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Counting Calories – Good Idea or Complete Waste of Time?

The question of whether it’s necessary to count calories to lose weight is one that I’m asked quite a lot by women. And I never cease to be frustrated by just how many women are completely and utterly misinformed about this topic.

But of course, the widespread misunderstanding out there isn’t their fault. With so many things in the weight loss world, we’re all constantly exposed to marketing hype and lies, to the point where the truth gradually gets buried in a pile of garbage over time.

There have been a number of diets and sources of information over the years suggesting that it’s not necessary to count calories. Some have even gone as far as calling calorie counting ridiculous. Others say you have to do it if you want to succeed.

So what’s the truth? Is calorie counting necessary? Can it be avoided? Is it, in fact, a ridiculous practice?

Well, I’m going to try to lay it all out for you here in very simple terms, so that you can understand the truth about calorie counting once and for all. And I want you to keep in mind that this is just a newsletter, and I’m not here to sell you anything. So I have no agenda to push here – I can be 100% straight with you all the way.

Fair enough?

OK then, let’s start.

Well, first of all let me just start by saying that when it comes to weight loss, the calorie equation is EVERYTHING. Forget about carbs, fats, fat-burning foods, fat-storing foods, low GI, high GI, and the rest of it. The bottom line is this:

If you take in less calories than you burn on a daily basis, you will lose weight. If you take in more calories than you burn on a daily basis, you will gain weight.

Period. It’s as simple as that.

Calories out must be greater than calories in. This is called a calorie deficit. To lose weight, you create a calorie deficit in 4 ways:

  1. Increase your daily activity level (more calories out)
  2. Exercise (more calories out)
  3. Speed up your metabolism (more calories out)
  4. Decrease your food portion sizes (fewer calories in)

Any serious, effective weight loss program will incorporate all of these strategies, so that they work together to get you the fastest and best results.

Increasing your activity and exercise levels is easy and pretty straightforward – the more you do of each of these, the better, because they’ll cause you to burn more calories each day. It’s also quite simple to be consistent with these – there’s really no way you can become less active over time without realizing it.

Speeding up your metabolism is a little more involved, but there are a variety of exercise and dietary techniques that will allow you to achieve this. This is where food selection and eating habits come into play. Again, by being consistent with your habits, you won’t run into any surprises here.

Decreasing your food portion sizes, or restricting your calorie intake, is also quite straightforward in theory, but in practice it can actually pose a few problems.

First of all, when you’re basing your portion sizes on estimates, you always leave yourself open to error, especially over time. It’s not difficult, for example, over the course of months or even weeks, to inadvertently increase your portion sizes and therefore your calorie intake. This would of course lead to a decrease in your calorie deficit and therefore your weight loss.

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s actually possible to reduce your calorie intake too far, and cause your body to produce what’s known as a starvation response. This is a self-protection response when your body senses a lack of food, and it’s designed to keep you safe and alive in times of crisis.

As part of this starvation response, your body will actually slow down your metabolism – something you don’t want to happen if you’re trying to lose weight, of course. The calorie deficit you create by reducing your food intake on the one hand (fewer calories in), will be wasted away by the slowing down of your metabolism (fewer calories out) on the other.

But it gets even worse. Left to continue, this gradual decrease in your metabolism will sooner or later cause your weight loss to stall completely. This is known as weight loss plateau, or dieter’s plateau.

To avoid this starvation response, which will play total havoc with your weight loss, you need to ensure that you don’t take your calorie deficit too far. But if your calorie deficit is too small, you’ll lose weight too slowly.

In other words:

For best results with your weight loss, your calorie deficit needs to be in a certain, ideal “window”.

Now, here’s the bottom line.

Quite often, women can get away with simply cutting back on their portion sizes by a certain percentage (depending upon how much they’re overeating to begin with) and end up creating a pretty acceptable calorie deficit, which will allow them to lose weight steadily and effectively.

If that’s the case, they clearly don’t need to go to the trouble of counting their calories. They’ll be lucky enough to get by, simply by “eyeballing it”.

Some women, however, aren’t so lucky. There can be a variety of reasons, such as grossly underestimating calorie intake, poor self-control, slow metabolism, or just genetics, that cause them to struggle to lose weight unless their calorie intake is closely controlled, so that their calorie deficit stays squarely inside that window. The only way to do that is by counting calories.

Earlier on I mentioned that some people suggest calorie counting is a waste of time.

Calorie counting is NEVER a waste of time.

For some women it’s absolutely essential. But it’s always beneficial for all women – even those who can manage to lose weight without it, because it allows you to optimize your rate of weight loss.

Individuals who suggest that calorie counting isn’t necessary do so because the particular diet they’re promoting doesn’t focus on calorie deficit, but rather some other dietary weight loss strategy. A favorite tactic of many marketers is to focus on just one or two strategies to make their program seem simple and effortless, and blow their benefits out of all proportion.

The fact that their program ignores calorie intake usually indicates one of two things:

  1. The calorie deficit involved doesn’t risk a starvation response because it’s so small. This makes the diet seem very generous, but it will produce very slow weight loss, if any at all.
  2. The diet is a starvation diet, designed to produce impressive weight loss results in the first few weeks, only to stall later on because of dieter’s plateau.

Keep in mind what I said earlier – a serious, effective weight loss program will incorporate ALL strategies working together to allow you to lose weight as quickly and successfully as possible, not just one or two. And the first, fundamental strategy of weight loss is to create a calorie deficit.

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Fabian Colussi is a women's Bikini and Figure competition coach for natural athletes, certified personal trainer and gym instructor, and women's fitness consultant. He also has a background in martial arts, is an NLP Master Practitioner, and has a certification in Hypnotherapy. Fabian is a co-owner and co-founder of Million Dollar Baby Fitness.

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  1. Alice Barton
    12 June, 2011

    This is a excellent article.

    • Gloria
      12 June, 2011

      Thanks Alice! 🙂

  2. carol
    18 June, 2011

    Your article made me understand some things.

  3. Barry H
    19 June, 2011

    Dude this blog rules i cant believe i finally found what i was looking for, thanks bro.


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