“Calories-in, calories-out” is the primary theory for weight loss and the CICO Diet is the most popular weight loss diet around (branded with many different names). Unfortunately, this approach is also the most ineffective. Here is your official permission slip for ending the obsession with tracking and counting calories and everything you need to win the argument with your friends.

I’ve got a fun experiment for you.

Go have a conversation with ANYONE you know — even if they’re a nutritionist or trainer — about weight loss and see if you can make it five minutes without them mentioning the word calories (or alluding to a concept such as “burning more than you take in”) or peddling a CICO Diet (a diet based on counting and cutting calories).

I bet you can’t go five minutes with anyone without hearing it.

Calories are the foundation of almost every “diet plan” or “weight loss program” in the health and fitness industry. So, it might come as a shock to you when I tell you, they’re just not that important.

Don’t dismiss me yet. If you want to regain control of your weight and your health without obsessing about a mostly useless concept, then read a little bit further. I guarantee this will be worth your while and I guarantee that you’ll be able to ditch the CICO Diet for good, which should make you happy as a clam.

David Kirchoff, president of Weight Watchers, the world’s largest diet company, recently said on their website: “Calorie counting has become unhelpful.”

What Are Calories?

To put it simply, a calorie is a measure of energy. A “large calorie” is a measure of food energy. A “small calorie” is the approximate amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius at a pressure of one atmosphere (yawn, right?).

A large calorie, the food kind you’re used to hearing about, is equal to 1000 small calories. And I’m sure that knowing that is still totally unhelpful and irrelevant to you, so here’s something that might matter slightly more (but still not all that much)…

  • One gram of fat in food contains nine calories.
  • One gram of carbohydrate contains four calories.
  • One gram of protein contain four calories.
  • One gram of alcohol contains seven calories.

Some people claim that it’s better to eat carbs and protein because they’re lower in calories, but that’s a misguided notion, as you’ll see.

The [False] Premise of Calories-in, Calories-out.

calories cartoon
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Calories In, Calories Out (CICO) and the CICO Diet are based on the first law of thermodynamics. Without dusting off your physics book, that law basically states that you can’t create or destroy energy (remember, a calorie is a measure of energy), you can only change it.

Translation: If you take in more energy (calories) than you need for fuel, the energy gets converted and stored (typically as fat).

Another translation: If you eat too much, you get fat.

Another translation: If you don’t exercise enough, you get fat.

Another translation: Eat less, exercise more, that’s ALL that matters.

Also often overheard: “Put the f’ing fork down!”

To be crystal clear, there is NOTHING wrong with the first law of thermodynamics. What’s wrong here is the premise that the law of thermodynamics explains everything, when in reality it doesn’t explain much of anything.

“Calories are little creatures that live in your closet and sew your clothes a little tighter each night.”

If you believe in CICO, you should believe in this too.

The Pretenders: A Calorie is Not a Calorie and the Human Body is Not a Calculator.

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If your body simply did the math of CICO as you ate, then counting calories to lose weight would be effortless and the CICO Diet would be crazy effective (it has like a 95%+ failure rate, FYI).

The problem is that not all calories are created equal. And this, my friends, is where the fairy tale of the CICO Diet starts to crumble.

While CICO does state a fact, it leaves out all the important context from the discussion.

  • Eating excess calories makes you fat, but why are you eating excess calories?
  • Eating less calories will help you lose weight (not necessarily fat, though), but why can’t you eat less food for a long period of time?
  • What about the people who seem to eat a surplus of calories based on the math with no resulting weight gain?
  • What about the people who eat a deficit of calories according to the math, who don’t lose weight?

Claiming the answer is always “calories” is like a doctor telling a pregnant mother that her baby is human when she asked if it’s a boy or a girl. The doctor isn’t lying, but he’s also not telling her anything she doesn’t already know. And he’s certainly not answering the important questions.

The CICO Diet Fails to Account for Some Very Important Factors.

  • How Calories Are Calculated
  • Your Body’s Hormone Response
  • The Quality of The Calories
  • Your Body Fat Setpoint
  • Addiction and Dependency
  • The Macronutrient Breakdown

Aside from that, the math based on the calories in, calories out model is clearly out of whack.

3500 calories equals one pound of body fat. If you cut 100 calories from someone’s diet – a few bites of dinner – they’d reduce their caloric intake by 182,500 calories over a five year period.

If we put a male at 5’8″ who weighed 165 pounds on that diet, they’d lose 52 pounds over 5 years. If they overate by the same amount — a few bites of food – they’d be obese? It’s laughable.

To sum everything up thus far: the people who are peddling the calorie myth are stating facts, they’re just not stating relevant ones. Now, I’m going to give you all the ammunition you need to ditch the calorie myth yourself and to win the argument with your friends.

To determine calorie counts, scientists burn food in a water-enclosed chamber called a bomb calorimeter; the number of degrees by which the burning food raises the water’s temperature equals the number of calories in the food.

Sure, whatever you say.

Well, that sounds official. But is that a relevant way to measure calories for humans?

Eh, not really. If you put a chunk of wood in calorimeter it will tell you the wood had a great deal of energy in it. However, since all that energy is in the form of cellulose (humans can’t digest cellulose), the actual nutritional caloric content of wood is zero.

In fact, the human body processes all kinds of food in different ways depending on many factors such as how much the food was cooked, the gut health of the individual, how our body digests it, and so on.

Differences exist even within a given kind of food. Take, for example, cooked vegetables. Cell walls in some plants are tougher to break down than those in others; nature, of course, varies in everything. If the plant material we eat has more of its cell walls broken down we can get more of the calories from the goodies inside. In some plants, cooking ruptures most cell walls; in others, such as cassava, cell walls hold strong and hoard their precious calories in such a way that many of them pass through our bodies intact.

weight watchers cico diet meme
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We could use the sweet potato as an example. Sweet potatoes are made up of starches that become more bioavailable the more they’re cooked (and thus provide more calories). Therefore, you could cook ten sweet potatoes of the exact same size at varying lengths and they would then contain varying calorie counts — something I’ve never seen mentioned when googling “sweet potato nutrition facts.” And I’m pretty sure the Weight Watchers points system doesn’t account for cooking time either.

