Myth: Counting calories is the key to weight loss and maintenance.


Counting calories will not lead to long-term weight loss or maintenance.  



In our day and time, you would think that weight loss is simple.  Many of us have been taught to measure and count our way to weight loss.  I am 100% certain that nearly everyone has tried calorie counting, whether it was to gain or lose weight.  I remember in high school health class reading about nutrition in order to gain muscle mass for football.  Simply adding calories and changing or exercising seems like the perfect cure for weight gain, but little did I know that this was the worst technique for weight loss and maintenance.   

Today, every food label in the grocery store and many restaurant menus have calorie counts, so it should be as simple as keeping a journal and adding them up.  Heck, there are multiple phone applications to help you keep track of your calories in and calories out.  So, why is America getting fatter and fatter?  The problem is not technique but the aftermath.  We work diligently cutting calories, and we fail to follow through with a maintenance plan.  For some reason, we fail to realize that we have to change our prior unhealthy lifestyle and develop a new eating and exercise pattern to avoid weight regain.   To avoid regaining the weight, change is required, but this does not mean that you can’t have an occasional treat but a treat 3 times a week is not occasional.  

So why is weight loss with calorie counts difficult to maintain?  The problem with calorie counts is that you can’t stop doing it if it is your main method of weight loss.  It also creates a certain degree of deprivation that leads to binges and grazing.  Plain and simple, calorie counting without focusing on the quality of your food will result in a lack of energy and a general feeling of being sick.  Because of this, I rarely recommend calorie counting as the main means of losing weight.  I instead recommend that dieters focus on eating healthy of higher amounts of lean protein, higher fiber intakes, and a lower amount of empty calories.  This technique will keep them full longer, and the fiber slows digestion and buffers (slows) fat and carbohydrate absorption.    

Empty Calories

Empty Calories

Calorie counts create the false impression that a calorie is just a calorie.  I wrote an article on calories and the fact that calories have different effects when they come from different sources.  It is clear that empty calories like candy and cake have a different effect on your appetite than say broccoli.  If you do not believe me, eat a half a pound of sugar, candy, or cake.  You will make yourself sick and quickly have rebound hunger in a couple of hours.  This effect is caused by insulin, and it clearly indicates that food quality is important.  

I am not saying that calorie intake is not important.  If you do not create a calorie deficit, you will not lose fat or weight, but the key is a high-quality diet combined with an active lifestyle and plenty of sleep.   No one wants to be fat, but it is not as simple as the “move more and eat less” or “calories minus calories out.”   If it were, no one would be obese.   The insanity of it all is to continue to propagate this myth that weight loss is simple when nothing could be further from the truth.  This myth convinces dieters that they have failed at weight loss and likely make the obesity epidemic worse.

The bottom line: Counting calories will not work by itself.  Calorie intake is important, but it is more important that you eat quality foods and build a healthy lifestyle.  Keeping track of your calories to get an estimate of exactly how much you’re eating, but it along will keep you fat because it is unsustainable for the longer term.  

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About the Author

I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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