“Calories In” DOES NOT EQUAL “Calories Out”

When I tell my clients not to worry about counting calories or measuring they often times look at me like I’m nuts. What kind of dietitian doesn’t “count” things anyways! The truth is that the old concept of “calories in, calories out” is completely and utterly outdated. People usually refer to the concept of – If a pound of fat equals 3500 calories, and if you eat 500 calories less than you burn every day, you should end losing about a pound a week. NOT ANYMORE!!!

Even though weight loss is usually the result of calorie deficit, this theory alone is a drastic oversimplification. Today there are numerous studies that show calories in, calories out is not all that you have to worry about when it comes to weight management.

How do you even know for sure how many calories you burn on a daily basis? In a recent survey, only 12% of adults accurately estimated their daily calorie need based on their age, height, weight and activity level.

We can’t even be sure that foods are labeled correctly when it comes to calories. A recent Today Show investigation found that diet-frozen treats were off calorically speaking by as much as 68%.

This means, if you’re eating several packaged foods during the day you may wind up with a few hundred more calories than you bargained for!! (Just FYI...)

Further studies indicate that some foods may actually contain less calories than listed. One recent study found that almonds may supply about 30% fewer calories than the label states. This is due to the fibrous makeup of the nuts themselves.

If some components of food don’t get digested due to high fiber content, then they don’t completely get absorbed into the body where they have to be used as fuel or stored as fat. Therefore higher fiber foods may actually end up being less calories than listed due to their high fiber content.

Calorie counters may actually be more prone to weight gain! Researchers found that when calories were limited, the stress hormone cortisol rose. High cortisol levels have been linked to increased appetite and cravings for fatty or sugary foods, thus creating somewhat of a rebound effect. Not a great thing, especially when it comes to trimming down.

One of the main problems with calories in, calories out theory is that it doesn’t account for the health benefits of foods. 

A study performed at the University of Florida found that people who consume foods with higher antioxidants are able to maintain smaller waistlines, lower body fat percentages and lower overall BMI’s.

A University of Florida study found that out of two groups who consumed the same amount of calories, those that consumed more antioxidant-rich foods were able to maintain lower BMIs, smaller waistlines, and lower body-fat percentages than those with lower intakes of nutrients. This shows that a calorie is clearly, NOT a calorie. This tells us that nutrients within foods may also play a vital role in energy metabolism.

Different foods have different effects on the body, based on their metabolic pathway and they way that they break down inside the body.

Fructose (from added sugars, not fruit) when it enters the liver from the digestive tract can be turned into glucose and stored as glycogen. But if the liver is full of glycogen, it can be turned into fat, which is then shipped out or lodges in the liver. Consumed in excess, it can cause insulin resistance, which drives fat gain. When consumed in large amounts it can lead to elevated cholesterol and triglycerides and increased abdominal obesity.

For example, when high glycemic carbohydrates are consumed (sugar, sweets, breads, muffins, pasta, etc.) our level of insulin surges pushing the glucose into our cells with a quickness to be used for energy, and the leftovers (most) get stored as fat. The more fat you have, the more your fat cells crave these high glycemic foods.

Protein is altogether different. About 30% of the calories in the protein will be spent on digesting it, because the metabolic pathway requires energy (i.e. the thermic effect of food).

Protein also increases fullness and boosts our metabolic rate.

Increased protein intake while restricting high glycemic foods will also be used to build muscles, which are metabolically active tissues that burn calories around the clock. This type of eating helps us feel full and satiated. Not to mention, we have much more energy increasing our ability to become more active.

Wake Forest University researchers found that even at the same calorie and fat levels, monkeys fed foods high in trans fat gained four times more weight and 30% more belly fat compared to animals who munched on meals made with natural plant-based fat. More evidence that eating 500 calories worth of processed or fast food does not have the same impact on the body as eating a 500-calorie meal composed of fruits, veggies, lean protein, and heart healthy fat.

As you can see, some foods can cause hormone changes that encourage weight gain, while other foods can increase satiety and boost the metabolic rate. Once again…clearly… a calorie is NOT a calorie.

Some people may be able to consciously eat less calories (no matter what they eat) and manage it with portion control and / or calorie counting. But they have to stick with it for life. Unfortunately, long-term dieting will eventually reduce your metabolic rate.

If you were to cut calorie intake by 10%, it would only work for some time until your metabolic rate would adapt and you would stop losing. Then you would have to cut calories again; then again…the body tries desperately to maintain its fat mass.

This is called your fat "set-point" and is regulated by the hypothalamus.

If you don’t change "what" you're eating and only the amount of foods you eat, then your set point won’t change either.

I’ve seen clients start to eat more calories of nutrient-dense foods, only to finally break a weight loss plateau, and achieve real and lasting results.

I’m not saying to ignore calories completely, but don’t obsess over them.

When you listen, your body is pretty good at telling you how much it needs, no math required. Just feed it quality stuff! You got this!!

Tips for LIVING FRESH when it comes to “Calories In, Calories Out”:

  1. Don’t obsess over calorie counting. It can obviously backfire on you.

  2. Choose more fresh foods, or foods as close to their natural state as possible.

  3. Strive for a balance of complex, gluten-free carbohydrates, fruits and veggies, lean protein and healthy fats to help your body function optimally.

  4. Eat on a regular schedule, spacing your meals about 3-4 hours apart.

  5. Eat foods like ginger and cayenne that increase your metabolic burn.

  6. Pay attention as you eat and stop when you feel just full enough.

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