For the last 20 years, there has not been a more prevalent dogma in nutrition than the importance of calories. But are calories really that important? Should you really be counting every calorie you consume? Here’s the truth about the hype.
After helping thousands of people shed extra weight, I’ve seen some pretty common myths that still prevail about calories. Today I will go over the nine most common misconceptions, and why what you think about calories may actually be very incorrect.
1. It’s All About “Calories In vs Calories Out”
This is probably the most prevalent myth that somehow still persists. The best way to quickly debunk this one is to offer up a simple example. If all that mattered was “calories in versus calories out,” couldn’t you lose weight on an all-McDonald’s diet? Would you believe that people have actually attempted such preposterous stunts, like the all-Twinkie diet? Sure, you can lose some weight this way, but the obvious problem here is that this myth completely ignores food quality. And by that, I mean that this myth ignores the importance of vegetables, healthy fats, protein, avoiding gluten, and more.
(Read: Why Fat Doesn’t Make You Fat)
Sure, you could eat nothing but Burger King for the rest of your life — but you would likely live a very short life, and develop heart disease, high cholesterol, and a whole laundry list of health problems. If those problems aren’t enough, this idea also ignores the rest of human biology, biochemistry, endocrinology, and many other facets of science. In fact, some people have reported consuming a “perfect” amount of calories, and exercising a “perfect” amount — but they still didn’t lose weight. This is truly where the idea of “calories in versus calories out” becomes a myth.
2. A Calorie = A Calorie
This is similar to our first myth, but slightly different. Our body responds differently to sugary candy than it does to a grass-fed steak, for example. (1) This myth is also precisely how many overweight people got there. They may have been eating a fairly accurate amount of calories, but eating huge amounts of sugar as well. One common example here is soda. Since soda is just sugar water, pulling it out of your diet is one of the single best things you can do to actually lose weight. One scientific study even looked directly at this myth, and in the process, completely debunked it.
3. Calories Are Labeled Correctly
Sadly, I have seen this myth trick even the most knowledgeable of people. In reality, foods fluctuate wildly when it comes to caloric totals. At best, these calorie counts are a pretty good “guesstimate” of what is actually contained in food.
For example, did you know that the FDA has about a 15-20% caloric leeway when labeling foods as approved? (2) Restaurants are another huge guilty party here, as their calorie counts are notoriously inaccurate. (3) The best way to combat this? Cook for yourself at home. While this still won’t be perfectly accurate, you will have much better control over the food going into your mouth. It will also end up saving you a boatload of money in the long run. Win-win.
4. It Matters When You Eat Calories
This is one of the most popular calorie myths. While it certainly isn’t a good idea to load up on ice cream before bed, it has almost nothing to do with the hour, and everything to do with the ice cream. I am continually amazed at the popularity of insane diets in which you must only eat during a certain time window. And in that window, supposedly, you can eat whatever you want. These diets have been scientifically debunked, repeatedly. Steer clear.
5. Calorie Counters Are Accurate
Ah, the 1990s. A time of great technological advancement, as well as advancements in many other important areas of industry. However, the 90s were notoriously poor for nutrition advances. In fact, the 1990s created and popularized some of the worst (and sometimes downright dangerous) nutrition myths. Calorie counting is one of the “borderline eating disorder” behaviors I have seen in a huge number of clients. Food becomes their life, and they completely disappear down the rabbit hole of being neurotic.
This myth should strike you as incorrect right away — not only did we show that calorie counts aren’t even accurate, remember that not all calories are created equally. Generally, a more practical way to successfully lose weight is to take a look at an ideal amount of calories for your body, get a good idea of what 3 well-balanced meals looks like, and just eat that. Anything beyond that is generally best left to a professional.
We all know the person who walks around the office with their calorie calculator, counting every footstep and measuring everything they do in their life. But it may come as a surprise to learn that these calorie counters are far from 100% accurate. (4) A better way to go about things is to simply write out a schedule of regular exercise, and stick to it. While it is still good advice to walk as much as possible, and sit as little as possible — you may end up obsessing over nothing.
Some other actionable tips here are to take the stairs as much as possible, walk instead of drive, and plan fun bike rides (that aren’t part of your exercise routine). In today’s world, it is much easier to load up on calories than burn them off. So while the calorie counter idea is well-intentioned, it’s much better advice to simply stop counting.
6. Exercise Is Only Important Because It Burns Calories
Here is another related myth. Exercise only seems to matter because of the calories burned, right? Well this could not be further from the truth. In fact, exercise helps to build muscle, lower your stress levels, and is even beneficial for your brain. Not bad, for as little as 20 minutes of activity per day. Exercise has even been scientifically studied in all these beneficial areas, with scientists concluding that “exercise is brain food.” (5) Not too shabby.
7. Weight Loss = Fat Loss
When discussing weight loss, it is almost always assumed that fat loss is the same thing. Sorry to burst your bubble, but this just isn’t true. In fact, one reason why extremely low-calorie diets don’t work is because they burn off a lot of muscle along with fat. (6) Ideally, you will only want to burn off fat – which leads us back to our original points about food quality and not worrying so much about calories.
By eating the right kinds of foods, your body will learn how many calories you need, and you will also keep your metabolism humming along properly. (7) High-quality foods will also help to keep your hormones and insulin levels in check.
8. Sweating = Calorie Burning
This myth is very widespread. While not entirely unfounded, it is also not entirely accurate, either. For example, the more in shape someone is, the better they may be at cooling down their system. This means they may actually sweat less.
Sweating is highly dependent on numerous physiologic and biologic processes. While it is likely a good sign that you’re sweating (mostly because that means you’re exercising), it’s not the be-all and end-all of physical activity. However, if you want to burn a good amount of calories as well as work up a good sweat, check out these 10 HIIT workouts!
The Bottom Line
As you can see, almost all of the supposed “knowledge” around calories is incorrect. Remember, when it comes to health, common sense, biology and biochemistry rule the day.
What does this mean, in a practical sense? It means sticking to the most nutrient-dense foods, eating a solid 3 meals per day, exercising smartly, and getting plenty of sleep. I know this might not be the “sexiest” lifestyle — but it is what will ultimately get you results.
Calories, while important, are not all they are cracked up to be. They are only a small part of the bigger picture. Remember the all-Twinkie diet? As much as the designer of that experiment wanted to prove his point, he actually proved the opposite: that food quality is critical to a healthy lifestyle.
Look back at the film Super Size Me — that is not the way to live your life. More important than calories are the food choices you make. Go for a large amount of vegetables, some healthy fats, and a nice chunk of high-quality protein. Don’t get lost in the details — stick to the basics, and practice consistency. Then you’ll find out that calories truly do not count.