Why Calorie Counts are Wrong: 6 Diet Myths, Busted


When I tell clients that they can lose weight by eating more calories, they often look at me like I’m either trying to trick them or I’ve lost my marbles.

But the truth is, the concept of "calories in versus calories out" is greatly oversimplified, and in my opinion, seriously outdated.

When I hear people repeat notions like “a calorie is a calorie” I like to reply: “That’s like saying a cubic zirconia is the same as a sparkling diamond.”

Here’s why, plus five more common diet and weight-loss myths.

Myth: Calories, not quality, impact weight
A University of Florida study found that people who consume more antioxidants maintain lower BMIs, smaller waistlines, and lower body-fat percentages than those with lower intakes, even though both groups consumed about the same number of daily calories–a strong indication that the nutrients calories are bundled with play a key role in metabolism. Other research has uncovered similar effects. Wake Forest University researchers found that even at the same calorie and fat levels, monkeys fed foods high in trans fat gained four times more weight and 30% more belly fat compared to animals who munched on meals made with natural plant-based fat. More evidence that eating 500 calories worth of processed or fast food does not have the same impact on the body as eating a 500-calorie meal composed of fruits, veggies, whole grain, lean protein, and heart healthy fat (cubic zirconia versus diamond).

  • Myth: The math is precise
  • This week, a Harvard professor created a buzz when she spoke out about the shortcomings of the 100+ year old formula used to determine the calorie values many people rely upon. Turns out, based on further study, several foods actually contain less, because some components don’t get digested. Incomplete digestion means that rather than being absorbed into the body, where calories have to be burned, used, or stored, some simply travel through your digestive system, to become excreted as waste. This type of analysis led to the recent insight that almonds supply about 30% fewer calories than the label states, while other foods may pack more than expected. In addition, many studies have shown that after ingestion, some foods, like ginger and chili pepper, or food patterns, like vegan diets, increase metabolic rate, triggering you to burn more calories. In short, 2 + 2 may equal 6–or 3!

  • Myth: Numbers don't lie
  • Don’t shoot the messenger, but by law, most products are allowed a 20% variance when it comes to the accuracy of the calories stated on the label. So if a frozen dinner lists 300 calories, it could actually contain over 350. If you eat several packaged foods each day, and you’re a calorie counter, you may wind up with a few hundred more than you budgeted for. And that’s for sanctioned “wiggle room.” A recent Today Show investigation found that the numbers on diet frozen treats were off by as much as 68%.

  • Myth: Counting calories is a surefire strategy
  • Can you count calories and still gain weight? Maybe. In a recent study from the University of California, San Francisco, scientists randomly assigned 121 women to one of four protocols. The first tracked their calories, keeping them to 1,200 a day. The second ate normally, but recorded the number of calories they consumed. The third ate 1,200 calories a day, but didn’t have to record them, and the fourth ate normally, without any calorie tracking. Researchers found that when calories were limited, levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, rose. And calorie counting, even without limitations, also made the women more stressed. Cortisol is known to rev up appetite, spike cravings for fatty and sugary foods, and lead to an increase in belly fat, so causing it to surge surely isn’t a smart weight-control strategy.

Myth: All calories are created equal
There are three types of calories your body needs: Carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Because each performs a unique function, they aren’t interchangeable, so getting the right amount of each is important. For example, if you ate too few protein calories and too many carb calories, the jobs that proteins do wouldn’t get done, and the surplus carb calories would get sent straight to your fat cells. This can result in weight gain, as well as the loss of muscle mass, dry, dull hair and skin, hormonal imbalances, and a weaker immune system. Too much or too little of all three calorie types can lead to unwanted side effects, so getting a certain number of daily calories, without regard to the type of food, just doesn’t make sense.

Myth: Counting calories is necessary
In one recent survey, only 12% of adults were able to accurately estimate the number of daily calories they need for their age, height, weight, and physical activity level. If you’ve overestimated your calorie needs, which I’ve seen many clients do, counting won’t create results. Or if the quality, balance, or even timing of your calories is off kilter, counting may also be futile. For these reasons and the others above, I’ve seen clients start to eat more calories and finally break a weight loss plateau, and achieve real and lasting results. I’m not saying to ignore calories completely, but don’t obsess over them. Instead, choose more fresh foods, or foods as close to their natural state as possible; strive for a balance of "good" carbs, lean protein and healthy fats to help your body function optimally; eat breakfast every day to jump-start your metabolism, eat on a regular schedule, spacing your meals about 3-5 hours apart; pay attention as you eat and stop when you feel just full enough, satisfied, energized, and ready to move on with your day. When you listen, your body is pretty good at telling you how much it needs, no math required.

What’s your take on this topic? Please tweet your thoughts to @CynthiaSass and @goodhealth

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches. Connect with Cynthia on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest

Read more: