Why Calories In = Calories Out Theory FAILS! Eating Disorder Recovery Explained

If you have been through yo-yo dieting, crash dieting or even eating disorders you may realise that you need to let go of restriction, eat more calories, exercise less (or even stop completely), and rest more to fully recover and come out of the burned-out state. This, however, may freak you out a little, understandably.

You may fear that by doing this your body will spiral out of control, your weight starts to increase and you will never stop gaining if you just let yourself eat without restriction. You may think that maybe you are already too “damaged” to ever have the possibility to maintain a normal eating and normal weight. You probably have a hunch that your metabolism is super slow already and your hunger is ever increasing day-by-day.

After all, calories in equals calories out, right?

Not so simple.

Our body is biological, not mathematical

Most people think weight loss is as simple as eating fewer calories and burning more. Yes, in terms of thermodynamics, that’s absolutely true, but don’t forget to take into account other important factors. For example, metabolic rate can vary big time from person to person. You can’t “out calculate” your metabolism because it’s too complicated, too dynamic. Our body is biological, not mathematical. Those kinds of math equations are not accurate when it comes to the body. It’s just not that cut and dried.

Especially it won’t work if one has gone through eating disorders, crash-dieting, calorie restriction, chronic calorie compensation behaviors, and are now in recovery. Their metabolism won’t increase, hunger cues won’t balance if the calorie restriction is not stopped and adequate rest isn’t provided.

Just as the body knows how to breathe unconsciously, it knows how to keep our weight within a normal range. We just have to follow our hunger cues and not mess with the system by dieting, restricting calories or foods, or trying to “burn off calories.” If your body is healthy and not riddled with a history of disordered eating habits, it easily stays at its set-point weight without you having to think about it…or calculate if you can or cannot eat that cookie today and how many steps you have to take to burn it off.

Just as the body knows how to breathe unconsciously, it knows how to keep our weight within a normal range.

In June 2011, Barry Popkin and Kiyan Duffey, doctors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, made a startling discovery. They discovered that the number of calories consumed per person per day increased by 570 calories between 1977 and 2006. So if the calories in = calories out theory were true, it would mean if an average person consumes 570 more calories per day, then the average person should have gained 476 pounds since 2006, right? But we know that can’t be true.(1)

We should think about our weight in terms of biology, not math. If we drink more, we urinate more. If we inhale more, we exhale more. When we eat more, our body burns more. It is proven that people who eat more have a higher metabolic rate. And this advantage is not solely theirs because you can also improve your metabolism or “heal” it after chronic dieting or an eating disorder when you start to eat enough calories. Your metabolism is suppressed by dieting and restriction, and that’s why you may gain weight initially when you start to eat more, but you will drop the excess weight when the damage from your past bad eating habits is repaired and your bodily functions – hormones, hunger cues, metabolism – are back to normal.

Studies show traditional calorie-counting approaches failing 95.4 percent of the time.

This “burn more when we eat more” behavior explains how we’ve gained dramatically less than what would be predicted by calorie math. The “burn less when we eat less” behavior explains why studies show traditional calorie-counting approaches failing 95.4 percent of the time – and often provoking even greater rebound weight gain. When we put these two biologic behaviors together, we can see why every weight-loss study ever conducted shows that when people are given a surplus or shortage of calories, they never gain or lose the mathematically anticipated amount of fat. The body just doesn’t work that way.(2)

The less people ate, the more body fat they had.

According to the calories in calories, calories out theory, we should lose weight if we just eat a little bit less, right?

Here’s another study conducted at Harvard involving 67,272 people.(3) The researchers divided this large sample into five groups according to the number of calories they ate and found that the fewer people ate, the more body fat they had. People who weighed more ate far fewer calories than people who weighed less naturally – these people simply burned more calories. So this study clearly shows that lowering your calories does not matter in terms of your weight. If you slow down your metabolism by dieting and lose muscle tissue, it’s a sure way to eat less and weigh even more in the long run.

Jonathan Bailor, the author of A Calorie Myth: How to Eat More and Exercise Less with The Smarter Science of Slim, writes:

Let’s look at a real-life study: the Women’s Health Initiative, a study that tracked nearly 49,000 women for eight years. Just as in our experiment, the women in one group ate an average of 120 fewer calories a day than the other group. Remember, that adds up to 350,400 fewer calories. How much lighter was the average woman who ate 350,400 fewer calories? The answer: 0.88 pounds.

That is not a typo. Eating 350,400 FEWER calories had less than 1 percent of the impact predicted by calorie math. Eating less of a traditional Western diet does not cause a long-term fat loss because this approach incorrectly assumes that taking in fewer calories forces our body to burn fat. That has been clinically proved to be false. Eating less does not force us to burn body fat. It forces us to burn fewer calories.

