According to some “experts,” losing weight and staying lean isn’t about controlling caloric intake, but controlling the types of foods you eat. Certain foods, they say, “clog” your system and create hormone imbalances that lead to weight gain. Others “clear” the system and result in weight loss.
This is like music to millions of people’s ears who have tried and failed at some weight loss regimen that involved counting calories, or who just don’t want to have to worry about planning or tracking anything they eat.
Well, vilifying calorie counting and telling people they can eat even more than ever and still lose weight sells books and pills, but is it scientifically honest and accurate? Absolutely not.
As you’ll soon see, while you don’t have to count calories to lose weight, correctly tracking and counting calories (and macronutrients, as we’ll discuss) is the most surefire, effortless way to go about it.
- First Thing's First: What is a Calorie?
- What Your Body Does With Calories
- What Calories Have to Do With Weight Loss and Gain
- Why Counting Calories Doesn't (Seem to) Work for Everyone
- How to Count Calories Correctly for Effortless Weight Loss
- What are your thoughts on how to count calories correctly? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Table of Contents
Ironically, most people that have told me “calorie counting doesn’t” work couldn’t actually define the word. All they knew is counting them didn’t help them lose weight.
Well, to really understand why calorie counting is still the simplest way to lose weight, and how to do it correctly, you need to know a lot more than that. But let’s start with the simple:
A calorie (also known as a kilocalorie or large calorie) is the amount of energy required to heat up one kilogram of water one degree Celsius.
Calories are nothing more than measurements of stored (potential) energy.
The “calorie counts” of various foods is simply letting you know how much potential energy the foods contain, and some foods are more energy dense than others. For instance, a tablespoon of olive oil has about 100 calories’ worth of energy, whereas a tablespoon of protein powder has about 30 calories’ worth of energy.
In case you’re wondering, the calories contained in food are measured with devices known as calorimeters. There are quite a few varieties of calorimeters, but they all operate on the laws of thermodynamics and involve measuring various heat-related properties of food.
The important thing for you to know is that the calorie isn’t some abstract symbol that may or may not have something to do with weight loss–it’s the objective measurement of a very real, scientifically verifiable reality (food contains energy).
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After asking people that swear calorie counting doesn’t work what a calorie actually is (and hear their…interesting…definitions), I usually follow that up with another question: What do you think your body does with calories?
Most people just say they don’t know or think it “stores them as fat.” Well, ironically, “it stores them as fat” is actually kind of correct. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
You see, your body requires a certain amount of energy to stay alive. Every cell in your body needs a steady supply of fuel to do its job, and it must ultimately obtain this fuel from the food we eat.
The 24-hour measurement of how much energy your body uses to perform all basic functions related to staying alive (excluding any and all physical activity) is known as your “basal metabolic rate,” or “BMR.”
(Basal means “forming a base; fundamental,” metabolic means related to the metabolism, which is “the physical and chemical processes in an organism by which it produces, maintains, and destroys material substances, and by which it makes energy available.”)
For instance, I’m 29 years old, 6’2, 189 pounds, and about 7% body fat. Per the Katch McArdle formula, my BMR should be about 2,100 calories per day. That’s how much energy my body should burn every day, excluding any physical activity.
I say “should be” because even if your body composition remains the same, BMR isn’t an absolute–the amount of energy your body uses while at rest can increase or decrease based on long-term dietary and exercise patterns (this is known as “metabolic adaptation,” and is a fascinating subject unto itself).
Nevertheless, a formula like the Katch McArdle will predict most people’s BMR’s with a high degree of accuracy accuracy. If you’d like to check yours, use this calculator:
When you then calculate the approximate amount of additional energy you burn through physical activity, you arrive at your “total daily energy expenditure,” or “TDEE.” This is the grand total of energy that your body burns in a 24-hour period, and it too changes from day to day (some days you move more and some days less).
Where, then, does our body get all this energy it needs? There are two sources:
- The food you eat.
