If you’re reading this, chances are you want to know how to lose fat, but you’ve found calorie-counting frustrating, ineffective, and downright unsatisfying. You might be thinking, “I’m in a calorie deficit but not losing weight. What gives?”
What if I were to tell you weight loss isn’t about calories in calories out (ie. calories you eat vs calories you burn)?
You’re probably thinking this sounds too good to be true. It’s not.
Before I explain why, I want you to know I’ve felt your frustration. I’ve lived it. I’m talking about:
- Years of personal experience following bad advice from seeming health “experts” (so many seemed so credible!), only to later learn that advice was based on hype and misinformation, which only led to more frustration. Then, after years of my own research….
- Years of my professional work liberating frustrated women and men from the unnecessary, unscientific prison of calorie-counting, and introducing them to a delicious, satisfying, sustainable way of eating and living–that science supports.
So yeah, I get it. And I want you to shine light on the misinformation about calorie-counting.
In this post, I’m going to show you how to lose fat the smart way. It’s a liberating, sustainable, and healthy practice that kicks calorie-counting, cravings, and extra pounds to the curb–without deprivation.
What Exactly Are Calories Anyway?
Calories supposedly measure the amount of “energy” in a gram of food.
In theory, caloric values should reveal universal energizing and satiation properties of different food components. Macronutrients—carbohydrates, protein, and fat—are the types of nutrients that provide calories, unlike micronutrients—vitamins and minerals—that don’t provide energy.
You intake calories from the foods and drinks you consume during the day. Your digestive system breaks the food down and absorbs the energy. The energy either goes where your body needs it or it’s stored for later use.
Your body uses energy throughout the day for your body’s basic needs (like keeping your organs functioning and repairing tissues) and whenever you move. Your body uses either food you recently digested for these functions or it takes energy out of storage.
In theory, if you track “calories in calories out,” all you need to do is eat fewer calories than you “burn” and *voilà* weight loss.
Unfortunately, not all calories are created equal and weight loss isn’t that simple.
Fortunately, weight loss can be tastier and more satisfying than you’ve been led to believe.
Calories Aren’t Created Equal
The macronutrients, carbohydrates, protein, and fat, have all been tested for the number of calories per gram they provide. Let’s take a closer look.
Carbohydrates are valued at 4 calories per gram. However, there are different kinds of carbohydrates: fiber, starch, sugar, and sugar alcohols.
In nutrition-science-reality, fiber (a kind of carb that makes up the bulk of many veggies) runs anywhere from 0-2 calories per gram, though it’s generally valued at 4 calories per gram in Nutrition Facts charts. Fiber provides short-lived feelings of fullness (yes, short-lived).
Starch and sugar are each valued at 4 calories per gram, but they destabilize blood sugar and insulin, leading to blood sugar highs and lows, triggering hunger and cravings for more starch and sugar soon after eating.
The caloric value of sugar alcohols varies from around 1-3 calories per gram (for example, xylitol is approximately 2.4 calories per gram). Unfortunately, many Nutrition Charts don’t count sugar alcohols at all or count them as 4 calories per gram because they’re lumped into the general “carbohydrate” category. Sugar alcohols can, and often do, come with unwanted digestive side effects that can lead to more problems in the long run.
We’ve long been told carbohydrates are a great source of energy. But clearly, the devil is in the details, and the story of how you consume and use energy is more complex than “calories in calories out.” Especially when it comes to starch and sugar.
Protein, valued at 4 calories per gram, will make you feel satiated:
- Longer than carbohydrates
- And it requires more energy (read: calories) to digest it than is in it to begin with (yes!).
A gram of protein is always 4 calories, but there are differences in which amino acids (i.e. the building blocks of protein and the human body) are included in that gram.
The concept of “calories in calories out” definitely doesn’t apply to protein.
To learn more about amino acids and other facts about protein, check out my article Plant Protein vs. Animal Protein: The Myths and Facts.
Fat, valued at 9 calories per gram, will make you feel satiated the longest and most intensely of any macronutrient (remember, these are the parts of food we get energy from).
You are less likely to overeat after eating fat (the opposite effect of starch and sugar, which often lead to increased cravings and overeating).
Because fat is incredibly energy-dense (ahem: 9 calories per gram!), it’s an exquisite storehouse of energy (this is a good thing).
Plus, dietary fat stimulates lipolysis (the burning of the body’s fat stores), nullifying the concept of “calories in calories out.”
