A simple search on google will show that counting calories as a method for weight loss is under heavy attack these days.
Articles like “Here’s why counting calories really isn’t necessary“, “Counting calories is a ridiculous way to lose weight“, “Want to lose weight, you should stop counting calories“, and “The key to weight loss is diet quality, not quantity” top the google search results.
These articles may drive traffic, interest, and business. They sound promising giving us an excuse to stop counting calories. Who wouldn’t want to lose weight without having to take the time to measure, count, and track everything they eat?
Easy “tip and tricks” that help you avoid counting calories but still lose weight sells books, but they are simply not true. Counting calories is the most effective, surefire, guaranteed way to lose weight as you will soon see. In fact, the American College of Cardiology, American Heart Association, and Obesity Society all agree that “to achieve weight loss, an energy deficit is required”
What is a Calorie?
In order to understand why calorie counting is the most effective method to lose weight, it is necessary to understand what a calorie is and how it relates to weight.
The term Calorie is simply a measurement of energy. We tend to associate calories with food but anything that produces energy has calories. In fact, 1 gallon of gasoline contains approximately 31,500 calories.
Calories in our food provide the necessary energy to pump and circulate blood, breathe, digest food, and contract and move muscles among other vital functions.
When we eat more calories than our body burns, we store the excess energy in fat and muscle.
This provides an energy reserve we can turn to if we ever consume fewer calories (energy) than our body requires.
Take Mahatma Gandhi for example.
He survived multiple hunger strikes lasting up to 21 days. Without energy from food, he relied on his muscle and fat to supply the additional energy needed to keep him alive.
Once you understand this concept, weight loss and weight gain becomes simple.
We require a certain number of calories (energy) to support our vital functions and activity level. This number varies based on the individuals age, weight, gender, muscle mass, and activity level. (A future post will cover this later)
Personally, my body requires, on average, 3000 calories per day. If I were to eat 4,000 calories per day consistently over an extended period of time, what would happen? I would create more fat cells in order produce more storage area for the surplus of calories (energy) not being used and I would gain weight.
If I were to eat 2,000 calories consistently every day while continuing to burn 3000 calories per day, what would happen? You guessed it. I would break down muscle and fat in to get the extra 1000 calories I need each day to support myself. If this continues for an extended, consistent, period of time I would end up losing weight.
Whether I eat 3000 calories in one meal, which I often do, (see instagram post) or over 7 small meals per day, the outcome is the same.
Weight loss and weight gain really is as simple as that. It’s not as complicated as people make it out to be.
Despite what the internet and fad diet promoters say, what you eat does not matter as much as how much of it you eat.
In a controlled setting, if calories are controlled, monitored, and restricted to less than the body needs, you will lose weight.
Let’s take Mark Haub, a nutrition professor at Kansas State University as an example. Mark decided to prove that calories are the only thing that matters for weight loss. For 10 weeks Mark ate Hostess Twinkies, Little Debbie snacks, Oreos, sugary cereals, and Doritos. This sounds like a guaranteed way to gain weight right? After 10 weeks Mark had lost 27 pounds and decreased his body fat by 7%. How do you lose weight eating nothing but sugar and junk food for 10 weeks? The answer again comes down to calories. Mark made certain that all the junk food he was eating did not exceed 1800 calories per day. Someone his age and size is estimated to burn around 2600 calories per day so Mark was in an estimated 800 calorie per day deficit. Marks body turned to his own fat and muscle to supply the additional 800 calories per day to meet his needs. This resulted in weight loss over time. One day in a calorie deficit was not enough to create these results, but a consistent daily calorie deficit proved to be effective over time.
Mark is not an isolated example. John Cisna ate nothing but McDonald’s for 6 months straight. He limited his calorie intake to 2,000 calories per day and exercised for 45 minutes 5 times per week. The result? John lost over 60 pounds in 6 months.
Tyler Marinelli ate nothing but Chipotle for 3 months. He limited his intake to 1800 calories per day and lost 20 pounds and 8% body fat over a 3 month period.
Andrew Taylor helped to prove that carbohydrates aren’t as bad as they are made out to be. For an entire year, Andrew only ate potatoes and lost 117 pounds. Famous illusionist Penn Jillette also followed the potato diet and lost over 100 pounds without exercising at all.
But what about all the people that lose weight by eliminating carbohydrates or only eat 8 hours per day?
They lose weight because they eat less than they need, not because of their crazy or extreme dieting strategies. People don’t lose weight on low-carb diets because they eat fewer carbs. They lose weight because they are eating fewer calories. They don’t lose weight because they go 16 hours a day without food (intermittent fasting), they lose weight because restricting the time they eat helps reduce their total calorie intake.
If eliminating carbohydrates, eating 8 hours per day, not eating after 6 pm, or any other dieting behavior helps you reduce your daily calories and lose weight, then go for it.
The diet itself is irrelevant to weight loss. It’s simple science and math. Eat less than your body burns and lose weight. Eat more, and gain weight.
Now I know there are some of you still arguing with me. I can hear you saying “that the type of food you eat matters!” If body composition, health, muscle retention, and fat loss are important to you, then you are right. The type of food you eat does matter. (Next post coming soon) If weight is the only thing you care about, then calories, not the composition or type of diet, is all that matters.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, then maybe science will change your mind.
What Does The Science Say?
For time’s sake, I have selected only a few studies for review here. There are hundreds more available with similar findings that aren’t included in this post.
Many of the studies done on diet and weight loss compare different diets but for one reason or another do not control for calories. They have participants eat a low-carbohydrate diet and another group eat a low-fat diet and compare weight loss between the two. The problem is they don’t monitor or track their calorie intake. Obviously, these studies aren’t the most useful for our situation and so they aren’t included here. (These will be discussed in a future post about macro-nutrients and their importance)
When calories are controlled for, is one type of diet more effective for weight loss than another?
811 obese individuals were put on one of four calorie restricted diets. The diets differed only in their fat, protien, and carbohydrate amounts. After two years, weight loss was the same among all 4 groups. Calorie restricted diets result in meaningful weight loss regardless of the macronutrient composition.
19 different studies were analyzed comparing low carbohydrate diets to normal carbohydrate diets with calories being kept equal between the diets. They found no difference in weight loss or cardiovascular risks between the two diets.
There has been recent interest and claims made that certain genes can predict how you will respond to certain diets. The most common diets studied are low carbohydrate vs. low fat diets. a 2018 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association pitted these two diets against each other. The study found that genetics had no effect on response to either diet and weight loss was the same among both diets at the end of one year. It isn’t the diet or your genes responsible for your weight loss. It is the reduction in calories
Again low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets were compared. Calories were kept constant and there was no difference in weight loss on a low-carbohydrate diet versus a low-fat diet after one year.
Do you have to count calories to lose weight? No. You can lose weight through other methods like cutting out carbohydrates, not eating after 6, eating 8 hours per day, reducing portion size, intuitive eating and other methods.
Just understand that you lose weight with these methods because you eat fewer calories.
If you want the most reliable, effective, scientifically proven, guaranteed way to lose weight, then track your calories.
Monitoring calorie intake will help you make informed decisions about the food you eat. If you know you have to count it, you may opt for celery sticks instead of the cake.
If it’s me, I’m making room for that cake.
Let me know what you think. Do you agree or disagree with what I’ve said? Why?
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