mind. I also have a doctors appointment in a couple of weeks, to see if I can get to the bottom of the psychological issues.

    I am a big fan of what you are trying to do, spreading the word of the “real”issues. And I agree that there are many “myths” out there that people think of as fact too easily.

    Keep up the good work! Maybe I could let you know how I get on??

    • Hi there – thank you so much for your kind words. I think people forget sometimes that we’re all humans with feelings and unsolicited attacks from strangers are just not nice or polite!
      I’m so sorry to hear about your experiences and the likely connection with food relationships. Please check out our free club We have lovely people in there – not rude ones! No need to wait for moderation (although I happened to be on line when yours just popped up) and about 2000 people there to help you. We share things like this all the time and shared support makes such a difference.
      I’ll email from the club to check if the email address above is secure (I’ll call it TEST) and then let me know if it’s OK to send you something. I do newsletters every fortnight for the paying club members and last week’s was all about the psychology of eating and the pillars of childhood that we need to ensure that we develop as healthy (emotionally) adults. I think it could be a great time for you to read it
      Bye for now – Zoe

  • I read an article in the Daily Mail and always curious when people call themselves a Nutritionist. Many use this title undeservedly and do damage to the title. I noticed that ZH read maths and economics at uni. nothing to do with nutrition. She then says she has a diploma in nutrition From where is this diploma????? The title Nutritionist is going to become a protected title this year recognised by the Health Professionals Council with whom Nutritionists will have to register. Nutritionists already have a register through the Association of Nutritionists for those who studied nutrition at university. It is amazing that people like ZH pass themselves off and are on the bandwagon to make money out of others misery and get away with making comments “like those professionals who use a formula on a daily basis – NHS, Dept of Health, NICE, dieticians, nutritionists (not me, of course!” No not you ZH because you are not really a nutritionist. You should publish your real title and not a title that you are not entitled to use. I notice that you do not mention where you did your diploma or how long it took you. I also assume that everyone including Dieticians are all wrong in using calories in diet recommendations except you-where did you say you studied again????. I find this incredible that you can make such a rediculous statement with no researched basis yet you call yourself a researcher.
    It is time to expose people like yourself and let the media know that by listening and publishing people like yourself is doing more harm than good for people. Of course you have followeres people are gullible. Recommending people to exclude food groups from the diet unless properly counselled is creating more problems than doing good. But of course if your palm is crossed with silver then you will want to keep that person in your grip as long as possible.
    People should be able to see your true references and you should not pass yourself off as a Nutritionist until you have the degree that says so. It is a fraudulence of qualifications. Registering with the Association of Nutritionists UK gives you a leg to stand on, BANT does not give you the authority to call yourself a qualified Nutritionist.

    • Hi Karryne – Gosh! Thank you for taking all that trouble to track me down just to attack me. But I wonder why you are so angry?

      I won a scholarship to read maths at Cambridge – first kid from my comprehensive school to go there – thanks for asking. I did my finals in economics with the maths options (nutrition at Cambridge is not an option – it is not considered a real subject). I have studied diet and nutrition as a passion since those days and took a Diploma in Diet & Nutrition and a Diploma in Clinical Weight Management more recently – not least to see what people are being taught formally. (Even though both of these qualify as a nutritionist, I tend not to call myself that – I am an obesity reseacher.) As my chosen courses will show, my primary interest is the 1.1 billion overweight people in the world and I have been trying to understand why we have an obesity problem, let alone an epidemic, when people want to be slim so desperately. I have spent the last two years, for as many hours as I can research, answering the following questions:

      1) Have you heard the sayings: “energy in equals energy out”; “you can’t change the laws of physics”. What precisely do the laws of thermodynamics say? Which law have we oversimplified and which law have we neglected to consider?

      2) Are you familiar with the formula “1lb = 3,500 calories, so to lose one pound of fat, you need to create a deficit of 3,500 calories”? When and where did this originate? Would you be able to prove that the formula holds true? Would you be interested to know the response given by seven UK government and obesity organisations asked those same questions?

      3) Is a calorie is a calorie? Is one sugar the same as any other?

      4) What happens if we manage to get humans to eat less and/or do more over a period of six months? What happens afterwards? What is the scientific evidence for sustained weight loss in the seminal obesity studies from the past 100 years?

      5) When did the obesity epidemic start precisely? Did anything happen at that time that could provide an explanation?

      6) Are obese people greedy, or lazy, or both, or none of these? Can obesity be caused by anything other than greed or sloth?

      7) Where does five-a-day come from? What are the five most nutritious foods on the planet?

      8 ) Why is fructose being called the lipogenic (fattening) carbohydrate?

      9) Would you be able to prove that saturated fat consumption causes heart disease? If I told you that the study to consider this had not even been done, would you believe me? If the UK Food Standards Agency said this, would you believe them?

      10) What remains if you take the public health list of ‘saturated fat’ and cross out processed food (primarily carbohydrates)? Would you be open to the idea that we could have a heated agreement with a clarification of terminology?

      11) Where does cholesterol fit in to the obesity debate?

      12) What is human fat tissue? How do we (biochemically) store fat? How do we burn fat? Which macronutrient determines fat storage and fat utilisation?

      13) Does sedentary behaviour explain the timing and the increase in obesity? Can exercise be a cure for the obesity epidemic?

      14) How embedded are the food and drink industry in our dietary advice and agencies? Would you be concerned if the likes of Coca-cola, Kellogg’s and the sugar industry were working in partnership with our national dietary associations?

      The answers will be published in “The Obesity Epidemic: What caused it and how do we stop it? later this year. Please ask these kinds of questions – rather than seeking out strangers to attack them – these are the kind of challenges that are going to impact the most serious health crisis that the ‘developed’ world has ever faced.

      Please direct the obvious passion that you have towards trying to help with the obesity epidemic. We need all the energy we can to solve this crisis.

      Very best wishes – Zoe

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