the unexpected truth about counting calories

What you’ve heard about calories in vs. calories out may be all wrong.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably attempted weight loss by counting calories. Whether it was with the help of an app or keeping track on your own, I’m sure you’ve thought: “Why is it that I can meticulously track 1200 calories per day for an entire week and not see the scale budge?”

It’s soooo frustrating, I know. If you’re like most people, you’ve jumped to the conclusion that your metabolism is broken, which has led to a “why bother” mentality and a spiral of overeating that has ended you further behind than when you started. 

Alternatively, how come you’ve seen the scale go down the day after you returned from that all-inclusive vacation when you ate nothing but churros and margaritas for 10 days?

Maybe, in this case, you’ve drawn the conclusion that it’s the “calories in vs. calories out” (CICO) formula that is wrong, and that your body really IS able to burn more calories to keep you at your “set-point” weight.

Neither of these conclusions are necessarily true, but the reason you may have arrived at them is because you’ve been led to believe that quantity of calories is all that matters when it comes to weight loss, and some professionals would agree! But, I’m not one of them. 

Creating a calorie deficit is necessary for

weight loss, yes, I 1000% do agree! 

However, as you may have experienced, a calorie deficit is not the only thing that matters. There are several things that CICO does not take into consideration, most importantly the nutritional value (or, quality) of what you’re eating. And quality WILL affect how food is digested, metabolized, and how many calories you feel compelled to eat. 

And the GOOD NEWS is that the more you focus on the quality of your food, the less likely you'll be to over-consume calories. That's because good quality foods are more satisfying and elicit a beneficial metabolic and hormonal response than less-nutritious counterparts.

This is how I help my clients lose weight without counting calories or tracking macros, and it works!

First, What is a Calorie? 

The word “calorie” gets thrown around A LOT, and it’s more complicated than you may think. Scientifically, a “small calorie” is a unit of measurement that signifies how much energy (heat) it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. Furthermore, since calories are a measurement of energy (heat), they’re technically found in more than just food and drink. Even coal contains calories. 

So, this seems totally unrelated to food.

Kind of yes, kind of no. Calories that we eat *do* indicate the energy that we get from food, and I think calories are actually much less scary when you think about them in this sense! Also, you can think of “burning” fat because you’re actually using calories to produce energy in the form of heat - aka you are a calorie burning machine! 

The calories on your food label are “large calories”, or kilocalories (kcals). You may have seen “kcals” identified on food labels outside of the U.S., but we here LOVE to complicate things by doing the complete opposite of the rest of the world when it comes to metrics, so we refer to these kilocalories (kcals) as calories. Even though they’re referring to the same thing.

Okay, still with me? This last part is easy. We consume calories from macronutrients: protein. fat. carbohydrates. Moving on...

What is Calories In vs. Calories Out (CICO)?

This is a much easier to understand formula that explains why: 

  • when you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight

  • when you eat fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight. 

But that’s not all...

I often hear women say they want to lose weight “intuitively” without counting calories. I think this is 100% possible, but not first without learning to understand calories. This doesn’t mean counting the quantity of calories, but rather understanding how and why the quality of calories that you’re consuming will impact your weight loss efforts.  

As I said previously, all foods (except for the gross zero calorie dressings and the like) have calories in the form of macronutrients. However, even two foods with the same exact number of calories are going to be digested differently and have a different metabolic and hormonal impact. Here are two examples:

  • A beneficial metabolic response (i.e. stabilizing blood sugar) caused by one food may be different than the disruptive metabolic response (i.e. uncontrolled blood sugar) from another food with the exact same number of calories. 

  • The number of calories you will actually absorb from a 200 calorie slice of pizza topped with mushrooms, peppers, and chicken, is different from what you’d absorb from a 200 calorie slice of pizza that is topped with sausage, pepperoni, and extra cheese. 

you mean to say I don’t absorb all of the calories I consume?

I was mind blown when I learned this, too. The reason absorption varies can be due to anything from nutrient makeup (i.e. we don’t absorb as many calories from fiber, which is why plants have a low energy (calorie) density, and you can eat a lot of them for very few calories), to cooking methods (i.e. chopping/blending/cooking makes calories more available), to the makeup and health of our gut bacteria. Oh! And another fun fact is that calories from refined and processed foods are HIGHLY absorbable, which is why you crave them and feel totally out of control when you know there’s an open container of Chips Ahoy in the pantry.

The amount of nutrients we absorb from food has a huge impact on those biological and hormonal processes I mentioned earlier. 

  • Lean proteins have a high satiety-to-calorie ratio and may curb the desire to overeat 

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and other body-healing components. 

Alternatively, you could eat, for example, nothing but 1500 calories from funnel cakes in one day, still be in a calorie deficit and see weight loss. However, although you’re eating in a calorie deficit, your body is starved of nutrients. 

This is why I feel counting calories misleads dieters to believe that unhealthy eating is a viable path to weight loss.

I’m not saying the CICO formula doesn’t work, but rather that you need to consider that quantity is a limited perspective of how your food may actually be impacting your weight loss efforts, and you should not put all of your emphasis on a calorie deficit. 

So - what’s a dieter to do? 

Above all, improve the quality of what you’re eating, and focus on fiber! 

Eating more high fiber foods will allow you to eat more volume (food!) for fewer total calories. I cannot TELL you how many of my clients exclaim to me their excitement about losing weight although they’re eating more food than they ever have.

Get an accurate range of your metabolic rate. 

Don’t rely on MyFitnessPal to tell you how many calories you burn in a day. You hate to hear it, but your calorie deficit may not be as large as it seems. The best way to determine how many calories you need for weight loss is to accurately track your calories and weigh yourself daily. If you’re not losing weight you need to either increase output or decrease energy input.

STOP thinking that your results are not behavior dependent. 

They are. Finding a weight loss plan that works long term has everything to do with developing consistent habits that put you in a calorie deficit WITHOUT sacrificing quality of your food. A few things I have my clients work on are:

  • Choose more minimally processed foods

  • Eat when you feel hungry but stop before you’re full

  • Reduce stress, and over-emphasize sleep, hydration, and self-care. 

Calorie counting can be helpful for some people, but it’s important to be aware of its limitations. If you're looking for long-term success that stems from behavior change, you'd be a great fit for my nutrition coaching program! Head to the apply page to learn more!