If this fact is taken to a smaller scale, such as the stomachs of cute little mice, the implications are glaring. When Rachel Carmody fed rats both cooked and uncooked sweet potato, the findings really spoke to the importance of this issue:

The mice on the different diets got about the same amount of exercise. They all had a wheel to run on, and they did not differ one treatment to the next in terms of how inclined they were to take a jog. They did differ, however, in how much they weighed at the end of the study. As predicted, mice lost more than four grams of weight on raw sweet potatoes, but gained weight when given cooked sweet potatoes (whether or not they were pounded).

And cooking isn’t even close to being the only way the concept of calories is altered by the human body. Some foods simply demand more caloric expenditure during digestion.

For instance, foods that contain possible pathogens, toxins, or inflammatory products would require an immune response from the body which then requires caloric expenditure where others foods would not trigger this reaction.

Sometimes, the body simply treats food differently based on the way it was processed:

A recent study found that individual humans who ate, as part of an experiment, 600 or 800 calorie portions of whole wheat bread (with nuts and seeds on it) and cheddar cheese actually expended twice as much energy, yes twice, in digesting that food as did individuals who consumed the same quantity of white bread and “processed cheese product.”

Additionally, depending on where you live in the world, your gut biome (the types and amounts of helpful and harmful bacteria) is different from someone who lives in a separate part of the world. This has real world implications on how your body breaks down the food you eat, how many calories are required to digest the food, and how many calories are extracted from that food.

In fact, you can feed two people of the same current height, weight, and age the same number of calories and their weight gain or loss will be different as their bodies treat the food differently. Just as everyone has a unique DNA and a unique thumb print, they have a unique way they process and digest food. They also have a unique body fat setpoint; more on that later.

What this all burns down to, pardon the pun, is that the human stomach is not a bomb calorimeter, it’s a complex ecosystem.

When we eat poor-quality food products like refined starches, sugars, and processed foods, we are programming our cells to store fat and — even worse — to hang on to that fat.

Hormones Are a Gigantic Piece of The Puzzle.

cico diet - hormones - it's in the meat meme
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If the premise of calories in, calories out were true, then eating 1000 calories of sugar and 1000 calories of fat would produce the same results. Unfortunately for all the sugar addicts out there, this simply doesn’t play out in real life.

I said before that the human body is not a calculator. And the main reason it isn’t a calculator is because its functions are controlled by hormones and hormones respond differently to different foods.

Fat, carbs, and protein (macronutrients) all influence hormones in different ways. For example, non-fiber carbohydrates trigger the release of insulin where fat does not.

Insulin is a hormone that pushes nutrients into cells, stabilizes blood sugar, and stores fat. It’s a vital hormone that has a unique side effect. It also has the ability to become disordered, resulting in insulin resistance and type II diabetes.

When hormones are out of balance, the body holds on to excess fat, weight gain becomes easier, and stored nutrients can’t be utilized. When some hormones become disordered they can disorder others as well, causing additional issues.

Your body is a holistic, biological system that responds to different foods with varying hormonal responses. This has a direct influence on your metabolism and it’s one of the main reasons why a calorie is not a calorie.

Balancing hormones for fat loss.

Low carbohydrate diets tend to work well for fat loss because they tightly regulate insulin. When insulin constantly spikes throughout the day, the subsequent fall of insulin increases hunger and promotes more eating.

By stabilizing insulin and providing the body with mostly satiety triggering macronutrients — fat and protein — low carb diets automatically limit calorie intake (through the natural balance of hunger hormones).

While carbohydrates have less calories per gram than fat (4 calories per gram versus 9 calories per gram of fat), they have a completely different impact on the hormones that regulate hunger and satiety.

In this regard, proponents of CICO deserve an A in math and an F in biology.

stress-comic tracking weight and calories
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Don’t get hormonal when I tell you this, but stress makes you fat.

Cortisol is a hormone released in response to stress. It’s job is to decrease and control inflammation. But, as with all other hormones, there are side effects. Balance is key. If stress is chronic and cortisol is constantly elevated, issues occur: insulin resistance, fat storage, and disease over the long term.

Cortisol directly effects fat storage and weight gain in stressed individuals. Tissue cortisol concentrations are controlled by a specific enzyme that converts inactive cortisone to active cortisol (9-11). This particular enzyme is located in adipose (fat) tissues. Studies with human visceral (fat surrounding the stomach and intestines) and subcutaneous fat tissue have demonstrated that the gene for this enzyme is expressed more by obese conditions (11). It has also been demonstrated in research that human visceral fat cells have more of these enzymes compared to subcutaneous fat cells. Thus, higher levels of these enzymes in these deep fat cells surrounding the abdomen may lead to obesity due to greater amounts of cortisol being produced at the tissue level. As well, deep abdominal fat has greater blood flow and four times more cortisol receptors compared to subcutaneous fat (8). This may also increase cortisol’s fat accumulating and fat cell size enlarging effect.

If you’re trying to lose excess fat, stress is going to be a serious pain in your gut. Pun intended. A concentration of fat in the midsection is directly linked to increased cortisol production. This is why sleep and the “keep calm and carry on” mantra is so important for living a long, healthy, unfat life.

Low quantity and low quality sleep are huge driving factors of stress, especially in developed countries where everyone is in work mode all the time. Poor sleep decreases circulating leptin levels and increases circulating ghrelin levels. In short, poor sleep makes you hungry.

Quick tip: Chronic exercise will create chronic inflammation and chronically elevated cortisol and make you fatter. You might lose “weight,” but it’s not fat, Jack (ESPECIALLY if you’re at a caloric deficit — the weight you’re losing is muscle mass). Ditch those running shoes and you’ll ditch what’s left of your flab. Oh, and have some self-respect and pick up a barbell once in a while.

Protein can be used to build muscle which improves your metabolic profile. Carbohydrates such as fructose (the most popular added sugar) can create long-term insulin resistance that severely disorders hormones. But somehow they’re all the same?

Failing to Take an Integrated Approach is the #1 Reason Why You Can’t [Sustainably] Lose Weight.

Loop from measurement tape
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Weight Watchers is perhaps the most popular calorie counting diet. They’ve created a points system that helps you track caloric intake instead of calculating actual calories.

