If you’re looking to lose weight, chances are you’ve heard a lot about counting calories.
Some people say it’s crucial for weight loss, others say it doesn’t work, and others still say it depends on your body and circumstances.
Well, I want to start this article with the following:
Counting calories in and of itself accomplishes nothing, and is not vital to losing weight.
Count all the calories you want, but if you don’t know why you’re counting them, and if you’re not planning your food intake properly, you’ll never lose any weight. And ironically, you also need to fully understand these same things to effectively lose weight without counting calories.
So, then, let’s start with these fundamentals of weight loss, and how they relate to calories, and then we’ll look at 6 strategies for losing weight without counting calories.
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The first step to unshackling yourself from the perceived restraints of calorie counting is to gain a complete understanding of how and why the body burns fat–the physiology of weight loss.
We’re going to start with this:
What is a calorie?
That is, can you properly define the word? If you can’t, don’t sweat it. Most people never thought to look it up in a dictionary. So, here’s what it is:
When we’re talking food, a calorie is the amount of energy required to heat up one kilogram of water one degree Celsius.
It’s nothing more than stored (potential) energy.
Foods that contain more calories than other simply have more potential energy. Certain types of foods have more calories per gram (weight) than others. For instance, a gram of protein and a gram of carbohydrate both contain about 4 calories, whereas a gram a fat contains about 9 calories (over double the potential energy as protein and carbohydrate, per gram).
Now, your body requires a certain amount of energy to stay alive. I’m talking basic organ function here, not including any physical activity. This is known as your “basal metabolic rate,” or “BMR.” When you add the energy you burn from exercise to your BMR, you come to your “total daily energy expenditure,” or “TDEE.”
If you’re curious what your TDEE is, this calculator will show you:
So how does your body get this energy to stay alive? It has two sources:
If your body has energy available from food you just ate, it doesn’t need to tap into its own energy (fat) stores.
This “fed” state wherein the body runs fully on energy from food can last anywhere from 3 – 6+ hours after you eat.
Now, when you eat a meal, you’re giving your body far more calories than it needs during that time. You might eat 600 calories in 5 minutes, and in that period, your body burned maybe only 25 calories.
What does it do with the rest of the calories you ate? You got it: it stores a large portion of them as body fat. So, after you eat food, your body runs off the energy from the food and stores a portion of the excess energy as body fat.
What happens once that energy source runs out? Once the nutrients from the food have been fully absorbed and burned up?
Well, the body must then turn to its energy stores to continue running. That is, it must start breaking down body fat into molecules the cells can use for energy.
This brings me to an important point most people don’t know: the body is constantly storing and burning fat every day. You eat food, it stores fat. It finishes burning and storing the energy from the food you ate, and it then switches to burning fat. Back and forth the body goes, 24 hours per day.
Even if you grossly overeat for a day, your body still has periods throughout those 24 hours where it runs out of food energy and thus must burn fat. The amount of fat stored that day will be greater than what it burned, though, and voila, weight gain.
This hints at what we have to do to reduce the amount of body fat we carry: we have to get our body to burn more fat than it stores every day.
How do we do this?
By regulating the amount of energy we give it.
If the body stores excess energy as body fat, which results in gradual weight gain, how do we get the opposite? How to do we cause gradual weight reduction?
Yup, by regularly feeding the body less energy than it needs. This is known is creating a “calorie deficit.”
No calorie deficit, no losing fat, period.
When you feed your body a little less energy than it needs every day, what happens is the amount of fat it stores from your eating is less than the amount of fat it burns when it doesn’t have food energy to live on. This is all weight loss is: fat stored < fat burned, over time.
When it comes to weight loss, it’s only a numbers game. WHAT you eat doesn’t determine whether you lose weight or not…HOW MUCH does.
Weight loss does NOT require you to only eat certain types of food, avoid other types, combine types in various ways, or any other quackery. It only requires that you regularly feed your body less energy than it burns.
Let’s now address the primary matter of this article: calorie counting and weight loss.
As you have probably already concluded, calorie counting is nothing more than a simple way of regulating your energy intake. By tracking how much energy you’re giving your body, you can ensure you give it a bit less than it needs, which will result in fat loss.
This of course assumes you know how much energy you should be eating, though, which is where many people fall down with calorie counting. If you give your body all the energy it needs every day, or more, it doesn’t matter if you count those calories–you’re not going to lose any weight.
That’s why the most important part of a proper meal plan is working out the right amount of calories you’re supposed to be eating every day, and then turning that into the right ratio of macronutrients (but that’s another discussion, which you can read about here).
This then brings me to a bottom-line, non-negotiable weight loss rule:
Whether you count calories or not, the only way you will lose weight is by regularly feeding your body less energy (calories) than it burns.
If you don’t want to count calories, you can lose weight. If you also don’t want to pay attention to and regulate your food intake, you will never lose weight. It’s that simple.
