Why Calorie Counting Doesn’t Work

CoachMel Weight Loss Tips 21 Comments

No doubt you’ve heard the expression, “A calorie is a calorie,” meaning the calories we get from carbs, fat and protein are equal in terms of their effect on our weight.

Perhaps you think all that matters is the total number of calories you take in each day, regardless of whether the majority comes from one macronutrient more than the other.

In fact, many people emphasize that weight management is a simple game of math. Maintaining your weight, therefore, is merely about consuming the same number of calories your body burns each day.

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But, while this is true in part, research suggests there’s a lot more to it than that.

Calories Are Not All Equal

Firstly, it might help to define the term ‘calorie.’

A calorie is a unit of food energy. Basically, the energy that fuels the body; much like petrol or gas fuels a car. Fat provides 9 calories per gram. Carbohydrates and proteins provide 4 calories per gram.

While it may seem simple to conclude that all you need to do is take in fewer calories than you expend, if you want to lose weight, research suggests the body may processes these macronutrients differently. So, perhaps a calories is not a calorie after all.

This gives us an indication as to why weight loss is not so simple, and suggests why so many struggle with losing weight long-term.

Calorie Counting Has Limited Use

If you are only concerned with counting calories, it won’t tell you much about the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in your diet. Let me give you an example:

A bar of chocolate has roughly 251 calories. 6-8 brazil nuts and 5-6 almonds have around 250 calories.

These two snacks contain similar amounts of calories, but they will certainly not have the same effect on your body. The chocolate bar is pretty much all carbs in the form of refined sugar. But, the nuts contain healthy fats and protein, as well as vitamins and fibre.  It’s obvious which is the better option.

As we shall see, calorie counting alone tells you absolutely nothing about how your body will react to a certain food.

The Research: Protein vs Carbs vs Fats

Research indicates the calories from proteins, carbohydrates and fats may not be treated the same by the body, therefore challenging the idea that a calorie is a calorie.

1. Dietary Effect On Muscle Mass

A recent 2012 study, found that when you overeat on a low protein (higher carb) diet, you store fat around your organs (e.g. liver, kidneys and pancreas). However, when a high protein diet is eaten, it adds muscle and increases resting metabolism.

The researchers concluded:

Among persons living in a controlled setting, calories alone account for the increase in fat; protein affected energy expenditure and storage of lean body mass, but not body fat storage.

Interestingly, the low protein group (5% protein) lost 1.5 pounds of muscle, and gained 7.5 pounds of fat. The high protein group (25% protein) gained 6.3 pounds of muscle mass.

This study suggests that some calories may make you store fat, while others help you build muscle.

Avoid ‘Free’ Fructose

Calories from drinks appear to be particularly problematic.

One study specifically singled out fructose, concluding that in overweight and obese adults, it increases intra-abdominal fat, promotes abnormal lipids, decreases insulin sensitivity, and increases DNL (de novo lipogenesis).

Another 2012 study in young people, found that the ‘free’ fructose in high fructose corn syrup, led to increased belly fat, inflammation, blood pressure, blood sugar and pre-diabetes.

2. Dietary Effect On Satiety

We know that protein foods make us feel more satisfied. The result of this is a reduced appetite, which has the potential to make us eat less, if we listen to our body’s hunger signals.

One study found that when subjects increased their protein intake to 30 percent, they ate 441 calories less each day, and experienced greater feelings of satiety.

In fact, they lost almost 11 pounds on average, including more than 8 pounds of body fat.

3. Dietary Effect On Wellness

A very good comparison of the different effects certain diets have on the body, is Ancel Keys’ semi-starvation experiment versus John Yudkin’s low carb study.

The big difference between these two studies was the carbohydrate and fat intake; they were basically the reverse of each another. Yet, as Dr Eades puts it in his article on Tim Ferriss’ blog:

Both studies provided between 1500 and 1600 kcal per day, but with huge differences in outcome.

In the Key’s semi-starvation study (high-carb, low-fat) the subjects starved and obsessed on food constantly. In the Yudkin study (low-carb, high-fat), the subjects, who had no restriction on the amount of food they ate, volitionally consumed the same number of calories that the semi-starvation group did, yet reported that they had “an increases feeling of well-being.”

Instead of lethargy and depression reported by the Keys subjects on their low-fat, high-carb 1570 calories, those on the same number of low-carb, high-fat calories experienced “decreased lassitude.*”

* state of physical or mental weariness; lack of energy.

So, despite that fact that the diets were almost identical in calorie intake, the results were vastly different, with the higher fat, lower carb diet showing a much more favorable outcome on overall wellness.

Why Counting Calories Doesn’t Work

While calories do matter to a degree, they are far from the whole story. As we’ve seen, it appears macronutrients act differently within the body, and the idea that a calorie is a calorie is perhaps too simplistic.

So, rather than being overly concerned with meeting a certain calorie requirement each day, focus on making sure your diet is as nutrient dense as possible.

Here are a few basic pointers to help simplify things:

  • Start your day with protein-rich foods, rather than starchy foods. Good choices are eggs, lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds, nut butters, or a protein shake, and make sure to skip the bread, bagels, muffins and donuts.
  • Have a source of protein with every meal, and avoid “carb only” eating.
  • Make sure you are getting healthy fats into your diet each day.
  • Skip sugar most of the time, especially in the form of liquid calories, such as sodas, fruit juice, and alcohol. And, avoid high fructose corn syrup at all costs.

What do you think — is a calorie a calorie? Or, do you agree that it’s much more complicated than that?

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Comments 21

  1. Taleen

    Really helpful Melanie. First time I’ve been online in weeks and went straight to your page and thank you for not disappointing. A fountain of knowledge….

    I have a few inquiries that I want to make too…I will get you soon x

  2. Dr. Mark

    My advice to patients, just to keep it simple, is that if you eat real food (fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, etc.) calorie counting is not necessary. Your body knows what to do with those foods. Calorie counting only helps if you’re eating processed nutrient-absent foods you get from wrappers, bags, and boxes. That’s the stuff that makes us fat. Of course, this is general advice and only a place from which to start real change.

    1. Melanie

      Totally agree, Dr Mark. It can be difficult to help people understanding that they don’t need to count calories, it’s so ingrained. You are so right, though, calorie counting only works if you want to continue eating nutrient-absent foods.

  3. Sascha

    I was wondering why you advice people to avoid eating bread at breakfast. Whole wheat bread is actually a great option in many ways in my opinion. It contains about 20% protein (at least the bread I buy wich is just a regular bread, but I’ve never seen a brand with less than 15% protein) which is not even close to the low protein percentage of 5% as defined in this study. Such a low protein percentage is the result of eating a very high fruit diet or a very processed diet since most ‘real’ unrefined foods contain at least 10 to 20 percent of protein. Bread also contains fiber (and vitamins and minerals) that is not only essential to our health but also help increase feelings of satiety. And since a lot of people are not eating enough fiber to reach te recommended 30 to 40 grams of fiber a day, I do not think it is a good idea to say to people that they need to avoid eating bread. It also could be interpreted as if carbohydrates are to be avoided for optimal health and well-being and clearly that is not the case.

    1. Melanie

      Hi Sascha,
      For weight loss I find a more protein rich breakfast is much better. When you have eggs, for example, for breakfast you will feel full until lunchtime, they will also provide all of the essential amino acids. I’m not saying avoid bread completely, but you can certainly get your carb and fibre intake from other foods like fruit and vegetables, without missing essential nutrients.

      1. Sascha

        Hi Melanie,

        I disagree about some points in both this article and your comment although I do agree with the main idea behind this article. I agree that it is not just the caloric content in food that determines how your body responds, in weight regulation (losing weight, gaining weight or maintaining weight), health and how you feel but that other aspects are very important as well and may even be of bigger significance. I’ve seen one too many times that people choose to eat cookies instead of a wholesome meal saying it contains less calories or after eating too much junk restricting on their regular meals in order to make up for their wrongly spend calories. The nutritional value of food (both macro and micro nutrients) is after all the most important reason why we need to eat, to build and maintain a strong and healthy body. Without it, we would die.

        You use a term to say something about the nutritional value: nutrient density. How many nutrients does your food provide per calorie. That is because calories in the end do matter. Eating not enough calories equals not reaching your nutrient goals, and eating too much calories can cause obesity and therefore risk health, especially if you are eating too much empty calories with harmfull properties (for example trans fats – we do not need them and they are even harmfull). We can also eat just enough calories but still not get enough nutrients. Eating nutrient dense foods has two advantages: we reach our daily nutritional needs easily without consuming too much calories and they often provide more satiety which makes it harder to overeat on these foods (it is hard to eat a 1000 kcal worth of kale while many pizza’s easily contain this amount and they don’t really fill you up).

