Making Sense of Calories In vs. Calories Out

I’m just going to come out and say it…we’ve been brainwashed our entire lives into thinking the Standard American Diet (SAD) is what we should be eating. We are all familiar with the USDA food pyramid; it’s the cornerstone of what millions of Americans have eaten for decades. And here is why it’s bullshit. The second thing that’s been drilled into our brains is the concept of the calorie. Many believe (including myself, until recently) that our weight is regulated by our calorie intake. Simply put, if we take in more calories than we burn, we’ll gain weight. And of course the inverse of this is also true – If we burn more calories than we ingest, we’ll lose weight.

Unfortunately this reasoning is largely misguided. I am not a nutrition expert myself, and I do not claim to be. Thanks to this wonderful thing called the Internet, however, I have unlimited access to many experts in the field via their articles, podcasts, and books. And the deeper I dig, the angrier I get about the information I’ve been fed the last three decades and the more I learn there are infinitely more components to a proper diet than simple calorie intake.


Let’s debunk this myth right now with an incredibly simplistic example. I think you would agree that if you eat 2500 calories of donuts a day, that’s much different than eating 2500 calories that are properly balanced between healthy fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. But according to the science of the calorie, as long as we burn more than 2500 calories in a day, those donuts will not inhibit our weight loss goals. Until recently, the mass population did not have the access to nutritional information we have now. So this example wouldn’t have seemed so silly 30 years ago. But even with the basic information we all know now about sugars and carbohydrates, we’re smart enough to stay away from donuts as the mainstay of our diet.

 ‘Why There’s So Much Confusion Over Health and Nutrition’

Weight loss (or gain, depending on your goals) is infinitely more complex than calories in vs. calories out. Your metabolism is driven by many factors, so hoping that your daily diet contains less calories than you’re burning off will only lead to long-term failure. Using the many resources available on this site, you will learn that the balance of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates is essential to a healthy metabolism. The type of daily activity you get is also hugely important, but not simply based on the amount of overall calories you burn. For example, constant light activity throughout the day has been proven to be more beneficial than doing a really intense 30 minute workout in the morning and then sitting all day long. The list of factors contributing to weight loss or gain is infinitely complex, but the point is simple: Calories in vs. calories out is not the answer.


If calories aren’t important, then why am I highly recommending the usage of My Fitness Pal? Because MFP is an amazing way to learn about the components of the food you’re eating. With the simple scan of a barcode you can see the nutritional breakdown of your food, and more importantly as your food adds up, you see the daily breakdown of your entire diet into many nutritional categories. Understanding which foods contribute to various categories is the first step to reshaping your diet. Secondly, you’ll find that once you start tracking everything you eat for at least 30 days, that accountability starts to shape better food choices. You build an incredibly important skill called “awareness” that helps shape all of your future choices. It’s easy to grab a couple handfuls of M&M’s every hour walking between edit bays, but when you have to write all of them down, you think twice before putting garbage into your system. This is a powerful motivation that I have experienced first hand. It works.

I thought I ate a well-rounded healthy diet until I started using My Fitness Pal. But once I started looking at that pie chart with fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, I realized my diet was atrocious and needed to be addressed immediately. Like most Americans, my sodium intake was through the roof, but complementary items like Potassium were far too low. Wanting a deeper understanding of the fuel I put into my body began my obsessive quest for healthier diet solutions where I didn’t have to meticulously count every calorie and scan every barcode. That quest ultimately led to building this site.

Below I have provided links to a few podcasts and articles which will help you understand why counting calories will only lead to long-term failure. I hope you find them helpful in building long-term lifestyle changes.

The Bulletproof Executive, Ep #81, ‘Revisiting the Calorie Myth’

The Bulletproof Executive, Ep #88, ‘Why Food Matters’

The Primal Blueprint, Ep #6, ‘The Reality of Calories In, Calories Out’

Ben Greenfield Fitness, ‘Diet Myth News Flash: Eating Less Does Not Cause Fat Loss’

The Calorie Myth, by Jonathan Bailor

Zack Arnold (ACE) is an award-winning Hollywood film editor (Cobra Kai, Empire, Burn Notice, Unsolved, Glee), a documentary director, father of 2, and the creator of the Optimize Yourself program. Zack helps ambitious creative professionals and entrepreneurs overcome procrastination, depression, and creative burnout so they can get sh*t done and achieve the most meaningful goals in their lives...without sacrificing their sanity in the process. If you’re interested in learning how to better manage your time, your energy, and develop ninja-like focus, download Zack’s “Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Your Creativity (And Avoiding Burnout).”

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