Fewer Calories, More Obesity?

Weight gain, according to pretty much everyone who has studied the subject, is the result of an energy imbalance: consuming more calories than your body burns. Some experts, of course, have proposed that our current obesity epidemic is based on factors more complex than this simple equation, such as an increase in sugar consumption or even changes in our epigenome. But while these proposed explanations may explain certain habits, cravings, and even metabolic changes, none of them directly contradict the understanding that weight, in the end, depends on energy balance.


So a study released late last month, showing that average calorie consumption in the United States has fallen while the rate of obesity has climbed, was a surprise to many — including the study’s own authors. Published online by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the study used data on food consumption from nine national surveys conducted between 1971 and 2010, covering over 60,000 adults between the ages of 20 and 74. According to the data from these surveys, average daily calorie intake rose from 1,955 in the period of 1971–1975 to 2,269 in the period of 2003–2004. By 2009–2010, however, the rate had dropped to 2,195 calories per day, representing a statistically significant drop that should, in theory, have some effect on obesity rates.

But obesity rates, of course, haven’t fallen. According to an article on the study at DiabetesInControl.com, since 1999, the obesity rate for women has remained steady at about 35%. During that same period, however, the obesity rate for men has increased from 27% to 35%. With such a pronounced increase in obesity, one would expect to see a corresponding increase in calories consumed, since there is considerable doubt that a reduction in physical activity could be solely responsible for it.

So what could be the reason for these seemingly incompatible trends? One possible answer is that the conventional wisdom is wrong about the relationship between calories and weight — that at least in some cases, the body’s metabolism could get slower when fewer calories are consumed, leading to weight gain. Another possibility is that Americans, or at least American men, have in fact become far less physically active since 1999; finding data to support this assertion, however, might be difficult. And, of course there is the possibility that the survey data are wrong. As an article at Fox News notes, increased awareness of the dangers of excessive calorie consumption, and possibly of sugary beverages in particular, may have led respondents to underreport their calorie intake in the most recent set of years.

What do you think is the most likely explanation for the reported drop in calorie consumption, in the face of rising obesity rates? Have you ever gained weight despite eating less, or despite an unchanged diet? If so, what do you think was the most likely explanation for the weight gain? Have you witnessed a general drop in physical activity in your community, or is there another factor aside from diet that you think might be contributing to weight gain? Leave a comment below!

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  • Debster

    We’re all sitting in front of computers doing social networking instead of getting out and doing things together. Also, Netflix and other such souces make it easier to sit at home in front of the tube.

    TV commercials fluxuate between junk food items and diet aids.

    We need to get outside more doing activities and increasing our Vit. D from the sun.

  • JohnC

    Carbohydrates consumption maybe? Most medical authorities agree that insulin is the chief fat producing hormone in the body.

    I have found (over the years) that not giving your body a reason to produce a lot of insulin (fewer carbs.) means you can eat a lot more calories without gaining weight. Yes that includes eating a lot more fats (except trans). Of course if you inject insulin it means you use a lot less.

    As a diabetic who believes keeping all glucose levels in the “normal” range helps a lot too.
    Would make one believe that all calories are not created equal. The reduction in carbohydrates sure hasn’t hurt my health in any way — the opposite is more true.

    Isn’t like this has never been researched — just doesn’t seem to ever find the light of day.

  • joan

    Fewer calories but gain weight? I really do not know and have no problem with weight but have some thoughts…..

    Perhaps we do not always pay enough attention to our daily meal plan? Do we have more snacks with the beer,wine or whiskey we drink? Probably ’cause we are having fun!

    Mostly, though, I believe it is the lack of activity and less time to prepare healthy meals. Also, high tech has taken over many jobs that took energy and activity; built muscles to get the job done. High tech machines [Robots] are doing the jobs we used to do!

    We are human therefore no one is perfect. But too much weight gained can create health issues.
    be watchful!

  • jim snell

    I disagree with that statement.

    Once my liver leakage scaled back, my 1200 calorie diet cafefully followed enabled me to cut weight from 330 lbs to 250 and still falling.

    The only reason one is gaining weight is there is surplus calories that the body can convert to fat/weight. The energy available/glucose is food eaten as well as the liver throw back of glucose and if liver leaks, one gets extra pounds rather than it being parked in Liver.

    Unless one is eating to the caveman meter testing 2 to 2.5 hours after meal can one see if one is really on target.

    I am tired of these half baked comments and statements. Stopping and arresting type 2 diabetes is being fouled up by these types of half baked statistical baffle gab and studies peddled as pure science.

    Sometimes one needs to exercise sufficiently to keep available glucose burned off and moving on out.

  • David Spero RN

    Many studies have shown that fat people don’t eat more than thin people, on average. Scoffers often say that the fat people under-report their eating more than thin people do, but I’ve never seen evidence for that.

    I’m pretty sure genetics, stress, and environmental chemicals are the main culprits in the so-called “obesity epidemic.” Probably in the Type 2 diabetes epidemic, too. Stress increases insulin resistance. It tells the body to hold on to fat. So do a lot of the estrogen-like chemicals found in plastics.

    But Jim is right that lack of physical activity is also a big piece.

    Thanks, Quinn, for another thought-provoking article.

  • Linda

    I don’t know, but, I wish I did!

  • Pat Loonsfoot

    I was on Lactose at night, and homologous 3 times a day. What I was supposed to consume was 35to45 carbs for breakfast and 45 to60 for lunch and dinner. This made no sense to me. I took insulin to counter act the lower blood glucose the insulin did. Then I ate to raise my glucose etc. I have a thyroid problem and I am on meds for that. With effort, low carb diet and riding a stationary bike, going from 15 mins a day to now 65 mins a day I have lost 100 lbs,I am off all insulin and taking pills twice a day I still need to lose about 50 lbs more. The weight loss has slowed now, but I am determined to lose that. By the way, I am 73 years of age. I am responsible for my actions and my diet. I eat as little carbs as possible and check my glucose 4 times a day. Thanks for letting me vent. Pat