11 Reasons People Think Calories Don’t Count — And Why They’re Wrong

Calories do count.

Study after study has shown that when you eat less and move more, you lose weight.1-4

Megan Donnelson Jensen, one of the coaches at Lean Body Consulting, knows that you have to be in a caloric deficit to lose fat.

Megan Donnelson Jensen, one of the coaches at Lean Body Consulting, knows that you have to be in a caloric deficit to lose fat.

However, you still hear arguments as to why that’s not true. Some of these ideas sound silly, but others make you wonder. They give you just enough doubt to think the “calories in versus calories out” plan might not be for you.

Let’s look at some of the most common reasons people say that cutting calories doesn’t cause weight loss, and why they’re incorrect.

Myth #1: What you eat is more important than how much you eat.

You could get ripped on skittles and coke (the soda).

That’s an extreme example, and you probably wouldn’t enjoy that diet. However, in terms of just weight loss, it doesn’t matter what you eat as long as you’re in a caloric deficit. You’ll lose weight.

There’s no evidence that “junk food” is more fattening than “healthy food” if they have the same number of calories.5

Here are a few more common scapegoats:

There’s no evidence that eating any of these foods will make you gain more fat, or slow fat loss, while you’re in a calorie deficit.5,6,9-11 There is also no evidence that other foods will help you lose more fat while dieting.

This doesn’t mean food quality is irrelevant. Eating whole, nutritious, filling foods helps control hunger and keeps you healthy in the long-term.12-15

However, eating moderate amounts of “unclean” foods is not going to make any impact on your ability to lose fat as long as you’re in a caloric deficit.

Certain foods are more filling than others, and thus make it easier to maintain a caloric deficit. However, as long as you’re in a caloric deficit, you’ll lose weight.

Food “quality” (whatever that means) doesn’t make any difference.

Myth #2: If you eat the right combination of protein, fat, and carbohydrate, you won’t gain fat.

Virtually every weight loss diet has a certain macronutrient ratio — a percentage of calories from protein, fat, and carbohydrate, that you’re supposed to follow.

Most of these diets are nonsense. Almost 100 years of research has shown that there is no macronutrient combination that causes more fat loss than another.1,3,16-18 People lose the same amount of weight when they eat high or low-carb diets, as long as they eat the same amount of protein.1-4,19

That brings us to the exception — high protein diets.

Higher protein diets generally help people lose less muscle and more fat at the same calorie intake. 20-30 However, after a certain point, eating more protein isn’t going to help you lose any more fat.

Keep in mind that none of the people in these studies lost weight if they weren’t in a calorie deficit. They also tended to lose about the same amount of total weight as people on lower protein diets.

Every macronutrient can make you gain weight if it also contributes to a caloric surplus. No macronutrient ratio prevents or hinders fat loss while dieting. It’s about calories.

Myth #3: People don’t lose *exactly* as much weight as you’d expect when dieting, therefore calories don’t count.

A pound of fat has roughly 3,500 calories. If you eat 500 calories less per day, in theory you should lose one pound per week.

This almost never happens.

Even in controlled studies, people almost never lose exactly as much weight as you’d expect from the math.31,32 People claim this is proof that calories don’t count.

It’s not.

Scientists have known for years that both sides of the energy balance equation — how much you eat and expend — are variable and hard to measure.1,2

Here is why people don’t always lose exactly as much weight as you’d expect while dieting, and why this doesn’t prove calories don’t count:

1. People are horrible at estimating their calorie intake and expenditure.33-62 63-81 This is why anecdotes and studies on people living outside of a clinic will never prove calories don’t count.

 2. As people lose weight, they burn fewer calories because they move less, and for several other reasons. Their calorie deficit becomes smaller, and they lose fat at a slower rate.82-84

3. People also usually lose some muscle mass, even if they  diet intelligently, which can change the amount of weight they lose.

4. It’s hard to calculate someone’s exact calorie intake, even in a controlled setting.

5. When researchers are estimating someone’s calorie expenditure, they might be slightly off. If this happens, the person might be in a larger or smaller caloric deficit throughout the study than the researchers predicted.

6. People lose or retain different amounts of water, which can affect how much total weight they lose.

In every well controlled trial where people are forced to eat less, they lose weight. They don’t always lose the same amount of weight, but it’s usually close to what you’d expect if you assume that one pound of fat has 3,500 calories.32

Myth #4: People don’t gain *exactly* as much weight as you’d expect when overeating, therefore calories don’t count.

In studies where people overeat, they don’t always gain exactly as much fat as you’d predict.85,86

Once again, people claim this is proof that calories don’t count.

Once again, they’re incorrect.

Just like when people lose weight, the body also tends to defend against weight gain.

Some people do gain almost exactly as much fat as you’d expect based on their calorie intake. When they overeat by around 3,500 calories per week, they gain almost exactly one pound per week.87-89 Bummer.

However, there are people who don’t. In some cases, they barely gain any weight despite massively overeating calories.90

There are several reasons for this:

1. People move more subconsciously to burn the extra calories.

Some people increase their levels of non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, while dieting. They stand more, sit less, fidget, and are generally squirmy and hyperactive. These small movements can add up significantly throughout the day.91,92

In some cases, they can burn almost 1,000 extra calories per day and gain almost no fat.90 They still gain a little weight, but not as much as you’d think.

2. People gain weight, which forces them to move heavier bodies, which burns more calories.

When you gain weight, you have to move around a larger body. This burns more calories, which is enough to partially offset the extra calories you eat.93

3. When you eat more calories, you burn more calories digesting food.

Most people burn around 10% of their calorie intake digesting food.94 If you eat 1,000 extra calories per day, you’ll burn about 100 calories through digestion.

4. People don’t know how much they’re eating.

In uncontrolled settings, thin people who say they “eat a ton,” generally don’t. Thin or underweight people often vastly overestimate how much they’re eating the same way overweight people often underestimate their calorie intake. I happen to be one of them.

