On Nutrition: Do calories really count?

A recent column about my husband and me trying to shed a few vacation pounds brought these responses:

“I read your article about counting calories after a trip to Texas. I can totally relate. In 2016, I started an Excel spread sheet and kept track of each calorie. I dropped from 275 to 231 (pounds),” said Red in York, Nebraska.

“Four years ago during COVID, I decided to get serious. When I graduated from aviation cadets and returned from Vietnam in 1970, I weighed 170. So I set that as my birthday goal for the following year. I made it 1 day prior (to my birthday),” he continued.

“I still keep track of every calorie and stay between 170 and 180. So I can say your system is fantastic. Just stick to it,” he said.

Jerry in Tucson had a different take: “I read your column about calories. While it read true as far as it went, I’m not sure it was that useful to folks in the weight loss game.”

“For any age, to lose weight you have to burn more calories than you consume. But the problem lies in the area of metabolism, and there isn’t an easy way to measure that. It’s complicated, and hormones are the main drivers of what our body does with food, but to solve the problem you have to study hormones, not count calories. The ‘counting calories’ game is a loser — it just doesn’t work,” he explained.

“And nothing personal, but being a registered dietitian is no recipe for success in this area. Not your fault, but what you were taught doesn’t work — if it did we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic in this country,” he added.

No offense taken, Jerry. You are indeed right that to lose weight we need to burn more calories than we consume. And metabolism (how our bodies burn those calories) as well as hormones play a role. So does exercise since it helps speed up metabolism. What and when we eat also affects how our bodies burn calories.

According to a 2021 review on this topic in the Journal of Obesity & Metabolic Syndrome, there are multiple ways to lose weight that are supported by good research. And there is no one best strategy to lose weight. However, say these researchers,“reducing daily caloric intake is the most important factor for weight loss.”

So, whatever strategy we use, the goal is to burn off stored calories (aka fat).

After I asked reader Red if I could use his name in this piece, he responded, “Absolutely. I was just amazed that someone else was basically using the same system that I am using. The main thing it does for me is give me discipline in my eating.”

Us, too. My husband is currently down 13 pounds. And I’m still battling the final four. Thanks for your comments.

Barbara Quinn-Intermill is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to [email protected].