While calorie counting has its place (after all, it does make it easier to eat less), it’s important to understand all the variables that go into losing or gaining weight. There are many factors to consider, such as genetics, exercise, and food consumption. But there are others that are held in the dark. Calories out is one of these.

Calorie counting is a common practice that most Americans do to lose weight. It’s hard to tell though, because each person has a different metabolism, and will need to adjust things for themselves depending on their weight loss goals. In this infographic, I’m going to explain the problem with calorie counting, how to do it correctly, and why calorie counting is a ridiculous practice.

There’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about calories. You may have gotten the idea that the amount of food you eat is all that matters. You probably think that by counting calories, you can reach your weight loss goals. But that’s not necessarily true.

Do you believe that meticulous calorie counting entails knowing exactly how much breakfast you burn while exercising? Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated. Here are four reasons why keeping track of your everyday activity and counting your steps can be difficult.

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We recently published an infographic that revealed some of the flaws in calorie math.

Of course, by “hidden,” I mean “unknown to the majority.” Because scientists, at least those who specialize in nutrition, have long been aware of the flaws in calorie math.

The calorie has many applications, and knowing how to appropriately use calorie counts is an important skill for health, fitness, and wellness practitioners (which is why we spend an entire chapter to it in the Level 1 Certification).

However, contrary to popular belief, rigorous calorie monitoring isn’t a “must” when it comes to weight loss – and this applies to both “calories in” and “calories out.”

We offer four reasons why relying on calorie burn estimates for weight management might be extremely problematic in this infographic.

It’ll shift the way you think about how nutrition and exercise work together to help you get (or stay) in shape. It might impact how you coach and communicate with clients if you’re a fitness professional.

Do you want to share the infographic with your friends and clients? For versions that can be printed or read on a tablet, go here.

Infographic-The-Surprising-Problem-With-Calorie-Counting-Calories

Okay, we’re aware that this is going to blow some people’s heads. Especially in light of the current craze for calorie-burning trackers and apps.

But, after you’ve given it some thought, please download the infographic and share it.

Check out one of the following and share it with your friends:

Some significant points to consider

The letter ‘c’ in lowercase

For our readers who are scientists: Calories are referred to as ‘calories’ — lowercase ‘c’ refers to kilocalories — or ‘Calories’ throughout the introduction and infographic. The distinction between big C and little C has faded over time in popular English.

“Calorie burn estimations are imprecise,” says section one.

In a sealed metabolic chamber, direct calorimetry monitors the heat you emit. It’s similar to a bomb calorimeter, which determines a food’s caloric value by burning it, measuring the heat emitted, and extrapolating the caloric value.

In the form of water, doubly labeled water uses two isotopes, tritium (3H) and 18O. (3H218O). Scientists collect water lost through urine, feces, and sweat, as well as CO2 released through breathing, after consuming the doubly tagged water.

Scientists can estimate energy usage based on physiological assumptions using the proportions of “labeled” hydrogen and oxygen. However, several of these assumptions are only valid with a very low carbohydrate intake, therefore calorie calculations for people on low-carbohydrate diets are extremely wrong.

Indirect calorimetry calculates how many calories you burn depending on how much oxygen you consume and how much carbon dioxide you emit. Because oxygen is consumed (and carbon dioxide is given out) in proportion to metabolic activity, these figures are connected to overall metabolism. This link, however, is influenced by a number of factors. It becomes less accurate if you ingest less carbohydrate, for example (because of basic assumptions it uses to calculate energy burned). On a low-carb diet, these basic assumptions fall apart.

Section 2: “A single change in the FTO gene can result in you burning 160 calories less each day.”

Obesity has been linked to a variation in the FTO gene. In fact, it is the most persuasive polymorphism for tying obesity risk to a single gene, with the strongest data to back it up.

Section 2: “External factors have an impact on gene expression.”

Epigenetic alterations cause DNA to be modified without changing the sequence. DNA methylation and histone modification are the two most common epigenetic alterations.

Mothers ate more methyl donors, such as folic acid, B12, choline chloride, and anhydrous betaine, in the mice studied in this infographic. And their progeny had a higher metabolic rate.

People’s epigenetics are less well understood. However, researchers have discovered that discrepancies in identical twins’ body weights could be due to epigenetic factors.

Trim28, for example, uses epigenetic alterations to control a network of other genes (Nnat, Peg3, Cdkn1c, and Plagl1) (histone deacetylation). One twin is obese due to low Trim28 levels, while their sibling (who has greater Trim28 levels) is slim.

