Why Counting Calories Can Throw You Off

Two third of the US population is either overweight or obese. Weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight is a constant struggle for many. Mainstream and social media present various approaches to quickly shed off pounds, but only a small percentage is successful.

A common misconception is the believe, the less you eat = the lower the caloric intake, the quicker you will reach the ideal amount on your scale. Which is not true at all.


Shedding off some weight is a good starting point, but sustaining changes seem to be the large challenge. Simply reducing the calories you eat is only addressing one part of the healthy weight loss equation.

To increase the chance to maintain your success, you should consider both parts of the concept:


Being able to maintain a healthy weight without any regular physical activity is a rear exception.

Healthy Weight Loss Rate

The current recommended guideline for healthy weight loss is one to two pounds (0.5-1 kg) per week. Each pound of body fat is estimated to be equal to 3.500 kcal. To shed off one pound of body fat per week, it would be required to generate a caloric deficit of 500 kcal per day.

This can be done by eating less and adding more physically activity. Which brings up the question: Should you focus on reducing your intake, or should you increase your energy expenditure = move more?

Eat Less, Move More?

A combination is ideal. Based on the theory that you are aiming to have a 500 kcal deficit per day, try the following: Aim to eat 250 kcal less, but move more to expend 250 kcal in physical activities. This approach is currently believed to be the most sustainable concept.

Surely you would drop your weight quicker, if you create a larger caloric deficit. But stay away from crash diets, they are rarely meant to be done for longer time periods. Not many individuals are capable of eating that little in the long-term. Better increase your metabolic rate with exercise!

What Calories Tell You

Daily caloric needs are highly individually. To calculate your daily energy expenditure, you would need to combine your metabolic resting rate (60–75% of total energy expenditure in sedentary people), the energy which is spent during physical activity, and the amount needed to digest your food.

Each of us has a unique metabolic resting rate, which is influenced by body weight, muscles mass, environmental factors and other factors. Additionally, it is difficult to estimate how much calories a certain physical activity eg. 30 min brisk walk, expends. Now you can image why the total sum is not easily determined.

Is Counting Calories Off?

Yes. If you frequently count the calories of your food, you might forget to pay attention to the real intent of why you eat ‘Am I hungry?’. Individuals centering their intake around the numbers in calories tend to eat because they ‘have 200 kcal left over’, instead of simply stopping when they are full.

Calories themselves do not provide any information about the quality of what you eat. You might restrict yourself to 1200 kcal per day. Without paying attention to the quality, there is no guarantee that those calories are healthy.

Less Calories But Not Losing Weight?

It was observed that individuals restricted themselves to a low amount of calories eg. 800-1200 kcal, but did not lose any weight. This phenomenon is explained by the fact that caloric restriction can produce a short-term reduction in resting metabolic rate.

The less you eat, the less your body needs. But here are good news: This leveling off can be counter-balanced with weight training and exercise. Research done on overweight subjects showed that resting metabolic rate increased as fat-free mass increased. Exercising is key!

Long-term Weight Loss

The National Weight Control Registry is a large longitudinal study of adults who have successfully lost at least 30 pounds (13.6 kg) and maintained the weight loss for at least one year.

On average, individuals in the registry have lost 66 pounds (30 kg) and have maintained the weight loss for more than five years (!).

I bet you are curious what they did to maintain their weight?

Successful Weight Loss Strategies

Here is what all successful weight maintainers had in common: Regular physical activity (1 hour/ day), consuming a diet low in calories and fat, maintaining a consistent eating schedule, and self-monitoring their weight.

The research team observing the outcomes concluded that long-term weight control is difficult, but possible, and requires sustainable behavioral changes.

Finding a physical activity you truly enjoy is an important puzzle piece – you are more likely to stick to it!

Eat More, Healthier Food

Instead of focusing on how much you should eat, and how much your daily energy expenditure should be, choose healthier foods. Healthier foods are typically lower in energy (= calories), but can still fill you up. They are also called low energy dense foods. Those are the ones you should eat more often, in higher quantities.

Practical Tip: Gradually reduce the intake of high caloric dense foods, such as French fries. Replace them with healthier options such as steamed broccoli, brown rice, beans, or baked potatoes.

Remember the big picture – whenever you make a change to a current habit – ask yourself if this is something you can maintain for good. If your answer is no, you might want to start with a smaller, less extreme, change first.

Small steps count!

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