As you and millions of
other people embark on new dietary journeys, you’re going to hear
a ton about calories.
“Calorie counting is everything.”
“If you aren’t counting calories, you won’t lose
“Just eat less calories than you expend.” For one, it’s
“fewer.” Two, that’s not the whole picture.
These statements aren’t wrong exactly, but they offer an
overly simplistic picture of the relationship between weight loss
and calories. They ignore context. And context is everything,
especially when you’re talking about calories and weight
Most people (even many scientists) believe that the body
composition challenge is a relatively simple equation: to lose
weight you must reduce calories (either eat less or burn more), to
gain weight you must add calories (eat more or burn less), and to
maintain weight you keep calories constant (eat and burn identical
amounts). Calories in over calories out.
Right away, it sounds preposterous. Are people really
maintaining perfect caloric balance by dutifully tracking and
comparing their intake to their burn? Are they walking six fewer
steps lest they lose an extra ounce off their midsection?
Are All Calories the Same?
The truth is, it’s more like a complex equation where
you have to factor in many other very important
- Am I getting calories from fat, protein, or carbs?
- Am I getting my calories through whole foods or refined
- Are my glycogen stores full or empty?
- When’s the last time I exercised?
- Am I insulin-sensitive or insulin-resistant?
- Am I trying to lose “weight” or lose fat?
- How’s my stress level?
- Am I sleeping enough?
The answers to all those questions (and more) affect the
fate of the calories we consume. They change the context of
Ideally, all that complexity is handled under the hood. That’s
how it works in wild animals. They don’t calorie count. They
don’t think about what to eat or how to exercise. They just eat,
move, sleep, and somehow it all works. I mean, they die, often
violently, but you don’t see obese, metabolically-deranged
wildlife—unless the obesity and metabolic derangement is
physiological, as in bears preparing to hibernate. Somehow they
figure it out. They’ve delegated the complex stuff to their
This is generally true in “wild humans,” too.
Hunter-gatherer groups by and large
did not and do not show any evidence of metabolic derangement,
obesity, or the other degenerative trappings of modern humans
living in civilization. They are fully human in terms of
physiology, so it’s not that they have special genetic
adaptations that resist obesity. They’re living lifestyles and
eating diets more in line with our evolutionary heritage. They’re
moving around all the time, not going through drive throughs.
They’re eating whole unprocessed foods that they have to procure,
catch or kill.
What they don’t have is the ridiculous concept of calories and
macronutrients floating around in their heads, informing their
dietary choices. They don’t even think about food in terms of
calories, or movement in terms of calories expended. Metabolically
speaking, they consume their calories in the proper context.
But you? You might have to think about context. You might have
to answer those questions and create the proper context.
Most people do not think about context. They home in on
the number of calories the food database claims the food they’re
eating contains, plot it against the numbers of calories the
exercise database claims the exercise they’re doing expends, and
then wonder why nothing’s working. That’s why
“dieting doesn’t work”—because, as practiced in accordance
with the expert advice from up high, it doesn’t. Almost
invariably, the people who see great results from strict calorie
counting, weighing and balancing, those types who frequent online
weight lifting forums and have the freedom to spend hours
perfecting their program, have the other relevant variables under
control without realizing it.
They’re younger, with fewer responsibilities—and less stress
and fewer disruptions to their sleep.
They’re lifting weights and training religiously, creating
huge glycogen sinks and maintaining optimal insulin
They’re eating a lot of protein, the macronutrient that curbs
hunger and increases energy expenditure the most.
They’re eating mostly whole foods.
They’ve had less time on this earth to accumulate metabolic
Not everyone is so lucky.
Fat burning, glucose burning, ketone burning, glycogen storage,
fat storage, gluconeogenesis, and protein turnover—what we do
with the calories we consume—do not occur at constant rates. They
ebb and flow, wax and wane in response to your micronutrient
intake, macronutrient intake, energy intake, exercise and activity
habits, sleep schedule, stress levels, and a dozen other factors.
All of these energy-related processes are going on simultaneously
in each of us at all times. But the rate at which each of these
processes happens is different in each of us and they can increase
or decrease depending on the context of our present circumstances
and our long term goals. All of these processes utilize the same
gene-based principles of energy metabolism—the biochemical
machinery that we all share—but because they all involve
different starting points and different inputs as well as different
goals or possible outcomes, they often require different action
plans. We can alter the rate at which each of these
metabolic processes happens simply by changing what and when we eat
and addressing the non-dietary variables. We can change the
But don’t controlled trials demonstrate that a “calorie is a
People hear things like “in controlled isocaloric trials,
low-carb diets have never been shown to confer a metabolic
advantage or result in more weight loss than low-fat diets.”
While often true, they miss the point.
People aren’t living in metabolic wards with white lab coats
providing and precisely measuring all their food. They’re living
in the real world, fixing their own food. Free living is entirely
uncontrolled with dozens of variables bleeding in from all angles.
In the lab situation, you eat what they give you, and that’s
that. The situations are not analogous—real world vs. controlled
In real world situations…
Why a Calorie Isn’t Just a Calorie The macronutrient composition
of the calories we eat alters their metabolic effects.
