If you’re confused about counting calories, and if you just want to know what works and what doesn’t, you need to read this article.
For many, weight loss is quite an ordeal–physically, mentally, and emotionally.
I don’t care how persistent you are–you can only take so much setback before you give up. Before you conclude that it’s just not meant to be, that you were genetically fated to be fat and the sooner you accept it, the sooner you can move on with your life.
But then you’ll come across evidence to the contrary. Evidence that weight loss can be approached scientifically, systematically, and universally, and that results follow as a matter of course, not luck.
The world of bodybuilding is a bonanza of such evidence. There you can find millions of men and women of all ages from all around the world that manipulate body composition with ease, using the same, simple principles to gain muscle and lose fat as routinely as they wash their cars or clean their clothes.
How do these people do it though? Tons of drugs? Lucky genetics? Starvation? Voodoo?
Sure, dangerous drugs, elite genetics, and extreme diets are prevalent among bodybuilding competitors that need to reduce body fat to near-deadly lows, but they’re a tiny minority. Look past them and you’ll find a vast sea of everyday people like you and me using bodybuilding principles to build strong, lean, muscular physiques.
And here’s something you need to know…
The dietary principles these millions of normal people are using to build the lean, muscular bodies of their dreams revolve around proper calorie counting.
I know, I know–the fat MD with a PhD, the pretty girl on TV that has been skinny her entire life, the former triathlete turned fitness writer that never had to “diet”…they all say calorie counting is flawed or doesn’t work.
Or maybe you’ve come to that conclusion yourself in your dietary travels (and travails). Maybe you’ve tried counting calories and it was just as futile as everything else.
Well, I have good news for you… Calorie counting, when applied intelligently and consistently, can change your life.
As you’ll soon see, once you fully understand the physiological mechanisms underlying weight loss and gain–the causes and effects–you can bring these processes under your control.
And when you do that, you gain freedom from dietary dogmas, fads, faiths, and scapegoats. You no longer wander, wonder, and wish. You follow simple rules to get reliable results.
You can eat foods you like and lose fat when you want to. You can temporarily–and intentionally–gain fat without worry. And you can stabilize your body fat and maintain whatever type of body you want.
To do all that, however, you need to know things most people don’t about how calorie counting works, how it can fail, and why it has gotten a bad rap.
So let’s get to it.
One of the worst diet myths out there is the idea that weight loss or gain is a “personalized” experience.
That is, the idea that your body and metabolism is fundamentally different than mine or someone else’s and that you have to, through trial and error, luck, or divine inspiration, discover how yours ticks and how to bend it to your will.
This philosophy conveniently ignores the fact that a century of metabolic research has established, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the laws of thermodynamics dictate weight loss and weight gain.
Scientific fact: you can’t lose weight without an energy deficit and you can’t gain it without a surplus.
You see, body fat is an energy reserve that your body doesn’t need to tap into (and thereby reduce) if you’re giving it all the energy it needs through food. And your body can’t create additional energy out of thin air to store as fat–it must get this surplus of energy through food.
These realities are lost on many “experts” though, who make a killing making cases against the entire scientific model, claiming that calorie counting is the horse and buggy of dieting–obsolete, unworkable, and superseded by new scientific research and discoveries.
The truth isn’t that the “calories in vs. calories out” cliche is bunk. The truth is it paints too simplistic of a picture.
“Calories in” is easy enough… in theory.
Food contains energy that we can measure in calories. We eat the food, taking in the energy. Hard to mess that up. Or is it?
Well, there are two major problems that confound simple attempts and quantifying “calories in.”
Thin people tend to overestimate the amount of calories they eat (a “ton” of food to them might mean one large meal per day) and overweight people tend to underestimate the amount they eat (they forget about all the “hidden” calories in their beverages and meals).
Second, the calorie counts we’re given for various restaurant and packaged foods are often inaccurate.
In fact, food manufacturers can underreport calories by 20% and pass FDA inspection and you’d better believe many are unscrupulous enough to use this to their advantage.
The net effect is people often believe they’re taking in far fewer calories than they actually are, and this alone can prevent weight loss when counting calories.
Calculating calories out is even trickier. Much trickier, actually.
The second part of this equation represents the energy we expend, which is determined by several things:
1. Our basal metabolic rate, which is the amount of energy our bodies burn while at rest.
There are simple equations for determining your basal metabolic rate (BMR), but research shows actual metabolic rates can vary quite a bit. Some people’s basal metabolic rates are higher and lower than normal (and than formulas would predict).
Weight loss also affects BMR. As you reduce your weight, your body reduces its total daily energy expenditure by instinctively moving less and causing its metabolic rate to slow down, and this is one of the reasons why many people hit weight loss plateaus when counting calories.
2. The thermic effect of food, which is the energy cost of processing the food we eat for use and storage.
For example, research shows that whole foods cost more energy to process than processed foods and high-protein meals result in more energy expenditure than high-fat.
Thus, 300 calories of whole foods results in more “calories out” than 300 calories of processed foods, and high-protein meals more than low-protein meals. Repeat this several times per day and the numbers can add up to something significant.
3. The energy we expend through all physical movement, including deliberate activities like exercise and spontaneous activities like shivering and fidgeting, and everything in between.
