Monday Health & Wellness: Does Calorie Counting Matter in Weight Loss? |

Monday Health & Wellness: Does Calorie Counting Matter in Weight Loss?

admin October 10, 2011

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Health and weight loss is a major topic in this country.  Unfortunately, we are a country of extremes: many people are too heavy, yet have a goal to be what is ultimately too thin.  We don’t know what a “normal,” healthy body looks like any longer.  It’s important to achieve or maintain an appropriate weight in order to be healthy (and that weight may be lower or higher than we are told is “right”).

The basic answer we’re given about weight loss is this: “Simple!  Just consume fewer calories than you burn off, and you lose weight!”  But is that really true?  Could it be so simple?

Fallacy of “Simple” Weight Loss

If weight loss were truly simple, then we wouldn’t have such an epidemic right now.  If cutting calories was the primary or only thing that mattered, most of our population wouldn’t be overweight.  But the calories you take in are not used in an efficient, homogenous manner.  A person’s caloric needs can vary largely depending on a number of circumstances.  Hormones and other issues not related to food intake also play a role.

How many people do you know who have tried every diet out there — and maybe it was you?  Low fat, low-carb, low calorie, different supplements or pills, programs, meal replacement drinks….  And nothing works.  We had a family member who ate very little (and most of it was fruits and vegetables) and walked several miles on her treadmill each day…and didn’t lose a single pound.  In 8 months.  She came to find out that her thyroid and adrenals weren’t healthy and when she addressed those issues, she began to lose weight — even though she was eating a lot more (including a lot more fat) and not exercising.

Weight loss just isn’t about “taking in fewer calories than you burn off!”

The Body’s Caloric Needs

The idea that all calories are the same and that you can lose weight simply by eating fewer is honestly ridiculous to me.  Calories are just a measure of the amount of energy in the food.  They are not, in and of themselves, good or bad.  The amount of energy we truly get from food can’t “really” be calculated anyway, because our bodies aren’t looking solely for “energy.”  They are looking for a balance of macro and micronutrients.  If they don’t get what they are seeking, then they will signal you to eat more.  Calories, in number, are basically irrelevant to the body (they are neither a macro nor micronutrient).

It’s also true that your caloric needs can vary widely from time to time.  There is a base amount that you require simply to perform the functions needed to live — to keep your heart beating, your lungs breathing, and so on.  Beyond that it can change quite a lot, depending on your activity level, your hormones, whether you are healthy or sick, etc.  There is no way to gauge the true appropriate number of calories per day since it can change so often.  Ideally, you do not count calories at all, but take in an adequate amount of healthy food and allow your body to decide when and how much to eat.

Taking in too few calories can lead your body to store more as fat.  How many people do you know who begin restricted-calorie diets who initially see good weight loss — for a few weeks — and then plateau or even gain a little back?  It’s considered “normal” in weight loss circles, but it’s not.  This is a sign that you are eating too little.  Your body is holding onto everything you eat and is more likely to store fat, because it is in “starvation” mode.  They warn about this with eating disorders, but it can happen to anyone who goes on a seriously restricted-calorie diet.

There are other major issues with restricted calories, too, and you can read the entire post I wrote on low-calorie diets previously.

How to Handle Calories?

The simple answer?  Don’t.  Don’t pay any attention to the number of calories in a snack.  When you are healthy, your body will regulate what you need naturally.

The problem is that if you are overweight, you may not be healthy enough for your body to self-regulate.  The body should produce ghrelin to let you know you’re hungry and should eat, then produce leptin to tell you to stop, you’ve had enough.  If you are not eating the right foods or something else is “off” with your body, then these hormones may not be produced properly, especially leptin.  Insulin may be over or under produced.  This is typically known as “metabolic syndrome” and places you at risk for diabetes.

The best place to start is to cut out all sugars and white flour or other refined grains from your diet, if you haven’t already, and cut back on grains in general.  This will stop the crazy blood sugar spikes that lead to insulin issues, and start to get your hormones back to normal.  It will take time.

In the mean time, eat meat, vegetables, whole dairy, some fruits and grains to satisfaction, but never to feeling “stuffed.”  Don’t worry about how many calories this is or isn’t.

Do You Eat Too Few Calories?

