Think you Need to Count Calories to Lose Weight? Think Again!

Calories in and calories out.

We have been told that the balance between these two is the key to weight loss for a long time.  Burn more calories than you eat and you will lose weight.  Eat more than you burn, then squeezing into your tight jeans is going to get a bit harder.

Just cut 500 calories a day and you will lose 2 pounds a week.Wow!  How easy could that be?  Start cutting those 500 calories a day on July 3rd this year and you will be down 50 pounds by Christmas!

How simple is that?

But we all know it’s not going to work out that way.  While it’s true that calories in and calories out determine weight loss (there is no percentage in arguing with the First Law of Thermodynamics), the issue is that tracking calories doesn’t work for the majority of people.

Let us explain why.

Calories are tiny creatures joke

Tracking Calories = Fool’s Gold

It’s time to give up on the idea that counting every calorie helps most people lose weight.  But it’s not going to be an easy change.  Calorie counting is right up there on the “Generally thought to be true, but isn’t.” list just like a “low fat diet” being the healthiest diet used to be.

The truth is that even we have been believers in the calorie tracking method.  After all, it’s what we’ve all been taught since forever. When we first saw the great new apps for tracking calories like Lose It and My Fitness Pal, we thought they would revolutionize weight loss.  And they have worked for some people, but most of our patients were right back where they started 3 or 6 or 12 months later.

What went wrong?  Why are most people not losing weight and keeping it off using these well-designed, user-friendly apps?   We started asking our patients and it turned out that there are several reasons why they weren’t working.  A big one was that people had a hard time sticking with it.  Tracking every calorie only works if you, well…..track every calorie.  You have seen this, or maybe experienced it yourself.  Initially there is a lot of ambition and enthusiasm, but eventually life catches up.   You get busy and skip a few meals.  Next thing you know, you haven’t documented your food intake in months.  Congratulations to those that are compulsive enough to stick with it for more than a month or two, but for the rest of us mere mortals, it sounds good in theory, but doesn’t really work out in real life.

Why Counting Calories Doesn’t Work for Weight Loss

Not being able to stick with it is an important reason that tracking calories doesn’t work out for most people, but the biggest reason is because all calories are NOT the same(at least when it comes to weight gain and loss). While it is true that all calories that you eat are treated the same by your body (either burned as fuel or stored as fat), what is also true when it comes to weight loss is how those calories impact your sense of hunger and fullness.  For example, if you eat 500 calories for lunch that fills you up, you will eat less throughout the rest of the day.  However, if those same 500 calories don’t give you the same sense of fullness, you will likely eat more as the day unfolds.

That some foods may do a better job of filling you up for the same calories is not a new concept.  We know from past studies that some high calorie foods are associated with weight loss (nuts) while others are associated with weight gain (potato chips), but some new data may show us why.   A recent research paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (this is the hyperlink for the article)shows us that different foods have different effects on blood flow to the areas of our brain that determine how full we feel and provides further evidence that all calories are NOT the same.

Previous research has found that fructose (as compared to the same amount of calories of other sugars) leads to increased feeding and weight gain in rats.  This raised the question of whether fructose intake in humans (important since high fructose corn syrup is an ingredient in many processed foods) could have the same effect (weight gain and increased feeding) in humans.   More recently, researchers at Yale studied blood flow to the parts of the brain that control hunger and fullness in response to 2 different sugars, glucose or fructose.

What the Yale group found is that the brain did react differently to fructose consumption.  The research subjects that had fructose felt less full and hungrier than when they were given the same number of calories of glucose.

If Calorie Counting Doesn’t Work for Weight Loss, What Does?

We have been in practice for over 35 years between us and have seen a lot of patients succeed at long term weight loss and even more that have failed.  What we have discovered from our conversations with these patients is that there are 2 primary determinants of those who successfully lost weight.  First, they were physically active.  Not gym rats necessarily, but regularly active (usually walking).  The other was that they ate real food.  Most of them didn’t diet (restrict calories), but just changed to eating healthier foods.  Whether they did it on the Mediterranean diet, Plant based diet, Paleo diet or even on their own diet, the common theme was little processed foods(and therefore little high fructose corn syrup).

