Why Counting Calories Fails

May 23, 2019

Counting calories often fails.  Instead, focus on eating real food.

What is a calorie?

A calorie in physics is the energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 °C.  The calorie you see on a food package, however, is actually a kilocalorie, or 1,000 calories, the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water 1 degree Celsius.  The original method used to determine calories in a given food directly measured the energy it produced. The food was placed in a bomb calorimeter, a sealed container surrounded by water. The food was completely burned and the resulting rise in water temperature was measured.

What is a nutritional calorie?

Calories in food and calories as measured in physics are not the same.  Nutritional calories exclude non-digestible components, such as dietary fiber and artificial sweeteners, both of which could be burned in a bomb calorimeter to generate heat.  Many of these components humans can’t digest, such as cellulose, are the primary energy source for other species.  Human calories are dependent upon the body’s ability to catabolize them, which usually involves enzymatic action rather than a high-temperature oxidation reaction.

Food labeling

Food labeling information is based upon food component calorie estimation, calculated by adding up the calories provided by the energy-containing nutrients: protein, carbohydrate, fat, and alcohol. Because carbohydrates contain some fiber that is not digested and utilized by the body, the fiber component is usually subtracted from the total carbohydrate before calculating the calories. The Atwater system uses the average values of 4 Kcal/g for protein, 4 Kcal/g for carbohydrate, 9 Kcal/g for fat, and 7 Kcal/g for alcohol.



These nutritional calories are the energy available in food, which our body can use for chemical reactions or store in reserve as fat or glycogen, We count the calorie value that the body can extract from the food eating but ignore the interaction of that food as a signaling molecule, the non-digestible components, and the thermic energy consumed in breaking the food down for consumption.

There occurs a paradox in nutritional science where a high-calorie consumption of one food substrate causes weight gain, while the same calorie value of another substrate seems to cause weight loss, leading some to suggest that calories don’t count.

The laws of physics are not broken, however — calories do matter with respect to energy balance. Whether fat, protein, or carbohydrate, a surplus of calories will lead to weight gain. The relevance is the quality of the calorie and the body’s response to those specific nutrients as signalling molecules beyond the direct caloric value. The body’s ability to convert the food substrate into usable energy is based upon a highly complex process, starting with a mechanical breakdown of food as well as chemical and enzymatic processes throughout the gut that are significantly affected by the individual microbiome.  The body is not static, and how it utilizes a nutrient and the extraction of energy associated with that nutrient changes continuously. The real issue in obesity and type 2 diabetes management is how the body utilizes the nutrients presented, and if that specific approach works for that specific individual, in that specific time.

Food as a nutrient and as programming:

Food should be viewed as both a source of nutrient energy (globally translated as calories), but also as a set of instructions to the body, a program directing the body to a specific action.  Food is not completely degraded to its elemental parts during digestion; it maintains components of integrity, which then programs the cells.  A corrupted program can lead to outcomes such as obesity or diabetes or even an autoimmune state.  These instructions are not interpreted just by the body, but also the gut microbiome, which can independently translate the instruction set and create its own programming subroutine, which then affects the body.  Conventional nutritional advice ignores the instructional programming code carried in the food we consume, but these instructional programs cannot be ignored.

Focusing on feeling deprived only increases desirability.

It’s easier to track not eating sugars and artificial sugars than actually counting their calories.  Tracking and reliving the calories of carbohydrates you didn’t eat stimulates ghrelin, the hunger hormone.

Instead of calories, focus on real food.

It’s easier to track pounds of steak, fish, shrimp, or chicken than calories.  It’s not what you didn’t eat; it’s what you did eat and who you are that matters.  You are a person that doesn’t eat sugars (artificial or natural), you don’t fall prey to the big processed food manufacturers, and you know the truth about vegetable oil.

Focus on feeding windows and time-restricted feeding.

It’s easier to track the hours of healthy eating than calories.  If you know that you will only eat in a limited time window of 6 to 8 hours per day, the rest of your time becomes available for real activity.

A calorie is a calorie only if it is incinerated in a bomb calorimeter, and the heat given off measured. Biologically derived calories from different foods have entirely different metabolic effects on the human body.  Equal calorie portions of sugar, alcohol, meat or olive oil have widely differing effects on hormonal systems such as insulin, and satiety signals such as cholecystokinin or peptide YY. It is irrelevant how many calories a portion of food on a plate contains. What matters is how our body responds to the ingestion and absorption of those calories, how they are metabolized, and the resulting level of satiety (fullness).

The current caloric reduction strategies promoted for weight loss are ineffective. Using the standard calorie reduction approach produces a probability of attaining a normal weight at 1 in 167, generating a greater than 99% failure rate.

