4 Big Problems with Counting Calories

We’ve been taught that it’s simple: eat less than you burn off, and you’ll lose weight. 

I believed that for a long time myself, and I’ve worked with so many clients who did too. They initially came to me eating less calories than they were burning in a day (like 800-1000 calories + intense workouts), and were so frustrated and confused why the weight wasn’t just melting off.

Can you imagine, or maybe you’ve been there yourself, constantly feeling deprived, dissatisfied, hungry, and tired all the time, and STILL not seeing progress? Maybe that’s you right now?

Acting on this belief is actually impairing your progress, and keeping you stuck and frustrated.

Ultimately, “calories in and calories out” is a fundamentally flawed view.

By definition, a calorie is: the energy it takes to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius.

Calories are just energy that fuels the body to make it run, just like gasoline fuels our cars. You wouldn’t expect your car to run better if you take away the gas, so why would you expect your body to work better when you deprive it of calories?

Nearly all calorie counters/calorie restrictors eventually re-gain any weight lost through restriction of calories back after they lose it! 

is your brain stopping you from losing weight

When you deprive your body of the energy it needs, it fights back and actually conserves its own energy by slowing down your metabolism. But when you eat more, your body burns more. The more you add fuel to the fire, the stronger it burns.

The laws of thermodynamics are true: if you use more calories than you take in, you will lose weight. It makes sense we’d take that and apply it literally to our exercise and eating habits, our brain loves to draw connections and streamline.

But there are SO many variables that will affect both the number of calories that your body uses/burns (the effectiveness of your metabolism) and the amount that will be expended. There are also a lot of variables that come when we try to control it ourselves. 

Problem 1: All Calories are Created Equal

This belief treats all calories equally, regardless of source. But your body does not metabolize and process all types of calories in the same way.

For example with this concept, diet soda is equivalent to water. Neither of them has calories, but does that make sense? No! The body doesn’t treat diet soda the same way it treats water.

The body reacts to what we put in it, the ingredients. Water contains water, but diet soda contains carbonated water, caramel color, aspartame, phosphoric acid, potassium benzoate, natural flavors, acesulfame-potassium, and caffeine. Each of these ingredients triggers a reaction in the body.

For example, research repeatedly shows that artificial sweeteners like aspartame can cause weight gain and impair metabolism since the body doesn’t recognize them. The soda also contains ingredients that have been genetically modified, so it’s likely there are also pesticides in there as well which also have a negative impact on the body.

There’s more in our food than just food, and those “extras” impact the body and mess with the calories in/calories out belief.

We are not designed to process and assimilate things like preservatives, pesticides, additives, stabilizers, and other artificial ingredients. Because many of these ingredients are fat-soluble, your body stores them in its fat instead of using them for energy or cell repair. 

This happens as a form of self-defense against being poisoned since the body doesn’t recognize them, and to get that “toxic trash” out of our circulation and away from key organs. If our bodies have too many toxins to process, we will even make new fat cells and store those toxins along with fat in them! This causes easy weight gain and makes for difficult weight loss because your body does not easily give up the toxic fat it has stored.

Problem 2: Our Bodies are Basic Machines

There’s no magic formula we come pre-programmed with for how many calories we need daily to be at optimal health. There is no program, diet, magical calculator, or best nutritionist in the world that knows how many calories your body needs better than your unique body. You could be over-feeding your body, or under-feeding – both of which will ultimately likely lead to weight gain.

What we do come pre-programmed with are natural portion control mechanisms and the knowledge to know how to fuel ourselves efficiently and effectively. This is great news because what, when, and how much food our bodies want and need to thrive changes on a daily basis.

But with years of controlling, restricting, coping, binging, and all-out-food and diet craziness by listening to something or someone else telling us what, when, and how much to eat, it blocks this inborn intelligence and keeps us stuck.

We get so out of touch with our body’s hunger and fullness signals that we feel like we’re out of control around food. We feel like if we don’t follow a strict plan or track, measure or have really specific guidelines that we’d eat everything and gain a ton of weight then no one will love us and we’ll be alone forever, or something like that, right?! 

Problem 3: Imprecision and Assumptions

When calculating calories in foods, research shows the calorie counts you get from various websites and on food labels are all averages and can be very imprecise. They can actually be significantly higher or lower than the numbers you are using for calculations. For example, the FDA allows food company’s grace in the accuracy of the calories listed on package labels: 20% in either direction. That means if a label says 200 calories per serving, it could be 240 calories or 160 calories or anything in between. 

Even if those numbers were precise, how the food is prepared (cooking, chopping, blending) and the types of nutrients the food contains also messes with the amount of energy available for digestion and absorption. Some calories pass through us undigested.

For example, 1 gram of protein contains about 5.5 calories. Of those, 4 of them are available for absorption, and 1.5 of them are not absorbed. With foods like nuts and seeds and fiber-rich foods, we absorb fewer calories from them. With almonds, only 68% are absorbed, with tomatoes 17% are absorbed, and with mangoes 10% are absorbed. 

