Recent studies and trends in the realm of nutrition and holistic food have turned the “calories in, calories out” paradigm entirely on its head. Or have they? More and more individuals are abandoning obsessive calorie counting in favor of macronutrient counting, food group elimination, or trendy vegan, Paleo, or ketogenic diets. But many nutritionists and dieticians still cling to the notion that calories are king, and that calorie reduction is at the heart of any successful weight loss plan.

So who has it right? Those who espouse the significance of consuming the holistic food, calories be damned? Or is it those who argue that it all boils down to numerical calculations, and that eating in a calorie deficit is the only way to lose weight?

Spoiler alert: they’re both right! You can’t choose to focus on quality at the expense of quantity, or vice versa, and expect to generate positive health outcomes. However, the reasons are complicated. In this week’s blog, we flesh out why and how the issue of simple addition and subtraction has blossomed into a controversial debate in the world of health and wellness. In doing so, we help to clear up the gray area drifting in the folds of dietary dogmatism to simplify your journey to the healthiest, happiest version of yourself!

The Argument for Calories In, Calories Out…

Those who argue that reducing calories is the only effective way to lose weight are quick to invoke the law of thermodynamics as proof of their claim. And they aren’t wrong. Consuming fewer calories than you are burning is the only way to lose weight. Period.

A pound of fat equates to roughly 3,500 calories. In other words, there are 3,500 calories worth of energy in one pound of body fat. When we eat in excess of our daily calorie requirements, we store the extra calories that we consume as body fat. When we consume fewer calories than we need to carry out our daily activities, our bodies will tap into our energy stores, or body fat stores, for fuel, resulting in fat loss.

…And the Arguments Against It

There are whole host of arguments that people leverage in attempt to debunk this simple nutritional logic. Many people, particularly advocates of fasting and ketogenic diets, claim that consuming too much sugar on a regular basis renders the body reliant on glucose alone as a source of energy, thus complicating weight loss. These experts argue that over-reliance on glucose as a fuel source leads to insulin resistance. As a result, the body continues to store glucose in fat cells instead of making it available for use, regardless of how many calories an individual consumes.

This line of reasoning fails to adequately debunk the calories-in, calories out theory. The fact remains: if you eat less than you burn, you will lose weight. So, say you eat a carb rich meal at the beginning of the day. Your body will indeed store the excess energy as fat. However, say you eat fewer calories than your body needs throughout the entirety of the day. Your body will later have to tap into your fat stores for energy. Thus, even though the excess energy was stored as fat earlier in the day, it must be accessed once more later in the day. And that creates a calorie deficit and, by extension, leads to weight loss.

It doesn’t matter what you eat, when you eat it, or what it contains; if you burn more energy than you consume in a day, you will have to tap into your fat stores to fuel your body adequately.

The Truth About Calories

So if everything boils down to calories in, calories out, why do people continue to claim that extreme calorie restriction isn’t conducive to weight loss, or that eating 2,000 calories of holistic food will result in more weight loss than eating 1,200 calories in Twinkies?

The easy part of the equation to understand is calorie intake. Sure, there are plenty of people who underestimate the number of calories they consume, which is why they might feel calorie counting is ineffective. But there are also individuals that weigh every ounce of their food, tracking every calorie to the tee, and still can’t lose weight.

It isn’t their intake that is the problem. It’s their calorie expenditure—the more complicated aspect of the calorie equation. “Calories in” is quite easy to determine if you put in the time and effort. Understanding the number of calories that you expend, on the other hand, is a whole other ballgame.

Most calorie counters use an app or website to calculate their daily energy expenditure, and don’t understand why they aren’t losing weight. The most likely problem is that these estimates are based on trends and averages, not on the unique biophysical characteristics of the individual.

There are a whole host of extraneous factors that affect, and thus render difficult to determine, your daily energy expenditure. If you eat more fiber and protein, i.e. thermogenic macronutrient groups, your body will require more calories just for digestion. Some individuals have over or under active thyroids that affect their metabolic rate. The list of factors than can influence metabolism goes on an on. Which brings us to the next point…

The Argument for Quality

In truth, the argument that reducing calories is the key to weight loss doesn’t contradict the fact that you must consume a healthy diet of holistic food to lose weight. These two theories are not oppositional; to the contrary, they compliment one another.

Why? It’s because the quality of your diet can have a significant impact on your metabolism, i.e. your calorie expenditure. Consistently consuming processed foods full of additives, sugar, dyes, and chemicals can cause inflammation, thus alerting your body to the internal threat and placing your bodily systems in crisis mode. Inflammation, in turn, will affect hormone production, increasing secretions of the fat-storage hormone, cortisol. And hormones play a vital role in regulating metabolic function. In sum: the quality of your diet will affect your hormones and, by extension, your caloric expenditure. The problem with a low-calorie diet of Twinkies is not the number of calories you are consuming; it is the way it affects your body’s ability to burn calories in the long run.

The Hidden Dangers of Focusing on Quality

Eating a diet of whole, organic foods is the key to ensuring that your metabolism is functioning properly. In other words, a healthy diet can improve your health in ways that allow you to burn more calories on a daily basis. However, it is important to note that excessive stringency can actually yield adverse effects.

Consider an individual that adopts a diet of holistic food. They may be consuming healthy foods that support a healthy metabolism. But failing to eat the proper quantity of holistic food can actually suppress metabolic function. Indeed, when the body is deprived of calories, it slows down non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). All chemical processes in the body begin to slow down or cease entirely. Your digestion will slow, causing constipation; your body will begin to produce less heat, leaving you cold and sleepy; and you will have a difficult time thinking clearly.  Extended periods of severe calorie restriction can eventually lead to fertility complications, muscle breakdown, weakened immunity, dangerously low blood pressure, and metal health concerns.

If you choose to adopt a diet of pure and holistic food, be sure that you are consuming enough calories. If you are eating less than 80% of the calories you expend in a day, you might be at risk for metabolic damage.

The adverse, of course, is true as well. If you require 2,000 calories a day and you consume 2,500 calories, you will gain weight. The reason that a diet of holistic food works for so many people is because it is satiating. And a satiating diet helps you cut calories without having to think about it. But it’s not because calories don’t matter; it’s because it helps to reduce your ratio of calories consumed to calories burned with minimal effort.

The Final Point

To make a long story short: calories and holistic food  are both essential for weight loss. The quality of your food can have a significant impact on your body’s ability to burn calories. Thus, eating holistic food improves your metabolism, resulting in greater caloric expenditure and easier weight loss.