The fact that people don’t always gain weight in a linear relationship with how much they eat in no way proves calories don’t count. It just proves that your calorie expenditure changes as you gain weight.

Myth #5: Your metabolism slows when you cut calories, so cutting calories doesn’t work.

If this were true, starvation wouldn’t be possible.

As you lose weight, you burn fewer calories. This is going to happen on every diet, and it’s true for everyone.82,84,95,96 Except for extreme circumstances, however, this is almost never enough to completely stop weight loss.

In most cases, the drop in calorie burn is small, and only has a minor impact on your rate of weight loss.82

When obese people are forced to do hours of exercise and cut their calorie intake by 30%, they lost 123 pounds in 30 weeks. Their resting metabolic rates only dropped 504 calories per day over the normal drop caused by weighing less.97

In the Minnesota Starvation Study, people were forced to cut their calorie intake by 50% and walk 22 miles per week. After six months of straight dieting they lost 25% of their body weight. Their resting metabolic rates only dropped by about 225 calories per day. These people were also lean when they started dieting.98

There’s also no evidence that the decrease in your metabolic rate while dieting is enough to cause weight gain. It’s never happened in a single weight loss study in over 100 years. If it were going to, it would have happened by now.

Your metabolism drops slightly when you lose weight, but that’s the price you pay for fat loss. It happens to everyone, and it’s something you can minimize with the right behaviors. Calories still count.

Myth #6: Weight loss is far too complex to be managed by something as simple as diet and exercise.

There are hundreds of factors that influence your body weight and body composition.

Your set point, food choices, sensitivity to food cues, exercise levels, NEAT, self control, ability to estimate your food intake, hormone levels and sensitivity, and hundreds of other variables all help determine your ability to lose fat.

Fat loss is incredibly complex and it’s probably impossible to define every single thing that affects your ability to gain or lose fat.

The good news is that you don’t have to.

When people create a caloric deficit, they lose weight without worrying about all of these factors. They eat less, move more, and lose weight.1-4

You can’t control everything that influences your ability to lose fat. That’s why you need to focus on what you can control. Your calorie intake and movement levels.

The fact that your calorie intake and expenditure are influenced by many different factors doesn’t change the fact that calories count, and that you won’t lose weight if you aren’t in a caloric deficit.

Myth #7: When or how often you eat is more important than how much.

Food timing is becoming more and more popular, and that’s a shame.

There are reasons people claim that eating on a certain schedule is more important than how much you eat:

Misconception1 : Eating 5 or 6 small meals per day keeps your hunger under control and boosts your metabolic rate.

Truth: There is zero evidence that eating more often increases your metabolic rate or helps you lose more fat.99 There’s also little evidence that eating more often helps you control your appetite better than a normal meal frequency of around 3 meals per day.100-102

Misconception 2: Intermittent fasting helps you lose more fat and less muscle while dieting. It also helps you gain less fat and more muscle while overeating.

Truth: There’s little evidence intermittent fasting is anything more than a way for people to give themselves more dietary structure.

Misconception 3: Eating breakfast helps you lose more weight.

Truth: There’s no evidence that people who eat breakfast will lose more weight than those who don’t if they eat the same total number of calories.103

Misconception 4: Eating more of your calories or carbs at night will help you lose more weight.

Truth: Despite some uncontrolled research,104,105 there’s no controlled evidence this is true as long as the people in the study are eating the same number of calories.

Misconception 5: You’ll gain more muscle and lose more fat while dieting if you eat within 30 minutes after your workout.

Truth: The majority of research shows that eating in the “post-workout window” doesn’t cause more muscle growth or help fat loss.106,107

The bottom line is that frequency doesn’t matter in regards to weight loss or calorie burn. It might be a bad idea to starve yourself for a week and then binge for a week, but within reason, how often you eat doesn’t matter.

If you’re consuming the same number of calories you’ll gain or lose the same amount of weight. That’s true whether you eat ten meals per day or one meal per day.

Myth #8: Hormones affect body weight; therefore, managing your hormones is more important than calories.

Hormones like leptin, cortisol, thyroid, insulin, and testosterone all affect how many calories you burn and how much fat and muscle you lose while dieting.108-111 They also affect how much muscle or fat you gain while overeating.

Some people claim that because of this, you shouldn’t worry about your calorie intake, but about managing and “optimizing” your hormones. Then they usually recommend something like the following:

  • A special diet designed to support hormone production.
  • Avoiding certain foods or macronutrients because they boost estrogen levels or depress testosterone production, or affect some other hormone.
  • Supplements, of course.

Hormones matter, but there’s no evidence you can change them in a way that will help you lose weight without creating a calorie deficit.

When you cut your calorie intake, hormones like leptin and thyroid drop, which makes you burn fewer calories.112,113

However, the changes are usually small, and they don’t happen unless you’re also in a caloric deficit. There’s also no evidence that someone who’s eating enough calories to maintain their weight will suddenly lose fat if they “optimize” their hormones.

Massively cutting calories, overexercising, depriving yourself of sleep, living a stressful lifestyle, and other unhealthy behaviors can hinder your ability to lose fat. That doesn’t change the fact that you still have to be in a caloric deficit.

Myth #9: With the right combination of supplements, you don’t need to eat fewer calories to lose fat.

Most fat loss supplements are completely useless, and none of them help you lose fat unless you’re also in a caloric deficit. Even the ones that work only help you lose slightly more fat.

Supplements like CLA have never been shown to cause significant fat loss in humans.114,115 As far as the current evidence is concerned, they’re mostly a waste of money.

Even the most powerful fat loss supplements like ephedrine and caffeine have fairly small effects. They only help you burn at most around 100-200 calories more per day, and the effects tend to wear off over time.116-118

The only supplements that might help you lose fat do so by causing you to eat less or move more, which only supports the idea that calories count.

