Every year I watch the masses embrace their new diets and workout plans in January only to frustratingly witness their failure long before summer. If asked, I do my best to interject experience and point people to the only sustainable approach I’ve ever seen work over any significant period of time.
My attempts, more often than not, are fruitless, clouded behind the wall of modern diet myths: “You eat bananas? I thought they were an unhealthy fruit.” “I’d like to eat oatmeal, but they have too many carbs.” Or, “Yeah I don’t eat almonds or nuts because they have so many calories.”
Nutrition, in particular, is a minefield of bad advice and new diet adherents tend to be as dogmatic about their chosen path as any religious fundamentalist. But there is rarely a new nutrition program. Rather, we see fad diets rebranding the same old overly-simplified approaches.
Ketogenic diets are all the rage, but Dr. Atkins published his first book in 1972. Counting your macros and the Weight Watchers point system (which brilliantly makes money on the concept of dividing by 100 to track smaller numbers) are new versions of that oldest and most distressing diet delusion: Just count calories.
The Misadventures of Calorie Counting
The foundation of the counting calories approach is the belief that weight gain is completely dependent on your energy balance. That is, if you eat more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight and if you eat less, you will lose weight. In its broadest, most generalized application, this approach is probably marginally true, but these oversimplifications create terrible diet programs and fuel the larger issues that keep most people in Western cultures fat, sick, and hanging by a thread.
There is a large vested interest that wants you to believe balancing calories is all that matters. Coca-Cola, Cargill, Kellogg, Frito-Lay, Nabisco, Nestle, General Mills, and our entire massive convenience and junk food industry want you to believe calories are the only issue.
Their narrative is that you should eat and drink their goodies, just move or eat them while cutting out that other stuff you don’t find quite as delicious. If you really want to optimize your calories or get to eat more, they’ve got a lineup of low-calorie products just for you.
Fat, being nine calories per gram, is removed and replaced by that tasty, cheap sugar that only rings in at four calories per gram. Better yet, sodas have zero calorie options that use artificial sweeteners and fairy tears to bring you that great taste at no caloric cost.
This entire strategy is, of course, founded upon the idea that physique is all that matters, not health. The reality is, for many reasons, counting calories is not a good approach for physique or health:
- Nutrient Deficiency: First of all, despite their high-calorie load and unfortunate name, fats are not bad. In fact, it is essential to eat all three macronutrients: fats, carbohydrates, and protein. You also need all the micronutrients—those vitamins and minerals most available in and transported through real whole foods. The point is to get all these from quality sources. Your cereal may be “fortified” but it can never substitute for a good old fashioned spinach and bell pepper omelet, cooked in coconut oil and served with avocado slices, a few berries, and melon. But how many calories is that and why do I care about nutrients if I just want to look good? Patience, Grasshopper.
- Poor Food Choices: Most people intent on counting calories will spend their grocery trips avoiding the less processed whole foods on the periphery of the store that they should be eating because these don’t come with packages that have handy calorie breakdowns. Thus, they opt for inferior processed products. There is often an inverse relationship between foods with nutrition labels and their nutrition.
- Unsustainable: Counting calories is no way to live. We are not meant to come to each meal adding numbers, checking apps, and making bargains with ourselves about what we will eat now and skip later. Certainly, there are times early in a person’s nutritional education where they will need to be more conscious and critical about meals in order to internalize a healthier eating framework. Writing down what you eat each day for a week usually leaves people shocked by the frequency of their daily concessions. Furthermore, healthy people will often take steps to check menus or plan ahead on those days that are out of the ordinary. But counting calories every day is an insane, neurotic lifestyle that only the extremely anxious could even try to maintain for any significant period of time. You can’t white knuckle nutrition.
- Metabolism Crushing: Your metabolism is this unbelievably important x-factor percolating behind the scenes of all eating. All your body’s natural functions have an energy cost. You burn a lot of calories each day just going through the arduous process of being alive. The number of calories burned each day without moving is referred to as a basal metabolic rate. Calorie-counters tend to worship this number while constantly pissing on it.
Get to Know Your Metabolism
More muscular people will have a higher basal metabolic rate because muscle is very calorie expensive to maintain. Movement, also, triggers the body to metabolize a bit more. Eating actually spurs the metabolism to go to work processing food, thus burning calories while never as many as are consumed.
