When I was a kid in the 1960s, nutrition labels were pretty much non-existent. People who wanted to lose weight usually just put a little less food on their plates and cut out the obvious offenders, like desserts and potatoes. If you actually wanted to know exactly how many calories were in your food, you had to go buy a book.  Almost nobody did … but amazingly, there were fewer fat people.

Now nutrition labels are everywhere, but there are more fat people. I’m surprised the proponents of the Lipid Hypothesis didn’t leap to the obvious conclusion: nutrition labels must make people gain weight … I mean, just look at the correlation.

You’d think this little bit of history would convince the high priests of the Holy Church of Accepted Advice For Living A Long And Healthy Life that accurate calorie-counts aren’t the key to losing weight. And of course, you’d be wrong. They’re still convinced it’s all about counting calories. Take a look at this video:

Ohmigosh, the calorie counts on restaurant meals and pre-packaged meals are off by an average of 18 percent! Horrors! No wonder we’re all waddling around these days. This study naturally received a lot of media attention; evil restaurants making us fat and all that. Here’s my favorite headline, from this online article about the study:

Study: Restaurants Lie About Calorie Count

Ah, I see:  they’re lying to us!  That’s quite an interesting slant, especially since the article itself included this paragraph:

The researchers and other experts aren’t accusing restaurants and food companies of trying to deceive customers. They said most of the discrepancies can be explained by variations in ingredients, portion sizes and testing methods. For example, the teenager behind the counter might have put too much mayonnaise on one sandwich.

I guess journalism school ain’t what it used to be. But if I get started on media bias, I’ll be writing for days, so back to the “experts” in the video …

They’re convinced the inaccurate calorie counts are making us fat. The co-author of Eat This, Not That — one of the many worthless diet books out there — even warns us that being off by 18% could result in gaining 30 to 40 pounds per year.

Wow! Imagine diligently counting your calories for a full year and ending up 40 pounds heavier. You’d be so shocked by the inexplicable weight gain, it would never even occur to you (after, say, gaining the first 20 pounds) to cancel out that extra 18% by thinking to yourself, “Hmmm, my calorie limit might be a little too high. Maybe I’ll reduce it a bit.”

But even if people were actually that stupid, Mr. Eat This Not That’s calculation is based on these assumptions — not a one of which is true:

  • People religiously count calories, and continue counting calories even if they gain 40 pounds in a year.
  • People eat nothing but pre-packaged food and restaurant meals and therefore depend on precise calorie counts.
  • Our metabolisms never adjust to what we eat, so our daily caloric needs always stay the same.
  • Every time we exceed those daily caloric needs by 100 calories, we gain exactly 0.02857 pounds.

In other words, they still believe gaining or losing weight works like a bank account: you have a fixed number of expenses to be paid daily from the account (your basal metabolism), and everything else depends on deposits (eating) and withdrawals (activity). The bank counts every calorie.

So by gosh, if you want to lose 10 pounds this year, just cut 100 calories from your daily intake, and you can start shopping for that smaller dress by Christmas. But if you accidentally deposit an extra 100 calories per day — darn those teenage counter clerks with their extra mayo! — you’ll gain 10 pounds.

The bank-account analogy only works if you add a crazy banker to the equation — so crazy, not even the Federal Reserve would hire him. If he’s decided your account should stay at the same level, he doesn’t really care if you deposit a little more or a little less … he’ll just adjust the expenditures and the interest rates until your account is back to where he likes it.

On the other hand, if you eat foods that jack up your insulin, you send a coded message to the banker telling him to build up your account — like it or not. You may think you’re consuming just enough calories to cover your daily expenses, only to discover that he cut your heating bill and deposited them anyway.

In Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes recounted a study in which naturally-lean prisoners were fed an extra 1,000 calories per day for six months. If it’s true that every calorie counts, they should’ve all gained 50 pounds. Not one did. Most only gained a few pounds. Their bodies simply adjusted to the higher intake. As soon as the experiment was over, they returned to their previous weights — and none of them counted calories to do it.

