Have You Been Lied To About Counting Calories?

how many calories to eat

What if a calorie is not the best measure of how much energy we obtain from food?

This certainly would shake up the whole field of diet and nutrition, since it is so calorie focused.

Even my Macro Solution System focuses somewhat on calories!

I recently stumbled across a new book that actually challenges the widely accepted notion of using the calorie as a suitable measure of how much we are eating.

As a certified nutritional coach, I try to keep an open mind when it comes to different viewpoints since I firmly believe there isn’t one best answer for ALL dieters.

The book is called, The Fallacy Of The Calorie: Why The Modern Western Diet Is Killing Us And How To Stop It by Cardiologist, Dr. Mike Fenster.

Dr. Fenster was nice enough to take some time to answer a few of my questions about his book and concept.

Can you tell us the top reasons why you believe a calorie is not a good measure of food consumption?

The answer to that lay in the very definition of the calorie. Many people assume that a calorie is the measure of energy that we derive from the food we eat. However in actuality, a calorie is a thermal unit that is defined as the amount of heat required to raise 1 kg of water 1°C at an assumed pressure of 1 atmosphere.

To calculate the caloric value of the substance, it is completely incinerated and the amount of heat produced from turning the substance to ash is then recorded.

Therefore, a calorie does not accurately reflect the energy that a food provides for us, it completely disregards how we metabolize different foodstuffs and speaks absolutely nothing towards the quality of the food and its nutritive worth; which is perhaps the most important variable in determining food value.

Which scientific studies support your theory?

In my forthcoming book there are hundreds of references and studies for the interested reader to peruse at their leisure. Therefore in such a discussion as this, it is difficult to highlight one or two particular papers.

However, one particular paper published by Ebbeling and colleagues in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012 bears commentary.

In this study people consumed exactly the same amount of calories but ate three distinctly different diets. Measures of metabolism and markers of inflammation were recorded. Each of the three different, restrictive diets produced distinctly different physiologic effects.

In the book, I also address the role of the human gut microbiota or gut microbiome in the role of health and disease and how it is affected by the qualitative constituents of our diet.

This is an area of intense research is already yielding striking findings like the recently published study in Nature. In this study consumption of artificial sweeteners was linked to the development of abnormalities in handling glucose; the hallmark of diabetes. However, the researchers were able to show that this was mediated through an alteration of the gut microbiome.

If counting calories is a fallacy, how should dieters track their food consumption?

I think this question highlights a common misperception. If someone needs to lose weight, then they need a program and they need to diet; using the word in its verb form.

However, eating healthfully, which tends to bring one to their appropriate weight anyway, is about choosing quality ingredients as the basis of their diet; using the noun form. Choosing quality food and emphasizing food value makes calories irrelevant.

Which foods do you believe are the leading cause of disease and obesity?

These are the foods that compromise the modern Western diet. They are highly processed, prepackaged, and prepared foods that makeup over 50% of what people in this country consume.

They are energy-dense and nutrient-poor and can generally be classified as greasy meats and sweet treats.

What’s the single most important healthy eating advice you can offer?

The answer is simple; literally. Eat simply. Eat as much high-quality, fresh, wholesome food that you can. Try to know where your food comes from and how it was produced.

Make sure a large portion of it is green.

If you read the label and it sounds like a description that belongs on the Science channel, and not Food Network, put it back.

Dr. Mike makes a lot of good points but as a nutritional coach, I have helped quite a few clients that “eat clean” but were still overweight. Healthy foods can be energy-dense too, especially avocados, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Therefore, simply telling people to eat as much nutrient-dense foods as they want and their weight will somehow align wouldn’t be accurate based on my experience working with real people.

I certainly agree with him about eating nutrient-dense foods and greatly limiting the greasy meats and sweet treats, however, I think that this can be challenging for those just getting started to a whole healthy eating lifestyle.

Most people need some perimeters and an understanding of the energy value a particular food is estimated to provide and the energy needs they have based on their stats and the amount of movement they do.

Counting calories or macros can be a good starting point for those who don’t understand how much they are eating in comparison to how much their body actually needs. This is good training for better intuitive eating like Dr. Mike suggests, which takes practice.

So while I agree that calories aren’t the only measure we should be using to determine the types of foods we eat, they do help us with determining our estimated energy balance which is key for losing fat or gaining muscle.


fallacy of a calorie - FensterDr. Mike Fenster, “America’s Culinary Interventionalist,” is a Board Certified Cardiologist, chef, and martial artist.

