- Calorie Counting Alternatives
- Counting Calories Might Not Be the Key to Weight Loss After All
- Here’s Why You Should Stop Counting Calories to Lose Weight
- The one number to track to lose weight – it’s not calories!
- Wait… no counting calories?
- Where’s all the sugar coming from?
- How does refined sugar and flour make us fat?
- How does the glycemic index work?
- These 3 Easy Calorie-Counting Rules Will Help You Lose Weight
- 1. Determine How Many Calories You Should Eat
- 2. Count How Many Calories You Actually Eat and Burn
- 3. Get Portion Savvy
- Want to Lose Weight? You Should Stop Counting Calories
- Calorie counting: The secrets to losing weight by the numbers
- How many calories should we eat a day?
- Is This Finally the End of Counting Calories?
- Is Less Better? The 3 Common Myths About Counting Calories
- What is a calorie?
- 1. We can’t accurately measure our food
- 2. All calories are not the same
- 3. The body doesn’t lose only fat when it loses weight
- 4. Metabolic rate drops when calorie intake drops
- 5. We can’t accurately measure our daily calorie expenditure
- 6. As you get in better shape, you burn less calories at the same relative intensity
- 7. Hormones regulate metabolic rate and what type of tissue is lost
- So now what?
Calorie Counting Alternatives
“The formula is still correct,” Aldana tells WebMD, but since it’s hard to count calories outside the lab, you may want to pursue other methods of policing your energy intake. Think of your workouts, Aldana says. When we exercise, we’re burning calories, but we rarely ever count calories when we’re calculating how much exercise we need. Instead, we count miles, minutes, or heartbeats.
Ready to jump off the calorie-counting bandwagon? Here’s what to do instead:
- Instead of counting calories, eat smaller portions. It may seem like a basic concept, but it’s easy to forget that bigger portions have more calories. Most of us gauge a serving as “the amount we’re used to eating,” a recent study found. That would be restaurant food — where meals are served on platters, not plates. And the more we look at (and eat) huge portions of food, the more we see them as normal — to the point of serving ourselves the same amounts at home. Unfortunately, studies show that when we’re served more, we tend to eat it. When researchers from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign served subjects bigger helpings, people ate up to 45% more food. One caveat: there’s no reason to eat fewer vegetables; they’re much less calorie dense than other foods (they contain fewer calories per gram). A cup of raw broccoli, for example, contains only 31 calories, while the same amount of chocolate ice cream boasts close to 285.
- Instead of counting calories, choose foods that use more calories. Some foods require more energy than others to digest and metabolize, says John Berardi, PhD, CSCS, president of Precision Nutrition, and author of The Metabolism Advantage. We call this the thermic effect of food, Aldana says. The difference is very small, he cautions, just a few calorie’s difference, for example, to eat a slice of bread made from whole grains vs. one made from refined flour. (Refined flour digests easily, leaving you with the full 4 calories per gram, while whole grains use up part of their 4 calories per gram during the digestion process, he says.). For example, if a woman were to start eating only foods that take a lot of work to digest (high-fiber, protein foods) she might save about 12 to 15 calories per day, the same amount she could expend by walking for about four minutes. But for some people — especially those stuck in sedentary jobs or crunched for time — it just may be worth it. Besides, foods that take more work to digest, like those high in fiber, tend to be those that are better for you. And choosing the best nourishment for your body is a much healthier food focus than counting calories.
- Instead of counting calories, make sure you consume the right kind. Nearly one-quarter of Americans’ calorie intake comes from sweets, desserts, soft drinks, and alcoholic beverages, research from the University of California, Berkeley notes. Another 5% comes from salty snacks and fruit-flavored drinks. Nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, contribute only 10% to the average American’s calorie budget. “When it comes strictly to weight loss, a calorie is a calorie, Klein says. However, when it comes to your health, it’s best not to blow your calorie budget on foods that lack nutrients. Nutrient-dense choices like fruit, vegetables, and whole grains can help prevent heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, while those lacking in nutrients, like candy, soft drinks and white bread can contribute to a whole host of health problems.
The bottom line? You don’t need to count calories, but you should make all your calories count.
Counting Calories Might Not Be the Key to Weight Loss After All
Photo: Africa Studio /
If you think losing weight and eating right is all about counting calories and tracking everything you eat, think again. Turns out, people who eat a lot of vegetables and whole foods (foods that haven’t been processed or refined and that are free of additives) lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year without restricting the quantity of food they consumed, according to a new study published in JAMA on Tuesday.
The research by scientists at the Stanford Prevention Research Center split 600 people into two diet groups. One group followed a low-carb diet while the other adhered to a low-fat diet. (BTW, find out why women need fat.)
Both groups were asked to focus on consuming high-quality foods and to avoid processed or refined foods as well as anything that might have added sugars such as white bread, bagels, and sugary snacks. To help stay on track over the course of a year, they met with dietitians who helped guide them and encouraged home cooking. (Did you know that processed food can put you in a bad mood?)
But here’s the kicker: Everyone was also told not to worry about counting calories or limiting portion sizes. (Related: 6 Signs You Need to Change Your Diet.)
After a year, researchers found that both groups lost a significant amount of weight. People who followed the low-carb diet lost an average of 13 pounds, while the low-fat group lost an average of 11.7 pounds. On top of the weight loss, everyone saw an improvement in their overall health, such as lower blood pressure, blood sugar, and body fat. (Related: 15 Simply Brilliant Healthy Eating Tips)
The takeaway? Diet quality is more important for both weight control and long-term well-being compared to diet quantity.
It’s already commonly understood that very restrictive dieting and excessive calorie counting can lead to greater attrition rates and negative relationships with food, such as eating guilt. So coupled with this research, it would be prudent for nutritionists and health care providers to focus more on training clients and patients to rethink the quality of their food rather than focusing on portion sizes or total calories.
That isn’t to say that calories don’t matter at all. In fact, researchers made it a point to note that by the end of the study, both groups were eating less food simply because they had made major changes to their diet and were getting used to eating healthier. The point is that calories shouldn’t be the only focus when it comes to weight loss. (If you need more convincing, here are a few other reasons why you should stop counting calories.)
Here’s Why You Should Stop Counting Calories to Lose Weight
“Drink your weight in water,” “stay away from the fridge after 6 p.m.,” “count your calories!”—they’re just some of the most hackneyed weight loss tips we’ve heard over and over again. And according to a new study published by JAMA, the latter piece of advice may be the stalest of them all.
The yearlong study sought out to test the effectiveness of a healthy low-fat diet versus a healthy low-carbohydrate diet on weight loss, and whether participants’ ability to metabolize certain macros (in this case, fat or carbs) play a role in their weight loss. Researchers split 609 overweight adults into two groups: one of which was instructed to eat wholesome low-fat foods such as whole grains, lean meats, reduced-fat dairy, legumes, and fruit while the low-carb group chose foods such as vegetables, olive oil, fatty fish, avocados, hard cheeses, nuts, seeds, and grass-fed and pasture-raised animal products—all while ignoring calorie counts.
“I think one place we go wrong is telling people to figure out how many calories they eat and then telling them to cut back on 500 calories, which makes them miserable. We really need to focus on that foundational diet, which is more vegetables, more whole foods, less added sugar and less refined grains,” lead study author Christopher D. Gardner, the director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center said, as reported by The New York Times.
Researchers had both groups focus on integrating more veggies and whole, unprocessed foods into their diets while avoiding processed foods such as chips and desserts marketed as “low-fat.” “A couple weeks into the study people were asking when we were going to tell them how many calories to cut back on,” Gardner said. “And months into the study they said, ‘Thank you! We’ve had to do that so many times in the past.'”