        That is where we come to your first reference, an article of Bray et al. (Effect of Dietary Protein Content on Weight Gain, Energy Expenditure, and Body Composition During Overeating) with your conclusion that: ‘This study suggests that some calories may make you store fat, while others help you build muscle.’ And while I’m not a registered dietician, and a lack a lot of experience with reading and analyzing (nutritional) research, that was not my conclusion after reading this article. I noticed a few things regarding this article and your summary of it.

        First you refer to the low protein diet in this study as a: ‘low protein (higher carb) diet’ which in my opinion is misleading since there were three types of diets (low, normal and high protein) invesrigated with all the same percentage of carbohydrates (the low protein diet consisted of 42% carbohydrates compared to 41% in both normal and high protein group, not a significant of clinically relevant difference). It was in fact a study designed to examine the effect of eating more protein instead of limiting carbohydrates on weight gain, energy expenditure and body composition.

        Also, the conclusion ‘This study suggests that some calories may make you store fat, while others help you build muscle’ is not entirely in accordance with this study since there was no difference between the three diets in amount of fat gain. A more accurate conclusion may be that all excess calories make you store fat, but some help you also build muscle.

        I have to agree that it was interesting to see that this study showed a decrease in muscle mass on the low protein diet and an increase in muscle mass on a high protein diet. But I was most interested about their definition of a low protein diet, which consisted of 5% protein. On a 2000 calorie diet that would be 25 grams of protein a day. Which is practically starvation. A good thing participants received an excessive calorie diet which was the reason participants consumed an average of 46 grams of protein a day, and this study had a limited duration, or else we might have seen a progression of kwashiorkor in these participants. Potatoes (except for fruit probably the most well-known high carb, low-protein food and presumably the ultimate anti-atkins and other low carb diet food) even contains more protein, around eight percent. Berries around seven percent. But of course there are ways to eat such a low protein percentage diet: you must either eat mostly fruits or mostly junk food. Or when total grams of protein is lacking, perhaps not enough calories are consumed. Because, like I said in my comment before whole wheat bread contains at least fifteen percent of the calories as protein (my brand contains 20% which according to my supermarket is not unusual). Broccoli: 33%. Mushrooms: 25% Romaine lettuce: 35%. So eating plenty of vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds and ‘traditional high-protein’ sources such as legumes, eggs, tofu and meat and fish and some fresh fruits while probably always contain more than five percent protein and probably at least between 10 to 20 % (In the Netherlands the average percentage of consumed protein is around 13% overall and inclusion the fact that more than half the people are overweight, there probably is plenty of room for improving the diet with consuming more whole foods).

        But a statement as ‘when a high protein diet is eaten, it adds muscle and increases resting metabolism’ could actually have something to say for increasing protein. Right? Well, the summery of this study ignores one little detail: both the normal protein and high protein diet increased muscle mass and resting energy expenditure, with no significant difference between the two. The extra 10% protein in the high protein diet offers no additional benefit to the normal 15% protein diet. It gives a benefit over starvation (in terms of protein as essential macronutrient, not total calories), not really surprising to see, but so does the normal protein group with 15% protein.

        So two conclusions can be drawn from this study:
        1) Eating a very low protein diet will make you starve while eating enough protein maintains and even builds muscle and thereby maintaining and increasing resting and total energy expenditure
        2) Excess calories will make you gain fat

        Another reference, a study of Weigle et al. (A high-protein diet induces sustained reductions in appetite, ad libitum caloric intake, and body weight despite compensatory changes in diurnal plasma leptin and ghrelin concentrations) is about the dietary effect on satiety, the effect of protein to be specific. Protein increases satiety according to this study resulting in a reduced ad libitum caloric intake.

        A diet composed of 30 percent protein is compared to 15 percent protein. This study also uses a set amount of carbohydrates (both 50%), with the high protein diet replacing fat for protein. One can conclude that replacing (some) fat with protein increases satiety. But fiber, for example, also increases satiety. Eating just eggs without any fiber-rich food does not satisfy for example. But I have to admit, eating lentils is more filling then eating a sandwich probably because the higher protein content (around 30%) and they also contain a lot of fiber.

        But eating enough protein is not the whole story. This study, for example, makes me wonder: is there a linear response in amount of protein to the amount of satiety? Or is it perhaps that you must eat a certain amount of protein and above that, no extra benefit is provided. For example, does eating a 30% protein diet also increase satiety significantly compared to a 20% protein diet, or a 25% protein diet? Unfortunately, there are not enough groups in this study to answer this.

