Article at a glance:
- Weight is determined by calories in vs calories out
- Body weight is controlled by our brain which wants each of us at a specific “set point”. Which is why we all tend to gravitate around a specific weight. Some are super skinny, others overweight
- The brain influences calories in vs out by altering our hunger levels, satiety, energy levels and metabolism.
- When people force a calorie deficit by counting calories, their brain takes “Metabolic Revenge” on them; increasing hunger, driving up cravings and slowing the metabolism. Most people give up from this and end up yo-yo dieting and experiencing weight stalls.
- Some people can accidentally get results from counting calories because they shift their diet to promote satiety and a lower set point – but this is inefficient and not as effective as going to the root cause.
- Counting calories is sometimes successful because people end up eating more foods that shift the body weight set point lower. Not because of the calories in those foods.
Fact: Counting Calories Fails Almost Everyone.
It only leads to Metabolic Revenge: hunger, cravings and a slow metabolism.
In this article I’ll show why counting calories is a waste of time and how to get in shape without having to endure the above Metabolic Revenge.
I’ll also show the real reason people yo-yo diet and experience weight stalls – and how to avoid these.
But before we get to that, we need to take things back to the basics.
Energy Balance Basics:
At the very basic level, someone’s body weight is determined by the calories they take in vs the calories they expend.
- If you take in more calories than you expend then you will gain
- If you take in the same calories you expend you will maintain your weight.
- If you take in less calories than you expend you will lose
This is basic physics. No one credible argues against this.
When reading this article, some might mistakenly conflate counting calories with a calorie deficit. These two are different. I’m not saying a calorie deficit is a waste of time.
So, with that out of the way, let’s look at why counting calories is a waste of time.
First, we’ll start with some basic neurobiology – something that your PT’s isn’t educated in.
The Neurobiology of Body Weight
So, body weight is the result of how many calories we take in, less calories we burn. Simple right?
Well it’s actually a fair bit more complicated than that unfortunately.
Because how many calories we take in vs burn is actually controlled by the brain. The brain does this by influencing our food intake and the calories we burn – and the brain has a lot of tools at its disposal to do this.
It can influence food seeking by making us hungry, it can increase the tastiness of food and it can decrease our satiety during a meal. All so we eat more calories.
It can also influence the number of calories we burn by playing with our energy levels and our metabolism.
The Brain Wants Us at the Weight We’re at Right Now
The brain does all of this because it wants us at a specific weight. This is known as a body weight “set point”, and it explains why some people struggle to put on weight, while others struggle to take it off.
Scientists have known for decades that if you overfeed an animal (or human) it will naturally return to its original weight after it has been left alone. And vice versa, if you starve an animal it will return to its original weight once its left to do as it pleases.
This also explains why the typical person eats 900,000+ calories a year, and yet ends the year weighing roughly the same as at the beginning. For this to be possible, they would have had to burn off 900,000+ calories. An accuracy of 100%. Without wearing a fit bit, without counting calories and without measuring their metabolism.
Pretty crazy hey?
So, the brain controls calories in and calories out, and the brain wants us at a specific weight “set point”. Where to next?
Well, trouble comes when we try to alter that body weight – for most that means trying to lose weight.
The traditional method to do this is to get into a calorie deficit by counting calories. The reasoning goes: eat less calories than you expend and you will lower weight.
Basic physics. End of story.
Again… not so fast. Because that brain of yours is rather stubborn, and remember, its job is to keep you at the weight you’re at right now.
So, if you force yourself to lower calories your body takes offensive action against you.
“Metabolic Revenge” – The Reason You Can’t Keep Weight Off
And takes something I like to call “metabolic revenge” on you. Simultaneously it hits you hard with everything it has; in an attempt to make you eat more, as well as burn less.
Here’s a brief idea of what it does (and what you’re fighting against):
- Decreases your energy levels so you expend less calories
- Decreases NEAT* (so you burn less calories throughout the day)
- Decreases TEF (so you absorb more calories from food) (1)
- Lower BMR (so you burn fewer calories over the day)
- Increase hunger (to make you eat more)
- Increase the appeal of food (to make you more likely to cheat)
- Lower satiety (so you eat more in a meal than you normally do)
*I’ll explain what NEAT, TEF and BMR are later on.
Before long the person gives up and falls off the bandwagon. The weight comes back on and they’re back where they started.
So, the question is: are you willing to experience the above forever to maintain the weight loss you managed through calorie counting? Because that is what is required if you lose weight by forcing your body into a calorie deficit.
The starkest example of this happening is the biggest lower contestants. They are the epitome of the “eat less, move more” advice that every PT recommends.
Before the contestants started the show they had their metabolism’s measured by a team of researchers (2). During and after the TV show the scientists kept taking measurements.