I have a bad habit, personally.  I make sure my kids eat all day, but I’m usually doing chores while they’re “tied up” at the table, so I don’t sit down and eat with them.  Therefore, I often don’t eat enough in general.

I haven’t lost all my baby weight yet (I know, it’s only been two months) and I suspect the reason is that I’m not eating enough, so my body won’t let go of the bit of additional weight I still have.  Biologically, I need that fat to continue to produce milk, and if my body is worried that I am not eating enough to sustain myself and produce quality milk, then I will not lose weight.  Therefore, my plan to lose my baby weight is actually to eat more.

The average woman, around 150 lbs. with low to moderate activity needs a minimum of around 1600 calories a day just to perform her basic functions.  She needs probably 2000 to maintain her activity levels.  Add pregnancy or breastfeeding or any additional needs?  3000 isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.

This is far more than we are told is appropriate.  But, it is true.  And again, this can change depending on the number of macro/micro nutrients the body needs at any given time.

Are You Getting Your Nutrients?

The basic reason why people are so heavy these days is that they are malnourished.  When people eat foods that contain very few micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), their bodies do not have what they need to function.  So, the body encourages you to eat more, in hopes of getting the nutrients it needs.  Ultimately, people take in a lot more calories, sugar, carbs, etc. than they need but still don’t have enough nutrients.  The situation is even worse because many of these processed foods actually draw nutrients out of the body for digestion and detoxification, upping your nutritional requirements.  Worse still, many of the nutrients that are in these foods are supplemental, added during processing and they’re not well absorbed by the body.

It’s very common to be deficient in some nutrient…or several nutrients.

  • Vitamin A Deficiency — Night-blindness, infertility, frequent infections, poor growth (children), genetic disorders, anemia
  • Vitamin B Deficiency — Fatigue, weakness, anemia, bleeding gums, diarrhea, constipation, loss of balance, depression, dementia, dermatitis, mental disorders, high or low blood sugar, neural tube defects (in babies whose mothers are deficient), irritability, nervousness, dizziness, frequent headaches, cancer, infertility
  • Vitamin C Deficiency — Anemia, bleeding gums, frequent infections, long healing/recovery times, dry hair and skin, bruises easily, weight gain, painful joints
  • Vitamin D Deficiency — Rickets, muscle weakness, frequent infections, osteoporosis, psoriasis, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure
  • Vitamin E Deficiency — Ataxia, muscle weakness, poor vision, frequent illness
  • Vitamin K Deficiency — Lack of blood clotting, easy bruising, loss of bone density, bleeding gums, heavy periods
  • Magnesium Deficiency — Constipation, nausea, weak bones, frequent infections, high/low blood sugar, high blood pressure, leg cramps/restless legs, fatigue, weakness, seizures, abnormal heart rhythms
  • Potassium Deficiency — High blood pressure, muscle weakness and cramps, fatigue, anxiety, acne, poor sleep, constipation
  • Zinc Deficiency — Loss of appetite, frequent infections, impaired growth (in children), impotence, delayed healing, mental lethargy
  • Calcium Deficiency — Back or neck pain, easily broken bones, numbness, weakness, bruises, seizure, chest pain
  • Copper Deficiency — Anemia, impaired growth (in children), weight gain, frequent infections, poor motor control, low energy

This is not an exhaustive list.  And it’s important to note that many of these symptoms overlap and can also signal other things not noted here.  If you suspect that you may be deficient in something, please see a health professional to get a test done.

If it turns out you are deficient in something, it is either because you are not consuming enough of that nutrient in your diet, or because your body cannot absorb and use the nutrient efficiently.  If the latter is the case, a healing diet like GAPS may be in order (which should also lead to weight loss).

What if I Can’t Lose Weight?

If you’re struggling to lose weight, check all of the issues above.  Are you eating enough?  Are you deficient in any nutrient?  Are you eating too much sugar or too many grains?  Are you eating processed foods and industrial fats?

If you’re doing all the right things and you still are not losing weight, consider that the diet you are consuming may not be the most appropriate for you.  Although traditional foods are superior, and we should avoid modern, processed foods, the exact diet that you consume can vary quite widely.  Some eat primarily protein and fat from animal sources.  Some need a much higher percentage of fresh produce with only a small amount of animal products.  Try out different ratios until you figure out a diet that is more appropriate for you.