The premise is that as long as you stay under a certain number of predetermined points each day, you’ll reach your goals. This is calories in, calories out thinking at its best and just a branded version of the CICO Diet.

Let’s say that you strictly eat Weight Watchers’ ready made meals and your point count each day is kept to perfection. What will happen?

You’re very likely to lose weight. And nobody is arguing against that.

Now, you need to answer a few questions.

  • Did you want to lose weight for good, or just for now?
  • Did you want to improve your health markers as well?
  • Did you want to improve your metabolism or harm it?
  • Did you want to lose ANY weight, or fat specifically?
  • Did you want to strengthen your immune system or inhibit it?

These are glaring issues right? When you understand the Six Pillars of Authentic Human Health, you quickly realize that calories are a non-factor. They’re real, but they’re something that take care of themselves when you do everything else right.

Your hypothalamus is playing tricks on you.

Losing weight now and gaining it back later is a bigger failure than not losing weight at all, considering that most people gain back more than they started with.

Everyone has a body fat setpoint that tightly regulates weight loss and gain. And it’s damn stubborn because it’s a programmed defense mechanism (drastic reduction or gain in fat mass is not considered desirable by Mr. Hypothalamus).

This is exactly why some people who never count a single calorie stay within one or two pounds of the same weight. Their setpoint is being tightly regulated by a functional metabolism.

The setpoint is a chosen weight the hypothalamus attempts to maintain through the regulation of satiety and energy expenditure. If you eat too much, you’re subconsciously influenced to increase activity and decrease consumption at subsequent meals.

The key here is that the setpoint is a moving goalpost. As you gain weight over the long term (by eating foods your body wasn’t designed to adequately deal with, e.g. that bucket-o-popcorn with movie theater butter and a a half gallon of CocaCola), your setpoint jumps from one maintenance range to a higher one (due in part to leptin resistance — back to the hormones we go!).

Those higher levels of weight become the new normal that the body will try hard to defend, creating a vicious cycle.

Additionally, if you’re cutting calories AND you’re deficient in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals — and synthetic ones don’t count), your body will again signal constant hunger because your cells are starving for REAL food.

Recommended: How to Lose Body Fat: 11 Reasons You’re Struggling (And How to Fix Them)

The only way to fix it…

There’s only one way to sustain fat loss: get your body to recognize and defend an appropriate setpoint.

Remember, in overweight and obese people — especially if you’re leptin resistant — the body has chosen to defend a higher and inappropriate setpoint because it’s moved the goalpost in response to an overload of inflammatory and hormone-disordering foods.

So now the question is, “how do we move the setpoint back down?”

Well, I can assure you that it’s NOT by consciously reducing calories and increasing exercise.

If you simply decrease the amount of food you take in, the body will not change its setpoint in the short-term. Instead, it will deploy defense mechanisms such as decreased motivation to be active, a reduced metabolism, and a strong desire to eat everything in sight.

So, if we can’t just under-eat and over-exercise our way to success, what’s left?

Aside from surgery, your only current options are nutrition and lifestyle.

While I can’t point to any scientific studies, I have plenty of real-world results with both myself and my clients that says…

When your body is getting adequate nutrition and calories, especially from foods that improve gut health and decrease inflammation, it’s far less defensive of its inappropriate setpoint. When you switch to safer exercise that’s not chronic and promotes the preservation of lean muscle mass, your body is less defensive of its inappropriate setpoint. When you stop eating hyper-palatable foods and readjust your palette, your body is far less defensive of its inappropriate setpoint.

TIP: Download Our Real Food Playbook So You Can Reach Your Goals Without Counting Calories

“About eighty percent of the food on shelves of supermarkets today didn’t exist 100 years ago.”

Dr. Larry McCleary

How to Lose Weight Without Counting Calories

The calories-in, calories-out dogma hypothesizes that the only thing we have to change is the quantity of what we eat. You can take all this bad stuff you’re eating – the chemicals, the toxins, the added sugars, and the hyper-palatable food products — and just eat less of them. If you do that, you’ll lose weight and reach your goals.

And that’s absolutely true. You can eat nothing but donuts – 1000 calories worth per day – and lose weight.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is sustainability.

As I’ve mentioned, you’re a complex biological system, not a math equation.

You can reduce intake and make some progress, that’s not in question. But, the wheels will come off that bus eventually. And worse, 90% of the people who try to use that model end up gaining back more weight than when they started because the end usually centers around days or weeks of binging as their body desperately tries to get what was being withheld.

The good news is that if you shift your focus toward the things that actually matter and treat your body like the complex biological system it is rather than a calculator, you can lose all your excess weight without counting a single calorie.

“You don’t lose weight to get healthy, you get healthy to lose weight.”

People who take a “weight-first” approach tend to do really poorly long-term. People who take a “health-first” approach find much more success.

The first thing you have to realize is that sustainable weight loss is a “quality” issue and not a “quantity” issue. Instead of paying attention to “how much” food you’re eating or “how much” exercise you’re doing or “how much” sleep you’re getting, start paying attention to the quality of all these things.

The first step you can take is to learn how to actually eat healthy in an individualized, non-dogmatic manner.

The second step you can take is to shift away from being pathologically sedentary. You have to be careful that you don’t swing to the extremes though. You don’t have to sign up for a marathon or a triathlon or do CrossFit 6 days a week. Just adopt a practical daily fitness plan that you enjoy.

The third step you can take is to make sure that you understand what drives overeating. Your body has an internal calorie calculator, which is why you don’t need an external calorie calculator, but there are legitimate reasons why you might still overeat. You need to understand what those are.

The bottom line is that when you eat the right foods and create a healthy physical, mental, and emotional environment, you won’t overeat. And when your hormones and metabolism are functioning properly, you can sustain a calorie-deficit – without hunger – as your body makes use of stored fat for fuel. No micromanagement necessary.

Some Random Parting Thoughts About the CICO Diet, Fat Loss, and Not Driving Yourself Bat$h!# Crazy.

fed up with counting calories
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At no point in this article did I make the case that the first law of thermodynamics does not exist or is wrong. Regardless of how many times I repeat my support for the first law of thermodynamics, people will still comment with, “you’re full of sh*t, the first law of thermodynamics is science!”