Also, it’s common to use exercise as a justification for eating more (“I went to spin this morning, I earned this”), eyeball portion sizes incorrectly, and wrongfully estimate how many calories burned while working out. Studies show people mis-measure and estimate portions the vast majority of the time, so unless you’re using measuring cups and spoons regularly, it’s easy to accidentally consume more calories than you intended to.

In a 2010 study by the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, researchers asked the subjects to eat the equivalent number of calories they had burned after exercise. They ended up eating two to three times the actual amount. Another 2010 study by the International Journal of Obesity found that it took 35 hours of cardio without any dietary intervention to lose one pound of fat. 

Fitness trackers are also usually off by approximately 30% for total daily calorie expenditure, and are off by up to 23% for exercise expenditure. For example for a 300 calorie workout, if you used a Nike Fuelband, the margin of error is 13%, so you may have only burned 260 of those 300 calories you’re using in your calculations.

Problem 4: Calorie Burn Simplification

Since our bodies are all unique, we all burn and absorb calories in unique ways as well.

There are a number of factors that influence and impact our calorie burning capacity on a day to day basis, like genetics and epigenetics, stress, diet mentality around restriction and deprivation thoughts/food rules, sleep quantity and quality, not eating enough food, activity amount and intensity, hormones, the condition of our gut, not eating enough, emotional factors, etc

For example with gut health, our gut bacteria influences the amount of calories we absorb. Studies on rodents found that transplanting the gut bacteria of obese mice into lean mice caused the lean mice to gain fat cells rapidly, and since then researchers have found big differences between the gut bacteria of lean and obese people. Certain gut microbes can increase the absorption of fat and carbohydrates, allowing the body to absorb more calories from the same amount of food. 

Stress is another really impactful piece of the puzzle. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated (our fight or flight response), it increases hormones that trigger fat storage, deregulates our natural appetite regulation, and decreases our day in/day out calorie burning capacity – slows metabolism. The body doesn’t distinguish between real and perceived stressors, it responds the same way by triggering your sympathetic nervous system if you’re being chased by a lion as if you’re criticizing your body, artificially controlling your food intake, feeling guilty about what you just ate, or feeling the pressure of perfection.

4 Big Problems with Counting Calories

For example, say you’re about to eat a cupcake. In one scenario – you tell yourself you shouldn’t have it, feel guilty, shameful, and remorseful after eating it. That is putting your body in a stressed state. It’s slowing your metabolism, slowing your digestion, lowering your energy, and putting you at greater likelihood for cravings, binge/ overeat sweets/carbs in the near future.

But in another scenario – you are excited to eat it, you feel pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction after eating it. That is putting your body in a relaxed state. It releases those happy hormones like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, puts your body in its optimal calorie burning capacity, optimizes digestion, and leads to less likelihood for cravings, binge/ overeat sweets/carbs in the near future.

The SAME cupcake in both scenarios – but the body burns them both completely differently depending on how you think and feel before/during/after eating.

What should you focus on instead of counting calories?

    • The quality of the foods and ingredients you eat matters much more than how many calories it’s made up of. For example the body processes 500 calories of McDonald’s hamburger completely differently than 500 calories of an organic, grass-fed homemade hamburger.
    • A store-bought cake might have a laundry list of 50 ingredients in there, many of which the body doesn’t recognize and stores in fat cells. But a homemade cake might have 8 ingredients that the body does recognize. It’s able to digest, assimilate what it needs, and discard the waste with less of a negative impact on the body.
    • Instead of looking at the number of calories on the nutrition label at the store, look at the list of ingredients. See if you can recognize and are comfortable putting those things in your body. If you want you can even check out the other line items on the label like fat, protein, carbs, and fiber.
    • Know that the body processes and metabolizes each of these things very differently than one another, and it’s important to make sure we’re eating all types of nutrients to help keep our blood sugar and hormones stable and happy!
    • Studies have shown when we restrict calories, we are telling our bodies food is not available, which then slows our metabolism WAYYY down. No matter how many hours we spend on the elliptical, that won’t change.
    • Work to reset your mind away from the “eat less, exercising more” myth closely tied with “calories in/calories out.” If weight loss is your goal, you can still lose weight without counting calories or restricting yourself in a truly sustainable, enjoyable way, instead of the typical yo-yo dieting!
    • When our body thinks food isn’t available, our survival mechanisms put our body into preservation mode which can promote fat storage. In addition to that, our body misses out on key nutrients it needs to keep us healthy, like getting enough fat, protein, carbs, and fiber. We can experience secondary side effects like low energy, poor mood and sleep, skin issues, poor temperature regulation, brain fog, cravings, preoccupation & poor relationship with food, etc.

We can always get back in touch with our body to learn how to give it what it wants and needs to feel our best, it’s never too late. If you’d like to see if I could help you do this, click here to book a free phone consult!