Myth #10: Cutting calories makes you hungry; therefore, it’s not effective in the long-term.

Eating less generally makes you want to eat more.

However, if you also choose more filling foods, you don’t necessarily have to be hungry while dieting. When people increase their protein intake, for instance, they usually eat several hundred calories less per day without even noticing.24,27,28,119-121 The same thing usually happens when people eat more fruits, vegetables, and fiber.122

In some cases, people still get hungry when they eat filling foods. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to suck it up. There’s no rule that says you can’t experience any hunger while dieting. Over time you generally adjust to your new body weight and your hunger levels drop.

Another thing to keep in mind is that your food intake is affected by many things that aren’t directly related to hunger.

  • We eat more when food tastes good.
  • We eat more out of bigger bowls.
  • We eat more when we have more food choices.
  • We eat more from highly palatable foods than from less palatable ones.
  • We eat more out of wide containers rather than tall ones.
  • We eat more when we’re bored.
  • We eat because food is available.
  • We eat more because the people are around us eat more.
  • We eat more because we eat too fast.
  • We eat more because we lose track of our calorie intake.
  • We eat more because we’re distracted.

Exercise also tends to help people control their food intake, despite the fact that it may also create a calorie deficit.123,124

Unless you’re dieting to an extremely low body fat, you can generally manage your hunger levels with the right strategies.

Here’s your takeaway:

Eating less doesn’t always make you hungry.

Just because eating less sometimes does make you hungry, doesn’t mean you can lose weight without cutting calories.

11. “I didn’t lose weight while eating less and exercising more.”

The anecdote.

Here’s how this usually sounds:

“I didn’t lose weight eating less and exercising more; so it doesn’t work for me. I did low-carb [or some other diet] instead and lost 20 pounds, so there.”

Here are 4 reasons these kinds of arguments are invalid:

1. Most people are horrible at estimating their calorie intake and expenditure. There’s little reason to believe these people are any different.

2. We have no way to verify how many calories these people are eating or burning before and after they lost weight, so we have to take their word for it. See point 1 for why that’s a bad idea.

3. Whatever diet the person used to lose weight, they started it because they believed it would help them lose weight. They wanted it to work, which means they were more likely to overlook anything that might prove it wouldn’t (a confirmation bias). Likewise, if they start calorie counting with the idea that it won’t work, they’re more likely to give a weak effort or purposely fail.

4. Even if these people did conduct a “controlled” study on themselves, they would still know the details of the study, which would bias the results.

After hearing the above five points, these people usually pull this card:

“You didn’t do a study on me. You have no idea if the results apply to me.”

Response: What evidence do you have that you’re different?

The odds are that you aren’t. In almost 100 years of weight loss research, we still haven’t found a single human that won’t lose weight when they’re in a caloric deficit.

With as much research as we have at this point, chances are good that there’s been a study on someone very similar to you.

Fact: Calories count.

Every controlled study in the last century has found that people don’t lose weight unless they’re in a caloric deficit.

This doesn’t mean you’re a failure or weak if you’ve struggled to get lean. It means you were focusing on the wrong actions, something everyone does sometimes. Simplify your efforts; create a caloric deficit.

You’ll hear all sorts of reasons for why this isn’t true, but they’re all easily broken if you look at the research. This doesn’t mean calories are the only thing you should think about, but if you want to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn. Period.

Do you have a strong opinion about this topic? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Comments

  1. says

    LOVE this article! Hits on pretty much every main point anti-calorie counters bring up. Have a number of people to show it too.

    Also – big thanks on footnote 97! That is something I have been trying to find info on and not having a ton of luck. Can’t wait to dive into it.

  2. says

    Awesome, awesome post Armi. I love this specifically:

    “You didn’t do a study on me. You have no idea if the results apply to me.”

    Response: What evidence do you have that you’re different?

    Good job, pinning and sharing!

  3. says

    Hey Armi,

    I’m curious about the effect of food quality and exercise on fat lost vs. muscle lost. I’d venture to guess that while you can’t beat the second law of thermondynamics when losing or gaining weight, you can direct it by eating quality foods and getting quality exercise. What are your thoughts?

    Best,
    Matt

  4. says

    With respect to hormones and macronutrients, appetite conrol is key. If you eat less without getting hungry you wont feel deprived. This study shows clearly that hormonal consequences count a lot for appetite control, and these are affected by macronutrient ratios. pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/103/3/e26.full.pdf‎

  5. says

    Awesome…this is one I am copying to my Evernote file…..I am sure I will need to re reference for the Knuckle Heads I always seem to run-into when I am getting ready for a show.

  6. Billy says

    You seem to agree, weight (dys) regulation is complex and multi-factorial. I think you’re mostly on point, however, please don’t downplay the huge importance of hormone regulation, as it relates to weight regulation, particularly glucose sequestration (utilization, storage). America is fat and getting fatter. We haven’t become less active (see multimillion dollar fitness industry) and we aren’t necessarily eating more. The one thing that has changed in the past 40-50 years is our food supply. A huge consumption of 60% + daily intake of carbohydrates (refined or not) should not be understated! We are storing fat at an alarming rate, developing resistance to insulin, and worse developing metabolic syndrome. We need consider the idea that the “experts” have it wrong. Because of the popular, incorrect dogma, “fats are bad,” we’ve landed ourselves in a giant bowl of proverbial cereal.

    • says

      ” America is fat and getting fatter. We haven’t become less active (see multimillion dollar fitness industry) and we aren’t necessarily eating more.”

      people ARE eating more though. Portion sizes at fast food outlets in particular have increased dramatically. I’m sure someone else will have the link to the supporting documentation about average calorie intake in different years.

      60% of REQUIRED daily intake being from carbs is no issue whatsoever. The issue is always with exceeding the required daily intake.

      A great article as per usual, Armi.

