11 Reasons People Think Calories Don’t Count — And Why They’re Wrong

Calories do count.

Study after study has shown that when you eat less and move more, you lose weight.1-4

However, you still hear arguments as to why that’s not true. Some of these ideas sound silly, but others make you wonder. They give you just enough doubt to think the “calories in versus calories out” plan might not be for you.

Let’s look at some of the most common reasons people say that cutting calories doesn’t cause weight loss, and why they’re incorrect.

Myth #1: What you eat is more important than how much you eat.

You could get ripped on skittles and coke (the soda).

That’s an extreme example, and you probably wouldn’t enjoy that diet. However, in terms of just weight loss, it doesn’t matter what you eat as long as you’re in a caloric deficit. You’ll lose weight.

There’s no evidence that “junk food” is more fattening than “healthy food” if they have the same number of calories.5

Here are a few more common scapegoats:

There’s no evidence that eating any of these foods will make you gain more fat, or slow fat loss, while you’re in a calorie deficit.5,6,9-11 There is also no evidence that other foods will help you lose more fat while dieting.

This doesn’t mean food quality is irrelevant. Eating whole, nutritious, filling foods helps control hunger and keeps you healthy in the long-term.12-15

However, eating moderate amounts of “unclean” foods is not going to make any impact on your ability to lose fat as long as you’re in a caloric deficit.

Certain foods are more filling than others, and thus make it easier to maintain a caloric deficit. However, as long as you’re in a caloric deficit, you’ll lose weight.

Food “quality” (whatever that means) doesn’t make any difference.

Myth #2: If you eat the right combination of protein, fat, and carbohydrate, you won’t gain fat.

Virtually every weight loss diet has a certain macronutrient ratio — a percentage of calories from protein, fat, and carbohydrate, that you’re supposed to follow.

Most of these diets are nonsense. Almost 100 years of research has shown that there is no macronutrient combination that causes more fat loss than another.1,3,16-18 People lose the same amount of weight when they eat high or low-carb diets, as long as they eat the same amount of protein.1-4,19

That brings us to the exception — high protein diets.

Higher protein diets generally help people lose less muscle and more fat at the same calorie intake. 20-30 However, after a certain point, eating more protein isn’t going to help you lose any more fat.

Keep in mind that none of the people in these studies lost weight if they weren’t in a calorie deficit. They also tended to lose about the same amount of total weight as people on lower protein diets.

Every macronutrient can make you gain weight if it also contributes to a caloric surplus. No macronutrient ratio prevents or hinders fat loss while dieting. It’s about calories.

Myth #3: People don’t lose exactly as much weight as you’d expect when dieting, therefore calories don’t count.

A pound of fat has roughly 3,500 calories. If you eat 500 calories less per day, in theory you should lose one pound per week.

This almost never happens.

Even in controlled studies, people almost never lose exactly as much weight as you’d expect from the math.31,32 People claim this is proof that calories don’t count.

It’s not.

Scientists have known for years that both sides of the energy balance equation — how much you eat and expend — are variable and hard to measure.1,2

Here is why people don’t always lose exactly as much weight as you’d expect while dieting, and why this doesn’t prove calories don’t count:

1. People are horrible at estimating their calorie intake and expenditure.33-62 63-81 This is why anecdotes and studies on people living outside of a clinic will never prove calories don’t count.

 2. As people lose weight, they burn fewer calories because they move less, and for several other reasons. Their calorie deficit becomes smaller, and they lose fat at a slower rate.82-84

3. People also usually lose some muscle mass, even if they  diet intelligently, which can change the amount of weight they lose.

4. It’s hard to calculate someone’s exact calorie intake, even in a controlled setting.

5. When researchers are estimating someone’s calorie expenditure, they might be slightly off. If this happens, the person might be in a larger or smaller caloric deficit throughout the study than the researchers predicted.

6. People lose or retain different amounts of water, which can affect how much total weight they lose.

In every well controlled trial where people are forced to eat less, they lose weight. They don’t always lose the same amount of weight, but it’s usually close to what you’d expect if you assume that one pound of fat has 3,500 calories.32

Myth #4: People don’t gain exactly as much weight as you’d expect when overeating, therefore calories don’t count.

In studies where people overeat, they don’t always gain exactly as much fat as you’d predict.85,86

Once again, people claim this is proof that calories don’t count.

Once again, they’re incorrect.

Just like when people lose weight, the body also tends to defend against weight gain.

Some people do gain almost exactly as much fat as you’d expect based on their calorie intake. When they overeat by around 3,500 calories per week, they gain almost exactly one pound per week.87-89 Bummer.

However, there are people who don’t. In some cases, they barely gain any weight despite massively overeating calories.90

There are several reasons for this:

1. People move more subconsciously to burn the extra calories.

Some people increase their levels of non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, while dieting. They stand more, sit less, fidget, and are generally squirmy and hyperactive. These small movements can add up significantly throughout the day.91,92

In some cases, they can burn almost 1,000 extra calories per day and gain almost no fat.90 They still gain a little weight, but not as much as you’d think.

