Is a Calorie a Calorie? | Ask the Dietitian

by Elle Penner, MPH, RD
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Is a Calorie a Calorie? | Ask the Dietitian

As the dietitian for MyFitnessPal, I’m often asked, “Is a calorie a calorie?” Well, according to the laws of thermodymanics, yes, all calories are created equal (at least on paper). But—and this is a big but—the way the body breaks down carbohydrates, protein and fat, the three main sources of calories in our diet (four if you count alcohol), and the effect they have on our bodies differ vastly. There are semester-long courses that explain just how our bodies break down, burn and store each of these four calorie sources differently (I know because I took one in graduate school), but since this is a 750-word blog post and not a 750-page textbook, I’ll try do my best to briefly explain why not all calories are created equal.


In addition to being a potent and flavorful source of energy, fats slow digestion, deliver important fat-soluble vitamins to the body, and provide important building blocks for every one of our cells.

All dietary fats provide about 9 calories per gram but, as you likely already know, some fats are better for our health than others. For example, polyunsaturated omega-3 fats, found in foods like wild salmon and flaxseed, have protective, anti-inflammatory properties, whereas artificial trans fats have been linked to increased inflammation and heart disease.


Protein also keeps us feeling fuller for longer by slowing digestion, but its primary role in the body is to maintain and build new cells. Protein needs are greatest during childhood, adolescence and pregnancy, when the body is growing and adding new tissues. But we now also know that protein is beneficial during weight loss, as it contributes to satiety and offsets the amount of lean muscle that is burned for energy, in addition to fat, during a calorie deficit.

All proteins provide about 4 calories per gram but there are higher quality proteins, which may reduce appetite and optimize muscle repair and recovery (think: fish or eggs), and lower quality proteins (think: hamburger meat) that are loaded with branched-chain amino acids, which have been linked to metabolic disease and insulin resistance. In this case, you get more nutritional bang for your buck if you consume 4 calories of high quality protein.


When it comes to differentiating calories, carbohydrates are by far the most complex (pardon the pun) mostly because our bodies use the different types of carbohydrates (such as fiber, starch and sugar) in very different ways.

Carbohydrates are used by the body as a quick source of energy, particularly for the brain, liver and muscles. All carbohydrates (with the exception of fiber, which our body can’t digest) provide 4 calories per gram. But just as there are healthier fats and higher-quality proteins, there are varying degrees of carbohydrate quality.

Though not a source of calories, fiber is considered a high-quality carbohydrate since it slows digestion (thus making you feel fuller, longer) and can moderate the absorption of other nutrients, like sugar. For this reason, high-quality carbohydrates typically contain fiber and are minimally processed. These include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Lower-quality carbohydrates almost always lack fiber (with the exception of dairy which contains natural sugars packaged with protein) and add little more than “empty calories” to our diets.

By now it’s probably clear that a calorie from fat is not the same as a calorie from protein or carbohydrate. But let’s take it a step further and compare calories from two different types of sugar: glucose and fructose.

Starchy foods like rice, potatoes and pasta, are predominantly made up of glucose, a simple sugar that that can be burned for energy by every cell in our bodies. It’s stored in our liver and muscles for a quick source of energy during exercise or while we sleep. Unprocessed starchy foods, like brown rice, potatoes with the skin on and 100% whole-wheat pasta, contain the food’s natural fiber as well as some vitamins and minerals.


Unlike glucose, which can be burned for energy by all organs, fructose can really only be broken down in the liver. It’s also the sweetest tasting of the three simple sugars which makes it enjoyable on the tastebuds. In nature, fructose is found in fruits bound tightly to indigestible fiber that, as we already know, reduces and slows its absorption. Unfortunately, the majority of fructose in our diets isn’t from fruits–it’s from calorie-containing sweeteners added to sweetened beverages and the majority of processed foods—including these 10 foods that might surprise you.

Here’s the main difference between these two sugars: While too many calories from glucose can lead to weight gain and accumulation of the less harmful subcutaneous fat, too many calories from fructose (found in calorie-containing sweeteners like sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup etc…) can overwhelm the liver, contributing to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and more.

As you can see, a calorie of carbohydrate is not the same as a calorie from fat or protein, nor are all carbohydrate calories created equal. As a general rule of thumb, I recommend consuming the majority of your calories from minimally or unprocessed whole foods since, ultimately, the quality of what we eat determines the quantity of calories we consume, which impacts not only our weight but also our overall health and well-being.

About the Author

Elle Penner, MPH, RD

Elle is a nutrition and wellness writer, recipe developer, blogger and nutrition consultant whose favorite things include her camera, carbs and quality time with her toddler. For more from this busy mama, check out Elle’s lifestyle blog or connect with her on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook.


64 responses to “Is a Calorie a Calorie? | Ask the Dietitian”

  1. cyberbob says:

    You mention HFCS but you forget to mention that it is in fact not high in fructose (around 55% Fructose to 45% Glucose) which is almost identical to honey. So the constant demonization of it is in fact a bit silly.

  2. Marie-Pierre Robidas says:

    Basically, a calorie is a calorie. But the quality of the sources can affect your health.

  3. julieannepol says:

    easier said then done i learned all this in my diabetes classes to learn what to eat this is a great reminder

  4. kmcharle says:

    I appreciate today’s article…great reminder! Always good to keep on top of our RD foundation….we need to re-study the basics and not get caught up in all the trends

  5. Brandon says:

    Ground Beef (grass fed) has got such a bad rap, first off BCAA (branch chain amino acids) help you build muscle and break down the food your eating. Also there has been no significant evidence that unprocessed beef causes any diseases. In fact grass fed beef has more antioxidants and nutrients that grapes per gram.

    She’s pretty spot on about carbohydrates. Though its note to mention that unless your a high endurance trainer, carbohydrates are processed faster than you can burn them and consuming less than 100 per day allows your blood sugar to get low enough to induce Gluconeogensis. Causing the burning of fat for glucose for the body.

    A good sustainable diet is 1g of protein per LEAN lbs of body mass. A hundred grams or less of complex carbs per day, and as much fat (Saturated or Unsat) as needed to reach under 300 calories of your TDEE. Good luck.

    P.S. The liver can sustain enough glucose without the need of carbohydrates just fine. Studies have been done on Eskimos. Though its a hindrance for athletes. ohh and transfats are hard to come by now a days so really don’t worry.

    • AJ says:

      I was curious about the BCAAs as well. I had never heard of this being a cause of insulin resistance or metabolic disease. Not sure if there is any data to back this up or if it’s part of the old “red meat is bad” conventional wisdom.

    • Christina says:

      “Trans fats are hard to come by” that’s funny!! Nutritional panels are extremely flexible, did you know that? At least, in the USA they are. Anything containing less than .49 grams of Trans fat can be (and usually is) rounded to zero, so you could really get a lot if you’re not careful.

      • Brandon says:

        True about the nutritional information, though it is still insignificant on a per serving basis. Because it would still be unhealthy to eat the ammount of servings of anything containing it to equate to a detrimental ammount. The thing your eating 20 servings of a day would probably kill you before the Trans fat.

        On a note our bodies are good at filtering toxins. Alcohol is a pure toxin. It’s the reason we get the effect from it. The problem is more from compounding toxins. More of consuming a ton in small amounts from everywhere.

        Just enjoy moderation. Because abstenance and worry will drive a person crazy.

  6. Caitriona says:

    The medical community should drop its subjective prejudice against old people. Quote “Protein also keeps us feeling fuller for longer by slowing digestion, but its primary role in the body is to maintain and build new cells. Protein needs are greatest during childhood, adolescence and pregnancy, when the body is growing and adding new tissues. So the hidden message is that OLD PEOPLE don’t need protein. Or worse — we need less. FACTS: a low protein diet is just as harmful to old people by causing fatty carb sugar liver damage from imbalance, and weight gain from overeating due to not feeling full, which is really about hormonal imbalance and OLD PEOPLE are just as subject to that as children, adolescents and pregnant persons. OLD PEOPLE also need to add new tissues. The interesting fact left out by the hired BLOGGER is what the body does with excess carbs, stored as fat, excess fat, stored as fat, and excess protein, EXCRETED. I would like my HOMEPAGE back without the blogs do that I don’t have to read PREJUDICED and DUMBED DOWB BLOGS.

    • Jen says:

      Calm down – is she also saying that men don’t need protein? That non-pregnant 20-year-olds don’t need protein? She said the need is GREATER in children and pregnant women, not that that’s the only time it’s needed. Obviously protein is important for *everyone*. It seems you have been burned somewhere along the line and are jumping at shadows.

    • Lindsey Callihan says:

      Like she said, this is not a textbook, it is a short article meant to clear up some questions about the basics of macronutrients. It is true that those populations she mentioned do require more protein and you are right that the older population also needs adequate protein. However as we age past say 60, the requirements for all macronutrients are reduced. The 1.2g/kg of protein one once needed in stages of life with rapid growth gets reduced to .8-1g/kg in older adulthood. It is still extremely important, one just needs less to do the same job. Excess protein is not always, it can be stored as fat just like the others. The excretion process of excess protein (over 30g/meal for most) can also wear heavily on our kidneys and demand additional fluids which folks don’t always get. Better to work on getting what your individual body requires of all macros than excessively injesting any particular one.

      Source: long term care dietitian

    • Mel says:

      calm down and have a cup of tea : )

  7. CathyM says:

    I decided to reduce my sugar intake to less than 15g a day and have lost 7.2 pounds of weight in 14 days. It has been amazing to me how much buried sugars are in the foods I eat. It hasn’t been easy, but it hasn’t been hard either. Just eye opening. I plan to continue the 15g of sugar a day until I’ve lost 35lbs then move the recommendated amount of no more than 25g per day. If you have had difficulty with losing weight try reducing the sugars in your diet.

    • Laurie says:

      Exactly so! I read a list of 100 Ways That Sugar Undermines Your Health (something like that) and have consumed very little refined sugar since the New Year. I also bought a pedometer and got moving again and have lost 31 lbs. since then. Feeling much better, too, and don’t feel all ravenous all the time which is a huge relief!

      • Gina L. says:

        Could u send me a link or the address to that website, “100 Ways…”?
        My email is: ginalove1960@gmail. com

    • david says:

      You reduced your calorie intake, that is why you lost weight.

  8. Adam Trainor says:

    David Katz, MD, is famous (at least in my mind) for pointing out that [paraphrasing here] a calorie is a measure of energy… so of course a calorie is always a calorie, like a mile is always a mile. That said, a mile driven by one car is not necessarily the same as a mile driven by another. Fuel economy, driver competency, and other factors come into play. But we have to work with what data we have…

    • Shlomiyo says:

      how do you explain then how i lost 80lbs on atkins and never ate so many calories in my life as i did whOen on atkins

      • Adam Trainor says:

        Without having measured your calories beforehand, and while on your diet, I wouldn’t presume to. It’s hard to argue with your perceptions about what you accomplished in light of your results. Especially when we aren’t looking at anything objective. The law of thermodynamics is law of science, like gravity. If you can disprove it, you will surely earn the Nobel prize for science, and make the cover of every science magazine in the world.

      • Tina Toburen says:

        Shiomiyo – By eating more on Atkins, you raised your internal core temperature, increased cell energy production, increased cell maintenance & repair work, etc, etc,… your body had excess energy to burn, and it found good ways to burn it!

        To put it in car terms, you burned more fuel than you were consuming, because your mpg went down – because you were running the heater, radio, wifi, and running at higher speeds down the freeway. 🙂

        Not a straight comparison, as the body has a lot more internal energy balancing options than a mechanical car… 🙂

  9. Lindsey Callihan says:

    Great article, Elle. I am also an RD and find this article to be concise and a great “Biochem 101” breakdown for consumers to use in everyday life!

  10. Sam Hayward says:

    Articles like this really obfuscate the reality of the situation. A calorie IS a calorie. But the quality of your food sources matter for your overall health.

    Why does this distinction matter? Because the hard truth is your body composition is almost entirely determined by caloric load rather than macro nutrition or food quality. This means anyone will lose weight just by having less calories period than their body needs in a day, even if your diet is soda and twinkies. Not only lose weight, but lose weight just the same as the person making sure they are eating the same amount of calories with a super balanced organic whole foods certified diet. Look up actual long term medical studies on this, the science and facts are all there.

    The real benefit of eating wholesome and balanced diets isn’t in weight loss. It is you’ll feel much fuller and much healthier overall vs eating junk food all the time. Sugar doesn’t cause obesity, excess calories does. Turns out, it tends to be easier to not have excess when we are mindful of what we eat. At the same time, having cake here and there wont ruin your weight loss goals if you can fit those calories into your day without going over.

    • Tina Toburen says:

      You leave out the function of the liver – which is to save our systems from toxin overloads. If you’re eating twinkies and soda, the liver is working overtime to rid your body of all the fake chemicals. When it can’t keep up, it wraps those toxins in water and stuffs them in a fat cell for safe storage until a later time when the liver has resources to “deal” with them.

      If your calories come with excess toxins, you’re body will hold onto excess water in the fat cells… leading to weight gain, regardless of calorie content.

      I do agree with you on the benefit of nutritious diets – if your body doesn’t get what it needs on a basic nutrition level … it will send out craving signals to make you eat more “stuff”, until the body gets the items it needs to keep going. I find myself much less hungry when I eat good food… my cravings have all gone away.

      • JofJLTNCB6 says:

        The name of one of these toxins, please.

        • Kelly Carter says:

          Good question. There is so much babble about “toxins”, and ridding your body of “toxins”. Seems nobody every questions what “toxins” are being referred to.

        • Tina Toburen says:

          Lets see… twinkies: Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour [Flour, Reduced Iron, B Vitamins (Niacin, Thiamine Mononitrate (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Folic Acid)], Corn Syrup, Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Water, Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable and/or Animal Shortening (Soybean, Cottonseed and/or Canola Oil, Beef Fat), Whole Eggs {Hey, a REAL ingredient!}, Dextrose. Contains 2% or Less of: Modified Corn Starch, Glucose, Leavenings (Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Baking Soda, Monocalcium Phosphate), Sweet Dairy Whey, Soy Protein Isolate, Calcium and Sodium Caseinate, Salt, Mono and Diglycerides, Polysorbate 60, Soy Lecithin, Soy Flour, Cornstarch, Cellulose Gum, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Sorbic Acid (to Retain Freshness), Yellow 5, Red 40.
          Lots of work for the liver in that ingredient list!

          • JofJLTNCB6 says:

            I’m beginning to think there’s a lot about biology that you think you know but don’t.

      • Tina Toburen says:

        Your liver does a lot of work to keep chemical levels in the blood stream balanced, so anything in excess is going to make it work to pull that substance and push it either into bile for elimination in the feces, or into fat for temporary storage (to be dealt with later, when system resources are available).

        So, even “good” stuff, like muti-vitamins MAY load up the liver and cause imbalances… thus all the recent studies showing that vitamin supplements are not always a good thing… it depends on the individual – their diet, genetics, health, and many other factors.

        “real” food – i.e. meat, fruit and vegetables – have nutrients in the ratios that the body was built to handle, so the system can deal with them appropriately. When you start processing and concentrating substances, they can overload the liver and become “toxic”.

    • If excess calories caused obesity, I would be huge right now just like I was when I was actually counting calories. Lost 60+ pounds and over 15% of body fat when I stopped caring about calories and instead ate more but healthier choices. The healthier foods help me build more muscle when I weight train too.

  11. the pinch says:

    I find myself skimming through a good portion of these articles because they essentially tell us what any high school student knows. What may not be as obvious is that the molecules are in fact different.

    It takes 9 moles of glucose to break down protein. Meaning, it takes energy just to break the dern thing apart. That’s one of the reasons some people are tired after Christmas dinner.

