Calories In, Calories Out - Reality or Myth?

Calories In, Calories Out - Reality or Myth?

Much like the President of the United States, carbohydrates, and tackle football, calories in vs calories out is under assault these days by “experts” and media outlets en masse.

And, when you consider that the majority of the population is overweight as well as the fact that the weight loss industry grosses well over $60 billion in revenue each year, it’s easy to see that there’s a lot of money to be made in helping people lose weight. [1]

Related - How Many Calories Do You Burn?

This confluence of events has led to the rampant increase in the number of experts, gurus, and “specialists” that have uncovered the real secret to rapid, long-term weight loss. Even better, when you follow these life-changing diets, you can eat as much as you want…

So long as you don’t eat “x” food group (i.e. gluten, dairy, carbohydrates, etc.).

Over the past decades, we’ve been introduced to a number of quick-fix weight loss diets that have all made their bones by vilifying a particular nutrient. For a time, it was fat, then it was carbohydrates. Recently, it’s been gluten and dairy.

The weight loss industry wants you to believe that it’s not your fault that you are overweight, sedentary, and foggy headed all the time. The real reason that you’re pants don’t fit like they used to is due to some dastardly micronutrient or macronutrient that Big Agra has deceptively been feeding you for decades.

It couldn’t possibly be that you are simply eating more calories than your body requires on a daily basis. There “must” be some kind of food that’s making you gain weight or some ne’er do well toxin lurking in your body that’s creating fat instead of muscle when you eat.

Unfortunately, none of this is true.

The short and sweet of the weight loss industry is that telling people that they can eat to their heart’s content and still lose weight sells millions and millions of books, powders, and pills.

How did we get to this point?

You see these days, we all want a “one pill solution” for our problems. Whether it be building muscle, burning fat, ameliorating stress, or any other ailment, we’ve gotten to the point in today’s “I WANT IT NOW!!!” society that every one of our problems can and “should be” able to be corrected with a single, simple solution.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but nothing in life is that simple. If it was, then I’ve got some ocean-front property in Arizona I’d love to sell you.

The truth is, any accomplishment in life that actually means something and changes your life takes hard work and a lot of dedication. Be it starting a business, acing a final exam, or raising a child, every great success in life commands diligent effort.

And losing weight is no different.

It boils down to a simple equation. An equation so simple, an elementary school child could understand it.

Energy Balance = Calories In - Calories Out

That’s it.

There’s no food group you absolutely have to avoid.

There’s no organic, sustainably sourced, gluten-free, hydroponically grown kale shake you have to drink to eliminate the toxins from your body.

There’s also no specific time window you have to eat all of your food in either.

In order to lose weight, you must be in a negative energy balance.

You can accomplish that in two ways:

    • Decrease “calories in” (i.e. eat less)

    • Increase “calories out” (i.e. move more)

But, before we get into the ways to affect these two parameters as well as understand why counting calories is an easy and effective way to lose weight, let’s back up and discuss…

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What is a Calorie?

A calorie (or kilocalorie) is the amount of energy required to heat one kilogram of water one degree Celsius. In other words, a calorie is a measure of potential (stored) energy.

All of those nutrition facts panels you see on the food you purchase at the store list calories. Those serve to tell you how much energy is contained in each respective food.

Some foods, like oil, butter, chips, cookies, and crackers contain a lot of calories, while other foods, such as broccoli, spinach, or squash, contain very few calories.

By tracking the foods you eat each day, and how much of those foods you eat, you get an idea of how many calories you are consuming each day.

If this number is less than the number of calories your body requires to maintain its current weight, then you will burn fat and lose weight.

How does this happen?

Well, your body makes up for this shortfall of energy intake by pulling from your fat stores.

Fat is your body’s own form of stored (potential) energy that it uses when your “calories in” isn’t enough to meet its daily needs. If you consume more calories than your body needs for its litany of physiological processes (muscle repair, growth, etc.) than you will store fat.

So, by counting the number of calories you consume each day, and ensuring the number of calories you eat is less than your total daily energy expenditure you can lose weight.

“Calorie Counting Doesn’t Work for Me”

Many individuals who have tried to lose weight in the past and failed will be quick to point out that “calorie counting doesn’t work.” Yet, research tells a very different story:

A 2008 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that by simply tracking food intake each day, individuals doubled weight loss over the course of five months. [2] More specifically, subjects that tracked their calorie intake lost an average of 17.5 pounds.

