Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What Happens When the “Experts” Get Confused about Calories (and Why This is Bad News for You)

Nutrition “experts” who shun calories are all the rage these days, and understandably so: the message they propagate is favorable to many ears. Within their anti-calorie message is a utopia where calories don’t matter for health or weight control and thus there is no need to pay attention to them.

Gosh, who wouldn’t want to get that memo? Can’t you hear the collective sigh of relief among those trying to live healthier, eat better, or lose weight—whew, one less thing to worry about!

In reality though?

Calories do matter.

It’s truly remarkable how the word calorie is such a dirty word for some. After all, we all need calories to live. We all benefit from the energy they provide us. Additionally, when done correctly, “counting calories” (a highly simplistic term for being aware of your caloric needs and monitoring your caloric intake), certainly can be very advantageous both for making healthier food choices and for weight management. Calories aren’t something to fear or hate—just the opposite—they are a tool to help us eat better, more wisely, and regain control of our health.

Realizing how beneficial calories actually are and how best to put them to work for us makes it all the more puzzling as to why one nutrition “expert” recently pronounced her hatred for calories. That’s right, hatred. Ok, I get it (kind of)—we all fear things we don’t understand, but “hating calories” and disparaging their value doesn’t make one a nutrition martyr who helps people live healthier lives, it just exposes an unfortunate lack of understanding.

And even if you don’t like them, guess what?

Calories still matter.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the points the anti-calorie club attempts to make, along with why those points are severely flawed:

Anti-calorie crusaders would have you believe:
“People who count calories think that weight control is simply a matter of balancing calories in and out.”

Qualified nutrition professionals, along with most people who have ever attempted weight loss, know it's not that easy and don’t promote this simplistic view. Nutrition experts are keenly aware that weight management is not simply a result of calories in and out—weight control is a highly complex beast influenced by BOTH the quality and quantity of calories, among MANY other factors.

Here are just a couple well-known examples of the other factors (besides just calories in and out) affecting our success or lack thereof with lifelong weight control:

-Figuring out how to eat less in our culture of cheap and abundant calories: how do we cope with our biological drive to eat more when there is such an overabundance of enticing, ready-to-eat food present? (One solution here is to be more accountable for what we ingest. Conveniently, “counting calories,” or monitoring caloric intake, is a very effective means to create accountability.)

-Our need to feel more satisfied on fewer calories: we know that whole, fiber-rich, protein-adequate, and healthy fat-containing calories fill us up, while highly-processed food products, refined carbohydrates, and low-fat foods do less for satiation.

There are many more factors affecting weight management (other than just calories in and out) of which nutrition experts are well-aware, so don’t let the calorie-hating crowd trick you into believing otherwise.

And still, it remains as true as ever that if you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight. That’s right. You can gain weight eating a lot of healthy calories or a lot of crap calories or any combination of the two. Indeed, even if you are eating the healthiest foods on the planet—if your body only needs 2,200 calories per day to maintain its weight and you’re eating 3,800 calories per day, you will gain!

Bottom line: We know that weight management is highly complex and influenced by innumerable factors. Nevertheless, the quantitatively consistent makeup of calories does contribute to weight gain or loss.

Anti-calorie crusaders would have you believe:
“Calorie counting = restricting calories.”

Monitoring caloric intake has much less to do with restricting and much more to do with making the most out of each and every calorie you ingest while staying within the caloric needs for whatever your goals are (loss, maintenance, or gain). This means planning to get your calories from the most nutrient-dense and filling foods to both improve your overall health and help keep you feeling full. Monitoring caloric intake is also extremely helpful to make sure you are eating ENOUGH calories, moderating your portions, and maintaining stable blood sugar levels.

Bottom line: Monitoring your caloric intake is a healthy behavior with many advantages and is not synonymous with starvation, "dieting," or restrictions.  

Anti-calorie crusaders would have you believe:
“If you count calories, you must be eating a low-fat diet.”