That is why dieters walk around tired and crabby all day. Their bodies and brains have slowed down. When our body needs calories and none are around, it is forced to make a decision: go through all the hassle of converting calories from body fat or just slow down on burning calories. Given the choice, slowing down wins. Even worse, if we still don’t have enough energy, our body burns muscle, not fat. Studies show that up to 70 percent of the non-water weight lost when people are eating less comes from burning muscle – not body fat. Only after it’s cannibalized this muscle will our body burn fat.(4)

How healthy body fights back the weight gain

If you eat more, you will burn more. A renowned metabolism expert, Matt Stone, writes in his book Diet Recovery: Restoring Hormonal Health, Metabolism, Mood, and Your Relationship with Food,(5) that the more you eat above your appetite and the more sedentary you are to minimize the calories you burn, the more the body fights back against this surplus by:

  • Raising the metabolism
  • Decreasing hunger
  • Increasing physical energy
  • Increasing the pulse rate
  • Increasing body temperature
  • Increasing the rate of lipolysis (burning fat for energy)
  • And the list goes on…

In other words, for a normal healthy person, if you do happen to eat “more than your daily calorie allowance,” let’s say, your body performs all of the above tasks to keep you at your natural, healthy set point weight. I have experienced this myself. If I eat more some days, I feel I have more energy just to move around. I’m feeling much warmer, my pulse gets higher, and, after that, my hunger decreases for the next meal or the next day. It makes perfect sense! We do not have to track how many calories we ate today or measure how active we were to know how much we must eat to stay at our healthy weight – our bodies regulate themselves!

So can you lose weight by simply eating less and burning more? Sure, if you want to ignore all I’ve written above and dismiss the facts about how the body will react to this kind of behavior in the long run. But I hope you will see by now that the body is much more complex than a simple mathematic equation.

How to restore your metabolic and hormonal health

If you are not metabolically healthy, and your metabolism does not function optimally, then of course even looking at a chocolate cake can make you gain weight! But this does not have to be infinite. You can restore your metabolic and hormonal health by going through recovery! Your body is designed to balance out automatically. The body never works against us. It doesn’t want to be overweight as much as it doesn’t want to sleep more than needed. But when you constantly under-sleep, you are about to get so tired that your body forces you to sleep more. You can sleep 24 hours straight when you are seriously sleep-deprived. The same goes for weight.

If you restrict food, your body forces you to binge and eat more than you normally would. When you mess with the system, it will become unbalanced, and that’s why you need recovery time after eating disorders or dieting. Meaning, letting go of restrictions, stopping all calorie compensation, giving your body plenty of rest, and time to heal and re-balance.

When we consistently eat enough calories, never restrict foods, and never try to compensate, our weight set point will get back to normal, and our body’s hormonal levels will balance out. Then our body will automatically start to regulate how much to eat, when to eat, and what to eat. We simply follow our hunger cues, allow our bodies to do what they have been biologically designed to do. No calorie counting or maniacal exercise regimen to burn calories is required to stay at that healthy weight.

So where to start? How to go through recovery? How to increase your metabolism and fix your hormones naturally? It is all explained step-by-step in the book: “BrainwashED: Diet-Induced Eating Disorders. How You Got Sucked In And How To Recover”

Want to learn how to go through recovery step by step? Check out my online course “6 Step Kickstart Course For Eating Disorder Recovery and Intuitive Eating”



(1) J. Kiyah Duffey, M. Barry Popkin, “Energy Density, Portion Size, and Eating Occasions: Contributions to Increased Energy Intake in the United States, 1977–2006” (2011), PLOS Medicine. LINK.

(2) Bailor, Jonathan. A Calorie Myth: How to Eat More and Exercise Less with the Smarter Science of Slim (2014), Kindle version.

(3) M. L. McCullough, D. Feskanich, M. J. Stampfer, B. A. Rosner, F. B. Hu, D. J. Hunter, J. N. Variyam, G. A. Colditz, and W. C. Willett. “Adherence to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Risk of Major Chronic Disease in Women” (2000), American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, PubMed as cited in Bailor, Jonathan, A Calorie Myth.

(4) Bailor, A Calorie Myth.

(5) Matt Stone, Diet Recovery: Restoring Hormonal Health, Metabolism, Mood, and Your Relationship with Food (2013), Kindle version.

Cover image from HERE.

2 thoughts on “Why Calories In = Calories Out Theory FAILS! Eating Disorder Recovery Explained”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top