Calorie counting is a means of measuring energy intake, enabling the management of energy balance. The theory being, to eat either a shortfall, equilibrium, or excess of calories, according to your energy requirements.
This method of food consumption is proposed to facilitate either weight loss, the maintenance of body weight, or weight gain, respectively.
This article examines 7 scientific facts surrounding the myth of calorie counting for weight loss.
It also answers ubiquitous calorie counting questions such as:
- Do all calories make you fat?
- How do I keep my metabolism up while dieting?
- Are calories on menus accurate?
- Can you survive on 1000 calories a day?
So if you want to specifically target fat loss, as opposed to generic weight loss, this article is for you.
By the end of it you will be able to ditch your calorie counting journal or app, and lose weight without having to tediously log every single calorie you consume.
The practical application of calorie counting
I regularly hear from obsessive calorie counters who log every calorie that they ever eat into their daily journals, yet they are completely stuck with their weight loss. The usual scenario being, they hired themselves a coach who put them on a calorie deficit and promised them the earth.
When their weight loss comes to a standstill, they consult with their “weight loss coach”, who orders them to do more cardio and to eat fewer calories. Unfortunately, it’s the only thing these “weight loss gurus” know; increase caloric expenditure through exercise and eat fewer calories.
Nothing else computes. In their world, losing weight is just a case of counting calories and balancing numbers; calories in vs. calories out. They don’t understand the complex array of biochemical processes behind the calories they are counting; targeted weight loss isn't in their vocabulary.
The net result is their clients become zombies, starving hungry, unable to function properly, fixated and craving quick-fix junk food without any real fat loss. This just isn’t practical or sustainable. The worst part, this kind of "dieting" can quickly develop into an eating disorder.
Let's start by looking at the basic premise of what a calorie is, and how counting calories has seemlessly become engrained into our understanding, or lack thereof, of nutrition.
The law of thermodynamics and calories
Fundamentally, counting calories is a misnomer. You have to properly understand nutrition and the nutritional content of food, along with the metabolic and hormonal response each of those calories produce. Calories aren’t generic, nor are they equal.
My statements do not contradict the first law of thermodynamics:
Law 1 (law of conservation of energy) states that:
Energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system.
If you ate a set isocaloric amount from different food sources, each calorie source could have a different metabolic and hormonal effect. For example; sugar spikes insulin which increases fat storage. Conversely, protein increases anabolism through the stimulation of protein synthesis.
LEARN MORE > Protein Powder: An Ultimate Buyers Guide (2019)
Either scenario is true to the first law of thermodynamics; energy wasn't created or destroyed. The major difference is how the energy is used and stored. As you can imagine the effect on body composition, (fat mass to muscle mass ratio) can be profoundly different.
Calorie geeks have this unfounded belief that you can take the number of calories in, then subtract the number of calories out (CICO), and whatever the difference, (caloric excess or deficit) is either stored as fat mass, or lost from fat mass. They dont take into consideration other tissues such as muscle mass. Calories don't just go to and from one "compartment".
It is possible, given the right nutrition and exercise, to significantly improve your body composition (muscle to fat ratio) without having to lose or gain masses of weight. Building muscle and burning fat are two completely different processes.
With that said, before we delve in and see why counting calories, truly is inaccurate, let me first explain what a calorie is, and where this measurement originated.
What exactly is a calorie?
A calorie is purely and simply a measure of heat energy. In fact, the actual word calorie is derived from the Latin word – Calor; meaning heat.
The unfaithful calorie was first defined by French chemist Professor Nicolas Clément in 1824. Professor Clement was heavily involved in industrial chemistry research for powering steam engines; his research certainly did not involve calorie counting for weight loss!
He wanted to calculate the maximum amount of energy that one kilogram of coal could provide. Clement’s research led him onto the path to becoming the first person to create a standard definition of a calorie; the heat energy required to increase one kilogram of water by one degree C. Since then other standards have been defined such as the joule-calorie.
A calorie is an absolute measure of how much heat energy a foodstuff (or anything else for that matter), contains. It does not provide any information or metrics regarding its effects on metabolism, hormones, nutrient absorption or how a calorie is likely to affect overall health. Ergo all calories are not equal.
