It sounds so simple.
Eat fewer calories than you burn, and you’ll lose weight.
And it gets simpler: eat 500 fewer calories than you currently are, and you’ll lose a relatively predictable 1-2 pounds per week.
… Except it’s not that pretty and mathematical.
So how many calories should you actually be eating?
The answer might surprise you (as well as the alternatives).
So…Does Calorie Counting Really Work?
I recently spoke with a friend who told me that she was religiously counting calories, because ever since she hit 35, she had been gaining quite a bit of weight.
By her estimate, she had about 30-50 pounds to lose.
But there was one problem: she tracked her calories daily, was eating around 1,200 per day, did this for over 100 days (three months), and yet only lost 5-10 pounds.
Mathematically, she should’ve lost at least 30.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out quite as well in reality, mathematically. And a study I highlighted over here showed that the “500 less calories a day” doesn’t really work out that way in studies where it’s been tested.
Having said that, it is a great practice – whatever we track and measure on a daily basis, we’ll improve, hands down.
So here’s how to do some rough calculations.
The Formulas For Counting Calories
The “I’m in a Rush” Calorie Formula
A rough calculation you can use here is pretty simple:
Sedentary – Desk Worker – <Your Weight> x 12 = Maintenance calories (rough).
Moderately Active – Waitress – <Your Weight> x 13 = Maintenance calories (rough).
Active – Physical Laborer – <Your Weight> x 14 = maintenance calories (rough).
If you weigh 150 pounds, here’s what that looks like.
- Sedentary – <150> x 12 = 1,800 calories
- Moderately Active – <150> x 13 = 1,950 calories
- Active – <150> x 14 = 2100 calories
It’s roughly accurate – remember. If you want to use a ballpark figure to see if you’re somewhat close to where you should be, this is the formula to use.
But if you’re a math or science nerd, use the formula I gave you above.
Awesome Websites to Help You Plan Meals (Free) Based on Calories
Side note: it’s awful having to eat a certain amount of calories without knowing how certain things break down, or if you like cooking, what you can actually make that’ll add up to a certain number of calories.
(Hey, if that’s proof that food isn’t supposed to be counted, I dunno what is, haha).
Rather than me giving you 5-10, here is one that works phenomenally well, which is called Eat This Much and is currently free.
First, you can specify if you’re on a special diet, like being vegan, vegetarian, paleo, whatever, and how many calories you roughly want to eat:
Next, it’ll pull up sample meals based on how many calories you told it you need to eat:
Don’t like something? Click the regenerate button, and it’ll instantly pop up a different meal:
Then, you can click the meal to pull up all the nutritional facts, including the ingredients and instructions:
Currently, since it’s free that’s the best option I’d recommend.
The Calorie Requirements Worldwide
Image source here.
Unsurprisingly, the richer the country, generally the fatter the people.
In Africa and India, the average daily caloric intake is much lower than the 3,000 commonly seen in North America, Russia, and Australia.
And that’s why the BMI of these people looks like this too:
And that’s why the diabetes rates look like this too:
When Counting Calories Doesn’t Work – The 500 Calorie Myth
Obviously, the more calories we eat, generally the bigger (and sicker we get).
But just how much?
Some time ago, the New England Journal of Medicine asked a question:
Does this “scientific fact” of reducing calories by 500 calories a day really produce that systematic, predictable, linear weight loss we hope for?
And if so, how much?
In the original study, researchers suggested that a person walking 1 mile per day, and thus burning around 100 calories, will lose more than 50 pounds over a period of 5 years.
So that’s based on this supposed mathematical formula for weight loss:
However, when they tested it, it only came out to around 10 pounds lost.
Later on, these researchers commented that this model of calories in calories out is around 50 years old – and this original statement was based on short term experiments, that were also performed on men on diets of less than 800 calories per day.
So in other words, maybe these results were realistic in the SHORT run, but not in the long run.
Maybe that’s the rate men were losing weight during that short period of being starved to death, but maybe the body compensated for that severe decrease in calories later – and thus slowed the weight loss down (since reality didn’t reflect that this actually works long term).
We’ll come back to this in a second, but this is one of the dangers of counting calories – you assume that you should be losing weight at a predictable rate, and it often does at the start, but once it slows down the only only thing to do with the calorie model is eat less.
And eat less.
And eat less.
Until you feel like crap, stop seeing results, and are wondering whether or not to continue doing what you’re doing.
Then there’s another problem: You may be eating fewer calories, but there are other issues going on preventing you from losing weight.
Uhh… Crap. The Half a Dozen Other Factors Affecting Your Weight (Besides Calories)
Listen, I wish it were as pretty and simple as counting grains of rice, but it isn’t.
There are loads of other factors that may affect what’s going on within your body, ranging from full-blown medical conditions, to other nutritional reasons like eating processed food, to the satiety index and the thermic effect of food.
I talked about some problems with the low calorie myth here, but the issue with treating the body like a machine (it isn’t) is that it’s very tough to predict things mathematically.
So if my friend we talked about earlier really was eating fewer calories, but wasn’t losing weight, the calorie model is incomplete.
There are other factors going on here.
A common situation that I see on an almost daily basis is women over 40 (or 50) that are going through menopause or perimenopause and find themselves gaining more weight, or even potentially gaining weight for the first time in their entire lives.
“I have love handles for the first time in a decade, are you freaking kidding me?” one woman said in particular.
