If you’re anything like me, growing up, the only dieting advice you knew was this; eat less, move more. Like many other women, I was misled to believe that to get in a calorie deficit and achieve fat loss you had to start counting calories.
I truly thought body weight was determined by simple math: Calories in – Calories out = Your weight
It sounds good in theory, but it feel nearly impossible to implement this in our real, everyday life.
The truth is, it feels impossible because it IS impossible.
If you’re ready to finally understand the science of why calorie counting doesn’t work and the three keys to fat loss without counting calories, you’re in the right place!
Where did the idea of counting calories come from?
To really understand why counting calories doesn’t work for fat loss long-term, we’ve got to start at the beginning…
Way back in the 1800s the term “calorie” first started being used to describe the energy that fuels the body — similar to the way that wood fuels a fire. Eventually, scientists established a gram of protein or carbohydrate would provide 4 units of energy (or calories), while a gram of fat would provide 9 units of energy.
Then, in the early 1900s, a woman named Lulu Hunt Peters wrote the first best-selling diet book that took America by a storm. In it, she described her recommendation to begin measuring food in terms of calories, not simply just servings, and that all anyone will ever need to do to lose weight is to consume fewer calories than they burn.
She also went on to say that, “For every pang of hunger we feel we can have a double joy, that of knowing we are saving worse pangs in … little children, and that of knowing that for every pang we feel we lose a pound.”
(She was a lil coo coo for cocoa puffs, if ya know what I’m sayin’…)
Even though her theory disregarded some of the most important aspects of nutrition, her advice still pervades our culture to this day.
The #1 reason counting calories doesn’t work
Now that we know where the idea started, let’s reflect on how it plays out in our real lives.
Personally, I used to try getting into a calorie deficit every time I wanted to slim down. Whenever there was an upcoming trip or event, it was always the same routine…
Break out the calorie counting app, try to eat tiny portions, go for long runs, spend extra time on the elliptical and burn off as much as possible.
Never once did this actually pay-off and result in the fat loss I was hoping for.
Typically it would last for aboooout 3 days, then I’d go out to eat or out for drinks with friends and have no idea how many calories to track. After that, I’d usually just give up and decide to start over on Monday. I tried and fail with this same approach over and over again, never stopping to ask myself…
Even if you can lose some weight this way, do you really want to be counting calories for the rest of your life??
And if I had, obviously, the answer would have been a massive NOPE.
The most important thing to know about creating long-term fat loss is that you have to lose it how you’ll live it.
How many people do you know who have lost a bunch of weight, only to gain it all back later? The problem here is almost always that they lost their weight through methods they weren’t willing or able to maintain.
So unless you’re ready to sign up for a lifetime of measuring and tracking every bite, calorie counting isn’t the plan for you.
The science of fat loss
Even if we ignore the psychological challenges of this approach and assume we could stick with a restricted-calorie diet perfectly, it still wouldn’t work forever…
The calorie restriction theory is dependent on the notion that the amount of calories we burn when we’re at rest (basal metabolic rate) remains constant over time — which is false.
We now know that our bodies go through a process called metabolic adaptation, meaning your metabolism changes in correspondence with your body. So, the more weight you lose, the less calories you burn at rest.
This is why, at first, you can lose weight easily by eating less and moving more. But over time, the same things you were doing to lose weight before seem to stop working.
Before you know it, your metabolism has slowed to the point that you now have to keep up a strict diet and exercise regimen just to maintain your weight, let alone lose any more.
This is what’s being described when people say they’ve “hit a plateau” with weight loss.
The 3 Keys To Fat Loss (And How To Actually Keep It Off)
To avoid this metabolism nightmare, you’ve got to ditch calorie counting and try a different approach.
Here’s the 3 key things to focus on instead:
- Eat only when you’re physically hungry (not emotionally hungry).
- Stop eating when your body is satisfied (not whenever you get full).
- Optimize your metabolisms natural fat-burning ability.
Nail these three areas and you’d never experience a weight problem again. It really is that simple. The struggle then comes with implementing these in real, everyday life.
Keep reading for a list of tangible ways you can begin making these habits in your daily life…
Eat only when you’re physically hungry.
This tip might be simple but most of us aren’t even aware of how often we eat for reasons other than true hunger. Instead, we’re eating because we need a break from work, we saw food that looked good, others around us are eating, or we’re seeking a distraction from negative emotion.
When it comes to fat loss, being able to distinguish between your body’s true hunger signals and your brain’s false hunger signals is key!
To start figuring this out for yourself, here’s a few things to thinks about whenever you’re about to eat:
1. Am I actually hungry? Do I feel hunger pangs in my stomach?
True hunger will come on slowly and in waves. If your hunger comes on fast and feels “urgent”, it’s likely that the urge is being fueled by some emotion (could be worry, stress, or my personal favorite; boredom).
2. Have I drank enough water today?
When you’re not giving your body enough water, often, it will send “hunger cues” to your brain in an attempt to extract water from your food.
