Because I’m a mind-reader, I know your next question is likely…
Does Calorie Counting Work? (CICO and Weight Loss)
In principle, CICO works.
In practice, it becomes a little more complicated.
Okay, fine, A LOT more complicated.
That’s because a lot of things influence “calories in.”
Ditto for “calories out.”
Let’s break some of this down.
Here are some of the things that impact “Calories In:”
Appetite: how hungry we are is going to drastically affect how many calories we consume. Hormones, our body composition, and tastes and preferences will all impact our appetite.
Calories absorbed: the preparation of food will affect the bioavailability of calories. For example, cooking starches (like potatoes) generally increases the calories available. Your own individual gut microbe can also influence the amount of energy extracted during digestion. So will the macronutrient content of the food you eat.
Psychological considerations:your stress levels, sleep quality, and certain conditions like PCOS can all impact the regulation of hormones, which can influence your metabolism and appetite.
Oh, and all of the above assumes we’re actually tracking calories accurately. Which pretty much nobody does. Ever. But I’ll get to that shortly.
And remember, this is only half of the equation.
Here are some of the things that impact “Calories Out:”
Energy burned while resting: your Basal Metabolic Rate is a count of how many calories you burn at rest and will be controlled by your age, weight, height, biological sex, muscle composition, etc.
Energy burned through Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT): do you fidget a lot? That increases your NEAT, or the energy you burn doing stuff other than exercising. Think tapping your feet, twirling your hair, using your hands when speaking, etc. Even just an hour of this kind of movement can accumulate an extra 300 calories burned.
Exercise:of course, how much you intentionally exercise will impact your calories out, although perhaps not as much as most people think (more on this later).
This is only scratching the surface on what determines “calories in, calories out.”
The important thing to consider here is that none of the above invalidate the basic premise of an energy deficit being necessary for weight loss.
These factors will just influence one end of the equation or the other.
For example, let’s chat about protein and CICO:
Eating plenty of protein has been shown to help keep people feeling full and satiated. So lots of protein can help folks lose weight, not because it changes the requirements for weight loss, but because it might allow them to get through the day less hungry (lowering their “calories in.”)
Adequate dietary protein can help with building and maintaining muscle. The more muscle someone has, the more calories they’ll need to maintain it (raising their “calories out.”)
To recap this section: from a biological perspective, eating fewer calories than you burn is 100% necessary for weight loss.
But all sorts of things impact the amount of calories we eat and the amount of calories we expend.
This is going to lead us to….
The Problem With CICO (Humans Are Bad Estimators)
The majority of the problems people have with CICO is that it allows nutrient-deficient food to enter the diet, only limiting “how much.”
They’ll argue that people should be eating fruits and vegetables, lean protein, avoiding processed foods, and blah blah blah…
We all know this.
You don’t need someone else telling you to eat your veggies.
This isn’t the problem with CICO.
The problem with CICO is it’s really hard to estimate “calories in” and “calories out.”
Like, REALLY hard. We humans are TERRIBLE at it.
Take “calories in” or how much we eat: people generally UNDERestimate how many calories they consume by about 30-40%. Even dieticians, who are specifically trained in nutrition science, underestimated how much they eat.
“That may be true Steve, but don’t worry about me. I read the label on everything I buy so I know exactly how many calories I’m eating.”
Well, are you aware that the FDA allows a 20% leeway on total calories identified on packages? Meaning that 100 calorie drink of Orange Juice might actually be 120?
If you’re a food manufacturer, which way are you going to lean towards? Especially when you know people might scrutinize the calories of your nutrition label in an effort to lose weight.
This isn’t just paranoia: this study found that packaged snack food generally contains MORE calories in it than advertised.
Yeah…and remember, this is only half of the equation.
It’s about to get even worse.
People are also really bad at estimating “calories out.”
When folks self-assess how many calories they burned by exercising, they’re generally WAY OFF, by as much as 50%!
Oh, and those fitness trackers we wear? They’ve been shown to be inaccurate, some by up to 90%!
That’s why we made this infographic on tracking “calories out”:
This is the main problem with CICO: we’re stuck with educated guesses for “calories in” and “calories out.”
So we underestimate the calories we eat by 40%. And then we overestimate how many calories we burn by 50%.
No WONDER we think our metabolism is broken if we can’t lose weight! The truth is we’re unknowingly eating too much, and/or moving too little.
Heck, even how many calories you need a day (your baseline or Total Daily Energy Expenditure) is an estimate, something we acknowledge in our calorie calculator, which you can play with right here:
THE NERD FITNESS CALORIE CALCULATOR
In summary: balancing “calories in against calories out” is really all quite messy when you get right down to it.
REAL QUICK: If you’re worried about hurting yourself while lifting, I would encourage you to check out our guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know. We cover all you need to begin a strength training practice, from equipment, starting weight recommendations, and proper form techniques to prevent injuries. You can grab it for free when you join the Rebellion below!
Download our comprehensive guideSTRENGTH TRAINING 101!
Everything you need to know about getting strong.
Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
How to find the right gym and train properly in one.
NOTE: I am not a doctor (in fact, I’m not even wearing pants right now). You should really seek medical attention for any injury you receive.
After the last year we’ve had, your stress level may have quadrupled.
If you find yourself responding by “stress eating,” know that you are not alone.
One of the top issues faced by clients in our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program is emotional or stress eating. After 2020 being all 2020 like (and 2021 having its own challenges), these episodes have only increased.
Today, we’re going to show you exactly how we address emotional eating with our clients, including when it’s – GASP – actually okay to stress eat.
So you’re having trouble working out consistently?
I get it.
Life is busy and hectic. You probably wear multiple hats in your life.
Hopefully, one of them is a pirate hat:
If you are having trouble exercising regularly, know that you aren’t alone.
Not being able to work out consistently is one of the top issues facing our clients in Nerd Fitness Coaching. Luckily, there are some tips and tricks that help them, which we’ll share with you right now too.
So you’ve hit a workout or weight loss plateau the size of a…well, an actual plateau, eh?
Have no fear, our step-by-step guide will get you back on track! (Plus, the most badass Bruce Lee quote you’ll ever read).
Whether you’ve stalled in your weight loss journey, strength training, or some other fitness benchmark, today we’ll tell you exactly how to keep progressing by sharing with you the exact tools we use with our coaching clients.