The Hidden Complexity of the Simple “Calories In Versus Calories Out” Weight-Loss Recommendation

Ep 210 - WordPress

One of the first “rules” of weight loss we’re taught is that whether or not you will lose weight depends on the relationship between the number of calories you eat, and the number of calories you burn.

Calories in versus calories out.

Eat fewer calories than you burn, and you’ll lose weight.

Conversely, eat more calories than you burn, and you’ll gain weight.

Although this concept paints a simplistic picture of what it takes to lose weight, simple is not synonymous with easy.

And from personal experience – and I know you agree – losing weight and keeping it off is far more complex than this overly simplified equation. 

In today’s episode, Micheala and I discuss this concept in detail and share the multi-faceted limitations it invokes on our ability to lose weight and keep it off.

Episode Key Highlights:

  • Learn what “calories in versus calories out” is in a nutshell.
  • Understand why this concept is so heavily touted and the merit it does have in helping you to lose weight.
  • Discover the myriad of other factors that influence our ability to lose weight and keep it off that go well beyond this simple equation. 
  • Discover the multiple ways in which human error disrupts the efficacy of this equation when trying to lose weight. 

How I Can Help You:

  1. Hire me to build you an Individualized Nutrition Blueprint (Plan) – Learn More.
  2. Discover how high-achieving women in their 30s and 40s (and 50s) are developing massive amounts of confidence, self-love, and self-worth…  while simultaneously losing 20+ pounds and keeping it off FOR GOOD with my 5% Inside-Out Formula for Sustainable Weight Loss – Learn More.
  3. Hire A Registered Dietitian and Results-Driven Coach to Help You Develop Massive Amounts of Self-Confidence and Self-Love While Dropping 20+ Pounds for Good so That You Can Feel, Look, and Be the Best You – Learn More.
  4. Find Food Freedom Forever: Free yourself from BS food rules and the accompanying guilt, anxiety, and regret that comes with them so that you can feel excited, calm, and in control of food again – Learn More.
  5. Connect with Paul on Instagram – Say hi!


Paul Salter:

If you feel like you know exactly what to do to lose the weight and keep it off, but are struggling to do so, you’re in the right place. Welcome to The 5% Way Podcast, where myself registered dietician Paul Salter and my cohost sustainable weight loss specialist, Micheala Barsotti, have an impactful conversation focused on helping you uncover the root cause of the self sabotaging behaviors holding you back from achieving sustainable weight loss. Your transformation begins from the inside out and our purpose is to accelerate that progress by sharing practical strategies and need to know information to help you reclaim your confidence, control and inner calm so that you can feel, look and be your best.

Hey ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to another episode of The 5% Way Podcast with myself, registered dietician Paul Salter and my wonderful co-host Micheala Barsotti. In today’s episode, we are diving in debunking and literally picking apart the simple, yet often overused and complicated recommendation that when it comes to trying to lose weight, it is only a game of numbers and all that matters is paying attention to the number of calories you take in and aligning it appropriately with the number of calories you burn to create, whether it’s a maintenance effect or a calorie deficit, which is the essential component to driving weight loss that so many of you wonderful listeners desire.

And in short, you’re going to see right off the bat that this is a lot more complicated than it seems. And if you’ve had a coach, trainer or somebody on social media recommend to you in the past that in order to lose weight, in order to lose weight and keep it off, it’s just simply focusing in or focusing on calories in versus calories out. This episode is meant to serve as your wake up call, your guide, and your path to help you see that it is so much more. And to kick things off, I’m going to bring Micheala in to tell us a little bit more about the central role that we as humans play in just completely fucking this equation up, making it much more complicated than that overly simplified recommendation is.

Micheala Barsotti :

Yeah, I think calories, it’s so interesting because it’s such a simple concept, but it’s actually a lot more complex, which is what we’ll talk about. But one of the biggest things I see is people without even meaning to, it’s very unintentional, they’re trying to track their calories, but there’s just so much error going on. And whether that’s from the food label itself, because I don’t know what the exact percentage is, but what’s the percentage that they allow for room for error on labels? Like the FDA has, [inaudible 00:02:56].

