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There Is No Such Thing As A "Calorie" (To Your Body)
sp_BlogLink Read the original blog post
March 20, 2013
4:29 pm

Had to bookmark this one. Good article.

March 20, 2013
4:30 pm

Hi JS,

This is a good article. I wanted to nit on some of it, while nodding to it's overall excellence and presentability.

So, can the brain really only burn glucose? My few years of slowly absorbing nutritional and metabolism information left me with the impression that around 3/4 of it can run on fatty acids and/or ketones, but that 20-25% must run on glucose (does fructose work here?).

And secondly, while I think you are correct about eating like a predator, the logic you are using in your final bullet point doesn't seem solid. If it was solid you could make the same argument about any animal and we know right off the bat that animals are evolved to eat substances which are in different forms than the substances their actual body is formed of. I'm sure human's do quite a bit of that as well, even relying on gut flora to handle some of it as you mentioned. I guess the ultimate test would be, what foods can we eat, and use, that have no recognizable presence in the body. Fiber is clearly one of them. We can eat fiber, but none of our tissues (that i'm naively aware of) are made out of fiber, nor do we burn fiber as fuel, etc...

Sorry for being critical. I read articles as a skeptic because many of the people I would like to share the articles with are skeptical, so I have to watch out for gotchas 🙂 Otherwise the information gets minimized. Baby out with the bathwater.

Take care,

March 20, 2013
4:48 pm

@ Brian Beaven:

"But, at the end of the day, it still remains that if you consume more energy than you expend, you will accummulate fat."

Actually that's not true at all. Maybe you will gain muscle, or bone, or connective tissue or intestinal villi or capillaries. If you had said "weight" instead of "fat" you'd probably be correct, but most people aren't _really_ is opposed to gaining weight, they are opposed to gaining fat beyond what looks/feels good. And the second point I have is that what you have basically done is stated that you are consuming energy, and that the only place that energy can go is to expenditure or fat. This is completely false.

What you could say is: If the food you eat is not used for anything other than energy expenditure then the net energy excess of the food you eat that is not utilized it will be stored (or excreted, who knows). And I don't think anyone is really arguing with that. Even though it's not super helpful or relevant. I'm sure that in a highly specific personal context a gram of food contains X amount of "energy" and I'm perfectly happy to define that based on joules, watts, calories, whatever. But the simplification of CICO implies that the only possible outcomes of the food are based on the energy content. I think JS did a great job of explaining how that's completely false and I don't really see you presenting any good argument against it.

You can even see in my re-wording of your argument that it already starts leading one towards the thought pattern of "why am i eating foods that are only good for energy metabolism and expenditure" and hence why many people prefer a nutrient rich diet, with sufficient energy to fulfill their needs (which for _most_ 'paleo' people is pretty well auto-regulated, it's called hunger 🙂 ).


March 20, 2013
6:54 pm

I have one point:

If excess starch is also a problem then how many tribes are healthy inspite of high amount of carbs.
"The Kitavan diet is 69% carb, 21% fat, and 10% protein. The Okinawan diet is even more carb-heavy, at 85% carb, 9% protein and 6% fat. The Tukisenta diet is astonishingly high in carbohydrate: 94.6% according to extensive studies in the 60s and 70s. All of these cultures are fit and lean."

March 20, 2013
8:25 pm

The body burns ATP, not calories. Also, the base units of a calorie is kg*m^2/s^2. If one is interested in body composition, the obvious question is how does one extract the mass component (kg) out of a measure of heat?

Anyone that spouts off about CICO has no basic understanding of science nor understanding of metabolism. They're a nuisance and should be ignored.

March 20, 2013
8:36 pm

"so to lose a pound of fat you need to use 3500 calories?
and yet a pound of butter has more than 4000 calories?
therefore: you eat a pound of butter and end up with less calories: you’ve just destroyed matter!!"

(From an above comment)

My head hurts. Are people really this stupid? Do you understand what *density* is?

Anyway, suffice to say I disagree with this article, but it'll take a bit to articulate why.

