The Truth About Counting Calories to Lose Weight

Feb 21, 2013
Counting calories to lose weight

It's one of the most worn out pieces of fitness and health advice that exists today. Even well meaning people who live paleo lifestyle get tricked into thinking that this advice matters.

What's the piece of advice I'm speaking of?

It's the supposedly golden rule of fat loss... Eat less calories then you burn and you'll have the body you've always dreamed of.

Oh, how I wish it was that simple.

The problem with this advice is that it doesn't take into consideration how the body uses calories from protein, carbohydrates and fats. I'll give you a hint... it does not treat them all the same.

I'm going to assume that if you're reading this you want to lose a bit of body fat. This could mean that you want to lose some body fat to look better so you turn heads at the pool this summer or you want to be healthier and have more energy so you can spend more time playing with your kids.

No matter what your goals are you should understand these three levers of fat burning in order of importance:

1) What you eat.

2) When you eat.

3) How much you eat.

These are the levers you can pull, starting today, to dramatically change your body composition.

There is a fourth lever which is physical activity and training but it doesn't involve food so I won't go into detail about it in this post. If you want a good place to start on how to properly spend your time working out then you should read my post about the best compound exercises.

It's Not as Simple as Counting Calories to Lose Weight

So why focus on the three levers of what, when and how?

The answer is simple.

Your diet, a.k.a. the food you throw down your gullet, is responsible for 90% of your body composition.

I could have easily said 95%. Some experts say it's 80%. From my personal experience I think that 80% is too low. I used to workout like a maniac every day and I was still fat and unhealthy. Once I discovered the nutrition levers everything changed.

It is THE thing. Your nutrition is so crucial to getting the body composition results you want. If you want to lose excess body fat and look good in your birthday suit you HAVE TO START IN THE KITCHEN not in the gym.

OK... I'm done trying to convince you of the importance of nutrition for fat loss.

Hopefully you already know that it's the number one critical component to reaching your fat loss goals. If you eat like crap there is no amount of exercise that can help you. 

And if you think that you'll be able to count calories and count your body fat away with it then you absolutely owe it to yourself to keep reading.

Onto the really good stuff...

How Your Body Uses Calories from Macronutrients

You gotta know your macros! Protein, fat and carbohydrate. Those are the three key nutrients the body uses to maintain structure, function and energy levels.

Here's the calorie breakdown for each of these macro-nutrients:

Protein = 4 calories per gram

Carbohydrate = 4 calories per gram

Fat = 9 calories per gram

Traditional dietary wisdom would state that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. And traditional dietary wisdom is flat out wrong.

Your body has two main uses for calories.

1) Maintaining structure and function.

2) Energy for immediate use or later use.

Protein "The Brick Laying" Macro

Protein is used mainly for maintaining structure and function. It is a secondary fuel source for the body. Just to maintain your current lean body mass (LBM) your body needs approximately .5 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass.

If you're a 120 pound female with 80 pounds of lean body mass that means you would need 40 grams of protein just to keep your current LBM intact. At 4 calories per gram of protein that only comes to 160 calories. That's not a lot.

Now, if you do CrossFit or you workout intensely on a regular basis your body requires more protein to rebuild the broken down muscle tissue. This is where you would increase your protein intake to a range of .8 grams to 1 gram per pound of LBM. I've even seen recommendations of 1.25 grams to 1.50 grams of protein per pound of LBM. For athletes the 1 gram recommendation is widely accepted and a good rule of thumb.

From our example, even if you increase your protein intake to 80 grams you're only looking at 320 calories. Still not a lot.

Remember that your body is going to use these calories to rebuild muscle tissue and maintain structure and function. Protein will not be used for energy until it does it's first job, build and maintain tissue structure.

That's why I call it the "brick layer" macro. Protein builds the body and maintains your foundation. It's essential.

Carbohydrate the "Energizer Bunny" Macro

Why are carbohydrates the Energizer Bunny Macro?

Because they have one use in the body and that's to get converted into glucose which is stored in the muscles as glycogen to be used for energy. Any excess leftover is then stored in the liver as glycogen.

These glycogen stores are for immediate energy use or energy use in the near future. Once the muscles and liver are full then anymore excess glucose gets converted into body fat for "future" energy use.

This is where insulin comes in and tries to find a place for the excess glucose in the bloodstream. Remember that glucose in the bloodstream is toxic in humans. So insulin needs to get the glucose out, and fast.

The problem for most of us living at our desks and sitting on our duffs most of the time, the "future" energy use never happens. We don't often find ourselves in a situation where we have to go without food for days at a time.

So what happens? All that fat never gets used as energy and we get fat. And we get fatter. And then we get fatter.

Unless we change what we're doing we'll continue to gain unwanted body fat. You have to stop this process from happening. If it's already happened at some level you have to reverse it before it gets worse.

Remember... carbohydrates drive insulin and insulin drives fat storage. It's that simple.

Fat the "Jack of All Trades" Macro

I feel sorry for fat. It's been vilified by the incorrect hypothesis that eating a diet high in dietary fat will make you fat.

The reality is that you're not getting the full story about fat.

Fat's first job is not to be used as energy even though the body actually can use fat as fuel. Fat is important for our cell membranes and hormone function. Once it takes care of making sure those things are taken care of the body can use fat for energy. If we give it a chance.

However, most of us don't give our body a chance to use fat for energy. If you eat a bunch of carbohydrates and a bunch of fat your body will store the excess fat calories as more fat.

When you get your carbohydrate intake low enough that's when you enter a state of ketosis. This is where the body will convert excess body fat into ketones which is the body's way of using fat for energy.

Back to our hypothetical 120 pound female with 80 pounds of lean body mass.

