How Much Do Calories ACTUALLY Matter?
If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you’ve probably heard of calories in vs. calories out. But I always wonder…is it REALLY that simple? Are all calories really created equal?
I love asking this question every time I talk to a doctor, dietitian or nutritionist, because it’s so hard to find a definite answer! Like with anything in nutrition…there doesn’t seem to be a “one size fits all” conclusion about this calorie debate.
I’m still really curious, and I KNOW you’re curious too. So, I did some research on my own to try to get to the bottom of how much calories REALLY matter.
What I found is really interesting!
Calories in vs. calories out is true… to some extent
Okay…so when you break it wayyyyy down to the biological side of things (like, what goes on in those tiny cells in your body), there is SOME truth to calories in vs. calories out.
There is tons of research on the subject, and the majority agrees on this – your body burns calories in 3 ways:
- Resting metabolism – burns about 65-80% of your calories
- Digestion – burns about 10% of your calories
- Exercise – burns about 10-30% of your calories
Isn’t that crazy?! Most of our calories are burned… when we’re resting!
If the number of calories you eat is more than the number of calories your body is burning, you’re likely to gain weight.
So yes…generally speaking, to lose weight you need to somehow burn more calories than you take in.
But this gets tricky. VERY tricky. Why?
First of all, it’s almost impossible to track your calories accurately.
Nutrition labels are helpful, but not totally reliable. You guys, the FDA allows nutrition labels to be off as much as 20%! That can really add up!
Tracking the calories you’re burning might be even more difficult, because that Apple Watch, Fitbit or whatever you’re using is bound to be off a little too. Oh, and NEVER trust what the treadmill or elliptical at the gym tells you you’re burning because those are notorious for overestimating what you burn!
So, even if you have a professional to help you figure out your resting metabolism, you can still be way off when you track the other important pieces.
What does calorie counting do to your mental health?
Ugh. I think we all know.
Calorie counting is tedious, time consuming and honestly…really disappointing if you don’t get the results you’re looking for.
I’ve totally been there!
It’s really easy to become obsessed with calorie counting. It can lead to stress when it comes to planning meals, eating out and social situations. It could even lead to over exercise and UNDER eating.
And think about what happens if you work super hard to count calories, but you don’t lose weight. That’s frustrating, and may leave you feeling like a failure. It could even cause you to take more extreme measures to lose weight.
Basically what I’m saying is this – tracking calories might be a good tool for some people, but it’s easy to become obsessed.
So should we focus on the QUALITY of our calories instead?
I mentioned earlier that I ALWAYS ask doctors and dietitians what they think about calories in vs. calories out. Most of them always agree that it’s better to focus on eating whole, nutritious foods.
And it totally makes sense.
Different foods do different things for our bodies. Here’s an example! Let’s compare a fun-size Snickers bar to a medium sweet potato.
The sweet potato has 112 calories, and the fun-sized Snickers only has 74! But let’s look more closely.
- Fat – a plain sweet potato has none, while the Snickers has 4 grams, with about a gram of trans fat.
- Protein – both have basically no protein
- Carbs – the sweet potato is higher in carbs BUT also has 4 grams of fiber and only 5 grams of sugar. The Snickers has NO fiber and 8g of sugar.
- Vitamins and minerals – the sweet potato is PACKED with vitamins and minerals, and the Snickers doesn’t offer much.
Here’s what is important – that sweet potato gives you way more volume compared to the 2” fun-sized Snickers. It’s going to keep you full and satisfied for A LOT longer, and it’s going to nourish your body with fiber, vitamins and minerals.
The baby, fun-sized Snickers won’t nourish your body annnnd you’re probably not going to eat just one.
Satiety is HUGE when you’re trying to avoid overeating. If you can keep yourself full with whole, nutritious foods, you probably won’t need to count calories.
The breakdown of nutrition is important too, because the way a food is broken down and used in the body affects our hormones, blood sugar and fat storage.
A LOT goes into how our bodies use calories and how metabolism works. There are a lot of factors like sleep, hormones, stress, and genetics. That explains the lack of “one size fits all” advice when it comes to nutrition and weight loss.
My final thoughts
I definitely get how calories can factor into weight loss. BUT I think most of us should focus on nourishing our bodies with whole foods and staying active!
I also understand that everyone is different. Getting healthy looks different for all of us, and there really is no “one size fits all” when it comes to nutrition. BUT…I do think that taking a good, hard look at the foods we eat can make a HUGE difference!
And no, I’m not saying avoid your favorite foods forever. I’m talking about the OVERALL quality of your diet. The long run is what really matters!
Calorie counting might be helpful for some people, but I can see where it can lead to trouble.
If you’re in a disordered or obsessive mental state about the numbers… the calories, the scale, etc… toss all that to the side and feed your body the nutrition it needs. More importantly, give your body the LOVE it needs. Accept yourself and focus on being healthy. I mean really, how much does that number really matter if your mental health is suffering?
22 thoughts on “How Much Do Calories ACTUALLY Matter?”
There are 22 comments posted by our users.
New to Blogilates and just came across this article…WOW! I wish I could go back and tell my 15 year old self to read this. So much truth and wisdom, and a really important perspective for women/girls. I am one of those obsessive type people and found a complete deterioration of my mental health when calorie counting, which eventually led to weight gain. The Snickers vs. sweet potato example is a great way to think about food. Thank you for this knowledge and reassurance that numbers don’t define health and happiness!
