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Calories In Do Not Equal Calories Out (September 2023)

Avoiding the ‘Freshman 15’: Busting the Myth of Calorie Counting for Managing Weight

Hi students! I hope you are having a great start to the semester. After having several meetings with many of you over concerns with managing your weight and working at avoiding the ‘Freshman 15’, I’ve decided to put your worries over calories at rest with this blog post. Let’s get right into it.

Key Takeaway: Calories DO matter, but focusing on them is the least effective way to control your weight.

Here are some reasons why calorie counting is a too simple approach to a very complex and ever-changing system (i.e., our bodies):

  1. Calorie information is only an average. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is the regulating authority of the nutrition information on food, and they allow the information of nutrition fact labels to be off by 20%. That means that a food can have more or less than 20% of calories stated in that particular serving of food. For example: A medium-sized French fry can have 365 calories, but with the 20% rule, this same measured potion of French fries can actually have anywhere from 292 calories to 438 calories. This makes a difference if you’re counting!

  2. Your body’s metabolism will be higher or lower every day. It’s one thing to count calories to offset any unwanted weight gain, but did you know that our metabolism is different each and every day? We will burn more or less energy on many different determining factors. Some examples include: physical fitness, lack of or low quality sleep, illness, types of food consumed, stress levels, hydration, hormone fluctuations, our body composition (muscle tissue vs. fat tissue), exposure to environmental changes, changes in weather (yes, cold and hot weather will make you burn more or less calories!), and many more. To determine your body’s exact calorie burn each and every day is impossible, and can result in varied outcomes when calorie counting.

  3. Portion sizes. As mentioned above, our bodies require more or less calories each day to account for the energy we spend on varied activities. When combining this factor and the estimated calorie count of food as stated above, our portion sizes can also skew the actual calorie consumption. For example, if we measure 1 cup of macaroni and cheese into a cup measure, we could over pack or loosely pack the noodles and consume more or less calories than what we serve. Have you ever tried measuring out popcorn or cereal? The airiness and fluff-factor of these foods are difficult to measure, although weighing food can be more precise in this concept. When eating out at restaurants or dining at a friend’s house, we may not have the capability to measure our foods, and thus will result in inaccurate calorie counts.

  4. Muscle mass vs. fat mass. The more muscle we have, the more calories we burn. Adipose tissue, or fat tissue, does not require, and therefore does not burn as many calories to sustain itself. Muscle is highly energy-hungry to ensure it sticks around to keep you fit and healthy. If we lose ‘weight’ too quickly, the majority of this weight will be from muscle. The more muscle we lose, the lower our metabolism will be, resulting in requiring the least number of calories to survive on. Thus, you may lower your set point to a low number of 1500 calories a day. If this happens and you eat any more than this consistently, you can and will gain weight, primarily body fat.

  5. Not eating enough. I see this all too often with people who are looking to either lose weight or to manage their weight. Our bodies are extremely complex, and require many vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids, electrolytes, macro and micronutrients, and hydration to support just being alive. If we focus solely on calories vs. nutrients, we miss the major mark of supporting our bodies through nutrition. Just like the last point, if we don’t feed ourselves enough calories, we can lower our metabolism to the point where we can actually gain weight while eating low calories. Not something you want!

  6. Nutrient deficiency. To go off my last point…in America and western society, we are predominantly overfed but nutrient poor, meaning we can actually be starved while being in a caloric surplus (overweight and even obese). If our bodies don’t receive the necessary nutrients it requires for its many functions, it will send signals to our brains telling us we are hungry even if we just ate a large plate of food. This is why we can get cravings even after eating a large meal. The attention should be paid more to feeding ourselves quality and high, nutrient-dense foods vs. high or low caloric foods for optimal health. Our bodies will take care of the weight when it receives the right amount of nutrients.

  7. Inflammation. Inflammation can occur with several factors including food allergies, getting a sunburn, scraping your knee, exposure to toxic chemicals, stress, having a health condition, and eating processed foods (to name a few). Anytime we have inflammation, we will hold on to water as a natural response. Additionally, we can store toxins in fat tissue to protect our vital organs. If not cleared in a healthy and timely manner, these can be stored long term, resulting in gained adipose tissue regardless of the number of calories we eat. Our best bet to fight inflammation is by keeping our stress levels low, avoiding processed and fried foods, sleeping well, and managing existing health conditions. Avoiding toxic environments (both physical and emotional) will also decrease chances of inflammation. Diet can help fight inflammation, and I can help with that.

So, if calories are not what we should focus on for weight management/loss/gain, then what should we focus on?

Nutrients. Whole foods vs. processed foods. Limiting our stress. Hydration. As a dietitian, it's my job to emphasize the importance of accessing nutrition through whole and unprocessed foods as much as possible, because we know we absorb and use these nutrients best in these forms. Outside of nutrition (but with just as much importance) we must control our stress levels, the times we consume our foods, physical activity and our name a few.

I'm available to discuss this information in further detail to assist you with figuring out what works for your body. Everyone is unique and requires different applications. Feel free to use the following form to set up an appointment with me if you want to learn more.

Leighann Scott, MS, RDN, LDN