Calorie counting is not an effective fat loss approach. It is a significantly flawed model that overlooks how fat loss actually happens and what your body truly needs to get results. As Mark Sisson says, calorie counting is overly simple & dangerously inaccurate.
This is part two of Why Diets Don’t Work (And What Does). You can read part 1 here.
Yet, lots of people count calories because it’s an easy thing to track. I get it. I mean temperature is also an easy thing to track but it’s completely ineffective if your goal, for example, is to monitor windspeed. Are they sometimes related? Sure! But tracking something because it’s easy doesn’t matter if it’s ineffective.
That’s the predicament we’re facing with calories. We track them because they are easy but for our goal of fat loss, it’s highly ineffective.
What are calories?
Let’s begin with what calories actually are. They are not magical mounds that pile up around your waist line and make you bigger. A calorie is a unit of measurement, just like an inch, mile or degree.
One calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1kg of water by 1 degree Celsius.
When we say “one calorie is the amount of energy required…” that tells us that calories refer to the amount of energy in something. Calories measure energy potential. They tell us how much energy would be released from something if it was burned in a closed system.
Different foods generate different amounts of heat, based on their energy potential (or the amount of calories they contain).
Do you know when this matters most? When you’re burning your food to keep you warm. Like, when you bring a trailer of food to a fire as your only source of heat. Which is basically never.
One hundred calories of cookies and 100 calories of ground beef burned in a closed chamber will release the same amount of energy in the form of heat. But our bodies are not closed chambers where we are setting our dinner on fire and measuring the heat released.
Calories aren’t taking into account the impact of the fuel type on critical fat loss factors like digestion, metabolism, absorption, hormone balance, usage potential, storage and so much more.
When seeking fat loss, it’s the impact of the fuel type on our body that matters most, not the amount of calories.
Unfortunately, too many people take one piece of information and then make all sorts of incorrect assumptions. This is what happens when we take the fact that calories tell us how much energy is in the food we’re eating and then we assume that if we consume less energy, we’ll lose weight.
First part true, second part inaccurate assumption.
There is way more to food than the energy it contains.
Overlooking this huge shortcoming of calorie counting is why so many people fail when counting calories. Focusing exclusively on calories usually leaves people hungry, tried and craving any number of foods that aren’t fat loss friendly.
The type of food we eat and when we eat it has a huge impact on all these things – fat burning, energy, cravings, mood, sleep, hunger and more.
The calorie paradigm of “eat fewer calories and burn more of them” overlooks the most fundamental keys of fat loss.
Let’s consider some of the research.
Calorie Inequality Research
In one study, two groups consumed the same number of calories but from different sources. One group was getting the number of calories from candy. The other group consumed the same number of calories but from peanuts.
After two weeks of this isocaloric diet (isocaloric means that the calories were the same in the two groups), we see that the candy group had increased fat mass, increased body weight and increased cholesterol compared to the peanut group. The peanut group saw no change in body weight or waist circumference and had an increase in basal metabolic rate.
In addition to not taking into consideration how fat loss actually happens, the calorie paradigm totally ignores health. I think we can all agree that someone would be healthier eating 2000 calories per day from whole foods than 1500 calories per day from candy & fried foods.
In addition to ignoring health, the calorie paradigm doesn’t take into consideration the metabolic pathway of foods.
Two hundred calories worth of broccoli has a vastly different metabolic pathway & hormonal impact than 200 calories from soda.
Metabolic Pathways & Hormonal Impact
I talk this through in episode 329 of the Primal Potential podcast for those of you who would prefer to listen than read.
It is the type of food that primarily determines it’s metabolic pathway. The metabolic pathway has a huge impact on whether that food is used for fuel or stored as excess.
The combination of type, quantity & timing of fuel determines it’s hormonal impact. And, it’s the hormonal impact that determines if the food is burned, when it is burned and if & where any excess is stored.
Looking just at calories doesn’t tell us anything about the hormonal impact or metabolic pathway. That’s a huge problem & the primary reason I don’t advocate counting calories or macros.
For example, two different types of sugar have dramatically different metabolic pathways and hormonal responses.
Glucose and fructose are both carbohydrates. Both contain 4 calories per gram. Glucose can be used as fuel by every cell in the body. Fructose, on the other hand, can only be metabolized by the liver. Fructose is the most lipogenic carbohydrate (which means it’s the most likely to be converted to and stored as fat).
If we’re talking about 40 grams of fructose versus 40 grams of glucose, they have the same number of calories and they are the same macronutrient but they act very differently in the body and have vastly different fat loss implications. One hundred & sixty calories of glucose is not the same thing as 160 calories of fructose.
Let’s look at a concrete example. I’m going to borrow one that I first heard from Dr. Mark Hyman who compared 750 calories from soda to 750 calories from broccoli. While you could go through this example with anything – almonds, ice cream, chicken – I love this example because we’re looking at the same number of calories but also the same macronutrient – carbohydrate. This allows us to see flaws in both calorie counting and macro counting.
The Fatal Flaw In Counting Calories & Macros
Let’s start with the soda: 750 calories is roughly the calorie count of a Double Gulp from 7-Eleven, which is 100 percent sugar and contains 186 grams (46 teaspoons) of sugar. If you think that’s absurd, it’s easier to consider drinking three 20oz bottles of soda. I’m sure many people have done that in a day.
The soda is pure carbohydrate. The primary sugars in soda are glucose and fructose. The glucose spikes your blood sugar, and triggers a significant release of insulin because insulin is required to usher the sugar out of your blood stream. The insulin can only help with the glucose. The fructose takes a different pathway. It must be handled exclusively by the liver.
The insulin surge from the glucose increases fat storage, especially in the belly region. It also increases stress hormones. It triggers your pleasure center, making you want more.
Your energy will rise for a bit but crash later due to the blood sugar instability.
The fructose can’t be used by your brain or muscles. It can only be processed in the liver where it is likely converted to and stored as fat. To learn more about fructose and how different it is from other sugars, listen to this podcast episode on fructose.
Plus, the fructose doesn’t trigger satiety (feelings of fullness). It also doesn’t suppress hunger.
To make a crappy calorie situation worse, the soda contains no fiber, vitamins, minerals, or phytonutrients to help you process the calories you are consuming.
Here’s the thing we often forget: metabolism has requirements. In order to metabolize what we eat or drink, the body needs a little help. It takes vitamins and minerals to make metabolism happen.
When we consume calories that are totally void of nutrients (like soda or candy), we’re drawing on our nutrient reserves to process empty calories. We become overfed but undernourished.
This isn’t just a problem if we’re trying to lose some weight. This is a big problem for health, longevity, energy, performance, mental focus and just about everything that is really important for us human folk.
Let’s take a look at the 750 calories of broccoli. Like soda, broccoli is pure carbohydrate but it is a dramatically different carbohydrate with a dramatically different hormonal & metabolic impact.
Compared to soda, broccoli is high in fiber and low in sugar. For these reasons, it is much more slowly digested and won’t lead to blood sugar and insulin spikes.
Those 750 calories of broccoli equate to about 21 cups and contain 67 grams of fiber.
Can we just pause here for a second and imagine eating 21 cups of broccoli? That would take forever. But three 20oz bottles of coke? NBD.
The 750 calories of broccoli include about 1.5 teaspoons of sugar; the rest of the carbohydrate are the low-glycemic type found in all non-starchy vegetables, which are very slowly absorbed.
There is so much fiber in all this broccoli that very few of the calories would actually get absorbed. Those that are absorbed would be absorbed very slowly. There would be no blood sugar or insulin spike and no tax on the liver. Your stomach would sending signals to your brain that you were full. Hunger hormones would be suppressed. There wouldn’t be a trigger of that pleasure center in the brain, making you seek more of this delicious broccoli.
Bottom line: the same amount of calories from the same macronutrient group has a vastly different impact on your metabolism, hormone balance & fat loss potential.
Critical Considerations Beyond Calories
Whole foods take more energy to process and digest than processed foods.
We have to consider what is called the thermic effect of food. The thermic effect of food essentially accounts for how much work the body has to do in digesting, absorbing, metabolizing whatever it is that you have eaten. It’s looking at how much of that energy you’ve just consumed (as measured in calories) the body has to use up in order to extract that energy and deliver it to the body.
The more highly processed, the less your body has to work to metabolize it. The less energy used up during metabolism. The more “excess” there is to store. Ultimately, what there is to store at the end is really what matters in terms of energy intake.
Research has compared the metabolic impact of consuming two different sandwiches. The sandwiches contained the same amount of calories but one was a whole foods sandwich with multigrain bread and real cheese, the other was a highly processed white bread sandwich with cheese product.
The individuals who ate the whole foods sandwich burned more calories after the meal than those consuming the processed food sandwich.
In the above example, the processed food sandwich had a 50% lower thermic effect of food. That sandwich needed significantly less metabolic energy the digest.
For further example, protein takes more energy to process & digest than fat & carbohydrate. The calorie model ignores this.
If we go back to the soda & broccoli comparison, you body has to work much harder to extract nutrients from the broccoli primarily because of the fiber content and the complexity of the carbohydrate. Broccoli has a much higher thermic effect than soda.
There’s one final issue I want to make sure to address.
Food manufacturers can underreport calorie counts by as much as 20% and still pass an FDA inspection.
Think about that, if even half of the stuff you’re eating when you count calories is under reported by 20%, you are way off in how much you think you’re eating.
Let’s say you’re shooting for 1800 cals a day. If half of what you eat & count is underreported by 20%, that’s an extra 1260 cals/ week. With a pound being about 3500 calories, you’d be gaining a pound every 2.7 weeks when eating what you believe to be “maintenance” calories.
I’ll wrap about with my thoughts on intuitive eating.
I don’t think it makes sense to eat the same amount of food each day. Our needs vary daily. We don’t move the same way each day. We don’t sleep the same each day. Our stress levels aren’t the same each day. Hunger isn’t the same daily.
We set ourselves for failure expecting we can eat the same every day. We get frustrated on days when we’re excessively hungry or tired. Our bodies vary & our food intake should, too.
Be sure to check out the next part of this series on why diets don’t work! If you’re looking for more information on what to eat, how much & when, check out these episodes of the podcast: