No Matter What You Do, It’s The Calories That Matter

There are as many ways to try to lose weight as there are types of flowers – or so it often seems. There’s been the low-carb craze, the high-carb craze, the liquid diets, the cabbage soup diet, and the Beverly Hills diet to name just a few.

Because I’ve been in the weight-loss arena for a lot of years, between my decade of obesity and my almost 14 years of weight maintenance, I’ve seen a lot of diets come and go in popularity. One thing has always remained constant in my mind. It has seemed that no matter what type of diet the person I was speaking with tried, it tended to boil down to caloric intake.

Recently, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that calories are the final frontier in weight management.

I found this interesting, because it really has been what I privately thought for years. Yes, people lose weight with the South Beach Diet. Yes, they lose weight balancing fat calories. Yes, they lose weight eating a high-carb diet. But the key ingredient seems to be calorie control.

The study found “no differences in weight loss or the reduction of fat between four diets with different proportions of fat, carbohydrates and protein,” according to an article in the Chicago Tribune. Instead it was “diet adherence” that made the difference in whether the participants were successful with losing weight.

Why Does it Matter?

At the end of the day, you’ve got to eat in a way that is sustainable for you, helps you feel good physically, and allows you to lose weight at a reasonable pace. Within those three areas, I think that the sustainability factor is of great importance. Can you sustain the method by which you are losing weight once you reach your goal weight?

If you are eating low-carb, can you transition to maintenance and keep up that lifestyle? If you are following a very low-fat diet like the Ornish Diet, can you keep your fat calories that low for the long-term? Asking yourself these questions is part of learning what weight loss method will work for you.

I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who did cut their calories to a weight loss level, but were absolutely unable to sustain their plan long enough to get to their initial goal weight, much less move into weight maintenance. Believe me – it’s a big number.

As you work on losing weight or maintaining your weight, remember that at the end of the day, it’s about calories, sustainability, and being able to stay at a healthy weight once you get there.

Does seeing this study that says the source of the calories doesn’t matter surprise you? What do you think? Diane

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54 thoughts on “No Matter What You Do, It’s The Calories That Matter

  1. Miz says:

    good gosh I agree and ESPECIALLY with the being able to STAY THERE.
    we can all do zany things and hours of exercise….but we cant maintain it.

  2. Jill says:

    I am not surprised Diane. When I first started my weight loss journey on WW I lost over 70 pounds eating mostly processed, unhealthy foods. I would hoard my points for treats and snacks and indulgences- but I would lose weight. Later in my journey it became more about healthy eating. Now I eat minimal processed foods. I mostly eat a “clean” diet. I have found a sustainable plan. I have been trying to lose that “last 10” (as you know) and struggling. So it is interesting that while I counted points and ate junk- I lost a lot of weight. Now, while eating very healthy, but not keeping track of calories- I can’t lose 5 pounds! It really is ALL about calories. Portion control. Yes- we should eat healthy and exercise- but for losing weight it really is about how much we eat.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Your story is similar to mine in that my healthy eating habits evolved as I lost weight. I still learn things now about food choices on a regular basis that I think helps me in my maintenance efforts.

  3. Alissa says:

    I’m not surprised either. Being able to sustain the plan is where many people fall short in their diet plans. That’s why I love Weight Watchers!

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Calories in, Calories out, and regular exercise all make the difference in weight maintenance. You are doing a great job with maintaining your weight loss – how long has it been?

  4. Jane at Keeping the Pounds off says:

    As you know, I have been maintaining a loss of over 200 pounds for several years now. I KNOW calories count but there is a big difference in the type of calories I give my body and how my body uses those calories. I eat a healthy, low fat, whole grain, low sugar diet and I maintain easily. If I eat the EXACT same number of calories but the food is processed crap, void of nutrition and full of fat and sugar, my metabolism slows and my body does not process the burn those calories the same way. It is harder to maintain, let alone lose more weight. Calories and common sense.

    Thank you for bringing light to this topic.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      There are different kinds of calories to be sure – I have known people who literally lost weight eating cheetos and other junk foods as long as their calories were in-line. Crazy and not healthy. Great point about the quality of calories making a big difference.