At the end of the study period, the low-carb group lost over 13 pounds while the low-fat dieters lost about 11.7 pounds. According to The New York Times, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Dr. Walter Willett, said that the study’s main takeaway was that a “high-quality diet” produced significant weight loss and contributed to “long-term well-being,” adding that the number of calories from fat or carbs was insignificant.
Whether or not you swear by tracking your calories on MyFitnessPal, these 100 Best Weight Loss Tips will help you drop the weight for good.
Get the New Book!
Want to lose 10, 20, even 30 pounds—all without dieting?! Get your copy of Eat This, Not That: The Best (& Worst) Foods in America!, and learn how to indulge smarter and lose weight fast!
655 + (4.35 x your weight in pounds) + (4.7 x your height in inches) – (4.7 x your age in years)
So if you were a 135-pound, 25-year-old, 5-foot-6 woman, your BMR calculation would look like this: 655 + (4.35 x 135) + (4.7 x 66) – (4.7 x 25) = 1,435.
(10 x your weight in kilograms) + (6.25 x your height in centimeters) – (5 x your age in years) – 161
Using the same stats as above, your BMR calculation would look like this: (10 x 61) + (6.25 x 168) – (5 x 25) – 161 = 1,374.
As you can see, the results are slightly different, but not by too much. That’s fine, because any BMR calculation you do on your own is just a general guideline, and you shouldn’t stress about pinpointing an exact number. “The actual best way to calculate your BMR is to go into a lab,” Rachele Pojednic, Ph.D., a research fellow at Harvard Medical School and professor at the Harvard Extension School, tells SELF. “They can measure the amount of carbon dioxide you’re expelling and how much oxygen you’re breathing to see how efficiently your body is metabolizing calories,” she explains.
BMR is at the root of the main hard-and-fast rule for safe weight loss: Your calories should never dip below 1,200, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Most people’s BMR falls above this number, unless they are quite small,” says Feldman. So, in general, most people need more than 1,200 calories per day to keep their various physical systems healthy. What happens if you drop below that number? “When you eat less than 1,200 calories per day, your metabolism can be majorly affected, your muscle mass can start decreasing, and you won’t get the vitamins you need to sustain daily activities,” Jim White, R.D. and spokesman for the Academy, tells SELF. Point is, eating is great for you (not to mention fun), and you shouldn’t cut out too much of it whether you’re trying to lose weight or not.
To figure out how much you should eat for weight loss, you’ve got to factor in your activity.
Now that we’ve calculated how much calories your body burns in order to stay functioning, we need to take into account everything else you do that burns calories including your morning walks and regular Tuesday night yoga classes. To do that you can try the interactive calculator from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This tool incorporates your activity level along with your BMR to give you a more specific number providing you with a rough estimate of how much you should eat in order to maintain your current weight (BMR + activity level).
If you want to lose weight, you’ll need to cut calories from your maintenance mode to see results. “One pound of fat is around 3,500 calories, and safe fat loss is one to two pounds per week,” says White. To lose one pound of fat per week, you’d need a 500-calorie deficit each day. Instead of creating that deficit solely by eating less, White recommends mixing in exercise as well. Beyond taking the pressure off of yourself to curb your eating too much, it’s also just good for your health.
This is a good formula to use as a guide, but weight loss is more than just calories in, calories out. “There are other factors that affect how much weight you will lose and at what rate,” says Feldman. A few of them: your age, because metabolism slows as you get older, your starting weight, because a person with a high one generally sheds pounds quickly, and your lean muscle mass, which can help spur weight loss.
Muscle matters when it comes to weight loss.
Gaining muscle is a great way to get closer to any weight-related goals you may have, and also feel healthier all around. But one thing to keep in mind: Your BMR will increase as you gain muscle. “When you have more muscle, the amount of calories your body needs to regenerate that tissue is significantly increased,” says Pojednic. There’s also the fact that muscle is very metabolically active.That means it’s great at burning calories even when you’re not using it. “Lean muscle tissue burns more calories than fat at rest. That means if you build lean muscle mass while exercising, you will be able to increase your metabolism—even at rest—which will help you with weight loss,” says Feldman.
The one number to track to lose weight – it’s not calories!
By Matthias Muenzer, M.D.
Hallmark Health Medical Associates
I’ve met with patients who come into my office in tears, frustrated because yet another diet plan has failed. Many of these patients come in weighing more than they did when they started their diet plans.
I feel for them – I also was overweight not too long ago. But I found an easy, healthy way to lose weight fast and improve my overall health. I simply started paying attention to the glycemic index of my food.
The glycemic index is a number that tells you how much your blood sugar will go up after eating a particular food. This method is sometimes called the diabetic diet because it’s similar to the way people with diabetes choose which foods to eat. There are no gimmicks, no measuring or weighing of food and no counting calories when you follow the glycemic index for weight loss.
Wait… no counting calories?
When I tell my patients they don’t have to count calories to lose weight, they look at me like I’m crazy. “But, Dr. Muenzer,” they say, “every diet I’ve tried includes counting calories.”
“Yes,” I respond, “and if those calorie-counting programs worked, you wouldn’t be asking me for help now.”
If calorie-counting programs worked, patients wouldn’t be asking for help.
This is a light bulb moment for my patients. While calorie intake is an important component of healthy weight maintenance, we’ve learned that it’s the types of food you eat to get those calories that is most important. Refined sugars and white flours make you hungrier and cause you to eat more calories.
Where’s all the sugar coming from?
You don’t have to have a sweet tooth to be eating too much sugar.
You don’t have to have a sweet tooth to be eating too much sugar.
Processed foods are Americans’ main source of sugar. These foods (and drinks) have been altered from their natural state so they look and taste good when they’re stored on supermarket shelves. Fat, salt and – most importantly – sugar are added in large quantities to most processed foods. In other words, they’re the opposite of the untouched, natural foods our grandparents lived on.
It’s easy to find foods that are made with the worst ingredients you can eat – refined sugars and white flours. Bread, pasta, soda, fast food, gourmet coffee drinks and cereal bars may taste good, but the amount of sugar in our food is making us fat, diabetic and miserable.
How does refined sugar and flour make us fat?
Your body, digestive tracts and hormones are designed to process natural sugars, like those in fruits and vegetables. Refined sugar and flour affect our bodies differently than natural sugars:
- Natural sugars consist of long chain sugar molecules – complex carbohydrates – which are usually “wrapped” in fiber. Your body needs time to “unwrap” complex carbs to convert them to energy. This process – breaking down complex carbs into smaller pieces so they can be absorbed and digested – helps you feel full.
- Processed sugar and white flour consist of short chain sugar molecules – simple carbs. They’re not wrapped in fiber and are already broken into easily digestible pieces. Simple carbs are absorbed quickly by the body and cause a fast, substantial increase in blood sugar – also called a sugar spike.
When we eat, our bodies secrete lots of insulin. Insulin is a hormone that directs sugar and calories to be burned for energy or stored in our fat cells as part of our normal, healthy body process.
Our bodies are “time programmed” to keep insulin in our bloodstreams long enough to break down carbohydrates. But our bodies can’t immediately tell whether we’ve eaten healthy food or junk food, so even though simple carbs are absorbed quickly, the insulin hangs around and keeps lowering your blood glucose levels.
What happens when you have low blood sugar? You get hungry.
When you’re hungry, you eat more – and it’s convenient to reach for processed foods like chips, bagels, and crackers. Then the whole cycle starts again. The more refined sugars and flours you eat, the more weight you gain.