Paul Salter:

Yeah, there’s so many stipulations in different categories, but for example, there’s a study I came across a few years ago that ran the nutrition, it’s called a bomb calorimeter is the approach they use in the lab to understand the calories that a food provides. And they were comparing that against what the food labels were saying and some labels were off between 30 and 70%. So that’s red flag number one. But then certain instances when something wants to label itself as calorie free, it can actually have up to five calories per serving and still get away with labeling itself calorie free. So those are just a handful of some of the ways that this equation is totally screwed up.

Micheala Barsotti :

I think about a lot of those seltzers, the alcoholic ulcers, like White Claw or something, if you look at the back, the carb count compared to the calories does not match up. So you’re like, that’s not even right. But so there’s situations like that where you’re literally trying and you’re looking at the food label, but the error is on the food label itself or there’s just a lot of room for tracking errors all the time. People are constantly messing up. And again, it’s very unintentional, but it happens, which is why when you get so meticulous about down to every last calorie, it’s like you’re never actually going to be spot on like you think you are. So ease up a little bit.

Paul Salter:

Yeah, I couldn’t agree. And I remember when I was married to MyFitnessPal, and this was back in 2010 into like 2014, 15, so MyFitnessPal was a little bit newer compared to where it is today. And I can’t speak to where it is today because I don’t touch the thing. But at that time you would type in sweet potatoes and you get like 7,000 different entries with 7,000 different calorie and carbohydrate amounts per sweet potato entry, which again, there’s some type of error if all of these methods and brands and companies are giving you different pieces of calorie and nutritional information for one single, the same food.

Micheala Barsotti :

Yeah. And the idea if you are tracking calories, tracking macros, whatever your approach is, it should never be to be spot on to a T. It should honestly just be to gain some accountability and awareness as to the structure of your day to day. I think that’s most important. But we get so caught up in down to the last gram or calorie and it’s like you’re not actually even, those numbers aren’t realistic anyways.

Paul Salter:

Agree. I love what you said because when we are tracking whether it’s calories or macros, just like you said, it should give us kind of a macro overview of the day and help guide us into areas we can make improvements on or be more consistent. But it’s so easy, especially those of us who are prone to that perfectionist, all or nothing mindset to get lost in the micro. And all’s that does is generate more stress, self sabotage and ultimately push you further away from your goals. Now, in a nutshell, just to kind of clarify, because I don’t think I did a good job of the intro calories in calories out is just a simple mathematic equation that if you, in a perfect world, in a vacuum could say, I’m going to eat exactly 1800 calories per day and burn exactly 2300 calories per day. My net intake is minus 500 calories per day and therefore I’ve created a calorie deficit, which eventually when done consistently will yield consist weight loss.

And those are kind of some of the numbers that are thrown around quite often. If you eat in a 500 calorie deficit per day, you’ll lose a pound of fat a week. And that’s a whole different conversation for a different day because there’s so much error in that alone. But beyond the numbers, just as we kind of kick things off with this episode, we don’t have that much control. There’s so much inaccuracy and error in caloric estimates from a nutrition standpoint. But let’s visit the caloric expenditure standpoint real quick too. I mean, Micheala, you are wearing an Apple watch right now one day for your workout, you might burn 1500 calories. The next you burn 300 calories. Talk to us a little bit more about the gross exaggerations present there.

Micheala Barsotti :

So I’ve actually done a test of this before, this might be kind of nerdy, but where I wore multiple, I wore my watch, my heart rate monitor and my aura ring and all three of them had different data at the end and it’s just like, it just goes to show it’s like, I think two of them were closer, but one of them was way off.