Fildes A et al. Probability of an Obese Person Attaining Normal Body Weight: Cohort Study Using Electronic Health Records. Am J Public Health. 2015;105: e54–e59

It is wrongly assumed that excessive caloric intake is the root cause of obesity. A calorie of food energy has different metabolic fates depending upon the hormonal stimulation. That same calorie may be used to generate body heat or stored as body fat. Obesity is a disease of failed energy partitioning, not one of total energy intake. The primary driver of this partitioning is the hormone insulin, which is specifically a fat storage growth hormone.

Focusing on calories in and calories out produces an inherent bias against high-fat food, which may actually protect against obesity and related diseases.  The simplistic calorie focus results in a dietary guideline supportive of replacing fat with starch and sugar, which promotes insulin resistance.

It is our hope that shifting focus away from calories and emphasizing a dietary pattern that focuses on food quality rather than quantity will reduce obesity, related diseases and cardiovascular risk.

Malhotra A, DiNicolantonio JJ, Capewell S. It is time to stop counting calories, and time instead to promote dietary changes that substantially and rapidly reduce cardiovascular morbidity and mortality. Open Heart 2015;2(1) doi: 10.1136/openhrt-2015-000273[published Online First: Epub Date]|.

Snacking will make you fat because of the chronic high insulin from the constant feeding.

There have been two major changes in our dietary habits since the 1970s, prior to the onset of the obesity epidemic.The change to a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet has been well documented and has played an important role in causing obesity. However, the increase in meal frequency plays an equal if not larger role and has been largely ignored. In the 1970s, the average number of eating opportunities was three – breakfast, lunch and dinner. By 2005, that number had almost doubled. Now we eat breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, and snack — and each of these contain refined carbohydrates more often than not.

Cameron JD. 6 meals per day does not result in greater weight loss. Br J Nutr. 2010 Apr;103(8):1098-101

Popkin BM. Does hunger and satiety drive eating anymore? Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91:1342–7

Tracking calories to determine that you are eating less is self-deception, and even if you did meticulously track calories,  you would be off by as much as 20-50 percent. Even if you were absolutely perfect at tracking the actual calories, your calculations wouldn’t account for the bio-availability of nutrients, the effect of anti-nutrients from vegetables, or the thermic effect of food.  Your resting metabolic calorie requirement changes from day to day, hour to hour, and season to season.  Your gut microbiome, which determines nutrient absorption, changes continuously and interacts with your enteric nervous system and central nervous system.

Some people assume that their workout equipment which provides  “calories burned” is actually accurate, but it’s not. Many people also reward themselves with a snack for exercising, which is a bad idea.

Instead of calorie counting:

Practice hara hachi bu, a Confucian teaching, that instructs people to eat until they are 80 percent full. “Eat until you are eight parts (out of ten) full” or “belly 80 percent full.”

Simple changes to your eating patterns or the environment will dramatically increase the joy of food.

  • First, eat more slowly. Eating faster results in eating more.  Slow down to allow your body to respond to cues, which tell us we are no longer hungry. You have a hormone called leptin that lets you know you are full, but if you wolf down your food, it doesn’t have enough time to work.  Therefore, you should focus on food.  Turn off the TV and the computer.  If you’re going to eat, just eat.
  • Second, use small plates and tall, narrow glasses.

Third, cut out all the snacks.  People eat from boredom or they eat from chemical signaling.  Most of this chemical signaling can be eliminated when you remove artificial flavors, refined sugars, and industrial seed oils.

You probably have the mantra “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” stuck in your head.  This was a baseless marketing phrase created in 1944 by General Foods to sell more cereal.  John Harvey Kellogg of the Kellogg’s cereal company, a deeply religious Seventh Day Adventist, believed that cereal would improve Americans’ health and keep them from masturbating and desiring sex.  Before the invention of cereal (to reduce masturbation), breakfast was not as standard or routine.  Kellogg might actually have been half right — breakfast didn’t improve health, but increasing feeding frequency with processed cereal foods results in more insulin resistance and worsened male impotence.

Cut out breakfast, unless it is one of your two meals of the day and it falls inside your eating window.  Regular breakfast consumption increases weight and insulin resistance by adding unnecessary calories to diets. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l42

Eliminate vegetable oil.

One of the easiest substitutions you can make is eliminating vegetable oil and replacing it with real fat.  Real fat tastes better, makes your food more flavorful, and carries fat soluble vitamins.

Bottom line:

If you are eating real food, then your willpower is better spent somewhere other than calorie counting and calorie restriction. Remember, you are retraining your body to know when it’s actually full and to know what real hunger is. Your goal is to eat only when truly hungry.

Eliminating breakfast and restricting food to a 6 to 8 hour period of a given day makes this simple.  Get rid of the artificial flavorings, artificial and refined sugars, and refined foods.  Healthy fat makes you satiated for a longtime. Satiety and the nutrient density of food is the ultimate test.

It’s not what you didn’t eat; it’s what you did eat and who you are that matters.  It’s more about how your body responded to the food you did eat.

Reframe who you are:

You are a person that doesn’t eat sugars (artificial or natural), you don’t fall prey to the big processed food manufacturers, and you know the truth about vegetable oil.