The Calorie Conundrum

Busting the top 3 myths about calories and weight management.


By Sarah Romotsky, R.D.


It seems like there is a new headline every day with the “magic” answer to maintaining your weight. For celebrities, the answer seems to be a personal trainer, chef, nutritionist, spiritual healer, and possibly a plastic surgeon, but what about for the rest of us? 

The truth is, for successful weight management strategies, think less “magic” and more “math.” Thankfully, there’s no algebra involved, but you (a.k.a. your smartphone) may need to do some simple addition and subtraction to create a balance between the calories you consume and calories you burn. Understanding calorie balance is truly the key to losing or maintaining your weight. But even with tons of science proving that it’s all about calories, there’s still some confusion and misperceptions around this topic. 

Here are the top 3 myths I see and hear every day as a dietitian that are contributing to the “Calorie Conundrum.” 

MYTH #1: Calories from different food sources contribute to weight loss more than other sources. 

FACT: All calories count the same towards weight loss. 

Think calories from protein, carbohydrates and fat differ? The fact is that a calorie is a calorie no matter what food source it comes from. Whether you consume 100 calories from yogurt or 100 calories from a candy bar, you are still ingesting 100 calories. Although the body generally metabolizes calories from carbohydrates first, then calories from protein, and finally calories from fat, many popular diets have emphasized restricting the amount of fat, carbohydrate or protein consumed instead of encouraging people to focus on total calories consumed. 

In fact, what is most important is focusing on eating a well-balanced macronutrient diet. The USDA recommends that for adults, aged 19 and older, 45-65% of calories originate from carbohydrates, 10-35% of calories are from protein, and 20-35% of calories stem from fat. 

With this framework, it will be much easier to actually stick with this type of diet in a more long-term fashion rather than jumping from to and from the next fad diet that restricts a certain macronutrient. Various studies support the idea of eating a well-balanced macronutrient diet and have examined the impact of various diets, each with different amounts of fat, protein and carbohydrate, on weight loss. Many examples have shown that reduced-calorie diets in combination with exercise result in long-term weight loss regardless of which macronutrients study participants were assigned to consume as the majority of their diet. The bottom line is that weight loss is similar for everyone who cut back their calorie intake overall, regardless of the type of diet. This means that when it comes to weight management, all calories count. 

Now, not all calories are created equal if you look at it from a nutrient perspective. For example, 100 calories of yogurt is going to provide more protein and other important nutrients than 100 calories from a candy bar. So it’s important when trying to achieve calorie balance for weight management that the total, balanced diet is taken into account and you are still meeting your nutrient needs. For this reason, consuming a balanced diet with a variety of foods that also meets your daily caloric needs is the ONLY way to go for long term weight management. 

MYTH #2: There’s no way to eat what I like and still maintain my weight. 

FACT: Being aware of portion sizes is THE WAY to eat the food you want without adding to your waistline. 

We all have those foods that feel like our individual kryptonite when trying to maintain or lose weight. We feel powerless under their spell and therefore decide to erase them all together from our pantries and relegate them to our food fantasies instead. However, that is probably not the best strategy for long term weight management and satisfaction. 

Rather than steering completely clear from the foods you love, reframe your thinking to “I can eat the foods I enjoy as long as I manage the portion sizes.” As cliché as the “M word” (moderation) sounds, it is 100% true. Consuming all the foods you love within moderation makes way more sense than committing yourself to a “cleanse” of specific foods only to binge on them later when feelings of deprivation take over. Bottom line is, if you are trying to maintain your weight, you CAN have your cake and eat it too as long as it all balances out with your daily caloric intake and physical activity. 

MYTH #3: Physical activity doesn’t help that much with weight management. 

FACT: Physical activity can go a long way in terms of keeping you in balance. 

If you are trying to maintain your weight and consistently taking in more calories than you need then physical activity can have a huge impact on weight management. Think of your body as a gas tank. When you consistently overfill your tank and eat and drink more calories than you burn through physical activity, you will be out of balance and you will gain weight. 

If you are trying to maintain your weight, then you want to take in the same amount of calories that your body burns each day. 

A scientific review found that burning calories can be broken down into three parts: the resting metabolic rate, the energy used to digest food, and the energy expended during physical activity. The first two components are collectively referred to as “metabolism.” The last component can be broken down into day-to-day activities such as walking, plus planned exercise activities. Typically, we burn the most calories through metabolism, but expend more calories through additional exercise. 

If you want to lose weight, then you should consistently eat and drink fewer calories than your body needs each day and use up stored calories by moving more. While each person has unique calorie needs, generally for every one pound of weight you want to lose per week, you need to cut back what you eat or increase physical activity by approximately 500 calories each day. You can do this by consuming smaller portions of higher-calorie foods and beverages or by switching to lower-calorie or calorie-free versions. 

You can also participate in various forms of physical activities that burn extra calories each day and allow you more flexibility with the foods you eat. Do you NEED physical activity for weight management or weight loss? Technically no, but remember: people who do physical activity AND control their diet have the most success in managing their weight. 

However, exercise is just one piece of the weight loss puzzle as there are limits as to how much physical exercise one can do, especially when trying to lose weight. As with most activities, there is a limit to how much exercise a person can actually do that is safe and does not cause injury. It is important to consider exercise as a part of holistic, healthy weight maintenance and to find a type of exercise (anaerobic vs aerobic) that fits your needs. 

Sarah Romotsky, RD, is the Director of Health & Wellness at the International Food Information Council. Sarah leads the development and implementation of strategic communication initiatives on science-based health and wellness topics. A native of Southern California, Sarah received a BA in Mass Communications from UC Berkeley and later completed the Dietetic Program at SF State University.

Main Photo Credit: Gts/