The arguments I make in this article relate to important and specific context surrounding the topic of calories and the CICO Diet. While based on a sound scientific principle, using CICO as a tactic fails in practical execution.ov

When I say “fails,” I don’t mean, “doesn’t work at all.” I very clearly mean, “doesn’t work long-term.” I really don’t care at all about short-term success. You can be successful in the short-term on almost *any* Diet. But why does that matter when the success rates plummet after the 6-month mark and are almost non-existent after the 1-year mark.

My sole focus is on helping men and women look great and feel great for the rest of their life without obsession, perfectionism, or the misery of dieting. I’m 100% focused on practicality and sustainability and the CICO Diet fails on both counts.

Meanwhile, I’ve led tens of thousands of men and women to a body and life they love without ever counting a single calorie through programs like Total Body Reboot and Decode Your Cravings.

At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself one question (if you support the CICO Diet): “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”

If you’re on the fence, just ask yourself this: If you could get and keep a body and life you love without counting calories or otherwise micromanaging your diet and lifestyle, would you choose to not do those things?

I think most people would stop all the counting and tracking and micromanaging if they had an approach that worked without that nonsense. Well, that approach exists. Try it and you’ll see. And then you’ll join the club of men and women who have cracked the code on sustainable healthy living

Do you know someone who might find this guide helpful? Pass it along…


  • Cynthia Hill says:

    Awesome article Kevin! You covered all the bases thoroughly – thank you!

  • Alicyn Hargroves says:

    This is such a great article! You touch on so many points that I have been trying to discuss with dietitians over the past 12 months and have gotten no where.

  • Diane Geary says:

    Excellent article Kevin. I’ve tried all the above with the results noted. You’re tips are very helpful.

  • Adam Kosloff says:

    Amen Kevin! As someone who’s been battling against the CICO insanity for years in the blogosphere, I’m delighted to see such an articulate and well formatted article like this. Will be sharing 🙂

    Adam from caloriegate.com

  • Nikki says:

    “If we put a male at 5’8″ who weighed 165 pounds on that diet, they’d lose 52 pounds over 5 years. If they overate by the same amount — a few bites of food – they’d be obese? It’s laughable.”

    You are not taking into account the fact that the human body adjusts/adapts to a different calorie intake.

    Though creating a 100-calorie deficit might help you drop a couple pounds initially, you would eventually plateau and your body would start maintenance mode.

    Similarly, adding in an extra 100 calories per day might invite a couple pounds on, it most certainly would not make the average person obese. (I see you understand the absurdity of this, but you do not explain why it is, and that is adaptation.)

  • Alex Thomas says:

    “Ditch those running shoes and you’ll ditch what’s left of your flab.”

    Chronic exercise is bad, not just cardio. Stop picking on runners. It makes you lose credibility.

    Fact: All exercise induces a cortisol response, strength training often even more so than running. Cortisol is important for muscle growth and regulation of other hormones.

    I’ll keep my running shoes for now, thanks. I’ll even pick up a barbell once in a while, if only because the occasional strength session allows me to run even more without injury.

    • Kevin Geary says:

      Hey Alex — I almost always use the term “chronic exercise” and don’t just pick on runners. But it’s hard to change the fact that running is the most abused “exercise” activity by chronic exercisers.

      I think what happened here is that you’re a runner and you’re responding out of defensive emotion more so than simply seeing that I stated a fact.

      • Alex Thomas says:

        You stated a fact? If that was your intention then why would you confuse it with hyperbole?

        This is what you said: Chronic exercise = excess fat storage. Running = Chronic exercise.
        I believe this is what you meant: Excess cortisol = excess fat storage. Chronic exercise = excess cortisol.

        Even your response to my comment shows that you hold the misconceptions about running as a healthy (even a good fat-burning) activity. Why is running an “exercise” instead of just an exercise?

      • Kevin Geary says:

        I have no idea what your point is. Daily running is highly inflammatory and most runners I know run excessively. And you’re completely ignoring the fact that running has the highest injury rates.

        You can keep trying to slice it however you want to defend your chosen activity. Like I said, if people want to run that’s absolutely fine with me, just don’t pretend you’re doing yourself any favors.

  • Steven says:

    I have spent the last 3 years constantly dieting, calories in calories out. Jogging/Running 2-4 miles a day 6 days a week, and not worrying so much about nutrition as the amount of calories I intake. Often times I’d skip dinner to have a couple of beers, as long as I kept it under 1800 calories a day. I am a 29 year old male, 5’10” and 210 lbs. It is so frustrating trying to find help to lose the weight, because people just honestly don’t believe that I could run 2-4 miles a day, while eating only 1800 calories a day, and still be overweight.

    I have managed to yoyo my weight back and forth from 190-220, but nothing long term, and I feel like crap more often than not. Everything I have ever studied about nutrition from medical journals flies in the face of what you are saying here, But what you are saying here actually makes sense to me. I have nothing to lose, I’m going to switch methods and see if I can get better results with the stuff you are saying.

    Thanks for the information, and time.

    • Kevin Geary says:

      Thanks Steven. There’s a ton of information here on the blog and especially on my podcast. If you need guidance or help, there’s also our comprehensive online program. Whatever you need, let us know.

  • Paul Quek says:

    You’re fucking retarded.

    Calories in VS Calories out is completely accurate.

    Your article is detailing how to lose weight in an appropriate manner whereby more fat is burned than muscle, AS OPPOSED TO merely losing weight HOWEVER IT IS.

    Meaning if somebody wanted to lose 10 kg, and he/ she did not care whether it came from muscle or fat or any kind of ratio of the two, calories in vs calories out would be entirely appropriate.

    • Kevin Geary says:

      Hi Paul,

      First, I must say that I’m probably not smart enough to challenge the deep intellectual nature of your first sentence. But, I’ll try my best to address the rest of what you’ve said.

      See, for most people, the goal is healthy fat loss that’s sustainable. I didn’t disagree with the law of thermodynamics. In fact, right there in the beginning of the article I said this, “To be crystal clear, there is NOTHING wrong with the first law of thermodynamics. It’s a “law” after all. What’s wrong here is the premise that the law of thermodynamics explains everything, when in reality it doesn’t explain much of anything.”