  5. Jody - Fit at 54 says:

    I do agree – calories – BUT I will say that how my body actually looks when I eat certain food calories vs other food calories at the same amount of calories – well, based on my experience – I do look tighter & better with cleaner foods for the same amount of calories.

    I also agree – find what works for you & that you can sustain long term. I always tell carb lovers that go on low carb diets what will happen if they start eating them again & that they would be better off finding a food plan that lets them incorporate carbs – but a better mix of them & types of the, Most learn the hard way. 😉

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Great point about the “tightness” of your body. Your body sends you signals and oftentimes shows you what works best for you. I find among people I talk to that finding the balance between carbs/protein/fats is what works and is sustainable.

  6. Amy says:

    No matter what kind of diet you eat, calories definitely do matter. If you are eating healthy food but too many calories you won’t be able to lose or maintain. BUT the healthier the food, the better you feel and the better your health. So to me they are both important and work in tandem.

  7. Dr. J says:

    Calorie uptake versus calorie utilization is the phrase I created to account for the variables in this because there are factors that modify the equation and I think phrasing it this way controls for that. For the most part, anyone who argues against the concept has a high BMI, and they don’t like that one either!

  8. ginny says:

    as an avid marathoner, for me, it has been proven over and over again, at the end of the day, it’s about calories in, calories out. many years ago, I had the belief “if I became a “marathoner” I would be THIN. not so, as proven over and over again by many marathoners. portion control (calories) is and always will be the key, IMO. and I can easily eat too many healthy calories, and stay above “my happy weight”

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Portion control is the other component in my philosophy too. I’ve seen it in my own life – even too many calories from nuts, higher calorie vegetables and healthy grains can cause weight gain.

  9. Marie@feedingfive says:

    I think calories are the main factor but not the only. For me I am a volume eater. I like to eat natural, fresh foods, I like to eat a protein source at every meal, and I like to eat a lot.

    What works for me is adding liquid eggs to my oatmeal, tofu on my daily salad, and sticking to meat and veggies for dinner. But I also love treats and snacks. I love that I can have a big ol’ bowl of Greek yogurt with fruit and homemade granola midday, and still allow for hot chocolate and a cookie after dinner.

    I guess it’s just figuring out how to spread your calories around in a way that works for you.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      That is a great strategy – adding protein to your meals to help keep you full. Spreading out your calories in a way that works for you is a smart idea. It obviously works for you because you look amazing!

  10. Deniz says:

    Hmmm, to be honest, I think the source does matter in the long run.

    Yep, getting your calories in and calories out in balance is the Holy Grail for both weight loss, and for maintenance, but I absolutely agree with most of the others who flag up just how important a healthy approach to food is.

    What constitutes ‘healthy’ and ‘sustainable’ will be different for everyone though. Don’t try telling a vegetarian that ‘healthy’ means rump steak, or a carnivore they ‘must’ survive on beans & pulses – ouch!

    Personally, I could eat low-cal crap and not gain (probably), but my body will soon tell me that this is not a great idea and I’ll both look and feel less healthy. Good, honest foods, based lots of fresh fruit and vegetables is definitely my idea of the ‘best’ source for my calories, although meats and dairy and other food play a part too. Again, balance seems to be the key.

    Other calorie sources are fine short-term, whether low-cal or not, but they wouldn’t necessarily provide me with what my body ‘needs’ as opposed to ‘wants’ on a daily basis.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I think they were talking more about whether you ate low-carb or high-protein to lose weight, whether than just the quality of the calories. But you are right about what is sustainable changes for each individual. And it will probably change as the individual ages – particularly if they are a woman. Hormonal changes and metabolic changes make a huge difference in weight maintenance.

  11. Karen@WaistingTime says:

    Oh I’m torn and have debated this myself for a long time. I get the theory of calorie math. And that would fit with the notion that what you eat doesn’t matter – only how much you eat. But it seems to me that many people, myself included, react differently to different types of foods. Like grains or refined sugars, for example. And then I’d raise the question as to what our objective should be. Weight loss, period, regardless of what we eat? Or eating healthier foods that are better for our bodies in many ways having nothing at all to do with loss?

