Is Calorie Counting Really the Answer?

Is Calorie Counting Really the Answer?

By Stephen Brenna, Pn1

Is Calorie Counting Really the Answer?

Calories in vs. calories out: Eat more than you burn, gain weight.  Burn more than you eat, lose weight.

Sounds as simple as can be, yet there's arguably no topic of greater debate in the health and fitness industry.

Many contend that it really is as simple as C.I.C.O. If you aren't losing weight, you need to either eat less, or move more.  Period. 

However, others argue that there are cases where factors like genetics, hormones, sleep, stress, or certain health conditions make C.I.C.O. invalid.  "Yea ‘eat less, move more’ is easy for you to say! But my body/situation is different because *insert reason*".

So which side is right?  Well, both actually.  But how could that be? 

To begin, C.I.C.O. alone is a bit of an oversimplification.  A better way to describe it is "energy in vs. energy out", aka the Energy Balance Equation.  Now you may be thinking, isn't that the same thing?

Not exactly.  When people refer to calories in vs. calories out, they're often referring only to calories ingested from food vs. calories burned via exercise.  And while both of these factors are certainly crucial in augmenting body weight, the equation is a bit more complicated than that.

Ultimately, if you are putting in more energy than you're putting out, you WILL gain weight.  Or lose weight, or stay the same, depending on which direction the equation is shifted.  That said, there are many factors that could impact the amount of calories someone ingests and how their body utilizes them.  Along the same lines, "energy out" goes far beyond the calorie burn read out on your treadmill or wearable device. 

When it comes to factors affecting energy in, we must consider the following:

-Hormones that affect appetite

-The type of food someone is consuming

-How many calories are actually absorbed (which is not necessarily the same amount as how many are ingested)

-Psychological factors that drive eating behaviors such as stress, mindset around food, self-esteem, sleep quality, etc

For example, blood levels of the appetite-curbing hormone leptin vary person to person, and obese individuals may develop increased resistance to leptin's effects and are therefore more prone to overeat.  As for the type of food consumed, factors like palatability, availability, income status, culture and education may all come into play. Certain foods are "hyper-palatable", and are more likely to be overconsumed.

In addition, the amount of calories contained in a food is not necessarily how many our body absorbs, and can change based on style of food preparation, age, and an individual's gut microbiome.  Lastly, emotional and psychological factors may play a major role in someone's relationship with food and their motivations to consume or not consume.

As for energy out, we must take into account:

-Energy burned via exercise

-Energy burned via non-exercise activity (NEAT)

-Energy burned at rest

-Energy burned through metabolizing food (ie the Thermic Effect of Food)

While calories burned through exercise may be the biggest contributor to energy out, that output can vary greatly based on exercise intensity, duration, or a person's physical abilities.  Non-exercise activity thermogenesis, aka NEAT will depend on individual factors like occupation, leisure activities, and health status.

Energy burned at rest and energy burned via metabolizing food are relatively minor contributors to overall caloric expenditure.  However, when a few hundred calories in or out can mean the difference between achieving a goal weight or falling short, they still matter!  And these factors may fluctuate based on body size, dieting history, sleep, and the macronutrient make up of food consumed.

So, it's not quite as simple as "burn more than you eat". At the same time, no one's body defies biology. If you aren't seeing the results you're looking for in terms of weight loss or gain, the answer will be found in energy balance. That answer may just be a bit more complex than how much you're eating and how much you're exercising.