When calories are restricted the metabolism slows down. The body is conserving energy. Therefore, you may be eating less, but the body has down-regulated as well. You are burning less. Restricting calories is not always a bad thing. Losing weight, after all, will necessitate a transition towards a slightly lower basal metabolic rate. But calorie restriction tends to be disastrous as it is typically applied in the calorie-counting realm.
Calorie-counters and their calorie-restricting, “I’m just hardly going to eat for a few weeks,” brethren are chronic yo-yoers. The process follows a variation of the following example:
Tony has weighed about 230 pounds for a couple of years. His basal metabolic rate is 2,500 calories per day. Based on his movement norms he averages about 3,000 calories burned per day.
In an effort to lose weight he restricts his calorie consumption to 2,000 per day and adds three days a week on the stair-stepper where he burns an extra 500 calories. That is a weekly calorie deficit of 8,500 calories. Conventional calorie counting wisdom suggests that 3,500 calories make a pound, therefore he should lose two and a half pounds per week.
Yet, in the first three weeks, he only loses five pounds, a mixture of both muscle and fat. By week four Tony is starting to skip workouts and succumb to the cookies and other baked goods always populating the office. Tired and convinced that this “healthy eating” stuff is impossible, he quits the entire diet experiment and resumes his old patterns.
Yet his basal metabolic rate has slowed to 2,000 calories per day. Within two months he’s gained the five pounds back plus another five, despite eating in the same manner as when he maintained weight for years. He is now 235 pounds and slightly less muscular.
Calorie-counting and calorie restriction are not fun. They certainly aren’t where I’d suggest people start on their nutritional journey. When operating from deprivation beginners will always eventually quit, falling back to old patterns. Play the long game. Any change should be sustainable for a lifetime.
Hormones: Not Just a Teenager Thing
There is an obvious truth sabotaging the entire calorie-counting paradigm: you have no idea how many calories you actually need to burn. There are a billion websites that will calculate the basal metabolic rate for you using your height, weight, and age, but these are all shoddy, variable guesses. There is just too much going on in your body, much of which fluctuates over time. I’ll illustrate this with a few more examples:
Sandy (girl) and Sonny (boy) are 15-year-old twins. They eat the same foods and both get most of their activity playing soccer for their respective high-school teams. Both have begun eating more in the past year, not because they were told to eat more calories, but because they feel hungrier. Both are gaining weight. Most of Sandy’s weight is fat and it is going to very specific areas. Most of Sonny’s weight gain is muscle. Same foods. Same activities. Different results. Odd?
No, this is characteristic of puberty. Sandy and Sonny’s bodies are working with very different hormones intent to create very different physiological developments. Take another example:
Mike and John are 24-year-old twin roommates and best friends. They eat together almost every meal and spend the majority of their free time together. Mike begins lifting weights three days per week. John uses this time to walk his dog. They both burn about 250 calories in this hour period.
After a year of these patterns, Mike has gained ten pounds and John has gained seven, but Mike’s is all muscle where John’s is all fat. John decides to start coming to the gym with Mike. However, convinced he needs to cut fat, he goes to the treadmill while Mike continues to lift weights.
Mike is maxing and John is jogging. After six months Mike has not gained any more weight, but he’s maintained the muscle he built. John has only lost two pounds—one of muscle and one of fat. They both quit going to the gym. Six months later, Mike has lost five pounds (mostly muscle) and John has gained four. Odd?
No, this is characteristic of the hormonal response to activity. Despite eating the same foods and burning the same amount of calories, Mike gained muscle because heavy resistance training triggered a very different hormonal response.
His body, therefore, used food differently. When John began training, his physique changed little because he ate the same and running at low intensity elicits little hormonal response. Six months after they had both quit, Mike loses weight because half the muscle he gained withers and, yet having gained ten pounds of muscle, his body metabolizes more in a day.
John simply stopped burning calories. After this two-year process, Mike is five pounds heavier, but it is mostly lean muscle. John is up nine pounds, mostly fat. Take home point: Training changes your hormones. It changes how you use the food you eat.
Tyler and Tyson are thirty-year-old best friends. They’re both six feet tall and 200 pounds. For the new year, they decide to clean up their eating by counting calories. They both begin getting 2,000 calories a day.