No. You can and should eat a good deal of healthy fat for optimal health and weight management, and by monitoring your food and caloric intake, you learn to create a better balance of the three macronutrients: fat, carbohydrates, and protein. People that I have worked with consistently enjoy eating more healthy fats when they monitor their caloric intake (while still losing weight) than they ever thought possible. 

Bottom line: If you truly understand how calories affect weight, you know that you can eat quite a bit of fat and not “get fat” so long as you stay within your caloric intake needs. 

Anti-calorie crusaders would have you believe:
“If you are someone who counts calories, you believe all calories are created equal.”

Let’s repeat. Any educated and reputable nutrition professional knows that the nutritional QUALITY of all calorie sources is not equal. Can we stop with the feigned revelations from notoriety-seeking nutrition “experts” telling us that 300 calories from a donut isn’t the same as 300 calories from broccoli? This is so obvious it's absurd, yet the so-called nutrition experts keep tossing it up as a revelation.  

Additionally, the physical composition and properties of the foods we eat (the "packages" within which calories are delivered) can be very different: some foods encourage overeating while some protect against it (think of how easily a processed fast-food hamburger goes down your hatch compared to a plate full of whole, raw carrots).
We also know that how the body processes calories from carbohydrate, protein, and fat isn’t “equal.” Does anyone with an ounce of common sense believe that the body metabolizes a sugary soda the same way it does a handful of peanuts?  

Bottom line: Um, duh? All calories aren’t equal qualitatively—we’ve known that all along.

Anti-calorie crusaders would have you believe:
“Counting calories is not sustainable, leaves you feeling deprived, dissatisfied, and hungry.”

Knowing how many calories your body needs daily to run efficiently, keep your weight stable, and fill you up does exactly the opposite—it helps create awareness about which foods are the most satisfying and nutrient-dense, and thus, the best choices for satiety and happiness with food. 

As for not being sustainable? Keeping track of your caloric intake is one well-recognized characteristic of people who have been the most successful at maintaining their weight loss long-term, according to the National Weight Control Registry. I have seen the same sustainable results in people I work with and even in myself (I have been monitoring my caloric intake for more than 12 years, maintaining my weight within a range of about 3 pounds—obviously so not sustainable!).

Bottom line: What else can I say? The idea that monitoring calories isn’t sustainable and leaves you dissatisfied and hungry is just bogus, plain and simple.

Finally, why do I care so much?
Because disseminating the “calories don’t matter” message is extremely misleading and dangerous to an already epidemically-overweight population. Calories DO matter—quantity and quality—and the more that people understand and utilize them to their advantage, the healthier they will be.

For another take on this very topic, I encourage you to check out "Blatant Misunderstandings and Oversimplifications: Calorie Edition" by Jake Johnson--an outstanding read with thorough breakdown. 

*Because calories matter so much, stay tuned for more on this topic!

Recommended reading:

Why Calories Count by Armi Legge

Is a Calorie a Calorie by Malden Nesheim and Marion Nestle

Calories, Points, and Dots by Dr. David Katz

Study of diets shows what truly counts: calories by Shari Roan


  1. Oh, thank you for writing/posting this. You are so honest about calories yet you put them in a positive light. I have read too many "Anti Calorie" articles that put a negative spin on calories. If you think about calories as "bad", i would be anti calorie too! Instead of restricting, it IS about finding the most nutrient dense foods to eat the calories needed for your body. Remembering each of us only need a certain amount/range a day it forces us to think twice about what we put in our mouth. Being aware of calories is not dieting or starving one self. It's using that information wisely! I have always believed this but it's difficult to find posts like this. Thank you!

    1. Carolyn,
      I couldn't have summed it up better! :)
      Thank you for your comment!

  2. Love this. Healthy debate and criticism has helped me grow so much as a professional.

    1. Thanks Jenna. I agree with you 100%. This is where the most learning can take place!

  3. Great piece, love your work! Nic @nicsnutrition x

    1. Hi Nic,

      Thanks so much, I appreciate the comment! ;)