His cutting-edge medical expertise and insight, culinary talents and dedication to fit living convene in his uniquely integrative Grassroots Gourmet™ approach to food-born health.

Ted Kallmyer is an ISSA certified Specialist in Fitness Nutrition and is our lead macro coach. If you need help reaching your weight loss/fitness goals see our personal coaching options.
Last Updated: December 17, 2019

12 Comments

  1. TonyK

    Counting calories is a good way for people starting out to see just how much they are over-eating. The thermic effect of foods as well as the hormonal responses elicited by certainly macro-nutrients certainly does play a factor. But to say that we’ve been “lied to” (or are these not the author’s words?) or that calorie counting is not a good measure of food consumption is disingenuous and reeks of using alarmist tactics to sell more books.

    Obviously one wants to be healthy and eat whole foods, but it’s not ONE OR THE OTHER. Counting calories and making healthy selections are all important components toward being healthy. Let’s not create these types of false dichotomies and pretend we have discovered something earth-shattering.

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    • Daniel Wagle

      Great post. Another point is that when we figure out “nutrient density” of a food, we have to consider the quantity of calories in the food. It is the quantity of calories/quality of nutrients. The calories are the amounts of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in the food. The quality is measured by micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, etc. To calculate nutrient density, quantity of calories is not at all irrelevant.

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  2. Daniel Wagle

    Here is study http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2780863/ in which the calorie deficits were matched and which brought identical weight loss. it states, “Significant weight loss occurred in both groups (P < 0.01), with no difference between groups (P = 0.40). " There are numerous studies which match calorie deficits and which get the same weight loss result. If weight loss is the same with the same quantity of calorie deficits, how can Fenster claim that quantity of calories is irrelevant? However, the health outcomes were somewhat different in this study. Same calorie deficits often get the same weight loss, however more often than not, not the same health results. For instance, the low carbohydrate diet increased LDL and HDL, but the low fat decreased both. Quality of calories becomes much more important for health outcomes. I would agree very much with Fenster in terms of health outcomes, but not in terms of weight on the scale. I lost a lot of weight by counting calories without eating an esp. healthy diet 5 years ago. Since going into maintenance mode four years ago, I have continued to count calories, WHILE paying attention to and improving the quality of calories. Recently I have lost more weight, even though I have not decreased calorie consumption. Eating better has also decreased toxic hunger. I also have far fewer colds than I used to and my cholesterol readings continue to improve. Also, I am a member of the National Weight Control Registry and I called Graham Thomas of this and asked him how many persons in this registry continue to track their diet. He said about half do continue to do so. Fifteen years ago I lost a lot of weight by counting calories, but when I stopped, I gained all the weight back. This time, I continued to count as well as to exercise everyday, and I haven't gained back even one ounce AND I am even thinner than I was 4 years ago, when I went into maintenance phase. 95% of the population regains all their weight within five years, so why knock something that works for me as well as half the persons in the National Weight Control Registry? This study http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080708080738.htm showed that those who tracked their diet lost twice as much weight as those who didn't. Of course, they didn't just pay attention to the quantity of calories, but also the quality such as eating a lot of fruits and vegetables.

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  3. spectra311

    I want to meet the author of this book and give him a big fat kiss on the lips for saying what I’ve known to be essentially true for years. As a microbiologist, I know that our gut flora has a lot to do with how we digest our food and some bacteria in our guts actually feed on certain foods and metabolize them so we don’t get the calories from them. The trick is, it has to be real food. You’ve probably heard “prebiotics” used as a term before and it refers to the food material you eat that feeds/supports a culture of probiotics in your gut. Eating a lot of processed food provides very easily absorbable sugars/fats for your body to quickly suck up in the intestinal lining. We forget that digestion in and of itself is a calorie-burning process and by eating real foods, we force the gut to actually work, which does not happen when we eat processed food. Once I cut way back on processed food, I not only could stop counting calories, I stopped getting colds and lost weight fairly effortlessly. I know that it’s almost impossible to cut processed foods out entirely, so what I do now is to count the calories carefully in candy/sweets/etc. but when it comes to veggies, fruits, and certain lean proteins, I don’t count them.

