I believe in science. And I want to set the record straight.
Some diet programs assert that, “if you follow this program you won’t have to count calories.”
This goes back to Weight Watcher’s days when they had “points” and then eventually “no point” foods. Atkins and other keto programs also claim you can avoid calorie counting (and healthy foods, for that matter). And in the WFPB (Whole Food Plant Based) community there are a few proponents of not counting calories.
First, let me say that I do acknowledge that some people can lose and maintain weight with no need to log and track calories. They settle in with a program that somehow lets them eat to satisfaction, and not overeat. So they lose weight and don’t regain. They are doing it by naturally restricting their calories of course. They just don’t need to measure and track the details. But I have also seen many people in social networks saying eating with no calorie restrictions does not work for them. I am one of those people.
Second, let me ask: What’s wrong with counting calories?
To me, knowing is better than not knowing.
If you count calories – both exercise calories burned and food calories eaten – and you know your base metabolism (which you can easily approximate based on age and gender) you can take all the mystery out of weight loss and weight maintenance.
There are three aspects of a diet:
- What is needed for weight control – net calories
- What is needed to make calorie control as easy as possible – calorie density and satiety
- What is needed to eat for best health outcomes – whole food plant based eating
Let’s look at all three.
By net calories I mean calories in (what you eat) minus calories out (what you burn through exercise). Unless you are an athlete or unusually active (I don’t mean just dog walks) your weight mostly depends on how much you eat relative to how much your body needs. For most people, exercise is generally a small, but perhaps helpful, portion of your daily net calories.
The amount of calories your body needs differs from person to person and generally depends on your age, sex, and height. It also depends on how much you currently weigh, your goal weight, and how quickly you want to lose weight, or if you just want to maintain your weight.
Calories (technically kilocalories to a scientist) are a matter of conservation of energy. It’s a fact. Is it possible to ignore calories? Sure. Some people can. Some people eat to satiety, eat healthy foods, are not food addicts, have no snacking compulsions, are pretty active, and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about food. So not everybody has to count calories.
If you are overweight, or obese (like I was – see “Milestone – More than Half of me Gone!“), it’s likely you have an eating problem. In that case tracking your calories can be very useful.
Do the kinds of calories you eat matter for weight control? Technically the answer is no if all you are considering is conservation of energy. You’ve probably heard stories about people who can spend their calorie limit just on Twinkies and lose weight. I’m sure it’s true. That does ignores two fundamental issues though: making calorie control as easy as possible and eating for best health outcomes.
Calorie Density and Satiety
Certain foods are light-weight yet have a relatively high number of calories. So it’s easy to eat too much of them and hurt your weight loss program. Some examples are bread and pasta. And dried fruits and nuts. Also all oils and fats. If you double the problem by adding fats to foods that are already high in calories – say butter to bread or oil to pasta – you’ll find your calorie intake skyrocketing.
That’s where calorie density is helpful. Calorie density is simply a ratio – how many calories per pound are in certain foods.
In the example above, consider a slice of whole wheat bread. A typical 0.9 oz slice just has about 70 calories. So it seems maybe not so bad for dieting. But that’s just 0.9 oz. How satisfying is that? It’s lightweight. It doesn’t fill your stomach. Your stomach seems to need a certain amount of food each day to feel satisfied. At 70 calories per 0.9 oz the calorie density of whole wheat bread would be 1,244 calories per pound. That’s without any butter or anything added.
Consider another food, a different starch: regular potatoes. There are just about 390 calories per lb of potatoes. So the calorie density of potatoes is less than 1/3rd that of bread.
Some calorie densities are just crazy over the top. All oils are. There are 117 calories in 15 g (about 1 tablespoon) of extra virgin olive oil. That’s a calorie density of 3,500 calories per lb! And quite a lot of calories even for just 1 spoonful.
Nuts, like raw almonds, are also high in calorie density – about 2,600 calories per lb.
On the other hand, some foods are much lower in calorie density, and help make it easier to stick on a diet. Most fruits are. Watermelon is just 136 calories/lb. Non-starchy vegetables are also very low in calorie density. Tomatoes are just 82 calories/lb, mushrooms are 100 calories/lb and you can get bags of frozen mixed vegetables that are just 150 calories/lb. They are calorie bargains.
What’s true though is that starches, which are higher in caloric density than fruits and non-starchy vegetables, are more satiating. You would feel hungry if you tried to eat just tomatoes and watermelon all day. So mixing in medium (but still lower) caloric density starches like potatoes helps.
Some kinds of potatoes are higher in calorie density than others though. Japanese sweet potatoes, for example, have over 50% more calories than regular white potatoes (132 calories per 100 grams vs 85 calories per 100 grams). Some diet experts will claim that doesn’t matter for weight loss or maintenance. But it obviously does matter if you eat the same weight of a food but are eating 50% more calories.
