’Tis the season…
The season for joining gyms…
The season for starting a new running program…
The season for trying a new diet.
And since this time of year is full of trainers, coaches, and “experts” selling you their outstanding weight loss programs, I thought I’d spend some time clarifying one of the biggest MYTHS of weight loss that continues to be prevalent (and likely more so) today.
That myth is simply counting calories…
Now, it’s not necessarily that counting calories in and of itself is a terrible thing. After all, many people have made significant strides in their health and fitness thanks to different calorie counting systems.
The issue with calorie counting is 3 fold:
#1) Calorie counting leads you to ASSUME that all calories are equal and…
#2) Calorie counting typically leads to OR is accompanied by calorie RESTRICTION and…
#3) Calorie counting ASSUMES that calorie expenditure (the number of calories you burn on a regular basis) stays steady from day-to-day.
To understand these areas better, let’s take a look at each one individually…
ISSUE #1) Assuming all calories are equal
Sometime in the mid-late 1800s, scientists discovered the calorie. How it was discovered isn’t important for our discussion. However, the WAY it was discovered absolutely is.
That’s because, as we view calories today, people who belief that a calorie is a calorie (in otherwords that all calories are created equal) view calories as being in a vacuum. For instance, the way that a calorie is tested in a lab is by measuring how much energy it takes to heat up 1kg of water by 1 degree.
That means that, in a controlled, structured, isolated lab test, it takes a “calorie” to warm up 1kg of water by 1 degree. But guess what, our bodies are not controlled, structured isolated lab tests. They are intricate, multi-faceted, intermingling machines.
Therefore, our bodies react much differently to a calorie of, say, Oreos than it does to a calorie of broccoli. So, as you see, a calorie to the HUMAN BODY is not simply a calorie. That Oreo calorie will put fat on you. The broccoli calorie won’t.
ISSUE #2) Calorie counting typically leads to calorie restriction.
On the surface, this is another myth that seems like common sense. We’ve been told for decades that, if we want to lose weight, all we simply need to do is burn more calories than we eat.
This hypothesis is called the Calories In Calories Out theory. And it’s been proven to be dead wrong AND actually detrimental to your health and weight loss aspirations. Here’s how…
Your body is smart. Actually, it’s much smarter than you or I will ever be. As an example, your body has a natural way of detecting and adjusting its energy expenditure in times of feast or famine.
During times of calorie restriction, for instance, your body will naturally start to adjust its energy expenditure downward. How does it do that? By SLOWING DOWN YOUR METABOLISM (more on this in ISSUE #3). Yes, your body will slow down your metabolism if you go into a state of chronic undereating.
You probably know the feelings that come when your body self-adjusts in this way, especially if you’ve ever done a low-calorie diet. Your hair gets thin and brittle, your nails get frail, your body temperature drops, and you have low energy and are cold all that time. That’s because your body THINKS that it’s starving, so it’s trying to survive (like I said, much smarter than you or I will ever be).
Conversely, if you engage in a period of overeating, your body will adjust your metabolism UP. In other words, your body will speed up your metabolism if you’re eating too many calories for your body type. This final thought brings us straight to the final issue with calorie counting…
ISSUE #3) Calorie counting ASSUME that daily total calorie expenditure stays steady from day to day.
When it comes to the number of calories your body burns in a day, this number is called total calorie energy expenditure. There’s a fancy calculation for this number that we can use to find how many calories you burn each day:
Total energy expenditure = Resting Metabolic Rate + Movement (Exercise + NEAT) + Food Thermogensis + Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption
I’m sure you absolutely confused by looking at this formula. That’s because, as far as you knew, it was only important to track the number of calories you burned during exercise! However, as you can now see, exercise is but a fraction of the number of calories you burn in a day.
As a matter of fact, the biggest contributor to total energy expenditure is Resting Metabolic Rate, or RMR for short. Your RMR is the number of calories your body burns to stay alive (AKA your metabolism)…and you have zero control over this. For the average woman, this number is about 1200–1500 calories per day. For the average man, this number is around 1800–2200 calories per day.
So, as you’re starting to gather, it’s nearly impossible for you or a nutritionist to gather EXACTLY how many calories you burn in a day given the number of variables that are out of your control. Not to mention that your total energy expenditure can fluctuate as much as 50% from day to day. Needless to say, that 1200 calorie diet may not be what you need to reach your goals.
While I know this is a lot to take in, it’s absolutely imperative information. That’s because SOOOOO many people have tried the low-calorie trend and have been disappointed and let down.
And your “failure” from a calorie-counting diet is not because of your lack of willpower, but simply from your body’s natural adaptation to the circumstances.
I hope this helps in some way. Feel free to reach out if you have any clarifications you need. Until next time!