Calorie counting science is outdated
Since 1824 this outdated and inaccurate calorie counting science has worked its way into our food labelling, food science and even our educational system. We are constantly taught that obesity is a cause of eating too many calories and exercising too little; eat the right calorific energy balance and you will lose weight.
It is bamboozling to understand how we are still preaching about calorie counting when it is based on science that is almost two hundred years old. Modern science clearly teaches us that it is impossible to accurately count calories and calculate your “energy balance”.
In actual fact, calories as such do not provide your body with energy, and they have no place in energy metabolism.
Rather, every cell in the human body without exception, receives it's energy from generation of Adenosine Tri-Phosphate (ATP), in what is referred to as the Electron Transport Chain (ETC). In essence each one of your cells is like a microscopic nuclear power plant.
If you hire yourself a weight loss coach who talks about calorie deficits, run a mile, they have been indoctrinated. They do not understand 3 fundamentals to weight loss;
- Energy metabolism
7 Scientific facts why calorie counting is inaccurate:
- Restricting calories decreases resting metabolic rate.
- Digesting food requires energy.
- Some calories cause disease more than others.
- Not all calories are equal.
- Food labels are at least 10% inaccurate.
- Not all calories are utilised.
- Not all foods are equal.
So Let me talk about these points in more detail.
Fact 1. Restricting calories too low can slow metabolic function
Data from various studies show that calorie restriction can actually lower resting metabolic rate (RMR) and thus preserve body weight. In order to counter a reduction in RMR you’d have to reduce food and calorie intake even further, which would probably lead to a further reduction in RMR.
Needless to say, reducing food intake can also reduce consumption of essential micronutrients such as minerals and vitamins. One study in particular showed that longer-term calorie restriction decreases RMR. The conclusion of the study was; "body weight is defended in non-obese participants during modest caloric restriction, evidenced by metabolic adaptation of RMR and reduced energy expenditure through physical activity" (1).
Question: How do I keep my metabolism up while dieting?
The key to maintaining a healthy metabolic rate is to eat the right ratio of macronutrients that nourish the body. Don’t skip breakfast, eat regular balanced meals and drink plenty of water each day.
Fact 2. Digesting food requires energy (thermic effect of food)
The thermic effect of food (TEF) is defined as the energy required to digest food stuffs. This is typically estimated at around ten percent of your total daily calorie count. Certain foods such a green cruciferous vegetables are so calorie rare, that the energy required to digest them vs. the energy they provide is often minimal.
However it is appropriate to note that there are no negative calorie foods. If this were the case, a person eating only “negative calorie foods”, for a long enough period, would risk death from starvation.
While the thermic effect of food is estimated at around 10%, in reality the TEF of protein, carbohydrates and fats is significantly different. Carbohydrates and fats have a much lesser TF than Protein. In fact one study in particular showed that postprandial thermogenesis increased 100% on a high-protein, low-fat diet versus a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet (2).
Additionally, when following a high protein diet there are other factors to consider. It is important to eat a variety of protein sources, for example animal proteins have a higher fat content than plant based proteins. If you are a meat eater, make sure you remove the skin from your chicken and trim the fat off your beef (before you cook them).
The bottom line
The “calories in” play a significant role in determining the “calories out”.
Question: What foods have high thermic effect?
Protein has the highest thermic effect. Therefore foods high in protein will increase your energy expenditure by increasing TEF. Foods that are high in fibrous carbohydrates such as green vegetables are also good for increasing TEF. Here is a list of some thermogenic foods:
- Brown rice
Fact 3. Some calories cause disease more than others
A calorie is in no way a measure of health, some calories can increase health while others can cause disease. For example, calories from trans fats have a very detrimental effect upon health. Trans fats have been directly linked to cardiovascular disease (3), obesity and diabetes. Furthermore the human body is in complete polarity from a bomb calorimeter because it readily recognises where calories come from.
Question: Do all calories make you fat?
Gaining fat is a product of the calories you collectively consume on a daily basis. You can still over-eat healthy and nutritious foods and gain excess weight. However, different type’s of calories have different effects on your metabolism, energy expenditure, and hormones.
Some calories are healthy and nutritious, whereas some can actually cause disease. Don’t think in terms of counting generic calories; rather, think in terms food sources, their contents and how they affect your metabolism and hormones.
Fact 4. Calories are equal myth (Debunked)
The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-interact), is a European community funded scientific project that researches and investigates how genes and lifestyle interact to lead to the prevalence of diabetes.
