Why Counting Calories Sucks!

If you were looking for yet another calorie counter, I’m sorry.

Nothing blows my skirt up…I mean shirt up like the good ol’ calorie debate. To count, or not to count, that is the question.

I mean, what is a calorie really anyway?

Well, it’s a unit of measure, originally measuring heat but now commonly understood as a measure of energy for our food consumption and our exercise prescription. It’s technically really a kilocalorie (kcal) and it’s the amount of energy needed to raise a kilogram of water 1 degree celsius.

This is kind of besides the point here.

The point is that apparently you should be counting them because that’s really what is going to solve all of your weight problems.

I hope people detect my sarcasm there, because I’m really trying to lay it on thick in this post.

And it’s not that Energy Balance or intake doesn’t matter. It does. Please don’t assume this a rationalization on my part attempting to disprove a law of physics. Energy doesn’t just disappear and you can’t lose weight without negative energy balance, nor can you gain weight without a surplus. Energy intake matters, I just question whether calorie counting (Specifically) is the best way for most normal human beings to approach this.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that tracking something — anything even, they’ve shown simply taking a photo of what you eat at every meal can be used too, hence why we chose to go that route with our Fitnack program— can help you lose weight.

We know that counting calories can work, but is it a short-term solution or a long-term one?

Is a long-term skill all modern human beings should possess?

Or is there perhaps a more simplistic way to track and tweak progress?

Do you know anyone that has lost weight and kept it off for an entire lifetime by counting their calories at every meal, every day?

I don’t…

I do know plenty of people who have used it for a few months on end to lose weight.

Many of whom regain the weight, not because calorie counting isn’t or wasn’t effective for losing weight, but because it’s hard to do long-term for various reasons.

And in all honesty when I was a newbie trainer, I used calorie counting all the time to help people lose weight…

What I didn’t do well was prepare them for what happens after that weight is lost. I didn’t focus on the behavior changes, patterns, habits and skills that would help them maintain.

In my quest to optimize weight loss and consequent weight maintenance since then; I’ve come to the conclusion that calorie counting works best for short-term objectives at a high level of nutritional skill and overall great nutritional habits or behaviors are what keep it off.

It is not a great long-term solution.

I would like to meet someone who has been able to ‘count calories’ their entire life as a good ‘long-term’ weight maintenance strategy.

If you know someone, please have them contact me.

I’d like to hear their story, but I usually worry about their relationship with food; Human beings shouldn’t view food merely as energy in, energy out, it’s so much more than that!

Quite plainly put, any kind of restrictive dieting strategy without a long-term maintenance plan (including improved skillsets, behaviors and habits) has been repeatedly shown to be ineffective and often leads to MORE weight gain.

Arguably this critical element (the weight maintenance phase) is where most people misstep, but I believe part of the reason can often be attributed to the short-term thinking encouraged by counting calories.

So I hate to burst everyone’s bubble but counting calories is not the solution to our obesity epidemic.

I would actually go so far as to say that it’s often part of the problem, not part of the solution.

*For the general population anyway. What I’m about to discuss has no bearing on aesthetic oriented professionals like bodybuilders, actors, etc… many of whom can afford the benefit of someone else doing the counting anyway.

It makes people focused on something that is low on the list of overall importance for the weight maintenance phase of a physical transformation.

People who generally count calories do so for a short amount of time, typically until they reach their goal weight (or close to), and then they stop counting, the only skill that was helping them lose (or manage) then put on all that weight, often +5 lbs more.

Wash, Rinse and Repeat.

Why Counting Calories Doesn’t Work Long Term…

1) Nutrition labels are off 8-18% or more…

It’s not the only one, but this study showed just how wildly off certain nutrition labels can be, and as you might guess, most labels are not lower than the actual values…

When they looked at the accuracy of various nutrition labels at restaurants, they were higher than the listed values by an average by 18% and frozen foods were 8% higher than their listed values.

Some restaurant items were as much as 200% higher than their listed values!

Honestly, you may as well be guessing, it’d be a lot less stressful.

You can’t track calories without also tracking the progress you want to change and you can get into an estimated deficit just fine with other less stressful methods if you’re tracking that change and learn how to tweak intake based on it.

