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Food Quantity or Food Quality? Which is More Important?

Stop Counting Calories! Lose the Weight and Get Healthy

Written by
October 8, 2015
Updated June 17, 2016
Category: Nutrition

You want to know what pisses me off about nutrition? It is an over reliance on equations and numbers (and macros)? For instance, we have the Mifflin St. Jeor and the Harris Benedict equation, WHO standards, or calculating caloric intake off lean body mass.

There are a lot of ways to calculate how many calories you need to eat to supposedly stay where you are or lose/gain weight. You will need to calculate tons of fun acronyms in the process: RER, FFM, TEF, BMR, etc. You know – Math.

Yet, the very first problem is that these equations are just estimations, very rough estimations. It will depend on the paper you read, but in a recent review of 29 of these equations by AJCN the best are a little more than 20% off at estimating Resting Energy Expenditure.

Then you get into what the body does in response to certain foods, exercise, the validity of the gold standard used, and the snowball grows.

Peter Attia M.D., perhaps one of the smartest men on the planet put himself in a whole room calorimeter (the only real gold standard) to see how good these equations were at calculating his energy needs when he was doing his exercises, reading his books, and just chilling in the dark.

The equations were about 40% off! Peter works out and although he may be an outlier, it at least raises the ideology that the wrench in the equation game may be much bigger for those of us who train at higher levels.

This may also be one of the reasons Dr. Attia puts much more weight into food quality than being overly worried about measuring your food to the milligram or making sure your myfitnesspal has exactly 1,862 calories on it (we then get into the reliability of people to estimate, measure, and report food accurately – I will stop now.) Dr. Attia has a great post on calories and the First Law of Thermodynamic here.

Why Don’t These Equations Work?

Why Don’t These Equations Work?

Well, the human body is a math equation, it’s just one built and invented by nature which moves everything around all the time to try to make the answer 0 (homeostasis). AND as the body loses its ability to balance this teeter totter the way nature intended, guess what else goes out the window? Health.

So now you think you are going to get health back by trying to input the perfect numbers back into a broken ever changing pissed off equation? It’s almost laughable. Wait it is. Thus, please make sure that you have food quality on board before you start overanalyzing food quantity. IIFYM? NO.

Food Quality vs. Food Quantity

Food Quality vs. Food Quantity

Now what pisses me off about the people who value food quality and completely disregard food quantity? This could be alternative medicine folks, paleo people, my father, whoever.

They believe that you can slurp grass-fed butter, pound cashew breads, and that if it doesn’t come in a bag it won’t make you fat. Truth is it will be harder to get fat lapping up coconut oil on the hour and for most of us this may completely reset our insulin sensitivity, but over time it will not end well.

People need a ton of fiber and nutrients to make the equation above run effectively. In fact there are 75,000 enzymes in the human body and all of them are pH dependent and most need cofactors (nutrients and stuff) in order for them to run effectively. Now throw in GI issues and genetic polymorphisms and again the snowball grows.

The Final Rub

Stop Counting Calories! Lose the Weight and Get Healthy

I haven’t met too many conventional nutritionist or doctors who are even contemplating how to measure health, let alone have practices in place that drive health and performance. They are pounding square low calorie and low fat blocks into round holes, exasperated that none of this works long term.

Equally, I know many folks in the alternative health care realm who can get people healthy, but almost none of them can create, manage, and monitor an individualized diet, exercise, and lifestyle strategy effectively.

They give great recommendations in the office, but they don’t use any numbers or equations. They generally just hope and pray that the power of food restriction and coming to a fancy office will get the job done. Generally, not gonna happen, especially long-term. Too much will power not enough tools, direction, or accountability.

So where is the truth? Well you need both sides. You need some math, but it needs to be flexible, and please for the love of Zeus find ways to round and talk in food not numbers. You also absolutely have to make sure that your body isn’t missing something that would kick the above math in the nuts, AKA GI, brain, kidney, liver, thyroid, gonadal, or pancreatic dysfunction (the list is much longer).

Fundamentals. Eat the highest quality food that YOU thrive on. Eat it at the amount you need based on the lifestyle you have right now. Find a professional or practice who can help you dial it all in forever and not get lost in the matrix of the nutrition blogosphere.


Ben House, PhD, CN, FDN, fNMT, NCSF, USAW LI SPC has worked as a Strength and Conditioning Coach and Nutritionist since 2006. House is currently the owner and founder of Functional Medicine Costa Rica. House was accepted to medical school without an undergraduate degree, but elected to finish his degree and pursue a career in the health and fitness sector. He is currently practicing Functional Medicine after finishing his PhD and a multi-year metabolic health study within the Nutritional Sciences Department at UT-Austin. House has numerous publications in peer reviewed scientific journals such as The International Journal of Obesity, has presented his work at multiple international conferences, and lectures regularly on health and nutrition at The University of Texas.
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