Calorie counting – such a waste of time….

Do you ever feel like you eat so very little and still don’t lose weight?   You feel hungry all the time.  You watch what you choose to eat (well at least most of the time.)  You faithfully read food labels.  You hit the gym religiously.  You track calories, macros and daily exercise in a massive spreadsheet, you love to hate.  And still the almighty scale refuses to budge! 

What gives?

No doubt you’ve heard a variety of explanations for this – your body is starvation mode, slowing its metabolism.  Or for women, it’s your hormones.  Isn’t it great that as women we always have a ready-made excuse? Or it’s genetics.  Or it’s sleep deprivation (sleep more, lose weight, say what?!?!?! – topic for another blog.) Or it’s stress.

Is it true that in order to lose weight, we must have an energy deficit?  I think so.  The problem is not in the law of thermodynamics, it’s that we believe we can count.   If energy-in minus energy-out is a positive number we gain weight, if it’s a negative number we lose weight.  We just have to count the calories correctly.   

But measuring calories-in is no easy feat and measuring energy expenditure (calories-out) is equally challenging.  To further complicate the math, our body manages calories from different macros differently.  Our body responds to 100 calories of pure fat very differently than 100 calories of refined sugar.  The latter spikes our blood sugar and insulin surges accordingly, the former does not. 

Have you ever wondered how they calculate the total calories so authoratively presented on food labels?  It is burned to a charcoal crisp in a device called a bomb-calorimeter which calculates the combustible energy contained within the food.  Roughly speaking, as most chronic dieters know, 1 gram of fat contains 9 kcal, 1 gram carbohydrate contains 4 kcal, 1 gram protein contains 4 kcal, and 1 gram of alcohol contains 7 kcal.  But our body does not burn everything to a crisp, it digests and absorbs the foods we eat rather incompletely.  Hmmm…

In fact, food label calorie estimates can be off by as much as 25%. 

Another major contributing factor to the equation is we tend to under-estimate what we eat and over-estimate exercise/activity levels.  Our estimates of one tablespoon of butter or a half cup of pasta, can be – let’s be honest, somewhat generous.    Try an eye-opening experiment – actually measure your food using a food scale or a measuring cup, don’t ‘eyeball-estimate’ it.  You will be amazed how inaccurate your best truthful guess actually is. 

Like food label calorie estimates, most energy expenditure (metabolism) estimates are off from 20 – 30 %.  There are just too many variables.    

Our basal metabolic rate (BMR) – the minimum amount of energy needed to sustain life without movement or digestion accounts for 70% of the energy we expend daily.  Another 10% of our daily energy expenditure is spent on digestion and absorption of what we eat.   It’s called the thermic effect of feeding (TEF.)  (Now you know why you warm up when you eat!)  Both BMR and TEF are completely outside of our control.  It’s just our body doing what it must to keep us alive. 

One variable we can control, exercise accounts for at best 20% of our total daily energy expenditure.  It’s variable – sedentary individuals expend less, those that engage in vigorous activity expend more.  Exercise is great, we should all do it, regularly.  But keep in mind, running at 5 miles per hour (12 minutes per mile) for 30 minutes burns a grand total of ~300 kcal if you weigh ~150 pounds; walking at 4 miles per hour (15 minutes per mile) burns ~170 kcal.  It’s not as much energy expenditure as you might believe.

In addition, as you increase your exercise you increase your appetite and you eat more.  As you get fitter, metabolic expenditure decreases with exercise, your heart rate slows, it takes less effort to complete the same amount of activity. 

This helps explain why exercise, is not overly helpful for losing weight. 

It is also true, as you eat less, your metabolism slows to compensate and your body needs fewer calories to do its job keeping you alive.  In additions our digestion slows and to really add insult to injury, because our digestion is slower we actually absorb more calories.

Our hormones (not only the girly hormones) respond to our decreased intake.  Hunger hormones go up meaning we want to eat more and we have more cravings.  Satiety hormones go down, so we don’t feel satiated long. 

Furthermore, sleep deprivation (which has reached epidemic proportions in society these days) messes with our metabolism.  As does the stress mess with cortisol pumping through our system all the time.   And let’s face it, genetics has a lot to do with everything about us, including our metabolism. 

The bottom line – energy balance (calories in/calories out) is very complicated.  

Then there is the “I-deserve-this’ excuse.  You can be ‘good’ all week – three beautifully balanced meals for 5 days, then Friday night, the “I-deserve-this-I’ve-been-so-good-all-week’ excuse arrives and BAM, we inhale a plate of chicken pasta with creamy alfredo sauce, a side of garlic bread with cheese, a glass or two of wine, topped off with a piece of tasty apple crumble, effectively canceling your weekly calorie deficit with this one I-deserve-it-meal… SIGH!

So, what’s a gal to do?  Skip the calorie counts.  Start someplace, then tweak and tinker.  Follow a program – seriously follow a program.  If it works, keep doing it.  If it does not deliver the results you are after, tweak one thing.  Become an N=1 experiment, tweak, gather data and observe your results. (

Fess up to your choices. Be honest with yourself about what you actually eat and do.  You will be amazed at how much faster you reach your goals.

Own your choices.  Follow a plan.  Monitor your results.  Tweak as necessary.  Reach your goals.  No calorie counting required.

Buff it up, my friends
Dr. Karen

Are you ready to Buff Up Your Brain? Ready to, lose weight and the brain fog?  Ready to polish up your thoughts? Let’s chat.