The “secret” behind many popular weight loss diets that call for eating certain types of foods, cutting out others, eating only at certain times, etc. is nothing more than they bring about a calorie deficit. That’s the whole picture, regardless of whatever marketing bullshit they spout.
For instance, if I told you you’re allowed 3 meals per day, and all you can eat for those meals is meat, veggies, and fruit, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll lose weight. Why?
Because given those restrictions, it’s almost impossible to eat more calories than you burn. Especially if you’re exercising. Low-fat forms of protein and all veggies, especially fibrous veggies, are low in calories and extremely filling. Fruit is inherently low in calories, and fibrous fruits like apples are also quite filling.
The point is by simply not allowing you to eat calorie-dense foods, I can force you into a calorie deficit.
So, know that there is nothing inherently special about my tips for losing weight without counting calories. They will simply help you maintain a mild daily calorie deficit, which will bring about gradual weight loss.
Alright, we’ve arrived at the actual tips for losing weight without counting calories.
Remember that these strategies do nothing more than help you restrict your calorie intake, thus creating a daily alorie deficit and weight loss.
Research has shown that simply eating eggs in the morning, as opposed to a grain-based breakfast like bagels, can help you lose weight.
Very simple: people that eat eggs for breakfast end up eating fewer calories at lunch, for the rest of the day, and according to one study, even for the next 36 hours.
Eggs are cheap, healthy foods that we should all enjoy.
Skip the grain breakfast and opt for a high-protein breakfast option like eggs.
When it comes to losing weight, protein is your best friend.
Study after study after study has confirmed that a high-protein diet results in more fat loss than low-protein diets, even when eating until fullness, as well as less hunger, and a greater metabolic boost.
There are two primary reasons for these benefits:
1. Protein costs quite a bit of energy to metabolize. About 25-30% of its energy is utilized in the process, as opposed to only ~5 – 15% of carbohydrate’s energy utilized in its processing, and ~5% of fat’s.
What this means is when you eat protein, there just isn’t as much energy left over to use for fat storage than when you eat carbohydrate or fat.
2. Protein is more filling than carbohydrates or fat, which helps reduce total daily calorie intake. In one study, increasing subjects’ daily protein intake to 30% of total calories resulted in an average daily reduction of 441 calories.
A high-protein diet has another major weight loss benefit: it reduces the amount of muscle that you lose while restricting your calories.
Include a serving of protein with every meal, and you will find it much easier to lose weight without counting calories.
Fibrous foods with a high water content, like most vegetables and some fruits, are great weight loss foods.
Here are my favorite fibrous fruits and veggies:
Eat a few servings of fruits and vegetables every day, and you’ll find it easy to feel full and satisfied without eating a lot of calories.
No, there’s nothing inherently fattening about carbohydrates, but restricting carbohydrate intake is a very easy way to significantly reduce total daily calorie intake.
The fact is most people just abuse carbohydrates, eating far too many every day. This is partially because carbohydrates aren’t very filling, and of course because a lot of the tasty stuff we like to enjoy is high-carb.
The easiest way to cut back on carbs is to eliminate sugars, sweets, and sodas, and limit your intake to starchy foods and grains (bread, pasta, potato, etc.) to 0 – 1 servings per day (and if you’re going to have 1 serving, make it small–no bigger than your fist).
Instead, rely on the fruits and veggies given above for your carbohydrates. If you do this, your carbohydrate intake will be somewhere between 50 – 100 grams per day, which will not only keep your calories under control, but will also help you drop water weight and reduce bloat.
An easy way of reducing calories is cutting out the cereals, rices, grains, breads, pastas, and other “comfort carbs,” and replacing them with the fibrous fruits and vegetables.
Research has shown that increasing water intake is an effective way of increasing fullness, thus helping you reduce your total calorie intake.
Drinking just two glasses before a meal is enough to confer this benefit.
Furthermore, research has also shown that increasing water intake actually speeds up your metabolism. Scientists found that after drinking approximately 2 cups of water, subjects’ metabolic rates were elevated within 10 minutes of water consumption, and reached a maximum elevation after about 30 to 40 minutes.
How does water have this effect in the body? Well, at least 40% of the increase in basal metabolic rate is caused by the body’s need to heat the water to body temperature (no, colder water doesn’t give you a bigger boost–room temperature is fine).
It’s interesting to note that salty fluids negate this metabolic boost because they interfere with cell fluid mechanisms that play a vital role in the metabolic acceleration.
Increase your water intake to about 1 gallon per day, with about two glasses at each meal, to help your weight loss efforts.
Did you know that getting inadequate sleep raises the risk for obesity by 89% in children and 55% in adults?
Yup, it’s true. Poor sleep messes with hormones related to hunger, causing an increase in hunger and cravings.
So make sure you’re making time for adequate, good sleep.
Get enough sleep every night and you’ll be naturally less hungry, and have fewer cravings.