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Eating healthier foods definitely reigns strong for me both while someone is losing weight and after they are at their healthy weight. This study focused more on whether those low-carb or high-protein diets made a difference in weight loss. The bottom line was calories rather than macronutrients.

      I admire your dedication to eating healthy foods and finding what works for you!

  12. Janis says:

    I absolutely agree — I’d take it a step further and say that there is also no such thing as a “thin” metabolism or anything like that. If someone like me, who tends to be thin, ate the exact same foods that a heavy person ate, my body would treat them precisely the same way. But I don’t have the drive to eat them. Once the nacho passes a person’s lips, it’s calories-in-vs-calories-out, because your thighs don’t care WHY you ate it. They just know that you ate it, and they’re going to turn it into fat. All of the complexity comes about once you ask WHY that nacho got past your lips. That’s where the problem lies.

    And of course health is impacted by the quality of the calories — you can spend your whole day’s worth of calories on a bunch of Snickers bars or you can eat filling, tasty food that’ll keep you going. It’s just living within a budget.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      The drive to eat. That’s a big concept. Thanks for bringing it up. My thin friends never could really understand my weight problems, because they did not have that same drive to fill up with food. They ate because they were hungry and stopped when they were full. Some of them didn’t even exercise!

  13. Taryl says:

    Think the calorie balance equation far oversimplifies things, and has been proven to be more and more inaccurate (Gary Taubes, Paul Jaminet, and excellent blogs like Suppversity all go into these studies in detail) but I still think it is a crucial part of the equation. How our specific bodies utilize energy from food DOES differ according to the food, and we aren’t furnaces in a laboratory, so the rates of utilization are much more complex than the model suggests, and yet at the end of the day if we are charting our data and the trend is up or down, increasing or decreasing food energy volume is how we manipulate that number. To that end, energy (calories) matter.

    In my case, what I eat matters more than I ever thought it did, and I do NOT believe all calories are equal. Yet, I am a calorie counter and weight tracker – both indicators rely strongly only the inputs into my body to create desirable outputs. While I am realizing that energy balance (maintenance) is more complex than it first seems, at the end of the day if I am consuming more energy than I burn, I WILL store it and gain weight. And while our bodies have sophisticated and complex methods for burning (and preventing the burn of) stored energy, creating a physiological deficit is the only way short of surgical removal to decrease fat stores.

    To that end, I agree with you :). But I am becoming more convinced, the more research I do, that the composition of our calories DOES matter both to the scale and physiological composition of our bodies. We want to maximize our lean mass, minimize our abnormal fat, and not deplete our bodies of either structural fat or minerals in the process. That requires different nutrition than most of us take in. I think the spectrum of what constitutes ideal nutrition is very broad, as our bodies have huge natural variation, but it’s safe to say the standard American diet isn’t ideal nutrition for ANY body that I’ve ever seen.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      You bring up good points as usual Taryl. The quality counts, and the calorie composition that works for you may look slightly different than that of someone else. But in the end, I still think that weight maintenance and weight loss is finding the right calorie balance for your age, your metabolic rate, your activity level, and even your gender.

  14. Maren says:

    I can’t say I’m surprised. Calories in, calories out. It’s basically that simple. If I want to spend my dinner calories on ice cream, that’s a stupid choice, but weight wise it won’t make any difference. 500 calories in ice cream is the same as 500 calories in chicken. They come from different sources, but calories = energy. And that’s all the same, no matter what the source is. 🙂

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Ice cream for dinner? That was honestly my life when I was overweight. That, and brownies for breakfast. My problem was I didn’t stop there, and I at that time in my life, didn’t really think about the healthiest choice. I agree that we would be foolhardy to just eat junk for our meals, assuming that the quality of calories didn’t matter in the long run.

  15. Lisa says:

    I never did the fad diets. For me I somehow knew that calorie counting was what worked and that’s what I did. It was simple math: eat less and move more. Calorie counting works. I lost over 100 pounds by doing so and I keep it off by still counting my calories.

