Calorie counting is pointless, like a pencil with a broken tip #Dadjokes. Counting calories keeps us in an unhealthy dieting cycle that is making us fat and corporations rich. Here are 10 reasons why calorie counts are 60% irrelevant, 40% misleading, and 100% bullshit.
10. Calorie counts are inaccurate. According to one study, restaurant calorie counts can vary from reality by as much as 35%, but as you will read, calories are pretty much useless anyway. If you choose to ignore my advice and make food decisions based on calorie counts, know that a lot of your calorie data is inaccurate. This is like having a scale that gives you your weight in some useless archaic measurement like cubits, hands, or furlongs but is also randomly inaccurate by 1.21 gigawatts.
Furthermore, the calorie counts we get from nutritionists and food companies is biased against whole foods. This is because processed foods are generally 100% digestible while whole foods are not. When we eat foods whole like carrots, corn, and peanuts, we only fully digest some of the food and the rest is not metabolized but instead passes through our digestive system to help clean things out. This means that a lot of the “calories” in whole foods do not count but rather just contribute to the digestion of other foods and help clean us out. You know what I mean. This is how food is intended to work.
When foods like carrots, corn, and peanuts are processed, the foods become much more digestible, which means we will absorb all of the calories they contain. This is a huge win for processed food manufacturers because if the true absorption was accounted for, their healthier whole food counterparts would have lower counts by comparison. Check your toilet following a meal of whole corn vs corn flakes to note the difference in absorption. Actually don’t, just take my word for it. FYI, when I say “whole corn” I don’t mean the cob too. Also, apparently Michael Bublé doesn’t know how to eat corn on the cob.
Whole foods’ calories are more difficult to track and this encourages calorie counters to eat more labeled, pre-packaged, pre-made, processed garbage. You can’t accurately measure the calories in my Tuscan bean soup, not even with a food scale, but if you buy a “Healthy Choice” or “Lean Cuisine” meal you can very easily enter this into your food journal, add up the day’s calories, and in all likelihood cry yourself to sleep. This is what happens. We stop cooking because cooking takes time and messes with our calorie math, and we eat low cal processed junk and that is literally the worst thing we can do for our health and waistline. P.S. My Tuscan bean soup with kale and sausage is fucking delicious and super good for you. Recipe to follow.
9. The math doesn’t work. When scientists fed prisoners upwards of 10,000 calories per day and limited their exercise, they were supposed to gain a pound or more per day, based on the caloric math. After several months of this, the amount of weight gained was a small fraction of what was expected and a few of them barely gained weight at all! The opposite is also true, during WW2, conscientious observers were enrolled in a starvation diet study, and the amount of weight they lost was only a very small fraction of what was expected. Finally, the Nurses Health Initiative study followed 50,000 women for 9 years. They found that reducing 300 calories per day and increasing exercise should have helped the women lose several pounds each month but the exercise/low cal group lost less than one kilogram over 9 years, as compared to the women in the control group who ate more calories and didn’t exercise much at all. All of these results seem to make calories irrelevant because we find that if we eat more or less calories, our body’s metabolism speeds up and slows down, to keep us near our set point. This is why “yo-yo dieting” can be especially bad as it can slow our metabolism, making it harder for us to lose weight in the future. If we ignore calories, eat real food, keep moving, and engage in fasting, our set point can shift and we can lose weight permanently.
8. Calories are Outdated Science. The Bomb Calorimeter (pictured below) was invented to measure calories** and it’s so last semester. It’s a high tech device straight out of the 1870’s when its use in nutrition was pioneered by a guy named Wilbur Atwater, who was later convicted of donkey molestation and mail fraud. The bomb calorimeter actually burns things to assign a calorie count based on how much heat it puts out. Our bodies don’t actually ever “burn” things, it’s a figure of speech, unless we are physically on fire. This fact makes the bomb calorimeter somewhat irrelevant in my expert opinion. My lazy boy recliner is probably around 170,000 calories in the bomb calorimeter but if I eat it, I won’t gain weight because my recliner isn’t super digestible, it’s not even food. Just like I won’t gain weight if I eat 10,000 calories worth of wood, feathers, or broccoli (see what I just did there?) So why do we use this outdated technique for selecting food choices? It is super helpful in selling garbage foods to the public. See reasons 9 and 6. Also, don’t eat your couch or any other non-food items, unless someone cooler than you dares you to do so.