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  4. JamesF

    Interesting stuff. As suggested in the post, counting calories is a good way to get a handle on how much you are eating. Also to help you understand where a lot of your energy intake is coming from.

    However I do find it amazing that some people (like Daniel) can continue tracking calories for years. Clearly it works for some people, but it is not as simple as made out to be.

    I did track and count calories for a season. The result was I became quite obsessive about food and it almost took over my life. Much better to eat more intuitively.

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    • Daniel Wagle

      After awhile, it became very non time consuming to do this, since I basically know most of the food values. Now, my object is continuously improving the quality of my diet. . I had so many health problems from being obese, such as very high cholesterol, that I think being “obsessed” is small price to pay for being a lot healthier. For instance, my cholesterol numbers are virtually ideal now, they weren’t before. If I could rely on “intuition,” I would never have been obese in the first place. An obese person’s appetite regulation is often thrown out of whack, and therefore they can’t rely on intuition. However, even when I count calories, I have to be intuitive to know just how many calories I can eat in a day. And there are some days that I do rely on intuition, such as going on trips and going out to eat, when I don’t count calories. Also, I think that processed foods do trip up appetite regulation, but counting calories has really helped me to cut down on this, because I think about what I put into my mouth. It stops “mindless eating.” But improving my diet has cut down on excessive hunger. Probably if someone ate only whole foods, their intuition would be a lot more accurate.

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      • JamesF

        Do you ever have anything with artificial sweeteners?

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        • Daniel Wagle

          I only drink diet coke and only one can every two days. I used to drink a lot of them, but have cut down recently. I don’t use artificial sweeteners on things, actually real sugar, such as in coffee and oatmeal. Adding a little sugar to one’s food is a lot better than eating sweets, which have far more calories than a teaspoon of sugar would have. I agree with Ryan. If a person counts calories, they don’t have to eliminate any food group. They only have to budget their calories for the food. Weight Watchers is sort of calorie counting (it takes other factors into consideration in their point system) but this system allows persons to eat anything as long as they stay within their points. I eat a lot of nuts which have a lot of calories. I budget my calories for them and don’t gain weight. My experience is that my weight on the scale is VERY responsive to the calorie intake level. Exercise plays a role in that I can lose and maintain weight on a higher calorie intake level than if I wasn’t exercising. Quality of calories helps in that a person can be satiated on a lower calorie intake level than they would be if they only ate junk food. Eating a lot of high fiber and nutrient dense foods helps. I have been able to eat some sweets everyday and stay thin for the last four years, because I count calories. Maybe a good approach is to count calories, but maybe allow 10% of calories to be budgeted for a treat. What also might be better still is to count ALL nutrients, including calories, such as at https://cronometer.com/ I don’t do this, but I make an effort to track nutrients in my head, such as calcium, protein and the like. I eat a plant based diet, so I have to be a bit aware of such nutrients as calcium, B12, iron and zinc. My blood levels are good in this. I have read some posts on other blogs of persons who have had success in controlling diabetes and cholesterol by carefully tracking and measuring their food and correlating this with their sugar and cholesterol levels. My cholesterol level used to be very high and I found there was a correlation between my weight and my cholesterol level.

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      • spectra311

        See, this is my theory on intuitive eating–we as a species are designed to eat until we’re full. When you eat things like veggies and fruits, you naturally fill up without eating too many calories. When you bring the processed foods into the equation, they give you more calories than what it takes to stretch your stomach out enough to make you feel full. I tend to fill my stomach up with things like veggies and then I portion control and count my “treats” and it’s very much easier to not overeat them.

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        • Ted

          I totally agree with your theory and logic.

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    • Ryan

      I actually find counting calories to be less stressful, after an adjustment period. I don’t have to wonder if I’m eating too much or too little; I can swap in some occasional ice cream or whatever and know its effect is neutral, or I can try out a new recipe for something without changing my energy intake. I look at calorie counting as a tool to make my diet as enjoyable and varied as possible without worrying I’m throwing anything off.

      Controlling calorie balance is also critical to training. Performance/recovery goes up/down with surplus/deficit, and training programs are written with a certain balance in mind.

      Reply
  5. Daniel Wagle

    I started out by counting calories and it helped me to lose a lot of weight. In maintenance, I have continued to count calories and this has really me not regain even one pound. Counting calories also makes me think about the quality of what I am eating. Quality of calories is very important, but if I never tracked what I ate, I never would have been able improve the quality of my diet.

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