Quentin McCree
Article by: Quentin McCree
Estimated 13 minutes read

If you've started counting calories, you may wonder if all calories are created equal. Maybe you're looking for foods with zero calories but don't know what is true or false. 

Many common calorie myths can make counting calories an ineffective way to lose weight. The best way to use calories to lose weight is to be aware of them but not obsess over them. 

Read on as we bust those calorie myths.

Counting calories digital image

What Are Calories?

Product labels explain how many calories are in their products. People have daily caloric intake numbers. But what exactly are calories? Calories are a unit of measurement used to express the nutritional value of foods. They are units of energy that foods and drinks provide our bodies. 

People first defined calories in the 19th century. The amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of a kilogram of water from 0 to 1 degree Celsius is one kilocalorie (kcal). One calorie is made up of 1,000 smaller calories called gram calories. In essence, the calorie shows us how much energy a food will provide our bodies. 

Calorie is not a universal term. In some parts of the world, calories are referred to as kilojoules. The name for this energy process was changed to joules in the 20th century.

Each of the three major macronutrients that we eat each day (carbohydrates, fats, proteins) contains calories. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, experts recommend men have a daily calorie intake of about 2,000-3,000. 

However, the number of calories you need will vary depending on your BMI, height, physical level, and whether you're trying to increase muscle. 

Counting Calories Myths

Many people count calories to achieve weight loss. People also keep track of their calories to help them gain muscle. It can be an effective method to meet your goal, but there is a lot of misinformation out there that can make it more difficult for you to achieve a healthy weight. 

Here are some common negative calorie myths.

Myth #1: All Calories Are the Same 

A calorie is a calorie, right? Well, that's not exactly true. Even though a calorie is a unit of energy, based on whether that energy is a carb, protein, or fat can make a difference in how your body metabolizes it. This distinction is crucial when counting calories for effective weight management.

The thermal effect of food (TEF) is the number of calories burned based on the metabolic requirements that a specific food takes to digest it. You burn more calories digesting some foods than other foods, which is an important factor to consider when counting calories. 

For example, if you eat 100 calories of protein, you will absorb about 75 calories and use 25 calories to metabolize that protein because it has a 25% thermic effect. So, in this example, you are burning a good number of the calories you consume.

However, based on the type of food you eat, the TEF can vary greatly, especially in processed foods. A person's age and physical activity may also affect their TEF rate. 

The type of calories you eat is more important in this case. If you have 100 calories of soda, you are loading your body with sugar, which can increase your risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Simple carbohydrates such as granulated sugar cane are digested by the body more quickly than complex sugars. These can spike your blood sugar faster, leading to hormonal imbalances and more fat accumulation.

In contrast, complex carbohydrates take longer to digest and gradually release glucose into your bloodstream, making it easier for your body to regulate. For example, white bread is easier to digest, so your body doesn't have to spend as many calories breaking it down. In contrast, whole-grain bread takes your body longer and uses up more calories. 

Myth #2 There Are Negative Calorie Foods

You may have heard that celery has negative calories. Some people even think that eating only celery all day will help them to lose weight. However, this is a weight loss myth. Celery does have calories, it is just low in calories. Some of these calories are burned during digestion, but this does not result in negative calories. 

Some fad diets may suggest you eat one low, zero, or “negative” calorie food to lose weight quickly. Eating only one type of food is bad for your body in a couple of ways. One, trying to eat only one food to lose body weight can lead to unhealthy thinking about food and eating disorders. Second, only eating one type of food can keep you from getting all of the health benefits that food variety offers. 

Fruits and vegetables often have fewer calories; they also provide your body with many vitamins and minerals that improve your overall wellness. However, your body needs both foods high and low in calories. It's all about the type of calories. A balanced diet is the best way to lose weight and improve your overall health. 

Foods that are high in calories but still nutritious are healthy fats such as eggs, nuts, avocados, and seeds. It is important to understand that healthy eating is about making healthy choices and eating from all of the food groups rather than thinking about all calories as the same. 

Myth #3 Nutrition Labels and Fitness Trackers are Accurate

Misleading Labels

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), manufacturers can be up to 20% off with their label numbers and still comply with the law. A product may say it has a certain number of calories, but it may have more. Some studies suggest that many prepackaged foods have more calories than it says on the label. 

These additional, unaccounted-for calories can add up, leading to more difficulty with weight management. 

Misleading Fitness Trackers

Another place where you can be led astray is by relying too heavily on fitness trackers. Many treadmills or other exercise equipment will have a readout that estimates the amount of calories you burn while using them. These trackers often overestimate or underestimate how many calories you actually burn. 

When you pair an inflated sense of how much you've burned with an incorrect number of calories consumed, you can end up eating too many calories and not burning enough to lose weight. 

Fitness apps that you use to count calories can also be misleading. Many of these apps suggest people eat 1,200 calories a day, but this is not the average. You may lose weight rapidly, but this is an unsustainable way to live. Most adult bodies need more calories than this each day. Those calorie needs differ based on your age, weight, sex, physical activity, and lifestyle.

However, if you eat a really low-calorie diet, your body's metabolism will slow down to compensate for having less energy. It will also affect your hormone balance, cravings, and energy levels.

Essentially, it is impossible to calculate your calories accurately. So, it is better to be aware of calories and focus on eating a diet that consists of 45-65% carbohydrates, 20-30% fats, and 10-35% protein. You should also focus on adding more whole foods, lean proteins, and healthy fats to your diet. You can improve your food choices by making simple swaps in your day-to-day meals and increasing your activity level when counting calories.