My son’s weight is also remarkably stable.  He’s always the same size, always has the same six-pack abs, year in and year out. He consumes well over a million calories in a year, but doesn’t count any of them. Do these experts really believe he just happens to eat exactly the right number of calories every year — with better than 99% accuracy? That’s ridiculous. His hormones tells him how much to weigh, then adjust his appetite and metabolism to keep him there.

Very few people gain 40 pounds in a year, and trust me, the ones who do aren’t counting calories or anything else.  And since most of us eat a mix of packaged foods, restaurant foods and home-cooked meals, counting our daily calories precisely is nearly impossible. It’s also unnecessary, if we eat the rights foods.

Yesterday morning I had an omelet with sautéed onions, spices, raw-milk cheese and sour cream on top. My wife made it, she didn’t measure anything, and we split it. (In our case, that means I ate about 2/3 of it.) I have no idea what the calorie count was.

It rained all afternoon, so we took the girls to the mall to get them out of the house. We stopped for lunch in the food court, but I didn’t eat. I wasn’t trying to restrict my calories; I just wasn’t hungry, so nothing appealed to me. Later in the evening I had another one of my wife’s concoctions: a mix of spaghetti squash, grass-fed hamburger, onions, alfredo sauce, and a bit of tomato sauce. Delicious.

Once again, I have no idea how many calories I consumed. Nor do I care, because I don’t calories. I eat the foods I know are good for me. I keep my insulin down. When I do that, I don’t have to control my appetite. My appetite takes care of itself.

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22 Responses to “More Calorie-Counting Nonsense”
  1. Grok says:

    Laughed my ass off Tom!

    Moral of this story… don’t over think smart eating.

    Well put.

  2. Dr.A says:

    Hi Tom,
    Nice post again and yes, that is a stupid video clip!
    This calorie counting thing is such a can of worms though, and people seem to be religiously on one side or the other. In the case of my husband, he can eat low carb real foods and doesn’t have to count a thing. Unfortunately, for a tiny (in height) woman like me, X number of decades of low fat dieting has screwed everything up, metabolism, sanity etc etc
    Obviously it is absolutely best not to worry about calories, and most people can get away with that. But I recently had to admit the fact that, even though I am religiously low carb for health reasons, I’ll put on weight really fast unless I do make a point of limiting calories too. And it gives me a bit more freedom about what I eat if I do.. Many of my female friends are the same. Low carb alone, even strict low carb, doesn’t work.
    I suspect that where low carb is concerned, it is easier for men, and we women have to work a bit harder. If decades of starving on low fat junk and feeling guilty about every single thing that goes in our mouths has destroyed our relationship with our bodies and food, such that we don’t automatically eat less on low carb – if we eat for all sorts of bizarre other reasons other than physical hunger, then it really is a can of worms!
    I recently came out of the closet and posted about this… it was a hard thing to do! But I got some interesting comments from women with the same experience, and Mike Eades kindly came in too.
    If someone’s appetite ‘takes care of itself’, then that’s absolutely the best thing and you are lucky. But if the diet industry has so completely screwed us up such that our food regulation systems are completely non-functional, please don’t make us feel bad for counting calories too! It is people just like those in your video clip that are doing the damage.

    That’s one of the reasons I’m against starvation diets; they can depress your metabolism to the point that you MUST restrict calories just to keep from gaining weight.

    There’s no disagreement in our views on calories. To lose weight, your body must have a reason to tap its fat stores. That means a calorie deficit. But if the doors to the fat cells aren’t open, they can’t be tapped. That’s where the insulin factor comes in.

    My real beef with these experts is the way they keep hawking the simple calories in/calories out, 3500 calories = one pound, etc. Our metabolisms and hormones dramatically affect that equation. Some lucky people, like my son, literally can’t seem to eat enough to overcome their body’s dislike for storing fat. (His mother was the same body type … never gained an ounce.) My body will happily store fat, so when I want to lose weight, I restrict my portions. But to maintain, I simply eat when I’m hungry. The difference is that now my appetite is an accurate indicator of when I actually should eat. When I lived on a high-carb/low-fat diet, I was hungry far too often.

  3. Alexia says:

    Sooooooo much easier!

  4. Matt Stone says:

    Thanks Tom. Counting calories is like keeping track of how many times you inhale in hopes of altering the oxygen concentration of your blood.

    One error above –

    The overfeeding study reported by Taubes was that of Ethan Sims. The prisoners did not consume an extra 1,000 calories per day. They consumed 10,000 calories per day – just to lose it all after the study came to conclusion.

    p. 272 of GCBC:

    “Sims first used students for his experiments, but found it difficult to get them to gain signficant weight. He then sued convicts at the Vermont State Prison, who initially raised their food consumption to four thousand calories a day. They gained a few pounds, but then their weights stabilized. So they ate five thousand calories a day, then seven thousand, then ten thousand, while remaining sedentary.”

    As a big advocate for overfeeding, I can vouch for that. One young woman participating in overfeeding at 180 is consuming 4,000 calories per day without weight gain. Japanese competitive eater Gal Sone reports eating 5,000 per day, but weighs under 100 pounds. It’s so much more complicated. I almost feel sorry for these intellectual cripples reading labels.

    In fact, if your food has a label, you probably shouldn’t be eating it. Just a general rule.

    It appears that leptin is the strongest hormonal influence over body weight and appetite regulation (and metabolism and insulin sensitivity, hint, hint).

    http://180degreehealth.blogspot.com/2010/01/leptin-and-reversing-type-2-diabetes.html

    Thanks for the correction. An extra 10,000 … that makes the calories-in/calories-out theory look even more ridiculous. Interesting about leptin resistance and fructose. I’ve wondered many times what my metabolism and response to non-fructose carbohydrates like potatoes would be if I hadn’t gotten fat on sugary foods as a kid. Typical breakfast would be Sugar Frosted Flakes with banana slices and a glass of orange juice.

  5. Matt Stone says:

    The closing “watch out for salt” line is hilarious too. Reducing salt intake will affect the health of Americans about as much as wearing black undies instead of white ones.

    I did notice that the two calorie-phobic authors were sitting on a sofa during the interview. I wonder which is considered the sofa king? They both seemed sofa king we tar ted to me.

    I’m saving the “salt will kill you” subject for a later post. Another ridiculous scare.

  6. Richard says:

    It’s pretty obvious that calorie counting allows people to eat more. Even when they know they are no longer hungry, the tell themselves “Hey, I still have room for this 100 calorie choco bar”

    I watch my better half do this daily……. and fail

    Sorry to hear that about your better half. Those 100-calorie packs are just an invitation to eat sugar … as planned.

  7. Cathryn says:

    We’re trying to get my mother-in-law to eat sensibly. She thinks we want her to eat more–we want her to eat nutritious foods and not junk. Then she complains about the weight she’s gained and that she has to limit “her calories.”

    This is a great post!

    It’s hard to shake people from the calorie-counting theory. Good luck.

  8. Jordan says:

    Reducing calories by 100 per day is such a silly idea. Who could possibly accurately calculate such a tiny reduction? It’s a moot point. Even someone who believes that a calorie is a calorie isn’t going to lose weight that way. Most people who lose weight, lose a lot of weight quickly and try to maintain from there. (The maintenance of weight loss is the real struggle, not the weight loss itself.) They don’t lose weight by losing less than 3% of a pound per day. And for someone who has a lot of weight to lose, it’s even more idiotic! It would take so long! I have to lose roughly 70 pounds, so even if it were possible to reliably create such a small deficit, it would take me over six and a half years to lose that weight! Well, technically, not a lot of the weight loss would be fat. 50 pounds would still take over four and half years. Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not that patient!

    I’ve heard many people recommend lowering calories by 500 per day. That seems more realistic. Even if one “miscalculates,” one could still cut 300 calories one day, 700 calories the next day, 200, 600, etc. Do you think that 500 per day wouldn’t be effective for weight loss, or do you think that a “calorie is a calorie” works for weight loss, but maintenance is where hormones, leptin, etc., come into play?

    That’s what so silly about their dire warnings. Even if it comes down to calorie-counting, if the labels are wrong and you’re gaining weight, you’d respond by picking a lower calorie limit.

    I aimed for about a 500-calorie deficit while on my Fat Head/fast food diet. It seemed to work. The caveat, of course, is that your body has to be willing and able to burn body fat to make up the difference; otherwise it’ll likely slow your metabolism.

  9. April says:

    My dad drinks quite a few beers at night, and also doesn’t have to watch what he eats. My mom actually calculated an estimate of how many calories he eats one day, and it was around 3,000! And my dad is 6’4 and weighs 205 pounds, which he has weighed since high school. Wonder how the ‘experts’ on the Today Show would explain that?

    And I’m guessing your dad doesn’t log all his beers in a calorie-notebook.

  10. Lynda says:

    I agree 100%. I realised a few years back that there was far more to weight gain/loss than calories in and calories out. The trouble was I just didn’t know what the answer was until I watched your movie about a year ago now. I still have it on my recorder and watch it from time to time. It is like a lightbulb moment every time I see the sense in it all. I have also been following your blog ever since and still can’t understand why the world just does not get it.

    On a positive note, I notice that a shake available here as a meal replacement (just breakfast and lunch) is using the low carb principle and explains that you need to reduce your insulin levels before any weight loss can take place. This product does not restrict calories at all, just carbs so we are giving it a go for a couple of weeks just to see how it works.

    Also last night on our TV I was watching an episode of the US biggest loser and they had some questions as part of the show. It said that obesity has doubled since 1985. the average dress size has gone from 8 to 14 since 1985. Diabetes has risen 300% since 1985… it goes on and on… and what changed in 1985 (or around that time?) we all started low fat/high carb eating!!

    Keep up the good work :)

    It’s the diabetes that worries me the most … the weight gain is mostly a symptom of the blood-sugar issue. When I hear about teens and kids with type 2 diabetes, it just makes me want to smack someone.

  11. Adam says:

    *The label issue caught my eye. In Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology, he discusses results demonstrating that seeing warning labels actually increase cravings in smokers.

    *I would not be surprised at all to find that food labelling has a similar effect. That is, all of these labels, actually increase cravings for food products.

    I also wonder if people eat a low-calorie Weight Watchers meal for lunch, then figure they have permission to pig out for dinner.

  12. Jacs says:

    The BBC (Horizon) tried the same sort of experiment on 10 naturally thin people last January (“Why are thin people not fat?”)

    They asked them to eat twice as many calories as they needed to maintain their weight, over a four week period. Most of them managed to do this, but the differences in weight gain (as a percentage of starting weight) was significant.

    Two of the ten were physically incapable of doubling their calorie intake for the whole of the four weeks; two responded by increasing how much fidgeting they did. One man gained quite a lot of weight but it turned out that most of the gain was in muscle weight (even though he had not increased the amount of exercise he did – in fact, they worked out that he had increased his basal metabolic rate by 30% over the over-feeding period).

    Interestingly, once the experiment was over, almost all of the ten pariticipants lost the weight they had gained…. within two weeks. Even the winner, who had gained almost 10% of his starting weight (6.5 kilos).

    Wish I had one of those metabolisms. My wife is pretty much the same. Only time she ever gained weight was during her two years in the Peace Corps, living almost exclusively on grains in a poor African village. As soon as she returned stateside and ate a balanced diet, the weight came off. And of course, she’s never counted calories.

  13. Jacs says:

    Indeed, but what had me shouting at the TV set was the fact that they could demonstrate that these thin people managed to regulate their weight after overfeeding without any effort, but they never took the argument any further to question the dogma that “fat people” only get fat by being greedy and lazy…

    Well, they’d be out of work if they admitted that.

  14. Shelley says:

    So let’s see if I’ve got this right. If only the government took more notice of all the restaurants’ and frozen dinner manufacturers’ errors in under-calculating the calorie content of their meals, and had “more teeth” to do something about it, then all the stupid fat people who don’t know any better would no longer be fat?