- Its energy stores, mainly in the form of fat and muscle
Earlier I said that the energy must ultimately come from food we eat. This is because the body’s energy stores (fat and muscle) are themselves created from food we eat–our bodies can’t “fill up” (and thus expand) its fat cells or create muscle proteins without being supplied the “raw materials” found in food, like carbohydrates, dietary fats, and amino acids.
Now, if your body has energy available from food you just ate, it doesn’t need to tap into its own energy (fat) stores. This “fed” state wherein the body runs fully on energy from food can last anywhere from 3 – 6+ hours after you eat, depending on the size and composition of the meal.
Something else happens when you eat food as well: fat storage. Why? Because when you eat a meal, you’re giving your body a large amount of energy (calories) in a short period of time–quite a bit more than it will burn during the time you’re eating. (You could eat several hundred calories in a few minutes while your body has only burned no more than 20 or 30.)
What do you think happens with all those extra calories that aren’t burned off? You got it: a large portion are stored as body fat for later use.
And then what happens once the abundance of food energy has been fully absorbed and burned up? What happens when the energy runs out?
Well, the body must then turn to its energy stores to continue running. That is, it must start breaking down body fat and muscle into molecules the cells can use for energy.
In this way, the body is constantly storing and burning fat every day.Every time you eat a meal, your body burns a bit of energy and stores some fat. And every time it finishes burning and storing the energy from the food you ate, it then switches to using fat as cellular fuel. Back and forth the body goes, 24 hours per day.
Even if you grossly overeat for a day, your body still has periods throughout those 24 hours where it runs out of food energy and thus must burn fat. The amount of fat stored that day will be greater than what it burned, though, and voila, net weight gain for the day.
This hints at what we have to do to reduce the amount of body fat we carry: we have to get our body to burn more fat than it stores every day, week, month, year, etc.
How do we do this? Let’s find out.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, by regulating the amount of energy we give our bodies with food, we can induce weight loss and gain.
If we regularly feed our body more energy than it burns, we will gain weight in the form of lean mass and body fat (the larger the surplus, the more fat we’ll gain and the quicker we’ll gain it). This is known as creating a “calorie surplus.”
On the flip side, if we regularly feed the body less energy than it burns, we will lose fat (the larger the deficit, the more weight we’ll lose and the faster we’ll lose it, but don’t think that severe calorie restriction is a good idea). This is known is creating a “calorie deficit,” and it’s the key to weight loss.
It doesn’t matter if you count your calories or even where those calories come from (professor Mark Haub lost 27 pounds on a diet of protein shakes, Twinkies, Doritos, Oreos, and Little Debbie snacks. If you keep your body in a negative energy balance over time, your total fat mass will go down. Period.
What is actually happening is the amount of fat your body stores from your daily meals is less than the amount of fat it burns when it doesn’t have food energy to live on. This is all weight loss is: fat stored < fat burned, over time.
When it comes to weight loss, it’s only a numbers game. WHAT you eat doesn’t determine whether you lose weight or not… HOW MUCH does.
Weight loss does NOT require you to only eat certain types of food, avoid other types, combine types in various ways, or any other quackery. It only requires that you regularly feed your body less energy than it burns.
Carbs don’t make you fat (eating excess calories does) and yes, some people’s metabolisms are faster than others, and some do better with calorie deficits than others, but all of our bodies come with the same types of physiological machinery.
So, if that’s the truth and it really is that simple, why do many people have trouble losing weight when they count calories or simply think it doesn’t work?
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I’ve helped thousands of people build muscle and lose fat, and here are the simple reasons why some people struggle with counting calories or think it doesn’t work:
1. They hate the idea of having to plan and track what they eat.
These people usually see meal planning or tracking intake with something like My Fitness Pal a psychological burden or have a lifestyle that involves a lot of unplanned meals prepared by others, which are basically impossible to measure in terms of calories.
On the other hand, these people quickly change their minds when they see how effortless weight loss is when you use calorie counting properly (which we’ll get to in a moment)–no hunger, no cravings, and no crossing your fingers, hoping that this is the diet that finally works.