So that’s the secret in a nutshell.  Eat real food.  You’ll be healthier, you will feel better and you will discover that real food is delicious.

Oh yeah, you’ll weigh less too!


[box]Dr. R. Todd Hurst, MD is a board certified cardiologist and Dr. Lisa Hurst, MD is a board certified internist.  They founded Achieve-Life, a healthy, permanent weight loss program, after years of watching fad diets fail their patients.  They’ve developed tools and resources that can guarantee your weight loss and now off you the opportunity to try the difference for free!  We share your excitement of FINALLY having the tools you need to achieve your weight loss goals![/box]



Dr. R. Todd Hurst, MD

Dr. R. Todd Hurst, MD is a board certified cardiologist and Dr. Lisa Hurst, MD is a board certified internist. They founded Achieve-Life, a healthy, permanent weight loss program, after years of watching fad diets fail their patients. They've developed tools and resources that can guarantee your weight loss and now offer you the opportunity to try the difference for free! We share your excitement of FINALLY having the tools you need to achieve your weight loss goals!

5 thoughts on “Think you Need to Count Calories to Lose Weight? Think Again!

  • March 19, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Great article. While counting calories (or carbs) does work (and especially when being very demanding about final body composition), when it comes to the average American wanting to live a normal life and simply “be healthy”, I agree that the greatest change a person can make is simply to move a lot and avoid processed food and sugar.

  • February 26, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    This argument basically comes down to the assertion that counting calories is ‘too hard’, so even though it works, we are bound to fail. I think that argument could be applied to all weight loss attempts, because losing weight is hard and requires commitment. I have been logging my calories with myfitnesspal for over a year and have lost over 30 pounds. It’s fun and now a part of my everyday routine. Moreover, it can be easily combined with eating a healthy diet and exercise, as you suggest. Actually, its great because tracking my calories lets me know if I have had enough vitamins, fiber, and calcium each day and lets me know when I have had too much saturated fat and sugar. Usually when I am hungry at the end of the day it’s because I have wasted my calories on sugar, and I can see this and correct my eating patterns.

    • April 19, 2013 at 11:34 pm

      Nadine, Great job on your weight loss! I’m glad you have found a system that works for you. I would say that it’s certainly not that I’m against counting calories…..clearly for some people it works, but that it’s not always necessary. There is more to it than just being hard. Calories in and Calories out are more estimates than precise numbers even with the most compulsive of us and then there is the emerging data that indicates that all calories are not equal. In the end I think we both agree that no matter how you do it, eating real food is important.

  • February 26, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    Somehow I always find myself coming down in a grey area beside the offered opinions. Truth: different sugars have different metabolic impact. Truth: Eating real food is the key. Hairsplit: I have found the secret to my own weight loss is counting CARBS and not necessarily calories. As a pre-diabetic this has proven to be the ticket to backing away from the former trends without medication, and for me to shed 133 pounds to date. I find that the “don’t count calories” advice often comes paired with “don’t weigh yourself” either. I am known to repeat myself with this message over and over again: You cannot improve what you do not manage, and you cannot manage what you don’t measure. For those who achieve healthier body status in the “measure nothing” mode – congratulations. However, the subtle accompanying message with this advice is that “some people” can do it right and if you can’t, well, perhaps that’s why you had troubles in the first place eh? Frankly, I’m tired of seeing variations of this advice. My journey is approaching 2 years now. Those countless hours of research and self-measurement are just beginning to pay off with new understandings. Now if I could only dream up a catchy book title.

    • April 19, 2013 at 11:27 pm

      Meghann, Congratulations on your weight loss! I totally agree with your point on measuring what you want to improve. I’ve just found that most people who lose weight and keep it off do so without counting calories, but of course that doesn’t mean everyone does. I would just advocate that all healthy diets (low carb included) should be based on real food rather than processed food.


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