    Good lord, how long will it take for these ‘health’ experts to realise its is THEIR theory that is making people fatter and to stop blaming anything and everything under the sun for why counting calories / cutting fat / eating to many grains is not working. Let’s blame the government. No, no, no, surely it’s fault of those scheming restaurants. No actually, maybe people are just too thick to make good choices. Aaaargh, this drives me nuts!

    I have just finished reading Gary Taubes updated copy of ‘Good Calories Bad Calories’ and in the final chapter he mentions how nobody in the health industry wants a simple answer to the obesity and diabetic problems, as that would imply they were at fault for missing something so obvious. Better that the answer is something ridiculously complicated, because then all the experts can say “well, no wonder it’s taken us so long to get to the bottom of all this…”.

    Great post by the way. I loved the “nutrition labels must make people gain weight” comment – can’t believe that correlation was missed by all those experts out there lol!

    Occam’s Razor … sometimes the simplest explanation is the best.

  15. Adam says:

    Tom:

    I owe you one…this post and the comments pushed me to explore my view that Nutrition Facts Labels tend to legitimize food products and stimulate cravings for them, which led to a new post of my own. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Cheers!

    That’s a good post:

    http://seeadamtrain.wordpress.com/

    I like the closing point … we probably shouldn’t be eating food that requires a lengthy explanation on the label. My breakfast could be reduced to “Eggs, butter.”

  16. Marc says:

    I try and have this conversation with some really really close friends at work (lady friends who are ALL seriously overweight) They think they are being “good” becasue they eat a lean cuisne or a weight watchers frozen lunch deal…”the calories are exactly the right count Marc, for what I should be eating”
    and next comes…”I don’t work out like you, so I can’t eat the way you do” I try and tell them…working out only makes you hungry…eat real food for a while and let me know how you feel. I will stick to my butter and meat, with a little heavy cream sauce.

    Love your blog by the way and send people here often to take a look…the ones that want that is ;-)

    Marc

    I ate those Lean Cuisine meals too. They’re worthless. I hope some of your friends see the light.

  17. Wanda says:

    I absolutely loved the part where the one “expert” claims that if a meal is supposed to be only 500 calories, we should be able to tell– just by looking– if there is more calories there, say 20% more, than is supposed to be. The host then totally blows that out of the water, no one (other than “expert nutritionists” ) would be able to do that… I mean, really!

    I also found it amusing the restaurants are “getting away” with something by serving bigger portions. If I order a 12-ounce steak it turns out to be 14 ounces, I don’t feel abused.

  18. Jordan says:

    Shelley, I have to disagree that low carb is necessarily simpler than the alternatives. Sure, reducing carbs is simple. So is reducing calories, fat, meat, sugar, processed foods, Neolithic foods, etc. I’ve been reading a lot of LC and Paleo blogs, and there are discussions of- and plenty of hand-wringing over- all sorts of complicated issues like insulin, leptin, thyroid, etc. It’s getting pretty complicated. I’m not disparaging LC per se. Just saying.

  19. Felix says:

    The calorie-theory in its simplified form of calories in – calories out is demonstrably wrong. The older people get, the less they eat, but the more they weigh (this is true for ALL mammals!). Ironically, the oh-so-scientific calorie-count – often given in a precision of 0.1 kcalories/100g – is to a high degree nothing but guesswork. Measuring the energy content with a bomb calorimeter usually leaves nothing but vapor and ashes – unlike our body which disposes of a part of the stuff more or less regularly. Now it took the experts some time to come to this obvious observation, so they tried to subtract the difference. However, since up to 1/3 of our stools can consist of dead colon cells and dead digestive bacteria, which have nothing to do with food at all (also: How many calories do the bacteria eat? – Tell me!) and the degree of which fluctuate over time, the calorie content that is disposed is impossible to measure. Plus, nobody wants to burn poo in a bomb calorimeter. So what do they do… they guess. Yup – guess!! Of course they call it “physiological calorific value” which gives it the air of objectivity. On top of that, the caloric value of a food varies. 100g potatoes (or steak) don’t have the same calories as another 100g. What you get is an average value. They made a test with children. They let them eat what they wanted and then

    1) calculated their eaten calories based on calorie tables (2 different ones, which each gave different values, but just take the average…)
    2) measured the calories in a laboratory

    The calculated value was between 22 and 66% higher than the measured one – the children also didn’t clean their plates 100%, which means the difference was even greater. All in all between 24 and 93% difference between real and calculated.

