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.[i] 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.[ii]
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.[iii] 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,
[i] Antonio J, Peacock CA, Ellerbroek A, Fromhoff B, Silver T. The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals. JISSN. 2014;11:19
[ii] Carbone JW, McClung JP, Pasiakos SM. Skeletal Muscle Responses to Negative Energy Balance: Effects of Dietary Protein. Adv Nutr. 2012;3:119-126
[iii] 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