That’s why paying attention to your food’s glycemic index works for weight loss. It clues you in to how your body will react to certain foods:
- Higher glycemic foods trigger more insulin, resulting in more calories stored as fat – and more weight gained.
- Lower glycemic foods trigger less insulin, resulting more calories used for energy – and more weight lost.
When you eat natural foods that your body can’t process quickly, you feel full longer, avoid overeating, and therefore avoid weight gain.
How does the glycemic index work?
The glycemic index is pretty simple to use. The numbers can be broken up into three levels:
- 55 and less: Eat these foods to lose weight. This includes beans, nuts, vegetables and most fruits.
- 55 to 75: Eat very few foods in this range. This includes foods like white bread, crackers, bagels and most sodas and colas.
- 75 or more: Eat almost no foods in this range. This includes foods like potatoes, sports drinks, waffles and instant oatmeal.
If you are struggling with your weight, make it a point to follow this easy system. Your goal is to make sure the majority of the food you eat is non-processed, free of refined sugar and white flour and ranked at 55 or less on the glycemic index.
Most food labels do not list the glycemic index number, but it’s easy to find just about any food’s ranking with a quick Internet search. For example, Harvard Medical School published a list of glycemic indexes for over 100 common foods.
Before you go grocery shopping or sit down to a meal, look up the glycemic indexes of the foods you’re planning to eat. In the beginning you may be surprised – the indexes often are not what you would expect. In time, though, you will develop a good sense for what will make you gain weight and what will help you achieve your health goals.
I suggest that my patients live by this motto: “If it comes from a plant, eat it. If it comes from a manufacturing plant, don’t!” Watching your sugar intake is not a traditional “diet” – it’s a return to eating the natural foods that our bodies can process in the healthiest way.
If it comes from a plant, eat it. If it comes from a manufacturing plant, don’t!
These 3 Easy Calorie-Counting Rules Will Help You Lose Weight
How many calories have you eaten today? And how many should you consume if you’re trying to maintain your current weight or lose those last 10 pounds? If you’re like most Americans, you probably wouldn’t know the answer. According to years of surveys from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, a not-for-profit health education organization, only about 30 percent of us pay attention to calories when we’re looking to eat healthfully.
With so many weight loss plans focused on eliminating or increasing certain foods — whether it’s through banishing carbs, loading up on protein, or eating “healthy” fats — the benefit of counting calories may get crowded out of the conversation. But you shouldn’t discount this powerful weight loss tool, say experts, because the secret to losing weight for good isn’t eliminating bread or existing entirely on green juice.
“Sustained, healthy weight loss comes down to a pretty basic equation: fewer calories plus more exercise,” say Jenny Sucov and Maureen Namkoong, RD, the authors of My Calorie Counter, Everyday Health’s nutritional information guide. “By keeping track of how many calories you consume and burn every day, you can slim down, gain energy, and stave off a whole host of health problems.”
What keeps people from counting calories? Among the biggest roadblocks people cite, according to one IFIC survey, are the difficulty of counting calories (30 percent), having a focus on other nutrients (30 percent), thinking that calorie counting doesn’t matter (23 percent), and being too busy (22 percent).
But counting calories is less time-consuming than you think. Follow these tips to get started:
1. Determine How Many Calories You Should Eat
Your body uses about two-thirds of the calories you consume each day just to keep its systems functioning — your heart beating, your muscles moving. The rest of your calorie intake fuels everyday activities, like walking around, exercising, typing an email, doing a crossword puzzle.
To find out your ideal caloric intake, start by calculating your daily caloric needs. The number of calories you need daily depends upon five main factors: your age, sex, weight, height, and amount of physical activity. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that women looking to lose weight keep their calories in the rage of 1,200 to 1,500 a day.
To lose weight, you need to decrease the calories you take in, or increase the amount of calories you burn through exercise. This calculator, created by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, can help you determine how many calories you’ll need to aim for per day in order to reach your weight loss goal.
2. Count How Many Calories You Actually Eat and Burn
You can easily cut calories by making small diet and exercise changes throughout your day. Here are a few ways:
Breakfast Drink water instead of a cup of orange juice. Calories saved: 112
Snack Have ½ cup of sliced cucumber and a tablespoon of hummus instead of a 1 ounce bag of chips. Calories saved: 117
Lunch Swap out 2 tablespoons of full-fat ranch dressing for fat-free Italian. Calories saved: 128
Dessert Eat ½ cup of strawberries instead of ½ cup of chocolate ice cream. Calories saved: 130
You can track your calories online here for free, or consult the nutritional information in our My Calorie Counter iPhone app or book when you’re on the go.
Don’t forget to log your exercise, too. Find out how many calories you’re burning with fitness and everyday activities by using the My Calorie Counter list of calories burned during exercise, then enter that figure into your online journal.
3. Get Portion Savvy
Even if you can’t or don’t want to tally the calories you eat at every single meal or snack, portion control is an easy way to help you consume fewer calories. “In a world where supersized is regular, it’s easy to undercount your calories,” say Sucov and Namkoong.
These tips can help you recognize what a healthy portion looks like, which can help you keep calories in check:
Think of a tennis ball. It’s the equivalent of one cup of food, which is the recommended portion for items like pasta, cereal, and yogurt.
Don’t eat straight out of the container. It’s a recipe for mindlessly overeating. Instead, measure a serving size of whatever you’re noshing on — almonds, soy chips, or other snacks — and put it on a plate or in a bowl.
Use smaller plates. Trick your mind into thinking that you have more food by downsizing your large dinner plate for a smaller, salad-sized one. A healthy portion can look tiny on a huge plate but will seem more normal when you shrink its surroundings.
Spoil your appetite with nutritious food. Try eating celery sticks with peanut butter an hour before mealtime, My Calorie Counter recommends. You’ll eat less at the meal and feel more satisfied later.
Want to Lose Weight? You Should Stop Counting Calories
Sarka Babicka/Getty Images
Keri Rabe, a 41-year-old elementary school librarian in Austin, Texas, used to be a hard-core calorie counter. Each day for a year, she logged everything she ate, squeezing in caloric space for twice-baked potatoes and tater tot casseroles by making them with low-fat dairy, believing fat would make her fat. She studied the menu before eating out at restaurants, choosing a dish by how many calories she had left for the day. “I thought for sure that was the only way to consistently lose weight,” she says. “I thought I’d have to do it for the rest of my life.”
By one measure, it worked; Rabe lost 10 pounds that year. But even though she met her goal, she was frustrated. She hated doing math before and after every meal, and even though she got away with eating low-quality food while losing weight, she still didn’t feel good—and she wasn’t satisfied.
So one day, Rabe stopped logging and went searching for a better path, not just to lose weight but to keep it off. “I was looking for a way I could eat for the rest of my life,” she says.
Rabe was about to learn what experts are now discovering: The quality of calories is what matters most for staying healthy, losing weight, and maintaining those results.
“When you eat the right quality and balance of foods, your body can do the rest on its own,” says David Ludwig, MD, an endocrinologist, researcher, and professor at Harvard Medical School, who wrote the 2016 weight-loss book Always Hungry? “You don’t have to count calories or go by the numbers.”
RELATED: 11 Ways to Boost Your Metabolism
Outsmart your metabolism
The problem with foods that make people fat isn’t that they have too many calories, says Dr. Ludwig. It’s that they cause a cascade of reactions in the body that promote fat storage and make people overeat. Processed carbohydrates—foods like chips, soda, crackers, and even white rice—digest quickly into sugar and increase levels of the hormone insulin.
