Food & Nutrition

Why You Can Finally Stop Counting Calories

You’ve heard it a million times: “calories in” = “calories out”. In other words, counting calories and controlling caloric intake is the way to lose weight. Or so we’ve been told, right? We even have an abbreviation for it (because everything needs to become an acronym): CICO. Take a deep breath in aaaaand let out a big sigh of relief. Because I’m about to bust that myth wide open. A happy consequence? You can toss your calculator now. You’ve got too much crap in your purse already anyway.


Scientifically (and don’t lose me there), a calorie is a measure of energy. So in CICO theory, you take in energy and burn off energy. As long as you take in less than you burn, then you lose weight. …Or maybe not. I mean, you’ve been tracking for months. Counting every single calorie. You’re 100% sure that you’re at a calorie deficit. But you’re still the same weight (or maybe more??). The only thing that’s changed is that now you’re hungry (read: hangry) All. The. Time. Your frustration is understandable. You did all the right things. Played by the rules. Practically starved yourself, kind of. And the results are slim to none. And who could blame you? Even Time magazine called you stupid for not knowing about this weight loss trick: “It’s all about counting calories”. Well, fire that writer, Time. Your readers not stupid. MY readers are not stupid. MY readers are here to learn because they trust me, and I’m not going to let them down.

But I want to lose weight! Why stop counting calories??

Ready for the good news? You can stop counting those freaking calories. Because that’s just not how food works. Food is information. Food tells your body what’s going on and what it should do about it. 200 calories of Pop Tart is not the same as 200 calories of broccoli. I mean, seriously. Our ancestors weren’t sitting around counting calories for all the meat and veggies they ate! And I bet your gut told you the same thing. You just needed a nudge to believe it. Well, I’m here to give you more than a nudge. How about a full-fledged kick in the butt? No problem.
The Common Sense Angle
Let’s drive the common sense home first before we dive into the science. If the number of calories is the only factor involved in weight loss, then that means eating 2000 calories of fried vegetable oils, white sugar, and hydrolyzed soy protein would give you the same results as eating 2000 calories of organic vegetables, wild caught seafood & grass-fed meat, and coconut. If you take a look at the Okinawans or Kitavans (who are historically super healthy and eat diets very different from the standard American diet), it’s apparently these 2000 calorie diets are not equal. Want the data? The life expectancy of the Japanese vs Americans are separated by about 10 years. And the quality of life is much better for the Japanese, even at older ages [1].
The Anecdotal Angle
I’m going to cite the clearest example I know for this part. Dave Asprey is a self-proclaimed biohacker who experimented on himself over 2 years to prove the effects of increased calorie intake. He ate 4000-4500 calories per day while sleeping less than 5 hours a night. And he used to be 300 lbs (he lost weight before this experiment). The catch is that he only ate what he called “the bulletproof diet” AND didn’t exercise. He ate toxin free foods, lots of healthy fats, grass-fed meat, and cycled low carbs. Based on CICO (according to Mayo Clinic), 1 pound per week = 500 calories per day. In other words, if you eat at a 500 calorie deficit per day, you should lose 1 pound per week. With about 2000 extra calories per day, Asprey should have gained 4 pounds per week (that’s about 200 pounds per year)!! And yet… if I showed you his “after” picture, you’d accuse him of being a gym junkie and successfully using whatever new fad diet is out. Definitely didn’t gain 4 pounds a week. And he didn’t lose his muscles by lack of working out. Now, I realize this is just one person, but his self-experiment was extreme and makes a clear point about the CICO diet. It doesn’t work.
The Research Angle
If common sense and self-experimenting isn’t enough for you to kick your calorie counting habit, let’s go to the research (and not Time magazine). A study was done by Dr. George Bray to look at how different macronutrient distributions affect weight gain when “overeating” [2]. The group of people had ages from 18-35, BMI from 19-30, and varied in weight (some normal and some overweight). They were fed ~1000 calories extra per day. Three combinations of macronutrients were studied using 25 people each. The carb intake was the same for each group, but the fat and protein intake was changed. One group had low protein, one had normal protein, and one had high protein. The researched looked at the body composition using DEXA scans and mapped out the weight gain of each group. So before I give you the results, I do want to note something. What we’re looking for is whether how much you eat is the only factor that matters. If CICO is the rule, then all three diet types should have had exactly the same effect. We’re not trying to optimize weight or be as healthy as possible in this particular experiment. All we’re looking for is change. There are soooo many factors that go into health and optimizing weight that only changing macros won’t give you a good rule of thumb for your own diet. That being said, *drumroll please*… The three different groups did have different weight changes in the study. The low protein group gained less weight, but it was almost all fat. The normal and high protein groups gained more weight, but it was closer to 50/50 fat and muscle. The high weight gain could be due to the fact that muscle weighs more than fat. I would like to point out again that just because the low protein group gained less weight does not mean a low protein diet is good for weight loss. This experiment only looks at macros and number of calories, and we know that the type of food is very important to how your body functions and weight changes. Also, limiting protein intake like this means that your muscles and organics don’t have the building blocks they need to stay healthy. You certainly couldn’t expect any lean muscle growth!

And So?

The experts are saying that calories is the only thing that affects weight, but this study proves exactly the opposite! These 3 groups ate the same number of calories with different macros and gained different amounts of weight with different percentages of fat and muscle growth. This means that not all calories are the same, and counting calories isn’t the path to weight loss. *cue trumpet* You are free from the burden of counting calories. Learning how to eat a balanced, healthy diet is the #1 thing you can do if you wanna start managing your weight and your overall health! If you feel like you’ve been hoodwinked, that’s totally normal. There are so many false messages out there hidden under flashy advertising. It’s hard to know what to believe. It’s a good thing that science doesn’t lie! Getting back to the research will show you the way to better health.

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