6 years after the TV show had concluded and the results were in.
Bad news I’m afraid.
By the end of the study, the participants had gained back 70% of the weight they lost. But that wasn’t even the worst part, their BMR had dropped 704 calories per day on average.
This is where a PT will interject and say that “of course their BMR will drop as they have less body weight to carry around”. Less body weight equals less energy requirements.
But that’s not what this study showed. The study showed that they were burning 704 calories less than someone the exact same weight.
So as an example, take 2 people, both weighing 70kgs, one is a Biggest Loser contestant who used to be overweight and one is naturally slim. The Biggest Loser contestant is forced to eat 1,296 calories to maintain their weight when the naturally slim person could gorge on 2000 calories.
As someone’s weight departs more and more from their “set point”, their metabolism slows more and more. The individual then needs to lower their calories even more to compensate.
This vicious cycle continues until the dieter gives up.
Remember, this metabolism slowing isn’t the only thing that people have to worry about. Eating less food isn’t actually a big deal except that it comes with incessant hunger and tiredness. The body is screaming out for more food and to expend less energy and so it reacts by making life a living hell.
In one study the researchers reported participants would dream about eating delicious food.
The biggest loser contestants had the best nutritionists, the best trainers, the most expensive equipment and the most to lose if they gained it all back, and they still failed.
Some may point to the speed at which the biggest lower contestants lost the weight as proof this isn’t a good representation of what happens in the real world. However, studies have shown that the rate of weight loss has little to do with weight re-gain (12, 13). So those saying “if you take the weight off slowly, you’ll do better”, this isn’t true. It’s the fact that you’re forcing your body to lose the weight.
Another suggestion of a PT is something called a reverse dieting, where you slowly increase your calories to a more manageable maintenance weight. But again, we see that this doesn’t work. The very famous Minnesota starvation experiment showed that if you starve someone then refeed them slowly, their BMR will only recover after all the weight has been regained (14, 15). So upping calorie intake only works to bring someone back to their original weight. Not a lower weight.
Yo-yo Dieting & Weight Stalls Finally Explained
Metabolic Revenge explains two things that almost every dieter struggles with: yo-yo dieting and weight stalls.
Yo-yo dieting happens when Metabolic Revenge becomes too much to fight. As you get further and further from your original weight, your body fights harder and harder to return your weight to its original “set point”.
Forcing a calorie deficit to lose weight is a bit like stretching a rubber band. You can do it for a bit, but eventually the rubber band’s resistance will be too much for you. You’ll give up and it will snap back on you.
The typical pattern I’ve seen countless times is this: the person gets sick of the way their body looks and feels; they go on a diet; they lose a bit of weight; they struggle to lose more; they fall off their diet because their hunger, cravings and energy levels are too difficult to live with; they gain it all back; then continue on old food patterns with the knowledge that they don’t have what it takes to lose the weight.
Rinse and repeat. Until they give up and eat what they like – because it doesn’t matter anyway right?
Weight stalls are explained by this as well. The further weight drops, the more metabolism does as well, eventually they meet in the middle where the drop in metabolism cancels out the drop in calories. The result is a weight stall.
The fitness industry’s solution to this is to drop calories further, thereby chasing metabolism down even more. The metabolism drops again and the individual ends up in an endless circle until they get to their goal weight… or give up – which is much more likely.
Even if they do get to their goal weight, as we’ve seen above, to maintain a lower weight will mean enduring hunger, tiredness and slow metabolism forever. The Biggest Loser study showed that even after 6 years the contestants were still dealing with Metabolic Revenge. With no sign of letting up.
I’ll let Dr. Kevin Hall, a senior investigator at the National Institute of Health explain it in his words (16):
“…on the metabolism side of things, your body is trying to slow down and resist further weight loss and promote weight regain and you’re fighting against that at the same time as an increased appetite. So, it’s a little bit of a double whammy, and what happens to most people is that they can’t keep up the fight against this slowing of the metabolism and increased appetite and so they slip backwards. It’s like asking someone to hold their breath, you can do it for a little while, but it’s very difficult to do it for longer than a minute or two.”
So, the advice to keep cutting calories really doesn’t work.
The end result is tragic and inevitable. The dieter who tried so hard to lose that weight ends up giving up. They let their diet lapse and just as quickly as that rubber band snaps back, so does their weight. The body has been deprived so much that it soaks up every single calorie like a sponge, and the person is forced to watch helplessly as their clothes get tighter and their reflection in the mirror goes back to what it was before their diet. They feel ashamed, discouraged and think they’re a failure.
They go back to their old ways until the shame and frustration of a higher weight gets too much for them, then they do it all over again.
