Stop Counting Calories

By Dr. Jason Slagel | August 15th, 2022

Today we are exploring the concept of calorie counting.  This is a very common practice with people trying to lose weight.  However, as a weight loss strategy it’s just not a good approach physiologically.  I’m going to explain this concept here today. Really quick, if you want to know a little bit more about metabolism in general, check out the blog post: High Metabolism is Bad.

Here is the major concept with counting calories and why it is not a great health practice. When you decrease your caloric intake, your basal metabolic rate also decreases. Let’s define basal metabolic rate. “Basal” is just another word for “base”. So, we could call basal metabolic rate, baseline metabolic rate. When your body is just at rest, normal, just doing its thing, then you have a certain level of metabolism. Your body is burning a certain number of calories per hour. When you decrease the number of calories you eat, your body responds appropriately by decreasing your metabolism to match that, because if your body keeps burning calories and you are not talking in calories, then you are going to starve to death more quickly. Your body is smart, so it accounts for that.

 It’s kind of like if you increase your activity level your heart rate increases and your breathing increases. Then when you decrease your activity level again and you take a break and lay down, your heart rate goes back to normal and your breathing evens out.  Your body is responding, your body is smart. So, when you decrease how many calories you eat, your body decreases its metabolism so that you don’t starve to death as quickly.

Now to use counting calories to lose weight what you actually have to do is decrease your calorie intake more than your metabolism is decreasing.  However, in your body there is a lag or a delay between when you cut down calories and when your metabolism decreases to match that.  Because of this, many people will reach a plateau.  This plateau is when the metabolism has caught up to the decrease in calories.  So, a person will lose weight for a little while and then suddenly they can’t lose any more weight.  This is because their metabolism now matches the number of calories that they are taking in. 

Many times, we call these people yo-yo dieters, where they lose weight and they gain weight, they lose weight, and they gain weight.  They will cut down calories and then their metabolism slows down to match that, they plateau, get frustrated, quit, start eating more calories again, and gain weight back to whatever weight had been lost. At this point the metabolism speeds back up to match that and then they decide that they want to lose that weight again.  They decrease their calories again, their metabolism matches that again, and the cycle starts over.

So, the way to change this, the appropriate approach to weight loss, or trying to gain a healthier body type, is to think of food like data. Whatever data you put into your body; your body is going to do something with it. Just like how if you put bad information into a calculator, you would get the wrong answer in the end.  If you put bad data or bad calories into your body, then the output or the result is not going to be what you are looking for.  Think of the different types of calories, one calorie, for example, of doughnut vs. one calorie of broccoli.  Your body is going to do drastically different things with those two calories, right?  With a calorie of doughnut your body is going to use a little bit of that energy, because there is a ton of energy in a doughnut, right? Fat, sugar, all of that. So, your body uses a 1/10th of that energy and then stores 9/10ths of it because there is a ton of energy in that calorie.  However, a calorie of broccoli your body can use to build healthy cells.  Once you build healthy cells with the broccoli, those healthy cells are using up energy, and they use up the energy from the fat storage that you have. 

The body does drastically different things with different types of calories.  To get a healthy body type or to go from overweight to an appropriate weight, you must change the type of calories you are taking in.  You can, in fact, maintain the number of calories that you are taking in and just change the type of calories you are taking in.  When you do, your body will function differently, giving you a healthier body type, and leading to effective weight loss.   Your basal metabolic rate will stay up high because you are taking in a bunch of calories, but you’re going to be building a healthier body, burning more fat, and building more muscle because of the types of calories you are taking in. 

To effectively lose weight, you really must focus on three things.  The first we already talked about: the type of calorie you are eating. Second, you need to work out.  If you are working out, you are using up your energy storage, which is going to decrease fat. The third thing you want to do is focus on increasing muscle mass, because muscle mass at rest is going to use up calories.  Fat masses, on the other hand, store calories.  So, if you build up muscle, not only are you burning those calories to create the muscle mass, but then when the muscle mass is just sitting there resting it is going to be using up energy as well.

So, in conclusion, calories matter, but we need to focus on the TYPE of calories we are eating rather than the NUMBER.

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