      • Billy says

        I recant, slightly. Perhaps we are eating more, though not necesarilly in terms of volume, not everyone. Instead, consider the the type / quality of energy. 60% carbohydrate intake per USDA rec’s is probably modest for the average American. Compounded by our obsession with avoiding FAT (saturated or nor not) like the plague, a surplus of empty, garbage calories results (large in refined sugar). What happens to that sugar bomb? Some is used, some is stored in the liver, AND the rest is shuttled away to the fat cells for safe keeping until we add some more! It’s a cycle. And we’re probably not talking about quality, complex, fibers so this happens quickly. I stand by “we haven’t become less active.” I think this is the elephant in the room. If we are in fact a culture of sedentary sloths, then calories in / calories out theory, alone, would make sense. It’s too simple. We’re just not less active. To the contrary.

        • Watson says

          I would suggest that activity levels are in fact way down on average. This doesn’t apply to any one individual but on average people now watch 5 hours of TV per day and surf the internet for 27 hours per month. 30 years ago there was no internet (at least for the public) and no one watched more than 2 hours a day. Combine that with the transition away form physical jobs to office jobs and I think it’s safe to say that the average person is far less active than they were 30 years ago.

          • says

            Billy could you back up the fact you think people aren’t less active with any sort of study or proof? Not being a dick I am genuinely curious, because everything I have read points to the fact that we are significantly less active.

  7. says

    Excellent article. I’ve done the yo-yo diets for 15 years and it wasn’t until I finally realized the truth about the calorie deficit and my own bodies energy needs that things finally clicked. Whether it it’s a point system, counting calories, or simply the portion sizes that make the fat on your waist start disappearing – the end result is the same – the correct energy balance for fat loss for you.

  8. Manuel says

    I agree with you. The only objection I have, and the reason I personally would never teach this to anyone is because even if you have a calloric deficit and you´re looking to los weight, eating fries and a coke will harm your body. The fact is that food is garbage, and that is never taken into account with this aproach to weight loss, and in the long run, it is not the same eating a 2000 calorie diet of trash as it is to eat fruits, veggies and meats that are in the mos organic. I lost a lot of weight focusing on eating in a way that was healthy for me, and I didn´t have to count to get a caloric deficit, and in 10 years I´ll better off than 99% of caloric dieters who eat junk everyday because “it doesn´t matter, I´m not going over my calories”.

    • says

      How will french fries in moderation harm your body?

      Will a whole natural potato cut up into strips and then fried in oil suddenly become deadly? Potatoes clearly don’t harm our body. Fat also doesn’t harm our body, and in fact we need it.

      I don’t see how combining the two make them some sort of dangerous cocktail.

  9. says

    I agree; if you look at it from an extreme point of view, it’s possible for ANY human being to lose an immense amount of body fat from a TRUE starvation diet. If anybody stops consuming food, they WILL lose weight, that is a fact. I think where most people run into trouble is when they have been eating at a caloric deficit for so long (perhaps 1200 calories for a female,) have plataeued, and don’t know where to go from there (restrict further?) If they continue to cut calories, they will lose weight, but also at the expense of their energy levels, fertility, hormones, etc. This is where it gets trickier. While it’s very well possible to starve ourselves skinny, the tools like carb/calorie cycling, strategic exercise protocols, or fasting can also be an invaluable piece of the weight loss puzzle in order to make things a little less terrible during the process, and perhaps a little less detrimental to our hormonal system (even though it can occur just the same if done incorrectly). From experience, I know that once that hormonal system goes out of whack from chronic caloric restriction or overtraining, it is 100x more miserable & challenging trying to lose any fat. Achievable, sure, but at the expense of basically feeling bed-ridden all day. ;-)

  10. Erik says

    I appreciate the well-researched article and agree with many of your conclusions. I agree with a lot of it, but I disagree on some finer points.

    * A “caloric deficit” is the same thing as a “negative energy balance”, which is one way to measure weight loss. So, when you say “the only way to achieve weight loss is through a caloric deficit”, what you’re really saying is, “the only way to lose weight is to lose weight.” This is 100% true. However, it doesn’t say anything useful. It’s like saying “the only way to be a millionaire is to earn $1 million more than you spend.” That is also 100% true. But it doesn’t tell you how to actually become a millionaire.

    * “Counting calories” is not the same thing as “achieving a caloric deficit”. Calorie counting is simply a tool which can be used to roughly approximate the amount of food being eaten. But it doesn’t tell you what effect that food will have on your body. You note, for example, that caffeine, which has 0 calories, has the effect of burning 100 calories when consumed. So you could not estimate the “caloric deficit” of a cup of coffee by noting the fact that it has 0 calories. There are other foods which have a similar effect, and some foods which have the opposite effect. For instance, a recent study indicated that almonds contain approximately 20% fewer bioavailable calories than the nutrition label might indicate.

    * I strongly urge you to reconsider your stance on hormones. You say that exercise helps with weight loss. Well, exercise helps to balance hormones. You say that eating less helps with weight loss. Eating less helps to balance hormones. You say that reducing stress helps with weight loss. Reducing stress helps to balance hormones. You say that getting enough sleep helps with weight loss. Restful sleep balances hormones. You say that good nutrition is essential for long-term weight loss. Good nutrition balances hormones. But then you say that hormones have nothing to do with weight loss. Wait. What?

    It would be far more effective to treat obesity as a symptom of hormonal dysregulation, than to claim that it is caused by poor counting skills.

    Additionally, I would note that there is a huge difference between short term weight loss and long term weight loss management. Many of the studies you cite only deal with short-term weight loss. It’s true that you can lose some weight by eating nothing but one Twinkie per day for 30 days while carrying a 50 pound anvil up the side of a cliff. But that isn’t a sustainable lifestyle choice, and it isn’t going to do any good if you gain back double the weight you just lost.