Generally, calorie density is a useful guide for selecting satiating food and helping you stick with overall calorie limits. There are many proponents of calorie density as a main guide to weight control. Chef AJ is well known in the field, and goes into more detail about this in her book “The Secrets to Ultimate Weight Loss” where she recommends sticking to foods less than 600 calories/lb – what she refers to as “left of the red line” in calorie density. I found her book enormously helpful in my weight loss journey.
Note: Links to books mentioned here are my affiliate links in Amazon, and I may receive a small commission if purchases are made.
Problems with Just Using Calorie Density
But please be aware! There are also contradictions within calorie density counts. They don’t tell the whole story.
A simple example is regular potatoes. There are about 390 calories per pound of raw, plain potatoes. Take a pound and cook them in the microwave at 900 Watts for 14 minutes and weigh them again. They weigh less because they lost water, so their new calorie density goes up to 567 calories/lb. That’s a huge increase. Of course the total calories have not changed. So which is less confusing for a dieter – the fixed actual calories, or the ever-changing calorie density?
Calorie density is a ratio. That’s important to understand. You can use it as a guide to finding satiating, lower calorie foods. But it doesn’t tell you how much food you can eat. If you eat 2 lb (before cooking) of potatoes, that would be 780 calories. Maybe that fits into your daily diet, and since they are filling maybe that’s fine. But it’s still the same calorie density of 390 calories/lb. Surely the total amount you eat is important.
Also, there are some very unhelpful calorie densities. Take spices for example. Black pepper has 1,156 calories per pound. Cinnamon has 1,184 calories/lb. You might say, “But who eats a pound of black pepper?” And you would be 100% correct! That’s why calorie density is not the begin all and end all of choosing foods for dieting.
It’s the same at the other end of the spectrum. Water has a calorie density of zero. A diet consisting just of water, I think most people would admit, would not be satiating or healthy.
There are also some inconsistent explanations of calorie density floating about. The units of calorie density are typically calories-per-pound. But then lecturers and books will show diagrams of how full a stomach looks depending on calorie-density, showing for example how oils aren’t filling while vegetables are. But calories-per-pound is not a volume calculation. It can lead to misleading and confusing conclusions.
So think of calorie density as a helpful guide to finding lower calorie foods to choose from. But don’t overthink their usefulness.
Whole Food Plant Based for Best Health Outcomes
While not directly related to weight loss, you also want to eat in a way that is overall healthy. Healthy eating can help with many health problems long-term. This includes Type II diabetes, heart issues, high blood pressure, and more. I’ve posted extensively here about how eating WFPB (Whole Food Plant Based) has turned my life around. My A1c blood sugar dropped from a dangerously high 11.8 to a perfectly normal 5.1 over time, my cholesterol is low and fantastic, and so is my blood pressure. You can read more about my most recent test results and see a recent before/after photo of me here: https://lerner.net/may-2022-biannual-health-test-results-whole-food-plant-based-is-the-way-to-go/
While not a weight loss book per se, the most influential book that turned my life around was Dr. Michael Greger’s “How Not to Die“. I also recommend his site at https://nutritionfacts.org/ for science, research, and results that are convincing.
The healthiest diet is whole food plant based, which just means basically vegan, whole foods, and no oils or added fats. The diet stuff for losing weight (lower calorie density foods, counting calories, avoiding nuts, etc.) is on top of that. But the basic diet for heart, blood sugar, and overall health is going vegan and avoiding oils and eating as much whole food as possible, while avoiding processed junk food.
Different WFPB Professionals Have Slightly Different Approaches
All the professionals in the WFPB world have slight differences in what’s allowed and what’s not.
And I think most people acknowledge that everybody’s an individual, so there are different things that work best for different people.
Dr. John McDougall, author of “The Starch Solution“, is fine with white rice, sugar, honey, and salt. The last three Chef AJ avoids, but she does seem ok with white rice.
Chef AJ’s own co-author, Glen Merzer, is ok with salt and that’s a big no-no for her.
Drs. Ornish, Greger, and McDougall believe calories count, while Chef AJ and Dr. Doug Lisle, author of “The Pleasure Trap” don’t believe they do.
But when it comes to healthy, mostly whole food plant based eating, and choosing from lower calorie density foods to control weight I think everybody mentioned is in agreement that’s what is healthiest, and what makes it easier.
And As For Me?
Here’s what I eat every day: https://lerner.net/oh-boy-doug-food-again/ – I’m a lazy cook, and don’t need much variety.
