*for time sake I simply inserted my links instead of formal references, but plan to change to formal citations at a later time.

Short Version

[Calories matter, and physics dictates that accurate counting calories can guarantee short term success;  however, a common difficulty is that physiological and social drivers may ultimately lead to dropout. In addition, people are also notoriously bad at tracking calories accurately. A focus on habits and choices can lead to better lifestyle adherence while also increasing the likelihood of both short-term and long-term success.]

 

Physics and Diet

The first rule of thermodynamics is that energy cannot be created or destroyed; therefore, the calories in/calories out (CICO) model of weight loss must be true.  This is a straightforward and indisputable fact, but when you consider the interaction of systems (metabolic, hormonal, and inflammatory) within the body the long term applicability of this fact becomes questionable.  To lose weight (more specifically, to expend stored energy, as some things, such as water, have weight but not calories) you must expend more energy than you take in (you are technically balancing carbon, but calories are the best we can track somewhat efficiently right now, https://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g7257.long). Given the previous, we all just need to increase our output and decrease input to get the body we want, right???  

 

Or maybe, just maybe, there is more to it.

 

Important Thought – If you forget everything from this point out remember this phrase.

 

  • True information is not the same as useful information

 

 

Sure, true information can be useful, but just because something happens to be factually true does not mean it applies to me or makes my life any better.  With more information, true and useful information may become useful. This is often the case when it comes to body composition and health.

To be clear nobody taking an educated look at weight loss or metabolism of any kind will argue the laws of thermodynamic and neither will I.  What they may argue is the extent to which this can be applied or should be to either a population or individuals. So, the question isn’t whether caloric balance matters, but rather, is counting calories the best or even an effective method for weight loss or as an extension, body composition or is the acronym for Calorie Restriction as Primary (CRaP) an accurate description for calorie counting?  One example to think about is to compare athletes/bodybuilders to other people at the same size and age. The individuals in the previous equation have kept the same/similar caloric balance or imbalance over time compared to each other, but the results are vastly different.  Even if your goal is not to be overly muscular it is clear that different diet and activities result in different outcomes at the same net caloric balance, and, as an extension, these differences should also be considered when dieting for body composition.  If you end up being successful at losing weight, but don’t lose much fat you will likely not like the outcome even though you met your original goal. The same will be true for individuals trying to add muscle, but instead, add fat.

 

Some things to consider

  1. Food labels are not always accurate, but larger brands are generally more accurate than locally packaged foods. (http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/408583)
  2. People are not good at keeping food journals.  Especially the obese individuals who would need it the most (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/35/4/727.short).  In one study women were off an average of 50% after being trained how to track by professionals and knowing they would be evaluated (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7594141).
  3. People often increase food intake when they exercise (which may be counterintuitive the whole eat less move more attempt).
  4. You cannot directly control every aspect of the calories out portion of the energy expenditure equation.  Things like NEAT and digestion are not really controlled by your will power (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279077/).

 

If math is all we need to lose weight why are there still people who are overweight and don’t want to be.  At the very least there shouldn’t be any overweight accountants, engineers, or anyone who is good at math as counting calories is just simple addition and subtraction.  I mean, there are millions of wild animals that keep their weight within a few percent of weight their entire adult life, the vast majority of which will eat whenever food is available and as they are hungry.  Sure they don’t have to deal with social eating and overfeeding your pets is possible, but you’d expect to see a fat lion here there. Okay, maybe a fat lion wouldn’t be a good hunter (male lions really don’t need to be), but I think you get my point.  The short answer is that animals may have a predisposition to be a particular size and their body adapts both hunger and energy to achieve this physiologically determined size. Now, if an elephant is starved, its body can’t keep it from losing weight, but when food is reintroduced it would return to its normal weight pretty quickly and if it is force fed it can only increase energy output so much before it will begin to gain weight.  I think everyone can agree that varying physiology will determine a large amount of how an individual/animal will look. We’ll explore some specifics later, especially in regard to humans, as I think that is more applicable to those reading this (not to offend any non-humans that have learned to read and want to go on a diet). I will note that there is this variance of metabolism where your body will adjust up or down here and there, but this is not very large and as far as actual clinical evidence suggests, not very consistent or predictible (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3302369/).

Studies show us that cutting calories works to lower body weight and logic tells us this must be true, but study after study also shows that calorie counting is not an effective method for long term weight loss.  Don’t believe me? Here is a meta analysis of every study the authors could find http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/74/5/579.full.  Go ahead and read it, I’ll wait.

 

The two most important things to consider before determining if you should count your calories are determining your goals and how likely you are to adhere to a given diet.

 

As a preface, I’d like to note that the remainder of this article is aimed more on the personal side of eating.  As much as I would love to dive deeply into specifics and physiology right now I fear that most would fall in the category of factual, but not very useful information for the average reader;  instead, I want to paint the picture that your whole body is more important than purely just the amount of energy consumed and expended as well as provide some well founded starting points that people can take off from.

