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The Problem with Counting Calories

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The Problem with Counting Calories


Take in less calories than you expend and you’ll lose weight.” That’s what you hear all the time from weight loss experts to doctors to nutritionists. Calories in must be less than calories out in order to lose weight.


Sounds simple enough, right?


Well, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds.


Our bodies are a magnificent and highly complicated design. There’s a lot that happens when we pick up a piece of food, put it in our mouth and digest it. It’s a bunch of scientific and psychological mumbo-jumbo that happens when we eat food. I’m not going to get into the whole science and psychology behind it, but if you are a nerd like me and love the science part of it, here’s a great book for you to check out: Food and Western Disease: Health and nutrition from an evolutionary perspective by Dr. Staffan Lindenberg.


One of the major problems I have with counting calories is that it’s a short term solution. Yes, you will lose weight if you carefully count your calories and make sure you are taking in less than you are putting out. But studies have shown that the vast majority of people on calorie restrictive diets gain back even more weight than they lost. Sorry to burst your bubble, but don’t kill the messenger – that’s just what the research proves. I’ll tell you why that happens and show you what you can do instead.


If you take anything away from this post, please remember this: The key to maintaining optimal weight for a lifetime is not to count calories, but to give your body essential nutrients.


Let me explain what that means. When you eat real, whole foods and consume enough nutrients and calories for your body and energy levels, your hormones transmit a signal to your brain saying, “You can stop eating now. I’m well nourished. I got what I need to make you run well.” This process depends on the actual nutrition in the food you eat.


But the foods of today (processed foods) relay messages to the brain that are anything but good sources of nutrition. And this messes with your brain and body in a very major way. You see, the processed food of today contains little if any real nutrients. Food scientists sucked the nutrition right out of real, whole food and instead created processed food pumped with synthetic vitamins and then filled these foods with artificial ingredients and flavor enhancing, addictive chemicals that are meant to induce cravings that lead us to overeat.


Do you see the problem yet? This means you are eating way more calories with less real nutrition and it’s not your fault. Your brain has been messed with.


Let me give you an example: It’s really hard to consume more calories than your body requires when you eat a steak dinner. You have a nice piece of steak and some broccoli with real butter for dinner. This is a great balance of real food found in nature. The steak is filled with a hefty dose of filling protein and some naturally occurring fats, which make it very filling. The broccoli contains some carbohydrates and a wonderful source of vitamins and minerals. Plus the butter is a naturally occurring fat and is very satisfying. Proteins and naturally occurring fats pack the most most powerful nutrient rich punch. As you are eating this real food, your body recognizes the wonderful nutrition in the meal so when it gets enough nutrients to satisfy your energy levels, it sends a signal to your brain saying, “you can stop eating now – we have enough calories and nutrients for you.” So you stop eating and are full and satisfied. As you may have experienced, it’s pretty tough to overeat this type of meal.


But this hormonal signal plays out much differently when you eat something processed like a box of cookies (or insert any processed food here). Cookies have no real nutrients, contain highly processed ingredients and are filled with artificial, flavor enhancing flavors and addictive chemicals. When you eat these cookies, they provide no real nutrition so your brain wants more and more and you can easily eat almost a whole box. You see, your brain is trying to find adequate nutrition and when there is none or very little there, it doesn’t know when to stop. Not only that, but these flavor enhancing artificial flavors and chemicals are designed to release dopamine and stimulate your pleasure center in your brain. So you want more and more and then you begin to crave foods like this. It becomes an addiction.


As a result, you eat far more calories than your body needs and you get no real nutrition.


When you count calories, you restrict real nutrients. When you are forced to limit your food intake by a number on a package, you are limiting the necessary vitamins and minerals needed for your body to function at it’s best. Not only that, but limiting calories and getting no real nutrients cause your body to hold onto fat when it should be using it for fuel.


Now I don’t want it to seem that I am bashing counting calories. I do think it can be a helpful tool and a good starting place to see if you are eating too much or too little. Most of the time when people are counting calories, they are consuming far too few calories for their body to function well. I know it seems counter-intuitive to eat more when you want to lose weight, but if you don’t eat enough calories, your body will want to hold on to the fat as a protective measure.