    It also takes 4 moles of glucose to break down fat, which is why burgers are delicious and satisfying.

    It only takes one mole of glucose to break down carbs; monosaccarides like fruit juice being a good example of the carbo lift and crash.

    Tipping the scales in the favour of protein definitely works, particularly if you are working out. It is also expensive (surprised?) and can be a bit binding and it may surprise you how much your kids mooch off your plate. Raw veggies can help with the carb balance too.

  12. Joe says:

    Is one ate 10,000 calories from fruits and vegetables a day and someone else consume 10,000 calories from candy the affect on weight gain will be the same. This is the way I see it.

    • Damien2 says:

      It’s true, only, the fructose from the candy will not only make you sick, but spoil your appetite, which can lead to gaining more weight. Because the longer you go without food, the more you trick your body to go into starvation mode. In starvation mode, your body thinks you’re starving so it stores everything you eat for that day as energy, as if you were going through a famine. Also, it would take about 250 cups of Broccoli to hit 10,000 calories. And only about 10 large bags of gummy worms, one is actually more doable. Once this happens, all that junk you eat the next meal will be stored as fat, instead of being used as energy. When you get fat, you create fat cells, these cells never actually go away. So when you lose weight, you’re skinnier but those fat cells are there, and if you slip up and start eating unhealthy, those fat cells expend WAY WAY easier. So sugar is your worst enemy, right next to gluten.

      • JofJLTNCB6 says:

        Eating candy suppresses your appetite which causes starvation mode which makes you fat?



        How can you…

        It’s just that…


        This is just plain wrong.

        • Tina Toburen says:

          If you read up on the insulin response and T3/T4/TSH, interaction in the liver and other functions of human biology… there’s a lot going on in there… so, yes, Damien2’s comment makes sense for a lot of people.

          • JofJLTNCB6 says:

            I am familiar with it. And no, his comment doesn’t make sense.

            Seriously, eating candy leads to “starvation mode”?

    • Tina Toburen says:

      Try it. I think you’ll find the effects are completely different. But, you won’t really know how it affects YOU until you try it.

  13. Jay Yarm says:

    But a calorie is not necessarily a calorie. As others have noted, a calorie is a measure of the heat given off when the food is burned in pure oxygen, i.e., in a bomb calorimeter. But, the results have to be adjusted to account for the metabolic qualities of the material, and that can be a judgement call.
    Olive oil and mineral oil are both around 120 cal per tablespoon, but we can digest olive oil, so its calories count, while mineral oil just passes through unabsorbed, so it’s effectively zero cal.
    A diet of mineral oil, charcoal and a good multivitamin has plenty of energy, just not for us…

  14. caz1310 says:

    I agree with other contributors….nutrition articles are increasingly doing my head in. I’m trying to eat more unprocessed foods, eat a balanced range of food, not eat junk, not drink soft drink/juice, eat smaller portions, exercise more and not get too caught up in it all.

  15. Lawrence Gillespie says:

    Very concise and simple. Also, seems to be in alignment with the national food guides of the US and Canada. Thank you Elle Penner!

  16. Chrysse Everhart says:

    so i already limit sugar and fat. i do not eat fact food or drink soda. i eat unprocessed or minimally foods. now i’m religiously following the 1200 cal/day fitness pal set (liberalized with exercise– i do eat back some of those calories cuz i’m starving by then end of the day). i’ve lost almost 5 pounds in a month and a half and i am CONSTANTLY obsessively and stupidly thinking about and worrying about every ort that crosses my lips. it feels mentally unhealthy to get so little benefit. how can i get to the end of the day with 23 fat grams, 50-odd protein grams, a dozen-ish carb grams left on my daily goal and have only 22– literally 22 yesterday– calories to use to get them? and it doesn’t matter protein/fat/carb calories, fitpal sending me tips for 200 calorie snacks (today!) is demoralizing. one of these would blow any dinner completely off the map.

