The Myth of Counting Calories: There isn’t a “Formula” to Lose Weight

I’m going to give you a reason to toss aside the calorie calculators, food diaries, and weight loss spreadsheets. They aren’t going to help you. Some people cling to the idea of counting calories because it seems to make sense. If you just eat less and work out more then you will weigh less. It’s the law of thermodynamics. Right? WRONG! That’s the myth of counting calories.

Calories in vs. calories out is based on the law of thermodynamics, which is a law of physics that says that energy can’t be created or destroyed. So if a calorie is a measurement of energy, and you eat less calories and burn more calories, then you will lose weight. It’s still wrong! The law of thermodynamics applies to stable systems. The problem with that is you are not a stable system. I’m not saying you are mentally unstable. I’m saying this law does not apply to human physiology, which is a drastically unstable, dynamic system.

There are all these independent systems in your body that work like a Swiss Watch. These systems are impacted by a variety of factors including environment, hormones, stressors, and so much more. Each of the body’s systems impact the other systems just like the gears of a Swiss watch. The human body isn’t an isolated system, and counting calories just doesn’t work for the long-term.

Your Body NEEDS Calories

Let’s start with why your body needs calories. Your body needs calories for a variety of functions not just moving yourself around or running on the treadmill. Even when you are just sitting around your body is using calories, and you want your body to best use that energy. It needs calories for controlling body temperature, building muscles, thinking, developing bones, increasing your heart rate, detoxification and so much more that happens behind the scenes.

Our bodies are always working so the foods we ingest can fuel it, or, in some cases, not fuel it. When we aren’t fueling it properly, we are left with less than optimal function. Why is this important if you are just trying to lose weight?

The Body Adapts to Counting Calories for a Short Time

Your body will adapt for a short time to this small energy input. I have had patients come in who have been put on restrictive 600 calorie diets, and this is very harmful long-term for the body. They are basically putting the body into fight or flight mode, or starvation mode. The body wants to survive and will find a way to do so on a highly-restricted diet. The body learns to adapt, but over time it basically rewires how the body uses energy.

When you eventually increase the caloric intake, the body has learned how to survive on 600 calories. If you increase caloric intake to 1200, which is still a very limited amount of calories, then the body decides to store the “extra” 600 calories as fat. It stores the calories so that it has them the next time it needs to tap into the reserves. It’s going to stockpile that energy, which means you just get fatter and your body is still surviving on fewer calories.

The longer we go with less calories, the less calories we actually burn. You start adapting to that demand and will start having less energy, start doing fewer activities, the heart rate changes, and basal metabolic rate changes because you’re in starvation mode. The body adapts for a short time, but it can’t stay there without causing harm to the other functions of the body. This isn’t the ideal state for health of the body, and, as you can see, counting calories doesn’t lead to long-term weight loss.

Not all Calories are the Same

You can’t overeat healthy calories. Eat as many as you want! As long as you are not allergic, you can never eat too much broccoli, kale, and all the good food that came from the earth. But you can eat drastically low calories of junk and gain weight. I see it happen all the time.

Not all types of food are created equal. One study looked at two groups of people over the course of two weeks. Each group supplemented their daily diet with 20kcal body weight of either candy or roasted peanuts. At the end of two weeks, the group that ate candy had higher insulin levels and body weight but the group who ate peanuts did not.

Some people will count calories and just eat less of the same junky foods. The nutrition in a cup of broccoli is drastically different than the nutrition in a cookie. If you put the wrong fuel in your car it’s going to corrode, and it’s the same for the body. When you put the wrong fuel in your body, it’s also going to cause damage. If you eat sugary foods, it will lead to higher insulin levels and fat. Metabolic hormones do nothing more than regulate how we use food for energy. When you start increasing insulin you are going to start messing up how your body uses food for energy, and then you are going to start storing fat.

Your food choices can’t be reduced to calorie count. Your body needs good nutritious foods for function. If you constantly put in food that the body doesn’t need you are going to increase insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and everything else that is on rise these days. It comes from food you are putting in the body, or the food you are sorely missing out on if you are one of those people who skips the healthy food so you can have cookie.

Avoid the Myth of Counting Calories

There is so much that can go into the reasons your body is holding onto weight. Remember the body isn’t a closed system. It’s like a Swiss Watch each of the body’s systems impact the overall function of the body. It could be hormones, inflammation, allergies gallbladder issues, and even too low stomach acid that are impacting your metabolic health. The only way to know what is happening with your body is to get properly tested and then work to rebuild the body.

Unfortunately, you can’t go from eating garbage to eating clean, and having everything go back to normal right away. It takes time. Once you put out the fire you have to clean out the system before you rebuild it. Rebuilding it gets the body back to homeostasis, or optimal function. It takes longer but is better for your body than the results of short term calorie counting.

Calories in and calories out makes it seem easy. It persists because it is based in science but it’s not based in human science. The idea of energy will work in closed systems but it is just the myth of counting calories when applied to humans. There isn’t a “formula” to lose weight. Swap your calorie counters and food diaries to a better version of getting healthy.

By Dr. Jason Nobles