    For long term, sustainable weight loss, I’d recommend focusing on nutritionally-dense foods, eating only when you’re actually hungry, eating just enough to be comfortably full until your next meal, doing some amount of moderately intense exercise including some resistance training, getting good quality sleep, and managing stress. Even if you do “count calories” the focus should be more on the nutrients the calories provide and the effect the foods have on your body rather than the calories themselves.

    “Weight loss” does not necessarily equal “health”, and “thin” does not always mean “healthy”. Some of the thinnest people I know are also some of the unhealthiest. Many of them have horrible digestive problems which have left them malnourished and sickly. Some have eating disorders which have left them with rotting teeth and fragile bones. Some smoke cigarettes because it decreases their appetite and they’d rather get cancer than get fat. Some are simply raging alcoholics or hard drug users who have other interests besides food.

    If you look at a mortality curve of males by BMI, you’ll note that it’s shaped like a U, with very thin people having about the same death rate as very fat people, and most people in the middle. The sweet spot with the lowest mortality rate is around BMI 27.5, which would be “overweight” by clinical definition – half way to “obese”. A 210 pound man might be just as healthy on average as a 140 pound man. But the 210 pound man is looked down upon for his “unhealthiness” and “lack of self-control”, while the mourners at the 140 pound man’s funeral note how shocked they were at his unexpected passing.

    And as long as you’re into clinical studies, you’re no doubt aware that the biggest benefit of weight loss comes from just 5% to 10% of body weight lost. So, a person who weighs 250 pounds might be very healthy if they drop to 225, even though they’re still clinically obese.

    By way of reference, I’ve lost more than 80 pounds and I’ve kept it off for more than 2 years. My blood pressure dropped more than 80 points. My triglycerides went from 400 to 70. My total cholesterol dropped 80 points. My HDL went from low to normal. My doctor has taken me off of 5 medications. Everything my doctor has tested is in a “healthy” range or better.

    • says

      ““Weight loss” does not necessarily equal “health”, and “thin” does not always mean “healthy”. Some of the thinnest people I know are also some of the unhealthiest. Many of them have horrible digestive problems which have left them malnourished and sickly. Some have eating disorders which have left them with rotting teeth and fragile bones. Some smoke cigarettes because it decreases their appetite and they’d rather get cancer than get fat. Some are simply raging alcoholics or hard drug users who have other interests besides food.”

      This article makes none of those claims.

      • says

        “Additionally, I would note that there is a huge difference between short term weight loss and long term weight loss management. Many of the studies you cite only deal with short-term weight loss. It’s true that you can lose some weight by eating nothing but one Twinkie per day for 30 days while carrying a 50 pound anvil up the side of a cliff. But that isn’t a sustainable lifestyle choice, and it isn’t going to do any good if you gain back double the weight you just lost.”

        The article also doesn’t make this claim and if you have followed Armi at all you would know he would never ever claim this to be true.

        You seem to be creating strawmen arguments and attacking them, rather than the actual article.

  11. Erik says

    “Myth #7: When or how often you eat is more important than how much.

    Food timing is becoming more and more popular, and that’s a shame.”

    This one I would also ask that you reconsider. If “calorie counting” is effective for some people, why wouldn’t “meal counting” be just as effective?

    Let’s grant your premise that person A would lose weight if they counted 1500 calories per day. Wouldn’t person A also lose weight if they ate 3 meals per day which were approximately 500 calories each? Or 2 meals which were approximately 750 calories each? Or a 500 calorie lunch and a 1000 calorie dinner?

    You say that intermittent fasting doesn’t work. Then you say that there is no need to eat breakfast everyday. Well, that’s what intermittent fasting IS. Most intermittent fasting operates on a 12-16 hour fasting window and an 8-12 hour feeding window. In actual practice, that might mean eating dinner at 6 PM and not eating the first meal of the day until 10 AM.

    So, if you call it “intermittent fasting”, it’s an epic fail in your book and a darn shame people fall for that malarkey. But if you call it “eating a late breakfast” then it’s a good way to manage your calories and an epic win.

    Isn’t it possible that meal timing can add structure to a person’s routine which will help them to stay on plan? So even if there’s no benefit to “meal timing”, certain people can benefit from timing meals.

    And that’s assuming there is no benefit to timing meals. There is considerable evidence that your body works on a circadian rhythm, and eating on a regular schedule helps to balance it.

    • says

      The author is not making the claim that intermittent fasting doesn’t cause weight loss, only that its cause isn’t from the fasting itself, it is from the calorie deficit.

      If you want, as I have, you can actually track everything that you eat if you like. And, over the course of the next 3 years use calorie counting to track what you eat, while doing different diets/exercises/food consumption.

      I love this article. I took my own body, and over the last 3 years have done several different eating habits, gained tons of muscle through body weight, decided to become a marathon runner etc…

      The only constant was that how much I ate determines how heavy I am.

      Not my muscle structure, nothing. I have been 300 lbs, down to 170 lb skinny fat, to 185 lb with 8% body fat and ripped. Right now I am doing the “massive legs from biking and marathon training”: build, and I doubt I can lift more than a bar.

      Only thing that mattered on how much I weight? What I eat.

      And that is what the article author is getting at.

    • says

      Armi clearly addressed this when he said:

      “Truth: There’s little evidence intermittent fasting is anything more than a way for people to give themselves more dietary structure.”

      That line is conceding that IF may help people sustain a diet.

      His assertion that IF on it’s own is not a magic bullet seems to hold up pretty well when you get into the actual research.

  12. says

    I love this article! Got here from Fitocracy!

    At the end of 2009 I weighted 303-310 lbs (depending on scale) and I had to lose weight or start using hundreds of dollars in medicine I couldn’t afford.

    So, I lost weight. I have tracked my calories now for 4 years. I have been as small as 172 with no muscle, to 185 with 8% body fat and ripped like an insanity poster.

    Right now I run marathons and do biking. I have very little upper body now, but a lot of lower body strength and at 195 lbs have a lot more body fat as well (But I can run faster/farther than I could at 185).

