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 a kilocalorie (kcal) and it’s the amount of energy needed to raise a kilogram of water 1 degree celsius.
That’s kind of besides the point though.
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.
A Quick Note About Energy Balance:
It’s not that Energy Balance or intake doesn’t matter. It does.
Please don’t assume this post is a rationalization on my part. Attempting to disprove a law of physics. Calories matter, but that's different from how people count them.
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.
I’m not sure the math is worth bothering with for the majority of us.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that tracking something — anything even —can help you lose weight.
They’ve shown simply taking a photo of what you eat at every meal can be used too. Get your smartphone out and try it.
*Our Fitnack program, gets you to track your habit/skill practice and it works pretty damn well too!
It Can Work, But There Are Alternatives
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 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.
In all honesty, when I was a newbie trainer, I used calorie counting all the time to help people lose weight…
Guess what, I saw some people lose weight in the short-term but it rarely worked in the long-term.
I suspect because I didn’t prepare people well for what happens after the weight is lost. I didn’t focus on the behavior changes, patterns, habits and skills that would help them maintain.
No one really wants to do all that math forever.
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 can also be a great awareness raising tool.
*There are two weeks in the Fitnack program where we show you how to do it but it’s only two weeks.
It is not, however, 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. I believe part of the reason can 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.
This applies to the general population. Your average person.
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 focus 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). Then they stop counting.
Unfortunately that was the only skill helping them lose (or manage). When they stop doing it, no skills are in place to prevent weight re-gain, often +5 lbs more.
Wash, Rinse and Repeat.
Why Counting Calories Doesn’t Work Long Term…
Without further adieu…
#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. As you might guess, most labels are not labeled higher than their 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%. 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. That’s the only math you should worry about.
You can get into an estimated deficit just fine with other less stressful methods. Provided you’re tracking that change and learning how to tweak intake based on your tracking data.
That’s where your 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, but it’s the only accurate way to do it.
Instead they do the next best thing…
Guess how many calories they need based on height and weight. Although, 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!
Add that up over a year and even on the low end you could be adding an extra eleven pounds after fifty-two weeks.
So we might be another 8-18% off on our energy need guesstimates.
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’re not seeing the results you expect, then you’re probably not 500 kcal under your needs one way or another. If you were, you’d be losing about a half a pound to a pound a week.
This is just sound logic and reasoning.
It could be possible than you’re not accounting for water weight, which is often retained at the start of a ‘diet.’
However, physiology doesn’t work as quickly as many people hope. Starting a true -500 kcal diet today, won’t necessarily mean you’re 1 lbs lighter next week. There are other variables that people miss.
You can’t just keep reducing calorie intake lower and lower, you have to consider controlling for that. All of 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 didn’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 significantly off too.
Add to that the confusion of such machines. The number read-outs you see include an estimation of your regular resting metabolism.
It isn’t how much energy you burned in addition to your regular non-training outputs.
It’s giving you a combined output of what you would have burned doing nothing AND the additional number of calories you may have burned doing the exercise.
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 kcal.
Afterwards it’s easy to assume you have 200 kcal of leeway to eat more food, when in reality it’s only a little more than half that.
To adequately account for outputs you have to understand your approx. output per minute/hour and then subtract that from the readout.
Don’t trust exercise machine calorie numbers, they are never correct.
You should ignore the energy burn exercise provides and focus instead on the intangible benefits exercise provides to the process.
- Reduced appetite
- Better adherence to an eating strategy (AKA ‘diet’)
- Improved focus
- Increased muscle mass,
- Improved health markers
Not an Exact Science
No one said, calorie counting was an exact science. Yet many people view it that way. A big part of the problem with calorie counting is when people assume it’s absolute.
It is not infallible and it is highly prone to error. It serves merely as a guideline.
A skill that counteracts this trend is to track progress in fat loss over time. Then adjust intake based on the real 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. You can’t change a calorie anymore than you can change a degree celsius.
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. That energy intake is maximized 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 but certain types can ferment in the gut and become short-chain fatty acids (~2kcal per gram).
If you count the 25-38 grams you should eat in a day. Your calorie count could already off by 100 kcal.