Beauty and health go hand in hand. Health is the universal beauty standard, if you think about it. Long, shiny hair is a sign of health. Even skin is a sign of health. Slimness is a sign of health, and not being too skinny either. Therefore, putting health first in everything we do to our body, whether it’s exercise or food or self-treatment, totally makes sense when trying to achieve beauty as well. But you know what’s also unhealthy? Being hard on yourself. You don’t need to (and can’t) be disciplined all the time, that’s a fact, and not accepting and embracing that will make you stressed out (which is unhealthy 😉 )
Thank you! That makes me feel better 🙂
Wow, thank you!
This is very helpful!! 🙂
I am terrible, I count my calories and eat whatever I feel like. I am absolutely unable to be satiated on healthy food. I keep craving something “good” and snacking on healthy food until I give in and eat something delicious. I am apparently a completely psychological eater lol. I tried the Whole 30 thing and would eat dinner (steak, an entire plate of salad, and some fruit) and feel absolutely ravenous in half an hour. I lasted about a week before I went back to my “regularly scheduled program”. I have lost 15 pounds so far this year, 3% body fat, and my resting heart rate has gone down 15 bpm, eating whatever I feel like, just counting the calories and making sure I have an estimated 1000 calorie deficit every day on my FitBit.
I enjoyed counting calories and at the same time believed in eating whole foods and take snacks when necessary. It’s fun to count calories and eat good foods for my body as I love my body a lot.
Grr..I had to stop calorie counting a while back because it was the stress from it was killing me. I have learned that if I don’t workout, no matter how many calories I cut out, I will not loose weight. I have also learned to ditch the scale, because, like calories, it stresses me out. I
I do believe that keeping track of your calories can help if you’re someone who doesn’t realize how much you eat during the day, but it can be detrimental to some of us. I started keeping track of my calories because I was curious. This then led me to try and restrict more and more, out of curiosity honestly at first, but it just spiraled into an eating disorder where I honestly was doing your workouts everyday but only consuming less than 1000-1200 calories a day. I got down to ~75 lbs at my lowest (my base weight is usually about 115 lbs). I deleted my calorie app and try not to look at calories anymore (still have to look at the nutrition label because I am a type 1 diabetic and have to count carbs) and just focus on eating healthy food.
YES! Thank you! Calories in vs calories out is definitely not the end of it. I was a group fitness instructor and eating very healthy (definitely had more calories out than in), but I was gaining weight and unable to lose it. Turns out, I was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease – an excess of cortisol, which causes the body to hold on to every calorie you take in. Hormones have SUCH an impact!
Great content and easy to follow for the leyman! Thank you so much for your continued research and support. The more resources we have, the better we can find what works for ourselves!
Totally agree! I went to a nutritionist when I wanted to change my unbalanced random eating habits, 4 years ago. Of course the plan she gave me was based on calories and she told me how much was right for me for every meal and snack. I still follow her advice. I’m not counting calories but I do weight carbs (pasta, rice, bread, etc) and proteins (meat, jogurt, beans, etc). Veggies and fruits: as much as I like! Oil on salad: 1 tablespoon. It perfectly works for me. No stress. I feel in control. I don’t care if my weight goes up and down a little sometimes, I think it’s normal. I still eat chocolate, pizza, hamburger every now and then, but what matters is that I don’t crave them.
nice blog thanks for the information
Hey, I mostly just follow you on youtube for your exercise videos, but I just had comment. I love how you managed to stay truthful and at the same time realistic. There are so many people out there who just completely deny the science behind CICO, which is harmful pseudoscience. On the other hand, I often see people not realize that different roads lead to Rome, and that weird diets or strategies are completely valid if the result is less calories, even if no actual calorie counting is involved. (Many treat CICO as the only valid option to lose weight). The fact that you managed such a topic laden with misinformation in such a nuanced and truthful way made me gain so much more respect for you.
I deleted my calorie tracker today, k realized k was so focused on counting the calories I forgot to make the calories count. Time to focus on eating clean and staying energized
I love this! I know talk about calories can be a very triggering subject but I think this was handled quite well. I think when vanity overshadows functionality, calorie counting becomes obsessive. Better performance is a result too, not just weightloss, and I think that’s important to keep in mind. 🙂
Lovely post and well said! Thanks for sharing 💚
It’s a combination of the quality of the food, the calories consumed, and your hormones which dictate your mood/cravings/behavior!
I’ve been counting calories to get a better idea of how much I eat and get a better handle on portion sizes. The surprise benefit is understanding how my body tends to want to eat one day to the next, but not something I want to do long term or adhere to strictly. It’s been a good tool and I’m not measuring myself against the number of calories I eat but rather how I feel and how my body is changing with better diet and exercise!
I love this. My doc told me to do a calorie deficit (which is hard bc it is SO time consuming and also, my doc knows jack squat bc once I started keeping track of my calories, i barely ever reach 1200 except on date nights smh). Its hard obsessing over the amount and super depressing when you go over. Thank u for this. Now I can eat my banana that I was holding off on eating bc of the calorie thing lol
Beautiful! I agree 🙂