And I do track my calories. This is day 3,761 of logging on MyFitnessPal. I’ve logged my food and weight even during partial rebounds over the years. Tracking how much I eat has helped me lose weight and, during bad times, has been a sanity check helping me avoid full rebounds. I’m currently at an all-time low weight in my adult life, having lost more than 140 lb. My BMI is down to 21.2. Whole Food Plant based eating, using calorie density as a guide, and, for me, logging food and exercise calories have been the cornerstones of my success.
I do acknowledge that some people can somehow ignore calorie tracking. That’s great. I wish advocates of not counting calories would also acknowledge that it doesn’t work for everybody. I know from reading various whole food plant based forums online that I’m not alone.
Calorie logging has kept it sane for me. It gives me total, reasonable limits to guide me, not just ratios. It lets me know when to stop. Very importantly, it also lets me know what I can snack on between meals when I feel like eating something.
Summing Up Some Research
According to UC Berkeley (how carbs get stored as fat):
“After a meal, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, an immediate source of energy. Excess glucose gets stored in the liver as glycogen or, with the help of insulin, converted into fatty acids, circulated to other parts of the body and stored as fat in adipose tissue. When there is an overabundance of fatty acids, fat also builds up in the liver.”
According to McGill University (how protein gets converted to carbs or fat):
“Dietary protein is used to replace proteins which were previously broken down and used by the body. Extra protein does not get stored. Instead, excess amino acids get converted to carbohydrate or fat.”
According to Harvard University (on excess calories in general):
“Excess calories are stored throughout your body as fat. Your body stores this fat within specialized fat cells (adipose tissue) — either by enlarging fat cells, which are always present in the body, or by creating more of them. If you decrease your food intake and consume fewer calories than you burn up, or if you exercise more and burn up more calories, your body will reduce some of your fat stores. When this happens, fat cells shrink, along with your waistline.
Research shows that the fat content of our diet has actually gone down since the early 1980s. But many low-fat foods are very high in calories because they contain large amounts of sugar to improve their taste and palatability. In fact, many low-fat foods are actually higher in calories than foods that are not low fat.”
Can Carbs Make You Fat?
First, carbs are not your enemy. Whole Food Plant Based and healthy vegan eaters are mystified how that rumor came about. I eat mostly carbs and have lost over 140 lb (half my weight) with all the fantastic health results I mentioned. But you can eat too much of anything.
I was also pointed to this interesting interview by Chef AJ with Dr. Marc Hellerstein of UC Berkeley: “Can Carbs Make You Fat?” Dr. Hellerstein clearly says that calories aren’t free, even if they are just carbs. First, excess carbs can prevent fat loss because they will get used first and thus can prevent stored body fat from being burned. So excess carbs are for sure not “free” for overweight people. As he puts it, “it’s just arithmetic.” Dr. Doug Lisle also acknowledges this in his interview, “Doug Lisle on Weighing and Measuring Your Food” where he clarifies that starches can, in fact, be converted to fat – just not efficiently.
Dr. Hellerstein continues and explains that for people who aren’t overweight maybe 10% of carbs can somehow be converted to fat. He says that’s a very small amount (compared to pigs and cows for example). OK, fine.
Then he explains that only 3,000 calories of carbs can be stored. So I do have a remaining question for him: what happens to excess carbs if you eat more than that? He clearly says they aren’t “free calories.” But he doesn’t completely explain what ends up happening to excess eaten carbs beyond the 10% stored as fat. Where do they go? I have requested an answer to that from him and will post if he responds.
Some people like Dr. Doug Lisle will say they get stored as “glycogen.” But to what extent do they become glycogen? And what happens to the glycogen after that? Dr. Lisle doesn’t explicitly answer that basic question either. I’ve asked him, but don’t have an answer to that yet either. I would love to clarify this point once and for all, because I do believe, from my own experience, that all calories do count. And Dr. Hellerstein seems to agree, as do Drs. Greger, Ornish, and McDougall, even if Dr. Lisle doesn’t agree. I will post a followup on this as well if I hear more.
In Dr. Hellerstein’s interview he does clearly confirm things calorie-conscious dieters have known forever: If you start out very overweight you can eat a lot of calories and still lose weight. As you lose more and more you will plateau unless you reduce your net calorie intake. At a lower weight your body needs fewer calories to maintain that weight. One extra thing you can do to help burn more calories is doing more exercise. All common sense, well-known facts. As he said, “it’s just arithmetic.”
In the end, if you eat too much, be it carbs, protein, or directly fat, the excess ends up being stored as fat in your body.
While calorie density is very helpful as a guide to finding lower calorie, more satiating foods the total amount you eat is important. And WFPB on top of that means better health.
Calories count, whether you count them or not.