Calories are an incredibly common tool for diet and weight loss – and also an extremely misleading one. How many of us start to count calories when we want to lose weight? What about programs like Weight Watchers, where the underlying concept is calories, even if you’re not actively counting them.
Indeed, questions like ‘how many calories should I burn a day to lose weight?’ are everywhere. Likewise, people ask how many calories they need to be eating every day.
These questions are very important. After all, making good decisions about food is critical for weight loss. Yet, the focus on calories often undermines weight loss attempts and calorie counting often isn’t productive.
The Calorie Equation
Weight loss advice frequently tells you to operate in a calorie deficit. This means you should be burning more calories than you are taken in.
To do so, many people simply recommend increasing how much exercise you do and decreasing your food intake. Other approaches suggest changing the food you eat, such as relying more on healthy fats and less on carbs.
From one perspective, the idea of a calorie equation is correct. In the purest sense, you do need to be burning more calories than you’re consuming – otherwise you’ll never get anywhere (1). But, this doesn’t actually have much practical significance.
The challenge is that the ‘equation’ is much more complicated than we assume. In practice, there are countless different factors that influence how much energy our bodies absorb from food and how much we burn (2).
This creates some serious issues, which undermine the effectiveness of counting calories.
The Problems With Counting Calories
So then, the calorie equation is an incredibly simplistic idea that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But, what about counting the calories that you eat and/or burn?
After all, there are countless diets that rely on this idea or on following a low-calorie meal plan. And, there is no doubt that a low-calorie diet promotes weight loss, at least in the short term.
Sure, for some people, counting calories can work.
If nothing else, this gives them a better idea of what they’re eating. But, there are a number of serious problems with the idea.
All Calories Are Not Equal
The term calorie is a measure of energy (3), so you’d expect all calories to have the same implications.
Spoiler alert – they don’t.
Instead, different types of food have different impacts. They can vary in:
- How they are metabolized
- Their absorption
- The conversion to fat or energy
- The impact on disease risk
- Other health implications
A great example of this is coconut oil. The oil was once considered extremely unhealthy, as it is high in fat, particularly saturated fat. Yet, it contains a specific type of fat known as medium-chain triglycerides (or MCTs). That fat is metabolized very differently and can be turned into a fast source of energy.
As a result, MCT oil can promote weight loss and is often used by people on a low-carb and high-fat diet.
In a similar way, people tend to get fewer calories from foods that are high in fiber because of the way that fiber is metabolized (4). Indeed, the science of energy absorption still isn’t well understood and researchers don’t know all the variations that can occur between different foods (5).
Likewise, making poor food decisions can affect various components of your body, such as your leptin levels and your insulin response. As a result, some food choices can make it harder to lose weight, while others make it easier (6).
Paying attention to calories alone isn’t going to help you figure this out.
Counting Calories Can Lead to Poor Food Choices
When you focus on calories alone, it’s easy to make some pretty strange choices when it comes to food. For example, there are many low calorie products out there, including frozen dinners and boxed meals.
In contrast, many healthy foods are higher in calories.
This is why calorie counters often end up ignoring healthy fats and fruit on their diets. In the long-term, such a practice is horrible for health and for weight loss.
For that matter, many higher calorie foods are actually better for weight loss.
For example, high protein snacks often help people to feel more satisfied and less hungry. This can reduce the amount they eat in subsequent meals, promoting weight loss overall. Likewise, ingredients like butter, eggs and red meat are also nutritionally dense and great for the body, yet they are high in calories.
A similar pattern happens on some diet approaches, such as ketosis. Here, there is an emphasis on high fat intake and moderate protein. By doing so, you’re consuming food that is more satisfying and tends to leave you less hungry. That approach makes it easier to stick to the lifestyle and promotes weight loss.
At the same time, you’re relying on whole foods and on cooking your own meals – so you’re getting more nutritional benefits overall.
The same is true for other strategies, such as the paleo diet or the Mediterranean diet. Indeed, a focus on whole food ingredients can have better implications for health (and weight loss) than any low-calorie diet will. The food also tends to be more filling and enjoyable, which is partly why the approaches have so many passionate followers.