Eventually they do this enough that they give up entirely, resigned to the fact that they will be overweight forever. Statistics show that 1 in 7 people have made a serious attempt at dieting 25 times or more (17). With a further 15% trying 11+ times.
This is not a sign of someone with a diet plan that works with the body. This is a sign of someone being set up for failure by an industry that fundamentally misunderstands the science of weight loss (or chooses not to understand; because it would be bad for business).
But there is hope, because while most diet strategies result in fighting the body, it’s entirely possible to work with the body to shed weight. The result is hunger and tiredness disappear, and the metabolism actually speeds up, because the set point has been lowered and the body actually chooses to lower weight on its own.
Now having said that, if you’re sitting there reading this thinking that this is the miracle answer you’ve been looking for, it’s not. Losing weight will never be easy; anyone who tells you that is lying to you.
But losing weight with the body helping you is a hell of a lot easier than fighting it every step of the way. That’s guaranteed.
We’ll revisit this way at the end of this article.
But first, let’s put the final nail in the coffin that is counting calories.
- Calories in vs out determines body weight. The brain determines calories in vs out.
- The brain wants everyone at a specific body weight “set point”.
- If you shift your body weight below this set point the brain takes offensive measures and slows the metabolism while increasing hunger, cravings and tiredness.
- Yo-yo dieting is the result of Metabolic Revenge getting too much to handle. Weight stalls is a result of metabolism slowing to cancel out a calorie deficit.
Counting Calories – Not as Straight Forward as it Sounds
So, I’ve shown that counting calories is a waste of time. For those who are still holding out, let’s see why it’s a lot harder than it sounds – even without the aforementioned metabolism slowing.
One thing that a lot of PT’s will tell you is that your calorie deficit needs to be significant, but not too large (their explanation is that the more the deficit, the more the metabolic adaptation – in reality it’s actually weight getting further from the set point).
So according to a PT, you need to have a significant calorie deficit, but not too much.
In order to do this, you will need to accurately measure your calories in and your calories out. Let’s see how complicated that becomes:
We’ll start with calories in:
Calorie is the food we eat. Simple right?
Not so fast.
Because the label on a food can be off by up to 20% (17). Apps get their data from food labels so they are no better.
Then we get to absorption. The assumption is that every calorie we put in our mouth will end up being absorbed into our bodies. But the human digestion is far from perfect. Some researchers believe up to 10% of the calories we eat actually passes through out body undigested.
Now let’s look at calories out:
We have something called the thermic effect of food (TEF), which is basically how much energy it takes to digest your food. 20-30% of the calories we get from protein is used up to digest it. Carbs is 5-6% and fats are 3%.
Then we get to exercise (EAT). If you wear one of those Fitbit’s and believe they are an accurate representation of how many calories you burn, you are sadly mistaken. A Stanford study showed that they can be off by as much as 27% (18).
We then look at your Basal Metabolic Rate, which is the calories your body burns doing normal daily functions. Your BMR can be very roughly estimated with an online calculator that takes into account your height, weight and exercise levels, but these can be off by 10-15% (19). This doesn’t take into account the fact that BMR drops with calories, so you’d have to measure it every time you dropped your calories.
We then get to NEAT, which are all the movements we do daily that aren’t specifically exercise. Things like laying, standing, walking, stair climbing, spontaneous muscle contraction, fidgeting, cleaning), singing, and other activities of daily living. NEAT can vary from 6-50% of total daily energy expenditure (20). The problem here is that it’s impossible to measure unless you live in a lab. NEAT is also one of the main ways the human body lowers energy expenditure in a calorie deficit. So you won’t know how much your NEAT has dropped when you’ve also dropped calories (21).
So taking all of the above and we transform quite a simple idea into a very difficult – if not impossible – undertaking.
“But… I Counted Calories and Lost Weight!”
Yep, this can actually happen. Some people actually do get good results from counting calories.
“Wait… so counting calories isn’t a waste of time!” I hear you say.
Not so fast. It’s still pointless and I’ll explain why (and this goes against what your PT has told you):
Counting calories can accidentally be beneficial because it makes someone more aware and mindful about where their calories are coming from.
So, when a lot of people count calories, they end up eating foods that are simpler, less calorific and more satiating, and these foods actually tell that set point to lower to a certain degree.
Seen in a ven diagram (quietly stoked I finally got to use one ;)) it looks like this:
Accidental Weight Loss While Counting Calories
So, the question then becomes, why would you count calories when you can eat simpler food while avoiding hunger, cravings, tiredness and metabolism slowing. No counting, just simple food that tells your body to lower calories for it.
It’s a bit easier in the long run 😉
If you enjoyed this article and want to find out exactly how to lower the body weight set point, then I have made a free 7-day trial of my Metabolism Reset program. You can find more information on that here: go.jonojames.com.