Hot Tip! — If your pee is darker than a pale yellow color, that’s how you know it’s time to drink up.
3. Do I feel deleted and low-energy for no good reason?
If you’ve had plenty of rest, you’re not experiencing a sugar or caffeine crash, but you’re still feeling energetically depleted, you may just need to eat.
But use some good judgment here — if you just ate two hours ago, this ain’t you.
4. Would I be willing to eat steamed broccoli & chicken?
This is an easy test any time you’re trying to decide if you’re actually hungry. Think about the most plain-jane, bland meal. If you aren’t hungry enough to eat that, you’re not that hungry at all.
If you’re only hungry for one specific thing; granola bar, fruit, chocolate, crackers, etc., then I’m sorry, but you’re not actually hungry.
You’re experiencing a craving that’s being driven by some emotion…That’s when it’s time to get real with yourself and figure out what’s actually going on. Reflect on what it is you really need in that moment.
Stop Eating When You’re Satisfied (not full)
We’ve all had the experience of finishing a big meal, leaning back from the table and exclaiming, “Wow, I’m full!”.
You know that feeling of being slightly uncomfortable and a little bloated? That is the feeling I’m referring to as “full”.
When you’re just satisfied, but not yet full, you no longer feel hunger, but you don’t feel bloated either.
Satisfied feels like you could easily go for a walk or do a downward dog without feeling like you’re going to barf.
It’s all too easy to overeat when we’re distracted by our phone 24/7 and food just taste SO. DANG. GOOD.
Here’s a few ideas that can get you eating more mindfully right away:
1. Practice eating in a totally undistracted environment – phone down, laptop closed, tv off.
Let me just tell you, it’s going to feel weird at first to sit in total silence and eat. That’s how you know you need to be practicing this more often. This is the best way to get attuned to your body’s natural signals.
2. Practice eating slowly.
Digestion takes time and when we rush to eat, we often don’t notice that we’re satisfied until we’ve already finished the plate.
Eating too fast is a biggie for me, so sometimes when I’m eating alone I practice eating with my left hand which forces me to slow down…Might sound weird but it helps!
3. Ask, “Would eating more actually make this better?”.
This is a trick to avoid overeating when something tastes reeeeally good. Our primitive brain always thinks that if something is good, MORE must be better.
When your brain tells you to keep going, remind yourself that eating more won’t make it taste any better. Reflect on how grateful you are for the deliciousness of the food and thoroughly enjoy the portion you had planned.
4. Ditch the clean plate club and adopt a new motto: Better to see it in the waste than on my waist!
We aren’t actually saving any starving children in Africa by overeating. If you’re heart breaks a little every time you throw out food, just box it up and save it for later.
Eating more than you need is more wasteful than just boxing it up and saving it for the next time you’re genuinely hungry anyways.
Optimize your metabolism to naturally burn fat
The best news ever is that your metabolism is not set in stone. You have the opportunity to influence it with the choices that you make each and every day.
So start making choices that ramp up your metabolism and get it working for you!
1. Get your food ratios in check.
Studies show that without changing caloric intake at all, simply just upping the ratios of protein and lowering the ratio of carbs in your diet leads to improved metabolism and fat-burning. Research affirms that, for most people, getting around 30% of your daily calories from protein sources is ideal.
Prioritize protein and think of the carbs as “extras” to make the most of your body’s natural fat-burning mechanisms.
2. Eat the real stuff, not the processed version.
Back in 2010 researchers looked at the impacts on metabolism after eating a sandwich made with “whole food” ingredients (i.e. multi-grain bread and cheddar cheese) compared to eating a sandwich made with highly-processed ingredients (i.e. white bread and processed cheese product).
This study found that those who ate the processed food sandwich burned 50% fewer calories afterwards — even though the calories, protein, carbs and fats in both sandwiches were identical!
Avoid highly processed food and opt for the real stuff whenever possible to optimize your body’s natural fat-burning ability.
3. Build yourself some metabolic currency – a.k.a. muscle!
We know that when you lose weight through calorie restriction, your resting metabolic rate (fat-burning ability) will also decrease. This is largely due to the drop in muscle mass that comes with weight-loss.
So, if your goal is a fit, healthy body you’ve got to add some weight training to your routine and build some lean muscle!
Just 2-3 days a week is plenty to get you building some muscle and keep your fat-burning ability up!
One last note…
Although science supports the fact that calorie restriction isn’t the best strategy for fat loss, our human brains are wired to seek instant gratification.
The hardest part of ditching diets and switching to a sustainable, long-term approach is that it takes patience. It’s about creating new habits that will benefit you for a lifetime. Habit creation and behavior change are playing the long game.
This is what I teach women in my coaching practice.
We work on their long-term vision for their health and I help them implement a system to get them there.
If this is something you’re interested in doing, you can read more about how I can help here!
Remember, when you lose it how you’ll live it, you’re creating a better future for yourself.
Don’t set yourself up for more struggle and disappointment down the road.
When you put in the work, take the road less traveled, and play the long-game, you win in the end.
April 26, 2021