In January of this year Chris Sandel, nutritionist and founder of 7 Health, embarked on an experiment. He wanted to see how much weight he could put on by upping his calories.
Everything else – like lifestyle and exercise – remained the same; he simply started eating a lot more. This is what happened:
So why did I want to do this?
I believe we are constantly told an incredibly oversimplified view of why weight goes on (or comes off). If we want to lose weight we’re advised to simply eat less and/or exercise more. And if someone is putting on weight, we assume that they are doing the opposite. I wanted to test out this theory by increasing one half of this equation, the eating side.
So I went on to a bunch of websites to estimate what my daily calorie needs are based on my weight and weekly exercise. These sites ranged in response for anywhere between about 2,600 up to 2,900. The majority were in the range of 2,700-2,800 so I decided that as a baseline I would assume that 2,800 was my average daily need.
My goal was to run the experiment for 12 weeks. I wanted to set a minimum number of calories that I’d have to hit each day. If I went over this, then all the better.
So for a week I played around with seeing how much I could eat each day. While doing this I was keeping in mind that it would need to be sustainable and that I could do it day after day. So while I may be able to eat 4,000 calories in a day, there was no way I could do that every day.
So I settled on a target of 3,200 calories per day. It would be a stretch but I felt I could keep it up for the whole experiment.
The other component of the eating was I wanted to include a real mix of food. I didn’t want people to be able to claim my results were skewed because I only ate whole foods. Or because I went low carb or low fat. Or any other reason relating to my food choices.
So throughout the experiment I did eat a lot of home cooked “healthy” food. But I also ate a ton of fast food and ready meals (one of the days I had KFC for lunch and McDonalds for dinner). I ate a huge amount of chocolate and desserts (GU products, I tip my hat to you). I had lots of calories come in from alcohol (for example, on one day I had 1,400 calories come in from beer and wine alone).
As the experiment went on my eating actually became more and more skewed towards the “unhealthy” types of foods and alcohol. I was struggling to get the calories in and it was much easier to have a ready meal or a whole pizza with a couple of glasses of wine then it was to get those calories from fish and vegetables.
Eating became such a problem that I actually ended the experiment after nine weeks. I simply couldn’t stomach any more food.
Over the course of the nine weeks I ate just shy of 35,000 extra calories on top of what it is estimated I need (34,446 was the exact figure). My biggest day of eating was 4,874 calories and I had numerous days over 4,000. When it’s averaged, out my daily intakes was 3,347 calories per day for nine weeks, so well above the original goal of 3,200 calories.
The figure that is always talked about is that a pound of body fat is equivalent to 3,500 extra calories. So if I eat an extra 3,500 I should put on a pound, if I eat less and miss out on 3,500 calories I should lose a pound. Considering what I ate over this experiment, if our bodies really are simple abacuses, I should have put on 9.85 pounds or just shy of 4.5kg
So what happened to my weight over this time?
I started the experiment at 64.5kg or 142.2 pounds. For the first two weeks my weight went up. Not as much as it should according to the generic calculations, but it was increasing. But during week three it actually came down ever so slightly. Despite eating just shy of 4,000 extra calories on what I needed that week, I lost 0.2kg or 0.4 pound.
Week four, five and six went back to as you’d expect, with the weight continuing to go on. But it was here that I hit my peak. My highest weight throughout the experiment was at the end of week six, when I hit 67kg or 147.7 pounds.
From week seven onwards, despite eating an inordinate amount of food, the weight started to come back down. I was still eating well over what the online calculators were telling me I needed (I was eating to the point of feeling nauseas and couldn’t physically fit in anymore food). And all while this is happening, I’m losing weight.
At the end of the nine weeks my weight had come back to 65.7kg. This meant that with me eating an extra 34,446 calories it only lead to me putting on 1.2kg or 2.6 pounds.
I can’t tell you how excited I was when the experiment was over. I know you may be reading this and thinking how much fun this would be. Well the novelty wears off pretty quickly. And when you have to do it day after day, with no break, it really starts to suck.
So after the experiment, as I returned to eating normally again and simply listening to my hunger, my weight continued to go down. It was much slower at first then I would have expected but it was edging its way down.
Within four weeks of ending I was back at my start point of 64.5kg or 142.2 pounds. By seven weeks after the experiment I was sitting at 63.4kg or 139.7 pounds. As I write this, now a couple of months since ending the experiment, my weight is now sitting at 61.5kg or 135.5 pounds.
So I’m now 5.5kg or 12 pounds lighter than at the height of the experiment and all this has been achieved by me doing absolutely nothing to actively try and lose weight.
Now I should add to all this, that I have a natural tendency to be lean. My body has a tough time keeping weight on irrespective of what I eat. So I’m in no way suggesting that if you follow what I did you’ll get similar results. I’m aware I sit right at the end of the spectrum with this stuff.
So what should we do with these results? What do I think are the important take aways from in it (while still keeping in mind that this was an experiment with n =1, meaning that I was the only participant in the study)?
The first is that we all have a weight set point. We have a natural weight range that we like to sit in, which is usually about 10% of our weigh. Moving up and down in this range is pretty easy, but when we try and move outside of it the body will fight back, turning up and down different processes to make this happen.
And as part of this, body diversity is a real thing. We do come in different shapes and sizes and aren’t all meant to look the same. While weight can be a predictor of health outcomes, its importance is regularly overstated. You can be overweight or obese a still be healthy, just as you can be in the normal weight range and be unhealthy.
As you go to the further extremes of the weight spectrum, whether we’re talking about people who are incredibly skinny or people who are carrying around a much higher amount of fat, weight is more likely to be an independent risk factor and causing a problem. But for the majority of people, shifting weight alone makes very little difference to health outcomes.
And the reason for this is that it is the habits that people keep up that are much more important for health. How much sleep do you get and what is the quality of your sleep? How much of your diet consists of plants? How much movement do you do and do you enjoy it? How much time do spend outdoors getting natural light? How autonomous do you feel in your life? How well do you handle stress? Do you have healthy relationships and how supported do you feel by those who are close to you?
All of these are incredibly important determiners of health and longevity, irrespective of what someone weights. And in an ideal world, the more of these things that someone is incorporating into their life, the leaner they will be, but in reality this isn’t always the case.
I think we should have conversations about weight, the impact that this can have on health and what people can attempt to do about it. And this should be an honest conversation. But in reality, if the end goal is health, it should only be a small part of the conversation.
Because the real game changers in people’s lives are keeping up the habits that support their health. If this leads to weight loss, then fantastic. But if it doesn’t, people shouldn’t be throwing in the towel believing that it’s not worth doing this stuff because they are not losing weight. And unfortunately this is too often what happens.
This experiment was the subject of a much longer podcast that I did on the topic. I go into more detail about what happened with the experiment and use this as a launch pad for all things relating to weight. I look at calories in versus calories out and why the figures don’t always add up.
I look at the most likely reasons why weight gain happens (the majority of these things no one pays any attention to). And I also look at what the research really shows around weight and health outcomes and when it is and isn’t important. You can listen to the show by clicking here.