Is Calories In, Calories Out a Myth?

So, you’ve done everything you were told to do to lose weight like exercise and cut calories, and yet the scale refuses to budge. This frequently happens during weight loss journeys, and it can be frustrating! With all the effort that goes into losing weight, it seems like the results should be more apparent. If this sounds like you, there’s something you should know: the calories in, calories out method of weight loss is outdated and may set you up for disappointment. Keep reading to learn more about why traditional weight loss methods often don’t work and what you can focus on instead.

The Problem with Calories In, Calories Out

Before we dive in too deep, let’s review what the concept of calories in, calories out (CICO for short) means. It’s a concept that picked up steam around the 1950s and has grown widespread ever since. Essentially, according to CICO, if you are eating too many calories and not exercising enough, you will gain weight. Let’s see how this works in action.

For this example, we’ll pretend that your ideal daily caloric intake limit is 2,000 calories. Perhaps you ate 2,300 calories and only burned 2,000 throughout the day. That leaves 300 extra calories. The idea goes that those extra calories turn to fat, and since each and every one of us has unique needs, we all have different ideal caloric intake limits and basal metabolic rates (BMR), which determine the rate at which we burn calories. This makes determining what’s best for your body – and understanding food labels – tricky.

The people who follow CICO tend to do one of the following:

A.) Cut calories – particularly by limiting carbohydrates, fat, or protein.

B.) Increase exercise.

C.) Combine increased exercise with calorie reduction.

The issue with CICO? It doesn’t factor in the wide variety of bodily processes that impact weight. When you have a fever, hormone imbalance, or digestive issue, for example, your doctor would evaluate your overall health to draw conclusions about what the issue may be and how to best correct it. Humans regulate adipose tissue, or fat, just like any other bodily system – through highly-connected processes. In our practice, we sometimes see obese individuals who report eating just one meal per day, and it couldn’t be any more obvious that the issue has little to do with calories. We’ll explore a few processes that impact fat storage and discuss what you can do to finally kick off that extra weight.

Common Issues that Disrupt Weight Loss

If you’re not sure if any of the potential concerns below apply to you, don’t worry! They may or they may not. An integrative health specialist like the practitioners at Progressive Health and Wellness can help you test for issues and talk through any sticking points in your weight loss journey.

Food Sensitivities

Food interacts with our bodies. We can feel it after we consume a meal that makes us soar with energy just as we can feel it after we eat something that doesn’t quite agree with our stomachs. However, food also interacts with our bodies on a deeper, genetic level. According to the law of epigenetics, less than 1% of our genetic code is set in stone. The rest of our genes are expressed as a result of our environment – including what we eat.

One person’s favorite food can be another person’s poison, causing inflammation that doesn’t let up as long as the food is eaten. Any time the offending food is consumed, the immune system will use chemical “warriors” called cytokines to destroy that food. Since the immune system has an incredible memory, symptoms can and often do get worse over time as the body “memorizes” and perfects its attack.

Low-grade inflammation caused by food sensitivities slows the metabolism, resulting in weight gain and difficulty in losing weight. Inflammation can even drive cellular hypothyroidism!

In addition, as the body struggles to rid itself of what it perceives as foreign invaders, it flushes cells with water, leading to water retention. This process also affects hormones and metabolism.

Some of the top food sensitivities include:

  • Gluten
  • Dairy
  • Corn
  • Soy

You’d be surprised by the products these ingredients sneak into!

Testing for food sensitivities is one of the best ways to identify ingredients that might be sabotaging your diet. Our practice uses a Mediator Response Test (MRT), which is more reliable than some of the other major tests out there. Once you determine what food sensitivities you have, you can often just take a break from those foods for six months or so to allow your body’s memory to forget it. Pretty cool, huh?

Hormone Imbalances

The brain communicates with the body through nerves and hormones. Many people who face struggles with losing weight have imbalances in their insulin or estrogen levels. Although these two hormones are just a couple of the body’s messengers, it’s crucial to get them at the right levels so that the body “interprets” instructions correctly.