 

Goals

As I said earlier, your specific goals may dictate whether or not you should at least seriously consider counting your calories.  If your goals are lofty, then the specificity of your diet will need to reflect that. For example, if you have exactly 8 weeks till a big event like a beach weekend with old friends and want to look your absolute best you should probably keep track of what you are eating to guarantee you are both eating at a deficit and consuming adequate protein to spare as much lean mass as possible or even gain (not to mention a handful of other factors to consider like tracking electrolytes and/or do some carb manipulation if you don’t want to lose fat only to look flat).  If you are a competitive bodybuilder or physique competitor you almost certainly need to track (or if you have tracked in the past follow almost the same diet without tracking as it’s preset for you). Even in this situation, an individual will likely benefit from positive food changes independent of calories especially in the off-season when strict dietary adherence could lead to more stress, but they don’t want to get to out of shape. Individuals in this category should, at the very least, have a minimum protein goal (usually .63 grams per pound lean body mass or more with 0.8 grams per pound lean body mass preferred) in addition to a caloric goal.

 

Adherence

Did you know that statistically speaking a person is more likely to survive a gunshot wound to the head than to lose significant weight and keep it off?  Gunshot wounds to head have a 5% survival rate (http://www.baltimoresun.com/health/bal-te.brain05oct05-story.html), only 97% of people on a weight loss program end up gaining back everthing they lost and more people end up gaining even more weight than they lost (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17469900, http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/74/5/579.full).  If you read through that meta analysis I mentioned earlier you already know that though.  Many times it is just as difficult for a naturally underweight person to keep weight on after overfeeding (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC292021/).  The problem with most weight loss diets isn’t their effectiveness, but how difficult they are to follow.  Any diet that creates a caloric deficit will ultimately result in weight loss, but that doesn’t make it a sustainable lifestyle.  I would rather focus on the factors that make adherence better without sacrificing results. In a perfect scenario we could figure out exactly how to bring one person struggling to lose weight and turn them to the person who struggles to gain weight by understanding the underlying metabolic differences, but that topic will need to take an article or book all by itself.

 

So what do we do?

 

With long term goals you have to be able to stick to your diet of choice.  This is the main argument for when calorie counting may not be your friend.  No matter how effective a diet is, it only works as long as you follow it, and people fail at diets for many reasons.  Many will not find the time in their day to prepare food that they can track accurately, or they may be prone to stress eat and adding calorie counting may set them up for more stress, eventually giving up to stress eat everything they lost back and likely even more (remember the studies earlier).  In my opinion, most people who obsess over food should probably work more on their general food relationship than worry about calories. Often times over emphasizing calories makes people look at food as just energy, but food is the main vehicle for not only macro nutrients but all the vitamins and minerals your body needs to function properly and, therefore, can have large impact on the hormonal profile and general health of an individual that comprise the physiological differences that may make or break weight loss efforts.  If calorie counting is going against the physiological drivers of your body (you want to lose weight but your body is trying to store energy) it is going to be that much more difficult to reach your goals, but at the same time excessive body fat also impacts your hormones so losing weight can improve your health even when done with less than ideal methods.

 

A sustainable diet for fat loss will meet at least these parameters:

  1. Have a physiological drive to store fat that is less than the physiological processes of fat mobilization.

It may sound like calories in calories out, but we are talking specifically about energy partitioning and not just overall balance.  Contrary to popular belief fat storage and muscle protein synthesis are independant of each other and muscle can be built while losing fat (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3411406/, http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fphys.2016.00689/full?&utm_source=Email_to_authors_&utm_medium=Email&utm_content=T1_11.5e1_author&utm_campaign=Email_publication&field&journalName=Frontiers_in_Physiology&id=242757#F2, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160127132741.htm, http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2016/01/26/ajcn.115.119339) and muscle can be lost while gaining fat.  For the most part, it is usually better to primarily focus on one or the other at a time and not expect miracles to happen.  While there are some general things I will note later, I should also mention that people with specific conditions (especially hormonal conditions) will benefit from specific dietary interventions that may need addressed by a health professional.

  1. Have sufficient freedom to fit into your lifestyle.

If your quality of life is lower because of your attempt to improve your health the odds of you keeping that change are very low.  If you want to live a strict lifestyle then go for it. If you just want to enjoy your life then your diet will need to fit into a lifestyle that is enjoyable for you.  This means you may opt for a slightly less but still effective diet in order to adhere to it. If having a cheat meal on the weekend keeps you sane in an otherwise strict diet that you would quit without it then go for it.  If you are like me and motivated by results, you may do better going very strict calorically for shorter periods and relax after hitting a goal for a little while. In other words, a less effective diet you can stick to is better than the perfect diet you can’t stand to follow.