“Insulin is like Miracle-Gro for your fat cells,” explains Dr. Ludwig. It directs cells to snap up calories in the blood and store them as fat, leaving the body feeling hungry in a hurry. This is why it’s so easy to devour a big bag of chips and still feel famished.
Repeat this cycle too many times and your metabolism will start working against you. What’s more, “when humans try to reduce their calorie balance, the body fights back,” says Dr. Ludwig. This happens in two ways: Metabolism slows in order to keep calories around longer, and you begin to feel hungrier. “This combination of rising hunger and slowing metabolism is a battle that we’re destined to lose over the long term,” he adds. In a dramatic study last year, researchers followed 14 contestants who had all lost big (most about 100 pounds) on The Biggest Loser, and they found this to be the case. Within six years, all but one of them had regained much or all of the weight they had lost because their metabolism stalled and their levels of the hunger-regulating hormone leptin plummeted.
Put fat back on your plate
The best way to break this fattening cycle is to replace processed carbs with healthy fats, argues Dr. Ludwig: “Fats don’t raise insulin at all, so they can be a key ally for weight loss.”
That idea, of course, contradicts decades of dietary advice. Americans have long been warned about the dangers of fat, since the nutrient contains more than twice as many calories as carbohydrates and proteins. By the math alone, replacing fat with carbs seems like a good idea—but it’s not. Studies have shown that people on a low-fat diet tend to lose less weight than people on a low-carbohydrate diet.
In another twist, eating healthy fats—the types that actually support the heart, like the omega-3s in tuna and the monounsaturated fat in olive oil—does not seem to cause weight gain. A trial published last year in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology showed that people who followed a Mediterranean diet rich in vegetables and fat for five years lost more weight than those who were told to eat low-fat. A related study showed that folks who followed a high-fat diet reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease by about 30 percent, while those instructed to eat a low-fat diet did not.
“After hearing for 40 years how eating fat makes you fat and how we have to count calories to control our weight, people are afraid of foods that humans have enjoyed and viewed as healthy for hundreds of years, like olive oil, nuts, avocado, fatty fish, even dark chocolate,” says Dr. Ludwig. “These foods are among the most healthful foods in existence, even though they are loaded with calories.”
Real, natural foods with fiber, protein, and fat are so satisfying, you’ll naturally eat less of them, the new thinking goes. “If the meal contains all three, then the food will move more slowly through the GI tract,” says Mira Ilic, a clinical dietitian at Cleveland Clinic. When a food takes its time passing through the body, you feel fuller longer.
Instead of choosing a meal based on calories, Ilic advises picking foods from all three categories: one high in fiber, like a vegetable or whole grain; a protein source (think: chicken or salmon); and a healthy fat, like a salad with olive oil and chopped avocado.
RELATED: 20 Little Ways to Drop the Pounds and Keep Them Off
Listen to your body’s cues
But it’s still possible to overdo it, even on healthy foods. The biggest temptations are typically peanut butter and almond butter—when you eat them by the spoonful—and whole avocados, says Ilic. She likes the “healthy plate” method of foolproof portion control: assembling half a plate of nonstarchy vegetables, which are automatically healthy; a quarter plate of protein; and a quarter plate of quality carbs, like whole grains or legumes. Foods with healthy fats will pop up in the protein and carb parts of the plate, and if you stick to that formula, you’ll be less likely to overeat them. After creating so well-rounded a meal, you’ll find it easier to keep the amount of good fat you add to it in check.
Another way to guard against overeating healthy-but-rich foods is to slow down at the table. “A lot of people are eating way too fast,” says Ilic. “It takes a minimum of 20 minutes for the brain to pick up on satiety, the fullness of the stomach, and you miss the cue of being full if you’re eating too quickly.”
RELATED: Sneaky Things That Make You Eat More (Even When You’re Not Hungry)
Be present to shed pounds
Recent research found that when people did a short mindfulness exercise called a body scan meditation—in which you take stock of how you feel inside—they were better able to pick up on internal cues that signal hunger and fullness. People who are more mindful have also been shown to experience fewer weight fluctuations over time.
Even though eating quality calories will help you crave treats less, there’s still room for the occasional indulgence. Dr. Ludwig is a fan of dark chocolate, which has heart, brain, and satiety benefits. If that doesn’t do it for you, you can keep the occasional cookie in the mix. “After cleaning the metabolic slate and lowering their insulin, people may be able to enjoy pastries, pasta, etcetera in moderation,” says Dr. Ludwig. If you miss these foods, he recommends experimenting to see what you can handle before cravings are triggered. “For others whose metabolism doesn’t tolerate that as much, the benefits of being in control of hunger and not having to fight cravings will be much greater than the fleeting pleasures of those processed carbohydrates.”
As for Rabe, she ended her year of dodging calories by embarking on a new one in which she embraced fat and reduced sugar. She lost about as much weight while gaining leanness, strength, and a steadier stream of energy.
“I feel so much freer to not be restricted and obsessed over calories,” she says. “I’ve made some really major changes in the quality of my diet, and I feel I can sustain them.”
Best of all, ditching the meal math renewed her love for food, so much so that she started her own cooking blog.
Rabe says she’ll never go back to counting calories. “I’m internally motivated to eat the way I do, because I enjoy it,” she says. “I like the way I feel now.”
There’s nothing trendy about calorie counting for losing and maintaining weight, but because of apps and fitness trackers, the practice is more popular than ever. Calories in, calories out is scientifically proven. How do you make calorie restriction work long-term — without becoming obsessed?
Calorie counting: The secrets to losing weight by the numbers
July 23, 201505:19
According to a 2014 marketing study, 31 percent of Internet users in the United States track their health through apps and fitness trackers, and of those people, 42 percent are tracking their diet and their calorie intake.
“At the end of the day, unless science can prove otherwise, maintaining your weight, losing weight, gaining weight is really just a function of how many calories in versus how many calories out,” NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar said on TODAY.
As part of the TODAY “Secrets of Diet Trends” series, nutrition expert Joy Bauer joined Matt Lauer Thursday to discuss the benefits and challenges of calorie counting.
For your health, should you try paleo or Mediterranean diet?
“If you take in fewer calories than you are burning, you are going to lose weight,” Bauer said. “Also, when you journal your food, it makes you more accountable. It’s empowering, so you’re going to stick with the plan.”
Tracking your fitness? Why 10,000 steps a day may not be enough
Another bonus: all foods are allowed.
However, counting calories can take a lot of work, and people can become obsessive.
“Because you’re crunching numbers, you have to be focused and committed,” Bauer said. “If you have an obsessive personality, this is definitely not for you.”
How many in a pound? 3 things about calories you may not know
Also, it can be frustrating when you can’t find the calorie information on restaurant menus. And remember, not all calories are equal. A strawberry daiquiri that has 500 calories “is going to be very different on your insides than 500 calories of a nice grilled chicken salad,” Bauer said.
How many calories should we eat a day?
For women, the sweet spot is between 1,200 and 1,600. For men, who have faster metabolisms, it is between 1,600 and 2,000.
Can you save calories for a big splurge at the end of the day or swap out a healthy food and give in to a junk food craving?
Absolutely, with a catch.
“As long as you stick with your calories, you’re going to lose weight,” Bauer said. “But if you want to keep your energy up and you want to have staying power, you want to focus on those high quality foods.”
It worked for Ashley Davidson. Having been overweight and obese for most of her life, Davidson didn’t like what she saw as she looked at photos of herself several years ago.
“It really hit me as I was graduating college and graduation day came, and I was looking at pictures afterward of myself in my cap and gown,” Davidson told TODAY. “I was like, I really, I don’t like myself. I don’t like who I am or what I’ve become.”
