Calories In Calories Out: Why the Math Doesn’t Add

April 11, 2016
Calories in calories out

In your efforts to achieve or maintain a healthy weight, you’ve likely heard of the approach of “calories in calories out.” As per the approach, what you eat and drink in a day is your “calories in” and the amount of energy your body uses is your “calories out.”

As a math equation (which it effectively is), following the calories in calories out approach to achieving a healthy weight should ideally looks like this:

Calories in – calories out = 0 or less

So basically what you want to aim for is to get the equation to equal zero, or a negative number (negative would mean that you burned more calories than you ate/drank). That also means that if the number is anything above zero, you’ve eaten/drank more calories than you used, which means that the remaining energy will be stored – and you’ll gain weight.

Makes perfect sense, right?

I wish. True, it “makes sense” from a math-based, logical point-of-view; however, the human body – and all of its wonderful, beautiful, and amazing capabilities – is much more complicated than a basic math equation we can easily complete in our mind.

Realistically, weight management is less like this:

a – b = c

And more like whatever the hell this is:

(∀+ b3) x g2 – [α / c Π x (Ω + d%) – y] x em = maybe?

The thing about calories in calories out, and the reason it’s so popular, is that it turns an extremely complex riddle (the human body) into something we can use a calculator to find the answer to.

But the reality is much different, and it’s a reality that can be difficult to accept, especially as beings who have evolved to avoid ambiguity and gravitate towards simple, straightforward, sure-things.

While it remains partially true that eating more calories than your body uses will cause you to gain weight, there are a gazillion other things that factor into the equation. And in fact the calories in calories out mindset for weight management can lead to behaviours and beliefs that actually make it harder to get where you want to go, and sustain it when/if you get there.

Here are 5 big fat reasons why the math of calories in calories out just doesn’t add up.

Calories in calories out = equality of the calories

Striving for equality is worthwhile cause, but not in the case of calories. The thing about calories is that our body reacts differently to calories from different macronutrients (i.e., fats, carbs, and proteins). I’ll explain more about this throughout the blog, but the main takeaway is that eating 1000 calories of French fries versus 1000 of steel cut oats versus 1000 of grass-fed butter versus 1000 of chicken wings all have different effects on the body that can’t be expressed as a simple math equation.

It’s also true that whole food calories have a different effect than processed calories. Processed foods can cause things like inflammation, hormonal imbalances, insulin spikes, psychological effects, and more – all of which have an effect on weight gain.

Hell, even something like a mug of black coffee, at a whopping 2 calories, can cause weight gain if you drink it at night and miss out on a restful, body-repairing sleep.

Bottom-line: All calories are not created equal.

Calories in calories out = anytime eating

Some schools of thought hold that eating 5 or 6 small meals in the day is the best for weight management, since your body never goes into “starvation” mode (and thus stores fat to prevent you from dying).

Another school of thought disagrees with this approach, believing that fasting is healthy for your body, and that this so-called “starvation” mode is your body’s chance to become fat-burning adapted, focus on repairing its billions of cells, and generally giving your digestion system a much-needed rest.

Both schools of thought have a point. Both “make sense” in their own way.

While I am partial to the second approach (called intermittent fasting) because I find it works well for my body, the point is that calories in calories out is flawed when you approach it without considering the timing and frequency of when those calories go in, in relation to when they go out. For example, drinking a high-calorie protein smoothie while I’m sitting idly at my desk is much different than drinking that exact same smoothie immediately after a high-intensity workout.

Bottom-line: Timing and frequency are everything.

Calories in calories out = a trick and a treat

Calories in calories out tricks us into thinking that we can “treat” ourselves to whatever we want as long as we just get enough exercise to counteract it. Sure, I’ll have fries with my burger instead of salad tonight, and then tomorrow I’ll run 2 extra km.

It just don’t work that way, my friend.

Most fitness and nutrition enthusiasts use the following ratio to loosely explain how much your weight is determined by what you eat in comparison to how much you exercise:

Your weight is determined by:

  • About 80% what you eat
  • About 20% how much you exercise

While I will always recommend incorporating exercise into your lifestyle because of its life-changing benefits, if your weight is what you’re most concerned about, focusing on what you eat will get you 80% further to achieving your goal then focusing on how much exercise you do.