The metabolism of protein famously increases energy expenditure
over and above the metabolism of fat or carbohydrate. For a given
caloric load, protein will make you burn more energy than other
Protein is also more satiating than other macronutrients. Eat
more protein, curb hunger, inadvertently eat less without even
trying (or needing a lab coat to limit your intake).
Protein and fat together (AKA “meat”) appear to be
even more satiating than either alone, almost as if we’re meant
to consume fat and protein in the same meal.
The isocaloric studies tend to focus on “weight
loss” and discount “fat loss.” We don’t want to lose
weight. We want to lose fat and gain or retain lean muscle
mass. A standard low calorie diet might cause the same
amount of weight loss as a low-carb, high-fat diet (if you force
the subjects to maintain isocaloric parity), but the low-carb
approach has been shown to increase fat loss and enhance muscle
gain. Most people who lose weight with a standard approach end up
losing a significant amount of muscle along with it. Most who lose
weight with a low-carb, higher-protein-and-fat approach lose mostly
fat and gain or retain most of their muscle.
Take the 2004
study that placed overweight men and women on one of two
diets: a very low-carb ketogenic diet or a low-fat diet. The
low-carb group ate more calories but lost more weight and more body
fat, especially dangerous abdominal fat.
Or the study from
1989 that placed healthy adult men on high-carb or high-fat
diets. Even though the high-carb group lost slightly more body
weight, the high-fat group lost slightly more body fat and retained
more lean mass.
Both describe “weight lost,” but which is healthier?
Whether the calories come in the form of processed or whole food
determines their effect.
We even have a study that
directly examines this. For two weeks, participants either
supplemented their diets with isocaloric amounts of candy (mostly
sugar) or roasted peanuts (mostly
fat and protein). This was added to their regular diet. After two
weeks, researchers found that body weight, waist circumference,
LDL, and ApoB (a rough measure of LDL
particle number) were highest in the candy group, indicating
increased fat mass and worsening metabolic health. In the peanut
group, basal metabolic rate shot up and neither body weight nor
waist size saw any significant increases.
Your current metabolic state determines the effect of calories.
In one study, a
person’s metabolic reaction to high-carb or low-carb diets was
determined by their degree of insulin resistance. The more insulin
resistant a subject, the better they did and the more weight they
lost on low-carb. The more insulin sensitive a subject, the better
they did and the more weight they lost on low-fat. Calories were
the same across the board.
In another study,
insulin-sensitive obese patients (a rarity in the general
population) were able to lose weight on either low-carb or low-fat,
but insulin-resistant obese patients (very common) only lost weight
Whether you exercise determines the effect of calories.
If you’ve just finished a heavy lifting workout followed by a
sprint session, your response to a given number of calories will
differ from the person who hasn’t trained in a year.
Training: Your muscle glycogen stores will be
empty, so the carbs you eat will go toward glycogen storage or
directly burned, rather than inhibit fat burning. Your insulin
sensitivity will be elevated, so you can move protein and carbs
around without spiking insulin and inhibiting fat release. You’ll
be in hypertrophy mode, so some of the protein you eat will go
toward building muscle, not burned for energy.
Not Training: Your muscle glycogen stores will
be full, so any carbs you eat will inhibit fat burning and be more
likely to promote fat storage. Your insulin sensitivity will be
low, so you’ll have to release more insulin to handle the carbs,
thereby inhibiting fat burning the process. You won’t have sent
any hypertrophy signals to your muscles, so the protein you eat
will be wasted or burned for energy.
How you slept last night determines the effects of calories.
A single night of bad sleep is enough to:
Give you the insulin resistance levels of a
diabetic. Try eating carbs in an insulin-resistant state
and tell me a “calorie is a calorie.”
Make the reward system of your brain light up in
response to junk food and dampen in response to healthy whole
food. The more rewarding you find junk food, the more your
brain will compel you to eat more of it.
Reduce energy expenditure. Your “calories
out” drops if
you sleep poorly.
And those are just a few important variables that determine the
context of calories. There are many more, but this post has gone on
The Take-Home Message
If calorie-counting works for you, great! You’re one of the
lucky ones. Own that and keep doing what you’re doing. You’ve
clearly got a good handle on the context of calories.
If calorie-counting and weighing and measuring failed
you in the past, you’re not alone and there’s a way forward.
Address the variables mentioned in this post that need
addressing. Do you need better sleep? Do you need to
manage stress better? Could you eat more protein or fat, eat more
whole food and less processed food, or get more exercise, or lift
more weights, or take more walks?
Handle those variables, fix those deficiencies, and I bet that
your caloric context will start making more sense. The trick
isn’t to increase the number of variables you plug into your
calories in/calories out formula. It’s to make sure all
your lifestyle and dietary ducks are in a row so that the caloric
balance works itself out.
By understanding how these metabolic processes work, and knowing
that we can control the rates at which each one happens through our
diet (and exercise and other lifestyle factors) we needn’t
agonize over the day-to-day calorie counting. As long as we are
generally eating a PB-style plan and providing the right context,
our bodies will ease into a healthy, fit, long-lived comfort zone
So, what’s your caloric context looking like? Thanks for
reading today, everyone.
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***This article was substantially revised from the original
version, which you can read here.