Calories are Stupid and 6 Reasons Why


grapes, blackberries, raspberries, kale, cheese, shrimp, potatoes

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. This is a topic that is important to me because it’s really shaped my belief system as a dietitian and it’s also something that makes me quite a bit different from many in my field. The topic is calories. And the idea is that they’re stupid.

Raise your hand if your life has ever been controlled by calories.

[I’m raising my hand.]

When I was studying to be a dietitian in college, I was taught that calories are king and calculating calories for patients or clients is the first thing one must do to solve just about any weight or nutritional problem. We would even do projects that involved calculating our own calorie requirements and we’d keep food diaries to figure out if we were falling in line with a simple math equation that involved our age, height, weight, and activity level. A simple math equation that explained how every individual’s extraordinarily complicated metabolism was working.

I would go to the grocery store and read every label, looking only at calories, and would fill my cart with 100 calorie packs, sugar-free everything, nonfat dairy and chicken breasts. God forbid I ate real bacon. I would kill myself at the gym 6 days a week for at least an hour a day [calories in, calories out!]. I was 10 pounds heavier when I was working out 7-10 hours/week and eating low-calorie everything, than I am today, spending 30-40 minutes at the gym 4-5 times a week and pouring (lots of) heavy cream in my morning coffee.

God forbid I ate real bacon. 

“But Megan, you drank copious amounts of alcohol in college.”

Fine, then fast forward a few years when I wasn’t in college. Same story, less alcohol. Ten more pounds.

And then I stopped following what the world and the media was telling me about calories and started thinking for myself. I did the research, I read a lot and I started questioning some of the things I had been taught. I quit looking at calories and starting looking at ingredients. And I started eating real food: responsibly raised meats, full-fat dairy, fresh fruits and veggies at every meal, healthy fats like avocados, nut butter, real butter, potatoes and other starchy vegetables and even certain types of rice and pasta.

So, why are calories so stupid?

1. A calorie is not a calorie – The “a calorie is a calorie” theory seems to make so much sense on a basic level, but if you dig deeper, it doesn’t. Our bodies process fat, protein, and carbohydrates completely differently. Take it a step further – hydrogenated oils, saturated and unsaturated fat, fiber, sugar and resistant starch are all metabolized in different ways. Our bodies aren’t math equations, guys. They’re biology projects. Read on.

2. Biology trumps math.When you drink a bunch of water, you pee out the fluids that you don’t need. Your body’s pH stays relatively stable at 7.4 despite all the acid-forming and alkaline-forming foods we pump into it. You regulate your body temperature at a fairly constant 98.6 degrees by making or releasing heat. Just take a moment and check out the number of ways our bodies maintain homeostasis [balance] here. So, why do we think we can control our body fat using math to count calories? We can’t. We have to eat foods that our body wants (real foods) so that we can support our metabolism and give it the fuel it needs to burn fat and give us energy. When we do that, our body takes care of the rest by feeding our cells and tissues and burning fat. We don’t have to restrict and count to get there.

3. Cutting calories gives false hope. Everyone reading this is either someone or at least knows someone who dropped weight at some point by restricting calories. Did you or the person you know keep it off? Probably not. Several studies have shown that eating less and exercising more doesn’t work long term, and one study in particular showed that a whopping 95% of people trying to lose weight by eating less and exercising more were not successful over a 3 year period. By restricting calories, we tell our bodies that we are in a situation where food is not available so our metabolism slows down. Way down. This is why yo-yo dieting exists and is so incredibly frustrating for millions of people. Why do we continue to do this to ourselves?!

4. It’s all about hormones. Yup, I said hormones. Not calories, not fat grams, not exercise. Just hormones.  From now on when you hear the word “metabolism” think “hormones” because it’s hormones that regulate our hunger and satiety. Every time we eat an excess of refined carbohydrates [white bread, pasta, processed foods, sugar, sweets], a rush of sugar enters our blood. Our bodies don’t favor a lot of extra sugar floating around, so it releases the fat-storing hormone insulin to store that extra sugar as fat. Hm. That sounds pretty terrible. That sounds exactly like that we DON’T want to happen. How do we prevent this? Quit eating so many refined carbohydrates and fake food. (But Megan, you just said you still eat pasta. Read on.)