2. They hate the idea of having to restrict their eating in any way.
Some people just have a strange relationship with food and want to eat what they want when they want and don’t want to feel like a “slave” to the oppressive calorie count.
In my experience, these people are harder to change. They will try anything before finally submitting to the master of energy balance–fad diets, cleanses, weight loss pills, etc.–and often choose the stay fat and wait for the next “metabolic miracle” than count a calorie.
3. They don’t stick to the plan and regularly overeat.
This is, of course, all too common. They have a few extra bites at breakfast. A double portion of dressing at lunch. A little unplanned dessert at dinner.
All these “little” portions of extra calories add up and can easily negate the moderate calorie deficit you’re trying to maintain on a daily basis.
The solution is simple: every single thing that goes into your mouth every day is planned or tracked.
4. They cheat like a competitive eater.
I recommend having a moderate cheat meal every week when you’re dieting. It’s a nice psychological boost and, depending on where you’re at in terms of body fat percentage, it can help keep the weight loss going.
Notice I said cheat MEAL, though. And moderate. Not a cheat DAY or an all-out binge meal, because either can undo some or all of a week’s worth of fat loss (super high-fat meals with alcohol are the absolute worst).
So, when you’re cheating, you can end the day a few hundreds calories above your normal daily intake, but don’t go crazy. If you need to, you can even reduce your carbohydrate and fat intake throughout the day to “save up” calories for the larger meal and thus keep your overall intake for the day in a reasonable range.
5. They calculate their total daily energy expenditure incorrectly.
Unfortunately, this is really easy to do because the activity multipliers of scientific formulas commonly used to calculate TDEEs are just too high. This is something most bodybuilders know but most “laymen” don’t.
For instance, I lift weights 5 times per week for about an hour and do about 25 minutes of HIIT cardio 3 to 4 times per week, and according to the activity multipliers for the Katch McArdle, my TDEE should be around 3,300 calories.
That means that I should be able to eat that amount every day and stay exactly the same. But I can’t. If I eat 3,300 calories per day, I get a little fatter each week. My intake needs to be closer to 2,900 per day for me to not gain fat.
So, when you’re calculating your TDEE, I recommend you use the following multipliers (BMR x activity multiplier)
- By 1.2 if you exercise 1-3 hours per week.
- By 1.35 if you exercise 4-6 hours per week.
- By 1.5 if you exercise 6+ hours per week.
Most bodybuilders don’t go above 1.4 unless they’re particularly active outside of the gym. And again, here’s a handy calculator that will do the math for you:
6. Their metabolisms need to be “fixed.”
When many people want to lose weight, they dramatically reduce calorie intake and dramatically increase energy output (through many hours of exercise each week). And while this approach will induce weight loss for a bit, it will ultimately fail. Why?
Because your metabolism adapts to the amount of energy you feed your body. Its goal is to balance energy intake with output–to maintain homeostasis.
When you restrict your calories and feed your body less energy than it burns, your metabolism naturally begins slowing down (burning less energy). The more you restrict your calories, the faster and greater the down-regulation.
Eventually the metabolism slows down enough to match intake with output, and weight loss stalls despite the very low-calorie diet and large amount of exercise. This is usually met with further calorie reduction or more exercise, which only results in more metabolic slowdown, and thus a vicious cycle begins.
This process of dramatically and chronically slowing the metabolic rate down is often referred to as metabolic “adaptation” or even “damage,” and fortunately, as I explain in this article, it can be resolved.
6. They are impatient.
Whenever someone writes me complaining about not losing weight, I always ask for the specifics. Are they not losing any weight? For how long? Are you looking leaner? And the answers are almost always long these lines:
“Well I’ve lost about 1 pound per week but shouldn’t I be losing more?” “I haven’t lost weight in the last 4 days,” “I can’t see my abs yet,” etc.
The points is they’re usually making good progress but have unrealistic standards as to what they want to achieve (often fueled by ridiculous, misleading 2- and 3-month transformations featured on big fitness websites).
The bottom line is if you’re losing about 1 pound per 7 to 10 days, you’re doing great. Keep it up. If your weight is more or less the same after 7 to 10 days, however, you simply need to move more or eat less.