Yet, this study was largely overlooked by the media, as they chose to instead focus on a low-carb vs low-fat study which noted that the low-carb diet group lost a total of 10 pounds over 2 years. FYI, the low-fat group lost 6 pounds in two years. [3]

Now, I don’t know about you, but 10 pounds in two years (while a very good thing) is hardly proof of a revolutionary approach to weight loss, yet the media touted low-carb diets as the saving grace for our overweight population.

In reality, this study shows that neither the low-carb or low-fat diet was particularly effective for weight loss.

On the other hand, calorie counting was incredibly effective and led to greater weight loss than either of the fad diets, indicating that methods for estimating and recording caloric intake are successful for significant weight loss.

So, what about those people that claim “calories in vs calories out” doesn’t work for them?

Well, the reason that counting calories “doesn’t work” for them usually can be attributed to one of the following reasons:

They are too lazy to plan and track their food.

The number one reason most people avoid calorie counting is that they fear it brings with it some unbearable psychological burden that will ruin their enjoyment of food and add exorbitant amounts of time to their already busy schedule.

The individuals in this situation typically are the ones that do very little home cooking and consume the vast majority of their foods outside of the home, which makes it virtually impossible to accurately track calories.

Yet, once they take the time to actually learn to cook, plan meals, and track calories, they realize that no food is off limits and can fit just about anything into a diet.

They don’t like the idea of having to restrict their food intake.

Simply put, we like to have our cake and eat it too. In this age of entitlement, we believe that we “have a right” to do whatever we want and not suffer the consequences.

Sorry, but that’s not how life works -- including weight loss and weight gain.

Individuals in this situation are the hardest to get to turn the corner and realize there is not a magic bullet for fat loss. It requires some sacrifice and actual work on their part to achieve the results they desire.

They don’t stick to their calorie goal.

This is the most obvious reason calorie counting doesn’t work for some people.

While some may be tracking the calories from their main meals, they are a little too lax outside of those meals -- taking nibbles or “tastes” of things here and there or finishing off another person’s last few bites of food. This is known as calorie creep, and it’s the sworn enemy of calorie counting and weight loss.

To make matters worse, calorie creep doesn’t discriminate between “clean” or “dirty” foods. No matter how righteous or rotten a food may be, it contains calories. If you put it in your mouth, it counts against your allotment for the day and should be tracked. Failure to do so throws off the accuracy of the whole calorie counting approach to weight loss and puts your success in jeopardy.

In other words, if it goes in your mouth, it must be counted.

They overestimate their caloric needs.

To ensure you’re creating a negative energy balance, and losing weight, you first need to know what your total daily energy expenditure is.

There are a number of calculators, estimators, and formulas available to compute your estimated daily caloric needs, but where people get tripped up is simply using the wrong activity multiplier or overestimating how active of a lifestyle they have.

Overestimating your activity level leads to setting your daily caloric needs higher than it really is. And, if you use a slight deficit (~10%), you may in actuality be eating at your real maintenance. Thus, not losing weight believing that calorie counting doesn’t work.

In reality, you overestimated your caloric needs and need to recalibrate your calculations and reconfigure your deficit. If you need help figuring out your total daily energy expenditure, we’ve got a handy calculator here.

They are impatient.

Losing fat, much like building muscle, takes time. Far too often, individuals are setting unrealistic goals and hoping that the weight will magically come off, for the sole reason that they’ve cut out sweets for two or three days.

Unfortunately, you didn’t gain all of that weight overnight, and you won’t lose it overnight either. It took weeks, months, and potentially years of overeating to get to the point you are at now, and it’s going to take weeks and months to get rid of that weight.

Losing 1-2 pounds of fat per week is ideal. Any more than that, and you risk losing muscle as well as fat during your weight loss venture. On top of that, losing weight slowly and steadily is a healthier and more sustainable means of keeping excess weight off for the long term.

At the end of the day, weight loss boils down to calories in vs calories out. All it requires if consistency, dedication, and accuracy on your part.

Now, let’s take a look at the factors that improve the balance of calories in and calories out.

Positive Ways to Affect Energy Balance for Weight Loss

Eat less food and choose less energy dense foods

This one is pretty straightforward, but it’s far and away the most powerful tool in your fat burning arsenal.

Weight loss is dictated by burning more calories than you need, or another way to look at it is - eating less than you require. The easiest and most effective, way to do that is to simply eat less food.