I think you’re missing the point and bigger picture if you are restricting calories solely as a way to lose weight. Yes, counting calories can be a great tool to make sure you are providing your body with adequate nutrients to run at it’s prime.


But are you really going to count calories for the rest of your life? What happens when you stop counting calories? You guessed it, the weight comes back according to the research. When you restrict calories as the sole way of losing weight, you never really fixed the main problem.


And do you remember what that problem was? Let me remind you: processed, chemically altered foods, hormones sending your brain faulty signals that induce cravings and addictions. All of that leads to weight gain and why you over consumed calories and gained weight in the first place.


That’s the real problem. If you don’t fix the real problem, you’ll never be able to keep the weight off for good.


So what should you do to keep the weight off? Make sure your body and brain are getting the right, balanced hormonal signals when you eat. And how do you do that?


Consume a diet rich in whole, natural foods (meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts/seeds and natural fats like animal fats and olive and coconut oils) and avoid processed, flavor enhanced foods that send these faulty signals. You will be well nourished and will naturally consume enough calories and nutrients for your optimum weight.


*I need to add this in here, even though it deserves a post of it’s own (coming soon!), but wheat is highly addictive and a processed food. Yes, I’m even talking about whole wheat and whole grains. I know you probably think I’ve lost my mind right now, but hear me out. The wheat of today is not the same wheat as it once was. Modern day wheat has been genetically altered and has addictive properties, just like processed foods. I ditched the wheat a few years ago and never looked back. If you want to learn more about this, please read Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health by Dr. William Davis. You can also read why I ditched the wheat and what a difference it has made in my life here.

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  1. Avatar

    This is so true. I’ve only been primal for two months now, but the difference is astounding. Previously, when I had tried to shed fat using conventional wisdom, the process was slow, unrewarding and difficult to maintain. I was always hungry and felt deprived. I also felt guilty if I went over my alotted calories and discouraged.

    I’m using a spreadsheet to track my progress and I have figures on it from a previous weight loss attempt. In 6 weeks, using CW, I lost a mere .5″ off my waist. At 8 weeks Primal, I’ve lost 2″ off my waist, 11 lbs., etc. etc.

    I never feel deprived. I have little cheats like red wine and dark chocolate almost daily, yet the pounds keep melting off.

    I tracked my calories for the first month, just to see the nutritional breakdown of everything. Now I know, and I don’t need to fuss.

    I have amazing energy and a new lease on life! I’ve been going to the gym 5+/week for years and nothing worked to shed this extra fat…until now!

  2. Avatar

    I can totally relate to Megan’s comment above – I’ve been doing Paleo for 8 weeks now and feel
    AH-MAZING !!! Gone are the days of calorie counting for me!
    I’ve lost 15lbs – woot.
    There is so much truth in what you’ve shared in your post. Afternoons before, used to be my tough time as I would want to (and normally would) binge on something only to find that I would consume way more than any one person should at one sitting. Seriously. Just this afternoon, I had 2 dates and a small cup of coffee (yea baby) and it was perfect. Perfect, I tell ya.
    It was all I needed.
    It was JUST what I needed.
    My body was completely satisfied, and I listened.
    Yes!!! Go me!
    Loving this way of life completely!
    Blessings ~

  3. Avatar
    anne vandemoortel

    The idea of counting calories is to choose low calorie, nutrient rich foods, not to simply choose low calories.

    • Primally Inspired

      Yes, I definitely agree that is the ideal way to count calories and get proper nutrients, Anne! Unfortunately, many people don’t do this and focus on the number of calories (usually low calorie, low fat, nutrient poor foods) rather than getting the proper nutrients. If someone counts calories to get the most nutrient rich foods, that’s perfect!

  4. Avatar

    What a great post! Thanks!

  5. Avatar

    Just finished reading the book, Wheat Belly, very interesting. You have a great sight. Love your recipes – starting to make “my” recipe book. My question to you is, when eating primal is it ok to have several servings of fruit in one day. I know in Wheat Belly he advises to just having a small portion of fruit. I love having a good tart apple and just don’t know if I need to be watching my fruit portions. I’ve been off “most wheat” know for a couple of weeks. Got some casserols in the freezer that I haven’t thrown out yet. But pantry is clean!

