Calorie Counting: Why It Works For Some And Not For Others

by Dr. David Minkoff June 23, 2021 5 min read

Athletic woman resting on a dock next to a foggy lake in the woods.

From the upcoming Guide To Lean Bulking & Fat Loss

Calorie Counting & Macronutrients: Proteins, Fats and Carbs:

Ask anyone about bulking and cutting (adding muscle and losing fat) and they’ll bring up calories and macronutrients.

Calories are, very basically, a measurement of how much potential energy is in a food. Potential because some of it will be used as energy while some will not. This can be energy which is “burned” right now for physical activity (sugars or fats) or energy stored for later use (body fat and stored sugars).

Macronutrients are the foods needed in large amounts for your body to operate: Carbohydrates (sugars), Proteins and Fats. And each one has a different amount of calories per gram: a gram of fat gives 9 calories and a gram of carbs or protein give 4. So most people break these three things down and count how many calories each has and use that to determine what they’re going to eat.

Now, some people say calorie counting is the only thing that works to gain muscle and lose fat. Then different people say it’s not just the calorie amounts, but which ratio of the macronutrients that you consume: fats, carbs and protein. And then some just say calories have nothing to do with it at all.

But what is it? Does calorie counting work or not? And which ratio of protein, fat and carb is best?

The truth is, they’re all right, because there isn’t an absolute yes or no to the above questions, or even an exact optimum percentage of those three macronutrients — because we’re looking at the wrong thing.

Calorie counting is too general — we need to get specific

Just dividing calories between proteins, fats and carbs is too general. Way too general. It’s two dimensional. We need to enter the third dimension on this. Or fourth or fifth.

A calorie, by definition, is: “The energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water through 1 °C and is often used to measure the energy value of foods.”

The above is true… But how does this help us achieve what we want?

Let’s get practical here for a minute. If 1 gram of carbohydrates is 4 calories, then we now know we can raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 4 degrees celsius. Great! Because when I’m in the gym that’s exactly what I’m trying to do, get some water boiling!

Alright, so in the above, a gram of fat gives 9 calories and carbs and protein give 4. Good. All true and useful — if we’re trying to heat water.

But, if you’re like me, then you’re counting calories for a different reason. To build muscle or lose fat or both.

And when we approach it from that view we need to look at not just how many calories each food contains — but what their effect is on our hormones and body and how those calories will actually be used.

It’s not just calories from food, but the type of food that’s important

We can say that carbs raise insulin (a hormone) and too much carbs and insulin raises fat stores.

True. But which ones? Are we eating a couple of apples or drinking a Coke? Each have the same amounts of carbs and yet each will produce a very different reactions in the body, both hormonally and in how they’re used.

A Coke will spike insulin almost immediately and goes in too fast for most bodies to use it or even see it as energy (unless you have a super fast metabolism, in which case we don’t like you). This almost wholly triggers fat creation in most people. It will also raise cortisol levels, another hormone that both increases fat and breaks down muscle (not to mention spoiling your mood and ability to sleep well).

But a couple of apples will hit much more slowly, raising insulin levels slowly, but also producing less insulin overall. They’re also good for lowering cortisol levels. And the body will have enough time to see them as energy and use them for energy when you consume them, with a much lower likelihood of being converted to fat.

Same amount of carbs. Same amount of calories — very different effects.

See the difference? Being too general leads to differing results and, so, differing conclusions. We need to get more specific. Not in a way that’s utterly complex and no one could ever follow. But in a way that can be followed, and is effective.

It's the same with proteins. Whole eggs give three times the amount of usable protein as whey, gram for gram. The two are not equals. This is because each one has a different set of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Some of these your body can use to build new protein and some will be converted to sugar. But each protein source will give a different amount of calories used for energy or fat storage and a different amount used for actual muscle building.

Omega 6 vs Omega 3 — Fat Gain vs Fat Loss

And when we get into fats we’re in a whole new world, because some fats will almost certainly be stored as fat in the body and cause all sorts of trouble, while others can either be stored as body fat or used as energy, and still others cannot be stored at all and will only be used for energy.

Some of these fats even have significant effects on our hormones.

High Omega 6 fats will lead to high cortisol (stress hormone that stores fat and breaks down muscle), raised inflammation, low testosterone, low growth hormone, high estrogen in men and women and fat gain.

However, raising Omega 3 fats will result in lowering cortisol, increased testosterone and growth hormone, balanced estrogen and fat loss.

Same amount of fat, same amount of calories, but different types and different effects. Both are actually necessary, but they have to be in balance.

In fact, while opinions differ, they should be in a ratio of about 4:1 Omega 6 to 3, all the way to 1:1 Omega 6 to 3.

But do you know what most of us have if we live in America? Average ratios of about 20:1 and even as high as 40:1.

If all we did was replace out high Omega 6 sources (almost all packaged foods these days, even organic ones, and non-grass fed beef) with high Omega 3 sources, inflammation would come down, hormones would start to balance, fat would be much easier to lose, blood pressure would reduce, energy levels would rise and muscle building becomes easier.

So do you see why we can’t just divide it into carbs, fats and proteins and leave it at that? It’s not a just matter of how much of each macro we consume, but which type of each, and in what ratios.

Alright, let’s start breaking this all down. Not so much that you get completely lost, but enough so that you get a real understanding of how this works and can apply it to you.

And don’t worry, we’ll bring it back down to a usable simplification by the end. But we can only do that if you understand each part.

Here we go.

The Guide to Lean Bulking & Fat Loss — building muscle without the excess fat and losing fat while building muscle — is coming soon. And it’s not just a guide — it’s a whole program and group where we answer every question and help you along the way to ensure your get the best results.

Make sure you’re part of the group for when it releases!

Perfect Amino Facebook VIP Group - Join now!

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.