    The only thing that has stayed consistent is calories in and calories out. When I gain weight, the proof is right their in the spreadsheets I keep, when I lose it, I know exactly why.

    I always find it odd that people evangelize all these other attempts to lose weight, when the most important thing, outright, is tracking what you put in your mouth, or how you are going to exercise to bring balance back to what you eat.

  13. MAW says

    You lost me with “There’s no evidence that “junk food” is more fattening than “healthy food” if they have the same number of calories.(5)”
    Ref #5 compares two diets with the same proportion of carbohydrate intake, 71%. The only thing they altered was the proportion of sucrose. They were not comparing a healthy low-carb diet with a ‘junk’ one high in carbs. So I fail to see how your assertion follows from the cited reference.

  14. Tony P says

    I should call my comment “11 reasons why this article sucks.”

    1. Over and over again you make the assumption that just because something hasn’t been proven in a study that is therefore false. You would think someone who relies so heavily on citations wouldn’t make that mistake.

    2. You close out this unnecessarily long write-up with “if you want to lose weight just create a caloric deficit,” without ever giving anyone any tools to do that. No links as to how they can establish what their daily caloric needs are, how much of a deficit they should be in, etc… What’s even more hilarious (or disheartening I should say) is that this is a paragraph below where you just said that people aren’t good at counting their calories and establishing their energy output. “Hey you want to lose weight? Great, just use this method that you totally suck at!” 100+ citations and you don’t even bother to give your readers one fucking tool to utilize the method you want them to. Brilliant.

    3. You use “Weight loss” and “fat loss” interchangeably which is wrong. Wow people in starvation studies lost weight? I’m shocked. How much did their vertical leap increase? How about their max bench press? Probably none, because the majority of the weight they lost was muscle. Who wants that?

    4. Do calories matter? They sure do, but they aren’t the only thing that matters, but when you open things up with “you could be ripped on skittles,” do you really think people who are searching for legit fat loss solutions are going to sit there and read all those studies? Fuck no, they’re going to go out and start eating 100 calorie snack packs of oreos, because the internet said it was fine. High five, good work.

    5. Unfortunately there aren’t many official studies on pro hormones and steroids, but if you honestly think that if someone’s energy output didn’t change, and their caloric intake didn’t change, and they introduced high levels of synthetic test (like t cyp) that they wouldn’t gain weight…well you’re dumb. I’ve seen this literally dozens of times.

    6. “noob gains.” People like to say all the time you can’t gain muscle and build fat at the same time unless you’re new. Thousands of trainers and coaches witness this phenomenon every single day. In fact it’s the bane of my existence because people bitch that they aren’t losing weight despite the fact that their waists are smaller and clothes fit better…oh and that they’re stronger, and look leaner and more muscular. I’ve yet to see a hard scientific explanation of this reassignment of tissue (for lack of a better term) yet I’ve observed it literally hundreds of times at this point. All that means is the right stimulus was being placed on the body to create the right adaptation, and it really had nothing to do with the calories people ate (as that was typically unchanged.)

    7. Most of the studies cited are short term. I think that there are more cases of metabolic derangement than we realize happening and these take sometimes years to develop. Cases where I have clients track food intake (with measuring/weighing), increase their caloric intake and observe weight and fat loss (typically after at least 5 weeks). What is a deficit and what is a surplus seems to be highly variable based on people’s long term eating habits.

    8…I could go on and on and on, but I have to go eat.

    • says

      Thanks for the comment, Tony. I’ll respond to each of your points below:

      1. Over and over again you make the assumption that just because something hasn’t been proven in a study that is therefore false. You would think someone who relies so heavily on citations wouldn’t make that mistake.

      Are you using this as a preface to say that just because you have no evidence for any of your further points, that your opinions should be taken seriously?

      2. You close out this unnecessarily long write-up with “if you want to lose weight just create a caloric deficit,” without ever giving anyone any tools to do that. No links as to how they can establish what their daily caloric needs are, how much of a deficit they should be in, etc… What’s even more hilarious (or disheartening I should say) is that this is a paragraph below where you just said that people aren’t good at counting their calories and establishing their energy output. “Hey you want to lose weight? Great, just use this method that you totally suck at!” 100+ citations and you don’t even bother to give your readers one fucking tool to utilize the method you want them to. Brilliant.

      If you bothered to click any of the links in the article, you would have found articles on those exact topics. I went through the article, and copied these links for you, which have been there since it was published:

      http://evidencemag.com/healthy-diet/

      http://evidencemag.com/slow-fat-loss/

      http://evidencemag.com/calorie-needs/

      http://evidencemag.com/fat-loss-fidgeting-podcast/

      http://evidencemag.com/starvation-mode-podcast/

      http://evidencemag.com/self-monitoring-weight-loss/

      http://evidencemag.com/lean-physique-podcast/

      Here’s another on the site about how to set a calorie deficit for fat loss: http://evidencemag.com/fat-loss-deficit/

      The reason most people are bad at estimating their calorie intake is because they’re being asked to recall it after hours, days, or weeks, and they aren’t weighing or measuring it. I also don’t think counting calories is a great long-term strategy, but just because people are bad at estimating their calorie intake, doesn’t mean calories don’t count.

      3. You use “Weight loss” and “fat loss” interchangeably which is wrong. Wow people in starvation studies lost weight? I’m shocked. How much did their vertical leap increase? How about their max bench press? Probably none, because the majority of the weight they lost was muscle. Who wants that?

      How does that prove calories don’t count? Can you provide evidence that fat loss is possible without a calorie deficit?

      4. Do calories matter? They sure do, but they aren’t the only thing that matters, but when you open things up with “you could be ripped on skittles,” do you really think people who are searching for legit fat loss solutions are going to sit there and read all those studies? Fuck no, they’re going to go out and start eating 100 calorie snack packs of oreos, because the internet said it was fine. High five, good work.

