Why Calories in vs Calories Out is Outdated

I’m glad many of you are as excited as I was to learn about the many topics presented at the IIN conference.  I’m starting with one of my favorites- calorie counting.

Mark Hyman gave a fantastic talk explaining why we should no longer worry about calories in vs. calories out for weight management.  I rarely ask my clients to track their calories. I find it is dangerous for several reasons:  It can become a crutch, so that they no longer trust their own bodies or their hunger and fullness signals.  It can also be addictive and become obsessive.  So much so, that I have a few clients now who are wanting help BREAKING the calorie counting.

Who wants to track food for the rest of their lives? Not me! And there is no need to. (Although it can be helpful for short periods of time.)

So why are the calories no longer the real issue?

Why Calories IN vs Calories OUT is outdated

1) Food affects us energetically in different ways

I’ve mentioned this before in my discussion on cravings.  If you start your day with a processed carb/sugar (donut, bagel, cereal) you are spiking your blood sugar and raising insulin.  Your food is digested very quickly and you’re ready for a snack in two hours.  And not just any healthy snack- typically it sets up an addictive cycle where your body is requesting more refined carbohydrates and more sugar.

You can eat the same calories in a higher protein, higher fat breakfast (such as eggs, cottage cheese, or any of these protein breakfast ideas) and remain satisfied until lunch time.  Because your blood sugar didn’t rise and crash, you are not craving processed, quick energy foods and sugar- you have a better chance of choosing healthier options.

Bottom line: The food you choose will set you up for more or less cravings for unhealthy foods.


2) Metabolic rate, fat storage and hunger are dependent on dietary composition

(This is a Mark Hyman quote from his recent research, similar to the results found in this NYTimes article on why some of us are always hungry.)

This idea takes the first thought a bit further.  Not only does our diet impact our cravings, our choices can have a direct impact on our metabolism and fat storage.

This is largely due to the overabundance of sugar in our diet.  The average American consumes dangerous doses of sugar- over 150 pounds per person per year!

Sugar has dopamine effects on the brain and acts like an opiate, similar to heroin or cocaine.  Sugar is stored as fat in the body, and as more fat cells are created, they demand to be “fed” sugar and simple carbohydrates.  This makes willpower very difficult in overweight individuals!

When we have belly fat or excess fat and consume sugar and processed carbohydrates (which break down like sugars), the latest research shows that the fat cells vaccuum them up, leaving the body still hungry and craving nutrients, or more food.  This causes overeating (constant hunger) and more weight gain.

Increasing proteins, vegetables and small amounts of healthy fat sets us up for fewer cravings, less hunger and allows our body to starve and shrink the fat cells while better nourishing our bodies with the nutrients they really need.

Bottom line: Some foods make your fat cells hungry, demanding more food which can cause you to overeat and gain weight.

3) Quality matters! The calories in soda are not equal to the calories in broccoli

We can all agree on this right?

Drinking soda (with over 15 teaspoons of sugar per serving) increases inflammation in the body, while broccoli decreases inflammation.

Inflammation causes weight gain, as do toxins, chemicals and nutrient deficiencies- all of which can be related to a poor diet.

Weight loss around calorie restriction will work short term, but it suppresses metabolism and will lead to more weight gain in the long term when the body comes out of the starvation mode and begins to overcompensate and store fat to be better prepared for the next “famine.”

In contrast, you can eat real food and be comfortably full every day while maintaining or losing weight to find your body’s “happy point.”

Bottom line: Eating real, high quality food is better for health and weight management than eating whatever you want within a set limit of calories.

Tweet this: “Why Calorie Counting is Outdated and Unhelpful”

There is always so much more that could be said on this topic, but I’ll leave it there for now.

Do you or have you ever been a calorie counter?

Have you experienced any of the above points personally?

