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  • Writer's pictureGavin Guard, Medical Director

Do calories matter?

Updated: Jan 23, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • calories do matter

  • but it's much more complicated than "eat less and move more"

  • food is much more than calories

  • most people do NOT need to count their calories

The Lowdown on Calories

Within the last few years, I have witnessed a lot of confusion over what calories are and if they matter or not when it comes to weight loss and health. Do calories have a role in dictating successful weight loss or is it another antiquated piece of advice from ill-informed food organizations?

Some individuals like Gary Taubes in his book, “Good Calories, Bad Calories” have suggested that calories do not matter at all. He and others make the case that it is in fact carbohydrates and the insulin response from the intake of these carbohydrates that cause us to be fat. However, others suggest that everyone must count their food in order to lose weight.

So which argument is correct? Here, I’d like to summarize my thoughts on this matter.

What are calories?

As we all may know, food contains energy. This energy found in food has historically been measured in calories.

On another note, physics has taught us that energy is neither created nor destroyed but rather transferred from one form to another. When we replace the word “energy” with the word “calories” (since calories are a form of energy), we get “calories are neither created nor destroyed”.

This means that we cannot just eat a box of donuts every day and magically not gain any weight- the calories found in the donuts need to go somewhere. When more calories are provided to the body than it can handle or needs to perform things like breathing, walking, and exercising, then the body will store this energy in the form of muscle or fat (as well as other storage forms).

Where do the calories we eat go after we eat them?

We have established that the food we eat contains calories and these calories need to be partitioned by the body to perform both subconscious and intentional work.

Part of the consumed calories goes toward our basal metabolic rate which includes maintaining our core temperature and fuel basic processes by our organs such as our brain, heart, and liver (this accounts for about 70% of our calorie expenditure).

Another portion of calories goes toward intentional exercising (5-10% of calorie expenditure) while even more calories go toward something called non-exercise activity which includes walking the dog, talking, standing, doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, etc. (15-50% calorie expenditure).

Finally, a portion of the calories found in food goes toward breaking down, digesting, and transporting the food to our cells (ironic, I know). This is called the “thermic effect of food” and accounts for 15-20% of calorie expenditure.

We can influence much of how and to what extent our body partitions the calories we get from our food through various diet and lifestyle interventions.

"Eat less and move more" is NOT the answer

It’s important to note that this equation is not static, meaning, the first part of the equation (calorie intake) affects the latter part of the equation (calorie expenditure) and vice versa.

Anecdotally, I have plenty of examples to show this in action. For example, increased calorie expenditure through increased amounts of exercise will inevitably lead to the brain’s subconscious effort to increase calorie intake by eating more food. This is why the notion of just “eat less and move more” is a very ill-informed piece of advice to give someone.

On the flip side of things, I have also observed through experience and research how reducing food intake will spontaneously reduce energy expenditure via reducing non-exercise activity. You see this to the extreme with dieting bodybuilders who walk slower, talk slower, and seem pretty lazy outside the gym environment. Their brain is trying its best to preserve fat and muscle tissue by dramatically attenuating energy expenditure.

Humans are not math equations

With all of this said, it's important to note that we humans cannot be deduced to simple math equations. Yes, calories matter. However, trying to build your nutrition practices around just this simple fact is NOT the best solution.

For example, you just got done working hard at work and you're excited to come home to have dinner with your family. But first, you need to decide how much you should eat. You start doing the calculations in your head to see how many calories should be in your meal. What seems like simple math turns into complex calculus. As you can imagine, trying to count calories should NOT be the solution for the majority of people (although, it can be useful for the short-term for some).

Food is much more than calories. It's also time with family, fresh aroma that brings you back to cooking at your grandma's house, and a way to connect with those you love.

The bottom line

Let’s wrap this up with some take home points. First, I want to highlight the fact that calories do matter, and this aligns with the basic laws of physics. Weight loss comes from the successful adherence to an energy deficit (spending more calories than you eat).

However, most people do NOT need to count their calories. Rather, they should spend time building practices and habits with their nutrition and lifestyle so that the "healthy" choices become automatic to do.

Finally, we can both influence the “energy in” portion and the “energy out” portion of the energy equation by various diet and lifestyle factors. Such interventions include altering food quality, creating some level of cognitive oversight over our activity levels, and optimizing hormone levels just to name a few.

I hope you found this information useful and helpful in your journey back to a healthier and happier life.

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