Calorie Counting Futility

caloriecounting2.jpgWhy Do I Gain Weight? Obvious isn’t it – because you take in more calories than you burn. First law of thermodynamics and all that. I don’t think there’s many people that would dispute this fact but really how practical is this as the basis for losing or maintaining weight and does it really answer the question?

Before addressing this I will give a little background to my journey to this point. This is something I’ve not talked about much, hopefully this will mean other triathletes may not follow the blind alley of calorie counting for too long.

I feel it’s pretty common that as a triathlete takes the sport more seriously they get to a point where they notice that being lighter makes them quicker. As with everything these days if something is good more must be better. So why not lose lots of weight. I definitely went through this and did it the “common sense” way of counting calories.

Following Kona 2005 I started getting very interested in nutrition. My calorie counting wasn’t making a huge amount of sense. The logic seemed irrefutable but the practise didn’t seem to match. I read widely and became intrigued by low carb. Calorie counting was regularly stated as though it was fact, ‘common knowledge’ but what bugged me was that whereas when reading about low carb there was always scientific references and clear cases of people it had helped, when it came to calorie counting this was never the case. Almost like the advocates felt it was so obvious it didn’t need proof (this even includes the Food Standards Agency!). I figured why not just track calories in and out and compare it to actual weight. I had a training diary that had my weight each day which I used to estimate my basal metabolic rate. I recorded all my activities so I could systematically estimate my calories burnt for those. I had my hours of sleep so I could then work out my remaining hours (non sleep, non training) and estimate the rate for them (slightly over basal). Bingo – calories burnt. I then bought books and found website for food calories. I built a neat little spreadsheet which effectively had a DB of my foods and it was easy peasy to estimate calories eaten. I also tracked carbs.


2006 graph of estimated weight vs actual, fat% and “carb binges”

Then I had a cool graph that showed my actual weight verses my estimated weight using cals in vs cals out. It seemed to work for a period as a general trend but day to day it could be way off. There could be al-sorts of reasons for instance water drunk. It did make me think and as I’d started to read more about nutrition I was coming round to the idea that perhaps it wasn’t this simple, perhaps what I ate was important. In particular carbohydrates. I decided to track these. Specifically, i’d noticed while calorie counting I’d be good for a while but every so often I’d completely indulge in carbohydrates. At this time I’d become a questioner but my beliefs still gave a strong nod to the low fat dogma (I’m not trying to be unbiased here!) so i was eating low fat. It seemed to me that my will power could stick to this for so long but would then cave and I’d binge. What was interesting was that without fail if I binged my weight would shoot up the next day and the longer I stuck to calorie counting and low fat the more frequent these binges seemed to get. Again … could be a simple answer to the weight gain that there’s extra water retention when I have so many carbs. The thing was that over time as I had more binges my estimate vs actual got worse and worse – I was progressively getting heavier than what would have been predicted. By the final quarter you can see the estimate stopped being recorded. i’d given up on it … for once there had to be an easier way.

Thats enough history for now. Back to where we started.


You’ll see in my description everything was an estimate. So when I said no-one would dispute that weight is added because more calories are taken in than come out of the system that is trivially true but for it to be of use in weight management you’d need to be able to accurately measure them. When people talk about just 110 cals surplus a day adds up to ~1lb per month, 12lbs per year, 120lbs in 10 years you can see we’d need to be accurate. Lets start with the easier one:

Calories in

So we can get all the data from books and packages BUT remember these themselves are estimates since they can’t burn the food you’re about to eat to tell you exactly what calories it has. Then the amount you eat is going to be an estimate, even if you’re anal and weigh stuff you can’t do it for everything – how many calories in that latte, that biscuit I had in that meeting. Does cooking the food have an effect ? How to you accurately estimate a casserole and such like ? How does alcohol effect all of this. By calories in what do we mean – the calories we eat or the calories absorbed through your digestive system. I can’t believe our digestive system is 100% efficient. If we count those we eat (easier) then we have to take account of whats not absorbed in the calories out (not sure thats even possible).

Now for the toughie…

Calories Out

We start with basal metabolism which unless you sleep in one of those special rooms which calculates gas exchange every night then this is an estimate for sure. It’s probably different dependent on size and muscle mass. There’s probably al-sorts more. What if you’re hot or cold during the day? Have an illness. What if you’re sat at a desk all day, stood up for your job. How much sleep you had. Seems that that could easily be out by 100s of calories straight off the bat. So now to exercise. You can log your hours, average HRs even use gadgets that tell you your calories burnt but those are clearly estimates. I know that my power meter will give different calories from my heart rate monitor. As for machines in gyms I think their calorie counting is skewed to be motivational (ie they err on the side of over estimating), so much so that if I used that to decide how many mars bars I could eat post session I’d be gynormous by now. Then there’s the thermic effect of food (I’ll come clean I took this in to account in my little calorie counting DB !) ie certain foods expend more calories in being digested. Of course, this is an estimate as well. Finally, does our basal metabolism just stay the same. Logic to me would suggest it can adjust a little to burn up surplus calories or slow down in the absence of enough (my weight estimate would back the latter up) and seeing as most wild animals are not overweight and don’t calorie count (to my knowledge) I imagine the metabolism can adjust to take account of small excesses.

As far as I’m concerned calorie counting is really just like sticking your finger in the air to test the wind speed. If it really worked as simple as this then weight watchers (and their ilk) would have innumerable success stories. If it really works then people would only have to go 14 weeks of 500 cal a day deficit to lose a stone in weight (14lbs ~6.4kgs). In fact, next time you see one of these stories, look closer and see whether it proves that calories in vs calories out is really that simple. A typical example would go something like this:

Here’s Steven Lord he followed Low Fat Diet B for 6 months maintaining a calorie deficit of 500 cals per day. He lost 10lbs. What a success. Wait a minute 500 cals for 6 months … now thats 91,000 cals deficit. So 3,500 cals per lb of fat means he should have lost 26 lbs. Something else was clearly going on.

There appear to be so many people counting calories that if it worked we’d be tripping over examples of people losing and maintaining this weight loss but in fact we have an ever growing obesity epidemic. You don’t need research to feel pretty sure of this, you just need to walk down any high street and look.


Does Calories out vs Calories in answer the question of WHY we put on weight. Lets face it it doesn’t. A nice analogy I read was that if someone asked you why your local restaurant is so full and you told them “it’s because more people are entering than leaving” they’d think you were a smart alec since it just doesn’t answer the question of WHY are more people entering than leaving.

So our weight gain conversation should go

Q: why am I putting on weight?

A: because you are eating more calories than you are using

Q: yes thats obvious, but why am I eating more than I’m using

A: thats because you’re not doing enough exercise

Q: but why am I wanting to eat more than I should for the exercise I’m doing?

THis is the crux of the issue. Why is my body telling me to eat more than I need. By stating it this way we can see that exercise has little to do with it as the problem is your body is demanding more than it needs (for the level of exercise it is doing). We keep telling people it’s because they’re eating too much and exercising too little. They don’t have the will power to resist. I see these people in gyms and I feel for them. They are in an environment I’m sure most don’t want to be but they’re forcing themselves to do it. These people have will power. It’s not lack of that. The problem is our body evolved to ensure that ultimately hunger will force us to eat unless no food is available. I’ve proved to myself (see the graph and speel above) that will power only lasts so long. I’ve also proved to myself that your weight has next to nothing to do with your level of exercise. I know of occasions where I’ve put on weight doing 40+ hour weeks (eating lots of carbs) and where I’ve lost a tonne of weight eating massive amounts (purely meat and salad).

The reason for this is hunger. You exercise and you get hungry. The exercise just increases your desire for food, perhaps not immediately but it does. A more astute answer to why am I putting on weight is “because you’re hungry too much” but that still begs the question why.

Wild animals don’t seem to get fat and I don’t believe our ancestors would have been fat. it would seem bizarre if this mechanism of hunger and satiety didn’t actually work. So whats stopping it? I believe its the food we’re eating. We’re pushed with this low fat (hence high carb) diet and it just doesn’t satisfy. We’re told that carbs are good because they have less calories per gram and fats are bad because they have a lot but this completely ignores the effect on your hunger (it also ignores the effect it has on your hormones and how they are processed – more on that later). You could demonstrate this to yourself – get a load of hard boiled eggs (or chicken breast or steak) and then  sit down and eat them till you really don’t feel like eating any more. Then sit down with a load of biscuits or lots of cereal with your nice skimmed milk (I’m not recommending this for your health but to prove the point we want LOW FAT milk) or even go for endless slices of toast with some lovely sugary jam on top or pasta with a nice tomato sauce or pizza. Keep eating that till you really couldn’t manage another slice of toast or whatever. I’m imagining for a lot of you the eating of the second items will be a lot more than the first even at the first sitting. But thats not it for these experiments (probably they need to be days apart) just see how long it is before you feel like you could eat more and go for it again. Carbs are easily over eaten, they just don’t stop you being hungry for long. [I’m not seriously proposing you do this. It’s an illustration and most people could imagine that the boiled eggs will fill them pretty quickly but toast is something you can just eat and eat and eat]

Carbs get your body kicking out insulin – this is the hormone that tells your body to store fat. This switch to storing fat means you stop accessing your fat so when the sugar in your blood is used up you feel hungry again. On top of this if you eat a big load of carbs (cereal, skimmed milk, toast and jam for breakfast anyone ? more or less 100% carb) the massive insulin spike removes the sugar giving you a sugar low later sending you craving for the carbs again and the cycle continues.

Low carb, high fat on the other hand doesn’t go getting your body sending out tonnes of insulin. It has your body switched to using your fat stores. So after your meal you can still draw on your fat stores, you don’t get big fluctuations in blood sugars and you don’t feel hungry. So despite you eating less calories than you’re burning YOU DON”T FEEL HUNGRY Why? because your body is getting the extra calories it needs from your fat stores. Your body is not in need of more energy so it’s doesn’t send the hunger signals.

Re-read that – you’re NOT HUNGRY because your body is burning your fat as an energy source. You body is getting the fuel it needs so you don’t get those hunger pangs. Of course, on your low fat diets you’re just told the hunger is a sign you’re burning fat; put up with it (I used to believe this). In fact the hunger is a sign you’re not burning fat. If you resist it long enough then you’ll probably get beyond hunger (ie you’re bodies finally switched to fat burning) but most people probably don’t have ( and shouldn’t need) that sort of will power.

For those that want to read more on this do a search on Ketosis – this is the name for your body being in fat burning mode. Unfortunately it’s often confused (surprisingly often by the ‘experts’) with Ketoacidosis which is a life threatening condition associated with Type1 Diabetics. There appears to be a lot of evidence that being in ketosis is the natural state. To me this would make sense … our ancestors would need to able to head off hunting first thing after waking even if they hadn’t been able to get a slice of toast and jam down first.

I certainly like my carbs once in a while but now I view highly processed carbs as the most unhealthy thing in my diet. I know that when I keep my carb intake in check my sweet tooth disappears, my cravings for food disappear and even when training hard I rarely feel hungry between meals.

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1 Response to Calorie Counting Futility

  1. Pingback: Nutrition For Ironman Training And Improving Body Composition | EverydayTraining

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