Why counting calories misses the point

The cult of calorie counting makes me twitchy. It’s especially bad when I see someone at her wit’s end with her weight loss struggle who is convinced she could get into those skinny jeans again if she could just stick to 1,000 calories a day. I mean, starvation is one way to get it done, if you're into that kind of thing. 

My real problem is that the “calories in, calories out" concept of weight control—the one that says you have to burn more calories than you consume—is oversimplified and doesn’t take into account a mind-blowing array of circumstances that matter when we’re talking about weight. 

Let's talk about calories

First, let’s re-examine the calorie itself. We learned in school that a calorie is the amount of energy a food will produce in the body. So an apple with 100 calories will produce 100 units of energy after you eat it. Simple, right? The thinking goes that if you want to lose weight, make sure you eat only X amount of calories a day and you're all good.

That’s a tidy theory, but it neglects the ways in which a food's calorie count can change. Consider the apple. Here are the things that determine exactly how many calories are in an apple:

  • Its size

  • Its sweetness

  • Cooking it

  • Slicing it hours (or days) before eating it

  • Eating it fresh or eating it four months after it was picked 

All these factors (and surely many more) affect the number of calories in the apple. 

The practice of calorie counting also doesn’t account for whether the eater of the apple:

  • Has high or low stomach acid

  • Has GI inflammation or infection  

  • Peeled the apple or ate the skin

  • Chewed thoroughly or gulped it down in partially chewed bites

  • Ate it with other foods or alone

  • Ate it while rushing to work or while relaxing on a park bench in the company of a close friend

All of these (and surely many more) factors affect how much of the apple gets digested, and therefore used in the body. If you don’t digest some portion of your food, then some of those calories will end up going down the toilet.

How could you account for these variations in your calorie diary? (Hint: You can't.)

What about packaged foods?

You might think packaged foods have a more accurate calorie count than a fruit or vegetable, since they are measured and preserved in a uniform way, but calorie counts on packaged foods are no more accurate than those for plant foods.

They still assume a standard digestion process, which doesn’t exist. Every human has different amounts and ratios of enzymes and digestive acids in their digestive systems that determine how much of a food gets digested. Did you know one of the factors in digestion is the shape and position of your stomach? That's right, they're not all the same. (Read about it here.) 

Another important point about packaged foods is they aren't typically nutritious food. We'll get to what is nutritious soon.


The fate of a ‘calorie’ of food depends completely on its specific molecular composition, the composition of the foods accompanying it, and how those molecules interact with our current metabolic and nutritional state.
— http://www.gnolls.org/3374/there-is-no-such-thing-as-a-calorie-to-your-body/

Does this mean calorie counting is pointless?

Eh. I know some people swear by it. Every time they need to lose weight, they just cut their calories and voila! Magical weight loss. Call me a contrarian, but I don't consider this a success if it has to be repeated. If you only care about being thin and you don't care about your actual health at all, calorie restriction may get you what you're after. But if you're looking to improve your health, feel better, and have more energy and zest for life, you're going to have to look beyond calories. 

You know, I get that we're all unique snowflakes. If estimating your calorie intake helps you adjust your food habits and feel better, I’m all for it. What I’m not for is people deciding what they will and won’t eat based solely on calories. A 100-calorie serving of a chocolate shake does not have the same nutritional value as 100 calories of a real food. Your body knows the difference.

Get out of the calorie rut

A big downside of “calories in, calories out” is that it becomes a rut. A lot of calorie obsessed people aren’t losing weight, and they're often gaining weight in spite of their efforts to offset calories with exercise. They’re trying to burn the calories they’ve eaten without realizing it’s much more complex than that.

In short, your fancy watch may tell you your workout burned 573 calories, but that doesn’t mean your breakfast doughnut is all gone. That’s not how it works.

When people can’t lose weight on their diet, they often double down, cutting calories even lower and working out harder. I’m not saying this is never a reasonable solution, but I am saying that very often, working harder and eating fewer calories is not the answer. It’s far too simplistic and it ignores other factors that influence metabolism.

What to do instead of counting calories

The real key to weight loss is getting healthy

I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t losing weight by reducing calories the same thing as getting healthy? My answer is: Not always.

For example, if you're eating three servings at every meal and you decide to lose weight by cutting back to one serving, hey, congratulations. That seems like a reasonably healthy way to reduce weight by reducing calories. 

On the other hand, if you are eating like a bird already but your weight isn’t budging, cutting calories even further won’t make things better. You might lose weight, but you will also risk your health. (The technical term for this method is "starvation.")

Forget about calories. Just eat real food.

When I say real food, I mean nutrient-dense food. If you don’t know what this is, read all about it here. In short, nutrient-dense food is stuff your grandmother could probably recognize. (Except for those tropical fruits with the prickles all over. She would probably be afraid of those.) Nutrient-dense food doesn’t usually come with a billion-dollar marketing campaign or in a box festooned with cartoon characters, at least not until it's dubbed a “superfood,” and then all bets are off. Açaí berries, quinoa, and chia seeds, anyone?

Nutrient-dense food is not fast food. It takes time and attention and intention to purchase it and prepare it. It’s what all human bodies need, and not getting enough of it is the root of many a health problem. 

Packaged, processed foods are typically very high in energy and very low in nutrients, so you can eat a lot without feeling satisfied. Nutrent-dense foods tend to be the opposite—high in nutrition and lower in calories.

This approach worked for me when I was an overweight teenager, and I've never regained that weight. I've seen it work for others, and now I'm shepherding my clients down this path toward better health and weight loss. It works. (If it doesn't work, your problem isn't with food, and you'll need to figure out what it is so you can resolve it. Eating real food can help with that, too. See my post about weight loss to read more about weight loss troubleshooting.)

Run your own food experiment

Instead of cutting back to 1,200 calories a day to get beach ready for spring break this year, why not challenge yourself to eat only nutrient-dense food instead and see what happens. I’d love to  hear how your experiment goes!

Need more convincing? 

For further reading on why calorie counting is bunk, check out this great Scientific American article:
Why Calorie Counts are All Wrong.” 

Read up on nutrient-density and how to get more of it.

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