In 2012, Davidson began to keep track of the calories she consumed through an app called “Lose it.” The tracking inspired her to eat more fruits and vegetables and home-based foods instead of takeout meals and processed foods. After three years of diligent calorie counting, she dropped 63 pounds.
“Calorie counting has allowed me to motivate myself,” she said. “I ran a half marathon last year. This is all because I don’t have as much weight on my body anymore and that I can do these things.”
These sample meals from Joy Bauer are a good way to jumpstart a calorie counting regimen:
300 calories for women; 400 calories for men
Scrambled eggs with toast and fruit
1 egg + 2 egg whites in 1 tsp oil/butter
1 slice whole grain toast, dry
Trending stories,celebrity news and all the best of TODAY.
Coffee with skim milk, 1 packet sugar
MEN: Add 2 additional egg whites and eat the whole grapefruit
Vanilla Greek Yogurt 120 calories
3 TB granola 75 calories
1/2 banana 50 calories
Coffee with skim milk and 1 packet sugar (30)
MEN: Enjoy 4 TB granola and eat the whole banana
400 calories for women; 500 calories for men
Turkey sandwich & veggies
2 slices bread
4 ounces turkey breast
Lettuce + tomato + dijon mustard
1 cup baby carrots
MEN: Add 1 apple
Salad with Chicken & Feta
Tossed salad (greens and veggies)
4 ounces grilled chicken
1 ounce feta cheese
2-4 Tablespoons light balsamic vinaigrette
MEN: Double up on chicken OR cheese
Snack — About 200 calories (1 per day for women, 1-2 per day for men)
Apple with peanut butter
1 tablespoon peanut butter
Nutrition bar (Any bar less than 200 calories)
500 calories for women; 600 calories for men
Shrimp stir-fry with rice
6 ounces shrimp
Unlimited vegetables and seasonings
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 cup cooked rice or pasta
1 cup berries for dessert with a squirt of whipped cream
MEN: Add 1/2 cup brown rice
Steak, potatoes & spinach
4 ounces lean beef
1/2 baked potato with 1 tsp butter
Unlimited spinach with 1 teaspoon oil and seasonings
MEN: Enjoy 6 oz steak and full potato
TODAY.com contributor Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.
We used to think that since 3,500 calories equal a pound, every time you eat 3,500 extra calories beyond what your body needs, you end up gaining that weight. Now we know better: Not all calories are equal like we thought.
Everything from how your food is processed to how much fiber it contains determines how many calories you’re absorbing from it. Even the bacteria in your gut may play a part in how you digest food and how many calories you derive from it.
For example, you’ll absorb more calories from cooked meat versus raw, and peanut butter versus whole peanuts. Due to size differences, one sweet potato varies in calories from another before you even take it off the shelf at the store. Calories absorbed is a complex business that’s light years beyond any calorie-counting app on the market.
3. Calorie counts on packages aren’t necessarily accurate.
But wait! Even if you know how many calories you need and how many you’re absorbing, you’re not done! In fact, the Food and Drug Administration allows up to 20 percent margin of error in the numbers on those nutrition labels you likely rely on to count many of your calories. Meaning, that 250-calorie snack you’re eating might actually have 200 calories—or 300.
4. Counting calories can encourage you to ignore your hunger cues.
Focusing entirely on calories, instead of the quality of the food you’re eating and how you actually feel before chowing down (hungry, bored, stressed, etc.), can wreak havoc on those precious hunger cues you’re born with. Whether you’re eating just because you “have calories left,” even though you’re not truly hungry, or you’re not eating because you’ve “gone over” your calorie allotment for the day, but you’re actually still hungry, you’re doing the same thing: ignoring what your body is trying to tell you.
Trust your body, because it knows what it needs a lot more than some random number or tracker.
5. Calorie counting adds to the misconception you can “work off” the food you eat.
One of the things that angers me most about calorie-counting apps is the impression they give that you can exercise yourself “back into the green.” Going over your “calorie allowance” again and again because you think you can burn off the transgressions? Nope. Your body doesn’t burn off food calorie-for-calorie like that.
A 2014 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine emphasized that “it is where the calories come from that is crucial” in determining whether your body is tempted to store them as fat, use them for energy, or apply them to some other mechanism, the study authors explain.
Plus, if you do routinely overindulge then try to work it off in the gym, you’ll be exercising for a very long time, depending on the size of the junky meals you’ve eaten. This, in turn, may cause you to become hungrier…and eat more. Vicious cycle? Definitely.
The good news is that when you only overeat from time to time, your body can handle those extra calories without making you gain weight. It’s when you overeat on a more frequent basis that you can get into weight-gain territory.
Instead of counting every calorie you eat (or you THINK you’re eating…and absorbing), if you’re hoping to lose weight, try this instead.
Opt mostly for fresh, whole foods when you’re grocery shopping, and think of it as eating food, not calories. Try as hard as you can to look at your diet as a whole instead of the sum of its parts. That means focusing on healthy items like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean protein, and it also means eating mindfully—slowing down, eating until you’re satisfied, and giving deprivation a pass. If you eat a balanced diet most of the time, your body will most likely respond by finding its balance—no calorie counting required.
Keep in touch with me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. For diet reviews, blog posts, and recipes, check out Abby Langer Nutrition.
Is This Finally the End of Counting Calories?
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Tufts Nutrition Magazine.
Lulu Hunt Peters never managed to become a household name. But the weight-loss method she unleashed upon our culture a century ago—counting calories—has more than made up for that. “Hereafter you are going to eat calories of food,” the California physician ordered readers of her 1918 guide Diet and Health. “Instead of saying one slice of bread, or a piece of pie, you will say one hundred calories of bread, 350 calories of pie.” Watch a supermarket shopper study the top of the Nutrition Facts panel, and you’re looking at Lulu Hunt Peters’s legacy.
Scores of weight-loss schemes have come and gone in the hundred years since Diet and Health became the first dieting book to hit best-seller lists. But at the heart of a great many of them was the idea of keeping obsessive track of calories to cut pounds. The idea endures today. Rather than follow “trendy, nationally advertised diets,” wrote a contributor to a January 2018 Journal of the American Medical Association, an issue dedicated to the subject of obesity, “it is better for physicians to advise patients to assess and then modify their current eating habits and then reduce their caloric ingestion by counting calories.”
And yet. Diet veterans can tell you that successful, long-term weight loss often seems to elude a simple “calories in/calories out” formula. Many nutrition experts agree. A growing body of scientific evidence, while still highly controversial, suggests that a focus on calories should be dropped altogether. “In the short term, calorie counting works great,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts. “If you reduce your calories, whatever the composition of your diet, you will lose weight for a few months. That’s why all fad diets work initially.” But eventually, the body will fight back and the weight will return.
Consider the experience of Julia Kozlov, a Southern California finance executive with two teenagers at home, who started using one of the popular calorie-counting smartphone apps in 2017. When her job found her trapped at her desk with the stress of month-end closings, she’d eat random combinations of foods. It didn’t matter what they were, just as long as they fit under her calorie cap—a number she watched with single-minded devotion. “It was the hardest thing to be counting all those calories,” she recalled. “I created a spreadsheet. I drove myself insane.”
So how to untangle the complicated relationship between food intake, nutrition, health, physiology, metabolism, and weight loss? Finding a way is more urgent than ever.
Despite all her hard work, Kozlov ended up gaining ten pounds in about seven months, a turn of events that left her frustrated and seriously worried. At one point, she was so concerned about her health that she actually made an appointment to see her doctor. “Am I going through perimenopause? Do I have a thyroid issue?” she asked. “Is there something wrong with me?”
