Calorie counting is a well-subscribed weight loss strategy. The logic behind the strategy is simple: if you consume less energy than you expend, you should lose weight.
At a high level, the logic makes sense. But when you dig into the details, calorie counting loses much of its luster.
Why? Because it treats all calories as equal, and that’s just not true.
So if you’re wondering if calorie counting works—or how to lose weight without counting calories—this article is for you.
What Are Calories?
A calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. That’s the technical definition.[*]
The more practical definition is that calories represent stored energy in food. During digestion and metabolization, this stored energy is transformed into usable energy so you can live your beautiful life. (Note: each food calorie equals 1000 “little” calories from the above definition).
Your body cares which calories you feed it. If you don’t feed it protein, it will struggle to maintain muscle and synthesize hormones.[*] If you don’t feed it fat, it will struggle to build cell membranes and absorb fat-soluble vitamins.[*] And if you don’t feed it carbs...well, that’s a unique case.
So yes, different calories affect your body differently.
A Calorie Is Not a Calorie
Some weight loss programs claim that it doesn’t matter what type of calories you eat, as long as you limit them. To lose weight, it doesn’t matter if you eat 345 calories of spinach salmon salad or 345 calories of tortilla chips.
This logic can be distilled into the platitude: A calorie is a calorie.
At first glance, it sounds credible. A calorie is how we measure the energy content of food, so shouldn’t we rely on this measure to determine how much energy is stored in our body after eating that food?
To answer, consider a study published in 2003 in the Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism.[*] There were two groups in the study: women eating a Keto diet and women eating a calorie-restricted higher carb diet. The Keto women ate as much as they liked, but still:
- Consumed about the same amount of calories as the high-carb calorie-restricted women
- Lost more weight after six months
What happened here? The answer likely involved insulin, ketosis, and hunger.
For example, eating 500 calories of bowtie pasta will cause a significant release of insulin—a hormone that promotes fat storage[*]—from your pancreas. On the other hand, eating 500 calories of steak salad will have a much smaller insulin impact.
The point is: the human body is a complex machine. Different nutrients—even in equal caloric amounts—have different hormonal and metabolic effects.
Metabolic Rate and Caloric Needs
How many calories do you need per day? That depends on your metabolic rate.
Your resting metabolic rate (RMR) is the amount of energy needed to power brain function, digestion, heartbeat, respiration, and other essential bodily functions. Add RMR to your daily physical activity (fidgeting included), and you have your daily calorie burn.[*]
The more active you are, the more calories you’ll burn. Metabolic rate also depends on factors like:
- How much muscle you have
- Fasting and feeding habits[*]
- Sleep duration and quality[*]
- The cognitive demands you place on your brain (chess players can burn thousands of calories from the stress of playing)[*]
- Ambient temperature[*]
Your optimal caloric intake depends on your daily calorie burn. If you go over your daily burn, you’ll probably gain weight. If you undershoot it, you’ll probably lose weight.
Severely undershooting it, however, can also affect your daily burn. Six years after the show, contestants from The Biggest Loser (a popular weight loss show) still showed metabolic slowdowns.[*]
The goal is to find a sweet spot. Not too little and not too much.
Should You Count Calories?
It makes sense to have a general idea of your daily caloric intake. If you’re maintaining weight at that intake, it’s probably about equal to your daily burn.
It also makes sense to know the calorie counts of various foods. Then you can calibrate your eating and snacking habits accordingly.
You can accomplish both these goals easily with the Carb Manager app. Just log your meals for one to three days and see where you come out.
This doesn’t mean you should obsess over calories though. The knowledge should merely supplement your eating routine.
Too much calorie counting can be stressful and counterproductive. You might begin to view all high-calorie foods—like fatty foods—as “bad.”
But if you avoid fat, you’ll miss out on a universe of satiating foods. You won’t stay satisfied on 100-calorie cookie packs.
Calories on Keto
Speaking of fatty foods, must you count calories on a Keto diet?
Probably not. As you’ll recall, Keto women who didn’t count calories lost more weight than higher-carb women that did.[*]
Keto is a satiating diet—high in filling fats and proteins and low in empty refined carbs. People tend to consume fewer calories on Keto naturally.[*]
Nonetheless, it’s still possible to overeat on Keto. If you overdo any macro, you’re likely to gain weight.
Nuts are the biggest offender. (Believe it or not, one cup of almonds contains 828 calories). To avoid mindless munching, portion control is key.
How to Stay Healthy Without Counting Calories
The alternative to calorie counting is intuitive eating. Intuitive eating works best on whole foods diets because—unlike high-sugar diets—eating patterns like Keto and Paleo fill you up and keep you full.
The trick is to listen to your body. Eat when you’re hungry and stop before you feel full. Your satiety hormones take a few minutes to kick in.
All the while, monitor your energy, alertness, exercise performance, mood, body weight, and any other metrics that matter to you. More so than calories, these are the crucial metrics to track on your way towards better health.