The Calorie Myth, or, Jeans Theory

There are a couple of things you can go to the bank on:

Any major city with a sports team is going to hit up its populace to fund a new and improved stadium. Everything causes cancer, including sitting in sunlight.

And a calorie is the holy measurement that determines whether or not you’ll fit into your skinny jeans. You know that 3500 calories always add up to a pound, and a couple extra pounds add up to an uncomfortably tight waistband. I suppose we could call this Jeans Theory if we want to get technical.

Hold on to your calorie horses, says Jonathan Bailor in The Calorie Myth: How to Eat More, Exercise less, Lose Weight, and Live Better. Armed with an impressive array of clinical studies done at Harvard, Stanford, and many other prestigious learning institutions, Bailor is prepared to turn the idea of a calorie on its tiny little head.
Did you know?

  1. Eating fewer calories does not necessarily cause long-term fat loss.
  2. Eating more calories does not necessarily cause long-term fat gain.
  3. Eating less calories does not force us to burn body fat. It forces us to burn fewer calories.

In contradiction to what many weight loss regimes advocate, it’s not a simple equation of calorie intake vs. exercise logged.

For example, Bailor explains that since 2006, the average American has ingested an additional 570 calories a day without any appreciable difference in their rate of exercise. If calorie math were true, then the average person would have gained 476 pounds over the last 8 years. Many of us have put on a pound here or there, but I’m guessing for the most part, we’ve kept it to 475 or under.


A calorie may be a calorie, but how your body treats them is downright discriminatory. When you eat, your metabolism can either burn a calorie in activity, store it as fat, or pass it out of the system through elimination. How your system makes that call depends upon what the calorie is made of and how many of a certain kind you’ve ingested.

If you consume 300 calories of protein, the body will burn much of it in processing, until only about 100 calories remain to store as fat. If, on the other hand, you consume 300 calories of starch (i.e. sugar or grains), a whopping 211 calories are left over for fat storage.

That means starch is a 2 to 1 bet over protein for ending up on your hips. We could consider this a fundamental law when it comes to Jeans Theory.

Law number 2 might be to respect the power of fiber. High fiber food confounds the digestion system, which struggles to absorb it, fails (a lot of fiber can’t be digested or stored), and is left with no option but to pass it back out.

And surprisingly, fiber tends to grab up and eliminate some of the nearby calories when it leaves. This is why drinking a glass of orange juice is nutritionally similar to chugging orange soda, but eating an orange, with all its juicy fiber, isn’t such a concern.

It turns out a calorie is not a calorie, you’re getting a new sports stadium, and it’s prudent to stay out of the sun. When it comes to Jeans Theory, keep an eye on your waistband—and hold the starch.

The Smoking Monkey Memo

The inventor of the airplane seatbelt was a man ahead of his time. It’s an over-used expression but in this case, it applies: engineer and inventor Sir George Cayley was born in 1773 and died in 1857, before the Wright brothers were even born.

If you haven’t visited earth in the last 157 years or so, and/or if you’re an extraterrestrial  who’s never boarded a commercial airliner, don’t panic. The use of the seatbelt will be most adequately demonstrated to you. This is for your own safety. You’ll master it in no time. It turns out the simple technology has changed very little since the days of Sir George.

Along the same lines, if you’ve been in a coma since 1992 and you’ve just awakened at your work desk from a deep slumber, there are a couple of other things that haven’t changed. The person in the cubicle next to you is 22 years older, but still annoying. The lunchroom still smells like fish, and the half-eaten Twinkie you left on the counter in the beginnings of the Clinton administration is as fresh as a daisy.

A couple of refreshers for you concerning use of email. You’ll notice your inbox is suffering from what we in the business world call “serious bloat.” You’re going to want to create some new folders for quick sorting: Continue reading

Zen and the Art of Riffing

Q: What did the Zen master say to the hotdog vendor?

A: “Make me one with everything…”


Central to the premise of this old joke is the Zen notion of reaching a higher level of consciousness, where one’s sense of self dissipates, becoming indistinguishable from the rest of the universe. This is pretty heady stuff for many raised in the western thought tradition, where metrics are king, and we’re taught from a young age that if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist.

So what do jazz players and Zen masters have in common?

I’m sure there’s a pun in here somewhere, but the truth is, they may share a lot, according to Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Dr. Charles Limb.

Around 2008, Limb began doing experiments with jazz pianists, trying to understand what was happening in their brains during musical improvisation. Limb had them improvise music while lying in an fMRI; the tool of choice for many neuroscientists. It’s a machine that measures blood flow to a given brain area. Increased blood flow suggests activity, and so the current thought is that the fMRI is the best window we have into what the brain is up to at a given moment.

Limb observed that when a jazz player got into the groove of an improv (in other words, when they reached something like Csikszentmihalyi’s flow), blood flow seemed to decrease in an area called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (or dorsolateral PFC), and increase in the medial prefrontal cortex.

The dorsolateral PFC is where your inner critic resides. It helps to control your impulses, monitor behavior, and analyze your actions.

Another area of the brain that helps keep tabs on you is the superior frontal gyrus, or SFG. It’s responsible for self awareness. Your inhibitions serve the purpose of keeping you from acting in ways that might otherwise get you in trouble. Essentially, your “good angel” doesn’t sit on your shoulder like in the cartoons; it lives in your brain’s SFG.

In The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, author Steven Kotler cites a 2006 Israeli study that says when people are deeply immersed in a task, from sex to playing cards to climbing a mountain, their superior frontal gyrus begins to deactivate.

Balancing your dorsolateral PFC and SFG, your medial PFC is home to self expression. This part of the brain fosters a sort of ungoverned creativity, where rules are more like general guidelines, and impulse and action rule supreme.

So in theory, Kotler says, as the dorsolateral PFC and SFG quiet down and the medial PFC ramps up, there is a trade-off: less energy for analytical cognition and more energy for concentration and focus. In other words, less thinking, more doing.

Concentration and focus is at the heart of flow state. Without scrutiny, action becomes spontaneous and in the moment.

Is there a word to describe the ramping down of the dorsolateral PFC as cognition takes a backseat to instinct? Yes: hypofrontality. Another way to put it is that loss of your sense of self. It’s when the jazz player has the sense of being one with that piano or horn, a single entity from which the music seems to spring forth.

This is the essential definition of the flow state, where a cocktail of neurochemicals acts like a temporary SWAT team, invading your brain and taking control. Norepinephrine increases blood flow and focus. Dopamine generates an increase in connections. Endorphins kick in to minimize pain and promote a euphoric feeling, while Anandamide promotes lateral thinking.

Anandamide may be the least well-known of these chemicals, but it’s certainly not the least important. Lateral thinking is what allows your brain to draw unusual connections and reach surprising ideas. It’s a basic tenant of any improv; or at least, any improv that’s interesting to watch.

The end result is a flow state of altered consciousness. It’s taken western science and the fMRI to finally catch up, measure and confirm what Zen masters and jazz players already experientially understood for years.

Apparently ‘make me one with everything’ has implications far beyond the hotdog stand.