March 20, 2013
10:11 pm
heather Siemaszko

Wow JS love your website and articles!! I was introduced to your site via the latest and fantastic Everyday Paleo and Fitness Lifestyle podcast produced every week by Sarah Fragoso and Jason Seib. Jason talked about your recent article on whether our health is really measured by feeling "just fine". I was entrigued and checked your site out. Well I have spent the last 3 hours reading your wonderfully written articles and I totally agree with him! I would love to hear you sometime in the near future on their podcast - I'm sure Jason and Sarah's audience (including me!) would love to get even just a small part of what you produce here each week. thank you so much.

March 20, 2013
10:34 pm

JS, I should add, CICO is a necessary effect, not the cause. We are all bound by the Laws of Nature. That's probably the root of the confusion for those who don't understand science nor metabolism.

As wrong as they already are, calorie counters neglect to consider the thermodynamic efficiency of human metabolism. Calorie counters are just a train wreck...

March 21, 2013
3:56 am
Forum Posts: 37
Member Since:
September 20, 2012
sp_UserOfflineSmall Offline

js290 said:

Calorie counters are just a train wreck...


Because that system of CICO encourages you to pick the food that you can make the most palatable with shortcuts (which is usually something processed, artificial flavors and flavor enhancers) for the least amount of calories.


And keeps you on the corporate/processed food wagon.


So you haven't solved the 'more is AWESOME!' problem (whether that's food quantity/food coloring/food umami taste tingling).  You've just put it off to deal with at a later date. 


*If you ever do deal with it*

March 21, 2013
4:53 am

So if building with protein and glucogenesis costs energy, does that mean you never get 4 calories from a gram of protein? Fat & carbs too?

March 21, 2013
7:05 am
eddie watts

noko: please note the tongue firmly in the cheek.

conventional wisdom states that a pound of body fat contains 3500 calories. look any where you like and you will find this number quoted all over the place.

my point is that 1 pound of butter actually contains more than that, so how is this possible?

(this is all ignoring the TEF calclulations that state you'd need to ingest 4200 excess calories to gain a pound of fat. which is just as stupid)

JS i'd challenge anyone to eat a pound of butter a day. i mean i love the stuff. but no way i could do that! i experimentally tried adding 50g butter to my post workout meal for a few weeks last year around dec. first week i felt amazing, mood, sleep, libido, recovery etc etc all went up.
but after the first week it went away again. and eating that 50g butter became a chore so i stopped.
i would certainly not consider myself to be deficient in sat fat, but i suppose i must have been?

March 21, 2013
2:32 pm

I track my food intake pretty closely, my net caloric intake over the past month should have resulted in a slight weight loss (according to various calculators based on my weight, and activity level weight training, sprinting, and brisk walking 5 days a week).

Over the past month I've added 2 pounds! Calorie magic!

March 21, 2013
4:34 pm

Sooooo, how many calories should we be eating???

Just kidding. I find the concept of 'calories' very useful. Eating like a predator is good advice, unless you kill an elephant in a watermelon will still become a fat-ass unless you limit overall (dum-dee-dee-dum) CALORIES!

March 21, 2013
4:58 pm

All you ever wanted to know about TEF:

"We conclude that a calorie is a calorie. From a purely thermodynamic point of view, this is clear because the human body or, indeed, any living organism cannot create or destroy energy but can only convert energy from one form to another. In comparing energy balance between dietary treatments, however, it must be remembered that the units of dietary energy are metabolizable energy and not gross energy. This is perhaps unfortunate because metabolizable energy is much more difficult to determine than is gross energy, because the Atwater factors used in calculating metabolizable energy are not exact. As such, our food tables are not perfect, and small errors are associated with their use.