And regardless, I mean whether you’re looking at the calories that the amount of or total calories on your treadmill at the end your workout or on your watch or ring or wherever it’s coming from, it’s not as accurate as you think. It would need to know a hell of a lot more about you in order to truly be that accurate. So you really have to take those numbers with a grain of salt. I don’t even know how many calories I burn in a workout because that’s how insignificant it is. If you’re worrying about that at all, you shouldn’t be because you’ll never be able to track it enough to actually create the deficit that you’re looking for if that’s the way you’re going. There’s just too much room for error.

Paul Salter:

Agreed. And using that data, it can be a general guide. You should know the difference between if I go walk for 30 minutes or do 30 minutes of sprints, your caloric expenditure is going to be different. So although the numbers can be helpful for those of us with a mathematical tendencies and those who want to see the data, they should just serve as a guide. If you’re consistently seeing, oh, you burnt between 300 and 500 calories per workout, that’s great, leave it at that, know that you moved. And that’s the biggest win to celebrate and do that consistently. But more important to than those variables alone, there are a handful of other variables that truly influence whether you’re able to lose weight if you’re in a calorie deficit or truly influence you actually not being in a calorie deficit, though the math might add up to say otherwise again, with all the limitations we just shared.

So I’ll kick us off just to share one of many variables that we absolutely need to take into account when trying to rely upon the simple calories in versus calories out equation. And the first one relates to the actual food choices that we make on a regular basis because the way our body handles carbohydrates, protein, and fat individual of one another and then collectively in a whole balanced meal is drastically different. To give you a simple example, protein and carbohydrates each provide four calories per gram. Fat on the other hand provides nine calories per gram. Alcohol provides seven calories per gram. But what we need to recognize, for example, with protein, protein is incredibly hard and taxing for your digestive system to actually break down and therefore you actually burn a greater number of calories trying to digest and absorb and break down protein compared to eating the same amount of calories from carbohydrates or fat.

So now all of a sudden we are eating something on the calories inside of the equation and it’s impacting the calories outside of the equation. That’s called the thermic effect of food, the amount of calories we burn through digestion and absorption. So that’s one variable to keep in mind. But then another common one that’s kind of central demon one day and savior the other day of the weight loss world are carbohydrates. And if you’re eating pure sugar or pure white rice that has relatively no fiber, there’s a drastically different impact on the amount of energy extracted from a higher fiber carbohydrate simply because the fiber isn’t digested very well, excuse me, therefore your kind of leaving some on the table, things are passing through, your calor expenditure is increased and we have a wide variety of impact based on the food you eat on a consistent basis.

Micheala Barsotti :

Yeah. I think of another one being stress because many people are dealing with a lot of stress and whether that be that you’re just carrying more inflammation so the scale’s not actually budging. You could be making progress but you think that your deficit isn’t working or whatever because you’re not seeing the weight loss. But then also, how much does stress impact our appetite? So you’re trying to remain in this calorie deficit, but you’re super stressed out and your appetite increases and now you find yourself unintentionally snacking on this or that without paying much attention. And those little like mindless grabs and grazes, we forget about those when we’re counting calories too. It didn’t happen.

Paul Salter:

Yeah. Absolutely. And building off of that too, when it comes to stress, we can easily link high stress levels to probably poor sleep quality or poor sleep quantity. So we absolutely have to factor in A, the amount we are sleeping. B, the quality of the sleep we are getting. And even I would say C, what time we are going to bed and waking up because all of us are guilty of sleeping in on the weekends and then stepping on the scale, seeing a new low and celebrating. But all that really happened is it’s been a few more hours since we’ve eaten food. It’s later in the day, therefore we weigh a little bit less.

And if we are continuously getting poor quality and poor quantity sleep, that too is going to influence your digestive system, your gut health, how your body is responding to the food choices you’re making. And if you’re continuously choosing heavily processed high sugar foods that you know aren’t premium fuel choices, your gut is going to have a tougher time dealing with that. And it’s going to put a lot of strain on how well you are able to extract and absorb all of the precious nutrients from the good food choices that you do make, whether or not it’s on a regular basis or not.