91 thoughts on “Why Calories in vs Calories Out is Outdated

  1. Counting carbs/calories is a part of my life because I must take insulin and my dose is based carb count. I do, at a certain point, ask my clients to count calories. It’s not permanent but most of them are completely out of touch with how much food they are eating (often too little) and I need to help them understand what normal looks like
    Pamela Hernandez recently posted..Monthly Workout Playlist June 2014My Profile

    • I definitely agree that counting calories can have a purpose. I think the greater risk is thinking all calories are equal and just staying within a range is healthy- even with junk calories in there. And you’re right, it can help people get a grasp on how much they are actually consuming!
      Laura recently posted..Why Calories in vs Calories Out is OutdatedMy Profile

    • After gaining a bit my freshman year in college, I got into calorie counting my sophomore year and then it took a few years to fully break it. It’s addicting! But I really didn’t like how much it made me obsess over food, and I can’t say I was eating the highest quality choices, either.
      Laura recently posted..Why Calories in vs Calories Out is OutdatedMy Profile

  2. I definitely used to count calories and it can become obsessive and tiring. I am working on eating intuitively and working with the changes that my body is experiencing and properly feeding it to help me personally and athletically. It is hard to tell clients to not count calories, but once they learn to eat what makes them feel good, perform better, and look better, it all comes together.
    She Rocks Fitness recently posted..YUMMY Slow Cooker Recipe…My Profile

    • Yes, you’re right- it really takes time (and practice and positive results) to break the habits and realize that our bodies are trustworthy! Kids are much better at intuitive eating than adults… somewhere along the way, we love that ability to be in touch with our hunger/fullness cues.
      Laura recently posted..Why Calories in vs Calories Out is OutdatedMy Profile

  3. I’ve not really ever been a calorie counter, when I start focusing too much on details like that . . . . I start going down a trail that is not good for me. Basically I just try to eat as many whole foods as possible focusing on lean proteins and fresh produce. I try to remember the advice “if it wasn’t a food 100 years ago, it isn’t a food today” — that being said, I’m not perfect — I do drink diet soda, which is a vice I need to get rid of or at least scale way back
    Jennifer F recently posted..Why I Run & Running Day Giveaway ( Compression Socks )My Profile

  4. This is really interesting, thank you for sharing! I’m trying to get my nutrition and focusing on quality of calories back and this shows why it is so important.
    Hollie recently posted..Real LifeMy Profile

  5. I’ve experienced many of the above, and breakfast and breakfast has been a key focus of late.

    Prepping best options and freezing them (along with thawing the night before) aids the smart choices path.

    Also, prepping my daughter’s breakfast the night before and ensuring she has safe kitchen play space (during longer prep meal prep times) helps, too.
    Wendy recently posted..One Picture, Three Stories (Jane Heinrichs)My Profile

  6. I counted calories religiously for years, always trying to keep the number very low. A couple years ago, I started tracking again, but this time to ensure I was eating enough to support a healthy metabolism. For that reason, I think counting, at least in the short term, can be helpful, but you do have to be mindful of the person’s history with calories counting, restriction, etc.
    Jaclyn @ BumpSweat recently posted..Seventh Meal {WIAW #2}My Profile

  7. Calories counting is something I’ve tried only a few times, and each time, I’m sure I ate way more than on the days that I just listen to myself… “am I hungry, or am I bored?” I can only speak for myself, but the more attention I bring to calories in vs. calories out, the more obsessed I am with food. You can eat too much healthy food too! Your body only needs so much– it’s so important to just listen. Once again, you have given us a wonderful and informative article Laura.. Thank you!
    Lisa @ RunWiki recently posted..What is a Tempo Run- a Guest Post by @tinamuirMy Profile

  8. I stop counting calories after lunch. It gets too hard. I am and foreverwill be a sugar addict. I struggle so much after dinner time. And it doesn’t matter if I’ve done well with high protein foods that day, i just struggle. Breaking that habit shed 10 pounds. I constantly try to reach out and grab carbs (my favorite!!) but have reminded myself to grab fruits, vegetables and protein instead. It has really helped.
    Traci recently posted..Barbeque Chicken QuesadillasMy Profile

  9. Laura, Thanks for sharing. I find this very interesting, as I have found that keeping track of my calories when I am doing high mileage or triathlon training is very helpful. I tend to get in the “I ran 20 miles, I can eat what I want” mentality and even though it is (mostly) pretty healthy, I found that I go overboard without some idea of just HOW MUCH I am eating. It does get to be annoying at times and I go in spurts of tracking when I think I am going overboard and then letting it go when I think I need to. But I definitely find myself falling into…”I have xx calories left, so I can eat this super sugary dessert” which is also a downside of tracking if I am not careful. I will try to remind myself to keep in mind the quality of it all as well. Thanks again!
    Corey recently posted..If I were…My Profile

