Calorie Math – and problems with it

You hear this from a lot of the fitness pros:

“Calories in = calories out.  You can choose to burn or store them.  It’s simple physics”.

The problem is, this is a highly complex issue that a lot of people saying this have no idea about.  They just tell you to eat less and move more.

Simple, they said.

What you have been presented is a “fact”.  Well, it is an it isn’t.  Confusing, huh?  The marketing of people over the last 40 years or so has been to blame YOU for being fat.

Hypothesis 1 – calories in = calories out.

This has told you that you’ve been fat your whole life because you don’t understand simple physics.  You are too lazy.  You don’t move enough.  There’s so much food available and you are just a glutton.  YOU are the problem.


Hypothesis 2 – we are fat because we’re hungry.  Calories in and calories out is a SIDE effect of the causation of being hungry all the damn time.

This hypothesis is what has actually helped me lose weight.  If you cure the hunger in people, your body will automatically regulate itself and lose weight.


Let’s look at the math and then talk about the competing theories.

A pound is equal to 3500 calories.  I’m sure if you’re reading this, you are probably keenly aware of this by now.  The thinking is that if you just cut back on 500 calories per day, you can then lose 1 pound of fat per week.

Cut back from what?

This is one of the problems I had my whole life – I’d do these drastic calorie reductions.  “Well, if I just cut back 500 calories and exercised 500 calories, I’d then create a 1,000 calorie deficit and lose 2 pounds per week”.  Then, you’d see people on the “Biggest loser” drop like 5-15 pounds per week.  You have all the thin people saying, “see – if you just tried harder, like them, you’d lose it”.

This is frustrating.  It’s misleading.  It’s dangerous.  That show has been mostly “debunked”, and a vast majority of those people have also gained all the weight back and then some, with studies suggesting they permanently broke their metabolism.  I’m not so sure of that last statement, but that show was a lot of smoke and mirrors.

Let’s look further into the math.  As I stated in the previous chapters, calories burned are in two different areas – BMR (basal metabolic rate ) and TDEE (total daily energy expenditure).  The BMR includes all of the energy needed to keep the lights on.  For example, breathing, sleeping, thinking, and even blinking.  The TDEE is anything above this – typing on a keyboard for hours, walking to get the mail, loading dishes into the dishwasher, taking the dog for a walk, hiking, etc.

I had learned my whole life that an adult male should be eating 1800-2000 calories.  If you turned over any package of food, this was clearly demonstrated.  So – I listed to everyone.  I cut my calories by 500 or so.  I’d routinely diet and eat 1200-1300 calories a day.  I’d run.  A LOT.  I played all kinds of sports in high school, college, and even after.

I was an athlete stuck in a fat suit.  No matte how much I dieted, this is what happened:

  1. I’d initially lose 5 pounds in the first week.  I’d be so excited.  I’d do the math on how long it would take me to get to my ideal weight.  I’d be starving all the time.  using the food pyramid, most of my calories were breads, pastas, grains.  I’d eat cereal, perhaps eat some pasta and sauce for lunch, and maybe eat spaghetti O’s and a bagel for dinner.  Maybe added some fruit.
  2. The weight would be coming off.  I’m hungry 24×7.  I’m eating 1200 calories per day of mostly carbs.  In the first month, I’ve taken off 10-20 pounds!!
  3. In month 2, it hits me like a wave.  I’m tired all the time.  STARVING.  I’m craving certain foods for energy.  I’m drinking tons of diet soda and not the real thing.  My workouts are suffering.  My sleep is terrible.  The scale stops moving.
  4. For 4-6 weeks, the scale isn’t moving, and I might start to gain weight back.  The hunger and cravings are insane.  I’m tired to the point where I’m having problems paying attention.  I can’t workout.  If I just tried HARDER, I’d lose more weight.  The hungriness all the time is making me an asshole to everyone.  People pull me aside and tell me I should really think about losing weight and I’m fantasizing about pulling a “fatality” on them like what’s seen in Mortal Kombat.
  5. Injury.  My knees or hips are now hurting from running.  Maybe even my feet.  I forgot my lunch and I’m so hungry I could eat my face.  I cave and get mcDonald’s.  I get a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, fries, soda, and a double cheeseburger.  Suddenly, I fee better.  I’m sharper, I have energy, and the scale went down 3 pounds??