Micheala Barsotti :

Yeah, I think it’s so interesting when you can understand how many factors truly influence whether you’re going to lose weight or not. Because going back to what you said before, calories in, calories out, yes, it’s that simple. But because there are so many factors that play a role here, it’s going to affect whether or not you’re truly in a calorie deficit. So for so many people, they think their metabolism is broken or their hormones are all out of whack, which could be the case, but in all reality, you’re probably not broken, you’re just not eating in a calorie deficit like you think you are because there are so many factors that influence it. So not that you’re lying, you’re not telling the truth, it’s just that you have all of these different things, whether it be your appetite’s out of whack, you’re really high stress, your inflammation’s high, all of these things, they’re affecting it.

Paul Salter:

You brought up another one I totally forgot. Such a great point. Your diet history is one of the most overlooked components of your daily calorie needs because the longer you diet, the harsher you diet, as this compounds and accumulates over the years throughout your dieting history, the more your body has adapted to this chronic low intake you’ve put yourself through. So your baseline calorie intake is going to show up as significantly lower than any of the calorie estimators and what basal metabolic rate calorie calculators you use that estimate your daily maintenance calorie intake. Yours is going to be significantly lower because when we do spend a chronic amount of time in a dieting phase or undereating, our body adapts to that.

So what once might have been a calorie deficit, let’s say 1500 calories as an arbitrary yet relatable example, if you continue to eat that over and over and yes, probably interspersed with periods of binge like behavior sooner or later, it’s no longer going to be a deficit. That’s going to be your new maintenance. And if you keep trying to cut more and cut more slowly, but surely your maintenance intake creeps down just as much and therefore the amount of calories you’re burning per day isn’t nearly as high as what some of these estimators and calculators are telling you.

Micheala Barsotti :

Yep. Yeah, for sure. I think it’s just really is so much more complex than just the amount of calories you’re taking in, in a day because it’s just influenced by so much.

Paul Salter:

So why Micheala do you think people overly focus on this simplicity of this equation? Why is this the go-to recommendation that people try to strive for when managing their macros and calorie intake to lose weight?

Micheala Barsotti :

Well, I mean ultimately it does come down to calories in calories out. That is how you’re going to see results. But we have to always unpack things because as we just talked about, because there are so many factors that influence it, you’re not going to be able to achieve the calorie in calorie out balance that you need in order to lose weight if you’re not addressing the other factors. Right. Most of the time we jump right into, I want to lose weight, I’m going to decrease my calories, but your sleep is trash, you’re not managing your stress, your food quality sucks, there’s all these things going on. You’re not paying attention to any of that because you’re just like numbers.

But there’s so many things that we need to focus on that are ultimately going to serve us so much greater than focusing on the numbers itself. Because as you just heard us say at the beginning of the episode, how much error there really is when you’re focusing on the numbers. So either A, you can’t control it when it comes to the scale or certain things with numbers. Or it’s just you can’t control it again because it’s out of your reach, whether it’s the human error or labels or whatever.

Paul Salter:

I think too, adding to that, we are all, and some of us more than others, but we are all fluent in numbers. Numbers make sense. There’s always a perfect answer to an equation, whether it’s three plus three or four divided by two, whatever it is, there’s an absolute answer there that is true, that is certain, that all makes sense to us because of just how mathematics works. There’s always an answer. And as a result that simplicity it’s convenient, it makes sense. We gravitate towards the easy, to the comfort and unfortunately sustainable weight loss or just even the weight loss to get things started, it’s going to require discomfort. It’s going to require going deep in the surface, deeper rather than the surface level numbers. And that scares people, it turns people off, it shoos them away from doing the right deep patient work that’s going to be harder and take longer than they prefer.

But ultimately that is the proven path. You have to be able to not only understand what goes into helping you make consistent nutrition choices or food choices from a nutrition standpoint, but you’ve got to take a greater look under the hood, what’s going on and how you speak to yourself, what you believe about yourself, what’s going on with your ability to recognize certain emotions, to manage them and to conquer them.

