“Oh, I’ll just have a salad,” says the woman on a diet. She’s counting calories and getting frustrated that her caloric deficit doesn’t seem to be yielding any results.
This woman (and so many of us) has fallen trap to the great Calorie Fallacy. At face value, it makes perfect sense. Simply eat less calories than you use and you’ll lose weight. It’s a simple mathematical formula. For example: Eat 1,500 calories in a day, but burn 2,000 through exercise and everyday, normal life. Since about 5,000 calories are the equivalent to 1 pound of fat, you’ll lose a pound every 10 days.
But it’s simplicity is the root of the problem. Your body, the world and even calories themselves are much more complicated.
What if, for example, you eat 1,500 calories in a day, but burned 2,000 and all of those calories came from Twinkies? After 10 days of that, would you be a pound lighter? It’s hard to say as you’d probably be in the hospital because all you’ve eaten for ten days is Twinkies. Which brings us to the first point: not all calories are alike.
See, weight loss only happens after certain hormonal signals tell your body to start getting rid of fat. Different types of foods can trigger that hormonal signal while others do not. 10 days of Twinkies would likely have you running a constant stream of insulin, which signals fat storage and weight gain. Eating 1,500 calories of protein, on the other hand, signals hormones that suppress your appetite and slow your metabolism and prioritize muscle growth/retention over fat storage.
Spending extended periods of time in a caloric deficit has several hormonal effects. A rise in cortisol levels is one. As our bodies are designed to withstand periods of time without eating (think of cave men with a bad streak of luck in the hunting department), cortisol responds by signaling the storage of fat. After a while of low-calorie diets, you’ll actually gain more fat. More cortisol means less testosterone, which means muscle loss and a drop in motivation–which doesn’t help your fitness regimen. Such a diet also affects thyroid hormones, which are responsible for regulating metabolism. Less thyroid hormones, lower chance of losing weight.
The second big reason calorie counting doesn’t work is because we can’t measure calories accurately. For the most part, the amount of calories in an apple or a box of granola bars is somebody’s best guess. And it’s impossible to know how many calories you’ll burn when you run a mile. We can give you a sort of educated average, or a range, but it’s certainly far from accurate.
Furthermore, your metabolic processes are in constant flux. The less you eat, the more efficient your metabolism becomes. It uses calories differently, more geared toward survival. And if you’re working out, your body’s metabolism slows down as well, meaning to get the same effect on calorie reduction as when you weren’t in shape, you’d have to keep eating less… and less… and less to lose weight.
Cutting calories works as a short-term weight loss solution. Particularly if you’re obese, simply eating less will help you lose weight, look better and feel better. That’s partially the caloric deficit, but it’s also because you probably were eating too much already.
For people who are overweight, on a weight-loss plateau or maybe even just a few pounds from their ideal weight, counting calories will not be just ineffective, it might even make things worse.
The key to weight loss is watching WHAT you eat rather than HOW MUCH you eat.
Carbs and sugars are the easiest way to derail your weight loss efforts. And drinking alcohol stalls weight loss every time you do it.
For a fantastic weight-loss diet, look into intermittent fasting and a high-fat diet. A good ratio is something like 60% fats, 30% protein and 10% green vegetables. Fats include things like avocados, grass-fed butter, raw dairy and cheese, ghee, olive oil, coconut oil, MCT oil, nuts, seeds, fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel. When eating protein, go with grass-fed, free-range and wild caught. When eating vegetables, go with organic. This ensures your body doesn’t waste resources (and signal strange hormone responses) to chemicals and antibiotics present in non-organic or factory-raised foods.