Debunking the Calories in, Calories out Myth

Have You Been Treating Your Health Like a Math Equation?

Treating your health like a math problem where one set of actions is supposed to produce X results is, in my view, akin to try to create a set of behaviors guaranteed to make someone fall in love with you.  This is where so much of the clever marketing works.  “It’s simple…it’s formulaic.”  In reality, it’s neither.  

The Good News

Just like dating, there are principles that help make this game, this art of a healthy lifestyle more apt to go in the direction you like.  There are fundamentals you can master to set yourself up for significantly better health and a more fulfilling life.  Conversely, 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 most people and a destiny of robust health.

The Bad News

Health isn’t a math equation waiting to be solved.  Health is complex.  That doesn’t mean it needs to be overly complicated, but you’ll never be able to account for every variable that affects your health.  Approaching health as if one variable can be tinkered with (for example the number of calories you eat) and then whole equation of your health will be solved, simply is not true.

A Food Example

Before I (hopefully) help you see another way to look at the idea of calories, let me give you a couple examples of what I’m talking about.  One of the mantras so often repeated by fitness and nutrition “experts” is the idea of calories in, calories out.  If only it were that simple, we’d all be trim and the above formula would have changed the world.  Alas, it has not. 


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 right.  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 just three hours from here—Polyface farm (source Folks This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin). 


Egg Comparison

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.  Where does your food come from?

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.”


  1. You’re focusing on and tracking the wrong things altogether. 
  2. Maybe you’re actually doing a decent job with your wearable and you ought to think about other lifestyle measures. 

The Rest of What “Calories In: Calories Out” is Missing

Great, you’ve got a fairly accurate sense of how many calories you consume and what you burned. But what about these important factors:

  1. Sleep: How well did you sleep before that 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? 
  2. 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? 
  3. Belief: Do you actually believe the workout is helping you or is it just an exercise in obligation and frustration (because you mind really does effect your results).
  4. Medications: Are you taking medications that tinker with your Endocrine system and tell your body to hold on to weight? 
  5. 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?
  6. Nutrition: In light of the calories in section above, what did you fuel yourself with to power that workout and how will you nourish it now that it’s over. 

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 (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 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 unit 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.  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 optimal function. 


If this big picture context feels a bit overwhelming, that’s 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.  And don’t worry, the rest of the articles in this series are designed to help you sort through other blind spots that once you see and deal with, can start to create some radical synergy of better health. 

Until next time, if you want someone to chat with about helping you remove blind spots so you know where to focus your energy, we are always here for you.  Give us a call or submit a request for a consultation today!

To your TRUE Health and Wholeness,



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