A lot of my clients are surprised (and relieved) that they are getting results without counting calories. It is not an effective strategy for most nutrition interventions.
Here are the reasons expert nutritionists don’t recommend counting calories:
- Food labels are usually fairly inaccurate (enough to disrupt potential gains)
- Our estimations of our metabolic rates are not accurate, and they change day to day (so even if you’re a great calorie counter, you might have the wrong goal)
- We don’t absorb 100% of what we eat
- Our estimations of portions are often incorrect
- The solution to #4 is weighing food (time consuming)
- Eating the right foods is equally, if not more, important vs. total calories, and counting calories takes the focus off of eating the right foods
- The healthiest foods don’t come with food labels
For fat loss we need to create a caloric deficit, and then our body burns existing body fat to make up the rest of the energy it needs. How do we do this without counting calories? I recommend using appetite awareness to make fat loss happen. Basically, you only eat if you’re hungry, and never allow yourself to eat until full. There are a few exceptions, that I won’t go into here.
“But I’m Always Hungry”
I hear this a lot, but what this usually means is that the client isn’t eating right, and is “always hungry” out of malnourishment. Eat properly and cravings will diminish.
My Experiences Counting Calories
I strongly believe that counting calories is not an effective strategy for healthy living, fat loss, etc. But I was curious to see how little I could eat, and still feel comfortable, and see if that incurred a fat loss. Maybe I’d get really ripped. That’d be fun.
First I decided to simply track what I was eating, to find a baseline. Then I was going to lower it a bit each week. I should mention that my typical diet is about 80% perfectly-executed meals or snacks, and the other 20% as treat meals like pizza, a few cups of cashews (that’s 2000 calories by the way), or meals with alcohol.
I estimated the calories in my foods using my nutrition knowledge. If you can’t do this, there are many apps you can try. I tracked as I ate in my phone’s calculator. At the end of each day I took a screen capture photo of the calculator, and stored the photo in a folder.
On training days, which was 3-5 days a week, I ate about 3500 calories. This came at no surprise (I knew I was eating a lot, and it was helping me recover).
On non-training days, I was eating about 3000. This I felt I could eat less and still be OK.
For appetite awareness, I was eating when hungry, and eating until satisfied or slightly full. After training I eat until full.
But now I was going to try to lose a bit of fat in this experiment.
Over the course of a few weeks I got my calories down to 2900 on training days and 2000 on non-training days. I felt fine. So already I had cut about 6000 calories out of my week. Neat. But then some funny things started happening.
- I started to think of ways to eat more treat foods that fit into the calorie limit and my understanding of protein/carbs/fats. Like justifying a slice of bread instead of two cups of broccoli. Not good.
- I started focusing less energy on healthy foods and food prep, and more energy on counting calories, which led to a lack of being prepared and poor food choices.
- I started becoming annoyed that I couldn’t accurately count the calories of some of the food I was eating. In layman’s terms I think I was getting obsessed with calories. The sense of uselessness of this behaviour grew stronger in me.
- I started to forget to track calories.
- I gave up counting calories.
The same thing has happened to a few million people who have counted calories.
Those 6000 calories I cut out? I could have done that by tracking pass/fail compliance and eating more healthy meals and less treat meals. I could have eaten slower. Heck, I could have tracked calories OCCASIONALLY if I really wanted to, and that would have been effective. But tracking all the time threw me off.
Don’t count calories. Put effort into eating healthy meals that include 1/2-1 fist of protein, 2 cups of veggies and a bit of healthy fat added. If you want to eat starchy carbs instead of veg, ok, but try to keep it to about 1 cup.
What an interesting experience! It will be a long time before I try this again, if ever. I have been extremely fit a few times in my life, and generally am very fit. I use appetite awareness and eat healthy food. I spend a lot of time making sure I have healthy food available.
If you think you have “no appetite” …we will find it. It just takes special strategies and time.