With forty-five million Americans embarking on diets every year, a lot of us are asking ourselves the very same question. Two out of three adults in the United States meet the clinical definition for being overweight or obese, a figure that has more than doubled in the last half-century. Treating the chronic diseases that arise from the obesity epidemic, especially Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular and circulatory conditions, are costing the United States upwards of $147 billion every year. By comparison, the annual budgets of the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration are only about $53 billion combined. So how to untangle the complicated relationship between food intake, nutrition, health, physiology, metabolism, and weight loss? Finding a way is more urgent than ever.
Every day at Tufts Medical Center, Jillian Reece sees people whose health depends on their losing weight and keeping it off. A registered dietitian, she counsels patients at the hospital’s Weight and Wellness Center. Some come for short-term consultations, others undergo medical or surgical interventions. Almost all of them have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of at least twenty-five, making them clinically overweight, and most meet the definition of obese.
When they first come in, many of Reece’s patients don’t know where to begin to navigate the confusing thicket of weight-loss advice they’ve encountered over the years. So they often end up falling back on something that seems to make sense: calorie counting. “The question we get a lot is, ‘How many calories should I be looking at, can you give me an estimate, a number?’” Reece said. After all, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises that to lose weight most women should cap their daily calories at 1,200 to 1,500, and most men at 1,500 to 1,800. Although people will press for numbers, Reece said, they are a “very simple way to answer a very complex question.”
The problem, Mozaffarian said, is that the formula of “calories in/calories out” is “grossly oversimplified.” It supposes that each human body is like a bucket that gets filled with calories at the top and emptied of calories at the bottom. That isn’t what happens at all. “Food does not merely represent calories. Rather, food represents information, signals that influence and interact with multiple complex biologic pathways in our bodies,” he said. “And, long-term, the effects of a food on these pathways, rather than the calories in that food, are what controls our weight.”
Calorie for calorie, different foods have varying effects on important pathways throughout our body, including those related to our brain, liver, insulin and other hormone responses, fat cells, and gut microbiome. Growing research indicates that different foods even influence our metabolic rate—the amount of energy we expend. From these effects, the various foods we eat, even if they have similar caloric values, can in the long term make it easier or harder for our body to regulate our hunger, fullness, unconscious cravings, and metabolism and maintain a healthy weight.
The gut microbiome—the community of bacteria in our large intestine—appears to be especially important. While two foods can have the same calories, the calories may be distributed in different ways to the cells of the body than they are to the cells of bacteria in the gut. For example, starch in a refined grain (like white bread and most breakfast cereals) is fully digested in the stomach and small intestine, with few if any of its calories reaching the bacteria in the large intestine. In contrast, starch in a partly intact whole grain like steel-cut oats—or in minimally processed food like beans or vegetables—is protected from digestive enzymes by the food’s fiber structure. So the undigested starch (and its calories) may reach the large intestine, where it can feed our gut bacteria. The body’s total use of calories is the same in most cases, but the calories are divvied up differently.
Faced with that kind of complexity, it’s hard to come up with a single “golden rule” for reaching a healthy weight. For instance, for decades, all fats as a group were viewed as the villain of the American diet. But research by Mozaffarian and others has shown that characterization was a mistake. Meanwhile, many of today’s popular catchphrases—“low-carb,” “plant-based,” “vegetarian”—all have a tendency to be misleading because they can be too simple and narrowly interpreted. “One of the unfortunate truths,” Mozaffarian said, “is that there is no easy, one-word description of a healthy diet.”
‘What really drives long-term success’ is not
strictly how many calories we eat. It’s what we eat.
Some ostensibly successful diet programs may also lead to confusion over cause and effect. Look at the low-carb, high-fat Atkins diet, which periodically sees a burst of popularity, and is the forerunner of today’s “keto” and “paleo” crazes. Robert Atkins hypothesized that putting the body into ketogenesis, the process of breaking down stored fat molecules for energy, produced sustainable weight loss. “Atkins was right about the importance of avoiding refined starch and sugar,” Mozaffarian said. “But, all carbs are not harmful. It’s now pretty clear that low doses of slowly digesting carbs, like in fruit, beans, and nonstarchy vegetables, are not a problem. And, simply avoiding refined starch and sugar can lead to substantial weight loss, without activating ketogenesis.” (The Atkins diet has been revised to at least partly incorporate this newest science.)
Which is not to say the Atkins diet hasn’t helped clarify a key lesson: that strict calorie counting is unnecessary. “Where the Atkins diet was correct was to ignore calorie counting. It has no calorie limits,” Mozaffarian said. “And that sort of blows the calorie-counting hypothesis out of the water.” Within the past year, two studies—one published in February 2018 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, another in November 2018 in BMJ—reported significant weight loss in adults who didn’t count calories.
What the participants in those study did do was eat healthy foods. The kind of diet that, as Mozaffarian puts it, “is rich in foods that give rise to life”—foods that grow when you plant them. That means lots of fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, nonstarchy vegetables, and minimally processed whole grains, as well as plant oils extracted from these foods. Fermented foods like yogurt and cheese also appear to provide benefits, he emphasized. And a healthy diet avoids foods rich in refined starch and added sugar, which lead to spikes in blood sugar and insulin.
Look over decades of scientific evidence and one fact becomes clear, Mozaffarian said. “What really drives long-term success” is not strictly how many calories we eat. It’s what we eat.
Rebecca Searl Johnson, a 2007 graduate of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts, has experimented with a number of diets over the years. She first tried Weight Watchers, the grande dame of the weight-loss world, when she was a student and has been on and off the program a few times since. Not long ago, she switched to calorie counting, only to hit a plateau after an initial loss. “I found myself, at the end of the day, really struggling—I think that’s when most people struggle—and I really wanted something to eat,” she said. And when late-day hunger set in, she wouldn’t make the healthiest choices.
Recently, however, Johnson returned to the diet program and noticed some changes. The program, which now has four million members worldwide, rebranded itself in September as WW, taking “weight” out of its name and introducing a new tagline, “Wellness that Works.”
WW, which got its start in 1963, has for the past two decades asked dieters to count “points,” numbers the company assigned to foods based on measures like their calories, saturated fat, carbohydrate, and protein content. But now WW has developed a system that abandons counting altogether for more than two hundred different foods—including most vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and nonfat plain yogurt—that contribute zero points to members’ daily targets. In other words, people can eat as many of them as they want.
“The reason to not count calories is that they tell you nothing about the health or nutrition of a food,” said Gary D. Foster, WW’s chief scientific officer. “Fundamentally, calories are a shallow, hollow, empty metric, if you’re concerned about overall health. Three hundred calories of a nonfat Greek yogurt fruit parfait, or three hundred calories of two chocolate-chip pancakes, are just not the same.”
For many weight-watchers, the introduction of so many zero-point foods—fruit, in particular—upended long-held orthodoxies. But the move, Foster said, was not that revolutionary. The zero-point foods were chosen with two criteria: They are at low risk for overeating—how much skinless chicken breast will one person want to eat, really?—and they form the “foundation for a healthy eating pattern.” For instance, releasing the restrictions on fruit was intended to bolster the woefully small percentage of Americans who eat the recommended daily number of fruits and vegetables.
“We take our responsibility seriously to encourage people to eat healthier, not just to eat fewer calories,” Foster said. “If you only track calories, that’s only half the picture.”