7. Weight Gain and Loss is largely a Hormonal Process. There are many hormones in play here but two of the biggest are insulin and ghrelin. I’ve written a bit about insulin before. Here is a link. To summarize, insulin is released from our pancreas when blood sugar is elevated. Insulin does a lot of things in our bodies but here are two big ones. Insulin takes glucose in the blood and stores it as fat, and insulin stops us from using our stored (belly and ass) fat as fuel, even if we are eating a low calorie diet. It actually does other things too, but that’s another article. If I took two groups of people and gave half of them extra insulin, the half that got insulin will gain way more weight, regardless of calories. Also, some would die of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which is why we can’t actually do this study, but it works on mice. Diabetics will gain weight after starting or increasing their insulin dosing. Conversely, diabetics who stop or dramatically cut their insulin dosing will lose weight (don’t do this without a doctor’s supervision). All these super eloquently made points seem to make calories irrelevant and insulin reduction the key to weight loss.
Metformin is a drug that I recommend for lots of people***. It causes a safe lowering of blood sugar which then lowers insulin, which causes you us to lose weight and also live longer, independent of calories consumed. I’ll talk about metformin and a couple of other drugs in an anti-aging post next month. Full disclosure, I take metformin (1000mg daily) when I remember, which is about half the time.
Insulin also makes us hungry because it causes our blood glucose to crash. Eating a low calorie/low fat diet keeps our insulin high and blocks access to your fat stores. To put this in common financial terms, having fat stores in our body is like having money in a savings account. It’s a reserve. Some have more reserves than others, but we all have some. When we have high insulin levels, it’s like cutting up your bank card and checkbook because you’ve got so much money in your pockets that you don’t need the reserve. If we are dieting and eat even small amounts of food that increase insulin we cut the bank card and our bodies have no choice but to cut spending by slowing metabolism. This is the dreaded starvation mode. It’s only when insulin is turned off, can we get access to our bank account and “burn” all that stored energy on our love handles.
Starvation mode not only screws your weight loss but also leads to muscle loss, and keeps you tired, hungry, and cranky. Hungry, tired, and cranky, which I abbreviate as “Hanky” is the feared triad that leads to grocery store meltdowns in children and angry Facebook posts in adults. We can avoid all this hankiness by eating healthy, fatty, filling food that doesn’t increase insulin.
Ghrelin is another important hormone that causes us to be hungry. Ghrelin (hunger) is turned off when we eat fat, but not with carbohydrates. So when we consume 300 calories of soda, we stay hungry, but 300 calories of bacon and eggs, turns off our hunger signals (ghrelin), and we feel good. Also, insulin isn’t stimulated with the bacon and eggs, so it’s a two-fer. So why do we even talk about the 300 calories? Probably because, we’ve been programmed to do so.
6. Calories allow Kellogs and Kraft to compare Poptarts, ricecakes, and margarine to salmon, carrots, and coconut oil. The Poptarts, Ricecakes, and margarine are terrible for us and the salmon, carrots, and coconut oil will nourish your body and provide much better mouthfeel. When calories and cost are the primary yardsticks, the foods appear comparable and because the foods in the second group are more expensive and lack catchy logos, cartoon spokespeople, and Heart Healthy labels, the good whole foods often lose out.
5. Counting Calories leads to low fat eating and that’s bad. The easiest and most logical way to cut calories is to cut fat because fat has 9 calories per gram, which is more than protein (4 calories per gram) and carbs (4 calories per gram). Unfortunately, we have a lot of data (see reason #1) that shows this approach to be wrong.
To make matters worse, low fat diets are often processed, chemical rich, and nutrient poor. These low fat/low cal diets put the focus on arbitrary numbers. Our focus should be on quality ingredients, micronutrients, keeping blood sugar stable, and taste. Counting calories encourages purchases like food scales, food journals, and takes the fun out of eating.
I’ll give you an example of the terrible decisions calories encourage. Let’s say you’re a calorie counter and it’s dinner time on a Wednesday evening. You have 400 calories left for the day before you reach your predetermined calorie max of 1600. You decide to eat a salad, but avoid putting olive oil on the salad to save the 220 calories that the olive oil contains, so that you can have a Twinkie (220 calories) while you watch The Golden Girls followed by Sex and the City, which is essentially the same show as far as I can tell. An hour after eating the Twinkie, you feel hungry and crappy and can barely even enjoy the hilarious quips of those delightful old ladies (Sarah Jessica Parker is my favorite) but you are at your max calories for the day and don’t want to break your diet, because it’s almost beach season. So to cheer yourself up, you go out and score some crack instead. You end up blacking out, and wake up three days later soaked in your own urine and vomit in an abandoned building about 35 minutes southeast of Houston. When you get back home, you are pleased to find that you have lost 8 pounds but your doctor informs you that you have contracted hepatitis C. This is what counting calories does to thousands of people every day.
4. Shrinkage. Do you know about shrinkage? It’s a real thing. It can shrink like a frightened turtle. I’m talking about your stomach of course and when it shrinks, it’s a good thing. Unfortunately, a low fat, low calorie, high carb diet encourages stomach stretching. When we eat low fat carbs, our only trigger to stop eating is the stretch receptors in the stomach because as we discussed above, ghrelin (hunger) is not turned off by carbs. It’s this repetitive stretching that causes the stomach to grow. As our stomachs grow, we often need larger and larger volumes of food in order to feel full. Folks who have gastric bypasses lose a lot of weight initially because they have their stomachs surgically shrunk to the size of an egg. Unfortunately, a lot of gastric bypass patients regain the weight over a period of 5-10 years, because they overeat and eat too many carbs, which causes the stomach to stretch back out to a much larger size, which is the opposite of shrinkage, and this is bad. So shrinkage is a good thing, in this case.
When we eat fat and to a lesser extent protein, we stop ghrelin (hunger), and trigger satiety hormones, most notably something called cholecystokinin (CCK) before our stomachs get so full that they stretch. CCK slows our stomach from emptying and keeps us feeling full sooner and longer. So our stomachs shrink over time and we feel full with much lower volumes of food, which is a good thing. This is one way we can train our bodies to eat less by eating higher calorie and higher fat foods. I know it’s counter intuitive, but the obvious and intuitive choice of cutting calories and reducing fat has been one of the greatest public health failures of the past 100 years and one of the food industry’s greatest victories, so let’s try something else.
3. Biochemistry I took biology at the University of Washington, biochemistry from Cal Berkeley*, and also in medical school at Florida State University. No big deal. I was forced to learn countless metabolic pathways and at one point, I was able to regurgitate them by memory. I can tell you that not once in any of my biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physiology, or biochemistry classes was the term “calorie” ever referenced or found on any metabolic pathway(see below). This is because calories are units of heat in physics, not biochemistry and our metabolism is way more complicated than what nutritionists tell us (3500 calories = 1 pound of fat). I truly wish it was that simple, but it’s painfully more complicated than that. I admit that in general, people who consume way too many calories, generally gain weight, but that weight gain is usually in the presence of high carb consumption which drives insulin up. So the cure for obesity isn’t less calories, it’s better healthier food. For instance, if we were all to drink 29 tablespoons of olive oil today, which equals around 3500 calories, would we all gain a pound of fat on our bodies tomorrow, like we are supposed to by that silly math equation? Of course we wouldn’t. This point and many others makes counting calories a moo point. It’s what a cow thinks. It’s moo.