      In other words, the article goes on to show how the strategy of “calories-in, calories-out” thinking is unhelpful in the context of reaching the goals people care about.

      I’m surprised that someone as magnificently smart as you are, missed the entire point of the article. Especially since it was spelled out in the opening section to which your comment was directed.

      Have a great day.

  • Kelly Martin says:

    Hi again Kevin!

    Everything above makes perfect sense now, especially in light of my temporary success doing WW last year. So, in terms of activity, do you think that electronic activity trackers like the FitBit One are a waste of money as well? I’m curious what your opinion is of it.

    Kelly Martin

    • Kevin Geary says:

      Hi Kelly. I tend to be against all forms of quantification in non-sport endeavors. In the context of living a life free from obsession and stress, counting and tracking just doesn’t fit.

  • Jeff says:

    I am a bit obsessive and have read tons of books and articles that reflect exactly what you stated in your article and do you know what? You’re right. I’m speaking from extensive experience. I’ve always been an athlete, but as I got older I gained weight from a more sedentary lifestyle. So I cut calories, ate ‘healthy’ whole grains, cut fat and ate lean protein (including whey protein powder) and worked out intensely for an hour each time 6 times a week. I ran 3 days at a high level of intensity measured by heart rate, and lifted 3 days, heavy weight, maximum repetitions to failure. What happened? I GAINED weight, I was always sore, I got frequent colds, I occasionally binged because I was starving myself.

    Then I read about a paleo diet. I read a book called the calorie myth by Jonathan Bailor, and I started eating and exercising very similarly to what Kevin writes about. I went from a size 36 to a size 32 (I’m 47 and fit now). AND THEN I thought, hey, maybe I should exercise more and get super fit. Instead of intense body weight exercises and some weights, I added in more reps of lighter weights. I started running a bit on off days and adding on a run to the end of my short but grueling HIIT session. What happened? Weight gain, soreness, got a cold.

    I write all this because I’ve been reading some of the comments here and they are just wrong. Limiting calories forever doesn’t work. Chronic exercise doesn’t work and is unhealthy. You build muscle when you rest, not when you work out. Your body needs recovery time and can’t withstand the constant cortisol barrage. It was hard for me to get used to working very hard for about an hour a week vs. an hour a day, but the results are amazing.

    Kevin, you’ve consolidated a lot of information from the writings of Mark Sisson, Jonathan Bailor (my two main sources-Bailor has more scientific proof in The Calorie myth than you could ever ask for), and continue to provide very important information. Thanks.

  • Scott H. says:


    As Jeff and others have already written, this is a great treatise on calories. Thank you for the time and effort you invested in this post. This is a wonderful resource that I plan to share with others.


    • Kevin Michael Geary says:

      My pleasure, Scott. Would love for you to share it with others. The loudest voices in health and fitness tend to be the mainstream, corporate-backed voices that all have a very clear agenda that has very little to do with truth, so we need all the help we can get.

  • Bels says:

    Thanks for the interesting literature. I have been doing Keto since June this year with little success. I have been eating clean since end last year but only started MFP in monitoring everything I eat. Carbs 10-15g, protein 54g and fat is 69g or up to. I try to get a walk in every day and yet such a small weight loss. I truly do not know or understand where I am going wrong. I read somewhere that taking l-arginine will help speed up ketosis so have will be starting that tomorrow too. I have only seen my keto stick in the pink twice. Any suggestions please?
    Thanks great info.

    • Kevin Geary says:

      Hi Bels, thanks for your comment. I don’t recommend keto for most people. It’s too impractical and obsessive and not a good long-term strategy. I’m all about practical, sustainable, and non-obsessive. If you’re looking for something that works, and that you can actually stick with forever, Total Body Reboot is really where you need to be.

  • Ingrid says:

    Wow, this comes as a revelation. I knew that “not all calories are equal,” but your article has taught me way more than that. Thank you so much for this thorough and insightful article!

  • Joe says:

    This article has to be the dumbest thing I have ever read,.

    • Kevin Michael Geary says:

      Thanks for your comment, Joe. I would love for you to choose an argument made in the article and counter it specifically. Until then, I don’t think your participation here is going to be very valuable.

    • Tressa says:

      I’m surprised at some of these visceral remarks. I am a 58 year old female who has tried all the diets. I am now on a Doctor supervised low carb diet. I told the Dr. the low carb diets knock me on my butt. He said just struggle through it and I will lose the weight. We’re talking 600 calories for 4 days then 800 calories per day until I lose 55 lbs. Plus drink a gallon of water per day and you can’t count a glass of tea. Within 3 days, I can barely function. I work as hard as any man, doing manual labor, so activity is NOT an issue. I’ve gone as low as 500 calories a day (HCG Drops) for an entire year and only lost 50 lbs. So calorie consumption doesn’t seem to be an issue. Kevin makes perfect sense to me. If he didn’t, I would navigate away from this website rather than condemn him. As soon as I recover from the financial hit of another “Doctor Supervised”, one size fits all diets… I will try this.

      • Sanam Yoon says:

        Are you dumb? Who ever said to take less than 1300 calories?

        By doing that you are risking your own long term health. All CICO says is to reduce 300 to 500 calories, not 1000.

        My TDEE is 2000, and I am successfully losing weight at 1600 calories a day

  • Slow says:

    Kevin, you are absolutely 100% on the mark. Good for you for writing this article and articulating things so well.

    I have had success with a Primal/Keto lifestyle and share the same views on diet and exercise. Lots of fat has been lost. A decent amount of muscle has been gained. But most importantly, chronic diseases have been managed (and likely, future chronic diseases have been prevented.

    People may call our way of living as “Faddish” or “Broscience”, but that logic is a little funny. Humans lived on this planet eating nothing but whole plant and animal material for 200,000 years. The Modern Standard American Diet has been around for less than 100 years. I wonder which one is the fad.

    The CICO IIFYM community can’t live without their Brownies and Cookies so they take offence and try to attack any little holes in a Primal based article. One of the holes in your article is that you don’t have evidence, when there is in fact SO MUCH EVIDENCE. I have many many full text articles from peer reviewed sources that are pretty accessible to anyone. Shoot me an email and I will forward them to you.

