Does Calorie Counting Work?

Does Calorie Counting Work?

Research answers the question, “Does calorie counting work?” with a decisive, “NO!” But, if calorie counting doesn’t work, how exactly do you lose weight?

There has been a fundamental flaw in the hallmark rule of nutrition that states counting calories is the most effective way to lose weight. The principle is to burn more calories than you consume because “a calorie is a calorie” as far as body weight is concerned. In the past, when people have asked me, “Does calorie counting work?”, I have always emphatically argued that calorie counting does not work. But, there is a small caveat to my postulation. Before “digging in” on my position, I’d like to share research that was published in a highly credible medical journal.

An issue of The BMJ presented a study which evaluated the effects of a low-carb, high-fat diet on weight loss. The results indicated that overweight adults who cut carbs from their diets increased energy expenditure i.e. their metabolism increased. After five months on the low-carb, high-fat diet, the participants’ bodies burned about 250 more calories per day compared to those who ate high-carb, low-fat diets.

Low-Carb Diet Helps Appetite Suppression

Interestingly, the study also showed that ghrelin and leptin levels were significantly lower in the low-carb group. Ghrelin and leptin are the two main hormones that control hunger and appetite. Ghrelin is secreted by the stomach. When the stomach empties, it is ghrelin that begins begging for more food. Leptin, on the other hand, communicates to the brain. It tells the brain when the body is full and has had enough to eat. In short, altered ghrelin and leptin signals is a terrible combination, especially if you want to lose weight.

Does Calorie Counting Work for Anyone?

Now, earlier I asserted my position that calorie counting does not work, but I also noted there is a caveat. No doubt, some people have followed a calorie restrictive diet and have lost weight. But, the reason they have lost weight has absolutely nothing to do with a numerical count on a calorimeter. (More on this later.)

The fundamental problem with a calorie counting diet is that when a person follows this type of program, there is a tendency to consume empty calories. For example, a lot of people choose to consume diet sodas because they have zero calories. But, drinking diet soda actually slows down your metabolism and can lead to health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

In 2013, USA Today published an article titled, “Diet soda doesn’t help you lose weight”. In the article Susie Swithers, a professor of psychological sciences and a behavioral neuroscientist, stated:

Some studies have shown that when people drink diet soda, they engage in what’s known as “cognitive distortion,” deciding that since they saved on liquid calories they can splurge elsewhere — the “diet coke and fries” order.

When the focus is strictly on adhering to a certain number of calories, you are likely to consume a diet of “empty” calories that can have detrimental health effects. The fact is there are thousands of processed foods on grocery shelves that are low in calories but are not good for you at all!

One-Size-Fits-All Math Formulas Don’t Work

Another problem with calorie counting is the fact that it assigns one mathematic equation to all individuals. But, each person is unique. One diet does not fit all! That’s why the motto of this website is, “Find your healthy way.”

To understand this principle, you first have to know the standards for caloric restrictive diets which state:

  • An average woman needs about 2,000 calories per day to maintain weight, and 1,500 calories per day to lose one pound of weight per week.
  • An average man needs 2,500 calories per day to maintain weight, and 2,000 calories per day to lose one pound of weight per week.
  • To gain weight slow, a person would consume an extra 300 to 500 calories per day.
  • To gain weight fast, a person would consume an extra 700 to 1,000 calories per day.

In a study by Oklahoma State University, researchers overfed 16 non-obese young men and women an extra 1,000 calories per day for eight weeks. Based on a mathematical formula, they hypothesized that at the end of the study, the participants would have gained 16 pounds each. However, only one person gained the expected 16 pounds. The average weight gain for the remaining participants was just over 10 pounds and one person gained three pounds.

Notably, the study only included 16 young adults, but even with the low number of participants, you can see that applying one standard for caloric intake simply doesn’t work. The authors concluded that people burn calories at different rates so you can’t apply one mathematical formula to everyone.

Calculating Basal Metabolic Rate

Basal Metabolic Rate is the rate at which the body uses energy while at rest. It’s the minimum required calories your body needs to perform basic vital functions or, in other words, how much you need to eat to maintain good health without exercising.

In all fairness, there are Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) formulas that help provide individualized caloric restrictions – the most popular being the Mifflin-St Jeor equation:

For men: BMR = 10 × weight (kg) + 6.25 × height (cm) – 5 × age (y) + 5
For women: BMR = 10 × weight (kg) + 6.25 × height (cm) – 5 × age (y) – 161

(Click here to calculate your BMR with the Mifflin-St Jeor equation.)

Even though this BMR formula is more individualized, to really get an accurate determination of the calories your body burns you would need to undergo physiological testing.

This leads to the question of…

When Does Calorie Counting Work?

Calorie counting works when you use an individualized method of counting calories (not a one-size-fits-all calorie chart) and consume only healthy calories. Numerous research studies have shown that eating a healthful diet with the right combination of macronutrients is the best way to lose weight:

  • lean proteins like organic turkey, chicken or eggs
  • healthy fats like fish oil, avocado or olive oil
  • good carbs like sweet potatoes, quinoa or oats

The key is to avoid sugars, breads, and other “bad” carbohydrate-laden foods. You also need to be sure to avoid artificial sweeteners (with the exception of pure Stevia and birch tree Xylitol). Pretty much anything labeled “diet” is a no-no. Last, you have to read the ingredients on food labels. If you see hydrogenated oils, maltodextrin, or high fructose corn syrup, stay away.

So, back to our original question: does calorie counting work? The bottom line is weight loss is not dependent upon calorie counting. Regardless of whether or not you choose to count calories, the quality of food matters most for losing weight and keeping it off. So, try to focus on quality over quantity when it comes to your dieting.


  • Zachary_Simmons
    09/25/2020 at 5:59 PM

    Emerging evidence (summarised in recent NICE guidelines on managing overweight and obese adults) suggests a structured and holistic plan to change behaviour, and not just calorie intake, is the most effective way to achieve healthy, sustained weight loss.

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