      The article never said that calories are the only thing that matters. I also never said anyone should eat skittles and coke to lose fat. The next sentence also said it was a bad idea, yet you chose to ignore that. I have enough respect for my readers to assume that they can, in fact, read.

      5. Unfortunately there aren’t many official studies on pro hormones and steroids, but if you honestly think that if someone’s energy output didn’t change, and their caloric intake didn’t change, and they introduced high levels of synthetic test (like t cyp) that they wouldn’t gain weight…well you’re dumb. I’ve seen this literally dozens of times.

      I never said that someone taking steroids couldn’t gain muscle without changing their calorie intake. This article wasn’t targeted at drug users, and even if it was, how does that prove calories don’t count?

      6. “noob gains.” People like to say all the time you can’t gain muscle and build fat at the same time unless you’re new. Thousands of trainers and coaches witness this phenomenon every single day. In fact it’s the bane of my existence because people bitch that they aren’t losing weight despite the fact that their waists are smaller and clothes fit better…oh and that they’re stronger, and look leaner and more muscular. I’ve yet to see a hard scientific explanation of this reassignment of tissue (for lack of a better term) yet I’ve observed it literally hundreds of times at this point. All that means is the right stimulus was being placed on the body to create the right adaptation, and it really had nothing to do with the calories people ate (as that was typically unchanged.)

      How does that prove calories don’t count? There’s plenty of evidence showing that resistance training helps people build muscle even in a calorie deficit, but that still doesn’t mean calories don’t count.

      7. Most of the studies cited are short term. I think that there are more cases of metabolic derangement than we realize happening and these take sometimes years to develop. Cases where I have clients track food intake (with measuring/weighing), increase their caloric intake and observe weight and fat loss (typically after at least 5 weeks). What is a deficit and what is a surplus seems to be highly variable based on people’s long term eating habits.

      The fact that someone’s energy needs are variable, doesn’t prove that calories don’t count.

  15. Melissa says

    What a load of BS.

    Take me, for example. Eating 1200 calories a day, 60-70% carbs (healthy whole grains, no pop tarts over here!). Can’t lose a single pound. I am cranky, tired and have no energy.

    Eating 1600-1800 calories a day at 15% carbs (50-60% fat and rest protien) = weight loss, effortlessly. I am energetic and satisfied.

    Carbs = sugar = insulin spikes = weight gain

  16. Azzam Omair says

    Hey Armi, I appreciate the time you spent writing this article, but it’s just a collection of myths in itself.

    First of all, I find it extremely hard to believe that you actually used all the sources that you cited, there is just an overwhelming number of them.

    Second of all, your body treat food differently. Calories do count, but a calorie of carbs can make you gain weight more than a calorie of fat. It all comes down to the hormones in the blood which hugely depends on the blood sugar level.

    If you’re eating lots of carbs ( > 50 g a day ), your blood sugar is gonna be very high, which means your body in attempt to control this sugar will produce insulin, insulin spikes = high energy for a temporary period of time followed by a crash that leads to eating more sugar. This cycle of eating will carry on as long as you’re eating carbs. Furthermore, your body loves to store the excessive carbs/sugar as body fat if not used immediately.

    However, if you’re eating lots of fat, your blood sugar level should be low, sometimes very low, which means you don’t have energy to feed your cells and shit. So your body will be forced to produce glucagon to raise your blood sugar level; and guess what this glucagon does? it uses your body fat to create ketones so that your body would use them as an alternative healthy energy source. Thusly, your gonna lose way more body fat on a low carb diet because you will avoid the insulin spikes + you will eat less without the sugar cravings.

    Now, I’m not a scientist, nor I’m claiming that all the info I wrote above there are actually correct, but based on my humble understanding of the human body, I know that’s how it works.

    To conclude, you don’t need to worry about calories or even consider them when it comes to losing weight; because 100 calories of carbs will make you ten times fatter than 100 calories of fat ( because of the insulin spikes which prevent your body from using its own body fat as an energy source and encourage it to store more fat).

    Your body can use sugar(glucose) & fat as energy sources, but fat is its preferred long run energy source. So cut the carbs & Sugars and enjoy everything else and you’ll lost weight like a maniac.

  17. Brandon says

    ^^I see Jillian Michaels, Robert Lustig and Tracy Anderson are posing under.names like Tony, Melissa, and Erik again. At least they mixed it up and threw in an “Azzam” to keep people on their toes. ;)

    • Tony P says

      ad hominem. So why don’t you cut off your hands to keep from posting useless bullshit if you don’t have anything worthwhile to say.

  18. Patrick Rochon says

    Read The Calorie Myth by Jonathan Bailor it contains a lot more references than your article and it says the exact opposite. Plus it actually give people the right tools to lose fat (not weight, FAT)

  19. says

    Finally the article I’ve been waiting for.

    I now have a succinct, well written, incredibly researched article to blast away broscientists with.

    Thanks!

    Loving the site.

  20. Robin holland says

    Excellent work. Impressive use of research. Armi you clarify the literature well and simplify the decisions needed for weight loss. Some of the comments reflect strongly held beliefs and so I am glad you have shown the knowledge base for a better approach to the issues. Good on you mate.

  21. TravisRetriever says

    I can’t be the only person that is disgusted by those hawking Myth #5. Do they honestly not see what massive “F*CK YOU FAKER LULZ!”/sh*t on the graves that is to anyone who has ever starved to death?

    Myth #10–Glad to see a rebuttal of that one. :) It’s one a friend of mine kept throwing at me. His response to me? “So crash dieting works?”/”So what doesn’t crash dieting work?” In response to the idea that you need to be in a Caloric Deficit to lose weight, and him saying that, “No you can’t eat less, you’ll be hungry! That’s why dieting can’t work! You have to move your body instead!”

