The Problem With Calorie Counting

And How Different Types of Foods Influence our Body

Calories matter. A little bit. But unlike the mainstream media would have you believe, weight loss is not as simple as calories in versus calories out.  Counting calories won’t matter much unless you look at the kinds of calories you’re eating.


The nutritional dogma of “calories in vs. calories out” is one of the most pervasive myths that I continue to hear. The idea that the body works on a simple calorie in/calorie out model is ridiculous.  This theory is overly simplistic. In reality, the equation is far more complicated than that. Our bodies are not simple calculators, instead, they are incredibly complicated biological machines.

It is important people start to think beyond the calorie and consider the way different types of foods influence our body. The types of foods we base our diet around are just as important as the number of calories that we are eating.

Here is everything you need to know to realize just how absurd conventional thinking is:


First of all, whole foods take more energy to process and digest than processed foods.

In one study, subjects either ate a whole food sandwich (multigrain bread with cheddar cheese) or a processed food sandwich (white bread with cheese product). Both meals had the same number of calories and near identical macronutrient ratios. The study found that those eating the multigrain sandwich expended 137 calories after their meal. In comparison, the white bread group expended only 73 calories. This is almost a 50% reduction in the thermic effect of food.


Studies show that calories from different foods are not absorbed the same. 

When people eat foods high in fiber, such as nuts, only about three-quarters of the calories they contain are absorbed. The rest is excreted from the body unused. This means the calories listed on nutritional labels are not exactly what the body is getting.  

In a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, researchers set a certain number of calories for subject groups and altered the fiber content. The study showed that people who consumed up to 36 grams of fiber a day absorbed 130 fewer calories daily.


Conventional thinking states that your body will treat a calorie of protein just like it treats a calorie of fat or a calorie of carbohydrate. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Different foods go through different metabolic pathways and some of these pathways are more efficient than others.

The thermic effect of food is a measure of how much different foods increase energy expenditure, due to the energy required to digest, absorb and metabolize the nutrients.

This is the thermic effect of different macronutrients (7):

  • Fat: 2-3%.
  • Carbs: 6-8%.
  • Protein: 25-30%.

As you can see, it takes more energy to process protein than other macronutrients.

If we go with a thermic effect of 25% for protein and 2% for fat, this would mean that 100 calories of protein would end up as 75 calories, while 100 calories of fat would end up as 98 calories.

Further, the increased protein may be used to build muscle which is a metabolically active tissue that burns calories. Lastly, it has been argued that protein increases satiety and boosts the metabolic rate (1, 2).


The Metabolic Rate  Can Change Depending on What You Eat. 

If you’re a dieter, you are probably familiar with the phenomenon of losing more weight at the beginning of a diet and then progressively losing less and less even though you consume and expend the same amount of calories, and eventually hitting the dreaded plateau. That is because, during calorie restriction, your body defends itself by lowering resting metabolic rate to prevent starvation. To keep the weight loss going, you often have to lower food intake even more.


Different foods have different effects on satiety.

The satiety index is a measure of the ability of foods to reduce hunger, increase feelings of fullness and reduce energy intake for the next few hours. Changing your macronutrients can affect your appetite in a significant way.

The studies show that protein is the most fulfilling macronutrient, by far (12, 13).


Also, stress can comprise your digestion.

Your state of mind has an impact on the way your body uses the food that you consume. Regardless of how many calories you consume, being in a stress-state compromises digestion, and your body is more likely to store fat. On the other hand, Being in a relaxed state, allows our body to digest fully and mobilize stored weight.


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Wiktoria Banda

Wiktoria is a content writer and illustrator at Shape.
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