2. People gain weight, which forces them to move heavier bodies, which burns more calories.

When you gain weight, you have to move around a larger body. This burns more calories, which is enough to partially offset the extra calories you eat.93

3. When you eat more calories, you burn more calories digesting food.

Most people burn around 10% of their calorie intake digesting food.94 If you eat 1,000 extra calories per day, you’ll burn about 100 calories through digestion.

4. People don’t know how much they’re eating.

In uncontrolled settings, thin people who say they “eat a ton,” generally don’t. Thin or underweight people often vastly overestimate how much they’re eating the same way overweight people often underestimate their calorie intake. I happen to be one of them.

The fact that people don’t always gain weight in a linear relationship with how much they eat in no way proves calories don’t count. It just proves that your calorie expenditure changes as you gain weight.

Myth #5: Your metabolism slows when you cut calories, so cutting calories doesn’t work.

If this were true, starvation wouldn’t be possible.

As you lose weight, you burn fewer calories. This is going to happen on every diet, and it’s true for everyone.82,84,95,96 Except for extreme circumstances, however, this is almost never enough to completely stop weight loss.

In most cases, the drop in calorie burn is small, and only has a minor impact on your rate of weight loss.82

When obese people are forced to do hours of exercise and cut their calorie intake by 30%, they lost 123 pounds in 30 weeks. Their resting metabolic rates only dropped 504 calories per day over the normal drop caused by weighing less.97

In the Minnesota Starvation Study, people were forced to cut their calorie intake by 50% and walk 22 miles per week. After six months of straight dieting they lost 25% of their body weight. Their resting metabolic rates only dropped by about 225 calories per day. These people were also lean when they started dieting.98

There’s also no evidence that the decrease in your metabolic rate while dieting is enough to cause weight gain. It’s never happened in a single weight loss study in over 100 years. If it were going to, it would have happened by now.

Your metabolism drops slightly when you lose weight, but that’s the price you pay for fat loss. It happens to everyone, and it’s something you can minimize with the right behaviors. Calories still count.

Myth #6: Weight loss is far too complex to be managed by something as simple as diet and exercise.

There are hundreds of factors that influence your body weight and body composition.

Your set point, food choices, sensitivity to food cues, exercise levels, NEAT, self control, ability to estimate your food intake, hormone levels and sensitivity, and hundreds of other variables all help determine your ability to lose fat.

Fat loss is incredibly complex and it’s probably impossible to define every single thing that affects your ability to gain or lose fat.

The good news is that you don’t have to.

When people create a caloric deficit, they lose weight without worrying about all of these factors. They eat less, move more, and lose weight.1-4

You can’t control everything that influences your ability to lose fat. That’s why you need to focus on what you can control. Your calorie intake and movement levels.

The fact that your calorie intake and expenditure are influenced by many different factors doesn’t change the fact that calories count, and that you won’t lose weight if you aren’t in a caloric deficit.

Myth #7: When or how often you eat is more important than how much.

Food timing is becoming more and more popular, and that’s a shame.

There are reasons people claim that eating on a certain schedule is more important than how much you eat:

Misconception1 : Eating 5 or 6 small meals per day keeps your hunger under control and boosts your metabolic rate.

Truth: There is zero evidence that eating more often increases your metabolic rate or helps you lose more fat.99 There’s also little evidence that eating more often helps you control your appetite better than a normal meal frequency of around 3 meals per day.100-102

Misconception 2: Intermittent fasting helps you lose more fat and less muscle while dieting. It also helps you gain less fat and more muscle while overeating.

Truth: There’s little evidence intermittent fasting is anything more than a way for people to give themselves more dietary structure.

Misconception 3: Eating breakfast helps you lose more weight.

Truth: There’s no evidence that people who eat breakfast will lose more weight than those who don’t if they eat the same total number of calories.103

Misconception 4: Eating more of your calories or carbs at night will help you lose more weight.

Truth: Despite some uncontrolled research,104,105 there’s no controlled evidence this is true as long as the people in the study are eating the same number of calories.

Misconception 5: You’ll gain more muscle and lose more fat while dieting if you eat within 30 minutes after your workout.

Truth: The majority of research shows that eating in the “post-workout window” doesn’t cause more muscle growth or help fat loss.106,107

The bottom line is that frequency doesn’t matter in regards to weight loss or calorie burn. It might be a bad idea to starve yourself for a week and then binge for a week, but within reason, how often you eat doesn’t matter.

If you’re consuming the same number of calories you’ll gain or lose the same amount of weight. That’s true whether you eat ten meals per day or one meal per day.

Myth #8: Hormones affect body weight; therefore, managing your hormones is more important than calories.

Hormones like leptin, cortisol, thyroid, insulin, and testosterone all affect how many calories you burn and how much fat and muscle you lose while dieting.108-111 They also affect how much muscle or fat you gain while overeating.