  10. Great post! I’m so glad the word is starting to spread about outdated advice like this. I definitely used to get the hungries mid-morning when my go-to breakfast was cereal. Now it’s always something with protein and good fats and I last until lunch with no problem. So many ways to make adjustments for health here!
    misszippy recently posted..The great grain debate (guest post)My Profile

  11. This makes so much sense to me, and I am generally a healthy eater but with a serious sweet tooth. I find when I track calories I am able to make better choices about having a small sweet treat vs going off the rails and eating half a pan of brownies. I use My Fitness Pal and give myself a pretty generous “calorie budget” (plus extra for breastfeeding and exercise) because I know that healthy foods are calorie-dense and that shouldn’t stop me from eating them!
    Sarah @ Beauty School Dropout recently posted..June Goals, and May Goals in ReviewMy Profile

  12. I agree that not all calories sre created equal, but I still have a hard time accepting that eating more than your calorie expenditure wont lead to weight gain. Granted, some macros make you more hungry or weds comparwd to others which okay a role in diet but when it comes down to it, where do excess calories go? Are they not stored as fat?
    Linda @ Fit Fed and Happy recently posted..Hectic Agenda + AnnouncementMy Profile

  13. Great post! I like your perspective on it. I completely agree with the points that sugar makes you crave sugar, and was so interested to hear Dr. Hyman’s talk on how some foods make your fat cells “crave” more and expand. Very interesting!

    I just have to say that while I don’t think calorie counting is the answer, the idea that calories don’t matter can also be taken TOO far in the opposite extreme. I am 110% behind real foods and definitely don’t think you need to be counting calories at all when you’re eating them … BUT there is no “free pass” to eat all the healthy foods you can possibly consume. So, eating multiple avocados, a pound of grass-fed beef, and a ton of coconut oil on your veggies may still be too much for one meal … and the reason is that the calories (and in this case, maybe fat) are more than your body needs. I also know that it’s much, much less likely to overeat when you’re eating real, satiating foods like this, but I just wanted to throw the thought out there :). Thanks for sharing this!
    Megan (The Lyons’ Share) recently posted..A Running Celebration and a Lyons Celebration!My Profile

    • Absolutely, Megan! There is so much more that could be said about a healthy balance. Just as some vegetarians live on pasta and ice cream, or paleo eaters could live on bacon and steak… good health is not as simple as stopping when you’re full… balance and the type of calories matter. :)
      Laura recently posted..Why Calories in vs Calories Out is OutdatedMy Profile

  14. OMG Laura you are so right! I have always been a calorie counter. Even when I trained for my half marathon I was concerned with how much was going in versus being used. I decided to adopt a different approach now with my new training plans to see how is works. You’re right, eating high quality foods makes you feel less hungry.
    Kristina Walters @ Kris On Fitness recently posted..New Summer Training Routine!My Profile

  15. Great synopsis Laura! I love that you are talking about blood sugar. For the longest time I had brain fog from eating a banana every morning. By doing an elimination diet, I eventually discovered I am super sensitive to blood sugar spikes. Now I only do protein and greens only for breakfast and I feel great!
    Thank you for sharing your IIN experiences. It makes me want to sign up even more!
    Janelle @MommyLivesClean recently posted..The breastfeeding post.My Profile

  16. Such great information Laura!! I go through phases where I am all about counting calories…then I fall off the wagon but just focus on clean, healthy foods. I usually tend to feel better overall when I am just focused on the right choices instead of their calorie count!

  17. Great information. I fall somewhere in between. I think the quality of the foods you eat is crucial, but I also think (especially, I’m finding, as I get older) that it’s important to not overindulge in even those healthy choices, because if you do, your weight will go up. Walnuts are amazingly good for you, but I could easily sit down and eat an entire cup of them, and that’s not going to do me any favors. I definitely feel best, though, when I’m focusing on whole, non-processed foods, and being conscious about WHY I’m eating – hunger versus boredom.
    Michelle recently posted..Lucky Seven – Cox Providence Rhode Races HalfMy Profile

  18. I have never been a calorie counter – I’m far too lazy for that kind of thing!!
    And, everything you said here makes sense but I still see the whole input/output thing, too. Maybe I’m just too old-school:)
    Kim recently posted..Tuesday RewindMy Profile

  19. I calorie counted for 3 years and realized it was not working for me. However, now I am trying WW so that might be good or bad.
    I am trying to focus more now on quality and not just calories/points.
    100 calorie snack pack is way different than a 100 calories of fruits and veggies and I am trying to learn that. I love when you do nutrition posts like this.
    Abby @ BackAtSquareZero recently posted..National Running Day 2014My Profile

  20. I do calorie count, but to be honest, I fall very mathematically on the issue. Like any tool, it can be abused, but I don’t think it’s inherently good or bad – it’s just another tool among many. For me, understanding how my body works has been integral to finding the point I can lose, the point where I can maintain, and while pregnant, the point where I could gain. It has helped me do that in healthy ways and encouraged healthier choices, although I do feel like treats have a place in my diet – everything in moderation.