That’s where more focus should lie.

2) People overestimate how many calories they need.

Most people do not go and get an actual resting metabolic assessment, it’s invasive, kinda boring and not particularly cheap.

So they do the next best thing…

Guess how many calories they need based on height and weight typically but some estimation formulas are a little more complex.

The problem is that these formulas are often far off your true energy needs, even more ‘well-regarded‘ formulas that try to account for ethnicity and weight history, like the Harris Benedict formula, are off 105-295 kcal a day!

So we might be another 8-18% off in our guesses as to how much energy we need.

That’s why I answer dozens of questions online every day that start with, “I eat 500 kcal less than my maintenance estimated requirements, but I’m not losing weight.”

Look your estimation is most likely wrong or has changed — metabolism changes as you lose weight for instance, estimations are always a moving target — so you probably need to stop dieting for the moment and rethink your approach. If you just started, then you’re probably not 500 kcal under your needs one way or another, if you’re not losing about a half a pound to a pound a week. Or it’s possible you’re not accounting for water weight, which is often retained at the start of a ‘diet.’

You can’t just keep reducing calorie intake lower and lower, you have to consider controlling for that, which is a separate issue I’ll try to cover in a different post.

3) People overestimate how many calories they burn through movement.

Not that we don’t already know this, but this study in 2010, showed some alarming differences between how many calories people thought they burned and how many they literally burned.

People were divided up into 2 groups, a 200 kcal group and a 300 kcal group.

The 200 kcal group, estimated their energy output on average at 825 kcal and the 300 kcal group, estimated their output at 896 kcal.

That’s 3-4x more than they actually burned…

And it doesn’t really stop there, even exercise machines that give you a pleasant number while you’re running or cycling away, are potentially significantly off too.

People also often forget that the number in the read-out is including an estimation of your regular resting metabolism, which might or might not be the same formula you used for your initial calculation of need.

If you typically burn 80 kcal an hour (a 1920 kcal resting metabolism) at rest and the readout comes back 200 kcal, you actually only burned an additional 120 kcal, not 200, as many might assume when tracking calories on an exercise machine.

To adequately account for outputs you have to understand your approx. output per minute/hour and then subtract that from the readout.

Or better yet, you should probably just ignore the energy burn exercise provides and focus instead on the somewhat intangible benefits exercise provides to the process; Things like reduced appetite, improved focus, increase muscle mass, improved health markers, etc…etc…

No one said, calorie counting was an exact science and yet many people view it that way, so part of the problem up until this point is that people often view calorie counting being absolute. A skill that counteracts this trend is to track progress in fat loss over time and to adjust intake based on the results, rather than perceived and estimated inputs/outputs.

4) A calorie isn’t a calorie. Quality of food matters.

OK as a unit of measurement, a calorie is a calorie.

And yet, how much of the energy you see on paper (or in app) isn’t the amount of energy your body actually took in (or expended).

When people say a calorie isn’t a calorie, they mean there is a discrepancy between what often gets called true calorie intake versus perceived calorie intake.

As I detailed in a few articles namely here and here, most calorie counting approaches (even apps that do it for you), fail to account for things like the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF), or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT).

What TEF basically means that if you had a diet of mostly fat, most of that food would be digested and end up be utilized by your body because you don’t require as much energy to digest it.

If you eat mostly carbohydrates, that energy is slightly less overall because carbohydrates generally require a little more energy to break down during digestion.

Fiber isn’t absorbed and if you get the 25-35+ grams per day you should, you calorie count is already off by 100 kcal if you don’t account for your fiber intake.

*And if you learn to calorie count effectively, you shouldn’t count fiber, yet many apps still do.

Protein requires the most amount of energy to digest, significantly more than carbohydrates or fat. It’s also more satiating, but that’s besides the point.

High protein diets often ultimately result in lowered calorie intakes without the complicated math of calorie counting.

The composition of your diet will change the amount of true calories that reach your system from the perceived calories, that’s why the Cunningham formula includes sections for both TEF and NEAT.

So the quality of what your eating, and the mix of macronutrients affects metabolism and how you can read your calorie counts for energy in.