In addition, we concede that the substitution of one macronutrient for another has been shown in some studies to have a statistically significant effect on the expenditure half of the energy balance equation. This has been observed most often for high-protein diets. Evidence indicates, however, that the difference in energy expenditure is small and can potentially account for less than one-third of the differences in weight loss that have been reported between high-protein or low-carbohydrate diets and high-carbohydrate or low-fat diets. As such, a calorie is a calorie. Further research is needed to identify the mechanisms that result in greater weight loss with one diet than with another. "

March 21, 2013
7:51 pm

"noko: please note the tongue firmly in the cheek.

conventional wisdom states that a pound of body fat contains 3500 calories. look any where you like and you will find this number quoted all over the place.

my point is that 1 pound of butter actually contains more than that, so how is this possible?"

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing; you keep making these idiotic statements without even reading what I wrote. Let's break it down:

-First of all, the 3500 calories = a pound of fat is just an estimate. It's not an exact number. A pound of muscle will take something around 300-400 calories.

I can already see your brain lighting up:

"But how can a pound of fat have 3500 calories, when a pound of muscle has less than a tenth of that?"

As I said before, density. Two different objects can have the same mass but different amounts of energy; that's one of the most obvious facts in existence, yet you seem to neglect that because you're colored by biases.

As for the actual article:

This entire article is just an extremely long-winded strawman argument. The only people who misunderstand calories in/calories out to this degree are, ironically, your paleo/keto/vegans etc.

Of course your body will not convert calories perfectly. Protein has the highest thermic effect, followed by carbohydrates, followed by fat (but I thought carbs were literally Satan incarnated?!?!?!). However, most people, when attempting to "disprove calories in/calories out", completely neglect the "out" part of the equation. The food you eat will affect your energy output - for example, protein will burn a fair amount of calories just through metabolism, a thyroid condition will mean that your BMR is lower, eating more will tend to increase NEAT, increasing your net output, etc.

However, it is a law of physics that every calorie you consume is going *somewhere*. If you've calculated your expenditure at 2000, and you're eating, say, 1500 calories and not losing weight (after more than a few days, because weight fluctuates within the couple pound range), you need to cut your intake more or increase your output. Why? Because the body is a complex system - maybe your NEAT has been lowered, thus lowering your net output, or maybe your caloric intake *estimate* was slightly overshot.

This does not disprove calories in/calories out, however, all it proves is that people don't understand what calories in/calories out *fucking means*.

Here's an excellent article which will help your average blind fool understand CICO:

Also, statements like "your body is not a calorie counter" are just ridiculous and should be laughed at. Nobody is saying that; that doesn't mean that your body isn't a system, and all systems are subject to the laws of thermodynamics.

So, in conclusion, do we always know with 100% accuracy our intake/output? No, but we can estimate it with a high degree of accuracy, and if you're not seeing fast enough results, that means you need to ADJUST. Adjust, you say? You mean I have to actually act like an intelligent human being and adjust my strategy when it's not working? Yes.

Sorry for the condescending tone, but nothing works me up like reading stupid comments. To your credit, Stanton, this article wasn't necessarily incorrect (besides the title, but I think you just went for shock value there). However, it's arguing against a strawman. It's akin to a creationist claiming that bananas disprove evolution or something.

March 21, 2013
9:25 pm
Forum Posts: 9
Member Since:
January 4, 2012
sp_UserOfflineSmall Offline

"Sorry for the condescending tone, but nothing works me up like reading stupid comments. To your credit, Stanton, this article wasn't necessarily incorrect (besides the title, but I think you just went for shock value there). However, it's arguing against a strawman. It's akin to a creationist claiming that bananas disprove evolution or something."


Temper tantrums on Gnolls...hmm take a chill pill and calm down..this is a discussion , civility is not essential but hey it helps.


The CICO argument relies on being able to know exactly what goes in and out to prove its how many CICO fans excrete into test tubes to evaluate their output.. hmmm not very many.

There are some very exciting experiments going on in the microbiome field, and the upshot is that some people have microbes that chow on fibre and gain a massive caloric advantage from short chain fatty acids that microbes excrete ( making more food for you )..others don't..does this make calculating CICO bet. SO even if you measure to the gram everything going in, live in a sealed unit so you can calculate the heat output and so on.. you still cannot acurately calculate the CI part...microbes are tricky little suckers eh...