*And if you learn to calorie count effectively, you shouldn’t count fiber. The fermentation process yields little in the way of energy, 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 digestion metabolism. Something you should consider.
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 when we’re trying to account for the differences.
4 kcal is an approximation for protein, based on TEF. Some scientists say it should be more like 3.6 or 3.5 though. We don’t really know but it could add up.
Did you account for the thermic effect of food when you count your calories and NEAT (which is almost impossible to accurately account for)? I doubt it…
This study compared a processed sandwich (processed cheese and white bread) with a minimally processed sandwich (whole wheat bread and real cheddar cheese).
It 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.
This is not permission to ignore energy balance. I simply want to reinforce the notion that tracking progress is more important. If you’re going to track calories, you have to adjust intake based on real world results.
#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. Few people are prepared to deal with these changes.
For instance, even though you estimate your needs at let’s say 3500 kcal a day 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 basal metabolism or lowering it, etc…etc…
In reality, you don’t see these types of short-term changes. The impact of a single day are not nearly as important as the consumption of energy over a period of time.
Most people gain weight over long stretches of time. It makes sense that they also lose that 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. Making your estimated needs hard to figure out. It also makes tracking progress that much more important than tracking calories.
How many times am I going to to say this?
A lot…too many people track calories and too few people track their results.
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 these accurate methods aren’t feasible or cost-effective.
One metabolic assessment, though accurate may not be enough. You need consistent monitoring. Your body will adjust metabolism based on intake.
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 that much. Nor has it dramatically increased hunger sensations via hormonal changes. It hasn’t dramatically lowered NEAT or affected your workouts either.
After a few weeks of that deficit you might see a different story. Basal 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 faster the metabolic changes. Although the faster the result is generally achieved too. Keep in mind, the more these survival mechanisms adjust, the harder the process gets.
Fast changes can be motivating, but they plateau faster, and you have to know how to combat that. Most people don’t.
This partly 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. Eventually though, it will catch up.
*This is generally how I approach it but that’s not to say fast/large deficits don’t work.
The main point here is that the body adjusts to intake (and output if you excessively exercise for instance).
You have to understand how this happens to adjust calorie counting effectively.
You also have to learn additional skills for dealing with these problems. Again a discussion for 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 need to learn more.
We know that gut flora health is definitely important in the relative grand scale of things. It could have a significant influence in some, but not in others.
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?
Maybe it’s gender related. Your genes probably influence how well you absorb or don’t absorb certain foods.
Your diet, as an overall trend, can probably affect this delicate balance. And your environment (stress levels at work for instance) influences the process as well.
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.
I mentioned above that they might be a good short-term awareness building tool, but there is a dark side to that assumption.
Nutrition labels 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.
While research shows that keeping a food journal, or counting calories can be more effective than not. It doesn’t always work as planned.
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.
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. I prefer to adjust intake using other imagery based tools like parts of the hand.
At least in 80-90% 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 contest 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 mentioned about that you need to be aware of to make it worthwhile. The effort and skill level required is significantly higher than more than other methods like my skill based approach.
Negative energy balance is important for weight loss, but counting calories is stressful for many. And it doesn’t appear to be any more accurate than far more simplistic methods.
You can learn with less practice how to be just as close as the average calorie counter. Without the calculator, math, or app, extra work and stress.
If you don’t want to be tethered to a spreadsheet, a skill based approach can address energy balance with far less effort and mental stress. That’s a win in my books.
Even for those who do lose a bunch of weight quickly using more traditional calorie counting methods. The real challenge is staying there and you need skills to do that.
If you need a little more help. I’m currently offering a free nutrition course on the site, you can sign up here.
If you need more than that, I encourage you find a coach or mentor. You can always check out the Fitnack online coaching program.
Again, 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 oriented worker like an actor or model. Maybe you’re 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. The article above provides a lot of insights into how to do it well. It’s an awareness tool in my playbook more than anything else.
It’s the most accurate practical method we have outside a lab. When you need high level accuracy for high level objectives, go for it.
My contention is that it shouldn’t be used as much as it is. The majority of people in my experience find it overwhelming and complicated. We can’t force feed the method to everyone. Even if it has validity.