    • Primally Inspired

      Hi Sue!
      Thank you and good for you about cleaning out your pantry! That’s one of the most helpful things you can do 🙂
      I am a huuuuuge fruit lover and an advocate of eating fruit. Fruit is filled with an abundance of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and fiber and a wonderful source of nutrition. I don’t worry about the consumption of fruit I am eating because it is so nutrient dense and so good for our cells. I usually eat about 2-3 servings of fruit each day.

      If you are not consuming other sugars, a couple servings of fruit is a great addition to your diet. I always suggest eating fruit in it’s whole form instead of juicing or drinking fruit juice. The good fiber is eliminated when you juice, which puts sugar in your bloodstream so much faster than if you were to eat the whole fruit. I also would suggest not to eat just fruit first thing in the morning (unless you eat it with a nice serving of protein and healthy fats). When you put sugar in your bloodstream first thing in the morning (without protein and fats), you’ll be set up for sugar cravings and hunger (and mood swings!) a few hours later.

      One more thing about fruit! Anyone overweight and struggling with insulin resistance is a lot more sensitive to fructose. So eating large servings of fruit in one sitting is a bad idea because your metabolism isn’t good at managing energy yet. So these people should eat smaller portions at a time.

      Hope that helps and I love tart apples, too – yum! 🙂

  6. Avatar

    Thanks for you insight. I know I need to make changes and I am. Just so much info out there and not sure who to believe. But you’ve cleared up my questions!

    • Primally Inspired

      I agree, there is so much conflicting info out there, Sue. I think it’s always best to go with what works for you and your goals. And you’ll discover what that is the longer you are in it. Take care and I wish you the best 🙂

  7. Avatar

    I printed this article out for all my nutrition students. Wonderful, wonderful information!

  8. Avatar

    Wow! Before I make my comment, I swear I didn’t see this post before now…

    Having said this, I just have been on this kick of remembering why calorie counting doesn’t work this week. When I first started conciously eating real foods a couple years ago, I had done all this research and just built my habits, so the science behind the “why” has fallen away with time.

    I wish I would have come to your site before surfing the internet trying to remember all this stuff!

    But I had just made another post about this today and decided to come stalk you when, low-and-behold, you’re on my same train of thought, dude!

    I love that you’re a geek like me and can actually read through the articles that make most folks’ eyes gloss-over with the first paragraph… most impressively though, you present it in a way that doesn’t sound too nerdy!

    Try this one for furthering your studies on this topic, ma’am: http://www.fathead-movie.com/index.php/2010/01/19/more-calorie-counting-nonsense/

    • Primally Inspired

      Can’t wait to see your new post, Chris! It’s nice to “meet” someone so likeminded as me – you must be pretty awesome, obviously. lol. And thanks for that link. Just read it and that guy is hilarious and right on the money.

  9. Avatar

    Great post!!

    I have been counting calories for years and I have been restricting myself too much. So my body just kept everything in storage. I’m learning to had more fat and protein in my diet but I don’t know how to control the amounts. For exemple, Should I have 2 or 3 eggs in the morning? Should I take just half avocado or can I have it all in one meal?
    This is my problem now with this new diet. But i feel so much better with the primal diet then before!!

    Sorry fo my english, I’m from Québec :o)


    • Primally Inspired

      Hi Melanie!
      It’s great hearing from you 🙂

      I’m so glad you are now learning a healthier way to eat! That’s awesome!

      These are purely general recommendations (everyone has different goals and activity levels!) and is what is recommended in the book, “It Starts With Food” by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig (amazing, amazing book that I highly recommend!!)

      Create your meals around your protein source (protein helps keep us full and helps stabalize our blood sugar levels). Adequate protein is key! Each meal should include one or two palmful size servings of protein. This is usually around 2 to 4+ eggs for women. If you are not very active your servings might be one palmful of protein per meal. If you are very active or workout consistently, you should go with the 2 palmful servings. It’s very hard to overeat protein (as I mentioned in the above article), so I wouldn’t worry about the 2 or 3 egg thing at all. Eat until you are satisfied – this will keep you full for a longer time and will help your blood sugar levels.