When most people think energy expenditure, they think only of concentrated efforts like workouts. They forget that all physical activity counts, down to our habits of walking around while on the phone or hopping to the bathroom or drumming our fingers when we read or bobbing our leg when we think.
The energy burned by these activities is known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, and it plays a much larger role in total daily energy expenditure than most people realize. Research shows that NEAT can vary by up to 2,000 calories per day among many individuals.
The same research indicates that people could burn an additional 350 calories per day by taking simple actions to increase movement every day like taking the stairs when possible, walking relatively short distances instead of driving, doing some chores instead of watching TV, etc.
And to put that in perspective, burning an additional 350 calories per day for 7 days would add up to about 2/3 of a pound of fat lost. Not bad for just piddling around a bit more than usual.
Another aspect of energy expenditure that most people don’t know is some people’s bodies burn more energy while active than others’s.
Just because you’re engaged in the same types and amounts of activity as someone else doesn’t mean you’re burning the same amount of energy. This is especially true if you have more or less muscle because muscle significantly increases the energy cost of exercise.
The science is clear: force people to truly eat less energy than they expend and they will lose weight. They won’t all lose the same amounts, but they’ll all get lighter.
When people are unable to replicate these results in their own attempts at restricting and counting calories it’s not because the entire method is fundamentally flawed and “doesn’t work”–it’s because they’re doing it wrong.
You now know that gaining and losing weight boils down to manipulating energy intake and expenditure. Consistently consume less energy via food than you expend via your basal metabolic rate and physical activity, and your weight will go down.
The foods you eat to get in those calories don’t matter–a calorie is a calorie in this sense. Professor Mark Haub lost 27 pounds on a diet of protein shakes, Twinkies, Doritos, Oreos, and Little Debbie snacks, and you could do exactly the same if you wanted to.
Yes, that’s right. “Clean eating” has its heart in the right place but guarantees nothing in the way of fat loss.
Eat too many “clean” calories every day and you’ll fail to lose a single pound.
And on the flip side, maintain a calorie deficit eating nothing but Skittles and GMO wheat all day and you’ll lose weight like clockwork. Is this diet unhealthy and unsustainable? Of course. But that has nothing to do with its effectiveness for short-term weight loss. But therein lies the problem: weight loss.
That is, you’ll lose more than fat. You’ll lose muscle too.
And when that’s the goal, a calorie is not a calorie. Certain types of calories are more important than others.
The type of calories that matter most are those that come from protein.
Protein is, by far, the most valuable macronutrient when you’re restricting your calories to lose weight.
Research shows that a high-protein diet results in…
- more fat loss, including abdominal fat in particular,
- far better muscle preservation, and
- more satiety, helping you avoid hunger pangs and cravings.
Those benefits apply to everyone, sedentary and active, and regular exercise only increases the amount of protein your body needs to maintain muscle and stay healthy.
And how much protein should you be eating to lose fat and not muscle? You can get the long answer in my article on how much protein is needed to build muscle, but I’ll give a short one here:
“Protein needs for energy-restricted resistance-trained athletes are likely 2.3-3.1g/kg of FFM [1 – 1.4 grams per pound of fat free mass] scaled upwards with severity of caloric restriction and leanness.”
That is, 2.3 grams per kilogram of body weight, or about 1 gram per pound, is a good place to start, and needs can increase as high as 1.4 grams per pound of body weight in the very lean and active.
Based on my experience helping thousands of people of all ages and body types lose fat, I’ve developed simple guidelines for determining protein intake:
1. In the obese, 1 gram of protein per pound of lean mass is adequate.
2. In the overweight. 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight is adequate.
3. In the lean, 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight is adequate.
There’s no denying that the physiological machinery involved in weight loss is labyrinthine. It’s driven by the interaction of thousands of proteins and enzymes that aren’t even fully understood yet.
Many supplement companies play up this complexity to sell you dubious “fat burners” that purport to optimize or “hack” various pieces of the fat loss puzzle, and many diet gurus use it to sell you their bestselling weight loss “breakthroughs.”
These people talk about manipulating hormones like insulin, growth hormone, and testosterone, and not your calorie intake; of using meal timing to optimize various metabolic processes; of “cycling” carbohydrates or calories to maximize results; and so forth.
Some of the sales pitches are convincing. And let’s face it–sometimes we just want to believe there’s a simpler way. That it’s not our fault that we can’t lose weight.
Well, the sooner you realize the following maxim, the sooner you can break free of the chains of weight loss ignorance:
Fat loss is a whole-body process. By focusing on reducing your energy intake below your output, everything else activates and functions accordingly.
You can’t, through diet, exercise, or supplementation, directly control the individual mechanisms that enable your body to burn fat, but you can easily control how much food you eat and how much energy you expend and let your body take care of the rest.
There’s a reason why every single controlled study on weight loss conducted in the last 100+ years has concluded that energy expenditure must be greater than intake for meaningful weight reduction to occur.
There’s a reason why bodybuilders have been using this knowledge for just as long to systematically increase and reduce body fat levels as desired.
And there’s a reason why “calorie deniers” come and go, whisked to fame through carefully planned media orgies and then relegated to obscurity once people realize their new brands of quackery simply don’t work.
Calorie counting, when done properly, works. For everyone. Without fail. And once you experience it for yourself, you’ll never look back.