Myth #4: You Need to Have a Calorie Deficit and Count Calories

So, this nutrition myth is complex because parts of it are true. To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume, but your body often compensates when it notices a reduction in the number of calories you consume. 

Bodies are remarkable. They can control how much energy is taken in based on how much we eat. When we significantly reduce our calories, our body thinks it needs to slow down the energy intake to put our bodies in survival mode. This is a mechanism meant to aid with human survival during food scarcity. 

Some research also suggests that we are genetically predisposed to have a set point weight, and our bodies are continually trying to maintain that specific weight no matter how much we try to change it. 

Our bodies may suppress how full we feel or change how we process, store, and burn fat, which can get in the way of weight loss.

Many people also suffer from chronic diseases that can alter the way their body metabolizes food. Thyroid and hormone issues are common causes of difficulty getting rid of tough body fat.

The bottom line is that the complexity of weight loss makes calorie counting a difficult way to lose weight and maintain a healthy diet. It's a good starting point, but it is better to eat healthy foods and have a balanced diet to prevent weight gain. 

Understanding that certain foods have more calories than others is not a bad thing. We should be aware of how many calories we take in and aim to eat close to our daily recommendation, but obsessing over and tracking down to the most minute calorie is not the best method for effective, long-term weight loss. 

Myth #5: Calories In, Calories Out is All That Matters

The Simplistic View

A common myth in weight loss is that all you need to do is burn more calories than you consume. This "calories in, calories out" approach suggests that managing weight is simply about tracking and reducing calorie intake. However, counting calories in and out is overly simplistic and overlooks the body's complex biological processes.

Insulin: The Hidden Factor

According to Dr. Jason Fung and his book 'The Obesity Code,' insulin is a key player in weight regulation. It is a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels and fat storage. When you eat foods high in refined carbohydrates and sugars, your insulin levels spike. This not only signals your body to store fat but also prevents it from using stored fat for energy. Frequent insulin spikes can lead to insulin resistance, a condition where your body's cells become less responsive to insulin, further promoting fat storage and making weight loss difficult.

Not All Calories Are Equal

Dr. Fung highlights that different types of calories have different effects on your body. For example, 100 calories from sugary snacks will impact your insulin levels differently than 100 calories from protein. Protein has a higher thermic effect, meaning it requires more energy to digest, which can boost your metabolism. In contrast, sugar rapidly spikes insulin, promoting fat storage.

The Metabolic Response

When you drastically cut calories, your body adapts by lowering its metabolic rate to conserve energy. This survival mechanism makes long-term weight loss challenging as your body becomes more efficient at storing fat and less efficient at burning it. This is why many people experience weight loss plateaus and regain lost weight despite maintaining a calorie deficit.

A Holistic Approach

Dr. Fung advocates for a more comprehensive approach to weight management. Instead of just calorie counting and focusing on calorie reduction, it's crucial to consider the hormonal impact of foods. This can be achieved by reducing intake of refined carbs and sugars, eating whole, unprocessed foods, and incorporating intermittent fasting to lower insulin levels and promote fat burning.

The "calories in, calories out" myth simplifies the complex nature of weight loss. By understanding the role of insulin and the differing effects of various types of calories, you can adopt a more effective approach to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. Instead of just counting calories, focus on the quality of calories and the hormonal responses they trigger to support long-term weight management and overall health.

Man jogging in the morning out on the race track

What Are Other Methods To Lose Weight?

Many of the bodily processes we perform each day, such as breathing, thinking, circulating blood, etc., burn many of the calories we consume each day. To lose weight, it is more important to focus on becoming more active to increase your metabolic rate and burn fat. This is achieved through better nutrition and the right type of exercise. 

If you aim for a moderate intensity of 150 minutes of exercise each week, sleep well, eat better quality food, and reduce your stress levels, you will notice the difference. Cortisol, the stress hormone, can affect your body in several ways, including causing weight gain. 

You should also make sure that your gut has a healthy microbiome. The types of organisms that live in your gut can affect how your body absorbs food. To maintain a healthy gut, limit processed foods, drink plenty of water, eat fermented foods and foods high in fiber, and make sure you are diversifying your diet. You can also take probiotic or prebiotic supplements to aid in gut balance. 

Some medications may also cause weight gain. If you put on some weight after switching to a new medication, you may wish to consult with your healthcare professional about switching to an alternative drug. 

Even with all of these strategies, sometimes we need help losing weight and getting healthy. In this case, it is good to seek out a nutritionist or registered dietitian to give you the guidance you need. Professionals can help you come up with sustainable and effective strategies.

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Conclusion: Counting Calories

Calorie counting can be a useful starting point for weight loss goals, but it's not the only factor to consider. The best way to achieve a healthier body is to focus on exercise and a balanced diet. Myths, such as all calories being the same or that some foods can be solely eaten to lose weight, often mislead people.

Dr. Jason Fung's insights reveal that understanding the hormonal effects of different foods, particularly the role of insulin, is crucial. Misconceptions about the accuracy of nutrition labels and fitness trackers can lead to poor choices regarding weight loss.

Don't obsess over calorie counting. Look at the quality of calories consumed and how they affect your metabolism and hormones. Use calorie counting as a tool to start on a path to healthier choices, but prioritize whole, unprocessed foods, regular physical activity, and overall well-being for sustainable weight management.

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