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.
- 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?