2. Life isn’t that fair. There isn’t some little man in your belly with an abacus and tally, adding up your calories and putting fat on your body like some dickish bean counter accountant (pictured below). You know how some people eat whatever they want and never gain weight and others glance at a burrito and gain five pounds? Weight gain and loss is not always fair and not always simple, if it were, would over half of Americans be overweight?
And while your milkshake may bring all the boys to the yard differences in gut microbiome, genetics, cortisol (stress), age, insulin sensitivity, the rate of digestion (AKA gastric emptying time), intestinal absorption, drugs, sleep (more to come on this soon), meal timing, white and brown fat distribution, glycogen levels, testosterone, estrogen, exercise patterns, basal metabolic rate (calories you burn through living) and the macronutrient makeup (fats, protein, or carbs) of your meal all play a role in how your food is digested and metabolized into energy, turned into muscle, and/or packed onto your lovely lady lumps.
1. The Biggest Loser and other examples of calorie counting failures. We have many large scientific studies that have tried to show the benefit of eating a low calorie and low fat diet, all of which have failed in the long run. Even ethically questionable starvation studies from the 1940’s show that extremely low calorie diets cause our metabolism to dramatically slow over time which leads to weight regain. The best and largest study to date was the women’s health initiative that involved 48,000 women over 8 years. Half of the participants engaged in frequent health counseling, dietary fat reduction, calorie cutting, and exercise. The other half (the control group) continued eating their regular (unhealthy) diet and not exercising. After 8 years of dieting and exercising and going to what I assume were terribly boring counseling sessions with dieticians, both groups gained the exact same amount of weight, and had the same health outcomes (heart attacks, strokes etc). This and many other studies hoped to show the benefit of a low calorie diet and exercise, but failed to show any long term benefit. Please don’t take this as a reason to stop exercising, by the way.
A more public example of this is the show the Biggest Loser. But Jimmy, I loved that show and people lose a shit-ton of weight on their low calorie/ low fat diet. Yeah, I loved that show too, but the contestants start out morbidly obese, workout 23 and a half hours per day, take stimulants that Jillian and Bob hand out like sugar free Extra gum and Jenny-O turkey (this reference doesn’t make sense if you don’t watch the show.) What’s worse is that a recent follow up study conducted six years after the show had finished, revealed that nearly all of the contestants regained most, if not all of the weight. This isn’t because these people fell off the diet wagon or lack of will power, but instead the study shows how this type of weight loss slowed their metabolism down to such a degree that regaining the weight was a forgone conclusion. Countless other lowfat diet studies show the same thing, including The Women’s Health Initiative Study mentioned above.
In conclusion, it’s not that I don’t believe in calories as a concept. I just don’t think counting them is helpful and I think carbs and sugar are way more important things to watch. Furthermore, we’ve tried counting and cutting calories for a long time. We’ve all had similar results. We lose some weight. We gain it back. We feel guilty about it. We should try something different. The first step is to realize that a lot of what the food and diet industry is telling us to do is wrong and that in order not to look, feel, and age like a normal American, we may have to do some things that aren’t considered normal. More to follow on this. If this article intrigues or amuses you, be sure to sign up for my newsletter where I will be discussing things I am researching and learning about. Thanks.
In doing research for this article I read a couple books on the subject, no big deal. They’re both pretty dry and technical, but full of useful information. The Poor Misunderstood Calorie and Fat For Fuel.
*Biochemistry from Cal was an online course, but still.
**Calories are a unit of heat and are a common term for the scientific term “kilocalories” abbreviated “Kcal”. I use the term “calories” instead of “Kcal” because it’s easier.
***Talk to you doctor to see if metformin is right for you.