    That said, I do see individuals who do not use it appropriately, for whom it does become a crutch or a way to justify bad choices. But unless someone is truly interested and committed to positive changes, any external drivr – be it rules on what kinds of food to eat or rules on how many to eat or whatever – can be abused. When you desire to become healthy, many tools can help you get there.
    Heather Barnstein recently posted..National Running DayMy Profile

  21. I use My Fitness Pal as a food diary, mostly because I am not yet entirely certain of the changes I’ve been making over the last year. When I see it written down, it reinforces the good choices, and as I work to improve the balance of protein, fats, and carbs, I can look at where I made choices that helped the balance– or hindered it.

    However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t watch the overall calories. I don’t beat myself up over it, but I will adjust my meals through the day if the day looks out of whack. After so many years being at an unhealthy fat level, I don’t yet feel ready to rely just on how I feel… I know I can deceive myself, lol!

  22. Great information! I think I had to count calories when I first lost weight, just to get a handle on portion size and which foods had more nutritional value per calorie, but it did drive me to obsession and not trusting my sense of hunger/satiety and the “I’ve blown it” sabotage, so I can’t go back.
    Coco recently posted..Delicious Crockpot Chili With BeansMy Profile

  23. I had come to a similar conclusion a while ago. If I am eating quality food and checking in my with body, I don’t feel like I need to count calories. Then I could lose weight (the baby weight) for a LONG time and thought maybe it was because I wasn’t counting calories. I chose to track macros. Still nothing. Then I started looking at calories…nothing. I knew something had to be amiss. Finally figured it all out. Adrenal fatigue causing hypo thyroid! Now I know and feel more confident that my original approach of NOT counting calories is the way to go. My inability to lose weight wasn’t a calorie thing. SO, now I am learning a ton about my body and look forward to not counting calories anymore (and hopefully dropping some pounds!).
    Tara Newman recently posted..Rest and Recovery – Essential for a Healthy LifeMy Profile

    • Hi Christina! I used to eat a lot of Kashi cereal. It’s not the worst thing, but you do want to be careful of soy protein isolate (highly processed and synthetic) and not have it every day. It’s also actually produced by Kelloggs, which made me put a little less faith in the company and advertising. :( But ultimately, we can’t be perfect and it’s a much better choice than most conventional processed cereals!
      Laura recently posted..Why Calories in vs Calories Out is OutdatedMy Profile

  24. Great post! I found that calorie counting does work if you also review your macronutrients on myfitnesspal: sugar, protein, carbs, fat, iron, potassium etc. I learned quickly that besides being high in calories my morning double double coffee also contained a lot of sugar and caused cravings making it next to impossible to stay within my calorie limits for the day and feel full and satisfied. I journalled my thoughts and feelings about food and the food choices I was making and learned that REAL food (unprocessed) made me happier, and I could better manage my appetite. It’s been a long road of yo-yo dieting, but I think I’ve finally figured out meals that I enjoy and that help me to maintain my weight.
    Janice recently posted..Reasons Why I RunMy Profile

    • That is fantastic, Janice! Yes- the real food make such a difference. It makes sense that what nature gives us should work, right? No one was counting calories a thousand years ago. I’m so glad you’ve learned to listen to your body and determine what works for you.
      Laura recently posted..32 weeks workouts + meal planMy Profile

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  27. I was a devote calorie counter for about a year and a half. Now I am a calorie “checker inner” if that makes sense haha. I am well aware that the type of food I am eating is extremely important. Just because someone counts calories, doesn’t mean they are not aware that a 200 calorie crispy cream affects the body differently than a 200 calorie sweet potato.
    Megan @ Meg Go Run recently posted..Warning: Negativity within.My Profile

  28. Wow, thanks! I’d always heard and known that calories aren’t created equal, but as a bit of a science nerd, I found the reasoning/science behind it incredibly interesting…I’d love to learn more about these more metabolic processes!