    What is amazing is that you came to these conclusions without the evidence. And you are getting the results, so that’s all that matters. Even though I have collected lots of evidence, I would still do this lifestyle if no evidence existed. Because it just makes sense.

    Thanks again

    • Tod Stanford says:

      You have to be fucking retarded to take this bullshit without evidence. I am shocked by the level of anti-intellectualism in these comments. You probably believe in ‘alternative facts’ too. If this article were true the author could back it up with peer-reviewed studies. You’re just eating up a fat serving of bullshit. If calories in calories out doesn’t work for you then I’m begging you to please contact your local research university and tell them you’ve solved the energy crisis.

      • Kevin Stop says:

        Think the problem here is that “Kevin” is making up these comments

      • Kevin Michael Geary says:

        Usually when people resort to cursing, name calling, and throwing temper tantrums, it means they don’t have an argument.

        I can also tell you didn’t read the article.

        “If calories in calories out doesn’t work for you then I’m begging you to please contact your local research university and tell them you’ve solved the energy crisis.”

        I never disputed the validity of the Law of Thermodynamics. This is a straw man and a false dichotomy all rolled into one.

        Would you like to try making an argument? Your temper tantrum isn’t very valuable to anyone.

  • Cara says:

    Hi Kevin!

    I’m a 5’7 130lbs female. I’m one of those girls who can eat whatever and not gain a pound. However, now I am realizing what I’m doing to my body and I have been changing the way I eat and have been exercising 4 days week (not running! lol) Only because I hate it and have asthma. ANYWAYS…I studied Biology and just got accepted into medical school so the science (what I know of it) makes sense to me. I like that you recognize calories are not the same and everyone is different. I know this article can only touch on bare minimum because you want people to sign up for your program (understandable) but basically I just want to know if you’re saying instead of counting calories, you should just introduce better foods to yourself? Nutrition vs. CICO? I use fitness pal and I don’t believe I have a lot of fat to begin with but doing that I have not seen a lot of results in the toning department which is what I’m aiming for. It is just very stressful to read stuff like this and have no fricken idea where to go from here. Thanks for posting, it was a very interesting read 🙂


    • Kevin Michael Geary says:

      Hi Cara,

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t really think there’s an easy answer that can fit into a soundbite. Yes, actual nutrition is a very important piece of the puzzle, but there’s a lot more to talk about beyond that.

      This problem of getting and keeping a body and life you love is a two-sided problem. One side is the physical stuff (nutrition, fitness, sleep, etc.) and the other side is the psychology stuff (why you make the choices you make, what manipulates and triggers your behavior, etc.).

      The only way to win and win for good is to solve both sides of the issue. That’s why I created the programs I created – because 99% of what’s out there is focused on solving only one side of the problem. And in being so narrowly focused, they fail almost everyone they try to help.

    • Slow says:

      Hi Cara, I too found it quite stressful at your stage (I finished medical school just over 10 years ago) to sift through conflicting information.

      I think the best compass in the end is evidence if you’re unsure. Given your school requirements, you are obviously familiar with PubMed. I literally spend hours upon hours searching and combing for articles on subjects specific to nutrition and exercise.

      Now you may not have the time to do this given your other school requirements, but even if it is bit by bit, it will help. Whenever you find an article that is potentially helpful, use your university account to track down the full publication and read it on your spare time.

      After a few years you will have collected many many articles and you will get a sense of what general trend you are comfortable with.

      I found that Primal diet and nutrition is the best option based on what I have found, but that’s me. If you search for your own evidence from the ground up, you will feel comfortable in whatever path you eventually choose.

      Hope that helps and good luck!

  • wow says:

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/is-a-calorie-a-calorie.html here is some real info. In 1964, investigators at the Institute for Metabolic Research in Oakland, California tested these ideas in a study involving five obese patients sequestered in a hospital metabolic ward. They gave each patient a liquid diet containing a precise number of calories calculated to induce weight loss. Every few weeks they changed the diets, varying the amounts of the three macronutrients. Patients initially ate a diet with 34 percent of calories from protein, 52 percent from fat, and 14 percent from carbs. Those numbers then changed to 27, 13, and 60 percent, respectively, and finally to 14, 83, and 3 percent, respectively.

    The investigators reported that all patients in the study lost weight at a constant rate regardless of the macronutrient proportions. “It is therefore obvious,” they wrote in the journal Metabolism, “that the significant factor responsible for weight loss is reduction of calories, irrespective of the composition of the diet.”Maintaining long-term weight loss is a challenge for many dieters. The human body seems programmed with numerous hormonal and neural mechanisms to maintain energy stores, perhaps as an evolutionary trait to protect against famine. It seems unlikely that even large variations in the protein, fat, or carb content of a diet will prove to be the simple key to success in either weight maintenance or weight loss. The idea, also proposed, that low-carb/high-fat diets are more satiating remains to be confirmed. As a result, most scientific reviews conclude that a diet of any composition will lead to weight loss if it reduces calories sufficiently.From our reading of the research, we conclude that, while the precise nature of the relationship between diet composition and weight maintenance needs more research, the number of calories consumed relative to those expended matters more to weight loss than where the calories come from. To lose weight, eat less; it works every time. At the same time, we can think of many good reasons to cut down on the sugars and easily absorbed carbs of soda, potato chips, and other junk food, and to eat a greater proportion of whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.Until research convinces us otherwise, we believe a calorie is a calorie.

    • Kevin Geary says:

      Ah yes…if only LIFE were a metabolic ward where people didn’t have access to UNLIMITED food.

      Yes, if you put people in a room for weeks where they can only eat what you give them, calories matter.

      If you let people roam the world where they can eat anything, calories are useless.

      My clients live in the real world, which looks nothing like a metabolic ward. Therefore, I give them information and tools that will lead them to success in the real world.

      • wow says:

        Every controlled study in the last century has found that people don’t lose weight unless they’re in a caloric deficit.
        This doesn’t mean you’re a failure or weak if you’ve struggled to get lean. It means you were focusing on the wrong actions, something everyone does sometimes. Simplify your efforts; create a caloric deficit.