  22. says

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    me. And i am happy studying your article. But want to observation on
    some general things, The web site style is wonderful, the articles is truly great :
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  23. Lynne says

    Thanks for this article backed up with citations. While I agree with the theme of the article overall, that a caloric deficit is necessary to lose weight, I do take issue with “myth 5″. You state of obese people who have lost large amounts of weight “their resting metabolic rate only decreased by 500 calories a day above what would be expected due to their weight reduction.” (Sorry for any slight I accuracy in this quote- I don’t have your article in front of me as I write this.) ONLY 500 calories a day???? Given that a standard weight loss diet is 1200 calories a day, that means you would have to almost halve your daily calorie intake to keep losing weight at the same rate. There’s no “only” about that!!!!!!

    • says

      Hey Lynne, thanks for the comment. The data says it’s only about 500 calories in this case. 1,200 calories per day is extremely low for an obese person. Many can lose weight eating 2,500 calories per day, so in the large scheme of things, 500 is not massive. That can also be mitigated with a moderate amount of exercise. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I don’t want people to feel daunted.

  24. Michelle Stiff says

    Armi, as usual this is an awesome article. Thank you for all of the work you are doing. I wish I had found you (and people like Alan Aragon, and Leigh Peele) much sooner- it would have saved me thousands of dollars and heart ache that resulted from becoming a fanatical “low-carb” Paleo person who started to believe that calories didn’t count and that my body was “like a clogged sink” due to eating unclean foods. I became the fattest and unhealthiest I have ever been by following such dogmatic principles and I was eating 100% “whole foods” (less than 80g carbs per day and lots of meat and good fats). In fact, adding starch (and yes, even some sugar!) back in my diet, I found health again: my digestion improved, and I got a menstrual cycle back, which I had lost when I was low-carbing AND I was able to lose weight. Unfortunately it took over two years for me to let go of my dogma, despite evidence in my OWN BODY that it wasn’t working for me- either mentally or physically.Though carbs may not be considered “essential” to survive, they ARE essential to thrive and especially for having optimal fertility for females in particular. If you have such dogmatic beliefs, I urge you to LISTEN to Armi’s podcasts and properly read his articles because there is no dogma, just science, just facts. And also, open your mind: think about how other people in different parts of the world live. I live in Africa, and I can assure you- the diet here is 90% carbs and many of these people are not fat by a long shot. The ones who are overweight are eating buckets of oil, along with carbs so they are in a very large surplus and have no idea of basic nutrition concepts. Keep up the fantastic work.

    • says

      Thank you so much Michelle, I’m glad you’ve regained your health and were able to break out of your old views. It’s very hard, but very worth it. I think you’re also 100% right about carbs and women — they generally need more to function well.

  25. Blaine says

    Thanks so much for all your information. In terms of caloric deficit and it’s relationship to weight loss, I have a caveat to your comments. As we know one’s metabolism slows when calories are reduced. Exactly the rate of regression is individual so if person “A” reduces their intake by 250 calories per day with an anticipated weight loss, what if their metabolism reacts significantly? That said, it is conceivable that the initial caloric deficit and that person’s metabolic slowdown COULD result in zero weight loss. Caloric deficit, in isolation, may not therefore have the desired weight loss impact. One then has to do an in depth look at macro percentages, exercise frequency, type, and intensity. Again I really appreciate your articles!!!

    • says

      Thanks Blaine, I’m glad you like the site.

      As we know one’s metabolism slows when calories are reduced. Exactly the rate of regression is individual so if person “A” reduces their intake by 250 calories per day with an anticipated weight loss, what if their metabolism reacts significantly? That said, it is conceivable that the initial caloric deficit and that person’s metabolic slowdown COULD result in zero weight loss.

      The drop in metabolism is generally small, and it never causes weight loss to drop to zero. It’s never been shown in any study, and there have been over a hundred at this point. These articles explain more:

      http://evidencemag.com/why-calories-count/

      http://evidencemag.com/slow-fat-loss/

      Caloric deficit, in isolation, may not therefore have the desired weight loss impact. One then has to do an in depth look at macro percentages, exercise frequency, type, and intensity.

      You’re right — just focusing on calorie intake isn’t optimal, but it will cause weight loss. Exercise defintely matters too, as you said, for best results.

  26. Andy says

    Just read “Why we get fat”. Have been on a low carb, high fat diet for the last 2 years and dropped weight and kept it off. I ate as much meat, fish, eggs and veggies as I wanted and was certainly never “calorie deficient” as you state it. I moved the same and ate more good food and less garbage (simple carbs). I’m not going to comment on “you can get ripped on a diet of skittles and soda”. A low calorie low fat, high carb diet doesn’t cure diabetes, it makes it worse? Doesn’t sound good to me.

    If this works for you great, if it doesn’t try a no garbage (simple carb) food diet with increased fat. Either way everyone should read the book “Why we get fat”- Gary Taubes to better inform yourself and make the best diet choices for yourself.

  27. Francesco says

    You have to try to get fat!
    Calories don’t count, what can be counted is the quantity of exposure to a food that is potentially fatter, more you are exposed more are the chance to be overweight or obese.

Trackbacks

  1. […] If your looking to maintain your weight, your diet should be energy neutral. If you’re aiming for weight loss, it needs to create a calorie deficit and if  you’re aiming for weight gain or increased muscle mass, you need to have a calorie surplus. You get the picture. (If your interested in why calories matter you can read a great article from Evidence Magazine about it here). […]

  2. […] Исследование за исследованием показывает, что для потери веса надо меньше есть и больше двигаться. Но до сих пор остаются люди которые утверждают, что это не так. Некоторые аргументы против откровенно идиотские, некоторые звучат внушительно. Зожник публикует пост ЖЖ-пользователя necroz, созданый на основе статьи Арми Легге. […]

  3. […] energy balance is key – check out Armi Legge’s excellent article here, in the long term, my thoughts are,  it’s HOW you think about food, rather than the actual […]

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