And yes, just like Micheala did a great job rerating, calories in calories out still matters. But if you are overly focused on that, you create unnecessary stress. And I like to kind of liken this to, you are busy for the sake of being busy, but you’re not productive. You’re focusing on something, you’re managing numbers, you feel productive, but you’re not doing the right work to, in our case, grow the business. You’re just doing stuff to do things day in and day out to grow you as a human being, to step into that identity of someone who has lost the weight, who has kept it off. You need to do the right work, which is the uncomfortable work that is a turnoff to so many of us.

Micheala Barsotti :

Yep. Yeah, I agree 100%.

Paul Salter:

And I think the last thing too, I just want to reiterate for those of you listening, is when you start focusing on some of the harder, more difficult work, the mindset, the emotional behavioral components, I’m not suggesting and neither is Micheala, that you just ignore the nutrition. There still needs to be a foundation of positive, healthy choices on a consistent basis. But what you’re going to find and what Micheala and I can speak to from helping thousands of people with this approach is you don’t need to go all in on the nutrition first because at the end of the day, if we peel back a layer, you’re going to find that examples such as how you speak to yourself, the amount of self trust and confidence you have in yourself, your relationship with yourself all show up in your nutritional choices.

So if you start there, you’re going to become, you’re going reach a position rather where you start to crave healthier foods, you start to crave healthier habits. And all of those habits that you may be currently or have previously struggled with related to nutrition or from the opposite end of the equation related to energy expenditure and exercise actually begin to fall into place, begin to feel much easier because you’ve done the right work this time. And the right most productive work is what yields the biggest result.

Micheala Barsotti :

As you were saying that, it just made me think about people, we all say it, I know what to do, I just can’t get myself to do it. This is why. You’re focusing on the wrong areas. If you’re just focusing on numbers, it’s like, yes, that’s the number, hit it. But there’s so much more to unpack there of like how to actually be successful in getting close to those numbers and being consistent.

Paul Salter:

Yeah. And I think the greatest analogy that we’ve said this many times, it relates to finances. So again, if you relate more to finances, money, numbers, it’s really easy to map out, okay if I save an extra $200 per month in six months, I’ll have an extra $1,200. But then it’s your emotions around money, your actual behavior. Are you doing automated transfers every week or every month to hit this goal? Are you actually getting this done? What happens to your spending? If you start making more, are you going to start spending more? There’s so much more to it than just, Oh yeah, duh if I saved $200 a month, there’s $1,200 in six months. And the same applies to nutrition. You’ve got to look at the whole human inside, especially mind and your emotional awareness and management to make the nutrition place, nutrition piece, excuse me, fall into place and yield the results that you desire.

Micheala Barsotti :


Paul Salter:

Okay, everybody. Well that wraps up today’s episode. Thank you so much for spending time with us. We hope that you found it valuable. And of course, if you have a question, feel free to reach out to either Micheala or myself on Instagram to keep the conversation going. And of course, if there’s somebody that you know, a good friend, coworker, family member, or anybody else that would benefit from hearing today’s information and the reminders that we share, go ahead and specifically pass this episode along so they too can continue their path to becoming the best version of themselves. And if you haven’t already, 30 seconds of your time would mean the world to Micheala and I to leave a genuine, honest rating and review on Apple Podcast or wherever you are listening to today’s episode. Thank you again for listening. Have a wonderful rest of your day and we’ll catch you in the episode.

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Paul Salter

Paul Salter is a Registered Dietitian and Founder of The 5% Way. Since 2013, Paul has worked one-on-one with nearly 1,500 men and women, helping them to collectively lose tens of thousands of pounds of body fat and keep it off for good. He’s also published nearly 1,000 articles, two books, and 175 podcast episodes (and counting) on all things related to our five core elements of sustainable weight loss.



Micheala is a Transformation and Community Success Coach. She specializes in bringing out the absolute best in you and helping you see that you already have everything you need to achieve the transformational results you desire. Micheala will be an incredible asset for you on your journey since she went through the process herself and has seen long lasting results.

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