Section 2: “The menstrual cycle has an impact on a woman’s resting metabolic rate.”

Although experts aren’t certain, hormone-driven temperature changes during the menstrual cycle are most likely the cause of women’s resting metabolic rate alterations throughout menses.

Section 3: “How many calories you burn is influenced by what and how much you eat.”

The energetic cost of digesting, absorbing, and assimilation is the thermic effect of feeding (TEF, sometimes called thermic effect of food, particular dynamic action, and/or dietary-induced thermogenesis).

This includes the energy required to chew food, for enzymes to break down your meal molecularly, and for transporters to move nutrients across your intestinal lining.

Adaptive thermogenesis (sections 3 and 4)

While adaptive thermogenesis does not occur in everyone all of the time, it is a critical aspect to consider when calculating ‘calories out.’

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic overfed 16 normal-weight participants by 1,000 calories per day for eight weeks in one trial. That works out to around two double cheeseburgers per day. Participants were also instructed not to engage in any deliberate exercise.

As a result, whereas this rate of overeating “should” have resulted in a 16-pound weight gain in each individual, participants gained a wide range of weight. The disparity was startling: the person with the best adapted metabolism gained only 0.79 pounds, while the one with the worst adaptive metabolism gained 9.3 pounds.

Why is there a distinction? The resting metabolic rate, thermic effect of meals, and physical activity of the participants did not vary significantly. (Although we are aware that these measurements are prone to inaccuracy.) However, there were significant differences in non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, as measured.

NEAT increased by 336 calories per day on average. However, variations in NEAT ranged from -98 to +692 calories per day depending on the person. (Yes, 98 is denoted by a minus sign.) As in, one impoverished woman had less NEAT than the other.)

The quantity of fat gained was closely proportional to variations in their NEAT output:

  • The more NEAT you have, the less fat you accumulate.
  • The less NEAT you have, the more fat you accumulate.

Other research backs up this study, demonstrating:

  • Some people have an easy time gaining weight and a difficult time losing it. When they overeat, their energy expenditure (particularly NEAT) does not increase significantly, and when they eat less, their energy expenditure (especially NEAT) decreases drastically (as their NEAT drops more dramatically). They are also more prone to be sedentary by nature.
  • Others find it difficult to acquire weight and simple to lose it. When they overeat, their bodies fire up the metabolic furnace (increasing NEAT output), and when they eat less, things don’t slow down as much (NEAT doesn’t drop as much). This is your typical “hardgainer” who has trouble gaining weight. They’re also prone to be fidgeters by nature.

Many people’s bodies fight tooth and nail to prevent weight reduction or growth. However, it is more common for one or the other to occur, than than both. For further information, see Can eating too little harm your metabolism? Investigating the truths and myths around the term “metabolic damage.”

NEAT alterations are thought to account for 85-90 percent of adaptive thermogenesis, according to experts.

References

To see the information sources mentioned in this article, go here.

Section 1

Burnett, C. M., and Grobe, J. L. Indirect (O2/CO2 respirometry) and direct calorimetry are used to assess dietary effects on resting metabolic rate in C57BL/6 mice. 3(4):460-4, Mol Metab., 2014 Mar 21.

T. Ferguson, A.V. Rowlands, T. Olds, and C. Maher. A cross-sectional investigation of the validity of consumer-level activity monitors worn in free-living situations by healthy adults. 2015 Mar 27;12:42 in Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act.

Validity of consumer-based physical activity monitors, Lee JM, Kim Y, Welk GJ. 2014 Sep;46(9):1840-8 in Med Sci Sports Exerc.

Indirect calorimetry: methodological and interpretative issues, Simonson DC, DeFronzo RA. Am J Physiol 258(3 Pt 1):E399-412, Mar 1990. Review.

Section 2

M. Arrizabalaga, E. Larrarte, J. Margareto, S. Maldonado-Martn, L. Barrenechea, and I. Labayen. Arrizabalaga, M. Larrarte, E. Larrarte, E. Margareto, J. Margareto, S. Maldonado-Martn In obese non-morbid premenopausal women, preliminary data on the influence of FTO rs9939609 and MC4R rs17782313 polymorphisms on resting energy expenditure, leptin, and thyrotropin levels. 2014 Mar;70(1):255-62 in J Physiol Biochem.

