Why Are People So Confused About Calories?

Confused about counting calories?

Why Are People So Confused About Calories?

Every day, a new study changes everything we thought we knew about nutrition. 

One week eggs are good for us; the next week, they’re bad. 

Carbs are essential, except when they’re enough to make anyone’s head spin. 

But of all the topics in nutrition, calories and calorie counting are the most confusing.

For years, the conventional wisdom has seen that weight loss is all about calories in versus calories out. 

To lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn. It’s a simple equation, and it’s one that a lot of people still believe. 

However, the reality is much more complicated. 

Here’s a look at why people are so confused about calories.

The “Calories In vs. Calories Out” Model Doesn’t Work for Everyone

The truth is that the “calories in vs. calories out” model doesn’t work for everyone. 

There are a lot of factors that play into weight loss, including genetics, metabolism, and hormones. 

For some people, cutting calories may indeed lead to weight loss. But for others, it may have the opposite effect. 

For example, when people lose calories drastically, their metabolism slows down to conserve energy. 

This can make it harder to lose weight and even lead to you regaining that same weight lost. 

In addition, when people cut calories, they often end up feeling hungry all the time. This can lead to overeating and, ultimately, weight gain.

Your Body Composition Matters 

It’s not just how many calories you eat that matters; it’s also what those calories are made up of. 

A pound of muscle tissue burns more calories than a pound of fat tissue, even when resting. 

So, someone with a higher percentage of muscle mass will burn more calories than someone with a higher rate of body fat – even if you’re eating the same number of calories. 

So, let’s say you and a friend need 2,000 calories daily, but you have a higher lean muscle mass than your friend. 

Even if you’re not working out, you’ll burn more calories than your friend because lean body tissue burns more calories than other tissue.

Calories From Different Foods Are Not Equal 

Not all calories are created equal, and the body processes calories from different foods differently. 

For example, when you eat a food high in sugar, your blood sugar levels will spike and then crash soon after. This can leave you feeling tired and which can lead to overeating.

On the other hand, eating high-protein food will help you feel full and satisfied, which can lead to eating less throughout the day and, ultimately, weight loss. 

So, even though the food might have the same calories as another food, it might not have the same effect on your body. 

Your Individual Calorie Needs Vary 

Another reason why people are so confused about calories is because everyone’s calorie needs are different. 

Your calorie needs depend on several factors, including:

  • age
  • gender
  • height
  • weight
  • and activity level

So, what works for one person might not work for another. 

For example, a sedentary woman who is 5’2″ and weighs 130 pounds will need fewer calories than an active woman who is 5′ that weighs 150 pounds. 

The only way to know precisely how many calories you need is to calculate your required daily intake or consult a nutritionist or dietitian.

The Quality of Your Food Matters 

Another factor to consider is the quality of the food you’re eating. 

A calorie is not a calorie. 

100 calories from a candy bar will have a very different effect on your body than 100 calories from grilled chicken and vegetables.

When you’re trying to lose weight, focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods that will give your body the nutrients it needs. 

Avoid processed foods, sugary drinks, and empty calories. 

In essence, focus on quality over quantity.

Calories Are Not the Only Thing That Matters 

When it comes to weight loss, calories are only one of the things that matter. 

In fact, there are other factors that are much more important. 

For example, the type of food you eat, the quality of the food you eat, your activity level, and your genetics all play a role in weight loss.

Therefore, while calories are important, they are not the be-all and end-all of weight loss. 

If you’re trying to lose weight, focus on eating healthy foods, being active, and speaking with a registered dietitian or doctor.

Your Activity Level Matters 

How active you also affect how many calories you burn and how easy or difficult it is to lose weight. 

If you have an inactive lifestyle, you will burn fewer calories than someone who exercises regularly, even if you eat the same number of calories daily.

That’s why it’s essential to find an exercise routine that works for you and make it part of your routine. 

An active lifestyle is vital for overall health, but it’s imperative if you’re trying to lose weight.

Stress Matters 

Last but not least, stress can also impact your weight-loss efforts. 

When you’re stressed out, your body produces more of the hormone cortisol (which has been linked to weight gain). 

So even if you’re doing everything “right,” chronic stress can make it more challenging to lose weight and potentially even cause you to gain weight.

The Problem with Reductionist Thinking

When it comes to calories, much of the confusion can be chalked up to reductionist thinking. 

This is the belief that complex systems can be understood by breaking them into individual parts. 

For example, if you want to lose weight, you must eat fewer calories than you burn, right? Not quite.

While it’s true that eating fewer calories than you burn will lead to weight loss. It doesn’t consider the fact that different foods have different effects on our bodies. 

A calorie from a doughnut is not the same as a calorie from broccoli, even though they both contain the same amount of energy. 

The doughnut will cause your blood sugar to spike and leave you feeling sluggish. At the same time, broccoli will give you lasting energy and the essential nutrients you need.

So, when it comes to weight loss, it’s not just about how many calories you eat but also about where those calories come from.

The Truth About Counting Calories

If you’re trying to lose weight, counting calories can be helpful as a general guide. 

But it’s important to remember that not all calories are created equal. 

The quality of your diet is just as important as the quantity regarding weight loss and overall health.

Instead of obsessively counting every last calorie, start by focusing on eating whole, unprocessed foods. 

But remember, listen to your body when it comes to hunger and fullness cues. 

And if you want more detailed guidance on losing weight (or building muscle) healthily, working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) can be incredibly helpful. 


Calories are just one part of the equation when it comes to weight loss and nutrition, but they’re often misunderstood. 

Thanks to reductionist thinking, many people believe that eating fewer calories is all they need to do to lose weight. 

But that ignores the fact that not all calories are created equal and that different foods affect our bodies differently.

If you want to lose weight healthily, focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods and listening to your body when it comes to hunger and fullness cues. 

And if you need more help, consider working with an RDN who can guide you in making healthier choices for your unique needs and goals.

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