Calorie-Counting, a Long-term Failure

Read time: 2.5 minutes

Here are 3 reasons why I don’t believe that calorie-counting is effective for long-term or permanent weight loss in most people.

1. Research indicates that the metabolism of a lean or obese person is “normal” when there’s free-range to calorie intake (Hirsch, 1995). The individual eats as much as needed in order to satisfy energy requirement of the cells. If calories are reduced (diet and/or exercise) without energy compensation, then the metabolism eventually becomes disturbed and impaired, as measured by increased catecholamines and cortisol, increased pulse rate, decreased blood volume and circulation, decreased healing, decreased reflexes, increased weakness, loss of ambition, irritability, loss of libido, decreased body temperature and persistent feeling of “being cold,” and disproportionately decreased activity impulse (Keys, 1944; Bray, 1969; Garrow, 1978).

2. Being the fruit — and the curse — of human evolution, the fundamental drive to maintain homeostasis is powerful and can ultimately dictate behavior. In both the obese and the lean, a calorie deficit produces physiological and psychological concomitants of starvation. The cells in the obese starve, as would those in the lean, disrupting homeostasis, and eventually triggering behavioral responses.

3. The field of psychology has determined that will power is finite. At varying individual rate, will power eventually depletes (Ozdenoren, 2006). Neither the obese nor the lean can all permanently overcome the symptoms of semi-starvation and homeostatic disruption. Sooner or later, the drive to return to homeostasis produces defeating behavior, as observed repeatedly in clinical studies and in the real world. After a period of cellular starvation, the obese tend to become obese again, and the lean become normally lean again, in the powerful drive to reinstate homeostasis.

But What About Stored Body Fat?

The logical question is why can’t the obese use their own body fat to fuel their cells? After all, the evolutionary basis for fat cells is that they are temporary storage for surplus energy to be used later. Unfortunately, a defect in the energy regulating system has turned them into a permanent storage space. The problem: the grain-based carbohydrate and sugar content of the modern Standard Western Diet.

Reduced calories won't help long-term weight loss, if they're the wrong calories

Regular carbohydrate and sugar consumption elevates chronic levels of insulin, a powerful hormone that stores fatty acids in fat cells, blocks them there, and impairs fat oxidation in muscle and organ tissues. In other words, even though the obese store excess energy in their fat cells, access to it is blocked. A reduced-calorie diet in these individuals, therefore, only produces a state of starvation, a disruption in homeostasis, no different than that experienced by lean people when they eat less.

Then What Can Be Done to Lose Weight?

Since the hypothesis of calorie deficit and weight loss has been shown to fail most people long term, perhaps a different hypothesis should be tried: Control insulin production by eliminating grain-based carbohydrates and sugar. This leads to correcting energy and fat regulation, and finally to true and permanent fat loss.

My wife, who has engaged in various exercise programs (from cardio to weight training, from super-slow lifting to high-intensity intervals, from Olympic-style weightlifting to Crossfit) and has been on various conventional weight-loss diets, has battled the extra 30 pounds of weight for years. Finally she lost it all, but only after employing this different hypothesis. She no longer beats herself up with exercise, and she certainly doesn’t starve herself.

So Abolish Calorie-Counting?

Yes, if the goal is to go from being overweight or obese to being healthfully lean.

However, calorie-counting is useful for those who are (or have reached) a healthfully lean body weight, but want to further decrease their body fat to an extremely low level. Keep in mind, however, that for most people extreme fat loss from calorie-counting is temporary, just as the weight loss is temporary with calorie-counting in the obese. (I personally have counted calories in the past to achieve extremely low body fat — e.g. 3% — but could never maintain for more than a few weeks. If I ignore calories and just maintain my current grain-free, real-food diet, then my body fat settles at a comfortable 5% to 8%.)

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2 Responses to Calorie-Counting, a Long-term Failure

  1. Mark says:

    Good Morning,
    Great blog. It is very encouraging to see someone like you with real results. If you have some time, I have a couple of questions.

    1. What are your thoughts on dairy? I noticed that you had yogurt in your chicken salad recipe and I didn’t really see much in regards to avoidance of dairy, just grains and refined sugar.
    2. Could you write out your meals for a couple of days as an example? When I have gone Paleo before, but I think I overdid the fruit.
    3. What are your thoughts on sprouted grain products? I only ask because in the new The Paleo Diet blog in the Q&A section, they said that sprouted grains are fine because they leave behind all the bad stuff even though veggies/fruits are better choices because they have more vitamins and such.
    4. How did you go from 25% body fat to where you are now? I agree that a Paleo approach without calorie/block counting is sustainable for a lifetime but it’s the transition that gets me. I have a hard time believing that one will drop to 10% without at least having an idea of calorie intake. Thank you for your time, I really appreciate any feedback that you can give. Please let me know if you have any questions for me. If it helps, I’m 6’0″ and about 210 lbs, 25 years old, and probably around 15% bf (I can kind of see my top abs). -Mark

  2. Pingback: Q & A « The Lean Saloon

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