Why Calories do Count

Why calories do count and why you should care

When it comes to weight management we can be in no doubt that 24hr energy balance is the single most important factor. In other words, if the energy that you absorb from the food you digest exceeds the energy you use through activity your body will store the excess, mostly in the form of body fat.

However, calorie equations are largely inaccurate and possibly too rigid to be applied to human metabolism, especially where energy utilisation is high, as with a physically active person like yourself.

Calorie equations may be in violation of the second law of thermodynamics according to Feinman et al (2004) although the authors of this particular study (1) did conclude that a calorie is a calorie is a good starting point in the absence of any alternatives.

The trouble with calories is that people are really bad at recording and reporting their food intake, often under reporting by as much as 50% (2). Couple this with variability in predictive equations (3) and you’re setting yourself up for failure from the off.

calories do count but should you count them?

Given the above information it would seem that counting calories is incorrect. Of course the more knowledgeable you are on the composition of foods and the better you are at identifying food groups and portion sizes the more accurate you will be. Even if you miscalculate your food intake by 20% you can still make it work, so long as you miscalculate it by 20% EVERYTIME.

But, what if numbers and maths aren’t your thing? What if the prospect of spending the rest of your life crunching numbers, inputting what you eat into a mobile app and turning every meal into maths doesn’t appeal to you? How do you take control of your food consumption?

An increase in the average size of meal portions has contributed to the obesity epidemic (4) and there’s no doubt that educating people about portion controls is efficacious (5) and for the layman simply applying portion controls can be enough to see significant improvements (6).

There’s little doubt that a combination of a calorie controlled diet and regular exercise is the most effective way to create a level of healthy and sustainable weight loss (7). Yes, there are other factors at play, particularly on the cognitive front and that is a subject that we have tackled in these blogs numerous times already.

But the education element is often overlooked and the ability to both learn and understand a calorie counting or portion control system is imperative (8).

Nutrients not calories

We often hear experts use the phrase don’t count calories, count nutrients. Well, that’s just great, as if my fitness pal wasn’t awkward enough as it is!

But, all facetiousness aside I do get that. As I have said, we don’t eat calories, we eat food and the more nutrient dense your food the better. If you nourish your body your body will feel satiated and therefore you will be less likely to over eat, thus creating a homeostatic environment in your body.

But, even healthy foods are turned into energy and it is entirely possible to get fat by eating too many avocados. Again, calories in versus calories out is a pretty good place to start.

Besides, a strict ‘clean’ diet can be quite restrictive and that goes back to the previously mentioned cognitive aspect. A diet that is boring, restrictive or over complicated isn’t a diet that you’re likely to stick to.

Flexibility for the win

A LOT has been written about flexible dieting and there is already a great article on this blog on that very subject but here’s my take on it.

So long as you are consuming a good proportion of nutrient dense foods there’s really no harm in having the odd treat but there’s a bit of a problem in the fitness world regarding ‘healthy’ treats.

One look at any popular paleo blog and you will see ‘healthy’ chocolate brownies, ‘healthy’ flapjacks, ‘healthy’ almond and coconut slices or ‘clean’ snickers bars. The idea being that making a cake from nuts, seeds, honey and a few unpronounceable south American pseudo-grains is absolutely fine because that sugar doesn’t count and neither do the calories because it’s ‘clean’.

Look, the concept of ‘clean’ eating is great. The average person who eats crap can see quite dramatic improvements in health and body composition simply by cleaning up their diet and cutting out all the processed crap. But, what happens when someone offers them a slice of cake?

“I’m sorry I only eat ‘clean’ food.”

This statement is likely to result in you wearing the cake. Now that’s not very clean.

So, how do we create a better balance? It’s simple, understanding that calories matter a lot and having a good understanding of the composition of foods is your first step.

"Understanding that calories matter a lot and having a good understanding of the composition of foods is your first step".

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You can use an equation to predict your calories, something like this:

Your weight in lbs times by 13 for a moderately active female or 14 for a moderately active male. Using myself as an example: 77kg x2.2 = 169lbs 169 x 14 = 2,371 kcal

This is a starting point for your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Personally, mine is a little higher than that but my activity levels are higher so I might multiply mine by 15 or even 16 to get a closer approximation.