A Calorie from protein, carbohydrate or fat, each affect your metabolism in a different manner. One study in particular, showed that two weeks of snacking based on peanuts did not cause the same negative metabolic effects as an isocaloric diet in which the snacking was based on short acting sugary carbohydrates in the form of candy, in non-obese healthy subjects (4).
Sugar calories are associated with Diabetes
Researchers from EPIC-interact found a direct correlation between diabetes and sugar consumption, in particular sugar sweetened beverages. Their findings indicated that people who consumed one or more sugar sweetened beverage per day had a 29% increased risk of diabetes relative to a control group, who did not consume sugar sweetened beverages (5). These findings took into account any necessary adjustments for BMI and energy intake.
In a meta-analysis, which looked at the correlation between diet and diabetes, researchers analysed data from the food and agriculture organisation, international diabetes federation and the world bank’s world development indicators database.
The researchers concluded that of all food types, sugar was the only food that was correlated with diabetes. They found that for every extra one hundred and fifty calories a person consumed, the risk of diabetes was 11 times greater if the additional calories were consumed from a sugar sweetened beverage rather than from other sources.
All calories are not equal.
Question: Can you survive on 1000 calories a day?
Diets of 1000 calories or less are known as a very low calorie diets (VLCD). Very low calorie diets can restrict healthy nutrients. Without proper nutrition, your health can suffer.
Some foods are more nutrient and calorie dense than others. Take almonds for example, they are highly calorific and typically contain around 600 calories per one hundred grams. Calorie restricted diets that focus only on total daily calorific intake will often skip such nutrient dense foods simply because their calorie count is too high.
This type of approach does not take into consideration the healthy benefits of different foods and the essential nutrients they may contain. Almonds, while being calorie packed, are a great source of essential fats, protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals.
You can survive on 1000 calories per day, but it isn’t necessary or healthy to eat 1000 calories or less to maintain a healthy weight.
Fact 5. Counting calories on food labels is generally inaccurate.
Studies show that calorie metrics on food labels are at best ninety percent accurate. Thus assuming for a ten percent error margin, an average person eating around a million calories per year, could possibly eat an extra one hundred thousand calories per year. The average person does not gain thirty pounds or so of weight each year.
One particular study published by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, found that the accuracy of stated energy contents of reduced-energy commercially prepared foods were between 8-18% inaccurate of the stated label claim (6).
Question: Are calories on menus accurate?
In the UK, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) do not require restaurants to disclose calorie counts on menus. There isn’t any legal regulation for this either.
However the FSA do offer a free scheme called calorie wise. The FSA say that; “Calorie Wise encourages food businesses to display calories on menus and to provide healthier options to help consumers make healthier choices when eating out”.
The fact of the matter is, you can’t rely on menus to properly or accurately display calories.
Fact 6. Not all calories are absorbed
All nutrients and calories are broken down by the digestive system. Digestion is a continual cyclic mechanism of catabolic processes to enable nutrient absorption while eliminating left over waste product.Digestion is far too complex a process to be accurately measured in calorific numbers.
It is generally accepted that proteins, carbohydrates, fats and fibre each have 4,4,9 and 2 calories per gram respectively. However there is no food label metric that accurately specifies how much of each calorie is actually extracted or likely to be extracted by your digestion.
Even if food labels were proven to be 100% accurate, the actual calories utilised could significantly vary from those numbers presented on the label.
There are many and various factors that affect calories from foodstuffs being absorbed. Here are a few:
- Certain foods require more energy to digest than others
- Raw food vs cooked food
- Gut bacteria/health
- Nutrients that work in synergy
Some foods just don’t digest
Calories from sweetcorn go largely unused with most of the corn passing straight through your digestive system. The food label on a can of sweetcorn certainly does not account for this. If you do count the calories displayed on the side of your tin of sweetcorn, your calorie count is already broken.
Vegetables vary in digestibility and so do their constituent parts. For example, the leaves of some plants may be more readily digested than the stems. It is impossible to escape these differences, even in the same species of plant. The cell walls in younger plants tend to be more pliable than those in older plants and are therefore easier to digest.