    • Tina Toburen says:

      Look into Halie Pomroy’s Fast Metabolism Diet. She has a way of building menu plans that allow you to eat to satisfaction (and ignore calorie counts!!!) and lose anywhere from 2-4 lbs per week. She provides the science behind her plan in the book – which I found very enlightening.

      Even my husband enjoys her recipes, too – including the low fat ones! 🙂

    • Pauline Roberts says:

      You are so spot on Chrysse. To be thinking like that constantly for some, especially if losing very little as I do (5 lbs in 3.5 months), it is demoralising. My hubby gets fed up if he makes me something and the first thing out of my lips is, ‘Have you weighed everything?’ Which of course he hasn’t. I then have to struggle up, get a fresh plate and the scales out, weigh it all individually and by that time it has to be reheated in the microwave!

      Additionally, I am so fed up with the genuinely ignorant ‘know it alls’ who still insist that eating less calories and exercising more HAS to reduce weight. Try asking those with PCOS. Not always so, a proper dietician understands this. Not everyone fits in the same box. I personally hav done enough with my 5 lbs weight loss to bring my tummy flab down and bpm. But I am carrying on for another 5 lbs to feel even better however long it takes

  17. Laurie says:

    Well said, Ms. Penner!

  18. david says:

    Pardon my rudeness, but saying sugar is bad for your health is well acknowledged. What is the point of this article?

  19. THANK YOU! Finally, someone with common sense. I’m tired of hearing all of this “lose weight by calorie deficit” crap. In fact, my friend and I tried it ourselves. All it did was make us more overweight. Well, it made me more overweight and she lost weight but not real weight. She lost weight in a bad way and became skinny-fat because most of the “weight” she lost was muscle. If you go by the calorie in vs calorie out rule, you’ll become malnourished, tired, lose muscle, and possibly get intense cravings for nutrients that you’re not getting enough of because you’re restricting yourself. The solution? Listen to your body. Drink a lot of water. Eat when hungry and when you do eat, make healthy choices at least 90% of the time. Exercise (preferably resistance training because muscle burns fat). This is how I lost 60+ pounds and nearly half my body fat along with getting lean. I don’t count calories anymore but by what I eat and how much, it’s definitely over the amount of calories I used to eat (when I had been counting and eating less healthy). People wonder how I don’t gain weight like I used to. Hmm, maybe it’s because I eat a lot closer to nature now despite eating twice as much. And before you throw the whole “veggies/fruits don’t have many calories”, I’m referring to foods like nuts, avocado, quinoa, all natural peanut butter, fish (especially salmon), other meats, oats, bananas, olive oil, cacao (raw/bitter chocolate), beans, etc.

    • JofJLTNCB6 says:

      It’s still net calories though.

      Always has been. Always will be.*

      * absent medical issues (and even then almost always).

      • Tina Toburen says:

        Nope. It’s NOT.

        This has been proven many times over – mostly in anecdotal form (just like ChildFree Chick’s, and mine), since no one wants to pay for a study to show that the current $$$ diet-industry is wrong.

        If you lose weight by “simple” net calorie restriction, you will eventually lose your health – and then gain all the weight back when you start eating enough food to regain your health again.

        Your body needs enough calories to survive, and then it needs MORE to thrive.

        • JofJLTNCB6 says:

          This makes no sense. Everyone (absent a serious medical condition) who has ever lost weight has lost it by “simple” net calorie restriction. Everyone. Not all of them “lose their health”. If you eat more calories than your body needs for any given period of time, you will gain weight.

        • rjc1008 says:

          Current recommendation here is to do it slowly – 0.5 to 1kg per week. Then level off when target reached. Seems sensible.

  20. Brandon says:

    Wow that was too long to read. But your first statement is right on. Sweedens recent research that investigated 16000 papers found that focus did not matter of wheightloss.

    They also found that over 80% of the research was Bias, inaccurately tested, unreliable, too small a sample, or inconclusive for long term. (More than 6 months).

    The ONLY thing they found that held true to long term weight management and effectiveness was. Low glycemic, Reduced caloric intake, and consuming dairy.

    This improved satiety, and maintained a healthy weight.