If you're keeping tack we are at 80 grams of protein and for ease will assume that she's happy with her current body composition so she eats between 100 grams and 150 grams of carbohydrates each day mostly from veggies, some fruits and some tubers like sweet potatoes a.k.a. healthy sources of carbohydrates.

Despite what some people might have you think, the paleo diet is not necessarily a "low carb" approach as much as it's a "real food" approach to nutrition.

If we do the math that is 320 calories from protein and 400 calories from carbohydrates (at 100 grams) for a total of 720 calories before eating any fats.

So how many fat calories should she eat?

The Ultimate Calorie Counting Hack for People Who Don't Count Calories

You probably already know that your body needs calories just to be awake and for maintenance.

So we should figure out what your required maintenance calories are first. A good rule of thumb if you're male is to take your bodyweight times eleven. If you're female take your bodyweight times ten.

Our hypothetical female would need 1,200 calories to just keep her body operating like normal.

But how many calories should you consume above your maintenance level so you're not overfeeding?

Now we need to estimate your metabolic rate.

Three main categories here:

1) Fast - Has a hard time gaining weight.

2) Moderate - Will gain weight fairly easily from overfeeding such as Holiday feasts.

3) Slow - Gains weight looking at food.

Pick one of the metabolic rates based on your personal knowledge. I would put myself at a moderate metabolic rate. I gain weight fairly easily when I eat a lot of food.

Now you need to take your age into consideration as well. For each age group you'll pick a percentage based on your estimated metabolic rate.

So if you're a moderate metabolic rate and you're in your 20's you would choose 40%. If you had a high metabolic rate you would choose 50%. With me?

In your 20's = 30% or 40% or 50%

In your 30's = 25% or 35% or 45%

In your 40's = 20% or 30% or 40%

Back to our hypothetical female CrossFit athlete. Let's say she's in her 30's and has a high metabolic rate. Plus she is very active from her training. She's going to choose 45% for her calculation.

Now she takes that percentage and multiplies that by her required maintenance calories which gives her 540 additional calories (1,200 x .45). These are calories she needs to consume based on her metabolic rate.

When you add the two numbers together you will get a pretty good estimate of how many calories you need to consume just to maintain your current body composition.

For our example our gal would take 1,200 plus 540 for a daily calorie intake of 1,740.

If you think back she was eating 80 grams of protein for 320 calories and 100 grams of carbohydrates for 400 calories. That's only 720 calories. She should be consuming closer to 1,740. So she needs to find another 1,020 calories to eat. If she gets all these calories from good sources of fat at 9 calories per gram she would need to eat 113 grams of fat.

You might be thinking that would be a lot of fat to eat. But not really. Let's look at some typical paleo foods that you probably already eat on a regular basis:

10oz. of Grass Fed Sirloin Steak = 11 grams of fat

10oz. Wild Salmon = 25 grams of fat

2TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil = 28 grams of fat

1oz. of Raw Almonds = 14 grams of fat

Half of a Medium Avocado = 16 grams of fat

2 Whole Eggs (Organic and Cage Free) = 9 grams of fat

If we add those up we get 103 grams of healthy fats.

If you had to add the extra 10 grams just eat another whole egg or an extra tablespoon of olive oil on your salad.

Now that you have all this knowledge about macronutrients and calories where do you go from here?

The Hierarchy of Losing Body Fat - It Doesn't Start With Counting Calories

The best place to start is to pull the first lever I mentioned. That is the "What You Eat" lever.

Look at how you're currently getting your calories every day. What foods are you eating on a regular basis?

If your diet is made up mostly of carbohydrate sources you are probably going to find it difficult to lose body fat. By simply decreasing your carbohydrate intake and increasing your protein and fat intake at the same time you'll see some good results.

The next lever I would pull would be the exercise and physical activity lever. Lift some heavy things every once in a while and take walks. These two activities combined with a good paleo diet will increase your fat loss results.

If you're doing these things and your fat loss has come to a halt and you still want to lose a little more then you might want to look at your stress levels. If you're overstressed cortisol could be reeking havoc on your body. It will also keep you from losing the unwanted body fat.

Try everything you can to reduce stress.

The last thing you should do is worry about counting calories. If you're doing all the things above and you're not losing any body fat then I would consider slightly decreasing your calorie intake. Like very slightly. At most 250 calories.

I would probably keep my carbohydrate intake around the 75 gram mark and then I would lower my fat intake to get the appropriate number. Trust me though... this is the last thing you need to do. Do the first three things first.

Here's a summary of the Fat Loss Hierarchy:

1) Change the macronutrient profile of your food by increasing protein and healthy fats and decreasing carbohydrates. Stive to get most of your carbohydrates from veggies.

2) Ensure you are engaged in meaningful exercise activities that incorporate resistance training and cardiovascular training. No need to over do it. Lift heavy things two to three times a week and take a lot of brisk walks. You could even do some tabata sessions now and then (sprints, rowing, kettlebell swings, etc.).

3) Reduce stress levels. If you're stressed your body will fight against you. Make sure to rest and recover. If you want you can meditate or do some yoga. Whatever it takes to reduce stress. It also helps to get as much fresh air as you can. Some direct sunlight is also a good idea. Just don't burn.

4) Slowly cut calories from the carbohydrate and fat categories of your diet. Keep doing the first three things in the hierarchy and only cut out a couple hundred calories at one time.

The most important thing is to keep track of what you're doing and only change one thing at a time.

You have to run tests on yourself. You also have to be patient. When you change a variable you should give yourself at least a couple of weeks to get a realistic picture of the results.

Now go forward and pull the fat burning levers I gave you. You'll be in summer ready shape in no time!

If this post helped you in any way please consider sharing it.

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