The above is what seemed to happen to me 20-30 times in my life.  I think most people who have lost weight go through some of the same struggles.  If you were just a stronger person and not so weak, you, too, could live the dream life everyone else is having.

But what about the damn hunger and calorie math?

Here’s the big problem I had with information my whole life – that damn 1800-2000 calorie marker to cut from.  When I first saw my trainer in fall of 2016 and she told me to eat 2850 calories per day, I could have hugged her.  What?  A fitness professional telling ME to eat that much?

As I talked about previously, being about 350 pounds, my BMR was somewhere around 2800 calories.  With all of the activities I did at such a big weight, I could easily burn 1,000 calories in a day from exercise.  So – she told me essentially to “eat at your BMR and we’ll create the deficit in the gym“.

In later chapters, I’m going to burn down the house of sugar – but if you DO eat lots of carbs, you have to count calories and portion everything for weight loss.  THIS is the target you want to hit.  Go after your BMR calories.  Create the deficit with your TDEE.  So, maybe you walk 20-40 minutes a day.  Walk further from your car at work.  Take a 5 minute walk every hour at work.  Hit the gym for weight training 1-2 times a week.  When you remove most carbs from your diet (something I will preach later), you have no need to ever calorie count again.  Your body will actually TELL you to stop eating.  Can you imagine that???

One thing to add here.  The BMR you are using – this number is affected by your muscle mass, a lot.  So remember I was 350 pounds and my BMR was 2800?  You may have 190 pound body builders who “cut” to 2700 calories a day from 2500.  And they have 8-12% bodyfat.

So all of that running you are doing when you are really heavy and eating lots of carbs?  You tend to break down proteins in your muscles – which is why I’d always get injured 2-3 months in.  I’d lose weight, but what happened to me was a form of homeostasis.

My body was demanding maybe 2300 calories to keep the lights on.  I was giving it 1200.  Over time, my BMR would reduce to 1200ish.  My body would cleave the protein on my muscles because sustaining all of that muscle was costing a lot to sustain.  Your brain requires like 600 calories a day to function, so all of that sleepiness was shutting my brain down.  Apparently, you even BLINK slower.

Sometimes, cutting MORE calories is NOT GOOD.

You think – if this is calorie math, and just physics, if I create enough of a deficit each week and exercise more, I can lose 5 pounds per week.  And THAT is the diet trap – right there.

I can tell you I have lost weight this time around two different ways – one morphed into the other.  Both will work.  BOTH had solved hungriness.

Method 1 – Do calorie math.  Examine your BMR and eat enough macros to cover your BMR.  Over a month or two, you might be able to gradually reduce this as you lose weight.  Split your calories into 40% carbs, 30% fat, and 30% protein.  This is called “If It Fits Your Macros”, or IIYFM, or “flexible dieting”.  I would recommend ANYONE to start this, tomorrow.  My problems with dieting previously was that I had too much of an emphasis on carbs, and I drove my fats way down and had protein sparingly, if at all.  This led to insulin resistance and the lack of fats and protein led to extreme hunger and nutrient deficiencies.  If you want to eat 3-5 times a day, use this.  I rail on Weight Watchers for a ton of reasons – one of which is “fruit is zero points”.  This means you can eat a bag of grapes, 3 bananas, and a whole watermelon and you’re cool.  The problem with this is that these items are high in fructose and calories – and if you only have so many calories per day – these items do not add to satiety, at all.

