Is Losing Weight as Easy as Just Burning More Calories Than I Eat?

Yes — but there’s a pretty massive catch, naturally.

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Here’s a questionably sourced, yet oft-reported statistic: The average person will try upwards of 126 diets in their lifetime. 126!!! Whether or not you believe that stat, the point remains that we humans are constantly in a battle to get back to our fighting weight — and we really haven’t a clue as to how to do it.

But what if I helpfully told you that losing weight was super easy? No, really: Forget going paleo, or keto, or trying to craft the perfect workout at that confusing beauty pageant known as “the gym” — all you really need to do is burn more calories than you consume every day. Could it really be so simple??

“In a vacuum — where all things are accounted for and human differentials don’t come into play — burning more calories than you consume will cause you to lose weight,” admits Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. “That’s because a calorie is a measure of heat or energy and that doesn’t change. It takes one calorie (measure of heat) to raise 1 mL of water by one degree centigrade. Ergo, if you are burning more than you consume, you will lose weight.”

Aha! Pack it up, you guys, we figured it out — no more crazy complicated diets or workout plans, no more secret home remedies or ancient medicinal weight-loss herbs. All you need to do is count the calories you eat, and then count how many you burn when you go to the gym plus whatever your bodies burning just hanging out (thanks, brain), right?

No.

Not in a vacuum, it matters what types of calories you’re consuming,” Hunnes continues. “It seems as though proteins, fiber and water tend to [help burn more calories] and [a diet consisting of more] fat burns the least.” 

Okay, so it’s a bit more complicated, then — if you’re eating like a pig, but still burning more than you’re consuming, you might see less actual weight loss than if you’re eating more proteins, fiber and drinking plenty of water. In fact, Hunnes recommends more plant-based protein calories because you get more bang for your buck, including more fiber, more water and other healthy nutrients encased with vitamins and minerals.

But if trying to sort out the difference between helpful and unhelpful calories is hard, trying to actually count calories accurately is downright impossible

“For people who enjoy doing math, counting calories might be relatively simple,” says Hunnes. “That said, knowing how many calories you’re actually burning isn’t so easy.  So, if you’re trying to maintain weight and you have a regimen that works for you and you don’t do a lot of counting, no need to start. If you’re gaining weight, either cut back on some of the higher calorie foods and substitute with lower-calorie healthier options, and/or up the exercise either intensity or length.”

Who knew that the simple act of counting calories was so complicated?