  16. Roz@weightingfor50 says:

    Great post Dianne. We were talking about was is “livable” and “sustainable” at our weight watchers meeting last night. You’ve given me even more food for thought this morning. Have a good Wed.

  17. julie says:

    I think certain macronutrient proportions will enable you to feel full faster, but I certainly don’t believe in metabolic advantage. Moderate fat works better for me than lower fat, which causes me to be hungry all the time, which is not sustainable since it relies on too much will power and eventually leads me to overeat in a big way. There are some that claim that only carbs are fattening, and I will listen to one (Taubes) at a local bookstore tomorrow. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof, not just assumptions and false conclusions. Should be interesting.

    No, study didn’t surprise me at all.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Definitely yes to the macronutrient proportions making a difference. The sustainable energy from proteins and high quality carbs keeps me fuller longer than grapes or raisins. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the talk you are going to hear!

  18. kwithme says:

    My experience is that nutritious food sustains me longer and is it easier for me to reduce the amount and still feel satisfied. My measure of a “good food” is one that keeps me fueled and not feeling hungry for a proportional amount of time. For instance, a 2 egg omelet stuffed with veggies and a little cheese (1/2 slice or 1TBSP feta) and a piece of toast will keep me fueled and not hungry for about 3-4 hours. Where as if I eat a pkg of Poptarts (400 cals) , I could still eat that omelet 30 mins later. There are lot of other reasons Poptarts are not good for you but regarding cutting amounts and calories, it really fails the keeping me full test.

    I did not count calories for my last 45 lbs. It makes me mental, and I find myself swapping and hoarding those numbers. I came up with several meals that meet the high nutrition and satiety requirements and eat those. Maintenance has not been too bad because I continue to eat variations of those meal with small additions.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I like your measure of a “good food.” I too look for those foods and food combos that keep me full and help me avoid my natural tendency to snack and graze my way through the day. And Poptarts. They are just a waste of calories aren’t they? No sustainability and I don’t even love the taste anymore!

  19. Mary says:

    I definitely agree, and am not at all surprised. This revelation was, what I think, made the difference for me and my weight loss this time around. I’d always avoid my favorite foods because they were “bad.” Foods aren’t good or bad – excess is. Finding my own balance has been the key to my success, I’d say.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I’m with you on the “good” versus “bad” food philosophy. When someone tells me I can’t have it, that’s exactly when I want it. I’m sure that says something about me. 🙂 Good for you on finding the balance that works for you!

  20. Melisa @ Achieving Equilibrium says:

    This makes sense to me. However, I think where the calories come from have a big effect on how easy it is to stay within your calorie budget. For example, I would be a lot more hungry if I ate 1400 calories of chocolate bars or chips vs. 1400 calories of fruits and veggies and lean protein. There’s a huge difference in the bulk volume of food for one thing! The other thing is I find that eating protein keeps me fuller for longer, so that helps too. But yes, when it comes down to it, I agree it’s just about the math (i.e calories in vs. calories out).

  21. Babbalou says:

    While I believe calories matter, if you read the details of the study it doesn’t really prove much since the participants didn’t adhere to the diet they were assigned. Also, the amount of carbs in the lower carb diets were significantly higher than in a real low-carb diet, so it’s not meaningful to use this study to come to any conclusions about the effectiveness of a true low-carb diet. The results of this study show that if you are assigned a particular diet and don’t really adhere to it, the particular details of the diet aren’t that relevant in terms of weight loss. So no real news there in my opinion. I totally believe that for some people, and I am one, low carb is the only way to lose weight. Seriously I spent 20 years during which I was very active (running at a pretty fast clip for a MINIMUM of 5 miles a day, 6 days a week) and yet My weight crept up a few pounds every year until I was fat. My diet was pretty healthy, lots of produce, no fast food and only an occasional restaurant meal. I buy NO packaged food other than canned tomatoes and beans. For 7 of these years I was a vegetarian. In desperation I counted calories and managed to go a month at a time on1200-1500 calories a day, supplementing my running with additional daily exercise. My weight never varied, I was constantly hungry and didn’t lose more than a pound or two over the course of a month. The calculations of calories in vs. calories out showed I should be losing a pound a week…it didn’t happen. My conclusion is that some people are fortunate and can lose weight simply by eating fewer calories. And some of us just cannot. Metabolism is complex and can vary by individual. I do have Hashimoto’s, which is a thyroid disorder, I have a family history full of diabetes (in family members who are quite thin), I am a good 10 years plus post-menopause. These could be factors, I don’t know. But I can tell you without a doubt, and my doctor can back me up on this, that only a low carb diet has worked for me. Plus it greatly improved my cholesteral results as well, my triglyceride level is 1/3 of what is was before I started the low carb plan about 5 years ago.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      They did have a big drop-out rate. This isn’t the only study out there that came up with the same conclusion that both high-protein and high-carb diets can affect weight loss. Several studies talk about that in the end, it really is about the calories.