And the amount of fidgeting you do in a day, how much standing, tapping, dishes, gardening, etc… will affect energy balance too.

Work a desk job like many and you could be wildly off in your estimations or spot on, depending on the formula used.

It’s even more complicated than that though…

When you actually look at research you see that not all protein digests the same, nor carbohydrates, nor fats…

So you’re not even guaranteed the same consistent approximations even if you did account for the thermic effect of food when you count your calories and NEAT (which is almost impossible to accurately account for).

This study compared a processed sandwich (processed cheese and white bread) with a minimally processed sandwich (whole wheat bread and real cheddar cheese) and found that even though the calories measured in both were the same, their effect on the body was very different.

Despite the fact that even their macronutrient composition was similar, the minimally processed sandwich required nearly the double amount of energy to digest based on the processing.

Just changing the type of food clearly has a significant impact on energy intake. Another skill that could replace calorie counting for many folks.

5) That all fat is 9 kcal, all carbs are 4 kcal and all protein is 4 kcal is a lie.

That’s a bold statement. It’s not a lie, so much as an approximation that makes calorie counting even less accurate.

Decimal points can add up if you don’t understand that you’re starting with a rounded number in the first place.

When you look at research into various carbs, fats, and again proteins, like I mention above you actually see differing and slightly more specific numbers like 3.651 kcal instead of 4.

Depending on the food/source.

Might not seem like a big deal overall, but if you add it up over the course of 500 grams of food, it can leave another large room for error.

Not permission to ignore energy balance, but more reinforcement that tracking progress and adjusting intake based on it, is more important than calorie numbers on paper.

6) Homeostasis: It’s a moving target.

How many true calories your body needs is actually constantly changing and adjusting to find an equilibrium.

The body reacts to calorie deprivation (or surplus) over time in profound ways that few people are prepared to deal with.

For instance, even though you estimate your needs at let’s say 3500 kcal a day  — yes this a big person who trains heavy, it’s also an easy number to work with because most people know that this would theoretically be a pound of fat –to maintain but you have a really gluttonous day and eat 7000 kcal.

Will you wake up the next day with an extra pound of fat? What if you decided to skip eating for a day will you lose a pound?

Theoretically you should, but the body typically adjusts by absorbing less (or more) or ramping up metabolism or lowering it, etc…etc…

So in actuality usually not, the impacts of a single day are not nearly as important as consumption over a period of time.

Most people gain weight over long stretches of time so it makes sense that they also lose weight over long stretches of time.

If you eat 2500 kcal one day and 1500 kcal the next, then 1200, and 2800 over four days, while your actual needs are 2000 kcal, then those days usually balance out.

The body adjusts, which makes estimated need hard to figure out. It also makes tracking progress that much more important than tracking calories.

Certainly when we apply scientific tracking methods like metabolic wards and doubly labeled water to track energy precisely, it is clear how much you need and spend.

Energy balance matters, but in the real world it’s hard to consistently manage anything remotely resembling these expensive tracking tools.

And more importantly, your body does adjust metabolism based on intake seemingly regularly.

So after a few days of dieting down, let’s say 250 kcal in true energy (not just paper estimations), no big deal.

Your body hasn’t down-regulated metabolism yet to adjust, or dramatically increased hunger sensations via hormonal changes or dramatically lowered your amount of NEAT or affected your workouts.

After a few weeks of that deficit you might see a different story, metabolism has dropped, NEAT activities have dropped, hormone signals are telling you to eat more (you’re starving!) and your workouts might start to suffer.

The bigger the overall deficit the more changes are made considerably faster (though the faster the result is generally achieved too), but the more these survival mechanisms adjust which can make things harder.

This explains why you can’t just keep dropping calorie intake again and again and again as you get smaller and smaller.

Even if you’re doing things seemingly right, just lowering intake more often doesn’t work. You usually need some period of trying to eat more of a maintenance.

Likewise the longer a deficit takes place, the more of an effect you get. Over several days to weeks or even months you won’t get as much of a fight-back mechanism with low deficits (which is generally how I approach it but that’s not to say fast/large deficits don’t work).