        You’ll hear all sorts of reasons for why this isn’t true, but they’re all easily broken if you look at the research. This doesn’t mean calories are the only thing you should think about, but if you want to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn. Period.

      • Kevin Geary says:

        Every controlled study in the last century has found that people don’t lose weight unless they’re in a caloric deficit.

        I never argued against that.

        This doesn’t mean you’re a failure or weak if you’ve struggled to get lean. It means you were focusing on the wrong actions, something everyone does sometimes. Simplify your efforts; create a caloric deficit.

        Right. The wrong action is listening to someone who says, “simplify your efforts, create a caloric deficit.” If that advice helped people, there wouldn’t be an obesity epidemic. In fact, it’s condescending at this point. It’s a “no shit sherlock” kind of situation. If people could simply create a caloric deficit and sustain that behavior, THEY WOULD.

        But this isn’t just about weight loss, we’re also concerned with health here. And creating a caloric deficit doesn’t equal health.

      • wow says:

        You could get ripped on skittles and coke (the soda).
        That’s an extreme example, and you probably wouldn’t enjoy that diet. However, in terms of just weight loss, it doesn’t matter what you eat as long as you’re in a caloric deficit. You’ll lose weight.

        There’s no evidence that “junk food” is more fattening than “healthy food” if they have the same number of calories.5

        Here are a few more common scapegoats:

        Toxins like bisphenol-A (BPA).6
        Genetically modified foods.
        There’s no evidence that eating any of these foods will make you gain more fat, or slow fat loss, while you’re in a calorie deficit.5,6,9-11 There is also no evidence that other foods will help you lose more fat while dieting.
        This doesn’t mean food quality is irrelevant. Eating whole, nutritious, filling foods helps control hunger and keeps you healthy in the long-term.12-15

        However, eating moderate amounts of “unclean” foods is not going to make any impact on your ability to lose fat as long as you’re in a caloric deficit.

        Certain foods are more filling than others, and thus make it easier to maintain a caloric deficit. However, as long as you’re in a caloric deficit, you’ll lose weight.

      • Kevin Geary says:

        However, in terms of just weight loss, it doesn’t matter what you eat as long as you’re in a caloric deficit. You’ll lose weight.

        You’re arguing for the unsustainable. How is that helpful? Do you think people can live on 1200 calories of Skittles and coke? What you’re saying is both true AND TOTALLY IRRELEVANT.

        My clients are concerned with healthful, SUSTAINABLE weight loss. Following a traditional calories-in, calories-out approach does not work, has never worked, and will never work except for a small sliver of the population.

  • JustPassingThrough says:

    This whole article is basically just a sales pitch for this guy’s services. Just look for the comment by “WoW” in this comment section. When science is used against him, he just says “well yeah I’m pretty much just targeting people with bad self control as my clients”
    Just another health scam to sell a service. People like this show their true colors in the face of true facts. Trust the research studies people.

    • Kevin Michael Geary says:

      The article, as you can tell from the quality of content, is designed to educate and inform people.

      “When science is used against him…”

      Is science whatever you claim it is? Are my findings not based on “science?” Are you able to prove that?

      You don’t seem to be making an argument of any kind. You don’t seem to be able to dispute anything from the article itself. It seems like you just don’t like when your worldview is challenged and so you lash out.

      I’ll be awaiting an actual argument.

  • Brad says:

    I support the suggestion to eat healthy and exercise right. That being said, here’s my rant:

    The NIH has been doing more and more studies on weight as the obesity epidemic worsens. They’ve investigated set points, hormones, calories, fasting, etc. All of these things seem to have some level of effect but one this is universally accepted by the scientific community: calories drive weight loss and weight gain.

    While it is true that the first law of thermodynamics is an oversimplification of how weight loss works, it still plays its part on the body. The body needs energy (calories). Excess energy is converted into fat. Not enough energy burns fat. Hormones, set points, etc, cannot make energy from nothing. Different foods will have different effects like satiety, nutrition, and even the rate at which fat burns during weight loss (to your example of 1000 calories of sugar vs fat), but it doesn’t mean calories in/calories out is total nonsense.

    Short of your body being some sort of miraculous anomaly, eating at a caloric deficit will always result in weight loss. Obviously attempting to starve yourself will result in all sorts of issues but there are literally thousands of people, myself included, who have eaten at a reasonable deficit (-500 to -1000 calories per day) and lost weight and kept it off with very little change to what they eat, they just eat less of it.

    Metabolism will have a slight decrease (it’s not as drastic as people think, if it was organs would stop working). Hunger may increase as it’s the body’s natural response to when fat starts being burned. This does not mean it’s not working. Weight loss is about finding something sustainable that works. If calorie counting is not sustainable, there are some other options (keto/paleo/etc.), but calories are always going to be God when it comes to weight control.

    • Kevin Michael Geary says:

      Hi Brad,

      Nothing in the article argues against the law of thermodynamics or the overall conclusion that in order to lose weight you must burn more calories than you consume. If you take a close look at the article content (and not just the headline) you’ll see that my arguments are all pragmatic arguments. In short: the science of calories has nothing to do with human behavior. Everyone with a pulse knows about the calories-in, calories-out mantra. If knowing that “fact” changed anything for people, we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic. I’m more interested in what influences and determines human behavior because that’s what moves the needle for people.

  • Susan says:

    Wow…this clicked in my head today. It’s early and I am still coffee deprived but you have clarified things for me In a way I needed. I’ll bookmark this and reread later just to sink it further into my brain. I am a lifelong yoyo dieter… losing 75 pounds and gaining it back and more. On my way down… again…. and this time I need it to stick. Thanks for this. I’ll check out more of your stuff later.

  • Rocco says:

    YOU ARE A FUCKIN GENIUS.,,LIKE ME!! when did you write this? Im a trainer and a nutritional consultant here in nyc AND I HAVE MADE ALL MY CLIENTS GIVE UP ALL RIDICULOUS CALORIE OR MACRO COUNTING AND EVERYONE LOSES FAT WEIGHT ETC. LOLLL INTERESTINGLY MOSY DO NOT EAT ENOUGH!!!!! great work and happy new year from nyc!
    Christian Rocco

  • Numen Maxim says:

    CICO works but is too complex for most people. I’m an Excel wizard and it took me a while to accurately convert the Cunningham model to work for me. But after a fair amount of work I have it tuned and I’m losing at a very predictable rate. I eat whatever I want but am always mindful of the calorie content of everything.

