What Calories In, Calories Out Is Missing
Updated: Nov 26, 2019
We've all heard the mantra--losing weight is about calories in, calories out.
Burn more calories than you take in and you'll lose weight.
If it were that simple, we’d all be trim and the above formula would have changed the world.
Alas it has not. So what's missing?
HERE'S THE PROBLEM
Treating your health like a math problem, where one set of actions is supposed to produce X result is, from my perspective, like buying into the idea there is a formula to guarantee someone will fall in love with you.
Cutting calories (or buying her flowers) might be a jumpstart, but you're dealing with a real person here. There is more than one variable to successful weight loss...or romance for that matter.
The good news. Just like there are things you can do to assure you won’t get a second date, there are also common things that stand between you and weight loss. We can foresee almost all of them.
Just like dating, there are principles that help make this game, this art of a healthy lifestyle, much more apt to continually go in the direction you like. Master a few basic fundamentals, and you'll be the one people start asking how you did it.
DEBUNKING THE CALORIES IN: CALORIES OUT MYTH
The “calories in” portion of the equation: The biggest problem with this myth is that it says nothing of the quality of the food.
Food is so much more than a unit of energy necessary to raise the temperature of water one degree Celsius—yeah, that’s what a calorie is. While units of energy and portion size are not to be overlooked, 1,000 calories of donuts will do very different things inside you than 1,000 calories of vegetables.
That logic alone should be enough to kill the myth, but let me take it one step further.
An equally extreme example that may surprise you: Take an egg for example. No matter the chicken, eggs have roughly the same number of calories. It stands to reason then that they would have roughly the same nutrient profile right?
Well, it depends on where you got the egg.
Check out the difference in nutritional value between a USDA egg like you’d get at your local store, and compare that to the nutritional value of an egg from a biodynamic farm here in my home state of Virginia—Polyface Farm (source Folks This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin).
Which egg would you rather eat? And that’s just the egg, imagine how much healthier the chicken that laid it must be! While there are many points I could make from this one example, I’ll simply make this one:
Where your food comes from (and what your food ate) has a tremendous amount to do with how nourished your body is, and thus how likely you are to heal or lose weight. An undernourished body will keep telling you it's hungry, making it hard to stop eating.
The “calories out” portion of the equation. Now, let’s examine the other end of the equation. With all our fancy tracking technology from “wear-ables” to apps, to food scales, portion containers, heart rate monitors, etc., you’d think we’d all be losing weight easily by now.
WHEN "WEAR-ABLES" LOSE THEIR EFFECTIVENESS
Now before I say anything negative about fitness tracking devices, let me first say they can be a great start and super helpful on the journey of becoming a new person.
However, if a year from now you’re still tracking calories you burn in a workout, I have failed you. In my experience, using fitness tracking devices over a long period of time can become a lot like navel gazing and hoping that will shrink belly fat.
Some people tend to get so fixated on the numbers from their wearable that they lose the bigger picture.
When results are hard to come by I often hear things like “Maybe I need to adjust my steps goal” or “maybe I just need to do more high-intensity workouts” or “maybe I just need more cardio.”
Or…maybe: You’re focusing on and tracking the wrong things altogether? Maybe you’re actually doing a decent job with your wearable and you ought to think about other lifestyle measures?
WHAT CALORIES IN, CALORIES OUT IS MISSING
Even if you have an accurate sense of how many calories you consume and what you burned, what about these important factors:
Sleep: How well did you sleep before your last workout? Were your stress hormones through the roof and now the extra stress of exercise further taxed your overworked adrenals creating more of the fat-storing hormone called cortisol?
Hydration: Were you dehydrated before the workout causing your body to “overheat,” create undo wear and tear on your joints, and ramp up the inflammation process instead of the fat burning process?
Belief: If you don't believe you can lose weight, you won't. Is your mindset fighting with you or helping? Is your workout a healthy outlet or something you begrudgingly practice?
Medications: Are you taking medications (like birth control pills or anti-depressants) that tinker with your Endocrine system and tell your body to hold on to weight?
Digestion: How’s your digestion? Is your body even getting enough resources out of your food to help your body make changes that can accompany exercise? In light of the above point, are you taking meds that disrupt digestion like antacids or NSAIDs?
Nutrition: In light of the calories in section above, what do you fuel yourself with to power that workout, and how will you nourish your body after you exercise?
WHAT'S THE POINT?
You’re probably beginning to see there’s a lot more going on when it comes to losing weight than the number of calories you burn, right?
Navel gazing at our Fitbit or Apple watch (expecting the numbers it gives us to be the equation you need to solve) will eventually leave you frustrated if you neglect the rest of the big picture.
The point in mentioning the above factors is not to berate you with a list of things you should be doing better. The idea is to help you see that there’s much more to weight loss than simply how many units of energy you burned in a workout.
THE BIG PICTURE
Your body has to take a global view of diet and exercise and use those tools to support ALL your body’s functions.
It doesn't have the luxury to focus only on weight loss.
Your body may decide having your immune or endocrine system fight other battles is currently a higher ranked priority than burning fat.
It knows what it’s doing, your challenge is to trust the body’s innate wisdom, support it, and help remove obstacles to fat loss and optimal function.
If this big picture context feels a bit overwhelming, exhale. You're normal.
That feeling will pass and when it does you’ll be able to logically approach what you think you might need to do next.
Don't look for "the one" variable you're missing. Look instead for the most important habit to cultivate.
Lock it in, then work on the next habit. That's the only way change actually lasts.
You can do this, and if you want some help with it, I'm here for you. You can even check out this free presentation I recorded exploring what I've observed about people who lose weight and keep it off.
Here's to you living like a Whole Human,