 

If you can’t take the time to count calories or track your food there are other measures that can help you meet your goals without being so meticulous (but tracking food doesn’t have to be as mind numbing as some make it out to be).  The simplest solution for you as an individual is to figure your needs one time and outsource your meal prep, but this can be pricey and maybe not the best for your finances. The second is to make food in bulk knowing how much you can eat in a longer period (like a week’s worth of food) and either split it up by days or be okay with eating a little less or more here and there and spread it through the week.  A third option (kind of an umbrella option, but hopefully I’ll dive into specifics later), and likely the most applicable for the average person is what is often called mindful eating.

Mindful eating can take form in different ways, but it is basically whenever you are consciously changing the your food habits vs the amount of food you are eating and many times will then result in an improvement in your energy balance (WHAT AND/OR HOW vs HOW MUCH). I would also place time restricted eating in this section as a type of mindful eating as it is a new habit.  Many people find that when they make better eating choices eating less becomes not only manageable, but often times automatic. This can happen in a lot of ways that are backed by science (improved insulin/leptin sensitivity, improved thyroid function, and better natural hunger response to name a few), but the basic premise is that you should care more about the health (although there are many opinions on what is healthy) and how you react to food and less about how much energy individual food has.  I should preface this with the disclaimer that this is only really effective when the change is in fact one that will lead to a better caloric balance and this is where information with solid tested science behind it is important. If the sum of your new habits are bad the results will show eventually.

 

Here is a short list of things to consider when choosing a diet for an already otherwise healthy individual (focussed on body composition):

 

  1. Calorie for calorie protein is the most satiating macronutrient (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/87/5/1558S.full)
    1. Fibrous carbohydrates are the second most filling
  2. Protein also has the highest thermic effect at almost 25% (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21228266)
  3. Carbohydrates within living cells (usually meaning coupled with fluid and fiber) are more beneficial than those that are dense and rapidly absorbed.
    1. Acellular [carbohydrates of flour, sugar and processed plant-starch products are considerably more dense. Grains themselves are also highly dense, dry stores of starch designed for rapid macroscopic enzymic mobilization during germination.(Spreadburry – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3402009/)] carbohydrates may be more inflammatory and obesity causing than cellular carbohydrates [“Tubers, fruits, or functional plant parts such as leaves and stems store their carbohydrates in organelles as part of fiber-walled living cells. These are thought to remain largely intact during cooking, which instead mostly breaks cell-to-cell adhesion. This cellular storage appears to mandate a maximum density of around 23% non-fibrous carbohydrate by mass, the bulk of the cellular weight being made up of water.” (Spreadburry – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3402009/)
  4. The food you start a meal will likely be the food you eat the most of for that meal (http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1195521).  Eating your salad or veggies and protein for example will result in more volume and nutrients being consumed and less total calories.

 

Final thought to ponder:

 

In order to make a lasting change, you will almost need to become a new person in a way with different priorities.  Let me elaborate with some examples that may hit home:  If you think health is a priority, but refuse to even attempt to quit smoking how important is it really?  If you want to walk around with a six pack, but refuse to give up your 2 liter of soda a day habit, you are lying to yourself.  For any change to happen you have to want it more than the habits that are keeping you from that change.

Most people that ask about things I’ve changed and did to lose weight will usually respond with something along the lines of “oh, I could never do that,” or “I could never give up x or y.”  If you are okay with your current body composition, health, or whatever it is and don’t want to make a change go ahead and live your life; however, please don’t fall into the misconception that you are going to be the outlier that magically is able to shed their body fat and continue to keep the same lifestyle habits.  You don’t have to change everything and lose who you are, but there are definitely habits that have to change if you want to change.

In conclusion, calories matter, but for long term health and results there are other factors that are likely more important to concern yourself with.  Improving both your food choices and tracking your food will certainly produce the best of both worlds and is what I would recommend most of the time.  At the end of the day, you have to make choices that you can live with and make your goals realistic for that lifestyle.  If you want to be able to eat however you want, be prepared and ready to accept the shape you will be in, and if you just have to have a killer physique be prepared to live a stricter lifestyle and hopefully your won’t drive yourself crazy in the process.

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About Roger James CSCS, NSCA-CPT

I am a trainer (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist®, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer®, NASM Golf Fitness Specialist), coach (USAW Sports Performance Coach), and now blogger with a passion for fitness, health, and performance. My love for the gym began as a way to get stronger and better at sports. While my early training packed on strength it also packed on unhealthy weight. After a pectoral injury made strength training take a back seat, I focused on my health and losing weight to go from 270lbs to 200 in about 3 months time. I favor evidenced based training and lifestyle choices to build not just the body clients want to see in the mirror, but that have the strength and ability to live life as actively as they desire. This site is a way for me to help others on their health and wellness journey.  It is my goal to provide quality material to help educate and expand peoples thinking about fitness, health, and wellness.  I am not a doctor and do not claim to be.  The information provided on my site is there as an educational tool so that others can make informed decisions about how to live their life.

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