      The bigger question for me becomes the sustainability and healthfulness of the calories we eat. A candy bar and two apples have about the same number of calories, but which one is better for us.

      Metabolism among individuals is individual as well. Age, gender, etc. all play roles in what works. Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. Congrats on conquering this and bringing your cholesterol and triglyceride levels down! That’s a huge accomplishment.

  22. Sharon says:

    I totally agree that simple weight loss is a matter of calories in vs calories burned, however, I strongly believe and can personally attest to the fact that I can lose 25 pounds on a 1400 calorie diet of whatever I want that equals 1400 or I can lose 25 pounds on a no sugar, no white flour, very few grains but ample mix of protein, veggies, fruits, dairy that equals 1400 and at the end, my BODY composition will be totally different. My hips and thighs glue sugar to them, but when I lose the clean eating way, the weight comes off proportionately. I have pictures to prove this theory!!!

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      You and Jody both mentioned this and you are right. No one wants to be squishy, and the foods you eat in conjunction with your exercise choices definitely play a role. Also, belly fat is often associated with unhealthier, high fat foods.

  23. E. Jane says:

    This is an excellent post and a very good discussion. I know the number of calories does matter in weight loss, and we also need to provide fuel for our bodies in the form of healthy food. However, diet adherance is very important for long-term weight loss and maintenance. I’ve lost weight eating no carbs (the terrible Stillman diet), an early WW diet (very restrictive), and a diabetic diet of 5-7 starches a day. With the first two, I regained much more than I lost, and in fact, the low carb Stillman diet was the beginning of true obesity for me. With the balanced diebetic diet, I regained some, but not all.

    In recent months, out of desperation to lose, I have again tried low carb, some liquid plans, etc. They have not worked, and have actually led to some weight gain. I am now working with with a daily calorie cap, using a balance of protein, grain, dairy, fats, fruits and veggies at most meals. Two daily snacks are also allowed. I count calories using a computer based program, and that has really helped me be accurate and feel as though I am honest with myself. My fad diet days are over. I do believe that “calories in and calories out” are the key in the end.

  24. quix says:

    Yes. I spent 6 months with my nutritionist cleaning up my diet. Feel great but did nothing for my weight. Embarking again on calorie counting.

  25. Becca says:

    That study doesn’t surprise me at all! I have noticed that no matter what I do, counting calories helps the most! What I am shocked to read is that people can lose weight on a high-carb diet…how????

  26. Shannon Clark says:

    I agree that it’s the calories in vs. calories out that matters in weight loss. When I decided back in December that I was going to train to run a 5k this year (my ultimate goal), I said I wasn’t going to change the way I eat (because I LOVE to eat!). About 3 weeks into my training I figured out that it was MUCH harder to do those jog/walk intervals if I had eaten a lot during the day, so I started looking at cutting my calorie intake. I decided on 1200 calories each day, felt like I was starving in the beginning, but am used to it now. I try to eat lighter than I did before, but I don’t deprive myself because I KNOW what would happen! 🙂

    I’m starting my 6th week of the Couch25k training tomorrow, and have lost 14 pounds so far. I’m loving my life!!! 🙂


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