      For the fats: I’m so glad you are not scared of healthy fats anymore! It is so important to get enough healthy fats in your diet. Not getting enough will throw off your hormones, you’ll be hungry all the time and then be tired and cranky because you are hungry all the time! Not cool! The general recommendation is one OR MORE healthy, natural fat sources PER MEAL! DO NOT GO LESS and you may even need to go more (depending on activity level):
      For healthy oils like olive and coconut and butter: 1 – 2 T of oil or butter
      Avocados: half to one avocado
      Full fat coconut milk: 1/4 – 1/2 of a can
      Nuts and seeds: up to a closed fistful
      coconut flakes: one to two palmfuls

      How do you know if you should eat the smaller end of the spectrum or the more amount? It all goes back to activity levels. If you are very active, you need to be at the higher end of the scale and maybe even add more. If you are not as active, start with the lower end of the scale and see how you feel. The key is getting the right amount for your body and activity levels and for you to feel great. It might help to make a food journal for a month: Write down what you eat and how you felt that day. Did 2 eggs and a half of avocado keep you satisfied until your next meal or were you hungry and cranky 2 hours later?

      I hope that helps, Melanie! Good luck!!

  10. Avatar

    Thank you sooo much!! You are very kind and generous :o)


  11. Avatar

    I am playing advocate here since I have gone back to calorie counting and balanced eating after trying many approaches for many years.
    While calorie counting in itself is just another avenue of awareness as to ones overall consumption it is still a valuable tool for people like me who need to learn and be in my body and the reactions certain foods and deficiencies throw that balance off.
    When I calorie counted years ago we were advised to use food guide rules. Nutritional values in foods were higher and not as impacted by unnatural sources and foods such as fruits and veggies are today.
    In my own evolutionary consciousness journey around foodconsumption the environment and its impact on my body I have gradually learned of the delicate balance and impact my hormone levels, stress and a good balance of a natural diet with carbs, protein and fats can impact my cravings and primal needs for foods.
    Seeking this balance through calorie counting and observing and maintaining it has opened a doorway to my food behavior and various other triggers that interfere with my being present to what my body needs and portions really are. I am now becoming more conscious in my choices of sized and unconscious grazing patterns as well as my bodies other needs by the calorie counting approach. I have also lost weight many time on this approach and this time having been eating clean free of wheat and sugar for ten years now it is giving me a more refined approach to understanding myself and my body and portion sizes that is the final piece of the puzzle.
    Even though over the years I have very clean eating content. Calorie counting is teaching me to listen to my body in new ways.
    Thanks for the conversation.

    • Primally Inspired

      Hi Maureen,

      Thank you so much for writing in and sharing your journey with me (us)! I loved hearing your insight and how counting calories has been a positive experience and has helped you! 🙂 I’m all for anything that helps and is working. Everyone is so unique and what works for one person might not work another, so I loved hearing how counting calories has been very valuable for you!

  12. Avatar

    Very well written! Since changing to a whole foods diet I am able to eat as much as I want, feel full, and not gain weight.

  13. Avatar

    I’m following a Paleo lifestyle, and the pounds are not melting off. I have to count calories in order to ensure that I eat about 1,000 calories/day. I wish I didn’t have to count them; I hate it.

  14. Avatar

    My only question is…..where do you begin? I want so badly to make the switch to eating real, whole, healthy foods but I don’t know where to start. I have a pantry that can easily be cleaned but what do I replace it with? I have 4 children that deserve to eat the best food for their bodies but my dislike for change keeps me from taking the leap. Any suggestions?

    • Primally Inspired

      Hi Jolene!

      It can be really overwhelming at first, so I suggest implementing one change per week (or month or whatever will work for you in the long run). This way, it’s less likely to overwhelm you and your kids.

      I don’t like being restrictive so I think of these changes in terms of replacing, not restricting. If you can easily replace what you used to eat with healthy options instead of just eliminating it, it will be a lot easier to do!

      I think one of the best and healthiest things you can do right off the bat is replacing the oils you cook with. Ditch all your vegetable and canola oils and replace them with olive oil, coconut oil and real butter. This is HUGE in terms of health and I believe makes one of the biggest differences.