J expounds well on the concept that CICO is over simplified..take away message is accept there are many more factors to take into account.


March 22, 2013
8:29 am
eddie watts

noko: well done on sidestepping the actual points raised and knocking down ones that were not made.
then claiming Stanton is making a strawman!

this is brilliant.
your poor attempt at snarkiness i can overlook with ease, i'm used to vegan responses personally so you'd need to try harder to upset me.
(even then...getting upset at some person on the internet? i don't think so)

cyclops has covered it quite well, but the main issue with CICO is that we (by that i mean humans) can only control the CI part of that equation and not the CO part, indirectly we can of course by exercise, cold therapy seems to be producing results for some people, controlling macro nutrient intake etc etc

but CICO theory holds thrives on the idea that we do have control, which is misleading at best.
At Best.
and at worst an absolute lie.

care to disprove that? your own post reflects that you agree with this? so what is the actual strawman you are claiming is being made here?
think i've read that lyle mcdonald write up before, it is good, but i don't think he is disagreeing in principle with what is being said overall.
ok before posting i read through the article, i have def read it before and memory did serve me correct.

so overall i think you're actually agreeing with JS' article. it is more complicated that CICO as put forward by weight watchers et al?

March 22, 2013
11:06 am
Mr. Chevy

I love what this article is all about! I have been telling people for years to quit discussing 'Gallons' when talking about cars and trucks. No engine runs on 'gallons', they run on gas or diesel! You can't put 10 gallons of water in a car and expect it to run.

I hate seeing "40mpg". MPG's of what????? Water???? We need to start using real terms like BTU's/liter/hydrocarbon-based/liquid propellant or something more accurate than 'gallons' it's so stupid.

Same as calories. Calories of what??? Shit???

March 22, 2013
7:18 pm

I've got to give you credit, Chevy, your wit far surpasses my own.


"The CICO argument relies on being able to know exactly what goes in and out to prove its how many CICO fans excrete into test tubes to evaluate their output.. hmmm not very many."

I think you misunderstand. "Output" is not poop, it's how many calories you're burning.

Like I said, nobody ever has claimed that we can 100% accurately track every last calorie in and every last calorie output. However, we can do so accurately enough - based on estimates - to gain/lose weight when we want to. That's the principles of calories in/calories out, which really isn't that hard to understand. It baffles me that 90% of the commenters here are arguing against a position that nobody is taking. What's that called again?

Right. A strawman.

Here's how you count calories, if you're doing so to lose weight:

You calculate your BMR, based on activity, weight, etc. You factor in exercise and other lifestyle factors, and boom, you've got a caloric target. Now you keep track of the calories you consume. You track yourself over weeks, and if you're not losing weight, you're either getting the in or the out part wrong, so you adjust.

Another strawman people try to knock down is to argue that restricting calories but still eating shitty food is unhealthy. Duh. Once again, nobody is saying that your micronutrients, macronutrients and anti-nutrients aren't important to take care of. It's entirely irrelevant to calories in/calories out, however. Look - if you forcefeed somebody a ton of grassfed meat, sweet potatoes, and whatever other "healthy" foods you want, such that their calories in exceeds their output, they will gain weight. In terms of weight gain/loss, the food quality doesn't matter, it simply determines the health of your diet. I will add, though, that obviously eating an unhealthy diet can cause issues (for example, a thyroid problem will lower your caloric output significantly).

So yes, Eddie, this article is a strawman. That's about the only part of your post I'll even address, because your post was honestly completely devoid of any evidence or even meaningful discussion.

And no, I'm not a vegan, I eat paleo myself. But I don't swallow the new-age horsepoop that often follows it.

Summary: CICO is an estimation, from which you adjust if you don't see results. It's only about gaining/losing weight, not the health of a diet. Yes, a calorie is a calorie, it's a unit of energy.

March 22, 2013
8:54 pm
GiGi Eats Celebritie

Thank goodness I don't put myself through the agony of counting calories!!! -- Clearly it would have been a waste of my time! LOL!

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