If nothing is helping, seek the advice of a medical professional.  It may be that your hormones are out of balance you need supplements or other help getting them back in line.  If you have an underlying thyroid or adrenal condition, you may be unable to lose weight.  If you have heavy metal toxicity or muscle weakness or any number of other conditions, this may affect your weight loss, as well.

It is important to seek the advice of a professional who understands the body and can run the appropriate tests to see if any of your levels are out of balance, then help you re-balance them so that your body can lose weight.

What is an Appropriate Weight?

We don’t know what’s “healthy” anymore with regards to weight.  It’s clearly not healthy for a woman who is 5’5″ (average) to weigh 300 lbs.  Neither is it healthy for her to weigh 85 lbs.

It’s important to understand that BMI is not accurate, either.  The BMI, or Body Mass Index, is a formula to “guess” how much body fat you have.  It can be off quite a lot, especially if you are young, on the short side, or especially muscular.  A better idea is to get a test done to see how much body fat you actually have.  The “ideal” for women is 18 – 24% during child bearing years, which is more than we’re told we should have.  A lot of women really need to carry extra weight in their hips, thighs, and butts!  Wide hips are a sign of fertility for a reason!

Every person’s body has a “set point.”  There is some evidence to suggest that some people are meant to be what we consider overweight (not morbidly obese, though).  Once you have figured out any health issues you have and have begun to lose weight, your body will eventually settle naturally where it should be.  This may be different than what you expected or wanted.  Accept it.

On GAPS, I lost 30 lbs. (post-baby) and got down to around 112.  I’m 5’3″ with a rather curvy figure.  I started to slowly gain weight again until I settled around 126 for awhile (only then did I actually get a normal period, it had been really abnormal until that point, which is not typical for me).  I gained a few more pounds, settling in around 130 — and then I got pregnant again.  That seemed to be where my body was healthiest, even if I was a bit “bigger” than I had been or might have liked to be.

It is important to adjust our expectations and to begin with a mind on what is truly healthy, ignoring the world’s definition of beauty.  Those frail-boned, stick-thin, hollow-cheeked women are not beautiful!  They look sick and malnourished.  All the make up in the world can’t change that.  I’ve taught my daughter already that it’s important to be healthy, and that these women are clearly not.  It’s taken me a few years to change my own thoughts and standards on beauty; I don’t want her to ever contend with that.

A Note on Baby Weight

I’m trying to lose the weight from my third pregnancy — I’m familiar with this subject!

First, be patient.  In my experience, unless you were overweight to begin with, it will take at least three months for the weight to come off.  Breastmilk production stabilizes around 12 weeks postpartum, which is when your body may be ready to shed the last of that weight.  Don’t expect to lose those last 5 or 10 lbs. sooner than this.  (I keep reminding myself of this.)

Eat enough.  If you’re not consuming enough food to meet both your own nutritional needs and your baby’s, you will not lose the weight.  This is likely why some women say they can’t lose weight while breastfeeding.  Your body is ensuring it can continue to produce milk so it holds onto the extra fat.  There is some evidence to suggest that if your baby is having “seedy” poop (which is really just undigested milk curds), your milk contains enough fat.  I check this frequently to make sure my diet remains adequate in this area!

Finally, realize that your shape may simply change somewhat, and this is okay.  Buy some clothes that fit you properly and be proud that your body can carry babies!  I’m still working on the “clothes that fit” part, but Ben’s actually helping me shop (so much fun!) and he doesn’t seem to mind at all that I’m a bit different…lol.

What do you think?  Do calories really matter in weight loss?

This is the writings of:



  1. I think one other aspect that we must recognize is eating because we "mentally" want to eat something instead of just because one's body is really indicating it's hungry. For many people who struggle with losing weight, that can be a real element in the process of weight loss. Sometimes that is the biggest obstacle to overcome. Your note that one should eat only to satisfaction and not to "being stuffed" is important for us all to hear. We have to find that line for ourselves and stop eating once we're satisfied …and to break ourselves from eating because of mental desire.


  2. This is a great article and one that every woman should read. I've struggled my whole life with weight and counting calories. I have a tendency to under eat and over-exercise. Not good.
    When we switched to a healthy diet, my weight regulated. I lost about 3 pounds without trying and haven't gained ANY weight even though I got rid of my fat free and low cal foods. 🙂
    Your body knows what you need.