It’s impossible to compare the same number of calories from fat to those of carbohydrates because carbohydrates stimulate insulin, thereby slowing down metabolism and increasing fat stores.
But again, not all grams of fat are created equal.
As biochemist Dr. Mary Enig says in her book Know Your Fats, shorter varieties of short- and medium-chain fatty acids (i.e. those found in coconut and palm oils and butter) are metabolized more like carbohydrates. This puts their true value closer to 4 calories per gram instead of fat’s usual 9, while still providing the same satiety-factor of longer-chain fats. In Nutrition Facts charts, these fats are still valued at 9 calories per gram.
Read more about why saturated fat is healthy in my article Is Saturated Fat Bad For You? No!
After reading about the complex nature of calories, you might be wondering why the outdated approach of “calories in calories out” is still around. Shouldn’t your doctor have told you all this?
Why Your Doctor Won’t Tell You To Stop Tracking Calories In Calories Out
Chances are your doctor won’t tell you to ditch the “calories in calories out” myth because medical doctors are not trained to be nutrition experts.
A comprehensive research review conducted in 2018 concluded, “nutrition is insufficiently incorporated into medical education, regardless of country, setting, or year of medical education.”1
To boot, a national survey conducted in 2010 found that of 105 schools
- only 25% required a dedicated nutrition course
- only 27% met the minimum required hours (25 hours) of nutrition education.2
Simply put, your doctor doesn’t have the training to adequately help you with your nutrition. Some doctors do undertake continuing education to learn more about nutrition, but most simply lack the time and commitment to masterfully learn how to best help their patients with nutrition.
A health degree/license does not equal “nutrition expert.”
Why and How To Stop Counting Calories To Lose Weight
Chew on this: dieting attempts and the “calories in calories out” approach are actually better predictors of future weight gain, not weight loss?3, 4
The human body is programmed for survival. It can’t tell the difference between famine and intentional calorie restriction.
So when the body notices you’re in a calorie deficit to lose weight, it responds by slowing down your metabolism and revving up hormones that tell you to eat more.
If calorie-counting without paying attention to types of macronutrients actually worked (like mainstream medicine, mainstream media, and the dieting industry have claimed for decades), why have obesity rates continued to rise?
In 2018, about 42.4% of adults in the United States were classified as obese, based on their BMI.5
While BMI isn’t the best indicator of health (that’s another discussion), it’s alarming to track changes in average BMI over time.
With the ever-growing diet industry—now a record $72 billion industry—how could obesity rates still be rising? Don’t let that industry convince you you are the problem.
That’s right, instead of owning up to its own shortcomings, the dieting industry puts the blame on you by saying you just need more willpower or didn’t follow xyz diet correctly—implying you’re the flawed one. [Eyeroll.]
In truth, each of us is too unique to fit into any one-size-fits-all approach.
You don’t actually burn the same number of calories every single day. This rate changes based on:
- How much you move
- If you’re fighting off a pathogenic disease
- If you’re struggling with a non-pathogenic disease
- The weather
- And many other factors.
Yes, it’s wrong to think you’ll lose weight if you gorge yourself on diet foods or if you go wild eating 8,000 calories worth of cheese on a ketogenic diet.
But counting calories to lose weight is not the black and white science you’ve been told it is.
So what should you do instead of, or at least in addition to counting calories?
How should you eat to lose fat, maintain weight, or just plain feel satisfied and energized?
How To Lose Weight And Feel Satisfied
The answer: eat for satiety by focusing on satisfying, nutrient-dense foods packed with the most satiating macronutrients, not the mundane tracking of “calories in calorie out.” (I suggest you reread that last sentence–it’s that important.)
We achieve satiety when the body sends signals to the brain saying it’s full. This usually indicates the endpoint of a meal. But the mind can override this natural endpoint when you’re too focused on food-deprivation and not having enough food.
There’s a lot that goes into regulating your hunger, involving your digestive system, nervous system, and endocrine system (read: hormones). Oftentimes, people think they feel hungry because their stomach is empty, but hunger goes beyond that.
During a meal, you receive signals to stop eating when your stomach feels full. But you don’t simply feel hungry again when your stomach is empty.
Your hunger is also regulated by the nutrient quantity and quality of the foods you eat.
Once the food is out of your stomach and moving through your intestines, your intestines send signals through your nerves and hormones about the nutrients you ate.
