Calories don’t count

(versión en español: pinchar aquí)

Do calories count?

In one word: NO.

But that question is tricky. What does “count” mean? Count, for what? Speaking of what? Calories from what?

Does the law of gravity count for walking? Of course it does: without gravity it wouldn’t be possible to walk. But, do you need to know that fact to be able to walk? If someone told you that without understanding the law of gravity you can’t walk, would he/she be right? If someone told you that when you walk your body exerts a force upwards exactly equal in magnitude to the force that gravity exerts downwards, does that fact help you at all? The law of gravity doesn’t count for walking. Although it is essential to walk and it always applies.

The same happens to calories: they don’t count because they do add nothing to the main questions in nutrition, being those how to eat well and be healthy.

Do calories count when chosing what to eat?

No. Thinking about calories leads to the wrong decisions about what to eat (see).

Do calories count when trying to lose weight?

NO. Thinking in terms of calories can lead us to think that “eat less and move more” is an appropriate strategy for weight loss. And for most people it is not (see).

Does the energy balance count for weight loss (losing fat)?

NO, because the energy balance will always be satisfied, wether we get fatter or lose weight. The key to a successful weight loss is not changing the total amount of calories ingested nor changing our physical activity, but understanding:

  • How to lose body fat in the long term
  • How to avoid the undesirable changes in the metabolism and the hormonal response that often happen in the long-term

If we find the key to understanding those two aspects, the terms of the energy balance will reflect our success (see). The key to success is understanding how our metabolism works, not counting calories.

If calories don’t count, can I eat as much as I want?

I didn’t say that. What I say is that if you think in terms of calories you will probably end up eating too much and gaining weight. When you eat the right foods overeating is unlikely and possibly “harmless”. On the contrary, if you eat the wrong foods, you will probably overeat and get fat. May be you think that is the same as saying that calories count, but it is not. My point is that:

  • the foods you chose to eat are what really matters , and that
  • thinking in terms of calories is counterproductive because it leads to the wrong choice about what to eat.

Even accepting that there are people who can’t avoid overeating on a healthy diet, their problem would be eating too much food, not eating too many calories. No need to talk about calories, and since thinking in terms of calories is counterproductive, we should stop talking about them.

Many sensible people say “calories do count” and I think what they actually mean is that “gravity applies”. Saying “calories don’t count” is not a denial of universal laws, just saying that to think of them gives us nothing useful. I think the key to eating healthy, and keeping the weight I lost one year ago, has nothing to do with calories: calories don’t matter.

Biology determines calories

Read it again, because that’s the key idea: our biology determines the calories. Trying to change the terms of the energy balance doesn’t work because there are terms that are not under the control of the rider, but under the control of the elephant ( see , see ). If you want the elephant to behave in a certain way, you have to understand how it works, you have to pay attention to its reactions. Don’t ignore how it behaves when you restrict the amount of food. Don’t ignore how it reacts when you exercise (see,see). If you believe that nutrition is more a matter of mathematics rather than biology (see), you are denying the existence of the elephant. And even if you ignore its existence, it is there.

But if I eat less calories than those I spend, I will lose weight!

Are you sure of that? In the long term? Why do you ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence that says that caloric restriction and exercise do NOT work for long-term weight loss? Hundreds of scientific studies say that is not true  (see,see)

Moreover, forget the scientific evidence. Do you see people around you lose weight in the long term just doing that? Do you really think that the method works but no one follows it?

When riding a bike…

Do calories matter? No, they don’t matter. For what they are used, which is to decide what to eat, calories don’t matter.

Another analogy: when you ride a bike, unless the forces you suffer sideways are balanced, you will fall down. If one is greater than the other, you fall down. Is that important? No. It needs to be so not to fall down, but it adds nothing to our knowledge of how to ride a bike. Does any father tell their children that forces must be balanced for not falling down? Saying that it doesn’t matter is not the same as denying that those forces must be balanced. A useful tip may be to know that the speed of the bicycle helps to achieve the balance of those forces. Just thinking about the balance the forces, doesn’t help us at all. Eat well, make your bike move, and calories, forces, will get in their place. If you ride thinking about balancing the forces, you’ll end up kissing the ground. If you eat thinking about calories, you will end up obese and suffering health problems.

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