C. Benedict, M. Hallschmid, A. Lassen, C. Mahnke, B. Schultes, H. B. Schiöth, J. Born, and T. Lange. In healthy men, acute sleep deprivation reduces energy expenditure. 2011 Jun;93(6):1229-36 in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Changes in energy expenditure during the menstrual cycle. Br J Nutr. 1989 Mar;61(2):187-99. Bisdee JT, James WP, Shaw MA.

Rimmington D, Tung YC, Lam B, Larder R, Yeo GS, O’Rahilly S, Vavouri T, Whitelaw E, Penninger JM, Jenuwein T, Cheung CL, Ferguson-Smith AC, Coll AP, Körner A, Pospisilik JA, Dalgaard K, Landgraf K, Heyne S, Lempradl A, Longinotto J, Gossens K, Ruf M, Ortho Trim28 Haploinsufficiency Causes Bi-stable Epigenetic Obesity in Mice. Cell. 2016 Jan 28;164(3):353-64.

Impact of the menstrual cycle on determinants of energy balance: a possible involvement in weight loss attempts, Davidsen L, Vistisen B, Astrup A. International Journal of Obesity (Lond). 31(12):1777-85 in December 2007. 7th of August, 2007. Review

Jirtle RL, Dolinoy DC, Weidman JR, Waterland RA. Maternal Genistein Modifies the Fetal Epigenome, Altering Coat Color and Protecting Avy Mouse Offspring from Obesity. Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 114, no. 4, pp. 567-572, 2006.

FTO variant, energy intake, physical activity, and basal metabolic rate in Caucasians, Hubáek JA, Pikhart H, Peasey A, Kubnová R, Bobák M. The HAPIEE study was conducted. 60(1):175-83 in Physiol Res.

A New Era in Brown Adipose Tissue Biology: Molecular Control of Brown Fat Development and Energy Homeostasis. Kajimura S, Saito M. Annual Review of Physiology, vol. 76, no. 2, pp. 225-249.

Epigenetic processes regulating energy balance regulation: many questions, few answers, Waterland RA. 2014;34:337-55. Annu Rev Nutr. 2014;34:337-55.

GL Wolff, RL Kodell, SR Moore, CA Cooney. Avy/a mice’s agouti gene expression is influenced by maternal epigenetics and methyl supplementation. FASEB J. 12(11):949-57, August 1998.

Section 3

N. Glickman, H. H. Mitchell, E. H. Lambert, and R. W. Keeton. On human subjects, the total specific dynamic activity of high-protein and high-carbohydrate diets. J Nutr., 1948, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 41-57.

KD Hall, SB Heymsfield, JW Kemnitz, S Klein, DA Schoeller, JR Speakman. The components of energy balance and their consequences for body weight regulation 2012 Apr;95(4):989-94 in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Section 4

KD Hall, G Sacks, D Chandramohan, CC Chow, YC Wang, SL Gortmaker, BA Swinburn. The effect of energy imbalance on bodyweight is quantified. The Lancet. August 27, 2011;378(9793):826-37.

Adaptive thermogenesis in humans, Rosenbaum M, Leibel RL. 2010;34(0 1):S47-S55 in International Journal of Obesity.

B., B., B., B., B., B., B. (2016). Is it True That Eating Too Little Harms Your Metabolism? Investigating the truths and myths around the term “metabolic damage.” https://www.precisionnutrition.com/metabolic-damage/ (accessed March 24, 2016).

If you’re a coach or wish to be one…

It’s both an art and a science to coach clients, patients, friends, or family members through healthy food and lifestyle adjustments in a way that’s tailored to their individual body, tastes, and circumstances.

Consider the Level 1 Certification if you want to learn more about both.

The calorie is a unit of measurement that helps you calculate how much energy you are consuming. This is a simple concept, but it’s a bit more complicated than it looks. This is because the calorie is actually a combination of two different types of measurement: the kilocalorie (kcal), which refers to the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius, and the gram calorie (cal). A calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius.. Read more about why counting calories is pointless and let us know what you think.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is wrong with calorie counting?

It is not a good way to lose weight.

What is it called when you are obsessed with counting calories?

It is called dieting.

Why do people not like calorie counting?

People do not like calorie counting because it is a tedious process that requires a lot of time and effort.

This article broadly covered the following related topics:

  • should i count calories or just eat healthy
  • is calorie counting healthy
  • should i count calories
  • how to stop counting calories obsessively
  • calorie counting
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