Why are calories treated as the end all be all of nutrition?

You often hear “eat X instead of Y, because it has less calories”. With no consideration for vitamins, protein, etc. Why are calories treated like they are the only thing that matters?

Because people are more focused on their weight than they are on the health (or they assume am absence of overweight is a positive indicator of good health). If you eat less calories, you lose weight. The assumption is then you increase health (which may or may not be true).

Because somehow people dislike joules.

Obviously basing your nutrition decisions only on energy content is not a great idea, but it’s a useful first step. Maybe desert isn’t such a good idea if it’s 1000 kilocalories / 4180 kilojoules.

For me, my doctor is far less concerned with calories than cholesterol and lipids.

Most Americans are not vitamin-deficient; they are overfed. Pick a random American, and if you want to advise one single change to their diet to improve their health, it’s likely to be “cut down on calories.”

It’s true that most people could also benefit from an array of changes beyond just reducing calorie intake. However, most folks aren’t willing to pay that kind of attention to their diet. If you’re a doctor, and you want to have a realistic chance of gaining a patient’s compliance, it’s best not to bombard that patient with so much advice that he just gives up.

Because (every post in this thread has to start with “Because” - darn, took too long to post) diet is complicated. Health is complicated. Nutritional information lists on food are always criticized because there are too many numbers and people can’t understand them. Calories are a single value. They are easy to understand. More is bad, fewer are good.

No, of course that’s not a perfect response to the complications and health and diet. The correlation is fairly high, though. Portion size, for any given food, correlates completely. Smaller portions are almost always healthier. (Up to a point, you nitpickers.)

For entire meals, the extra calories almost always come in the form of unneeded fats and sugars (unneeded in that they are added to encourage eating, not to add any health value). Giving calorie counts for meals is the quickest and probably best way of determining how it will factor in to your overall diet. No sophistication is needed to understand that eating 2000 calorie dinners every single day will affect you more, and probably worse, than the occasional splurge.

What works is always better than what is ideal but doesn’t work.

Usually, they aren’t, in my experience. But when they are, I suspect it’s because people like to oversimplify things.

It seems like, in every thread here about weight loss, someone inevitably pops in and says “It’s just a simple matter of eating fewer calories than you burn. Period.” See, for example, the exchange between Shodan and MsRobyn (and others) in this thread.

I do think it’s kind of silly the way people treat calories as if they were inherently bad things. Advertising that your food is “low calorie” (so that you can eat more) seems like advertising that your gasoline is “low energy” (so that you can fill up more). (And yes, I know the problems with that analogy.) When a frozen meal, say, proclaims on the package “Only 300 calories!” they might as well be saying “Small portions! Won’t keep you going for very long! You’ll get hungry before your next meal and eat whatever junk happens to be convenient.”

Are we just taking the OP as a given? I have not noticed that myself. For weight-loss diets, sure, emphasis tends to be more, but not exclusively,on calories. But for general nutrition, I hear much, much more than “eat fewer calories.” Eat more fiber. Eat more leafy greens. Eat more healthy fats. Avoid trans fats. Lots of talk of so-called “super foods.” Etc.

Calories are pretty close to the end-all of nutrition. If you’re not getting enough Calories, you’ll starve to death in a matter of weeks, no matter what else you’re getting. If you’re getting enough Calories, then even if you’re not getting anything else, you’ll be able to hold out for months or more, albeit in very poor health. Calories are by far the most important thing we get from food.

Indeed. If this is to stay in GQ, then the only answer to the OP is: They aren’t.

Do ou get this kind of food labelling in the US?


You couldn’t type in US food labeling? You only had to change one letter!

Chronos gets it. Everything else is window dressing. We eat because we need calories. That is why we eat.

Also, very few people (if any) are at their ideal weight while trying to make a diet change. Either they want to gain, or they want to lose, and that is their primary concern. Almost nobody says “I’m exactly the weight I want to be at, but my diet could still be healthier”. And if you want to lose weight, or gain it, calories are the only number that counts.

(Now, some strategies for consuming more calories have to do with macronutrients (fats, proteins, and carbohydrates). Fats are more calorically dense, so if you want to gain, eat more fats. The reverse isn’t necessarily true, however, because adding polyunsaturated fats can help you lose weight. High protein diets can fill you up quicker and for longer than a bag of chips or a roll of bread, so more lean meats and fewer carbs is good for losing weight. Meat is also good for gainers, because it’s more dense than a salad, and because most people trying to gain weight are trying to gain muscle, and for that they need lots of protein.