    One note should be added.. this only looked into losing and maintaining weight. It did not look at health of individual on a vitamin or blood basis.

    That being said you need to watch your diet and make up lack of vitamins for what you need. On a individual basis. Even a guy who only ate a majority of twinkies and took a multivitamin lost 20 lbs.

    There is no perfect diet. Only one that makes you feel good and maintains health.

    I for one am a weightlifter and eat low carb, high fats, high meat/protien diet. Mostly red meat. While my friend is a runner and does high carb low fat moderate protien.

    BTW I get my blood tested regularly, no problems.

    Thanks for reading.

  21. Isn’t alcohol a carbohydrate? If so, I don’t understand why it is singled out in this article. I know it is processed in the liver and some of the health consequences are similar to those of fructose.

    • Thomas says:

      No, alcohol is not a carbohydrate. Many alcoholic drinks also contain carbs, but alcohol is its own beast.

    • Maringle says:

      My understanding is that alcohol is its own type of ‘energy’ and the calories sit somewhere between that of a carb and a fat in terms of calories (approx 7 per gram)

  22. newguy02 says:

    It seems there is a lot of argument and confusion against the “calorie deficit” line of thinking. I’d like to take a moment to wade into the pool here just to say that the argument of losing weight by calorie deficit is a lot like the argument of global warming (I know it’s a stretch but bear with me here, I promise this isn’t a political rant).

    It’s the distortion of perception vs the reality of proven scientific fact. That is to say, people “think” that science has proven one way when in fact it has proven just the opposite, but due to the rampant spread of mythology and misconception, many confuse what is has been proven as the argument when it is not.

    In relation to Global Warming, that in and of itself is a proven fact. There is NO scientific argument of whether or not it is happening in the scientific community because everyone knows it is happening. It happens naturally on Earth and has always happened. The actual argument is HOW. Is it man-made (meaning are we expediting it) or are we just in a natural flux.

    The whole weight lost due to a net calorie deficit is the same. 100% scientific and a fact of math and life. You can’t violate the laws of thermodynamics or conservation of energy. I’m sorry if you believe that you can, and if you can prove that you can, you are going to make millions. That being said, however, the argument is HOW the net deficit happens. The real argument that science is currently debating/trying to figure out is how the body uses the calories that are brought into the system. Sure, some macro-nutrients might cause your body to use up more calories/energy than others, but that is STILL resulting in a NET DEFICIT. It just happens that maybe eating fewer of one and more of the other causes the body to burn calories more efficiently.

    Another example is a bucket of water. All things being equal and no water is going in or leaking out, if you take a cup of water out of the bucket, that bucket will have a net deficit equal to one cup of water. HOW you take that water out can vary. You can use a 1-cup scoop, or you can use 4 1/4-cup scoops, or any combination therein. The only thing that’s different is the METHOD, not the result or the fact that you’re taking more water out than is going in.

    So I promise, promise, PROMISE you, that if you restrict your calories and exercise, it doesn’t matter in what combination/quantities that you consume your macro-nutrients, you WILL lose weight. Whether you do so in a healthy manner is again, a debate (and why I wouldn’t suggest making your only calorie consumption trans fats or bad carbs).

    • Gina Livorsi says:

      YES! thank you! I am the perfect example of “eating clean” without counting cals for years. I worked my ass off in the gym, but still couldn’t kick that extra few pounds. I started counting macros religiously and the weight just fell off me. I couldn’t believe it. You can still eat whole foods when you count your macros, but you can also treat yourself while keeping your sanity and losing fat.

    • Michael Anthony Angelillo says:

      I’m going to necro this just to point out this quote:

      “You can’t violate the laws of thermodynamics or conservation of energy. I’m sorry if you believe that you can, and if you can prove that you can, you are going to make millions. ”

      And say that I wish this was true, because if it was all of these fad diets and exercise routines wouldn’t exist, but unfortunately people don’t have to prove that things work, they just have to convince people that they do in order to get them to try crazy things.

