Dr. Day is a cardiologist and Medical Director of Heart Rhythm Services at his practice in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowship in cardiology at Stanford University. He is board certified in Cardiology and Cardiac Electrophysiology.
5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Count Calories
The Chinese don’t calories. Could counting calories actually cause weight gain?
Recent medical studies have shown that a calorie is not a calorie. In this article I review the science on calories and share with you 5 reasons why you shouldn’t count calories. I will also teach you how to “hack” unwanted body fat without feeling hungry.
I Grew Up Counting Calories
Calories were counted in my home growing up. I quickly learned what a calorie was and how to read labels.
I was excited to learn that one serving of Fruit Loops had just 110 calories. Like most people, I had no idea how little a one cup serving size really was. Because there were so few calories in one serving, I thought I was OK eating half the box.
Strangely, even after so many calories at breakfast, I could never seem to make it to lunch time until I was famished again. On the other hand, I made the observation that if I just had a few tablespoons of peanut butter (each tablespoon has 100 calories) for breakfast that I could easily make it to lunch without getting hungry.
Calorie Didn’t Exist in Chinese
At the age of 19 I lived among the Chinese immigrant community in New York City as part of a volunteer church missionary assignment. When I tried to discuss “calories” with recent immigrants, they just gave me a blank stare.
Let me explain, the word for calorie in Chinese, kaluli, is a loan word. In other words, the sounds were borrowed from English as the word didn’t previously exist in Chinese.
Thus, not only do the Chinese not count calories, they didn’t even have a way to discuss calories before English loan words invaded their culture. Could there be wisdom in not counting or discussing calories?
The Science of Calories
The definition of a calorie is the amount of energy required to raise one gram of water by one degree celsius. While this works in a test tube, it simply does not work that way in our body.
Food is information for our genes. Food affects our hormones. Food either turns up or down our metabolism.
It is the “effective” calories that matter. The problem is that everyone’s effective calories from food is different. Thus, the calorie label on food is not reliable. A calorie is not a calorie.
Real Fruit vs. Energy Bars
The conventional wisdom is that a “calorie is a calorie.” If conventional wisdom is correct then it shouldn’t matter how you get your calories, right?
In a fascinating study, researchers in Brazil gave overweight women one of three different food supplements in their diet. Study participants were told to eat this food supplement three times a day. These food supplements consistent of an apple, pear, or an oat “energy bar.” Each food supplement had the same number of calories.
To better understand the effects of these food supplements, under the direction of a nutritionist each participant’s diet was the same–15% protein, 30% fat, and 55% carbohydrates.
If a calorie really is a calorie then you would expect that everyone’s weight should be the same at the end of the study, correct? At the end of the 3 month study, participants assigned to fruit for their food supplement lost approximately 3 pounds whereas the participants assigned to the oat energy bars did not any weight loss.
Good vs. Bad Foods
Most people believe that weight loss is simply a function of calories in minus calories out. Surprisingly, that is exactly what researchers did not see in this landmark study published in the most prestigious medical journal, the New England Journal of Medicine.
In this study, led by my former Stanford University classmate, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, they followed 120,877 well educated health professionals for 20 years. These people were healthy and were not obese at the beginning of the study.
Overall, most people gained 20 pounds, or one pound per year, over the course of the study. However, there were medical outliers.
For example, people whose diets consisted of fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, or yogurt either lost or maintained their weight over 20 years. In contrast, people whose diets consisted of refined grains, sugary drinks, fruit juice, fried foods, processed meats, red meat, deserts, potato chips, or butter all gained weight over 20 years. Interestingly, milk and cheese did not seem to have a significant impact on long-term weight gain.
If a calorie is really a calorie then how do you explain why certain foods caused weight gain and other foods caused weight loss? Clearly, what happens in a test tube and what happens in real life are really two completely different things.
Foods Determine Metabolism
To further drive home the point that a calorie is not a calorie, in this interesting study researchers demonstrated that what you eat can determine your body’s metabolic set point. In this study, Harvard researchers enrolled young overweight adults and tried them on three different diets. These three diets included a low fat diet, low glycemic diet, and a low carb diet.