Our bodies are also feedback control systems that are tuned into whatever set point weight they are used to. So simply starving yourself is likely to backfire as your body resists by sapping your strength and willingness to move. Your body changes the “calories out” side of the equation in order to maintain a constant “calories in minus calories out” in the face of fluctuations in “calories in”. You have to take these complications into account if you’re serious about changing your weight. So it’s not a simple linear relationship between calories and weight. But the relationship is there nonetheless.)

But all of that last parenthetical is, like I said, window dressing. The main fact about food is that we need it for the energy (aka calories) it provides. People who want to gain weight need more calories and people who want to lose weight need less. Essentially, calories is the most important number. The macronutrient amounts and ratios are also important, but not nearly as much as over all calories. And unless you’re at risk of suffering from a goiter or scurvy, micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are basically irrelevant.

By and large, weight control is the dietary problem facing most people in the western world. People are not missing micro-nutrients, and get plenty of protein, because of the ready availability of foods with lots of protein and plenty of vitamins and the general deliciousness of those foods.

If the big dietary problem was “not enough vitamin R”, you would be hearing a lot about getting enough vitamin R in your diet.

People try to keep weight loss/gain in the simplest of terms.

Their rational is if they burn more calories than they take in, then they will lose weight (which is generally true).

Lots of exercise machines - mainly treadmills - give a rough estimate of how many calories one will burn while using said machine. So if the person on the treadmill is keeping track of their calorie intake, they can run on the treadmill until they have burned more calories than they have ingested.

Calories are just the universal, “easy” way, to help dictate exercise and diet. It certainly isn’t the most accurate, but calorie intake can be a good starting point … a litmus test of diet, if you will.

We are vitamin deficient. Many Americans are running dietary deficiencies in magnesium, omega 3, vitamin D, fiber, potassium, B6, etc.

Also since appetite and metabolism are largely regulated outside of the conscious mind, asking people to consciously eat less calories tends not to work long term. A better idea is to tell people to eat at least some of their calories in foods with high quality micronutrients and macronutrients. Foods like peanuts, whole grains, blueberries etc can cut the risk of various diseases.

All that says is that magnesium needs more study.

That’s an ad for his videos.


Reports very low percentages of deficiencies for everything mentioned. Including vitamin D.

Nothing else works in the long term.

Of course eating high nutrient foods is a general good. But that has far less long-term success than calorie reduction. And the status of specific foods in disease reduction is somewhere between unproven and refuted.

Well, not entirely. The status of limes in reduction of scurvy, for instance, is quite well proven.

Not even as a nitpick. The roles of vitamins in vitamin-deficiency diseases are well-known but that’s flat out not the same as the role of foods.


Ooooohh, so close. But wrong again.

Yes maybe. According to that article, if you use 30ng/ml as the cutoff about 45% are deficient. If you drop it to 11ng/dl then only 10% are deficient.

The NIH uses the 30ng/ml value. Technically they use 50ng/ml.


Not true. Manipulating the endocrine system via bariatric surgery works far better than lifestyle changes. Adjusting the set point to a lower body fat percentage will cure obesity, but medicine isn’t advanced enough to do that safely and on a large scale yet. If you take 100 people and give them all sedentary lifestyles and an all you can eat buffet, their weights will be all over the place. There will be a few 100 pound people, a few 400 pound people, and lots of variance in between. Figuring out how bodyfat is regulated will cure obesity, giving your body less food than it thinks it needs will not work long term. If your body and endocrine system wants to be at 30% bodyfat, and you are at 15%, you will probably lose sooner or later. The solution is figuring out how to trick your body to be happy at 15% bodyfat. Doing that will probably require manipulating levels of leptin, ghrelin, CCK, etc. Taking an obese person whose endocrine system wants them to be at 45% bodyfat, and changing it so that it wants to be at 10% (like some people’s endocrine system naturally stays at, those people who eat crap and are sedentary but who are still thin) will cure obesity. I don’t think we know how to do that yet.

There are fat people who when they eat what/when they want max out at 200 pounds. Some max out at 400. Some at 120. Figuring out why/how and changing it will cure obesity but we aren’t there yet.

If you compare lifestyle changes to lifestyle changes & bariatric surgery the second group does much better.

Take it up with Harvard medical school and the nurses health study

Also the ‘long term success of calorie reduction’ is less than 10%, sometimes much less.