  3. I love your point about the world's definition of a "healthy" weight being too low. I used to work so hard trying to lose fat from my hips and thighs… nothing ever worked. A few years ago I finally realized that if I got every body part down to the measurement I wanted, I wouldn't be healthy. Right now I'm eight months pregnant and I don't feel "fat" like last time. I feel like it's such a beautiful miracle that my body can carry this little one! 🙂 Now, I just focus on being healthy and it is so freeing! And, like you said, my hubby is quite happy with a happy, healthy me!


  4. So glad for this post. It drives me crazy to hear people counting calories still to try to lose weight! I'm a firm believer that quality is far, far more important than quantity when it comes to losing weight and being healthy.


  5. I’d be curious to know what you recommend for someone going into a more real foods diet that is overweight to start with. My husband and I have started switching our standard diet over to more whole foods. In the 16 months that we’ve been married, I think I’ve gained close to 30 pounds. Not at all at once, but going from a very active lifestyle that included walking several miles into town regularly, as well as nannying for 5 children, to working full-time in an office and driving everywhere, has definitely taken its toll. My husband is finishing college, and when we first got married, we both worked full-time with slightly different shifts- so, as you can imagine, our food choices were worse than they’d ever been at that point. Things have calmed down to a more normal schedule since then, and we are budgeting to try to get to the point where I can stay home full-time. In the mean-time, I use weekends to make most of our food from scratch to get us through the week. I do feel a lot healthier in the few months that we’ve been eating whole foods, and my husband says he thinks I’ve lost weight, but when I look at the scale…. it hasn’t changed. I know the number on the scale is not the most important thing in the world, and I’ve had to rethink a lot of my ideas about what *healthy* looks like for me. But that being said, I know that I’m not where I need to be. Sorry to be long-winded, but I would really love advice on a natural way to get back down to a healthy weight without fad diets and things like that. I think our diet now is what it should be, so should I just wait a few months and see if it makes a bigger impact?


    • Hi Sarai, yes, just wait and see. You may want to cut back more on sugar or grains temporarily or see if eating more coconut oil makes a difference for you. We were both overweight too when we switched to real food (my husband was about 60 lbs. heavier) and found that we naturally lost weight over time as we ate better. If nothing’s changing in a few months, you might try upping the fat (especially coconut oil) or possibly, for you, looking into metabolic/hormonal issues as the reason why. And of course getting more exercise is always good!


  6. This worked for my husband and I too…I actually wrote a post on my weight-loss story:
    I counted no calories, just focused on quality. I lost some weight, plateau’d, and then added more fats and started losing again. I got pregnant and gained no weight until the 3rd trimester. I gained a total of 6 lbs in the pregnancy and had a 8.5 pounder. I’m now 45 lbs less than I was at my highest 2 years ago. My son is 4.5 months and while I’d like to lost more weight, I’m satisfied that no matter how much I seem to eat, as long as I maintain 80% good choices I haven’t gained anything either.

    My husband, who did count calories during this time, lost 50 lbs in 6 months (sickening, right!)!). But after he stopped carefully tracking calories and activity, he gained about 20 back and has stabilized about 30 lbs less than his highest. For him, he’s still weighs more than he did in college, but he’s a healthy weight and can easily be active and just go running when he wants, etc without feeling terrible.

    I think both of us could easily be 10 lbs less than we are and still be in a healthy range for our bodies, but we’ve realized that him being 185 at 6’1″ and me being 175 at 5’9″ is healthy for us, even though it’s a little higher than what is “normal”. We eat great foods that many people don’t allow themselves to eat and enjoy (butter, milk, eggs, etc…my doctor says we’re on a restricted diet, yeah right!), and we don’t yo-yo anymore like we used to. This is the first time in my life I haven’t felt bad about the way I look or had food issues. Even though we’re both more than we were when we got married, we don’t have to work hard to stay at this weight like we used to.


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Hi, I’m Kate.  I love medical freedom, sharing natural remedies, developing real food recipes, and gentle parenting. My goal is to teach you how to live your life free from Big Pharma, Big Food, and Big Government by learning about herbs, cooking, and sustainable practices.

I’m the author of Natural Remedies for Kids and the owner and lead herbalist at EarthleyI hope you’ll join me on the journey to a free and healthy life!

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