The main point here is the the body adjusts to intake (and output if you excessively exercise for instance) and you have to understand how this happens to adjust calorie counting effectively. You also have to learn additional skills for dealing with these problems, which again are probably best discussed in a separate post.

7) The way calories are measured/tracked may not be an accurate reflection of how they are absorbed or at least we still need to know more. 

We know that gut flora health is definitely important in the relative grand scale of things to consider for fat loss and maybe even weight gain.

The specifics of this process in relation to absorption, however do not always appear clear.

Your gut health may even influence your basal metabolism.

In one study, women (but not men?) who took a specific probiotic bacteria during a 24 week weight loss program experienced significantly more weight loss than the other group of women that had no such supplementation.

Kinda strange right?

Your genes probably influence how well you absorb or don’t absorb certain foods.

Your diet itself as an overall trend can probably affect this delicate balance and your environment (stress levels at work for instance) is of influence as well.

And do you even know how calories are actually measured in a lab?

By burning food! Using something called a Bomb Calorimeter.

Somehow, I’m not so sure that’s how your body breaks things down and utilizes them…

Think your stomach works like that?

Actually we know it doesn’t, but counting calories like that is still somehow the norm….

8) They don’t provide much of an intervention into how you approach eating.

Nutrition labels also don’t appear to provide much of an intervention when it comes to eating food.

This systematic review and meta-analysis found that menu labeling with calories alone, did not have the desired effect of helping people consume fewer calories.

I’d credit this to the fact that the human brain doesn’t have a strong emotional attachment to numbers.

Its language is imagery.

While research shows that keeping a food journal, or counting calories can be more effective than not.

Simply taking a photo of your food could be just as effective.

Or tapping into the part of your brain that better registers with imagery.

This meta-analysis found that simply raising your attentiveness in eating is just as effective as counting calories.

 In Summary…

We have an idea of what’s going on in the body, but we don’t know it all (yet).

You have to achieve negative energy balance to lose weight, no question about it, but I think the best way to track this overall is by tracking progress, as opposed to calories and adjusting intake using other imagery based tools like parts of the hand.

At least in 80% or so of the population, where getting into a healthy weight range and keeping reasonably fit is probably the true objective, as opposed to looking context ready for the bodybuilding stage.

Counting calories can certainly work for some people. In my experience, it’s usually people who are very numbers/stats oriented in the first place (math majors, accountants, computer science majors, etc…).

There are lot of ins and outs that you have to be aware of to usually make it worthwhile. It’s seemingly more than other methods that think more long-term and more skills-based.

Negative energy balance is important for weight loss, but counting calories is stressful for many and not any more accurate than far more simplistic methods that can address energy balance with far less effort and mental stress.

There are a lot more simplistic ways to view food and account for portion sizes for the rest of us who don’t like be tethered to a spreadsheet.

Try some of these simple methods using your hand as quick marker, you’ll probably be just as close as an average calorie counter, but without the calculator, math, or app, extra work and stress.

You’ll still have to understand it’s an estimation, but given that calorie counting isn’t incredibly accurate either, I don’t see stark differences until people achieve very low levels of bodyfat and/or high levels of muscle.

Even then a skill based approach focused on habits/behaviors seems to be more supportive in the long-term.

Even for those who do lose a bunch of weight quickly at first using more traditional calorie counting methods, the real challenge is staying there and you need skills to do that.

If you might need a little more help, look into a coach or mentor, and check out the Fitnack program

*Note: I’m not saying that overall energy intake isn’t important. It is.

Nor am I saying NEVER EVER COUNT calories. It has a time and a place, say you’re training for a photo shoot, or a competition. Maybe you’re a high level aesthetics worker like an actor or model.Maybe you are a numbers oriented individual. It may even be a useful exercise to go through every now and then so you realize just how much or little you actually eat in a day (i.e. 3-5 day food log for instance…).

Doing it once and a while can be an eye opening experience provided you learn how to do it well. It’s an awareness tool in my playbook more than anything else.

It just probably shouldn’t be used as much as it is with most people, who in my experience find it overwhelming and complicated. And yes, few learn how to do it well, but you can’t force everyone to do something, even if it has validity.