When we consume carbohydrates, the pancreas releases insulin, which shuttles glucose into the cells where it will burn for fuel. Maintaining stable glucose levels is ideal so that the body can maintain a consistent energy level throughout the day. When glucose levels drop, however, you might crave (and eat) snacks and sweet treats, causing insulin levels to then rise in order to transfer that energy. This cycle can continue on and on. Every time insulin spikes, cells become more resistant to it and less able to absorb energy. As a result, more insulin is needed to get glucose out of the blood and into the cells.

Since fat is essentially stored glucose, insulin also regulates fat storage. When insulin levels are perpetually high, the body is in fat storage mode. A few hours after eating, the body typically signals for insulin levels to drop and burn fat for fuel. However, when insulin levels don’t drop enough because the body is conditioned to high levels, this process doesn’t happen effectively.


Men and women naturally produce estrogen, and humans also consume estrogens in the environment. The issue: the environment is loaded with xenoestrogens, and the body needs to detoxify to remove them. Some conditions must be met to properly detoxify the body, however.

Signs of high estrogen in women can include cramps and extreme PMS. For menopausal women, weight gain is typically the biggest sign of an estrogen imbalance.

A diet rich in cruciferous vegetables like bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale can facilitate the removal of excess estrogen from the body. Since chemicals like BPA mimic estrogen and are commonly found in plastics, you should be mindful of your plastic use by following these tips:

  • Don’t microwave anything in plastic containers.
  • Don’t drink out of plastic water bottles.
  • Don’t cook in plastic.
  • Don’t store food in plastic.

When in doubt, test! Hormone issues don’t always present themselves in obvious ways. 

The Gut’s Microbiome

Fun fact: there is actually more bacterial DNA in the human body than human DNA. In many ways, we are our microbiome, and there’s some debate in the scientific community about who is hosting who. It’s pretty amazing! 

These microscopic organisms produce short-chain fatty acids like butyrate and acetate that affect the body systemically, including in regulating metabolism. Think: the rate at which you burn calories, insulin sensitivity, thyroid health, and more. 

Our healthy microbes should, in theory, be able to keep the bad bacteria in check, but this doesn’t always happen. Antibiotic use, non-organic foods, stress, tap water, and medications can all disrupt the microbiome and provide an opportunity for the bad bacteria to thrive and cause inflammation. We call this dysbiosis. Infections within the gut can also increase inflammation levels and wreak havoc on the body. Because a variety of things can “go wrong” in the gut, we recommend checking up on gut health via testing to better direct the next steps of your wellness plan.

An anti-inflammatory diet can help restore balance in the gut’s microbiome, and simply taking a swig of apple cider vinegar before meals can help your body more fully digest your food – which aids your body’s bacteria in digestion too. Eating fermented and prebiotic foods like green bananas and artichokes can give your microbiome a healthy boost, as well.

Intermittent fasting can also help flatten out insulin levels and curb poor dietary choices. Aim for 16 hours of fasting to start. Most of this will occur while you’re sleeping, so if you finish your dinner at 7 PM, you can plan to eat again at 11 AM the next day. It’s not as bad as it sounds! In between fasts, you can consume clear beverages, water, coffee, and tea. Over time, your body’s response to insulin may become more enhanced, and your body will become more adept at burning stored fat! Once a 16-hour fast becomes comfortable, you can even explore enduring longer fasts to further optimize your health. Of course, always be sure to ask your doctor if it’s safe for you to do intermittent fasting before you get started.

In Summary

The body is a complicated machine, and we’re learning more about it every day. Food sensitivities, hormone imbalances, and the gut’s microbiome are just a few factors that can turn traditional weight loss advice like calories in, calories out on its head. Clearly, calories and exercise are only two parts of a greater equation. Fortunately, we can test bodily systems to see how they’re functioning and integrating with weight loss goals. There’s no doubt about it – there are a lot of weight loss myths out there! We’re here to help you deconstruct them and make real strides to a more healthy you.

For more healthy tips, join the conversation on our Facebook group, Integrative Health and Nutrition for Chronic Conditions. We post live videos, guides, and other useful information to help you elevate your health and wellness!

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