    So the experts know that it’s just that people eat only 100 calories too much per day????!!!! They can’t even measure that! But it sounds scientific – 100 calories – look, it’s a number, it must be science…

    If anyone tries to tell me that this is scientific and that denying the calorie theory isn’t, they can burn my poo in a bomb calorimeter.

    In which case “bomb calorimeter” might be the appropriate term.

  20. Jessica says:

    Tom:

    I have been trying for the past couple of months to lose weight. I started this journey by counting calories, and did so for about the first six weeks, eating between 1200 and 1500 calories a day. I’ve also been doing a 60 min. cardio workout 4 to 6 times a week. During the first six weeks, I lost 2 pounds per week. For the past two weeks, I have only watched my carb intake, and not counted calories. I only eat when I’m hungry, and stop eating when I am no longer hungry. I’ve also still been doing my cardio workouts, and have lost less than a pound per week. So, it seems that calorie counting works for me, more so than cutting carb intake. Why do you think that is? I’m asking because I would like to get away from counting anything.

    It can become progressively more difficult to lose weight as your body fights to maintain enough fat to remain in homeostatis — that is, the point at which your fat cells can supply your body with energy between meals.

    I don’t know your height and weight, but I’d be concerned about restrictng calories long-term and slowing your metabolism, especially if you were going hungry all the time. You might want to pick up the latest book on the Atkins diet, which gives detailed advice on moving through the phases of the diet depending on your weight-loss progress.

  21. kim says:

    What a bunch of Baloney this article is.Notice how giving 1,000 x-tra calories to somebody who is lean & not accounting for what they do in their own personal life (walking,swimming,squash,jump rope etc) is meaningleess.Its like that person you know who eats all the sweets he wants & says”I never gain weight”but then bikes 1o miles in the evening.Its funny this person never mentioned in the 60s moms made apple pies & baked goods,we had cokes & French Fries,ate cereal & White Toast but obesity was uncommon. Goofballs like Taubes have us believe these Carbs have only come in recently in the American diet. The truth is kids were more active,adults were involved in more manual labour & sorry but the more active u are the more energy(calories) is used. There were no double bacon cheeseburgers,1,200 calorie shakes or hours to sit & vegetate watching 200 channels,video games & internet.A study showed that low carbers do lose weight faster in the beginning(thanks to muscle & water loss but not much actual fat) but they even out with the low fat dieters in a year.Even Atkins warned about limiting calories on his diet,studies showed Atkins diet worked for some people because in the end they took in less calories there body needed.The amount of calories your body actually needs depends on many factors so talk of I eat this or that alot is meaningless. Your body (genetically programmed from evolutionary beginnings when food went scarce for days) can & will store as fat any carb,protein or fat that is not used up.Its called survival in case of emergency. With food so plentiful now it can work against us.

  22. Allison says:

    I think the point of counting calories is much less about the calories themselves. I go over and under all of the time… But my establishing a baseline, however superficial in itself, I give way more consideration to the healthfulness of the things entering my body. If I actually calculate how much less I’m able to eat, and compare that to the essential nutrients I need, I find all my meals are better for me. It suddenly seems stupid to waste calories on soda, because it doesn’t make me full. But obviously there is a lot that is bad about soda beyond calories, regardless, it’s by putting it in perspective that I decide to permanently cut it out of my diet.

    My hope is that eventually I will be adjusted enough to my new, healthy diet, that counting calories will be pointless.

    I simply put things in terms of appetite. If I get my days calories from unhealthy garbage, I tend to be still hungry. But if I eat the same calories from healthy things, I’m full. So it’s more complicated, but I don’t necessarily see counting calories as a bad thing, as long as you understand it’s far more complex than that.

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