Raw foods provide fewer calories
As a rule of thumb, raw foods require more energy to digest, and the nutrients contained in them are less accessible. Thus, an isocaloric diet comprising of the exact same foods in the exact same quantities: raw vs cooked, would vary in caloric absorption. Essentially the cooked food diet would result in a higher calorie intake which cannot be accounted for in your calorie counting.
Starchy carbohydrates such as those found in potatoes, are mostly comprised of amylopectin and amylose. In their raw and uncooked state, amylopectin and amylose molecules are tightly packed and are virtually inaccessible to digestive enzymes.
The heat energy from cooking “gelatinises” these starches, opening up the molecular structures and enabling digestive enzymes to readily break them down for absorption. Cooked starches therefore yield more calories and energy than raw starches.
Gut health affects calorie absorption
Gut health can also affect calorie and nutrient absorption. A digestive tract in optimal health can readily absorb foodstuffs and nutrients. Anyone who suffers from leaky gut syndrome, coeliac disease, or just has below optimal gut health will not absorb nutrients nowhere near as readily and as efficiently.
Nutrients work in synergy
Some nutrients work in synergy and thereby enhance the absorption of other nutrients. However this is also true in the opposite; some nutrients are antagonistic to others and prevent them from being utilised, thus yielding waste product.
Question: Is there a maximum amount of calories your body can absorb?
Your digestive systme can only digest so much food at once. If you severly overeat, you will throw-up. This is your body's in-built mechanism of protecting itself. What the actual maximum number of calories you can absorb is, noone knows.
There are many variables that can affect calorie absorption, including the types of calories consumed, the combination of the calories and the individual in question.
Fact 7. Not all foods are equal
There are many factors that affect nutrient content and overall food quality. These variables give rise to a vast difference between foods of the same type. Factors such as time of season, soil quality and other environmental variables all contribute to the nutrient content of foods. Thus all foods are not equal and even the same are rarely the same.
For example let’s compare wild salmon vs. farmed salmon. Salmon is a well known oily fish; however this is only due to its natural diet. Wild salmon feed on shrimp and krill which are naturally high in omega three oils. Shrimp and krill also contain a compound called astaxanthin which gives the salmon its orangey colour.
Farmed salmon on the other hand are fed on a diet of man-made food pellets, made from a mish-mash of stuff including a mixture of smaller fish such as whitebait and herring, GMO soy beans, yeast and chicken feathers. Artificial colourings are then further added to these food pellets in an effort to replicate the natural orangey colour of wild salmon.
You are what you eat; nutrients are passed down the food chain. A wild salmon is nutritionally superior to a farmed salmon.
Question: Is calorie counting a good way to lose weight?
Science teaches us that calorie counting is not important and that we don’t really need to actively count our daily calorific intake. Nor do we need to try to and manage our "energy balance" in order to lose weight; it simply can't be done.
If counting calories were necessary it would also logically follow that we should monitor our consumption of other such nutrients that are essential to our lives.
For example humans would need systems in place to measure and monitor input and output of essential minerals and vitamins. When was the last time you measured your intake of vitamin B1 vs. your output of vitamin B1?
Our bodies have a series of complex inbuilt mechanisms and feedback systems for managing itself, including its intake of calories and other essential nutrients.
In order to manage your weight it is important to track macronutrient intake, eat nutrient dense whole foods (not processed) and eat regularly. Just keep it simple, it’s not rocket science.
Calorie mythology and weight loss
Calorie counting for weight loss still remains one of the most common nutrition myths of today. If it were truly that simple, anyone with a calculator could become a weight loss coach, and there would be hardly any overweight people.
Furthermore, weight loss is just too generic. Weight loss could literally be a decrease in mass from any part of your body, whether it is tissues or fluid mass; fat mass, muscle mass, glycogen, bone mass, organ mass, water etc. Weight loss literally means that you simply lost “weight”. This is absolutely not a measure of fat loss.
Targeted weight loss requires a structured nutrition plan that specifically aims to reduce excess body fat stores, rather than losing generic weight. This requires more than just tediously counting calories; a systematic approach of optimising your hormones through nutritional planning is needed, "metabolic hacking" if you like.
Once your nutritional plan is in place, the next step is to plan your exercise regime, a combination of cardiovascular and resistance training is best. Next you'll need to add in the right type of supplements that help optimise your hormones, increase your metabolic rate and speed up fat loss. Fortunately I have already done the hard work for you there by formulating 2 natural thermogenic fat burning supplements, each specifically tailored for men and women, Thermo-XY and Thermo-XX - you can get yours now.
You can read all over the internet the same old example of calorie counting for weight loss;
Creating a daily calorific deficit of five hundred calories will lead to a weekly deficit of three thousand five hundred calories. A weekly caloric deficit of three thousand five hundred equates to one pound of fat loss per week.
1 gram of fat = 9 calories
3500 calories (calorific deficit) / 9 = 388 grams of fat mass.
Three hundred and eighty eight grams of dehydrated fat would equals to around one pound of fat mass; stored fat mass is around fifteen percent water. Unfortunately, in practise it just doesn’t work like that.
Counting calories in vs calories out is a myth
One of the most prolific diets of recent times is the Atkins diet. The famous Dr. Atkin noticed that he could any amount of foods that contained just proteins and fats, and still lose weight. For a short while this stumped many nutritionists and scientists, and became a calorie conundrum; how was it possible to lose weight while consuming extra calories?
The answer was found in the difference in metabolic and hormonal responses from following a diet with no sugar and carbohydrates. Eating no carbs minimises insulin levels and also requires extra energy (calories) to metabolise proteins into glucose (Gluconeogenesis) which contribute to a calorie deficit and thus weight loss.
Therefore the type of calories you consume, affect the amount of calories that you expend.
3 things to do instead of calorie counting
1. Track macronutreint intake
Don’t just count macronutrients, make them count. If it fits your macro’s (IIFYM) style dieting is a crude approach to nutrition and does not generally take into account nutrient profiling and health. Having a daily calorie count and eating whatever you can as long it fits into your allowed calorie intake is a lazy approach to nutrition.
This method allows you to regularly eat pizzas, burgers, ice cream and any old junk. Just because it fits your macros, doesn’t mean it's any good for you.
2. Eat nutrient dense whole foods
Eating any old junk as long as it fits a calorie allowance, will not improve your health, visceral fat, or your physique. Far more benefit can be reaped from measuring macronutrient intake and prioritising nutrient quality rather than squandering time and energy calorie counting.
3. Eat regular meals
Eating frequently is also of significant importance. Consuming regular meals can increase your metabolic rate. Conversely, eating less often and sporadically can slow your metabolic rate and function. A higher metabolic rate burns more calories and energy, and as you would expect, a slower metabolic rate burns fewer calories and energy.
Regular timed meals also help to optimise your insulin metabolism, which is key to being lean.
Quality over quantity
As a rule of thumb it is more important to eat a balanced variety of nutrient dense foods rather than counting generic calories. More importantly, eat organic non-gmo plant based foods such as root vegetables, leafy vegetables, fresh fruits and nuts and seeds.
It is particularly beneficial to include the holy trinity of fruits and vegetables; Avocado, Spinach and Kale. These are known anti-cancer foods that help alkalise the body and are most definitely packed full of healthy micro-nutrients.
These types of foods are all nutrient dense and contain a variety of essential minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and other beneficial phytonutrients. Eating this way will not only keep you in good health but will also help support a healthy body fat level including visceral fat.
Conclusion: Calorie counting is inaccurate
Ultimately calories refer to food consumption, and there are no “calorie free” or “negative calorie” foods. Therefore it would be ignorant to say that calories don’t count; you cannot escape over eating. Needless to say you can’t accurately count calories either.
Food labels are proven to be inaccurate, and the type of calories in, directly affect calorie expenditure (calories out).
Furthermore, there are other factors that are significantly more important than overall calorific intake for maintaining health and weight. These factors more specifically help determine fat loss/gain, and overall body composition and health.
So now it’s your turn, are you an advocate of calorie counting, or do you prefer to track your macronutrients instead?
Scientific Reference Data:
- Effect of calorie restriction on resting metabolic rate and spontaneous physical activity.
- Postprandial thermogenesis is increased 100% on a high-protein, low-fat diet versus a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet in healthy, young women.
- Trans fatty acids – A risk factor for cardiovascular disease
- Two weeks of overfeeding with candy, but not peanuts, increases insulin levels and body weight
- The EPIC-InterAct Study: A Study of the Interplay between Genetic and Lifestyle Behavioral Factors on the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in European Populations
- The Accuracy of Stated Energy Contents of Reduced-Energy, Commercially Prepared Foods