The science behind counting calories

The myth of “calories in versus calories out” just doesn’t want to die! Calories are a part of the picture but the conventional weight loss idea puts way too much emphasis on the importance of energy (or calories).

Assessments on people’s lifestyle and nutrition have revealed that many are vitamin and mineral deficient. Their body is in a state of crisis, they are loaded with toxins and have ground their metabolisms down.

We should be focusing on consuming a nutrient-rich diet and forget about counting energy (calories) because if your body is healthy and in balance you will naturally feel full and not over consume.

The math

The calorie theory states that 454 grams of fat contains 3500kcal of energy. Therefore, to lose 454 grams of fat you simply need to eat 3,500 fewer calories than your body needs to lose 454 grams of fat. Full stop.

First, calories are not an exact number. These are general values expressed across entire food groups.

Second, and more importantly, human basal metabolic rates (calorie expenditures) are all predictions. The only way to measure exact BMR is with a gas analysis machine.

To use a weight and height formula to accurately estimate the energy output of a human’s cell is never going to be exact. Two people could be the same height and weight but of totally different composition and extremely different metabolisms.

Let’s face it – the whole premise of counting calories is to reduce consumption by a few hundred calories to lose weight. What if the formula produces a number that is a few hundred calories incorrect?

The biology

Let’s forget about these glaring issues regarding energy values and look at how the body responds to a reduced calorie intake.

Your body doesn’t know that you are trying to diet. It thinks you have been stranded in a remote area and been forced into a life-threatening starvation situation and it tries to look after you – to survive.

Your body is in survival mode when you work in a calorie deficit, so it needs to “dump” the part of you that uses the most energy. This is lean muscle.

Your body hangs on to the fat (a) because it uses up less energy and (b) because it is going to be a valuable reserve if you are “stranded” for a long time.

Our bodies are programmed for survival. Weight can reduce quite rapidly to start with, but then our bodies adjust to the food deprivation and having fewer calories.

We then lose lean muscle, store fat, and our metabolism will slow down dramatically. Our body’s ability to survive will always win through.

Francis Benedict, in 1917, was the first person credited to conduct calorie deficit experiments.

Researchers have shown that the Francis Benedict study, and every subsequent study where a calorie deficit has been created by a human, the outcome has been “some weight loss, accompanied by immense hunger and tiredness with an overwhelming desire to want to eat more and do less”.

These studies show that “weight loss has never matched the 3,500 formula – over even a short period of time. It has never even come close and weight regain has been observed every time,” comments Zoe Harcombe, one of the UK’s leading dieticians.

Harcombe’s research points to the The Minnesota Starvation Experiment, in 1945, as being the definitive study.

“36 men were put on a 1,500-1,600 calorie a day diet with a moderate walk scheduled each day. They lost a fraction of the weight that the 3,500 formula would have predicted.

The men turned into hungry, miserable, food-obsessed shadows of their former selves. Within six months, researchers found it increasingly difficult to induce any further weight loss, even dropping calorie intake to around 1,000 calories a day.

Some men started regaining at a calorie level that should have seen them continuing to lose weight. Within weeks of the conclusion of the experiment, the men had regained all weight loss, plus about 10%,” states Harcombe. Does this resonate with anyone?

Unsubstantiated theory

The numbers make sense but our body is simply not a number cruncher. Harcombe asked the British government and health authorities to explain the theory and the responses were amazing:

The British Dietetic Association commented that they do not hold information on the topic.

Likewise, the National Obesity Forum didn’t know anything either yet they quoted the 3500 formula on their website.

The Department of Health responded that they were “unaware of the rationale behind the weight formula”.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence also could not explain the rationale of this conventionally accepted myth.

The key advocates of the calorie formula, The Dieticians in Obesity Management stated, “A key to all of this is that weight loss doesn’t appear to be linear, any more than weight gain is.”

Now if this doesn’t prove that the calorie formula is an unsubstantiated myth, what will? No leading agency has any idea where this founding piece of diet advice comes from or supports its validity yet it’s in all their literature.

The fact is there is almost a century’s worth of crushing evidence that the calorie theory doesn’t work. But our society holds onto it for dear life. The mantra of “do more, eat less” for weight loss seems to be only making society fatter.

It’s time for a recount, more crucially to start counting more important dietary elements.

This article first appeared in and was written by Phil Kelly, a fitness expert. The Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.