Why Calorie Counting Fails and How to Burn Fat Without It

Which of the following statements are true?

a. A pound of feathers weighs the same as a pound of lead.
b. We have to consciously decrease calories in or increase calories out in order to burn fat.
c. All triangles have three sides.

If we believe what we’ve been taught, A, B, and C are all true. However, it may come as a surprise (or not, considering the dramatic rise in obesity) that biologists have known for a long time that B is false. We do not need to consciously eat less or exercise more in order to burn fat.

How’s this possible?

There are at least three major biological missteps with calorie counting:

1. It assumes calories out is fixed.
2. It assumes we can calculate calories out.
3. It assumes fewer calories in or more calories out requires the body to burn fat. 

Calories Out is Not Fixed

Calorie counting incorrectly assumes if we burn 2,000 calories per day and cut calories in to 1,500 that we burn 500 calories worth of stored fat.

This is has been proven false in scientific circles for quite some time. Why?

When we consciously cut calories in, the body unconsciously cuts calories out. University of Wisconsin researcher Dr. Keesy tells us, “Disproportionately large declines in resting metabolism are seen in food-deprived men.” In other words, when we consciously cut our calories in, the body negates our efforts by unconsciously cutting calories out. If we aim to burn fat by consciously cutting calories, we are aiming at a moving target.

We Cannot Calculate Calories Out

The internet is full of base metabolic rate (BMR) calculators, and gyms are filled with “cardio” machines claiming to tell you how many calories you burned while using them. The biological fact is that there is no program or tool available to non-scientists that accurately measures how many calories we burn. In fact, even if web-based BMR calculators and cardio machine calculators were accurate, we would still be missing huge contributors to calories out such as:

1. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)—calories burned via involuntary movement.
2. Diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT)—calories burned during digestion.
3. Post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC)—calories burned recovering from intense exercise.

Combine this with the first point, and attempting to count calories is like aiming at a moving target that we can’t even see.

Less Calories In or More Calories Out Does Not Require the Body to Burn Fat

If you tell anyone the simple science you are learning here, you will hear something like, “The law of thermodynamics proves if we eat less or exercise more we have to burn fat.” This is incorrect. Thermodynamics proves if we eat less or exercise more, then our body has to do something. It does not prove what that something is. And thermodynamics definitely does not prove that the something is “burn body fat.” In fact, if we starve ourselves, biology shows that we’ll become ravenously hungry, then our metabolism will slow down, then we’ll burn muscle, and then, if we’re still short on energy, we’ll burn fat.

When we use biology instead of physics when discussing our bodies—crazy, I know—we see that thermodynamics proves that counting and cutting calories sets us up for long term fat gain (uncontrollable hunger, slow metabolism, and less muscle) rather than fat loss.

In short, counting calories is like aiming at an incorrect, invisible, and moving target. Is it any wonder we have an obesity epidemic?

The Simple Scientific Alternative to Complex Calorie Math

It is impossible to accurately measure and balance calories, and even if we could, just creating a “caloric deficit” without thinking about nutrition or hormones leads to fat gain if we don’t stay voraciously hungry for the rest of our lives.

I’ll pass.

A much more effective approach is to recognize that our body already balances calories—how else do we stay at whatever weight we’re currently at, seemingly no matter what we do?—and to get our body to balance us at a slimmer body composition. In other words, to get our body to keep us in balance automatically at a slim “set-point” like it does for naturally thin people.

We all know plenty of people who eat a lot and exercise a little and stay slim. They’re not counting calories and we don’t need to either. We simply need to focus on food and exercise quality (vs. quantity) to enable our body to work more like theirs.

Jonathan Bailor is the author of The Smarter Science of Slim, which simplifies the analysis of over 1,100 scientific studies to provide a proven lifestyle for lasting wellness by focusing on the quality of food and exercise and then eating more and exercising less – but smarter. The Smarter Science of Slim is endorsed by the world-wide scientific community including top doctors at the Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins, and UCLA, and approved as curriculum for registered dieticians (RDs) by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly The American Dietetic Association).

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