Skip to main content

The Death of the Calorie

After decades of being led astray by the calorie-counting myth, it’s time to put the idea to sleep.

In a healthy environment, all animals know how much of what foods to eat. But generations of people have gone astray, taken advantage of by companies selling products and programs based on calorie counting claims of instant weight loss. As most know, this sounds too good to be true. Over the last 40-plus years of studying nutrition, food and energy, almost all people I have seen who successfully counted calories to lose weight and maintain it while being healthy have failed. In fact, the end result is too often weight gain, along with more body fat.

Writing in Scientific American (“Science Reveals Why Calorie Counts Are All Wrong,” 2013), North Carolina State University biologist Rob Dunn, says that, “Nutrition scientists are beginning to learn enough to hypothetically improve calorie labels, but digestion turns out to be such a fantastically complex and messy affair that we will probably never derive a formula for an infallible calorie count.”

These and other reasons should make one understand that, from a practical standpoint, the calorie is dead.

Not just the calorie, all the ideas surrounding it. Calorie counting is the most common way doctors, weight-loss programs, and people wanting to lose fat have employed for decades. The myth is maintained not because this approach works, but because it’s a big business. Low-cal foods, diet books, drugs, surgery, and multi-million dollar weight-loss companies sell the idea to gullible people. What has evolved is a game played that can’t be won, through a revolving dead-end door that keeps people spinning their wheels. It’s the reason so much money is made on products and programs. In fact, according to Marketdata Enterprises (a market research firm that tracks the industry), Americans spend more than $60 billion annually on this losing game.

Calories In, Calories Out

Calories are calculated, worshiped, despised and envied, often all at the same time and usually for emotional reasons. In reality, logic is not part of the calorie game.

Despite this, the simple equation bantered about is that if calories taken in (from food) equal calories out (energy expended), weight loss results. If it were as simple as sixth grade math, the majority of people would not be overfat.

The mighty calorie is a common denominator in many arenas. In addition to the low amounts used for weight loss, weightlifters or football players try to calculate how many more they need to bulk up. For endurance athletes, calculating the necessary calories consumed during a race to maintain energy is also common.

Whether an Ironman athlete planning nutrition for his or her race, or an overfat person trying to lose weight, the calorie approach has been a dismal failure. Sometimes these two individuals are one and the same. The calorie myth has not only significantly contributed to the global obesity epidemic it has also played a large role in producing too many overfat athletes.

During the last few decades, when the calorie was king and queen, there has not only been an explosion of the obesity epidemic, but an overall significant increase in body fat in both sedentary and active people alike. The problem also affects young children—about a third of five-year-olds are overweight.

The Science

Researchers have demonstrated why calorie counting can be a myth. Clinicians have long known that the plan usually does not result in long-term weight control, and often results in a rebound of weight gain that is bad for the body because it can quickly impair health.

Consider these facts:

  • While calorie counts are listed on food labels, most can be significantly inaccurate.
  • The number of calories we obtain from a certain food varies considerably because we all digest differently. This includes how food is processed, prepared, how well it is chewed, how much energy we use during digestion, the various bacteria in our gut, and other factors
  • Calories consider macronutrient status of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, while ignoring the thousands of other nutrients that include vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. This is another reason why many low-cal foods and diets are unhealthy—they are void of the necessary nutrition.
  • In most people’s minds, calories are intricately linked to scale weight. But this is a measure of mostly water. Instead, body fat is what people really want to lose. Unfortunately, the calorie myth has maintained the false notion that weight is the bottom line, regardless of body fat. While fat does not weigh much, it does take up a lot of space, so waist size may be one of the best accurate indicators of body fat. Even more simple is this: As your clothes get looser or tighter, you are losing or gaining body fat.

A Calorie is a Calorie

Wrong. This would be true if we were making precise measurements in a controlled laboratory experiment, but we’re not. Consider the simple act of consuming 200 calories of carbohydrates from an energy bar, which triggers a moderate to high production of insulin. While this hormone helps utilize half the bar’s calories for immediate muscle energy, the other half gets converted to fat and is quickly stored.

Even worse, insulin makes stored fat less available for energy—the body now relies more on glucose for fuel instead of fat. Body fat accumulates, and endurance, which relies on fat burning as much, if not more, then sugar, diminishes. The same unhealthy consequences would not occur if one ate a 200-calorie vegetable omelet. (See also, “The Insulin Villain.”)

Endurance Sports

As noted above, many athletes want to know how much energy they will need for a marathon, Ironman or other endurance race. Charts on how much energy is used for running or biking, and therefore how much food one must consume to provide that energy, are common. Today, online calculators make it seem easier. But this data is not useful because it’s incomplete for at least two reasons:

First, the energy from stored fat is rarely considered. This includes the fact that we all burn varying amounts of both fat and sugar (glucose) at various levels of activity. Trying to figure out how many additional calories will be required becomes a guessing game.
Second is efficiency. Those with better body economy will need less fat and glucose, and oxygen, to successfully complete a race. Explained differently, an athlete can race faster with the same effort (heart rate) as economy improves. There are many factors that effect body economy, which athletes should focus on most if they want more speed (see “10 Ways to Improve Running Economy”).

Developing ones aerobic system—the red, slow twitch muscles that burn fat—is the initial step in evaluating race nutrition. In other words, first train your body to burn more stored fat, which is virtually in unlimited supply, for race energy. Only then can the question of how many calories should be consumed during a race can be better considered.

Determining race nutrition cannot be easily or accurately calculated. The best approach is for athletes to experiment during long, sub-max training by monitoring various signs and symptoms: how they feel (energy), the relationship between heart rate and pace, hunger, recovery, gut symptoms, and other factors.

By doing so, most athletes can get a good sense of what’s needed on race day. In addition to, or instead of calories, it’s best to use grams of glucose (along with fat and protein).

The calorie theory has never been a good one. Humans are not like machines. We have ever-changing metabolisms, influenced by training, food, stress and the environment. By allowing the calorie to die, many will be free to eat healthy food, avoid junk, and program the body to burn more stored fat, thereby getting healthier, leaner and with more energy for all endeavors.