It’s time to have an honest conversation about the role of calories in weight loss and shifting overall body composition.
There’s a common misunderstanding in the wellness community that as long as you’re eating whole foods, calories don’t matter.
But it’s time to set the record straight.
My goal for today’s newsletter is to clear up the confusion around calories based on what I’ve learned to be true for myself as well as my friends, family, and experts like Thomas DeLauer, Max Lugavere, and JJ Virgin.
But before we jump in…
A Quick Note:
We’re all in different stages of our health journeys, and I want to acknowledge that weight loss might not be the goal for everyone. So, before continuing, I want to be super clear on who this newsletter is for and not for.
Who this newsletter is for: If you want to shift your body composition, lose weight, or maintain a healthy weight, keep reading!
Who this newsletter is not for: If you have a history of disordered eating or an unhealthy relationship with counting calories, this is not the newsletter for you.
6 Core Concepts about Calories and Weight Loss
Let’s get started with core concept number one, which sets the stage for the rest. It has less to do with calories and more to do with owning your right to feel good in your own skin.
1. It’s your body, and you can shift your body composition if you want to.
This has somehow become a controversial topic with two very different (and extreme) schools of thought.
The first is that many people believe they need to take a radical approach to weight loss or that there are a million things we need to do in order to be healthy. But as my dear friend Max Lugavere pointed out in the post below (and in our recent interview together), that’s simply not the case.
As long as you’re doing the basics most of the time, you don’t need to get caught up in the granular details. Like Max says, “Don’t major in the minor things.”
The other extreme side of the argument is that we should accept our body composition as it is despite the risks that come with being overweight or obese. Some refer to this as the “body positivity movement,” which, by the way, I’m all about. Unrealistic beauty standards are a thing of the past, and a healthy body looks different for everyone.
My gripe with body positivity influencers and news media is that they’ll shame individuals for wanting to lose weight or adopt a healthier lifestyle. This massive overcorrection enables behaviors that cause people to become seriously ill.
It’s essential to strike a balance between the two extremes.
How do calories play into this?
Many wellness circles—and even some wellness practitioners—subscribe to the notion that calories don’t matter as long as you’re eating whole foods.
And body positivity followers villainize calories for contributing to “toxic diet culture”—and they certainly can be if they lead to obsessive thinking.
But the truth is calories are just a measurement of energy, and we need to pay attention to how much energy we’re consuming if we want to lose weight or improve our body composition, regardless of source.
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2. Both the quality of your calories and total calories matter.
Transitioning from the Standard American Diet (SAD) to a nutrient-dense, whole-foods diet is step number one for anyone embarking on a health journey. And hey! It might even lead to an initial weight loss just by resetting your metabolism, balancing blood sugar, etc.
However, if you are still struggling to lose weight or eventually hit a plateau, it is likely that you could be eating more calories than you’re expending. (Yes, calories in, calories out does matter; we’ll talk about this more next.)
In my experience shifting my body composition, I’ve found that, aside from carbs, fats are the easiest macronutrient to overeat. It’s also the most energy dense at nine calories per gram. That being said, calories from concentrated fats such as nut butter and oils (even healthy oils like extra virgin olive oil) can add up quickly.
Additionally, processed “healthy” snack foods (e.g., keto snacks, bars, gluten-free chips) are super easy (and delicious) to eat, which can easily lead to a calorie surplus, making it harder to lose weight. This is where energy balance comes into play.
3. To lose weight, you must be in a slight calorie deficit.
I used to think that total calories didn’t matter as long as the food that made up those calories was high quality. And it is true that it’s more difficult to overeat when you’re eating mainly whole foods and prioritizing protein and fiber at every meal.
But we can’t deny that you must be in a calorie deficit to lose weight. That’s just science, folks, which is where the energy balance conversation comes in (calories in = calories out).
Essentially this means that we will maintain our weight if we eat as many calories as we expend in a day, and we will lose weight if we consume fewer calories than we expend.
This might sound familiar based on the government’s dietary guidelines, but here’s what they fail to mention: the quality of your calories matters. Metabolic health, hormonal health, and satiety are all super important for regulating hunger and weight loss, and these are controlled by the quality of our diet.
The bottom line is when our diet mostly comes from nutrient-dense, whole foods, it’s a lot easier to maintain a healthy body composition or lose weight.
4. Calculate your basal metabolic rate to understand the total number of calories your body needs to function at rest.
You can use an online calculator like this one. Then find ways to create a deficit. Remember, it’s about creating a slight deficit, not starving yourself or going to extremes. Prioritizing protein and dialing back on your calories while increasing your energy output through aerobic and resistance training are easy lifts to get you there.
5. Temporarily weigh or measure your foods.
Studies show that people tend to underestimate their calorie intake by a whopping 40 percent! A food scale or an app like MyFitnessPal or Cronometer can be super-helpful tools for understanding portion sizes and how your daily calories stack up.
All of the experts I’ve interviewed in my weight-loss series have recommended tracking for at least a week to get a baseline of your calorie and protein intake. It’s only temporary and might feel a little annoying at first, but personally, it was super helpful for me to get a sense of how much I was undereating protein and overeating calories from fat.
6. While calories play a significant role in weight loss, it’s essential to acknowledge that other factors like sleep, stress, and hormones may also come into play.
In my interviews with JJ Virgin and Cynthia Thurlow, we discussed some of these factors and how certain conditions, such as insomnia, chronic stress, thyroid conditions, autoimmunity, and inflammation, can make it harder to lose weight.
Although these can be frustrating roadblocks to weight loss, in the case of my friends and family, I’ve found that they have yet to look at their total daily calorie intake before going down this road. It doesn’t hurt to start paying attention to calories while working with your doctor to address any underlying issues.
I think it’s time we shift the conversation around calories. Yes, they absolutely matter, but not to the degree that warrants obsession or that fuels unhealthy dietary habits. Even if you eat “clean,” it’s never been easier to overeat “healthy,” hyper-palatable packaged snack foods that contain a high concentration of calories.
Track your calorie intake for a week or two and see how it shifts your perspective on the quantity of food you’re eating. You have the right to pursue your ideal body composition, and by following these core concepts, you can achieve it.
Here’s to your health,