In contrast, the food choices on a low-calorie diet are often unsatisfying and aren’t enjoyable. People typically end up feeling frustrated and hungry, while craving all the food that they can’t eat. That’s not a great system for success.
Calorie Counts Aren’t Accurate
To make matters worse, accurately counting calories isn’t even feasible. So, even if you made good decisions with your food, you still couldn’t keep track of your calories well.
For one thing, the calorie count on packaged food is often incorrect. Legally, it has to be more than 20% of the written value to even be noncompliance (7).
Even then, inaccurate labels have to be discovered – so there may be countless products with greater inaccuracies than that.
With this in mind, you could be eating up to 20% more calories than you’re actually counting. If you’re just trying to shift a little weight, it’s easy to see how that could make a large difference.
Shifting to whole foods won’t make a difference for accuracy either.
Instead, calorie counts aren’t realistic for real food either – especially as different batches or harvests can vary in nutritional content and measurements aren’t always precise (8). Calorie estimates at restaurants can also vary dramatically from what is advertised, as you may expect (9) and the way we prepare food also has impacts (10).
For that matter, the calculation used to determine calorie counts is based on correlations factors initially developed in 1897 (11) and on averages, despite the fact that individuals respond differently (12).
The truth is that calorie estimates for food will never be accurate and strongly relying on them is a very flawed idea (13).
Exercise Calories Aren’t Accurate Either
The other side of the equation is also flawed.
As mentioned previously, we can’t really measure how many calories our bodies are burning, so many people use exercise as an estimate. Doing so could involve relying on technology (e.g. Fitbits) or simply estimating the exercise they need to do – such as through claims like the image below.
But, there’s no real way of knowing.
People vary considerably in their bodies and their metabolisms – which will impact the calories that they burn (14). For that matter, the food you eat, your gut microbiome and countless other areas can all impact how your body processes energy.
There Are Too Many Unknowns
In practice, the calorie equation is simply far too complicated.
There are dozens of different factors (if not more) that affect how many calories your body actually digests, along with the calories that you are burning. Likewise, foods are treated differently to one another and some may promote weight gain more than others, while individual people also vary in their responses (15,16).
This makes it impossible to be accurate about your calorie intake or the calories you’re burning. For that matter, you couldn’t even be certain if you were in a calorie deficit.
Instead, the main way to know whether your approaches are being effective is to see whether you’re losing weight. And, if that’s the case, why count calories to begin with?
This is why many people find that tracking the calories that they burn and eat simply doesn’t work (17).
The site Precision Nutrition also offers a great infographic on the problems with calorie counting, including many of the issues that I’ve highlighted here and some additional considerations.
The Process Creates Negative Associations
Calorie counting can foster a very dangerous relationship with food.
As a whole, modern society has created a situation where some foods are considered ‘good’ and others are ‘bad’. The exact foods in each category vary over time but the concept has remained consistent.
For example, fat was considered a bad food for a long time, thought to contribute to heart disease and various other illnesses.
That emphasis resulted in the modern low-fat diet, which is now being associated with inflammation and may actually cause more harm than in prevents.
Instead, there has been a growing focus on the idea that sugar and processed food is bad, along with GMOs.
Various groups also have their own perceptions about what is good and bad. For example, the ketosis diet often labels carbs as being ‘bad’, while Paleo considers legumes and many other foods in this category.
There is much more evidence for the latter view than the former – and it’s clear that sugar and processed foods have concerning implications.
But, that’s not what we’re interested in here. Instead, I want to talk about the idea of good and bad food.
By labeling food like this, we can mess with the reward system and the pattern is especially common with calorie counting,
In many cases, people end up entirely avoiding ‘bad’ food, which may increase cravings and lead to them giving in at once point or another. This also creates patterns like ‘cheat days’ where people end up overindulging on foods that they couldn’t eat otherwise (18).
Giving into every craving isn’t an answer either, nor is eating an unhealthy diet. But, some experts are calling for a balance and suggesting that people try to move away from this good and bad labeling – and allow some treats as a natural component of the diet (19,20,21).
For that matter, there are concerns that obsessive approaches to food (including clean eating ideas) can cause dramatic negative impacts on psychological health and the way people view food (22,23,24).