Using all of this information, your brain signals hormone production to regulate your hunger and your drive to eat.6 Your brain doesn’t care that your calorie app says you have the perfect ratio of “calories in calories out” because you only ate 300 calories and you ran on a treadmill for an hour.
What kinds of foods provide optimal satiety?
Fat-rich and quality-protein-rich foods provide optimal satiety because they truly satiate the body and brain.
Fat does this the longest and most intensely, but initially takes longer to hit the brain.
Protein feels satiating quicker, though not as intensely or as long-lasting as fat.
Also important: dietary fat stimulates lipolysis (translation: the burning of the body’s fat stores).
Optimally satiating foods include:
- Whole eggs from pastured hens
- Grass-fed/pasture-raised organic meat and poultry (including organ meat)
- Dairy from grass-fed/pastured animals (if tolerated; ideally organic and whole-fat butter, milk, cheese, plain unsweetened yogurt and kefir, sour cream, cottage cheese, etc.; raw is great if you can get it)
- Lard and tallow from pastured animals
- Tropical oils high in saturated fat (i.e. sustainably sourced coconut and palm oils)
- Coconuts/coconut butter (AKA coconut “manna”)
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Avocado oil
- Nuts and seeds
- small portions of soaked/sprouted raw nut varieties low in polyunsaturated fats and higher in monounsaturated fats (i.e. almonds, macadamia nuts, pecans, hazelnuts; personally, I don’t eat nuts for bio-individualized reasons)
- smaller portions of higher polyunsaturated nuts/seeds (i.e. flax and chia—no need to sprout; and raw soaked/sprouted walnuts; personally, I don’t eat nuts, and I rarely eat seeds).
We want to eat these satiating nutrient-dense foods alongside colorful veggies.
(The above is a generalized list. Food tolerances vary depending on the person and any present health conditions.)
Rebalance Cravings, Naturally
The key is to focus on what you DO eat, not on what you DON’T eat.
When we eat more of the above-listed foods (instead of focusing on number-crunching and the “calories in calories out” myth), by default we eat less—and crave less—sugary and starchy foods. That’s how our biology works.
Curbed cravings for sugary and starchy foods are a natural biochemical effect of the fat-friendly approach.
This is a great thing, considering research tells us sugary and starchy foods spike blood sugar and insulin, make us want to eat more, trigger weight gain, and are associated with a cascade of heightened disease risk factors (as I explain in my article Think You Know the Facts About Carbs? Don’t Be So Sure).
When you do eat some sugary or starchy foods, try to consume smaller portions alongside fat to help stabilize blood sugar and insulin as best as possible (of course not entirely), thereby
- preventing overeating, and
- lowering your body’s inflammatory response to these foods (of course not entirely).
Fruit: “Natural” Sugar
Fruit should be enjoyed in moderation and treated as a sweet treat or dessert.
Ideal fruit varieties are lower in sugar and fructose (think: a handful of berries) and are eaten alongside fat-containing foods (again, to stabilize blood sugar and insulin).
Avoid dried fruit altogether, as it’s high in fructose (and mold).
And to keep sugar low, definitely nix fruit juice. Think about it: you’re not even eating fruit anymore when you extract the liquid from the rest of the fruit. If you take away the fruit skin or pith, you miss out on lots of nutrients. Fruit fiber helps slow the release of fruit sugar into your body. Without that fiber, you’re sending your blood sugar to the moon. Especially if you’re eating a low-fat diet, or if you’re drinking juice on its own, without fat and protein from other foods. Just say “no” to fruit juice.
- The “calories in calories out” approach just doesn’t work. You may see results in the short-term, but long-term you’re more likely to gain weight.
- Eating for satiety is more effective for balancing hormones and stabilizing your weight for the long term.
- Eat fat-rich and quality-protein-rich foods to truly satiate the body and brain.
- Don’t waste time focusing on what you shouldn’t eat. Instead spend your valuable time and energy focusing on the foods you do eat.
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DISCLAIMER: This website, and the contents published herein, are intended for educational purposes only. They are not intended, nor should they be used in any way to replace sound consultation, diagnosis, and treatment by a licensed medical practitioner. This website and its contents are not intended as, nor should they be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or prescriptions. Always consult a qualified licensed medical professional before making any dietary, supplement, exercise, or lifestyle changes. Also, please note that some posts on this site may mention products for which we earn affiliate commissions. I only promote products I believe in and think you may benefit from. Read full disclaimer HERE.
Feature image copyright Erika Herman.