The Big Calorie Counting Strawman

There's a UK Telegraph article published today entitled, "The big fat calorie countiing con."  The article claims that calorie counting is "scientifically flawed", and that "it could be doing more harm than good."  The article then links to an OPINION paper and calls it "research."  The paper, entitled "How calorie-focused thinking about obesity and related diseases may mislead and harm public health.  An alternative", as well as the Telegraph article linking to it, create a giant strawman.

The strawman is that the concept of calorie counting is flawed because it ignores food quality and treats all food calories the same.  This is utter nonsense.  Calorie counting is simply an awareness tool, no different from regularly stepping on the scale to check your body weight.  Both are types of self-monitoring.  Now, just because the scale can't tell you how much fat or muscle you're losing doesn't mean it's not useful.  Likewise, just because calorie counting can't tell you the quality of those calories doesn't mean it's not useful.  You can still overeat on "quality" calories and not reach your weight loss goals.  Ultimately, calories still matter whether you like to believe it or not.

The article brings up the usual "a calorie is a calorie" strawman as well.  Technically, yes, a calorie is a calorie in terms of energy.  This doesn't mean they will have identical impacts on your body; no one that I know who considers calories important takes this position.  This is why it's a strawman.  No one is saying that eating 1000 calories of jelly beans is the same as eating 1000 calories of steak.  Of utmost importance is satiety; for example, protein calories are more satiating than carbohydrate or fat calories in general, allowing you to eat less.  In this sense, the quality matters.  But if you're trying lose weight and fat, ultimately you still need to eat less calories than you expend.  In this sense, calorie counting simply becomes an awareness tool to help you achieve that goal.

The research is very clear on calorie counting, and it demonstrates that calorie counting is beneficial.  In one study, people who frequently recorded their food intake lost over twice as much weight as people who infrequently recorded their food intake.  Another study showed that self monitoring of food intake was positively associated with weight loss success, and not monitoring at all was negatively associated with weight change.

This doesn't mean you have to count calories to be successful.  But the research shows that you are more likely to be successful if you do.  Again, it's just an awareness tool.  There is no credible scientific data that I am aware of to show that using this awareness tool is misleading or harmful.  What is misleading or harmful is when people create strawmen over what calorie counting actually means.

16 Responses to “The Big Calorie Counting Strawman

  • Blog posts don’t count as research, merely opinions buddy. Did you look into both sides and try to prove your side wrong? This is what real scientists do, not bloggers.

    • Apparently you didn’t bother to read the two studies that I linked to. And having published numerous research studies in scientific journals myself, I’m not sure you’re in any place to tell me what real scientists do or what counts as research.

  • Reading through your heavily biased “blog posts” for the past month show myself and others exactly what we need to know. Stuck in the same guidelines as what was used 10 yrs ago and essentially not valid is showing your scientific reasoning abilities.

    I’m saddened to see your inability to actually pull in the biological thermodynamics into consideration. Do you even know how the second law applies within the body and the abundant hormonal processes occur within the body?

    Life is unfortunately not so simple, and neither is the body.

    Keep learning.


    • “WOW”, well that’s certainly my reaction to reading your posts to James so far…(as well as Wtf and a few other acronyms).

      “Stuck in the same guidelines that were used 10 years ago..” – LOL oh the irony…

    • Reading through your heavily biased “blog posts” for the past month show myself and others exactly what we need to know

      Yes, I am heavily biased towards the weight of the scientific evidence. Glad you learned exactly what you and others need to know.

      Stuck in the same guidelines as what was used 10 yrs ago

      Exactly what guidelines would those be? If you’ve been reading my blog posts, I don’t recall discussing guidelines of any sort.

      essentially not valid is showing your scientific reasoning abilities.

      Actually I think you are revealing your reading abilities as nowhere have I discussed any guidelines in my blog posts. Honestly you sound like you don’t even know exactly what you are trying to argue about.

      Do you even know how the second law applies within the body and the abundant hormonal processes occur within the body?

      Oh, here we go with the second law nonsense. I think you’ve been reading a little bit too much Feinman whose understanding of thermodynamics and how it applies to the human body is flawed. I suggest you actually learn something here about thermodynamics, the 1st law and second law, and how Feinman has completely messed up the interpretation of it. You can also learn more here. I think you are the one that needs to “keep learning.” Cheers!

      • Haynie, actually. Geneticist researchers know what’s up as well. Who the hell mentioned Feinman? I don’t really agree with Feinman’s approach, he was not clear enough.

        I am more interested in how you view the body as a system, as opposed to the blogs you post for me to read. Not sure you understand it, thus why leaving the work for another to do.

        Your views behoof me. I am far from anti calorie approach, it’s simply that your layout needs refining.

        Chill lad.

        • I take that as a no, you don’t have an understanding(possibly even an awareness) of biological thermodynamics in relationship to the 2nd laws superiority over the 1st.

          • Actually, I’ll take your response as you not knowing what you’re talking about. You have not provided any information or evidence refuting anything I’ve said in this blog post. If you have something refuting what I have said in this blog post, please provide it. Otherwise I can safely write you off as a troll, and perhaps you should follow the advice in your listed email address.

  • Thanks, James for keeping the honest discussion going. There’s definitely a trend from people who are vehemently anti calorie counting to infer false implication that people who do advocate calorie counting and budgeting also somehow necessarily believe that what you eat doesn’t matter at all.

    I have no idea where this comes from. Even the most flexible iifym advocates never claim, at least to my knowledge, that what you eat doesn’t matter at all. Nor have I ever seen a pro calorie counter claim that you can reap just as decent results eating Halloween candy as you can eating, say, a balanced Paleo diet.

    I do think the general consensus is moving in the right direction. People more and more are starting to realize that (gasp) the truth lies in the middle — that it’s generally better to eat as “clean” as possible, but that you’re probably not going to lose weight if you always stuff your face ad libitum.

  • looking forward to reading your stuff, I was referred here from myfitnesspal

  • I knew there was a reason counting calories made no common sense to me! Ha! Now I know. 🙂

  • I heard the same thing about all the negative views on calorie counting and had a similar reaction to you. I agree that it is an awareness tool and needs to be used alongside other tools to promote success. Keeping track of what you eat always helps.

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