Susan Roberts has spent a lot of time thinking about weight loss. She’s head of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, a Friedman School professor, and a professor of psychiatry at Tufts Medical School. She’s published more than two hundred papers on weight loss and developed an online weight-loss program, The “I” Diet, based on the evidence-based idea that people can retrain their brains and adapt their behavior to avoid cravings and overeating. And she’s struggled with her weight herself—gaining fifty pounds after the birth of her daughter, then losing it—so she understands the limitations of a diet focused exclusively on counting calories.
“I think when people say it’s time to stop focusing on calories, what they often mean is that counting calories doesn’t work, and I totally agree with that,” Roberts said. “It’s tedious, inaccurate, and sets you up for failure.”
But at the same time, she argues that the opposite extreme—the instinct to eat as if calories don’t matter—is also doomed to failure. “All weight-loss plans try to get people to eat fewer calories in one way or another,” Roberts said. “Those who are susceptible to weight gain can always eat something. Telling them not to think about calories is just asking for trouble.” (While Roberts and Mozaffarian agree on many aspects of nutrition science, he disagrees with this point—there is remaining controversy among experts about whether calories need to be tracked at all.)
Rather than look at weight loss as a question of calorie counting versus diet composition, Roberts said the goal of a weight-loss program should be to provide support and change behavior, so that people are eating differently and then staying with those new, healthier habits. That’s part of the reason why she developed an online support program to help participants stick with the program she lays out in The “I” Diet. “The proof is in the pudding,” she said. “It all comes down to finding ways to help people reduce what they eat.”
One key way to accomplish that, Reece tells her patients at Tufts Medical Center, is by tackling the problem of portion sizes. When people pop into her office, they often ask if they’re interrupting her lunch. At first glance, the plate of grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, carrots, and broccoli perched on the side of her desk looks pretty tasty—even after you realize it’s all plastic, it still looks kind of appetizing.
The faux food is there to illustrate optimal portion sizes, a challenge in an increasingly supersized food culture. Even when Reece’s patients try to count calories, they often inadvertently low-ball how much they are eating. Sometimes, after they tell her they had three ounces of chicken for dinner, she’ll hold up the three-ounce portion of demonstration chicken—“like this?” she asks. It almost invariably turns out they actually had more like nine ounces, triple the recommended portion—when servings get that large, calories can add up. “Saying calorie counting is dead does not mean the concept of energy balance is dead,” Reece said. “You can keep the total calories down without having to focus on it.”
Counting calories doesn’t work,” Roberts said. “It’s tedious, inaccurate, and sets you up for failure.
Like much of the science on weight control, not every expert agrees about focusing on portion sizes. “If you are eating foods likely to cause weight gain—foods rich in rapidly digesting refined starch and sugar, sugary drinks, or processed meats—then, absolutely, eat as small a portion as possible,” Mozaffarian said. “But, if you’re eating foods that help the body’s usual pathways for weight control, improve metabolism, and augment health—foods like minimally processed fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, nonstarchy vegetables, whole grains, plant oils, yogurt, and perhaps even cheese—there is little evidence that portion control is relevant.”
These days, Julia Kozlov—the finance executive who gained weight by counting calories—is primarily focused on separating the healthy foods from the bad ones. On January 1, 2018, she did what many Americans do on that day: She started a new diet. She dropped her calorie-tracking spreadsheets, her low-calorie snacks and processed foods, and, in ten months, fifteen pounds.
Following the new WW program, Kozlov is eating plenty of chicken, fruits, and vegetables. She’s aware of the calories she’s consuming, but she’s more focused on cultivating new habits that feed into her health. “Today for lunch I had 650 calories, cedar-planked salmon and succotash,” she said. “Sure, I could have eaten something for 300 or 400 calories, but would I have been as full and would it have been as nutritious?”
- Great Moments in Calorie History
- The Restaurant Menu Trap
Is Less Better? The 3 Common Myths About Counting Calories
Most people think weight loss is just about cutting calories. Less is always more, right? But in truth, things are not quite so simple. For instance, what exactly is a calorie? We decided to take a closer look at the topic and today we would like to share with you the three biggest myths about counting calories for weight loss.
What is a calorie?
The energy content of food is measured in calories. Calories is usually the first information you find on the nutrition label on packaged foods (before carbohydrates, protein, fat, sodium, etc.). A calorie is actually a unit of energy, work and heat. The number represents the amount of energy needed to raise one gram of water by 1°C at a pressure of one atmosphere. One calorie is equal to 4.18 joules. The number reflects the energy content of food. Our body needs this energy to maintain our bodily functions.
Losing weight, however, shouldn’t just be about counting calories. Most dietitians advise their patients against simply counting calories over an extended period of time. Why? Read on to find out:
Myth 1: Less is more!
If you consume fewer calories than you burn (caloric deficit), you will, of course, lose weight. But there are also limits to this! If you want to lose weight in a healthy way, then you should try to cut between 300 and 500 calories a day. It shouldn’t be much more than this over an extended time period. In this case, less is NOT always automatically more. If you severely restrict your calorie intake over a long period of time, your body will enter into “starvation mode”. This means your body will reduce calorie expenditure and make the most of every calorie it can get. So, what happens? If you return to consuming your normal daily calorie intake, you will gain weight. This is the dreaded yo-yo effect.
A varied diet ensures that sufficient fuel is available for running or bodyweight training.
Your body is your temple. So, treat it that way!
Myth 2: All calories are the same
Many people believe they can eat anything they want as long as they don’t consume more than a certain amount of calories per day. But what they’re forgetting is that it is the quality of the calories that counts. Vegetables, high-quality fats, protein, etc. are absolutely essential. So, it also matters what is in the calories. Different foods influence our bodies in different ways, both positively and negatively. They also have an impact on our hormones.
You could live the rest of your life on burgers, fries and cola and probably not gain weight if you stick to your recommended daily intake of calories. But you certainly wouldn’t be healthy! Your cholesterol would be sky high, you’d be at increased risk of type 2 diabetes and you’d feel sluggish and queasy. A balanced diet provides you with plenty of complex carbohydrates, a variety of fruits and vegetables, valuable protein and essential fatty acids. If you eat healthy, fresh foods, you will feel good. Your body is your temple and you only have this one – so treat it that way!
Myth 3: It matters when you eat the calories
Your body doesn’t care if you eat the calories at noon or six o’clock in the evening. All it reacts to is what the calories are made up of. Nevertheless, a light meal in the evening is often better for weight loss. Good examples of healthy evening meals are cauliflower fried rice or stuffed tomatoes with beef and quinoa. You should avoid sugar-rich foods in the evening. They cause your blood sugar to spike, which promotes the storage of fat. And since we tend to just relax on the couch, our bodies don’t need these large quantities of energy in the evening.
If you have trouble falling asleep at night, try to wait two or three hours after dinner before going to bed.
Takeaway: If you want to lose weight, counting calories can help. It gives you a sense of how much energy a particular food provides you with. A food diary can also be a big help. But it’s also important to take a peek behind the scenes. The macro- and micronutrients in your food are just as important as the amount of energy (= calories). And don’t forget that energy is the fuel that powers your daily activities and your training! What type of energy are you fueling your tank with?
Have you ever noticed how, in January and February, everyone seems to be a weight loss expert?
If you talk to the average nutritionist, or listen to some “celebrity” experts, you’ll probably hear that weight loss is just a simple equation of eating fewer calories than you consume. (Note: You probably won’t hear such a simplistic statement from a fitness professional at Life Time)
The conversation usually goes something like this:
“A pound of fat is equal to about 3500 calories, so if you eat 500 calories less than you burn each day, in seven days you’ll lose a pound of fat.”
- 1 pound of weight loss per week – 3500 calorie deficit | Eat 500 calories per day less than burned
- 2 pounds of weight loss per week = 7000 calorie deficit | Eat 1000 calories per day less than burned
Ah…if things were only so simple. They’re not. And unfortunately, thinking so simply about weight loss can leave many people quite frustrated.