  29. Great post and great mindset! I try to listen to my body, too, but I´m still confused about carbs. Is it OK to eat complex carbs, also in the evening? Don´t they still spike our insuline levels?

    • Hi Vera,

      Carbs are confusing- partly because they affect individuals differently. In general, having them in the evening is fine as part of a balanced meal… with protein and a healthy fat. Carbs eaten by themselves will still spike insulin to some degree, even complex carbs, although some body types do fine with an apple before bed or other carbohydrate snack. It takes some experimenting to see how your body responds and what works best for you.
      Laura recently posted..32 weeks workouts + meal planMy Profile

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  32. This post speaks to me in so many ways. I love the point not all calories are created equal…I do calorie budget myself but if I have a hard workout I don’t worry about having an extra vegan raw protein shake here and there I know my body needs it! I do track on my Loseit app and it helps me. I’ve been at it for almost two years. My reasons…I am 47 and experienced a sudden weight gain, the doctor of course blamed my diet and my exercise I guess they are used to this complaint but in my case tracking and being able to show them led to me being able to monitor by endocrinologist and my thyroid has dramatically slowed as I’ve aged. Tracking also helps me when i get discouraged to look at the log and know I’ve done everything I could!
    karen recently posted..Bad BloggerMy Profile

  33. While I agree wholeheartedly that not all calories are created equal, I do not think that calorie counting is outdated. In the spirit of playing Devil’s Advocate, two out of your three “bottom line” arguments actually play into the fact that calorie counts ARE important. 1) Poor nutrient food will set you up for unhealthy cravings — which will lead to more CALORIES. 2) Some foods make your fat cells hungry, causing you to overeat and gain weight — from excess CALORIES. #3 bottom line is simply a generalized statement. While toxins, fake sugars and other less than desirable “food” sources are CORRELATED with weight gain, it is not to state that those items CAUSE weight gain. What they CAUSE, is a feeling of being metabolically deprived and an increased drive to consume more – which will lead to an intake of more CALORIES, and thus – weight gain.

    I can wholeheartedly appreciate the argument for the ingestion of clean, whole foods. Obviously I am not advocating people eat tons of crap. But the body subsists of calories. We burn calories when we exercise. And anyone who is eating more calories than they burn – calories of carrots or calories of cupcakes – will GAIN WEIGHT. Period.

    • Thanks for your comment, Megan! You’re right- the title that calories in and out is outdated is probably not ideal, as my point is more that the quality of calories is what really matters.

      In terms of weight gain, there are only a few exceptions when the calories in vs out does not hold true such as thyroid issues, a sluggish metabolism due to clogged liver/detoxification process or hormonal imbalances or issues with small intestinal bacteria growth.

      But yes- the bottom line is that poor quality food will lead to more calories and more weight gain- so it’s not as simple as counting calories in terms of how good one may feel for weight loss (satisfaction from a meal, the battle of cravings, etc.)
      Laura @ Mommy Run Fast recently posted..20 minute Vacation Resistance Band WorkoutMy Profile

  34. Completely agree! So many of my clients base their day and self-worth on their weight or how many calories they ate (good or bad day) that giving up calorie counting is a huge goal itself. Focusing on balanced meals will keep you satisfied, energy stable, and blood sugars good without worrying so much about calories. When you start to listen to your body’s cues for hunger and fullness, you naturally find how much you need to eat, and it adjusts on a day to day basis. I know yesterday, I wasn’t as hungry, so I ate less but today, I was hungry and needed more snacks.
    Lauren recently posted..Why It’s Time to Finally Ditch the DietsMy Profile

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  37. I am 25 weeks pregnant and starting counting calories when I found out we were expecting. I have always been a healthy BMI and felt good about myself, work out several times a week, but I’m so afraid of losing perspective while pregnant and gaining too much! Part of me does want to stop, especially reading an article like this. I try to get healthy calories in, but sometimes at the end of the day when I realize I have “more calories left” I want to have some awful snack that I don’t need. :(

  38. I know what you mean about the extra junk snack. :) It’s challenging with pregnancy aversions and cravings! Sounds like you’re doing really well. I don’t think it’s an awful thing to have an idea of calories in pregnancy- as long as you are also honoring your body’s hunger and fullness cues. And congrats on your pregnancy!
    Laura @ Mommy Run Fast recently posted..Pregnant Eats WIAWMy Profile

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