Is the Jury In Or Out on Calorie Counting? Understanding Energy Balance


By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Not all calories are created equal. Does this mean we should ditch calorie counting? Not yet. Professor Ormsbee explains.

Weight control involves the essential balance between energy expenditures through activity and energy intake from foods and beverages. Photo By Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

What Is Energy Balance?

For many reasons, we need to eat. Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins all supply us with adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which we need to drive metabolic reactions, physical movement, and everything in between. When it comes to weight control, though, energy balance is essential.

Energy balance simply means that the energy that you expend from normal daily energy needs like breathing, staying awake, digestion and absorption, and physical activity or extra activity like exercise is matched or balanced to the energy that you take in from foods and beverages. 

If you are really in energy balance, you will not lose or gain any body weight. This equation is currently being challenged by research—for example, is it just the number of calories that matter? Or is it the type or quality of those calories that matters most?

Calories: Quality or Quantity?

According to Professor Ormsbee, calorie quality does matter—you know that eating 500 calories from potato chips is different from eating 500 calories from spinach. We need to consider energy balance too, though. 

Constantly under-eating will lead to weight loss, and constantly overeating will lead to weight gain. Thus, it’s critical to understand the impact of both the quality and the quantity of calories on your body’s body composition and health. 

This is why the calorie count is often highlighted in large font on new food labels. Think about how many companies clearly label their products as low-calorie or zero-calorie foods.

Understanding the major components of food and exercise may shift your energy balance to favor weight loss or weight gain. The point is to expand your understanding of how energy balance contributes to changes in body composition and health.

“Most people don’t track food intake or bother to read labels or weigh food items,” Professor Ormsbee said. “And I’m not suggesting that this is a practical way to live your life. But it can be useful for some people, even if you just periodically check your calorie intake to keep yourself honest.”

Know Your Intake

Knowing the relationship between your food intake and your energy expenditure can be extremely helpful for figuring out if you will lose weight, maintain weight, or gain weight. We know that quality of your food choices makes a big difference in weight loss and weight gain goals. At some point, though, knowing your routine calorie intake and energy expenditure is a good idea too, and often a great place to start if you want to be more active in managing your body composition.

It is important to recognize that many of our official dietary recommendations are based upon the calorie content of foods. While this intention was good, it puts certain high-calorie but nutrient-dense foods like nuts, seeds, and eggs into a high-caution list simply because the calorie content is high. 

We know now that these foods are actually beneficial for weight loss and prevention of weight gain when added to the diet. When considering only the calorie content, they mistakenly seem like a bad choice. 

Even more interesting is that foods like whole eggs are often considered in the same category of foods you should eat sparingly, such as cookies and cakes. However, eggs on the one hand and cookies and cake on the other hand have very different impacts physiologically.

Nevertheless, even if certain foods may be associated with weight loss or weight gain, calories ultimately do matter, to some extent, in your weight management success. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s article, which covers the energy balance equation.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.

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