Method 2 – cut your carbs to next to nothing.  Unlike the above method, rather than count calories, you count carbs.  I had tracked my calories on this for months, then ditched it after awhile.  After doing this for a time, you aren’t even hungry.  The challenge you have is eating enough.  I rave about this method because it solves the hunger issue, while you get tons of fats and proteins.  Despite what you have heard, this way of eating is not a fad and is entirely safe.  The fad has been the last 50 years of how we have been eating, and we’ll get way more into this later.


So – for ME.  Let’s look at hypothesis 1 and 2 above.  If you strictly look at “CICO” (Calories in, calories out), you would have me starving all of the time.  The mistakes I made most of my life, you might be able to avoid with method 1 of eating above.

  1. I ate wayyyyyy too little food.  I thought everyone’s target calories are 1800-2000 per day.
  2. I exercised WAYYY too much with steady state cardio.  This led to too much calories being burned and me losing precious body muscle.  This ultimately led to lowering my BMR and getting injured.
  3. I focused too much on carbs.  You hear that runners “carb load”.  Well, you need plenty of fats and protein in your diet to not be hungry.  If you are able to hit your BMR with not being hungry – you can do a lot of walking, hiking, etc and lose plenty of weight with CICO.


Some other dangers of CICO.

  • Apparently, food labeling can be off as much as 20%.  So when a package says it is 500 calories, it might actually be 400.  Or 600.  You just don’t know.
  • Your BMR is an estimate.  Ask 20 different trainers and 20 different websites how many calories you burn with your BMR and each answer will be different.  However, the vast majority of these are within single digit percentages of each other.  We all know the skinny guy who can eat 6,000 calories day and not gain, and the 350 pound guy who looks at a bowl of rice and gains 3 pounds.  For most people, this is a good ballpark.
  • Your exercise calories burned are wrong.  That cardio machine at the gym might give you different numbers than the treadmill on your home machine.  Or, that website might be off.  The truth is, no one really has any idea how many calories you are burning over the course of 20 minutes at your weight.  There’s some decent guesses, but there is no machine that can tell you EXACTLY.
  • Your TDEE has your BMR plus your extra activities.  No one knows what “active” or “inactive” or “highly active” is.  So your TDEE might be a number that is 1.5 times your BMR.  For example, if your BMR is 2000 and you are “active”, perhaps that means you can eat 3,000 to match your TDEE and not gain or lose any weight.  So my whole life, I thought people ate 1,800-2,000 calories to not gain or lose?  That was wrong.  A vast majority of people are eating probably 2200-2800 and not gaining or losing based on their TDEE.


The big problems with above are accuracy.

So – I don’t know exactly what my BMR is, but I have a rough estimate.  I don’t know my TDEE – but I can guess within 500 calories a day.  I have no idea of the calories of how much each exercise I’ve ever done.  Oh, and to top it off, all food calorie numbers can be off by 20%.

I want you to really, really read the above paragraph.

Yet, you have physicists and skinny exercise people telling you that you are stupid for not doing calorie math correctly.

I can tell you, that using something like MyFitnessPal will help you understand the makeup of your food.  It will help you comprehend what 8 oz of meat is as opposed to 16 oz.  You will see how many calories your pasta is.  One problem I had in my dieting at times was I severely, severely undercounted calories in pasta.  And, to top it off, I’d be hungry 3 hours later.

The calorie math…is sort of a myth.  I say that because there’s no one on this planet who can actually put the EXACT numbers into the equation.

Jonathan Bailor is one of my heroes, and how I eventually got away from calorie counting.  He wrote a book called, “The Calorie Myth” and does a speech on it on YouTube.  Once I watched his content and read the book, I stopped calorie counting – forever.

He essentially says this – if you control the QUALITY of the food you eat, it will AUTOMATICALLY control the QUANTITY you eat.

This leads to my next chapter on IIFYM.  What you need to initially out of your diet over time.  I’ll get to more advanced topics much later, but the 20 or 30 years that you killed your body will not be reversed in 1 week.  You need to embrace this process to heal yourself, and some of this requires baby steps.  If you jump ahead too far – you risk going back to where you started.