      The fact is there are 4 general ways to “lose weight”:
      1. Out work a bad diet (this is where you see triathletes fall over with heart attacks from clogged arteries)
      2. Starve yourself
      3. Use some sort of pills or surgery or other supplement stuff
      4. Diet and exercise

      I think science has definitively proven that except for extreme cases where option 3 is needed to save someone’s life (probably because no one intervened with option 4 until it was too late) that option 4 is the only truly healthy way to do it. However, option 3, has become such a big industry that even medical doctors are getting in on it with all the stomach surgeries they do that have some pretty dire consequences if botched or if the people who get them still overeat.

    • newguy02 says:

      Surprisingly I still occasionally get updates on this whenever it is upvoted, so people must still be reading this, but I wanted to make an addendum to this now that it has been 3 years (and hindsight is 20/20). I still stand by the fact that a net deficit will continue to result in weight loss, HOWEVER, I believe the point I was trying to make in my very long-winded rambling was that your body uses calories/nutrients differently which can vary person to person. That means that while one person finds success in losing weight via limiting carbs, another person might only find success in limiting fat. No matter the method, the weight loss in the end is because of the resulting net deficit, it’s just a matter of finding what the method that results in your body outputting/burning more calories than it takes in. So that said, keep experimenting to find the right combination and keep in mind that your body WILL adapt after a time of doing one thing repeatedly (low fat/carb/etc diet and specific exercises). That is what is referred to as a “plateau” and results when your body will no longer spend as many calories as before, thus NOT resulting in a calorie deficit. That’s when you have to change things up a little by either scaling back your daily calorie intake and/or increasing your exercise. Anything that will cause your body and metabolism to have to readjust (keep it guessing!).

      Hope that makes sense. I know it’s frustrating for those of us that are trying to lose weight to not be able to find the “holy grail” formula for 100% consistent weight loss across the board, but unfortunately that is just human biology which varies person to person. Perhaps someday they’ll find that missing connection, but until then, weight loss is 100% trial and error on your own to discover what your body will and won’t utilize. I would never recommend surgery (because I’m not a doctor) but I WOULD consult a physician both before/during your weight loss routine to ensure that A.) You’re not overexerting yourself or losing weight in a dangerous way (i.e. too few calories, too excessive exercising, etc), and B.) If all else fails, maybe surgery might be an option (gastric bypass, etc) but again, I don’t think anyone should jump to that lightly and only as a very last result after everything else has been expended. So always consult a physician!

  23. Chief Maklowicz says:

    I felt during reading this article, that I already know all this. This article was published as blog post for today (April 27, 2016) but the comments below are two years old! Thank you MyFitnessPal for recycling and wasting my time!

  24. Arthur Pittman says:

    Ok I’m wading in. I’m male, 69, 204 lbs today (of course tomorrow I might be 196 or 208) exercise at least an hour per day generally gym machines & free weights on MWF and swimming on TTh. I’ve tried to maintain a 1600 cal per day diet since January 2016 (30/25/45/10% of fats, carbs, prot, & alcohol. I started at 210 lbs.

    In January although I had been swimming three days a week for 5 years I changed to my current workout plan. I also added pull ups in the pool on the bar under the platforms. I’m up to 85 pull ups now. I started out with an “average “work out weight on machines 0f 45 lbs and now am up to 8o lbs. I stretch and do free weights as I want. I mean I’m retired and this only takes one of my daily 24 hours !

    I haven’t come close to the 190 lbs I want to weight arms (wow), chest , & back muscles have definition now and I’ve drop from 41” to 37.5 waist.

    I’m might not ever reach 190 but the other benefits have been worth it. So if you enjoy what you are doing continue or rework your plan just as long as you wake up every morning.

    Far as all the other stuff I’ve heard all the same thing all my life but the biggest factor is each of us is an individual no two alike so there is no one plan fits all.

  25. rjc1008 says:

    A simple understanding that has worked for me is that:

    * Calorie deficit causes weight loss.
    * It’s better for our health if the food we eat is healthy.
    * Food that keeps us feeling fuller for longer helps us avoid snacking.

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