You can accomplish this any number of ways, including reducing portion size, choosing for less energy dense options (baked potato instead of french fries), restricting your feeding window, or abstaining from a meal each day.

Choose one or a mix of a couple and see which method to help reduce your calorie intake works best for you.

Do not drink your calories

Juices, gourmet coffee, alcohol, and soft drinks are all delicious, and they all have a lot of calories. They also don’t fill you up very much either, which means they’re less than ideal when it comes to losing weight.

Now, we’re not saying any of these is bad, but when it comes to maximizing food volume and satiety, as well as satisfying micro and macronutrient goals, especially when trying to cut calories, calorie-containing liquids need to go. They rob you of your precious calories and give you very little in return.

Exercise 4-5x per week

This is perhaps the most obvious way to tip the energy balance equation in your favor - exercise.

Some forms of exercise, such as resistance training and high-intensity interval training, create a larger calorie burn than others, such as walking or jogging, but both have a place in weight loss diets. Find a form of exercise that you enjoy and can commit to consistently doing, and DO IT. It can be weight lifting or pilates or underwater shark wrestling, it doesn’t matter. Just pick the training style or a mix of training styles that appeal to you and aim to be physically active at least 4-5 days per week.

As an added bonus (and incentive), high-intensity forms of exercise create a lasting impact on your metabolic rate (up to 24 hours after you’ve finished exercising). This means that not only are you burning calories during your workout, but your calorie expenditure remains elevated for up to one day afterward.

Increase NEAT

NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis. In simple terms, this is the calories you burn doing everything during the day that doesn’t qualify as exercise. Examples include tapping your foot, walking up the stairs, chewing gum, etc. Though small, these little ticks, twitches, and fidgets can add up over the course of a day, especially if you work a physically-demanding, manual labor job.

If, however, you work a sedentary 9-5 desk job, you can still increase your NEAT, too. Take a stroll around the office every hour to stretch your legs and get in some extra movement. Park farther away from your office building and take the stairs up to your office. All of these little tasks, while small in stature, can have a big impact in the grand scheme of things.

Eat more protein

No, this isn’t a ploy for some kind of low carb or low fat diet, there’s actually a handful of good reasons you should eat more protein.

It’s delicious, supports muscle recovery and growth, and helps keep you full. But that’s not all. 

Protein also has the highest thermic effect of food out of all the macronutrients.

If that sounds confusing, don’t worry. We’ll explain…

The thermic effect of food refers to the energy your body expends to digest, absorb, and distribute the nutrients from the food you consumed to your body. It can account for up to 10% of your total calorie expenditure each day.

Compared to carbohydrates (5-10%) and fats (0-5%), protein has a significantly higher energy demand at roughly 20-35% of calories burned to the thermic effect of food. This means that your body has to expend more energy to break it down and absorb it than either carbohydrates or fats.

While in the grand scheme of things, the thermic effect of food has a relatively small impact on weight loss, anything that tips the scale in our favor is worth doing, and in this case, that means making protein a priority in your diet.

Now, does this mean you should consume protein and only protein in your diet?

Of course not. Carbohydrates and fats are full of essential nutrients, and they are downright delicious.

The point of bringing up the thermic effect of protein is that your nutritional choices can have a significant impact on your daily energy balance, for better or worse. Protein has far too many pluses on its side to not make it the cornerstone of your fat loss diet.


There’s been a lot of confusion, misinformation, and outright lying by the weight loss industry all carried out in the effort to sell you more supplements, books, and programs. They promise rapid results yet more often than not leave you still unhappy, overweight, and out of pocket a significant chunk of change.

Weight loss is pure thermodynamics - calories in must be less than calories out. It’s as simple as that. Anyone that tries to convince you otherwise, isn’t really focused on helping you understand and succeed in losing weight.

1) "U.S. Weight Loss Market Worth $66 Billion." PR Newswire: Press Release Distribution, Targeting, Monitoring and Marketing,
2) Hollis JF, Gullion CM, Stevens VJ, et al. Weight Loss During the Intensive Intervention Phase of the Weight-Loss Maintenance Trial. American journal of preventive medicine. 2008;35(2):118-126. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2008.04.013.
3) Shai, I., Schwarzfuchs, D., Henkin, Y., Shahar, D. R., Witkow, S., Greenberg, I., … Stampfer, M. J. (2008). Weight Loss with a Low-Carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or Low-Fat Diet. New England Journal of Medicine, 359(3), 229–241.
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