5. Think about protein, healthy fat and fiber-rich carbs. Stop thinking about calories, and start thinking about what matters – fat, fiber-rich carbs and protein. Fat and fiber both slow down that rush of sugar that comes from eating carbs, thus lessening the insulin response and causing less sugar to be stored as fat. Protein keeps us full, and it also supports lean muscle tissue, which in turn revs up our fat burners. Healthy fat is also a key player in maintaining a healthy metabolism and does not trigger an insulin response. AKA – fat doesn’t make us fat. So, when I say I still eat foods like certain types of rice and pasta, I’m always eating these foods with lots of protein, healthy fat and other fiber-rich carbs (aka vegetables) along with it to ease the release of sugar into my blood. And, I’m eating these types of foods in very moderate amounts.

6. Quality over quantity. This is my final and most important reason why calories are stupid. Quality food trumps number of calories every. single. time. Look guys, this post isn’t titled “calories don’t count” or “calories aren’t real.” They are real and they do count. But they don’t count nearly as much as eating quality food. If you consistently stuff yourself until you nearly throw up eating chicken breasts, you’re probably going to gain weight. But why the f*ck would you do that? No one does that. That’s something you do with Doritos because Doritos are made of refined carbohydrates and the more we eat them, the more we crave them. Plus, I’m fairly certain Doritos are sprinkled with crack.

So, how has counting calories become the mainstream way to lose weight?

Two words: Food Industry.

As long as we believe “everything in moderation!” and “as long as it fits in your daily calorie goal”, the food industry wins. Of course they want us to think that those 100 calorie snack packs are good for us because they’re low calorie.

Of course Coca-Cola wants us to think that sugar water can be a part of a balanced diet. These companies have far more money than the scientists that disprove their messages every day, so we don’t hear them. But now you know. Quit counting and knit a sweater or something.

Are you shook?

If you’re like “holy sh*t, Megan, this makes so much sense, tell me more, tell me more…”

I want you to LIVE. Counting calories and spending all your time in the kitchen sucks, and it’s really the entire reason I created the 30-Day Metabolism Makeover. I also have this crazy good free webinar that I created all about cravings and why we have them and how to biologically stop them in their tracks (using science!).

Let me tell you, forgetting your calorie counting app and applying science to your diet instead of math is FREEING. And it WORKS. And as much as it’s a catch-phrase these days, it really is a lifestyle. It allows an incredible amount of flexibility in your diet and your life. Also, definitely check out PHFF! Healthy Eating is Stupid Easy and The Blood Sugar Diet for more goodies on this topic.

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  1. Pragati says:

    GREAT article! I love it. It’s so important to realize that all calories are not created equal.

  2. Alyssa says:

    This article is so perfect!

  3. Rene says:

    You killed it with this one, Meg. I never look at calories anymore, just sugar content.

  4. Meghan says:

    Amazing Article.

  5. Travis says:

    As a diabetic, everything you said makes a lot of sense. Great article.

  6. Steven says:

    You make the comment about people who “Yo-Yo” diet putting the pounds back on, that’s because from experience they generally don’t tend to stick to their exercise routine whilst also looking at what they eat. The world is full of people who follow these “get ripped quick” plans and expect things to happen overnight and then when it doesn’t they just go back to their old sedentary lives and it puts them at square one.
    I doubt the pounds you put on was ALL fat either, refined carbs make our body hold onto more glycogen which leads to excess water weight. I get that you’re trying to encourage people to eat more healthily but there’s a reason that IIFYM is popular with some of the biggest sportstars and fitness models worldwide.

    • Steven – so first of all, great comments. I absolutely agree with everything you’ve said. I think dieting in general is awful (maybe my next post is “dieting is stupid”) and unless you adopt a lifestyle, it’s nearly impossible to maintain a weight loss. And yes, actually every gram of carbohydrate holds 4 grams of water – cutting carbs flushes water almost immediately. But, an excess of carbs over and over throughout the day continuously triggers rushes of insulin which as I’m sure you know, means fat storage in most people. And you’re right – I’m just trying to encourage people to eat healthier (and quit counting shit) and cut out the garbage.
      Now, IIFYM. Totally appropriate for athletes and fitness models! I have close personal friends who thrive on IIFYM that are fucking ripped. But, most people are not in this category. Those people have completely different metabolisms and are burning sick amounts of calories – their job is basically to turn their body into a science project and that is what IIFYM is for. I didn’t get into this, and I do think maybe I should have, but that kind of counting is not healthy, mentally, for the majority of people. I know many people view is as “flexible dieting” and that works wonderfully for some, but I’m not a nutritionist that promotes counting anything. I work a bagillion hours a day and I don’t have time for that shit. (and, I tried IIFYM for nearly a year bc I was so bound and determined to make it work. But I couldn’t because I’m totally sporadic about working out and I nearly lost my mind logging macros). Thank you for your input!

