Counting Calories for Fat Loss on a Paleo Diet

Apr 12, 2015

A common question when switching to the paleo diet is, do I still have to count calories? The short answer is yes, but maybe not as you have had to before. It’s always important to know what you’re putting into your body, which is one of the reasons eating natural foods has been readopted.

Depending on your goals, counting calories may be more or less important. If you’re overall goal is to lose body fat, then yes you absolutely need to count calories to foremost:

Make sure you’re actually losing body fat so that you see success and are able to maintain the paleo lifestyle rather than reverting after not having lost any weight.

The paleo diet is not a magical plan that allows you to lose weight without reducing the calories you eat. While consuming whole natural foods can fill you up more, and consuming less carbohydrates overall leaves you feeling hungry when you’re actually hungry versus when your insulin levels crash, you still need to be mindful of your intake. Comparing a 2500 calorie diet including grains versus a 2500 calorie diet of real whole foods, your actual body weight will not fluctuate other than maybe some water weight.

How to Start Counting Calories for Fat Loss

There are online calculators available where you enter your weight, height, age, activity level and it spits out a number of calories that you should be eating each day. Add a defecit or surplus from this number to lose or gain weight.

Simple right? Not quite. Some things to consider:

  • Your perception of your activity levels might not be accurate, you could under or overestimate how many calories you burn in a day.
  • Often times, calories are not reported accurately so even if you count everything you eat it could even be a few hundred calories off from the real value, this is not good.
  • It becomes more of a quantity, rather than quality game. The focus shifts from eating high quality foods to limiting quantities and crunching numbers.

Well, what do you suggest then?

You definitely need to be aware of your intake, and track what you’re eating. As I said above, throwing your stats into a calculator and making a plan based off that number might work for some people, but for most you will need to tweak that number based on a few weeks of results.

If you don’t have any experience counting or estimating calories, here’s what I’d recommend:

  • For the first month eat until you’re full, calculate how many calories this is and record it in a food journal.
  • Record your exercise and energy levels throughout the day.
  • If you’re just starting Paleo I would advise you to avoid starchy vegetables (potatoes, peas, corn, yucca, parsnips, beans, yams, legumes) and fruits.
  • Weigh yourself once a week at the same time on an empty stomach, preferably in the morning after using the washroom for an accurate reading.

With 30 days of your food journal, and 4 weight readings let’s go through the data and answer some questions:

  • Did your weight fluctuate?
  • How did your calorie consumption change with increased or decreased exercise?
  • Overall, was the calorie consumption similar day to day?
  • How did your energy change at different calorie and exercise levels?

What to do if you lost weight

With the answers to these questions you can do a few things. If you lost weight, great. If your average calories per day had low variance - for example every day was around 2100 calories - then you can confidently say that 2100 calories is below your metabolic rate. If you felt good, and you are happy with your rate of fat loss then I see no reason to change from consuming that average daily calorie amount. 

If your caloric intake wasn’t consistent

This is not all that uncommon, and could happen for a few reasons. Often you’ll find you’re more hungry on or after vigorous workout days. This is why you were asked to document your exercise and energy levels throughout the month as well. Use this data to make a correlation between how many calories you needed on heavy workout days versus days that you weren’t exercising.

If you lost weight consuming staggered calorie amounts for example - 2300 calories on average workout days and 2100 calories on average rest days - then continue with this template as long as you’re happy with the results, and your energy levels are appropriate. If there wasn’t a correlation between exercise and consumption, then I suggest you work towards consuming similar foods and amounts each day. Planning meals in advance, and preparing large batches for the entire week will help make your daily intake more consistent.

What to do if you didn’t lose weight, or weren’t happy with the rate of fat loss

Maybe you review your journal after 30 days, and you haven’t lost weight. Let’s talk about where to go from here. If your calorie intake was consistent each day and you had no success with fat loss, then you either need to reduce your food intake, or exercise more.

I would like to see you counting calories until you see the weight loss you want for two weeks in a row. Depending on your recorded energy levels you should only reduce your consumption by 10-20%. So pump up the frequency of your favorite exercise, and cut back the intake a little bit.

How to continue losing body fat by controlling calorie intake

My recommendation would be to continue consuming that similar amount of calories each day or workout day without counting. You will still write in your journal recording activity and energy levels, and only write about food intakes if you feel that you have under or over consumed.

Continue to weigh yourself every week, and if your progress is in line with your expectations that means you’re on track to sustain weight loss. What this does is it shifts the focus away from making it a numbers game, as you’ve got a good idea of how much food you need to eat each day to reach your goal. Now you can focus consuming high-quality foods, doing exercise that you enjoy, and reaping the benefits of the true natural lifestyle.

Eventually you want to get to the point where you’ve fully integrated the paleo lifestyle. Your hunger levels will no longer be dictated by energy requirements. You’ll eat until you’re full, feel great eating high-quality natural foods, and you’ll be happy with the way you look. This will end up with your body at it’s most natural composition because you’ve been fueling the body with foods it was designed to process.

About the author
Scott Wolowich is an advocate of the natural lifestyle, and anything to do with a barbell. He went to the University of Guelph in Canada, and was a competitor on the varsity wrestling team during his time there. In recent days, he focuses on strength training, olympic lifting, and tweaking his diet for max performance. Follow Scott's posts for a dose of real experiences mixed with scientific evidence for optimizing the Paleo lifestyle for athletic performance and everyday life.

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