        The last reference I would like to discuss is the article of Dr Eades where a low carb and high fat diet is compared to a high carb and low fat diet, resulting in an increased feeling of wellness in the former. I wonder if this increased wellness is due to the lower carb part of the diet or that enough fat is consumed. Because my hypothesis would be it would be as a result of the higher fat portion of the diet. And I would like to ask the same question as before: is there a linear dose response relation?

        My personal experience is not in favour of lower carb diets. I felt really tired and hungry and obsessing about food all the time, and I was not avoiding carbs entirely, just eating less bread, potatoes and rice and replacing them with mostly vegetables and legumes. That is not very evidence based of course but I wonder how evidence based the advice to ‘make sure to skip the bread’ really is. Especially since this article is not specifically on weight loss but on eating nutrient dense in general. And there are plenty of indications that whole grains not only are harmless to your health (and weight) but you also benefit from eating more whole grains, including whole wheat bread. I also have the feeling that this article is too much anti-carb while that is not entirely fair.

        I am sorry for the long comment, but I think a nuance in this article may be helpful. Perhaps I am completely wrong, and I have only read the articles cited in this article which could not be a complete story (and English is not my native language which results in an added challenge to both understanding everything correctly and also to express myself well), but I am very interested in this topic. Especially since you seemed to change your view on it over time and I am still not convinced of the added benefit of reducing my carbohydrate intake from whole grains. I do however still love your website and it always forces me to think critical and start eating more whole foods instead of calculating everything.

  4. Karna

    Inspiring and brilliant. Thanks for this post! I work for The Institute for the Psychology of Eating – our Founder, Marc David, has a kick-ass blog that I think you would really enjoy. There’s a great post on the blog that’s called Getting Real About Weight – it relates to what you describe here in your post… Thank you for being part of a healthier way to relate to food and eating!

  5. taryn

    Hi Melanie

    New reader to your blog and liking it so far! I agree with what you say here to some extent… but in my personal experience, calorie counting has actually been a real eye opener. I am coming primarily from a weight maintenance perspective, although I have also lost about 3kg.

    I have been using an application called ‘my fitness pal’ to record my calories for months now. For a while I was doing exactly what you suggest happens (despite being obsessed with studying nutrition) and eating the junk instead of health food, but it didn’t take me long to realise that I was actually still really hungry after eating the junk, and would end up going over the amount of calories I wanted to eat as a result.

    After experimenting on my diet, I came to the conclusion I was best off:
    1. Ensuring every meal had 50% vegetable
    2. reducing my carbs & increasing my protein

    Immediately I noticed how different my energy and overall wellbeing was, plus I also lost those 3 kilos I wanted to.

    But calorie counting has taught me a lot, about portion sizes, about how easy it is to forget you ate something, and about the calorie density of foods (almonds for example – great snack if you can stick to ten, however if you feel like eating 50 may need to go for celery and cottage cheese!)

    So what I’m trying to say (in a very long winded way), is that I would recommend calorie counting to anyone, and with your above caviet I think it is very successful.

    1. Melanie

      Hi Taryn,
      It’s really interesting to read your comments. I love the healthy choices you’ve made to help you lose weight, it really is fantastic!

      s I said in my article, while calories do matter to a degree, they are far from the whole story. I think that was the main point I was trying to get across. So many people are obsessed with counting calories, and I feel it is slightly liberating to not have to worry about them so much. Best wishes to you.

  6. Emma (Auckland, NZ)

    I have a question :o)

    If we are to ditch the buns/bagels/bread etc, what am I meant to replace with my “2x poached eggs on a piece of toast”?

    Is there any GOOD bread?


    1. Melanie

      Hi Emma,
      Well, there’s no right or wrong answer really, it’s up to you and what your health goals are. I recommend cutting back a little on breads etc if your goal is weight loss. However, if you want to eat bread, the best option is wholegrain/meal. Personally speaking I have two eggs on their own each morning and that doesn’t bother me, but I know some people can’t stomach that. One of my favorite things to have on the side, though, is avocado and tomatoes, that works really well with eggs 🙂 As I said, it depends on your goal.

  7. Adam

    Several times you referred to a recent study, then made your claim! These claims are irrelevant without the study itself! The study may have been biased, poorly executed or plain Bullsh*t. This industry is already full of people who mislead and misinform. Don’t be the same.

    1. Melanie

      Adam, I have no idea what you are talking about. Each and every time I make reference to a study, there is a link placed behind the word ‘study’ or another appropriate keyword, those links go directly to the study abstract.

      I ALWAYS back up with I say with a study, particularly if it’s a bit different or controversial.

  8. Texstar Oil

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