Obviously, you can’t wave a magic wand and make these things going away, although there are ways to naturally address hormones too.
I’ve previously talked about the “big 3” hormones out of balance, a big focus of Sara Gottfried’s book The Hormone Cure that I give to virtually every female client of mine over 40.
One study found that during a woman’s menstrual cycle, the hormonal changes affect not only how many calories she eats, but also what kind of calories she eats (proteins, fats, carbs), and even how much energy she expends.
Can you say cravings?
As far as menopause goes, I’ve talked to maybe a hundred women that have gained weight during middle age because of this, and research backs up that many women do gain weight (often not much, around 5 pounds), while a smaller percentage gain waaaaay more.
In another study, they followed women during their premenopausal years and then after the menopausal period.
During a three year menopausal time period, they gained an average of 4.9 pounds to 9.2 pounds.
20% of the women gained over 9.2 pounds, and 3% lost 9.2 pounds or more.
Clearly hormonal changes play a huge role here.
A common diagnostic test people get when they can’t lose weight is getting thyroid hormones checked.
Usually the blood work comes back with normal numbers, but sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s a major factor messing up weight loss.
The thyroid plays a number of different roles in the body, and one of those roles is in regulating metabolism.
For example, there was one study where people were treated for hyperthyroid (overactive thyroid) and their weight changes were measured over the following year.
The average weight gain here was over 11 pounds, six months after the treatment.
After a year, the average weight gain was almost 20 pounds.
And after two years, the average weight gain was over 26 pounds.
What’s kind of interesting is that before this therapy, 27.% of the patients had a low body mass index, and only 29.4% were overweight, with 19.3% being obese (BMI>30kg/m2).
But two years after the treatment, only 8.7% had a low BMI, 27.5% were overweight, but 51.3% had become obese.
It literally almost tripled.
Food quality (e.g. Processing/Carbs/Sugar) & Satiety
I’ve shown a dozen times here that you can literally eat fewer calories and feel more full, and conversely, you can eat a lot more calories and feel a lot less full.
There are a number of things that trick your body and affect the satiety of food.
I’ve since done a couple home experiments to show people how processed food encourages overeating, and eating way more calories without feeling the corresponding levels of fullness.
For example, I did an initial home experiment (featured above) where I showed just how much junk food compares to real, natural foods – and how you can eat subjectively WAY less, and feel totally stuffed.
And then I did another experiment where I re-created a sandwich from Panera bread.
I did it to show a client of mine how you can technically eat “healthy food” but still gain weight if it’s heavily processed.
Technically, the sandwich I was eating was still a whole grain, natural, junk-free sandwich.
It was also likely heavily processed, with added sugar and salt (in the bread), as well as some kind of mystery sauce that made it easy to hammer down calories.
Then you have other factors like sugar, which totally haywire our biology:
A person could tell you that 100 calories of sugar and 100 calories of broccoli are the same, calorie-wise.
But that’s a bit ridiculous when you see how each affects your body, hormonally, as well as cravings, and the lack of nutrients you could be getting.
Your Age and Metabolism
Many of us have gotten to our 30s or 40s and remarked that we’re “doing everything pretty much the same but have started to gain some weight.”
Metabolism decreases pretty linearly with age, something like this:
Yes, metabolism does slow down with age. Bummer, but it it’s a law of nature.
Here’s the good news: It doesn’t just mean to starve yourself by eating fewer calories, having insane carb and sugar binges, and praying to dear god that this diet will end.
It means changing your strategy.
And here’s what I would suggest, which is much less painful than calorie counting :-).
What Works WAY Better Than Calorie Counting (And Is Less Painful)
I’ve profiled dozens of case studies here, including many of my own students to illustrate an important point: calorie counting is a tool, a tactic, to help you look and feel better.
But in my opinion, it should never be the bulk of your approach (or even your main approach).
Shannon and her husband (my own students) are now up over 70 pounds combined lost by changing a few habits (none of which were calorie counting).
Lamine lost 66 pounds by being more aware of what he was eating.
And I can go on with 100+ direct emails from my own students who never calorie counted a day in their life.
Calorie counting is a great tool to ingrain more awareness as to what we’re eating.
But here’s what I would suggest that works better and is more sustainable.
Follow these few steps:
- Learn what real food is. Follow my guide here for the basics on real food principles.
- Pick your vital few daily habits. Here’s a guide on figuring out what habits will help you get the best results.
- Follow the “Master The Day” habit system. All the details on these success habits are in my book.
- Utilize the “Golden Trifecta” technique. It’s a super simple system that consists of just doing 3 things per day.
- Reflect each night to see what worked and what didn’t. I talked about the 5 habits that changed my life along those lines right here.
Your Tiny Habits For Today
Here’s the bottom line.
Calorie counting will work to a certain point, and it’s a great habit to use, especially if you find yourself off track (or you’re trying to get back on track after a very long time).
Personally, I don’t encourage people to calorie count, but definitely to write down what they eat simply because it’s an easy way to stay conscious of what we eat and when.
Simple – pay attention to what you do, and you’ll be more conscious of it right?
It’s the same principle behind balancing your check book.
If you check it, you spend less.
If you write down what you eat, you eat less (and eat better).
Makes sense, right?
Other studies mentioned: NEJM study: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1208051 | CDC on calories: http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2006/oct/06_0034.htm