The Truth and Myths Around the “Calories In/Calories Out” Weight Control Method

The “calories in/calories out” weight control method has been criticized strongly in recent years. Insights into the influence of hormones on weight and fat storage have led many experts to advise ignoring calorie counts and focusing instead on the timing of meals, macronutrient combinations, or the avoidance of certain foods altogether.  They were right to move away from calorie counting as it was once understood, but now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.  Let me set the record straight.

True:  If you consume more calories than you burn you will gain weight, and if you burn more than you consume you will lose weight.

False:  It is simple to calculate how many calories you burn by plugging your gender, weight, and calories burned through exercise into an equation.  

There is a major factor that isn’t taken into account in traditional calorie counting methods: METABOLISM.  Metabolism varies between individuals, even with everything else being equal.  It is influenced by genetics, diet, physical activity, personal history, gender, body composition, and medications.  We all know someone who can eat whatever they want, whenever they want it, and they never gain an ounce (that doesn’t mean they’re healthy, but that’s a topic for another day). So clearly, using equations and meticulously counting calories is a flawed method.

But does that mean calorie counting is useless?  Absolutely not!  It just means we need to update the way we use calories to account for what we now know about metabolism.

By ignoring calories, some experts make it seem like you can just eat six meals a day and eliminate sugar, and voila!  Your metabolism will skyrocket, and you will be impervious to fat storage.  That thinking sells a lot of books, but is extremely misleading.

Everybody is different, and finding the nutrition regimen that is perfect for you does make a difference in weight loss.  However, much of the difference comes from you naturally being less hungry or feeling full with fewer calories.  You might be able to increase your metabolism slightly, but it’s not as much as most people imagine.  

True:  It takes a 3,500 calorie deficit to lose a pound.

False:  Therefore, if you cut out one 100 calorie soda each day you will lose a pound in 35 days.

Your body strives to maintain homeostasis, or balance.  If you cut out 100 calories a day your body will drop a little weight, but it will also slow your metabolism slightly to try to maintain balance.  Then you will plateau when your body achieves homeostasis.  There is no way to guarantee how much you will lose and in what time period because each individual is different.  Plus, it is so difficult to precisely count calories that there is a good chance even an avid calorie counter is fluctuating at least 100 calories each day.  Even nutrition labels can be off by quite a bit.

False:  Once you balance your hormones, you won’t need to worry about calories because you will feel full when you have eaten enough.

It is true that when you balance your hormones you don’t experience physical hunger when you have eaten enough.  However, that is not the only reason people eat.  You might also eat if you are bored, nervous, depressed, craving comfort, or just because it looks good.  Even if you eat all of the right foods at the right time of day you could end up overeating if you eat as much as you want to.  It is important to know how much food your body needs, whether you use calorie counting or another portion control method.

False (usually):  You can lose weight by increasing your calorie consumption.

That’s just now how it works.  There is one exception:  If you are doing certain types of workouts, but not eating enough protein or overall calories to support the adaptations they cause - especially building muscle - you will plateau.  Eating more in this situation will allow your body to build muscle and otherwise adapt as needed.  This process burns a lot of calories on its own. Plus, muscle burns more calories than fat even when you’re resting.

True:  Becoming familiar with calorie counts and knowing how many calories your body needs can help you reach and maintain your ideal weight.

Despite its shortcomings, calorie counting is actually an extremely effective weight loss tool when used correctly.  This is how I suggest using calorie counting, whether you want to gain, lose, or maintain your weight:

  1. Eat as you normally would for a couple of weeks, ideally a full menstrual cycle for women, including cheat days.  Use your phone to take pictures of each meal, beverage, and snack or keep a detailed journal.  Remember, every bit counts!  Even that one mint from the candy bowl, or those spoonfuls you tasted as you cooked.

  2. Record your weight each day, in the morning with no clothes on before eating or drinking.

  3. Go back and count the calories you consumed each day.  Don’t do this until the end or you will be tempted to make changes instead of establishing a baseline.  Just Google “____ nutrition facts”.

  4. See whether your weight has overall been increasing, decreasing, or staying the same.  Fluctuating within the same few pounds counts as staying the same.  Now you know if you are consuming too many calories, too few, or just the right amount.

  5. If you want your weight to be different, find out how many calories you “should” require at your ideal weight.  Don’t obsess over which equation, online calculator, or app you use, since even the best can only provide estimations.  You can find one at CalorieKing.com.

  6. Begin by adjusting your caloric intake and/or expenditure by a total of 500-1000 calories.  You might see quick changes in the first month, but after that you should average only a 1-2 pound difference each week.  Adjust your intake to maintain this rate.  When you plateau, adjust again in increments of about 200 calories until you begin to see a change again.   

  7. As you approach your ideal weight, you will gain or lose more slowly.  UNLESS YOU PLATEAU FOR THREE WEEKS OR MORE, NEVER GO PAST THE ESTIMATED NUMBER OF CALORIES YOU WILL NEED AT YOUR IDEAL WEIGHT.  Doing so can affect your metabolism adversely and sabotage your efforts to maintain that weight.

If you are trying to lose weight, a great trick to bust through a plateau when you are within a few pounds of your ideal weight is to alternate one day 200 calories above your target with one day 200 calories below your target.

Though effective, calorie counting isn’t for everybody.  It is great for “numbers people” and people who prefer the concrete and objective.  If you love data, science, and statistics, it might resonate with you.  However, it is tedious and takes a lot of work.  If you get irritated just thinking about counting calories, or if you are a visual person, try a visual portion control method instead.

What has been your experience with calorie counting?  Will you use it in the future?  Tell me in the comments.