On each diet they burned the same amount of calories and ate the same amount of calories. Interestingly, metabolism was highest for the low carb and low glycemic diets and lowest for the low fat diet. Not surprisingly, the hunger hormones were the lowest for the low carb and low glycemic diet and highest for the low fat diet.
The low carb diet did come at a cost. The low carb diet had the highest levels of inflammation and stress hormones. Given these findings, the low glycemic diet might be the best.
Food is information for your DNA. What you eat turns on or off different genes and hormones. Your metabolism is also turned up or down based on what you eat.
5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Count Calories
Now that I have hopefully convinced you that a calorie is not a calorie, let me give you 5 reasons why you shouldn’t count calories.
1. You May Eat More
You would think that people who count their calories would eat less. The problem is that we either make mistakes or are not honest with ourselves. For example, in a classic study, people underestimated their daily calories by 47%!
It is true that for some people counting calories can bring mindfulness of what you are actually eating. For these people, I would recommend tracking your nutrition with a handheld device rather than count calories. If you do want to count calories, from personal experience, I would recommend either lowering your daily caloric intake target or overestimating your calories to prevent weight gain with this approach.
I know that for me, tracking nutrition was especially helpful in teaching me to eat more mindfully and to maintain my weight loss. Like so many people, I often don’t get the internal cues that I am full. As a result, if I don’t track my nutrition with the LoseIt app, I will probably overeat.
2. Gut Flora Determines Calories Absorbed
Even though you may be diligently counting your calories, studies show that the bacteria in your gut may have the final say on whether you absorb all or just part of your calories. Perhaps the key to weight loss is not restricting calories but rather promoting the gut flora that will cause you to loose weight like fermented foods and fiber.
3. Processing and Cooking Unlock Calories
In general, the more prepared food is the more calories you will store as fat. If you want to gain weight then eat a lot of processed foods and cook everything you eat well.
For example, studies show that cooking food unlocks more calories than raw foods. The same thing is true when it comes to grains. Studies show that refined grains cause weight gain whereas whole grains cause weight loss.
Perhaps this explains why people lose weight with nuts. Studies show that nuts have much less “effective calories” than what you would predict because they require so much effort to digest.
4. Metabolism Trumps Calories
While one cup of fruit loops and one tablespoon of peanut butter have the same number of calories, the fruit loops will slow your metabolism and the peanut butter will speed things up. Thus, the effective calories of a cup of fruit loops is far more than a tablespoon of peanut butter.
In general, refined grains and sugar slow metabolism. Protein speeds up metabolism. Fiber not only promotes the weight loss bacteria in your gut but also speeds up metabolism. Even capsaicin may rev up your metabolism.
The time of the day you eat also affects metabolism. Erratic eating patterns slow metabolism whereas regularly timed meals speed up metabolism.
Even things like altitude and air temperature affect metabolism. Studies show that high altitudes increase metabolism. Metabolism is also increased when it is cold or hot. Room temperature seems to slow metabolism.
5. Hunger Hormones Determine Intake
While you might like to think that you can control your food intake by counting calories, at the end of the day your hunger hormones decide when and how much you eat. What you eat and your lifestyle can determine whether these hunger hormones are working for you or against you.
For example, as discussed from the study above, low fat diets activate hunger hormones whereas low glycemic and low carb diets turn hunger hormones off. High stress levels and sleep deprivation also dramatically turn on hunger hormones as I discussed in a previous article.
Are You Still Counting Calories?
A calorie is simply not a calorie. Weight loss is not a function of calories in versus calories out. It is far more complex. Calorie counters often undercount and end up eating more.
Food is information for our DNA. What we eat determines if our gut bacteria even allow us to absorb the calories or not. Processed and prepared foods favor calorie absorption and raw foods make it hard to absorb calories. Metabolism sets your burn rate and hunger hormones dictate how much you eat.
If your goal is weight loss you have to learn how to “hack your weight.” When did you stop counting calories?
Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.