7. They focus too much on the scale.
While the scale moving down is clearly a good indicator, it’s not the final word. Especially not if you’re weightlifting for the first time, because this alone will increase your body weight through muscle growth (yes, it’s possible to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously) and additional glycogen and water storage in the muscles.
If people don’t know this, however, they can be baffled as to why their pants are fitting looser and they’re looking leaner yet their weight has remained exactly the same. All that’s happening is the additional muscle-related weight is “replacing” the weight of the fat lost.
Remember that body composition is the real key here–not just weight. We want to see your muscle mass going up and body fat percentage going down, which is more accurately assessed by the mirror and a waist measurement than a scale.
If, however, the scale, mirror, and waist measurements are all staying the same for 7 to 10 days, then it’s time to change something.
These are the most common reasons people fail or feel like they’re failing with counting calories. Avoid these pitfalls and follow the tips below, and you’ll have tremendous success with it and even find it enjoyable.
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We’ve covered a lot in this article, so I’m going to keep this section short and to the point. Here’s how you count calories correctly for easy and enjoyable weight loss:
1. Commit to exercising at least 3 times per week.
2. Determine your TDEE properly.
As discussed earlier, this is your BMR times the appropriate activity multiplier.
3. Create a meal plan that you actually enjoy.
One of the worst things about most mainstream diet methodologies is the amount of restrictions placed on what you can eat and when. And the irony is all those rules are bogus and unnecessary.
So long as your daily caloric intake is set correctly, and your macronutrient ratios are right, WHAT you eat isn’t all that important. Dieting is much more a quantitative game (numbers) than a qualitative one (what you eat).
Check out my article on meal planning to learn exactly how to do this step correctly.
4. Stick to the plan and adjust as needed.
This is where the rubber meets the road. All the previous steps don’t matter unless you actually stick to your meal plan exactly.
You probably will have to resist some temptations.
- You should never feel starved, but you might be hungry here and there
- You might have to turn down the dessert because you don’t have the calories for it
- You might have to eat a bit less of a certain type of food than you’re used to
- You might have to push yourself to do your workout even though you’re tired
You get the idea. Weight loss shouldn’t be grueling, but it does take discipline and persistence. But it’s very straightforward. Take the right actions every day, and you will reach your goal.
And in terms of adjusting either activity or food up or down, you play it by ear.
- If you’re not any leaner after 7 to 10 days, something is wrong. Intake is too high or activity is too low.
- If you’re getting leaner but you’re feeling lethargic and weak in the gym, you’re probably eating too little or moving too much (this can happen easily if you do too much cardio while dieting).
The important thing to know is there’s no reason to panic. It’s not that calorie counting “isn’t working,” it’s just that something is off in terms of energy intake vs. output, and it can be easily fixed.
What are your thoughts on how to count calories correctly? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Redman LM, Heilbronn LK, Martin CK, et al. Metabolic and behavioral compensations in response to caloric restriction: Implications for the maintenance of weight loss. PLoS One. 2009;4(2). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004377
- Martin CK, Heilbronn LK, De Jonge L, et al. Effect of calorie restriction on resting metabolic rate and spontaneous physical activity. Obesity. 2007;15(12):2964-2973. doi:10.1038/oby.2007.354
- Horton TJ, Drougas H, Brachey A, Reed GW, Peters JC, Hill JO. Fat and carbohydrate overfeeding in humans: Different effects on energy storage. Am J Clin Nutr. 1995;62(1):19-29. doi:10.1093/ajcn/62.1.19
- Surina DM, Langhans W, Pauli R, Wenk C. Meal composition affects postprandial fatty acid oxidation. Am J Physiol - Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 1993;264(6 33-6). doi:10.1152/ajpregu.1993.265.3.714-r
- Newsholme EA, Dimitriadis G. Integration of biochemical and physiologic effects of insulin on glucose metabolism. Exp Clin Endocrinol Diabetes. 2001;109(SUPPL. 2). doi:10.1055/s-2001-18575