Nutrition Myth Buster: Why Calories In + Calories Out Isn’t So Simple

August 24, 2021

Author: Angela Trotter, M.S., CNS, AFMCP, Clinical Functional Nutritionist

In our work with women, the feelings, emotions, and beliefs surrounding weight gain, weight loss, etc. can be complicated. Especially when It comes to the topic of calories, we as women are imbued with misinformation and problematic messaging regarding how calories work within our bodies and the bodies we inhabit. It seems to be a fact that calories in + calories out have a direct effect on our weight gain or loss, but in the reality, this simple theory may not always make the cut.

The definition of a calorie is the unit of energy consumed from our food and drink.  Therefore, when it comes to weight loss, the goal is to burn more energy (i.e. calorie) through basal metabolic rate and exercise, than from what you consume per day – and voila! – you have weight loss, [well, at least] according to what we are frequently told. From a reductionist point of view, that sounds like the perfect conclusion. However, I hear this all too often from the individuals I work with who’ve previously tried this formula: it is as if our health and wellness are treated as a basic math equation. For many, there are so many other factors contributing to weight gain than simply pushing harder and eating less. The solution? Hear and understand the individual’s story or health journey.

For me as a former Nutrition student, I was always continually questioning what mantra I was being sold.  So even when my own teacher could not explain my found data and evidence of calories in and calories out, without the promised weight loss, I decided to find my own answers. This journey of understanding– not simply the function of calories in a human body, but its relationship to my own — led me towards a journey of healing. It was five years later that I finally discovered that the often-advertised and overly-simplistic way of approaching calories for my health, was actually detrimental to it. In short, I became diagnosed with Hashimoto’s which is an autoimmune thyroid disease that causes my thyroid to become attacked by my own immune system, and as a result, produces less thyroid hormone.  This caused my metabolism to be slow, and unfortunately, it was probably caused by years of stress from over-exercising, undereating, overworking psychosocial stress, and a body that was tired and depleted.  It was such a shame that I was simply told to eat less, and exercise more.  The very thing that stressed my body in the first place.

As a Clinical Functional Nutritionist, I always like to say, the body is sending a signal for help, and our goal is to uncover what is imbalances are causing symptoms to arise.  One such is the metabolic damage that plays a role for many individuals.  This could result in a slower metabolism, that is, not properly burning calories efficiently, instead of storing and conserving energy. Ultimately, metabolism is a healthy balance between anabolic and catabolic reactions.  By balancing these two processes, we can heal the metabolism.  Some factors that are shown to contribute to metabolic damage include very low-fat diets or very low-fat diets that also consist of high carbohydrate intake, low protein diets, yo-yo dieting, chronic under-eating, fasting (not done properly), excessive cardiovascular exercise, traumatic or prolonged psychological stress.

The goal is to reverse and heal metabolic damage in our own unique bodies, and we can do that by shifting our habits that cause and/or influence these imbalances. Once the body is finally receiving proper intake and nutrients to heal, it may be also helpful to note that weight gain sometimes ensues. This can cause many to run back to extreme ways of thinking to halt the process, but this will only further delay healing.  At some point, we have to stop and say our health is more important to us than sticking with a harmful ideology that may cause further damage in the long run.  

To ensure an overall physiological balance, there are other factors that need to be considered and addressed:

  • Gastrointestinal health – imbalances here can lead to improper digestion and absorption of necessary nutrients, infections and disruptions in microbiome can lead to inflammation.
  • Hormonal imbalances – these include sex hormone imbalances, but also imbalances in cortisol and insulin
  • Psychological Stress – shown to directly disrupt gastrointestinal health and hormonal balance

In conclusion, the healing process for the metabolism must happen before weight loss.  Some basic goals to achieve this may be:

  • Starting with a diet that is balanced and consists of clean organic whole foods 
  • Improve insulin sensitivity to decrease or prevent insulin resistance
  • Targeted nutrient supplementation to replace micronutrient deficiencies to help the body repair and rebuild 
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Stress management

Again, healing is a process.  It takes time and patience, self-acceptance, and improved self-awareness. A personalized approach to health is the antithesis to the ‘quick fix’ marketing that often leaves us frustrated, and unseen.   Your health is as unique as your story, and it should be treated as such.  If you, or someone you know, is struggling to see health improvements with the calories in, calories out approach, it may be time to see what underlying factors may be contributing to your imbalances.

Have specific questions about your nutritional needs? Contact Angela Today

Author: Angela Trotter, M.S., CNS, AFMCP, Clinical Functional Nutritionist

*Please Note: The information provided on or through this website or blog is for educational and informational purposes only and solely as a self-help tool for your own use. Engaging with this material does not constitute a client/therapist relationship*

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