Some people claim that because of this, you shouldn’t worry about your calorie intake, but about managing and “optimizing” your hormones. Then they usually recommend something like the following:

  • A special diet designed to support hormone production.
  • Avoiding certain foods or macronutrients because they boost estrogen levels or depress testosterone production, or affect some other hormone.
  • Supplements, of course.

Hormones matter, but there’s no evidence you can change them in a way that will help you lose weight without creating a calorie deficit.

When you cut your calorie intake, hormones like leptin and thyroid drop, which makes you burn fewer calories.112,113

However, the changes are usually small, and they don’t happen unless you’re also in a caloric deficit. There’s also no evidence that someone who’s eating enough calories to maintain their weight will suddenly lose fat if they “optimize” their hormones.

Massively cutting calories, overexercising, depriving yourself of sleep, living a stressful lifestyle, and other unhealthy behaviors can hinder your ability to lose fat. That doesn’t change the fact that you still have to be in a caloric deficit.

Myth #9: With the right combination of supplements, you don’t need to eat fewer calories to lose fat.

Most fat loss supplements are completely useless, and none of them help you lose fat unless you’re also in a caloric deficit. Even the ones that work only help you lose slightly more fat.

Supplements like CLA have never been shown to cause significant fat loss in humans.114,115 As far as the current evidence is concerned, they’re mostly a waste of money.

Even the most powerful fat loss supplements like ephedrine and caffeine have fairly small effects. They only help you burn at most around 100-200 calories more per day, and the effects tend to wear off over time.116-118

The only supplements that might help you lose fat do so by causing you to eat less or move more, which only supports the idea that calories count.

Myth #10: Cutting calories makes you hungry; therefore, it’s not effective in the long-term.

Eating less generally makes you want to eat more.

However, if you also choose more filling foods, you don’t necessarily have to be hungry while dieting. When people increase their protein intake, for instance, they usually eat several hundred calories less per day without even noticing.24,27,28,119-121 The same thing usually happens when people eat more fruits, vegetables, and fiber.122

In some cases, people still get hungry when they eat filling foods. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to suck it up. There’s no rule that says you can’t experience any hunger while dieting. Over time you generally adjust to your new body weight and your hunger levels drop.

Another thing to keep in mind is that your food intake is affected by many things that aren’t directly related to hunger.

  • We eat more when food tastes good.
  • We eat more out of bigger bowls.
  • We eat more when we have more food choices.
  • We eat more from highly palatable foods than from less palatable ones.
  • We eat more out of wide containers rather than tall ones.
  • We eat more when we’re bored.
  • We eat because food is available.
  • We eat more because the people are around us eat more.
  • We eat more because we eat too fast.
  • We eat more because we lose track of our calorie intake.
  • We eat more because we’re distracted.

Exercise also tends to help people control their food intake, despite the fact that it may also create a calorie deficit.123,124

Unless you’re dieting to an extremely low body fat, you can generally manage your hunger levels with the right strategies.

Here’s your takeaway:

Eating less doesn’t always make you hungry.

Just because eating less sometimes does make you hungry, doesn’t mean you can lose weight without cutting calories.

11. “I didn’t lose weight while eating less and exercising more.”

The anecdote.

Here’s how this usually sounds:

“I didn’t lose weight eating less and exercising more; so it doesn’t work for me. I did low-carb [or some other diet] instead and lost 20 pounds, so there.”

Here are 4 reasons these kinds of arguments are invalid:

1. Most people are horrible at estimating their calorie intake and expenditure. There’s little reason to believe these people are any different.

2. We have no way to verify how many calories these people are eating or burning before and after they lost weight, so we have to take their word for it. See point 1 for why that’s a bad idea.

3. Whatever diet the person used to lose weight, they started it because they believed it would help them lose weight. They wanted it to work, which means they were more likely to overlook anything that might prove it wouldn’t (a confirmation bias). Likewise, if they start calorie counting with the idea that it won’t work, they’re more likely to give a weak effort or purposely fail.

4. Even if these people did conduct a “controlled” study on themselves, they would still know the details of the study, which would bias the results.

After hearing the above five points, these people usually pull this card:

“You didn’t do a study on me. You have no idea if the results apply to me.”

Response: What evidence do you have that you’re different?

The odds are that you aren’t. In almost 100 years of weight loss research, we still haven’t found a single human that won’t lose weight when they’re in a caloric deficit.

With as much research as we have at this point, chances are good that there’s been a study on someone very similar to you.

Fact: Calories count.

Every controlled study in the last century has found that people don’t lose weight unless they’re in a caloric deficit.

This doesn’t mean you’re a failure or weak if you’ve struggled to get lean. It means you were focusing on the wrong actions, something everyone does sometimes. Simplify your efforts; create a caloric deficit.

You’ll hear all sorts of reasons for why this isn’t true, but they’re all easily broken if you look at the research. This doesn’t mean calories are the only thing you should think about, but if you want to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn. Period.

 

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