Bottom-line: Your weight is primarily related to what you eat.

Calories in calories out = fat-phobia

Since we bought into calories in calories out, we’ve been running like hell from fat towards low-fat foods. This is (partly) because, per gram, fat is higher in calories than its friendly counterparts (carbs and proteins). While this is, indeed, a math fact, what it doesn’t account for is the biological fact that our bodies react differently to calories from fat than they do does calories from carbs or protein.

This is precisely the reasoning that fuels the belief that drinking butter coffee in the morning (when your body is in a fasted, fat-burning state – which it is every morning when you wake up) can help you to lose weight. On the flipside, eating the same amount of calories split between a bowl of oatmeal and a half a cup of butter coffee would mean that your body switches over to burning carbs for energy, and thus stores the fat from the butter as energy* to be used another day…

…a day that never comes.

The fat-phobic society we’ve become has been starving our bodies from the much-needed fat it needs to function, and replacing that fat with processed carbs and sugar, as well as fake, processed fats.

Bottom-line: Our fat-phobia is making us fat.

Calories in calories out = false control

When we buy into calories in calories out, a wave of relief washes over our bodies because it bestows us with a misguided belief that basic math will set us free. Calories in calories out is effectively a sleazy salesperson telling you exactly what you need to hear in order to buy a product that doesn’t work.

This is probably the most detrimental side effect of following calories in calories out. It is an unfortunate reality that the human body and its functions operate outside of our ability to understand them on a day-to-day basis – for the most part. Sure, we can do science experiments that provide us with insights, and we can intensify our own awareness of our body through mindfulness, information recording, and education.

But for the most part, we can’t always figure out what’s going on in our body as an expression of a basic math equation – and accepting this becomes a daily effort when you set weight management goals for yourself.

Bottom-line: Weight management is an ongoing effort of trial and error.

So, if you can’t buy into calories in calories out, what other approaches are available?

Over the years I’ve tried many different approaches to achieving a goal weight and maintaining it. Some of them have worked, others have worked a bit, and others have not worked at all. While I’d like to emphasize that I’m not a nutritionist,** nor do I have any fitness/health related certifications, here are a handful of approaches that have worked for me:

  1. Intermittent fasting, working out in a fasted state, and macro-nutrient cycling. You can read more about my experience with IF here, and more about what I mean by macro-nutrients here.
  2. Eating more: leafy green vegetables, pre- and probiotic foods, soups (liquid fills you up), steamed/poached foods, raw foods, whole foods.
  3. Eating less: inflammatory foods (wheat, dairy, processed oils like soy and canola), sugar, most types of fruit (stick with apples and pears only), alcohol, snacks (eat a meal, then stop eating until your next meal), processed carbs.
  4. Cutting out beige-coloured meals: your meals should be green with a sprinkling of beige, not beige with a green-coloured garnish.
  5. Drinking lots of water.
  6. Getting good sleep! Admittedly, I have sleep difficulties sometimes, but part of that is anxiety about not getting enough sleep because I understand its importance to maintaining a healthy weight (among a million other things).
  7. Understanding that my body isn’t in constant need of caloric intake. Honestly, you are so full of stored energy – you were designed that way by evolution.

In addition to all of these approaches, it’s equally important to work with your body rather than against it. We have the tendency to approach weight loss and management as a practice that requires us to trick our body into doing what we want it to do. On the contrary, your body wants to have a healthy weight; it wants you to eat nutritious and delicious food; it wants you to feel good about how you look and feel.

Your body is your friend, and just as you would treat a friend with kindness, so too does your body deserve kindness. Leave the heartless math calculations in the classroom where they belong and approach weight management as a gift you are giving yourself and your body, each and every day.

*It’s a bit more complicated than I’ve explained it here, but the general idea is that our body burns carbs first as energy (and, to a lesser extent protein) before it burns fat.

**I also take what nutritionist’s say with a grain of salt as their knowledge can be outdated (from my experience). But again, I’m not an expert by any stretch, so anything and everything I say here is anecdotal and based on my personal experience – that said, anything you might try based on what I’ve written here, please do so at your own risk. 😉

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