All of Tyler’s food is packaged, processed, and easily added. Tyson eats only fruits, vegetables, meat, beans, and whole grains. He’s done a lot of measuring early on.
After six months Tyler has lost 10 pounds. He is tired, moody, and frequently sick. Tyson has lost 18 pounds. He feels better than he ever has. He sits less, walks taller and more vigorously, and is even planning on joining a morning running group.
Clearly many factors may account for the difference. Tyson may have better genetics. He may have a better work environment, get more sunshine, and have a shorter commute home. Yet, anecdotally, this gulf in experience typifies the differences between everyone I know who chooses to restrict calories with package foods (Tylers) versus those who eat natural whole foods (Tyson). People who are not nutrient deficient utilize food more efficiently and feel better. They naturally move more and engage in more constructive activities.
Hormones decide what is done with foods. Some foods are much better utilized by the body and promote more fluid hormonal reactions and more physical vitality. Additionally, activity, sleep, stress, environment, genetics, and probably more than I’m forgetting will affect your hormones and how the body uses food.
The delusion that you can somehow know how many calories you burned in a day would require you to know your exact resting metabolism (which is always in flux), to know exactly how many calories were expended (did I have more energy and walk more enthusiastically throughout the day?), and a host of other factors that tend to distract from the behaviors that drive long-term health and improved physique.
Google, What Is the Answer?
I shouldn’t count calories. Got it. So, all those keto people have it right?
While ketosis may be very attractive for an ultra-endurance athlete and there is intriguing evidence surrounding long fasts and the purging of cancer cells, I’d confidently recommend most people avoid the ketogenic diet. People flock to the idea that by eliminating carbs the body will start using fat for energy.
This will happen, however, since people are eating mostly fat, the energy still mostly comes from food, not the fat stores of the body. Any weight loss is probably the effect of fewer processed foods. Packaged foods are inordinately full of empty carbs like refined sugars, but there are also many great carb-heavy foods (fruits, vegetables, oats) that the keto crowd misses out on. Most importantly, keto is probably unsustainable.
We all have to live in this carb-filled world. A ketogenic diet requires a strong ability to be very counter-cultural with your social and eating behaviors. This is not a common attribute in people adopting diets. The yo-yo issues arise when people fail and, unless they are locked in elite performers or extremely disciplined people who have consistently eaten healthy for years, they do.
So, the Whole 30 diet must be the answer? No. Not necessarily. The Whole 30 diet might be a good framework to teach you how to cook nutritious meals and look at foods differently, but it is usually followed by a swift return to the old bad patterns.
The ketogenic diet and the Whole 30 are full of needless restrictions that serve only to funnel you to buy more of their niche products while pulling you away from good options that you might love. Beans, for example, are a staple of some of the world’s longest living populations like the Okinawans of Japan, the Nicoya of Costa Rica, and the Ikaria of Greece who also eat such taboo items as potatoes and whole grains.
We need to stop looking for quick fixes and start looking at food differently. The keto diet, Weight Watchers, and general calorie-counting all distract from common sense and practicality. Have some pinto beans. Have some oatmeal. Stop counting the almonds. I don’t care that seven make up 1 point. Just eat them. Have a sweet potato and an apple and some peanuts. Sauté and eat up as much broccoli and carrots as your belly can hold. THESE THINGS AREN’T MAKING YOU FAT!
It doesn’t even matter where you fall on the energy balance vs. hormone debate. If you eat only/mostly real foods available in nature, your body will regulate itself. You’ll hardly have the ability to get out of energy balance. There is this innate human mechanism, whereby your body alerts you with a feeling of fullness when it is prudent to stop eating.
Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, oats, barley, brown rice, chicken, and fish are not the problem. If you are looking to make a change in how you eat, you’d be better off eating healthy things when you are hungry, while occasionally allowing treats and a night free from boundaries.
At the root of most eating woes is a lack of understanding, lack of self-mastery, and little understanding about environment design. If understanding is your issue, I recommend my Foundations of a Healthy Lifestyle Course.
If self-mastery and environmental design are the issues, check out my free e-book, The Essential Guide to Self-Mastery.These understandings more than anything else are the route to freedom and flow in life. Avoid the typical diet traps and instead, embrace self-education and self-mastery.