Letting Go of Calories-In-Calories-Out

The idea that calories are the key to weight loss is completely ingrained in our culture—perhaps especially in the subculture I inhabit, that of Type A overachievers.  I hear stuff like this all the time:

  • A woman saying she is eating oatmeal for breakfast, not the bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich she really wants, because the oatmeal has 60 fewer calories.
  • A woman ribbing her husband for exceeding his calorie “budget” on the social calorie tracking app they share as part of a friendly competition.
  • People ordering “skinny vanilla lattes,” or eating bags of Skinny Pop or 100-calorie packs.

People, we don’t have to live this way.

Out With The Old

We all know that diets don’t work  and that 80% of people who lose weight gain it all back within two years.  And there is a growing body of research that says calories-in-calories-out is a flawed paradigm for weight loss.   So why do we keep counting and weighing, losing and gaining, trying and winning and failing?

I don’t argue that it’s not possible to lose weight by restricting calories.  Rather, I argue that it doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) matter—because restricting calories is no way to live, and it’s not our only option.

An N=1 Study of Weight Loss

Here’s a bit of my personal story.  A few years ago, I tried to lose weight via calories-in-calories out.  I had an app where I tracked everything I ate and everything I burned, and I weighed myself regularly.  I stuck to a strict budget of 1640 net calories, because that’s what the app told me I could eat if I wanted to lose ½ lb per week.  I did lose a little weight this way, but I gained it all back as soon as I quit—which was inevitable once I realized that living this way is not only a lot of work, but it’s also a recipe for unhappiness, body dissatisfaction, and feelings of failure.

It’s been several years since I stopped using the weight loss app, but I still record my weight every few months so I can keep my data stream going.  Nowadays, I focus on eating nutrient-dense foods ad libitum and I don’t count calories.  So when I told someone recently that I was “sure” I was eating more calories than I did back when I was dieting, but that I was pretty sure I weighed about the same or even less, I didn’t have the data to back it up–and he didn’t seem to believe me.  So I went back to the app for a day this week.

I ate 2,961 calories on Sunday, which is a whopping 59% more calories than the 1,867  the app tells me I “should” be eating to maintain my current weight!  (Full disclosure: I only recorded through dinner and didn’t include any of the post-dinner candy I ate—hey, it was vacation, give me a break—so my total calorie count is actually understated.)   The internet says there are 3500 calories in a pound of fat, so if I carry a 1,094 calorie balance every day for a year, then I should be gaining 114 pounds every year that I eat this way!  Well, I’ve been eating this way for about two years, so let’s see.

Here’s the Chart

(I took out the units on the y-axis because it’s the trends that are important, and it doesn’t do anyone any good to fixate on numbers when it comes to weight.)


I’m not actually gaining 114 pounds per year.  In fact, I’ve actually lost a few pounds.

What’s the Takeaway?

My point is not that calories-in-calories-out can’t work; rather, it’s that it doesn’t matter whether it works or not, because there is no need to live that way.  You can lose weight just by feeding your body what it needs and trusting it to take care of the rest.  You can lose weight from a position of love and trust and health rather than competition and willpower and struggle–and who wouldn’t prefer that?

Recommended Watching

Have you seen this TED Talk by Sandra Aamodt?  Her perspective isn’t paleo, but it is worthwhile, so go ahead and have a listen (I’ll wait).  She shares her personal story–with a side order of science–about how she learned to stop counting calories and trust herself.  It’s a point well taken.

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