  7. Marli says:

    Thanks for Seth Rollins for sharing this article.. Now I will start a better diet, because I’m exercising but having trouble eating the right food.

  8. Leigh says:

    As someone who had a major weight loss and maintained it by dieting the right way. This was very refreshing to read!

  9. Sym says:

    This article was awesome. Thank you for writing it as I too have researched and long ago decided counting calories was fruitless and pointless. 🙂

  10. bryce says:

    Nick Curtis is the man. Unrelated note: Great article, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Now back to Nick being the man…….

  11. Javier says:

    Sweet article :)Seth Rollins brought me here lol.
    I’m a vegetarian and still eat junk food lol. Im going to quit junk food after thanksgiving and reduce eating processed foods. I don’t need to lose weight, I’m already very thin. I just want to be healthy and start cooking healthy meals. For sure I’ll be following your blog and learn recipes from here 🙂

  12. Amy says:

    Wonderfully written article! I’m currently dietetic intern and I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said. It’s so refreshing to see a dietitian spreading these truths. Definitely bookmarking this for the next time anyone asks me why I don’t eat bread! 🙂

  13. Audra says:

    I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this: http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/11/08/twinkie.diet.professor/

  14. ELSIE says:

    I’m 40. I never have, and never will, counted a calorie. I never cared about them, nor believed in them, and never had a weight problem. I also never believed in diets, any fad diets, other than sensible eating until you’re comfortable (not gorged full) and physical activity. I’ve never gone to a gym. I never bought the nonsense they sold us over the years. That aspartame was better than sugar. Margarine was better than butter. Dairy was bad, eggs were bad, everything was bad for you and they’d give you artificial substitute foods. Even as a teenager, I never believed any of it, I disliked fake foods like spreads and margarine, couldn’t stand artificial sweeteners, and never believed in eating “low fat” products. Over the years, one by one, the myths of low fat, sweeteners, calories, etc have turned out to be just that, nonsense. Common sense has served me well. And at 40, without being nutty about it, I’ve stayed extremely well, never a health problem, I’ve stayed healthy, and even fit. I think worrying about it all too much is the biggest problem. Love your self, love your body, use common sense, and don’t believe every fad that rolls along.

  15. Dan says:

    Why I agree with most of your article I would like to point out one small thing. The only beef I have with these “Eat as much healthy food and you’ll never get fat!” articles is that they are completely false. Now I’m not saying that was the premise or point of your article, but after reading the comments and the article itself it’s easy to see that most people are going to walk away thinking that.
    FACT: You can gain fat from eating too many calories (Healthy food or junk food)
    FACT: Your body will store excess calories as fat. Whether it’s from 3000 calories of yams, broccoli, and chicken, or 3000 calories of snickers.
    FACT: Most normal people will not consume enough healthy foods to gain fat. It’s not very practical, but possible.
    FACT: Calories exists (you acknowledged that) and are one of the BEST ways to judge and calculate your daily food intake for specific weight loss/gain goals.

    Not everyone is obese or at their optimal weight. For someone trying to loose a few pounds of fat, or even gain muscle mass it doesn’t make any sense to completely throw out calorie counting.

    Calorie counting is not the be-all and end-all of a healthy lifestyle, but it is certainly not stupid…It has it’s place.

    I don’t think you are really trying to bash calorie counting for everyone, but rather the majority of people that really don’t need it. I do agree that the large majority of individuals looking to lose a significant amount of weight will benefit more from replacing the addictive foods in their life (refined sugar and carbohydrates) with healthier alternatives. I just hate seeing the opposite side of this argument left out.

    🙂

    • Dan – I get that. I think I come from a place of man, it really sucks to have to obsess over calories all the time, let’s focus on healthy eating and putting good stuff in our bodies before we worry about counting anything. I work with so many people (females, primarily) who obsess over calories but then sit at their desk and stuff “low fat” pretzels in their mouth for a snack. My main goal of this article was just to get people thinking a little differently about “dieting”. Thanks for the comment!

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