So why doesn’t this work? The human body doesn’t operate like a simple machine. Metabolism is extremely complicated. The energy our body burns each day changes based on a number of factors. If metabolism changes, the effects of calorie intake change.
The following are just seven reasons why calorie-counting is not a good long-term solution for weight management.
1. We can’t accurately measure our food
When people are asked about the quantities of foods they eat, they consistently underestimate what they consume. This is further complicated by eating out, when we can’t see what gets added to the foods we eat, and when plates are the size of serving dishes.
Unless someone were to weigh and measure everything he or she eats, it would be nearly impossible to get an accurate assumption of food intake.
That’s not to say there isn’t value in maintaining a food diary. Sometimes, just writing things down helps us rethink what we’re about to put in our mouths. However, in terms of counting calories, estimating the amounts of food eaten and logging it in a nutrition tracker won’t produce an accurate calorie measure.
2. All calories are not the same
One hundred calories from protein results in a dramatically different hormonal effect than eating 100 calories from carbohydrate.
When protein is ingested, it stimulates production of hormones that help reduce appetite. Protein helps to normalize blood sugar levels. Of course, protein also helps you hold onto muscle when you’re on a calorie-restricted diet.
Carbohydrate, on the other hand, stimulates production of insulin, which then shuts down the body’s ability to burn fat and increases fat storage. It also stimulates production of triglycerides, especially when it’s eaten in combination with fat.
If a “calorie was a calorie,” we should see the same effects of 100 calories from protein or fat. That’s not the case.
In fact, a recent study, led by Dr. Jose Antonio, showed that when people were overfed an average of 800 calories from protein, or about 200 grams, they didn’t gain a pound of body fat.
Interestingly, they didn’t gain extra muscle from eating twice their body weight in pounds, in grams of protein. On the other hand, overeating carbohydrates by 800 calories per day could lead to some serious weight gain.
As for fat, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), common in coconut oil, may cause a slight increase in metabolic rate. The increase in metabolism doesn’t offset the calories in the fat, but if someone were to swap another source of fat, or even certain carbohydrates, with MCTs, it could positively impact weight loss efforts.
The point is, based on where calories come from, they can have dramatic differences in hormone balance. And hormones affect our ability to increase lean mass or gain or decrease body fat.
3. The body doesn’t lose only fat when it loses weight
When we use the “3500 calorie” rule for fat loss, it overlooks the fact that people don’t lose fat alone. They also lose water and muscle. On average, 25% of actual tissue loss is muscle, and 75% is fat.
Resistance training and higher-protein diets have consistently been shown to help reduce a loss in muscle. This is part of the reason we include FastFuel Lean Complex in our Lean & Fit weight management system.
Muscle burns about three times more calories than fat. By shedding fat and maintaining, or even increasing muscle, the reduction in metabolic rate can be minimized.
4. Metabolic rate drops when calorie intake drops
Researchers looked at a group of individuals on a calorie-restricted diet. Their goal was to see how closely their actual weight loss matched what was theorized, based on calorie balance equations.
They found that those on the weight loss program achieved a weight loss of only two-thirds of what would have been expected from the equations. That means, if the equations suggested individuals would lose 15 pounds, they only lost 10.
In the first month, resting metabolic rate dropped an average of 11%! Now, when people lose weight, their metabolic rate drops due to the fact that they have less tissue. But an 11% drop was much more than could be explained from a loss of muscle and fat.
When people eat fewer calories to lose weight, they usually see a plateau in weight loss, in which case, they need to eat even less to see continued weight loss. Then their body’s metabolism adjusts and weight loss slows again.
Another interesting effect seen in the dieters was a reduction in the thermic effect of food. The body burns a certain amount of calories just to break down and absorb the foods we eat. It seems that even the thermic effect of food was reduced from dieting.
5. We can’t accurately measure our daily calorie expenditure
Technology has come a long way in recent years. Activity monitors help track our activity, and heart rate monitors guide our cardio workouts and estimate our calorie expenditures, but they’re not perfect. They cannot precisely measure our calorie expenditure 24 hours per day.
Interestingly, there’s also evidence to show that the more you engage in exercise, the more likely you are to be less active later in the day, canceling out some of the calorie-burning advantages of exercise.
The only way to accurately track your calorie expenditure, 24 hours per day is to live in a metabolic ward. That’s not affordable, nor realistic, so we’re stuck with just estimating calorie expenditure. And estimating means there’s going to be a pretty reasonable margin of error.
An activity monitor is super-important to make sure you’re moving enough during the day, and getting enough sleep. A heart rate monitor is a must-have device to help you train in the appropriate heart rate zones. But don’t base your weight loss strategy on these devices accurately measuring your calorie expenditure each day.
6. As you get in better shape, you burn less calories at the same relative intensity
Remember how those three flights of stairs at work used to leave you winded? After a while, they’re not such a big deal. Doing a pushup might have once felt impossible and today you can do dozens.
Losing weight can make these and other activities and exercises easier, but the body also becomes more efficient with movement over time. Muscles better coordinate and energy is generated more efficiently. As a result, the body may burn fewer calories to carry out the same activity.
The “calories out” part of the calorie balance equation may drop as you become more fit. Of course, if you’re following a well-designed training program, like we recommend with our Core 3 Training method, your intensity will increase each week. In that case, you’d end up burning more calories than in the past.
7. Hormones regulate metabolic rate and what type of tissue is lost
Hormones may be the most overlooked factor in successful long-term weight loss. When people follow a low-calorie diet for an extended period of time, or when they exercise at an extreme, cortisol levels rise. Chronically elevated cortisol can elevate blood sugar levels and break down muscle tissue. It can also increase belly, or visceral fat.
While cortisol levels are elevated, testosterone levels may fall. Falling testosterone makes it difficult to recover from workouts and can lead to a reduced motivation to exercise. Low testosterone also makes it difficult to build or maintain muscle.
Thyroid levels fall with calorie restriction. Thyroid is the primary regulator of metabolic rate, making it more difficult to drop body fat. Low thyroid levels reduce exercise capacity and strength, so workout performance decreases as well, making it difficult to maintain higher calorie expenditure. Fat metabolism drops as well.
A low-calorie diet isn’t the only thing that contributes to hormonal imbalances, so we always recommend people get a comprehensive lab test done at the beginning of any fitness or weight loss program. It would be a shame to spend months trying to lose body fat, only to find out later that it will be almost impossible until you resolve some internal metabolic issues.
So now what?
From our experience, people have tremendous success by focusing their diet on better food choices rather than counting calories. We generally recommend a higher-protein diet with plenty of fresh or cooked vegetables.
We also recommend moving throughout the day, strength training at least a few times per week, doing a reasonable amount of cardio, and getting at least seven hours of sleep every night.
Does calorie counting work for some people? Yes. Is it a good long-term solution? No. There is a better way.
You can learn more about our methods for fitness and weight management programs in our e-book.
If you have access to a Life Time, you can also learn a ton from a consultation with one of our fitness professionals. If you’re interested,
Have a fitness professional contact you.
Carbone JW, McClung JP, Pasiakos SM. Skeletal Muscle Responses to Negative Energy Balance: Effects of Dietary Protein. Adv Nutr. 2012;3:119-126
Byrne NM, Wood RE, Schutz Y, Hills AP. Does metabolic compensation explain the majority of less-than-expected weight loss in obese adults during a short-term severe diet and exercise intervention? Int J Obes (Lond). 2012;36(11):1472-8