And, the obsessive nature of calorie counting often just serves to make these associations worse.
After all, people often end up feeling extremely guilty when they go over their calorie limits. Many calorie-limited diets also leave you with an extremely low number of calories to work with, which often means people are hungry constantly (25).
That’s a horrible way to lose weight and it’s easy to see how it can impact relationships with food. Besides, calorie counting is simply stressful and many people struggle to do it consistently (26).
So, How Many Calories Should I Burn To Lose Weight?
There is no actual answer to the question of calories and weight.
Yes, you can find tables and graphs about how much exercise you should do to burn off this, that or the other thing (e.g. this article from the Daily Mail). Likewise, there are various calculators that give you a rough estimate of what your calories in should be - along with estimates about the exercise you need for your age and/or weight.
But, information like this is extremely rough and it doesn’t really help.
If we’re being completely honest, weight loss is more about what you eat than how much you move anyway. This is an area of ongoing debate – but you can lose weight without increasing your energy output and many people do.
However, don’t skip out on exercise.
Instead, getting enough exercise is critical for developing muscles and doing so is associated with longevity. For that matter, having more muscle can improve your metabolism, making it easier to lose weight. A lower percentage of body fat also helps decrease disease risk, regardless of whether you are overweight or not (27,28).
With that in mind, exercise is critical to health – particularly resistance exercise. But, the goal should be to exercise for that reason, rather than to hit a specific calorie burning target.
Do Calories Help At All?
Calories are frustrating and are relied on far too heavily. In fact, you can typically lose weight and improve your health without ever even looking at calories.
But, yes, in some situations, knowing your calorie intake can help. For example, counting calories for a little while can help you get a sense of your food intake and figure out where you need to make changes.
This may be particularly relevant if you are on a healthy lifestyle approach but are gaining weight, instead of losing it.
After all, it is still possible to overconsume healthy foods.
This is actually why some people gain weight when they first start ketosis, rather than losing it.
So, counting calories can help, at least a little. But, obsessing over calories simply isn’t beneficial and may even harm your health. The calorie equation is also far too complicated to act as anything but a very rough guide.
Finding A Better Way
Calorie counting can foster a negative relationship with food and poor eating patterns. Plus, the process isn’t particularly effective anyway.
So, what do you do?
Well, despite all the marketing, there is no single weight loss method that fits everybody. Instead, the answer varies depending on countless factors, including your personality and how your body responds.
For example, some people thrive on relatively strict approaches, where they have a clear idea of what they are allowed to eat and what they aren’t. The ketosis diet is one long-term example of this, while paleo is another relatively common approach with a different set of rules.
Others find that they need more flexibility and don’t want to cut food groups out entirely.
One way of doing that is intermittent fasting. This method has a greater focus on when you eat, rather than the specific foods that you choose. You do still need to focus on whole and healthy food – but the idea is much less restrictive than other options.
Alternatively, some people just use portion counting and control techniques, such as the Calorie Control Guide that Precision Nutrition offers. This can also work well, especially if you just need to make small changes to your eating habits. Lily Nichols from Pilates Nutritionist also offers additional advice about effective approaches, including ways to enjoy the food you eat more.
These methods and lifestyle approaches all have a few things in common.
- First, they focus on whole foods – not processed alternatives.
- Second, they are designed to be long-term changes – and are actually sustainable.
- Third, they emphasize quality of food – not calorie count.
- And finally, they can all help promote a positive relationship with food.
That final aspect is interesting because some of these ideas are restrictive in terms of what you can eat. But, the diet approaches do focus on making food enjoyable and ensuring that the diet idea never feels like torture.
You just have to look at the various recipes to see this, such as keto dessert recipes or paleo holiday meals. Likewise, there are many food blogs that offer amazing recipes and insight into following these diets, such as Ruled.me and 100 Days of Real Food.
There are other examples out there too (such as the Mediterranean diet) and some people develop their own set of parameters based on their needs and what foods they are sensitive to.
But, one of the most significant first steps is simply moving away from an obsession with calories and looking at your food and eating patterns as a whole.
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