This is a starting point. The equation is a prediction and, in my experience usually around 5-10% out either side of the given figure.

Alternatively, you can use your hands to offer a portion guide and a pretty good one at that, fortunately for you I have an ebook coming out soon which takes this to a whole new level.

Anyway, back to my point. Once you have worked out what your maintenance calories are and have created a deficit (10% should be enough for most) you can start to get more creative. Using the numbers above I can see that if I ate 2,000kcal a-day from ‘clean’ foods I would no-doubt get all the healthy nutrients that I need to fully nourish my body. Now I can have a little fun, 37kcal would probably allow me a pint of beer and a packet of crisps and I’m not going to get fat because I’m not going to put myself into an energy surplus in doing so.

Ninja hacks

Now, let’s get esoteric on your arses. Do you like sprite? But you know it’s got all that sugar and all those calories in it and you’re on a diet and it’s just not worth the risk. You know what? A diet sprite isn’t going to kill you. There’s been a lot written about the negative health implications of artificial sweeteners but there is no evidence in humans to suggest that there is anything wrong with them and, besides, we’re talking about one can of sprite once in a while, not 2 litres a-day!

For the record, I personally hate the taste of artificial sweeteners and choose to avoid artificially sweetened beverages for this reason but if enjoy them and are unsure about the health implications here’s a useful article written by the guys at examine.com (http://examine.com/faq/is-diet-soda-bad-for-you/).

Sugar free jelly is a popular choice with flexible dieters for creating low calorie desserts.

Protein brownies are a great treat food that can be made to offer more bang for your buck. Use sweet potato, cocoa and chocolate protein powder and you have a snack that is comparatively low in calories but high in protein and fibre meaning they will actually fill you up. Just don’t fall for the almond, coconut, date, honey and cacao calorie bomb trap.

Air popped corn is a great substitute for crisps and salted nuts and they come in various flavours from savoury to sweet. They also contain a few trace nutrients that crisps don’t, win win.

All of these things allow you to eat a diet that doesn’t feel restrictive but by choosing options that are low in calories means that you can have more of the good stuff like pork chops, avocados or peanut butter which are all nutrient dense foods which taste amazing but aren’t exactly a light option regarding their energy density.

Summing it up

  • So, in summary calories are very important but be aware that we don’t eat calories, they are just a measure of the energy created by the food we eat
  • Concentrate on nutrient dense whole foods and bulk your meals out with lots of fibrous vegetable for all that delightful nourishing nutrient density
  • Be flexible but be smart, educate yourself about calories and nutrients and apply that knowledge in a manner that fits your lifestyle
  • Experiment with calories and portion controls and find the method which fits your lifestyle and personality the best
  • Play around with low calories food options to make your diet less restrictive but no more calorie dense
  • A final note on the subject of education, you can self-educate yourself if you like and the internet is a great resource for doing this but there’s a lot of waff out there and sometimes it can get overwhelming and confusing when one article contradicts the last

Fortunately, we have your back, here at Body Type Nutrition we run a particularly awesome nutrition academy and our foundation module opens its doors again in August. Suitable for trainers, coaches, enthusiasts or even parents wanting to take control of theirs and their family’s health.

Click here


  1. Feinman and Fine. "A calorie is a calorie" violates the second law of thermodynamics - Nutrition Journal 2004, 3:9 doi:10.1186/1475-2891-3-9
  2. Litchman et al. “Discrepency between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects. Massachusetts medical Society 1992
  3. Henes et al. Comparison of Predictive Equations and Measured Resting Energy Expenditure Among Obese Youth Attending a Pediatric Healthy Weight Clinic: One Size Does Not Fit All. Nutr Clin Pract. 2013 Oct; 28(5): 10.1177/0884533613497237
  4. BJ rolls. “What is the role of portion control in weight management?” International Journal of Obesity (2014) 38, S1–S8; doi:10.1038/ijo.2014.82
  5. Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity. Research to Practice Series No. 2: Portion Size. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006.
  6. http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/z2wcbk7
  7. Overweight and Obesity in Adults2212-2672/Copyright ª 2016 by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2015.10.031
  8. Martin et al. “Empirical evaluation of the ability to learn a calorie counting system and estimate portion size and food intake”. British Journal of Nutrition (2007), 98, 439–444 

Written by Troy Martin