    To mask how unhealthy their foods are. Every manufacturer lists different portions and “serving sizes” to obfuscate the calorie content of their product. They have a team of lawyers figuring out how to legally make your calorie counting as difficult as possible. A law should be passed that all food should be listed in calories per 100 grams. I think anyone could divide by 2,3,4,5 to get a personalized portion size.

    I also account for the zero calorie items of water/etc. and cooked vs uncooked liquid weight losses for all recipes I prepare.

    Every diet written is just another layer of obfuscation built by our corrupt economic/social systems.

    The simple fact is that if you eat foods on the 30c/100g range (vegetables) vs foods on the 500c/100g range (kettle chips) you will lose weight and be healthier. You also feel fuller for a much longer time. I do enjoy a splurge of a nice steak from time to time as well and I do it guilt free.

    So people get fatter and sicker so the food manufacturers, dieticians, doctors, health insurance companies, healthcare companies, lawyers, exercise equipment companies, pharmaceutical companies and morticians get richer.

    So listen to these liars and ignore the popping noise at the end of the chute your running down or take charge and do some math.

    • Kevin Michael Geary says:

      Hi Numen,

      Sounds like you’re extremely dedicated to numbers and spreadsheets. If that works for you and you legitimately enjoy it, then more power to you. The vast majority of the men and women I work with don’t want to touch this strategy with a 10-foot pole.

  • Ben says:

    Calories-in, Calories-out isn’t total nonsense. It’s basic biology.

    • Michael Banashak says:

      No it is NOT. Enegy is a human onvemnted mathematical FICTION. BOOKKEEPING DEVCIE ONLY. No such entity exists. Calories are one unit of many- TOTALLY FICTITIOUS.Calories CAnnot act on human cells. I have talked to top phycis experts for 120 years. Do not even attempt to debate this.

    • Kevin Michael Geary says:

      Sounds like someone didn’t read the article.

  • Atom Smith says:

    Agreed. I think counting calories is necessary if you’re following a diet that doesn’t focus on real food. I’m looking at you Weight Watchers and especially you Nutrisystem! Where highly processed foods are consumed. Modern day hunter gatherer tribes like in Tanzania that eat roughly how our ancestors would have.. do not have the lifestyle diseases that we get and you certainly never see them stepping on a scale or calculating their calorie budget.

  • Adam Cole says:

    It’s silly, actually.

    Your furnace goes haywire & overheats the house. You call the repair place. Do they say, “OMG, burn less fuel, you’re using too much”?

    Or do they figure out why the furnace isn’t responding appropriately to the thermostat setting, and fix the underlying regulation problem?

    Calories are our fuel, although they’re harder to meter accurately than kilowatts or BTUs. Any weight loss will necessarily involve a downward departure from maintenance calorie intake, and vice-versa.

    But hunger is our thermostat. As with other instincts, it should work FOR us, not against us, keeping energy intake aligned with energy output.

    All successful long-term solutions will focus on this essential *regulatory* balance, not a day-to-day conscious accounting of “thermodynamics” (CICO). When the regulation is working, the accounting takes care of itself.

  • Cloudy says:

    Just adopt a practical daily fitness plan that you enjoy.

    But what if a person really doesn’t enjoy any kind of activity, or just simply doesn’t have any chunk of time to do that? (As in, a chunk of at least 5-10 minutes)

  • Mike Banashak says:

    Energy is abstract mathematical fiction. it cannot act whatsoever on human cells. Energy is a number. Our “laws” are human inventions , totally fallible, totally tentative. They are NOT mandates by us imposed u[on Nature. Laws are out BEST GUESSES that webnt through the sieve a bit, as Feynman said. We already live ina universe where this NUMBER ( energy) is NOT conserved. It is only conserved LOCALLY under time translational invariance. In the case of the rapidly expanding universe? Energy ( a NUMBER ONLY) nNOT stuff-0 is NOT conserved…..How the body HANDLES FUEL is the issue here. Matter ( stuff and energy ( absttacr human invented characterisitc) are NOT related at all, as Prof Strassler notes. The Blogsphere is abusing the conservation of energy- ttoally misusing it to blame obese people. Thsoe with single gene defects will becom,e severely obese IRRESPECTIVE of eating amount.

  • J Harben says:

    Everyone is a little different. I am a male and 60, have exercised for strength for 40 years off and on. What works for me, is to try to avoid junk foods and excess fats and sugars. Eating at restaurants is avoided because the calories are way higher, they cook with lots of fats and sugars. I use a rough count of calories every day, because it works. I don’t diet every day, but rather 2 or 3 times a week, try to take in less. If I am very hungry on a diet day, I eat and get full on raw fruits and vegetables, and if I want meat, I eat canned tuna or other fish. Exercise will raise your metabolic rate and you will burn more calories just sitting, than the person next to you who is a couch potato. I avoid running because it is very hard on the joints, so I do low impact exercises. Had an operation last year, all the hospital staff seemed so surprised that all my vital signs showed I was very healthy, and was not taking any drugs for cholesterol or high blood pressure, or anything else. Lastly, if you don’t want to look like everybody else that is fat and overweight, don’t do what they do, do the opposite. Thanks for the read and for caring.

  • Ann says:

    I have taken the time to read this very lengthy almost gimmick like article in support of some food/diet style which you are promoting yet you never mention what it is exactly… sounds like another internet fat loss diet gimmick where scientific truth is taken restructured and respun into a long drawn out explanation for using your method of eating for weigh loss. But what is it? In that whole giant article that just gave me a headache I can’t find what you’re talking about…

    • Kevin Michael Geary says:

      Hi Ann,

      This article is about calories. It’s not about my entire philosophy of health and fitness. For that, I’ve diligently written over 150 in-depth articles and recorded over 200 hours of podcast episodes. All it requires on your part is a few extra clicks around the site. Perhaps your time would be better spent doing that instead of complaining that an article about calories doesn’t extend beyond the topic of calories…

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