      Next, consider going through your pantry and see what packaged/processed food you eat the most of. And start replacing them one by one.

      This definitely doesn’t happen overnight – it’s a process of figuring it out and seeing what works for you and your family.

      Here’s a wonderful book written by a mom that didn’t know where to start. The beginning tells her story and the end has easy ways to replace foods. I love this book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0027MJU28/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B0027MJU28&linkCode=as2&tag=primainspi-20

      Here’s also an article I wrote when I first started my website of things that helped me get started eating healthy:

      I wish you and your family the best, Jolene 🙂

  15. Avatar


    Thanks for posting this information. I actually just ordered Wheat Belly and the corresponding cookbook. I’ve been following the primal lifestyle since the beginning of the year, but it’s difficult sometimes when I travel so much for work. There is lots of planning to be done for those trips to stay on a strict paleo diet. But I recently have had wheat introduced into my diet again and it’s amazing how it changes how different I feel. I don’t feel as good as I did without it and you’re blog post totally highlighted that for me. It’s less about weight for me, and more about feeling like my best self. But the weight loss is a good perk too :).

    By the way, I tried your paleo nachos last night – huge hit in my house! Thanks for sharing and keep the great recipes coming.

  16. Avatar

    I’ve lost 248 pounds and went from a size 60 jacket to a size 44 (52 waist to 36) in about 14 months following a mostly paleo diet. The doctors finally discovered I was sick all the time primarily because I was allergic to everything I was eating (wheat, sugar, dairy, soy). If I eat any of that now I get violently ill, I can’t believe I was ever able to tolerate it.
    Anyway I have to adapt most cookbooks and recipes (even paleo ones)because of the allergies so calorie counting was driving me INSANE because it was always off. I read a post not too long ago about not bothering to count calories so I stopped…lost 4 more pounds and became less obsessive. This post reinforces that as the right decision, probably primarily because of confirmation bias but also because the recipes on this site are usually the ones I have to adapt less so I like that. 🙂

  17. Avatar

    This was a great post……I actually just starting reading them recently and I really find them helpful…. I have to ask though…….are you strictly Paleo?

    • Primally Inspired

      I am 100% gluten free, but I do eat white potatoes, white rice, organic peanut butter and occasionally soaked oats, which are not technically paleo foods. And I love my butter and sheeps milk dairy products. And if you offer me ice cream, I will never turn it down 🙂 Paleo or Primal best describes the way I eat (Honestly, I really dislike labels like Paleo, though!) I prefer that people listen to their body and eat the foods that they can digest well and that can vary from person to person. I think a Paleo template is a wonderful place to start because it gives the body such a rich source of nutrients, but I think it’s way more important to listen to your body and what it’s trying to tell you than to just eat what some book told you to eat because it’s “paleo.”

  18. Avatar

    I love your site and am back reading posts where I have a few moments.

    I’ve been tinkering with primal for about a year now (but have been gluten free for over 2 since I discovered a sensitivity through an elimination diet) and I would say that aside from organic dairy (raw is illegal in Australia) and the odd treat my mum sends from America (I allow 1 a week… 80/20 rule) I cannot lose weight. I eat controlled portions of whole, nourishing foods, yet I am always hungry. I have only ever had success losing weight when I was on 1200 calories or less (and exercising at least an hour a day) however I have always gained it back (and more! exactly as you suggest!) not to mention lower immunity and eventual fatigue. Do you have any further tips then? What else can I do aside from cutting the amount that I eat considering I eat no sugar, no gluten, no grains, my carbs come from veggies (including sweet potato and pumpkin), I eat varied protein including 2 eggs every morning, my meats and veg are all organic and local…

    I see all these people’s success stories with going primal but it hasn’t done anything for my IBS or weight issues (though I did get my period back after 8 months of it disappearing after my last foray into very low calorie dieting). I shouldn’t need to be low calorie to have success with fat loss (Although I’m 5’6″ and 198lbs body composition testing shows I’m 114lbs of lean muscles, bones, organs and water…which I understand is very high for a girl).

    I would appreciate any further insight from your wonderful mind 🙂



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